Today I have mostly been recovering from the Great Manchester Run. For those who don’t know it, this is the most popular 10k race in the country, with over 37000 runners and huge crowds of spectators keen to see, not the heavy-footed jog that I can offer, but the breathtaking efforts of world class athletes like Haile Gebreselassie. Queuing up to run with a man who has won countless gold medals, set 27 world records and can sprint 6 miles in 26 minutes is empowering. You feel, albeit briefly, as if you’re in an Olympic final yourself. For a glorious moment, you’re on the right side of the rope – a somebody doing something worth watching, rather than a spectator on the other side. In short, you feel like a champion. The crowd stares as you stretch a leg. Propel your arms in a windmill. Fiddle with your watch. I even found myself engaging in some rather dubious pelvic thrusts, just because I saw British athlete Helen Clitheroe doing the same.
The crowd’s chatter dies. The gun gleams in the air. You can almost hear the whispered BBC commentary of Brendan Foster as he announces the line up.
Some guy running for charity dressed as Borat…
Then, quite suddenly, there’s a bang, a plume of smoke, and you’re off.
And it’s BLOODY difficult, so much tougher than anticipated. Any belief that you could be a professional athlete, a future Olympic champion, disappears as quickly as the elite runners, who stride ahead, trainers whizzing past the first distance marker as you languish a few metres from the start. I have done four 10ks and I have ALWAYS found this to be the case. Before you say it, it’s not because I don’t train. I work hard. I eat the right things. I have an early night before the big day. So what is it that makes running a race so difficult?
Well, it’s pretty obvious. Stick the word ‘race’ in front of a run, and the stakes rise. It’s not like training, where you can bounce along for forty minutes listening to Lady Gaga on your iPod without really breaking into a sweat. Race day has to count, so you push yourself. You strive. You care. You want to do it better, more impressively, than last time. And, as a result, a distance that was easy a few days ago in training becomes a hellish marathon to endure with gritted teeth as you teeter on the brink of your capabilities, flirting with disaster as you move out of your comfort zone.
As it is with running, so it is with being an author. Stick the word ‘novel’ in front of a piece of work, and the same thing happens. Writing that was, a few months ago, the easiest thing in the world, becomes fiendishly difficult. You strive for greatness. You care too much. You want to do it bigger, better, more cleverly than last time, so inevitably you end up staring at the screen, grinding your jaw, wondering if you’ll ever get to the allusive end.
And yet. And yet. The end does come. No matter how difficult the journey, there is a moment when you turn the corner and see the finishing line – beautiful, reachable and tangibly there.
People have asked me why I run. Or write novels. Or hike up mountains, which is my other great passion. It is for many reasons, but the most important seems to be this: the satisfaction of finishing. Achieving something you set out to do is the best feeling in the world. Committing to a goal, being courageous enough to give it your very best shot, and seeing it through no matter what hardship you experience along the way, makes you feel like a champion – regardless of the end result. Us authors can’t all be Dickens. Us runners can’t all be Gebreselassie. But doing the best we can with the talent we’ve got makes every single one of us a winner.
As one of my all time favourite people, Alfred Wainwright, once wrote: ‘One should always have a definite objective in a walk. As in life, it is so much more satisfying to reach a target by personal effort than to wander aimlessly. An objective is an ambition, and life without ambition is, well, aimless wandering.’