Thirteen weeks ago I was sitting in the Baltic Fleet having a pint and wondering what would be the best way to maintain the fitness I’d built up during the transatlantic voyage on the tall ship Pelican Of London. It was an increasingly urgent question. The fitness I’d developed during the voyage had been a revelation. By the end of the trip I was probably about as fit as I’d ever been and it had felt fantastic. But after just one month at home I could already feel it slipping away. All too easily I’d settled back into my old ways with regular exercise replaced by a regular diet of inactivity, real ale and cigarettes.
I needed to do something quickly before all the benefits I’d gained were lost. It had to be cheap, easily accessible and something I could do by myself. The logical answer came easily and it was running. It seemed perfect. I already had the shoes and at the end of the road where I live there is a beautiful big park. There was only one small problem, I hated running. I hated running with a passion! That’s why the running shoes had lived most of their long and uneventful lives under my bed, a vantage point from which they had rarely seen the light of day!
Running had too much baggage for me. I had too many memories of merciless physical education lessons in school, cold winters and long cross country runs that involved tortured muscles, frozen extremities and burning lungs.
And that was before the onset of Parkinson’s. After Mr. P came to stay running had only gotten worse. One of the first things to go was my legs. I walked slowly and my left foot started to hook inwards, so that I found myself walking awkwardly and painfully on the outside edge. That soon developed into a limp and some twenty years later at the start of 2007 I could barely walk 100 yards.
Even when the right medication came along and curbed the worst physical excesses of the disease running was still too much of a sore topic to try. I did get cocky in the Isle of Mann a couple of years ago and tried to race a friend in a short sprint. The end result though was my legs disappearing from under me and a nasty graze on my elbow as I took a headlong dive into the concrete! No, physically and mentally running and I were much better staying out of each other’s way.
Or so it had always seemed. As I sat there sipping my pint I tried rephrasing the question. “Let’s say I did run. What goal am I least likely to achieve?” That answer came quickly too, “A 5K run!” It’s pretty much the shortest recognised run for distance running, but to my mind it may as well have been a marathon. Somehow, in that moment achieving a 5K run stopped being a burden necessary to maintain fitness and became a challenge that had to be met! That’s when I started to get excited!
As I began to map it out in my mind I quickly realised that this wasn’t just going to be just about running. If this was going to happen there would have to be some serious lifestyle changes too. For example, how would I fit my running in around my busy pub schedule? The only logical answer would be by cutting my ale consumption. I also realised I’d have to run in the mornings which led to another huge “I don’t do…” and that’s early mornings. Somehow I’d gone from one massive challenge to three in the blink of an eye. This was going to be a lot harder than I’d thought!
I immediately picked up my phone and started posting the news of my plan on Facebook and Twitter. Although achieving this goal would rest heavily on my own grit and determination I figured it could only strengthen my resolve if I built up the expectation of the people around me. If everyone knew the plan, then surely I’d have to do it!
It was a good first step, but when I put the phone down I realised that, apart from making my intentions public, I had absolutely no idea where to start. Fortunately, social media soon supplied the answer. A friend posted that there were lots of training programmes on line and a quick Google search turned up a real result for me: the NHS Choices Couch to 5K training programme. This is a nine week series of podcasts, with three runs a week, designed to get virtually anyone off the sofa and running five kilometres.
When I downloaded the series I remember looking at the list of podcasts. It seemed to stretch on forever. I was also intrigued to see that weeks 6 and 7 each had three separate runs. But that was a long way off yet and I reigned in my curiosity. For now I just needed to get through the first one.
As it turned out, the first one went really well. With a mixture of short bursts of running and fast walking I managed to do a full circuit of the park. That’s about two and a half miles! I was absolutely gobsmacked! Sure, I’d walked half of it, but I’d also run half and in half an hour!
Suddenly my motivation was way up and from there on I noticed rapid improvements. By doing circuits of the park I could measure my progress run by run and there was plenty of it. If I got bored with the scenery I just ran in the opposite direction. The location of a long sloping hill on the circuit meant that, from where I started, I could either go down it at the start or up it at the end to add a bit of extra variation, so I saved the “up” direction for days where I felt like more of a challenge!
