Photo: Nikada/Getty Images
I’ve always hated sports. Sport always seemed to be the perfect storm of suffering and boredom. For an “unco” kid like me, there would always be something more rewarding than chasing a ball across a field. Reading. TV. Listen to music. Stare into space. As an adult, I’ve only excelled in endurance recovery – performing sleep deprivation and Olympic-level drinking.
There were people training, I knew that. People who seemed to be enjoying it were no doubt jerked off by the endorphins and powerade. smug people. These weren’t my people. My people were bar-goers, gig-goers, and movie-obsessed. Nocturnal people who had as many words for hangovers as others had for snow. Sundays weren’t for lounging in parks, but for sleeping in, frying breakfasts and maling through the doubles game at St Kilda’s Astor Theatre.
And yet that Sunday morning, like almost every Sunday morning for the past two and a half years, I willingly ran a three-mile brisk run around my neighborhood while the kids pedaled after me and grumbled about the hills. You may be wondering: How did I get here?
I started running during the big second lockdown in Melbourne after my wife discovered the NHS’ Couch to 5K app. These were desperate times. We were only allowed out of the house for an hour a day. I was also aware that the heavy sourdough habit I picked up during the first lockdown was leading me to an urgent wardrobe upheaval.
If there’s one thing I like about running—it’s a short list—it’s that it doesn’t require any technology or special equipment
The app allowed me to listen to my own music (a film music playlist I called “You’re a Big Man But You’re Out of Shape”), while BBC DJ Jo Whiley popped in every now and then to do it for me to say to start or to stop or to promise myself that one day I would like to run too.
That day never came.
Starting was torture. It was a bitter winter. It rained a lot. Running 90 seconds felt like climbing Everest. The idea of running for 30 minutes felt like walking to the moon – completely without oxygen. It’s not the love of running that kept me going, but the instinctive memory of how painful those early morning hours were.
Since then, I’ve realized that the gift of fitness isn’t about making exercise enjoyable, it’s about making impossible things achievable. To transform your body from obstacle to enabler. My body soon went from being a heavy thing I’d been lugging around Albert Park Lake to something that bounced on its own (though it still made a worrying whistling noise). That sourdough baggage went away surprisingly easily, in part because the running was so awful that I started looking at heavy food and couldn’t stand the thought of carrying it around the track.
As the novelty of running wore off, I learned to ditch the apps—those tools designed to make exercise fun. Strava was useful when I was starting out to make sure I was running far enough and fast enough, but I realized its unrelenting comparisons took away what little fun there was. I’d rather die than set foot in a gym or recruit a personal trainer, but here I was using an app trying to turn a solo pursuit into something competitive or performative.
If there’s one thing I like about running—it’s a short list—it’s that it doesn’t require any technology or special equipment.
You don’t have to recruit a team or be somewhere at the same time every week. All you need is half an hour and a pair of sensible shoes. Over time I even stopped listening to music and left my phone at home. I no longer want to be distracted by how awful running is. I’ve learned to work with my body instead of against it, to listen to my breath and to know whether to exert or relax.
Related: The joy of mediocrity: We need hobbies, even if we’re bad at them, to free ourselves from perfection Kerry Duncan
In an age of digital distance, when our avatars – and our identities – often feel more real than our physical selves, actually being in your body is a liberation. be breath and blood and muscle. I take the kids with me on Sundays because I want them to learn that before I do – and to learn that exercise doesn’t necessarily mean winners or losers, but can bring a kind of freedom.
I also want them to learn that you don’t have to like sport to keep doing it. Yes, it feels good to be fit and to be able to trust your body. Yes, it was good for my mental health. During a particularly stressful week, I had to put in an extra run without really knowing why.
Those are reasons to keep going. But I don’t think the main benefits of running – mental or otherwise – really have anything to do with running itself. It’s not remotely meditative. Most of my thoughts are “Oh god, that’s awful” or little catchy snippets of half-remembered songs.
Really, it’s not the thing itself that counts, but the awfulness of the thing. This magical “come to love exercise” never existed, but I’ve realized what matters is that I do it anyway. I often think of a line by the author Tegan Bennett Daylight – the difficulty is the point. That’s what running means to me. Learning that I can do something I hate three times a week has been a real blessing. That and of course the complacency.
• Myke Bartlett is an author, critic and reluctant runner