Last but not least

Illustration by Cajsa Holgersson

By rights, I shouldn’t be a runner at all – I’m really rather rubbish at it. I only started in my 30s and I’m patently not cut out for it. I waddle. And I walk. A lot.

Oh, and I don’t take running seriously enough, as evidenced by my love of wearing novelty hats. And yet I’ve run almost 100 marathons. And completed the 56-mile Comrades Marathon – twice. I may be running’s most unlikely cheerleader, but I’m also one of its most passionate, because running has transformed my life, taught me that tenacity will always triumph over a lack of talent, and taken me to unforgettable races in spectacular places. Best of all, it has allowed me to meet some of the world’s most inspirational and interesting people, everyone from tutu-clad cancer survivors to blind runners and world-record breakers.

What I learned 18 years ago, as I leapfrogged from tentative 5K Race for Life participant (June 1998) to nervous Great North Run competitor (October 1998) to triumphant London Marathon finisher (April 1999) in just 10 months was that I didn’t need anyone else’s permission to run, just my own. I also found out that, unlike almost any other area of my life, I could write my own rules. I don’t like running fast, so I don’t. I like chatting all the time, so I do. I hate training, but I love medals, so I go chat-running with my buddy Belinda twice a week and I enter a marathon almost every second weekend. While I have no real ambition to run faster, I was unbelievably driven to join the 100 Marathon Club. Aside from the key lesson that it can and should be whatever you want it to be, running has taught me many, many lessons about life, and I’d like to share a few with you…

What running taught me about... taking the first step

Like many late-onset runners I was the kind of child who, when playing rounders, snuck to the back of the queue so I didn’t have to run to the first lost. I was also the kind of adult who’d drive to the corner shop just so I didn’t have to endure a five-minute walk. But I’ve learned that it’s never too late to start. My friend Malcolm, who ran his 100th marathon aged 74, started running at 60, and we both agree that if you want to start running late in life, don’t overthink it (something my political-analyst husband catchily calls ‘analysis paralysis’); just dive in feet first and see how you get on. You may be surprised at where you end up.

What running taught me about... overcoming fear

For me this is the truly shocking f-word. Four letters that can dash dreams, put the handbrake on change and stop us ever getting started. When I began running I was fearful that people would be able to hear the sound my bottom made as it bounced against the tops of my thighs. I feared the comments people would make if they spotted me plodding along. But most of all I feared coming last.

Somehow, I managed to overcome those fears; I realised that a jelly bottom can turn into a cherry bum if you train frequently enough, and that people’s comments are often encouraging rather than disparaging (the menacing-looking boys in hoodies who almost forced me to curtail one of my runs along our high street’s slippery, snow-covered pavement didn’t hurl abuse – they called out, ‘Keep going, you’re a legend!’) And, as I found out when I finished the hellishly hard and hilly South Downs Marathon, a hero’s welcome often awaits the final finisher. Overcoming my many anxieties – that I wasn’t slim, fit or fast enough to run – has given me magical marathon experiences in 22 countries and running friends in 15, from Russia to Italy and from Japan to Israel.

What running taught me about... never, ever, giving up

The American politician and author Newt Gingrich once perfectly described perseverance as ‘the hard work you do after you get tired of doing the hard work you already did’. And if there’s one thing distance running teaches you, it’s digging deep. Grinding out the miles when it has long since ceased to be fun has trained me to plug away and complete things even after the novelty has worn off, which proved invaluable when I retrained as a clinical hypnotherapist at the age of 38. And also when it came to writing my three books. Running teaches you to keep your eyes lifted upwards and focused on the result, rather than allowing them to drift downwards to see all the hurdles and hard graft that stand in the way.

What running taught me about... being able to laugh

The number one running must-have? No, it’s not my sports bra (I’ve run naked so I know it’s actually not all that essential if you’re rather flat-chested). Nor is it my trainers – I’ve relished running barefoot on the beach. For me, it’s a sense of humour. The more fun you have while running, the more you’ll want to do it, no matter how tough, tiring or terrible it feels at times. Interestingly, Chris McDougall, author of Born to Run, also believes that the key to the success of many of the world’s great ultra runners, such as Scott Jurek and Kilian Jornet, is a sense of playfulness and having fun.