Even waking up early was going well. Apart from the buzz of the progress I was making with the running, the sheer beauty of the park in the early morning was enough reason to jump out of bed! The environment of the park added so much to the whole experience. The sunrises, the lake, the trees and open spaces provided energy and inspiration, the coffee shops, the fountain and the statues were goals to aim for and landmarks to measure my progress by.
The first hiccup came in the third week. I suddenly had a sharp pain in my right hip and buttock. I tried to push through it, but realised that if I kept that nonsense up I was just going to do myself some serious mischief. By that point though, I was so high on the progress I was making that it actually required an effort of will not to run.
I probably started back sooner than I should have, but I couldn’t stay away from it. So, popped up on pain killers and anti inflammatory pills I hit the trail again. But the running was much slower and the distance was only half of what I’d been covering before. Part of me wondered if I’d be able to pull it back to completing full circuits or if this was the end of the road.
Fortunately, by that stage I was chatting to lots of new people on Twitter, fellow Parkinson’s patients running for the health benefits, people supporting family members with the disease and people who just liked to run. They were a real source of inspiration and support. Looking back I’m confident I would have pushed through that injury barrier on my own, but there’s no doubt that their support and encouragement really helped. With lots of rest in between runs it only took about another week to get back to completing full circuits.
The online support network also put me on to using a phone app to monitor my progress. That was a huge boost. Before the running app I’d been happy to follow the podcast and simply do the time, measuring my distance by landmarks and against my last run, but with the details the app gave like distance in miles and kilometres and speed I started to up my pace and push my distance.
It was about that time that I noticed something else, the Parkinson’s symptoms were getting a lot better and I’d virtually quit smoking. I was also refusing visits to the pub! Not all the time, I hasten to add! But I’d somehow ‘naturally’ cut back by saying things I’d never have dreamed would ever pass my lips, like “I can’t, I’m running tomorrow.”
By the end of week five of the podcasts I was well and truly back on track and I felt like I was flying. The programme was still combining walking with running, but by this point they had built me up to a stage where I was running much more and walking much less. Then came weeks six and seven. These weeks were, of course, the next logical step and to be fair I should have seen it coming, but for some reason I didn’t. So when the lovely Laura, voice of the podcasts, announced that it was time to cut out the walking and just run I have to admit, I had a bit of a crisis of confidence! Suddenly, in my mind, those circuits of the park that I’d been “eating up” and those hills that I’d “thrown in for fun” all seem a lot longer, a lot higher and a hell of a lot harder!
I remember when Laura announced the first none stop twenty five minute run she reassured me that afterwards I’d realise that my body was ready, that I’d done all the hard work of building up stamina and strength, that this was purely a mental challenge and I could do it, but I was not convinced! Still, when the music came on and Laura said “run” off I went.
So much happened during that first “proper run” although it wasn’t until quite a while afterwards that the bits started falling into place and I began to understand what had happened and to see why I hadn’t started running sooner. I began to understand that before this, I simply hadn’t been ready to run. That might sound obvious, but to me it was a revelation. Of course, I’d had to get the physical ability and that had come with the medication, but even after that I’d still had to develop the emotional ability.
Since the medication I’d done so much with my new found physicality, like skydiving or abseiling. But these were things that took a moment’s courage, no thought other than an instant of decision, a split second of commitment, the fast food of experience. I guess in part that desire for the fast thrill came from years of frustration with barely being able to walk. Endurance, stamina, pushing through pain barriers, these things did not appeal to me as a form of recreation or outlet. That’s probably because for the last twenty years they’d been a daily necessity simply to survive, so, why would I do that for “fun”? The hardest part of learning to run was learning to break the negative link between pushing through and survival and creating a new positive link between pushing through and reward.
