To talk about my love of running, first I need to talk about zombies.
I have to explain that I am terrified of people. Not individual people; not Dolly next door or Harold Shipman or a hooded youth in a dark alley – I’ve been taught Muay Thai by an undertaker so I’m pretty handy – because I can gauge the danger posed by any given individual. Crowds on the other hand are a different beast. Crowds move as one organism despite being made up of many; crowds are unpredictable and move without purpose, are collectively half as intelligent as the least intelligent being within them, are always between me and the nearest exit to safety, filling all available space like an unconstrained liquid. To me, crowds look like hordes of bloodthirsty zombies.
I have a number of coping strategies for getting around every day, like waiting for a train to arrive that isn’t packed like a sardine tin but spending twice as long getting to work, or taking long-cuts that I know are less populated, or avoiding invitations to anywhere I’m unfamiliar with by pretending to be tired/ill/washing my goldfish. These are eccentricities at best and sticking plaster solutions to a bigger problem at worst, but they’re how I get by.
Luckily for me my good friends think is this more funny than sociopathic; the really good ones know when I need kid glove treatment and when I just need my socks pulling up. As well they should, it’s ridiculous. It is a ridiculous way to live my life. I live, work and socialise in the middle of London, and spend almost every weekend at the football, all home and most of the away games. You want to see zombie hordes? Try making a swift exit from the Ellerslie Road stand at Loftus Road at full time. It’s like Shaun of the Dead.
Back to the running. Two and a half years ago a work colleague persuaded me to come running after work; it turned out there was a small group of joggers who did laps around the Thames between Lambeth and Blackfriars bridges and you could go as fast or as slow as you wanted as long as you knew the route. I couldn’t run to catch a bus – something which was proven to be literally true on a number of infuriating occasions – and it took a lot of cajoling for me to eventually join them one day. Just as far as the end of the road, maybe 500 metres, then I had to stop and walk back. Same again next week, a little further the week after, until finally I managed a whole circuit, around 4.5k. My muscles shrieked, my fingernails tingled and my breath was ragged, but I was happy. It felt like bits of my body were finally roused from hibernation. I ached in places I didn’t know existed. But I still wouldn’t say I was a runner.
Then we were persuaded to sign up for a 10k in June. I had to try to make it a little further each week, be sure that I could cover the distance at the very least; not finishing was an embarrassment I could well do without. I started running on my own at weekends. I had no fancy GPS tracker or even a stopwatch, but I designed a quiet route near my home that I knew covered 1k in a loop and kept upping laps until I could complete ten. I kept up the midweek runs with work too, despite the increasing volume of people lured out onto the riverbank with the approach of summer. Without knowing it I was training, thinking about distances and speeds and getting proper running kit. Without realising it I was spending more and more time in the company of the zombies and I was doing fine.
I’m embarrassed to admit it was nearly a year before I realised the correlation between running and escaping. As I got faster and less ungainly each step I ran began to feel like the moment before a plane takes off, and I imagined myself lifting my heels high enough to leave the ground altogether and soar above the heads of the hungry hordes. Childish, definitely, but enormous fun. I found practical improvements in my state of mind too. When you’re hurrying along a busy pavement and you look for gaps in the crowds to dart in and out of you become accustomed to judging the length of time it will take you to reach that gap at your walking pace, and whether or not it will still be there when you get to it or if it will be consumed by the fluidity of the crowd. When you’re running along that same pavement, you have to think a lot quicker. Missing that gap at walking speed results in brushed elbows and mild embarrassment. Do that at a target 8.5 min mile pace and you might as well have St John’s Ambulance on speed dial. It does wonders for your mental acuity.
I choose to live and work in the middle of one of the busiest cities in the world. I choose to spend my spare time travelling up and down the country to increasingly packed stadiums, and throwing myself into packs of PB-chasing pavement pounders for anything from 30 minutes to 6 hours at a time. It would be too easy to lock myself in my front room 24 hours a day and simply avoid any possibility of confronting crowds, but then I wouldn’t experience that Olympic-final feeling every time I break a new personal record, or even complete a run I didn’t think I could start. Frankly, there are times when the front gate seems like the end of the road on that first outing to Blackfriars bridge, and I despair that I’ll never reach it. But then I remember: nothing will ever feel quite as wonderful as outrunning a zombie.