How running helped me love my body - and not by making it smaller
When I started running, I was 17 and it was barefoot around a wet field in Devon. I was bored and thought I would see how many laps I could do.
When I was 18 I used to go down to the rugby fields in the evenings and run round one of the pitches in the dusk. I would see how far I could push myself, always trying to do one more circuit than the day before.
When I was 19, I ran on the treadmill in the sixth form gym. The room was mirrored and I would catch the glances of other girls my age who were in there with me. I exerted myself to prove I could match them, that I wasn't fat and lazy.
When I was 20, I ran around the University Parks in Oxford, slowly and often overtaken by fitter students who belonged to high-performing sports teams. I couldn't get picked for netball so this was the only exercise I got.
When I was 21 I just didn't run. Or at 22, 23, 24... I had pretty much decided that I couldn't; that I wasn't capable anymore.
Looking back, it's just as well I have some really annoyingly persistent friends. Two of them played rugby together and coaxed me into joining them on a 'short' (5k!?) training run. I breathed my way heavily around a small bit of park and collapsed painfully while they did their hill sprints.
A few months later, emboldened (presumably by alcohol) at my 25th birthday party, I promised Janey I would go out with her again. She drove 40 minutes each way to hold me to it, so really there was more effort on her part than mine! I discovered (unsurprisingly) that I lacked the ability to pace myself and that my stamina was close to non-existent.
It took me by surprise that I continued to try every now and then. I had a gym membership which I used quite a lot, and went to Pilates and pump classes, but something about running wouldn't quite leave my system, despite evidence of my incompetence.
And then last year, just before my 27th birthday, I left my job. I was unemployed for about five months. The gym membership was one of the first things to go in an effort to cut costs, and running was the one thing I could do for free. Slowly - and I mean really, really slowly - it became a regular part of my routine. And slowly, I began to enjoy it.
Until this point, all the running I had ever done was about changing my body, or rather changing how my body looked. It was about weight loss, or weight maintenance. It was fuelled by the fear of either remaining fat or becoming fat again.
In my fear, I had been so easily discouraged. One bad run and I was in tears, unwilling to try again for another week. Until Jane and Beks had persuaded me, I had staunchly refused to even contemplate running with another person. I had felt anxious every time I went out to run, because I didn't like the idea of being seen doing it. I was convinced everyone who I passed would be wondering why the ridiculous fat girl was trying to run when she so clearly wasn't any good at it.
This time was different. I downloaded the NHS couch to 5k app, and plodded my way through the podcasts, repeating quite a few until I felt ready to move on. It took me three months, on and off, to get through a nine week programme. But instead of beating myself up over how long it was taking, or the sessions where I just couldn't quite hold out for as long as I was meant to, I persisted. I tried again. I allowed myself to fail, knowing failure wasn't permanent.
This year I've gone rogue and ditched the app altogether. I run however far I either can or want to, taking whichever route I fancy at the time. Map My Run tracks my distance and pace and plays my music, and on a good day I find this perfect headspace that lets me keep a steady rhythm while I work through whatever's going on in my life at the time. On a bad day, when my legs are heavy or my lungs feel like they're going to burst, it can still take all my willpower to keep going.
Which is what brings me to the part that amazes me the most: I am not running to change my body's appearance anymore. I don't run because I want to be thin. I run because I want to be strong. And that means mentally as well as physically, because getting those runs in is doing wonders for my mind. I'm less stressed; I'm more confident; I feel in control, as far as anyone can be.
I'm also no longer obsessive, which was a real problem for me in my late teens. Because running was connected with changing my body, I HAD to do it. I couldn't ever cut myself any slack. All that has changed as I've been able to let go of the fear of how people see me and how I see myself.
Running has taught me not to underestimate this body that I hated and tried to change for years. It's capable of way more than I ever gave it credit for. I love the feeling of power when I run up a hill, because a year ago that hill was impossible for me and now my legs can handle it. I love the way my body feels so alive when I'm moving, when blood is pumping through it and my breathing is hard but steady. I love the flood of endorphins as I hit the home straight; however tired I am, I feel triumphant.
I can't always predict whether I'm going to have a good or bad running experience, but I never consider any run to be a bad run anymore, because I know the value of having done it at all is greater than the performance level I've achieved. I'm taking care of myself in a way I know how, but I am also aware that this isn't possible for everyone, and I should be grateful that it is possible for me. I have no feelings of superiority or anything to be smug about. I'm simply thankful for the way running has helped me love my body - and not by making it smaller.