I Have always hated exercise. Sports always seemed like a perfect storm of pain and tedium. For an “unco” kid like me, there will always be something more rewarding than chasing a ball around the field. reading watching tv listening to music Staring into space. As an adult I excelled only in endurance recreation – performing Olympic standard sleep deprivation and alcohol consumption.
There were people who exercised, I knew it. People who seemed to enjoy it, no doubt jacked up on endorphins and Powerade. Cheating people. These were not my people. My people were bar hoppers, gig goers and movie lovers. Nocturnal folk who have as many words for hangover as others for snow. Sundays weren’t for running around the park but sleeping in, eating fried breakfasts and mulling through a double feature at the Astor Theater in St Kilda.
And yet, on this Sunday morning, like nearly every Sunday morning for the past two and a half years, I volunteered to run 5 kilometers around my neighborhood, while the kids cycled behind, grumbling about hills. You may ask yourself: How did I get here?
I started running during the second Melbourne lockdown after my wife discovered the NHS Couch on the 5K app. These were desperate times. We were only allowed to leave the house for one hour a day. Also, I knew that the heavy messy habits I picked up during the first lockdown were leading me to a major wardrobe upheaval.
The app allowed me to listen to my own music (a playlist of film scores I dubbed “You’re a Big Man, But You’re Out of Shape”) while BBC DJ Joe Wei popped up to tell me. To start or stop or to promise myself that, one day, I too will love to run.
That day never came.
The beginning was torture. It was a severe winter. It rained a lot. Running for 90 seconds felt like climbing Mount Everest. The idea of running for 30 minutes sounded like climbing the moon – complete with a complete lack of oxygen. It’s not the love of running that keeps me going but the visual memory of how painful those mornings were.
What I have since realized is that the gift of fitness is not to make exercise fun but to achieve the impossible. To transform your body from an obstacle to an enabler. My body soon went from being dragged around the Albert Park lake by a heavy object that bounced on its own (although it still made an annoying wheezing sound). That sour gravel came off with surprising ease, partly because running was so scary that I started looking at heavy food and couldn’t bear the thought of carrying it around the track.
As the novelty of running wore off, I learned to jettison apps — tools that seek to gamify exercise. Strava was useful when I started, helping to make sure I was running far and fast but I felt that its relentless comparisons were taking away what little fun there was. I’d rather die than set foot in a gym or hire a personal trainer, yet here I was using an app that was trying to single-handedly search for something competitive or performative.
If there’s one thing I love about running—this is a short list—it’s that it doesn’t require any technique or special equipment.
You don’t need to recruit a team or be anywhere at the same time every week. All you need is half an hour and a pair of proper shoes. Over time I’ve even stopped listening to music and left my phone at home. I don’t want to be distracted anymore by how terrible the race was. I’ve learned to work with my body instead of against it, to listen to my breath and know when to push myself or relax.
In an age of digital detachment, where our avatars — and our identities — often feel more real than our physical selves, there’s something liberating about actually being in your body. To be breath and blood and muscle. I take the kids with me on Sundays because I want them to learn that sooner than I did – and that practice doesn’t mean winners or losers but can bring a kind of freedom.
I also want them to learn that you don’t have to love exercise to keep doing it. Yes, it feels good to be able to get fit and trust your body. Yes, it has been good for my mental health. During a particularly stressful week, I found myself squeezing in an extra run, not really knowing why.
Those are the reasons to continue. But I don’t think the main benefits of running – mental or otherwise – have anything to do with actually running itself. This is not a distant meditation. Most of my thoughts are “oh my god, this is terrible” or little earworm snippets of half-remembered songs.
Really, it’s not the thing itself that matters but the awfulness of the thing. That magic “love is coming to exercise” has never arrived but I’ve come to realize that I do it anyway. I often think of a phrase used by author Tegan Bennett Daylight – the difficulty is the point. That’s running yoga for me. Learning that I can do something three times a week has been a real blessing. That and smugness, obviously.