Professional conduct

Sleep lots, eat mud, run constantly - what the life of the full-time runner is really like


Posted: 8 September 2004
by Andy Blackford

Don’t get me wrong – I like running as much as the next man. Actually, that isn’t entirely true. At this precise moment the man next to me is an obese Samoan who is gigantic even by Samoan standards. Like me, he is eating tagliatelli carbonara at the Perugina, my Italian restaurant of preference. But unlike me, he is eating it from a skip with a coal shovel.

Where was I? Oh, yes – I like running. Actually, that’s not really true either. I love having run. Being about to run is irritating. It hangs over you like a cloud. You can’t eat, you can’t drink, you can’t do anything at all because at the back of your mind you’re aware that you’ve got to go running. Until you do, you’re effectively paralysed.

And of course – as everybody knows – running itself is awful. It hurts, it’s exhausting, it’s hugely time-consuming (especially during licensing hours), and ultimately it’s pointless. At best it gets you from A to A in the most primitive, least energy-efficient way possible.

But having run is splendid. The feeling is only matched by the one you experience when you stop gouging out your own eyes with a white-hot spatula. The physical relief is enhanced by a glow of self-righteous satisfaction. You have done what you said you were going to do, the shower is hot, the beer is cold and all is well with the world.

But imagine if running were not just an unpleasant but psychologically necessary interlude in your self-indulgent day. Imagine doing it for a living. It wouldn’t be a case of, ‘I’m just popping out for a jog’. It would be, ‘I’m just nipping out for a life. Back in a few minutes.’

Paula Radcliffe famously sleeps for 14 hours a day. Indeed B’noko Banumboki, the fabled Kenyan marathon runner, slept continuously, except when competing. He was carried to races in a specially-designed mobile hammock and was only woken by his coach at the start line.

Sometimes he would even fall asleep during races, and would often have no recollection of an event other than a few confused and surreal images involving railway trains and giant rodents.

The few waking hours available to elite runners are devoted entirely to training. It’s the track, then the gym, then a carton of some unspeakable complex carbohydrate with the taste and consistency of estuary mud, then back to the gym and home to bed via the track.

Many become so habituated to running kit that they develop disabling allergies to ordinary fabrics. One famous middle-distance runner was recently married in a Gore-Tex wedding gown with a veil of perforated Lycra. Living to run is bound to take its toll on the personality. In my experience, elite sportsmen and women are almost always terribly terribly dull. It’s hardly surprising. If the most exciting thing that happens to you all day is shaving three-hundredths of a second off your 10K time, you’re hardly going to be the toast of café society.

It’s arguable whether endless running makes you boring, or whether only a profoundly boring person would ever contemplate a life devoted to taking mineral supplements and trotting round a track like a hamster in a wheel. High-level running attracts weird, obsessive people. Perhaps we should be glad that their monomania is channelled into a relatively harmless pursuit. My friend Ben was a Commonwealth bronze medallist sprinter until his knee injury. He now drinks 14 pints of beer a night, is roughly the size of a detached house and devotes himself to bare knuckle fighting in Wokingham high street.

Anyway, the Samoan has started on the cheesecake, my Pinot Grigio is chilling nicely and I don’t have to run again until Sunday.


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