Running’s taught me that it’s best to be able to laugh at yourself because, as Václav Havel, former president of the Czech Republic, once said, ‘Anyone who takes himself too seriously always runs the risk of looking ridiculous; anyone who can consistently laugh at himself does not.’ I guess that explains why I run races in fancy dress – I don’t want to run the risk of looking ridiculous by taking myself too seriously. I’ve dressed up as a blood-spattered zombie for the Zombie Evacuation Race; donned an adult Babygro for the Onesie 5K Dash around the City of London; and undressed entirely to run two naked races, the BH5K Naked Run in Orpington and the Streak for Tigers at London Zoo.

What running taught me about... failure and success

For most of my life I didn’t really ‘do’ failure. From childhood I always aimed to succeed at everything I put my mind to. And if I wasn’t likely to succeed, I sure as hell wasn’t even going to try. Running changed that. When I became a runner I simply had to embrace the risk that sometimes I wouldn’t be going home with a medal. I had no idea whether I’d be able to complete my first marathon. When I did – and my self-belief skyrocketed – each successive marathon was still run with that nagging spectre of possible failure, with no guarantees that I’d finish. Completing dozens and dozens has, of course, made them less daunting, but I’m currently struggling with some unexplained foot issues that cast doubt over whether I’ll be able to finish within the cut-off times. This means that, 17 years after my first, every marathon continues to be oh-so-subtly tinged with that fear of failure. But, having gone home a fair few times without a medal, I’ve learned that, if you fail, you simply go back again the next year and finish what you started. And so, what running has given me is the courage to fail – to begin the journey but accept that it won’t always necessarily end in success. So, I’ll continue to run even when some people call what I do ‘jogging’. I’ll continue to have a giggle when someone, on hearing how slow I am, says I should write to running-gear manufacturers suggesting they pay me not to run in their apparel. I’ll continue coming last, as I’ve done in 20 marathons, or even not making it to the finish line, because all of that is far better than not turning up at all.

What running taught me about... dreaming big

Despite being the world’s most unathletic child, there was a dream I’d secretly harboured since I was old enough to walk to school on my own. Coming from sports-mad South Africa, there was a race I’d watched on TV every year that had both terrified and thrilled me: the 56-mile Comrades Marathon. This was the improbable, impossible dream I’d hardly dared to dream. By the time I’d run 14 marathons, however, I knew this was a road I’d always regret not taking. So I set out to do it, knowing I’d need to cut almost an hour off my best marathon time. And do you know what? Having survived an agonising hamstring injury during months of training through one of the UK’s worst winters, on May 24, 2009, sporting a pink flappy-winged flamingo hat, I crossed the Comrades finish line.

Early in my training a runner had snorted when I told him of my Comrades dream – and so it felt particularly satisfying to prove him wrong. Another important lesson running’s taught me is not to snort when someone shares their dream with you. Over the years and over many miles I’ve felt immensely privileged when runners have divulged their dreams to me. And, even when they’ve seemed downright unachievable (Complete 300 marathons? Run 250 miles in one go?), I’ve remembered the single snort that so nearly derailed my Comrades dream and have instead made it my mission to be a believer rather than a doubter.

Running has also taught me that nothing is impossible. My most recent dream was to join the 100 Marathon Club in April 2016, and to that end I ran a marathon almost every fortnight last year while holding down a job and writing my second running book, Your Pace or Mine?. It’s been an even greater challenge finding marathons that have cut-offs generous enough to allow me to finish. But I did it. And stuck onto my blue-and-yellow 100 Marathon Club T-shirt, there are three badges. Two are the ones I got for running Comrades and one is a NASA badge I bought at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where I was moved to tears hearing a recording of one of JFK’s speeches, in which he said, ‘We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.’ That speech perfectly summed up why I run marathons and ultra marathons rather than shorter races: it’s precisely because distance running is so damn hard that it’s so satisfying. Despite being ‘bad’ at it, running has given me the greatest happiness I’ve ever known, and the most intense feeling of achievement I’ve ever experienced. Join me at the very back of the marathon pack sometime and see what it can give you.


Your Pace or Mine? What Running Taught Me about Life, Laughter and Coming Last by Lisa Jackson is out now