Three years ago, I couldn’t run. Following one hour and 46 minutes of continuous exercise in Windsor yesterday, I can call myself a triathlete. The process of learning to run and love exercise and to simultaneously love my body has been a long and a fluctuating one. I thought I’d share some thoughts on that process to support anyone else struggling with either or both sides of body confidence.
Three years ago, I’d done something ridiculous. I’d signed myself up to do a 10k race. My very good friend was working for the brilliant London Legal Support Trust at the time and I’d been promising for ages that I would do a sponsored event to raise some money. Running around Central London seemed like a much better idea than a skydive or a muddy obstacle course. Apart from the obvious obstacle: that I couldn’t run.
Now, when some people say they can’t run, they mean they’re ‘not a runner’, they mean they only jog, or they mean they couldn’t manage more than 15 minutes of constant running. When I say I couldn’t run, I mean that 30 seconds was too much. Running for the bus was painful. Though I’m a commuter cyclist and I suppose my base level of fitness was good, high impact exercise like running felt like a leap too far. Equally, the idea of exercising in the mornings before work filled me with dread.
I’m quite an unfortunate creature, you see. In my family we refer to me lovingly as Anne de Bourgh, the pale sickly niece in Pride and Prejudice. I am looking for some sympathy here, but this unfortunate-ness is seen in the fact that getting really sweaty brings out my acne, that I suffer with terrible heat rash, that I am allergic to lots of things, that I have skin like tissue paper that burns very easily and that I suffer with tendonitis whenever I take up a new form of exercise… As a friend so lovingly put it once: you weren’t really built for exercise, were you, Becs?
So when I started, I struggled with my confidence in my body and its abilities. I was never particularly good at sport at school. I was ok. You wouldn’t pick me first, but you wouldn’t pick me last either. As a teenager, I would win best competitor at tennis tournaments as I wouldn’t beat any of the County standard players against whom I was playing (I’d barely win a game), I’d be liberally applying suncream to my beetroot red face at each change of ends, but I would still be there competing every day.
Then 36 months ago, I started a zero to 10k programme to get into running and I’ve never looked back. It’s so strange thinking back to those first weeks of training, when running for 60 seconds, 90 seconds, three minutes, eight minutes was painful and almost impossible. Where my brain kept telling me to stop for fear that my body would break and that it wasn’t built for this…
Conquering those first few months of training when my body and my brain were constantly saying no and getting to a stage where I felt good exercising (my poor weak ankles began by making me feel like I was running with club feet but soon built up so much that I seemed to only have tendonitis when I wasn’t running) was all about finding confidence in what my body could do. It was then that I turned to finally using exercise to get some of the other kind of body confidence: confidence in what my body looks like to me when I look in the mirror.
I’ll tell you a secret. I hate my legs. I mean, I really hate my legs. I always feel like I must be a tall person trapped in a short person’s body which has made my legs disproportionately wide in relation to the rest of my body. I have cried in fitting rooms trying trousers on. I have a physical reaction to seeing photos where my legs are visible. Most boots don’t fit me as they won’t go over my enormous calves. I’ve been praised in some countries I’ve visited for having beautifully chubby ankles (it was hard to take as a compliment). I can say all of this in jest though as I’ve always had a life’s-too-short-so-just-get-on-with-it attitude about it. But then I finally thought: life’s too short, just do the exercising that might make you actually feel better about it.
Spending 90 minutes in an exercise studio looking at my body in the mirror was hard at first and could have put me off. Seeing my legs contort into shapes and focusing on how much larger and wobblier they looked in comparison to all the other legs around me filled me with disgust. But I kept going, spurred on by what I was achieving through the running in the park. Yes, my body was starting to change shape, but so too was the way I looked at it. I started to see my legs as my strength and my power, not my failure and my laziness. And it was around that time that the #thisgirlcan campaign kicked off and it really rang true for me:
I run in the park not because I want to punish my body to make it what I want it to be, but because I now get joy from spending half an hour or so in the mornings doing nothing but focusing on my breathing in the park outside my house. I can channel any negative emotions, I can beat my own negative attitudes to what I can and can’t do into submission and I can free my mind of anxieties, obsessive behaviours and insecurities by running through it.
I didn’t stop once I’d achieved that first 10k goal. A year later I did the British 10k again and slowly built up so that in February 2016, just under two years after I first started running, I ran a Half Marathon in the Sahara Desert. A few months later, I cycled the 100km London Nightrider and yesterday, just three years after all this started, I completed the sprint triathlon in Windsor, something I would have thought totally impossible three years ago.
So why have I written all of this down? Because I want to encourage anyone who doesn’t think they can run, but wishes they could, to get out there and do it. If you think running is impossible for you, I’m here to tell you it’s not. Slowly and surely, using a gentle training regime, you can get as far as you want to. And it obviously doesn’t just apply to running. Having confidence in your body’s abilities as well as confidence in your body’s appearance are incredibly important and finally having that self belief and body confidence is incredibly powerful.