Looking back now I realise this was a journey that had started somewhere out in the cold, inhospitable embrace of the Atlantic. That crossing was easily the most challenging thing I’d ever done. It was six weeks of pure mental and physical effort and there had definitely been moments where I’d had to stop and have a word with myself, moments where I was on the verge of cracking and I’d had to grit my teeth and refuse to be beaten. The difference between that and a bad Parkinson’s day though was that out there I was pushing myself because I wanted to. I wanted to cross the Atlantic on a tall ship. This was a goal I had set myself to achieve and it was important to me! And now running was too. No doubt I drew on the determination that had been built up dealing with Parkinson’s, but now for the first time the relentless, endless fight was replaced with the satisfaction and reward of achieving!
As I ran, my head was a riot of uncontrollable thoughts. There was all stuff I guess you’d expect like, “BREATH!!!” “Keep going!”, “Don’t stop!” and “Come on, you can do this!”, but there was lots unexpected stuff too, stuff that didn’t really seem to have any place there. Thoughts about arguments, friends, broken relationships, cigarettes, work, missed opportunities, fantasies, all sorts of stuff, good, bad, ugly and just plain mad. My head was a mess! But by letting the thoughts roll through and by hanging onto the ones that gave me strength I managed to make it to the end of the run.
And again, it wasn’t until later that I began to understand what was happening. This was the beginning of the biggest reward of learning to push through for a positive reason. The door was opening to a much healthier state of mind. Running was going to give me an emotional as well as a physical outlet, a chance to clear out years worth of accumulated rubbish, the frustrations of countless days and to put my mental house in order.
Despite all of the physical pain, foggy motivations and confused thoughts that day, or maybe because of them, when I finished that run I was on quite some high and I finished it with a pretty impressive Chariots Of Fire moment! Strangers looking on would definitely have to be forgiven for thinking that I was completely bonkers as arms raised I acted like I’d just broken every running record in the book live at the London Olympics!
Doing the run once was one thing though, keeping it up was quite another. I could push through the first time, because it was the first time. It was new and exciting. The second time was less so, but still enough to keep me going. The third and fourth time, it was becoming a grind. As I ran more the physical thrill was dying and the confused thoughts were multiplying. At this stage I was in the middle of a serious psychological battle to keep going and that’s where the Twitter crowd really helped. Their support and encouragement was crucial. When I was tired, down, unsure, they kept me running.
I also found that spending money on cool running treats really helped my motivation too. Up to now I’d been running in an old pair of sweat pants and normal t-shirts, but they just soaked with sweat and became increasingly uncomfortable and heavy as I ran. I initially treated myself to one new breathable running shirt because it was shiny and new and I needed a pick me up. But after my first run in it I immediately went out and bought two more. They made the whole experience so much more comfortable, so much less sweaty and so much more enjoyable and that lifted my motivation way above and beyond the momentary thrill of buying a new toy.
I think psychologically the turning point came the first time I broke with the circuits of the park and set off to criss-cross it instead. The change of scenery, the freedom of taking any path I chose, running wherever I pleased gave my running a whole new focus. It was also raining that morning, a light, soaking drizzle that was exhilarating and seemed to feed me energy that let me run harder, faster and further than ever before. Somewhere during that run magic happened and I started to enjoy myself! No longer consciously focusing on technique or breathing, no longer thinking how far I had to go or how far I’d come, no longer plagued by emotional static, my mind was free, clear and uncluttered. I felt liberated. And my body was right there too.
A week or so later when I ran the last Couch to 5K podcast it was an amazing feeling as I ran past all the old goals I’d set myself around the park. Now thoughts of stopping never cross my mind, I set myself a new goal and I run until I reach it. Along the way I simply enjoy the act of running and when it gets tough I dig deep and push through, because I know that when I finish the reward will be there. The deeper I have to dig, the bigger the reward. And when I push through a mental barrier my body is always waiting on the other side ready to plug in a new battery and go up another gear. When I do finish I know that the day ahead will be filled with more energy, a lot less beer and no cigarettes.
This morning I ran 5 miles (8.5 kilometres). It’s the furthest I’ve ever run. I hadn’t planned to do it, in fact I completed my planned run at three miles. But as I was considering winding down to a walk I realised that I had fuel in the tank and time to spare, the park was beautiful and my mind was calm and clear. It seemed I would be denying myself something very special if I stopped, so I let myself go.