Forward is a pace - Maxine Nepal
It's April 2013, only a month after I lost my father to lung cancer. I'm aimlessly clicking through TV channels when on comes CRUK's Race for Life ad, and I freeze. That one's shaving her head with a smirk. That one's in a pink fur suit. Wait, a little girl...what is this? What IS this?!
With its 'Pink Army' theme and 'Cancer, We're Coming to Get You' tag line, the ad resonates so hard I think I'll physically pop. On the screen now, an x-ray of the two-finger salute and the fatherly dude says 'up yours, cancer'. They may have heard my heart explode all the way back home in Chicago.
This. THIS is the thing!
I'd always hated running, in fact, I used to say I'd only run if someone was chasing me, but at that moment disdain didn't even cross my mind. I'd been looking for a way to honour my Dad's memory and there it was, loud and clear. Within minutes, I was registered for the 5k, to be held in Finsbury Park two months hence - 22 June 2013.
As it happens, it was only a few hours later when I decided three miles wasn't nearly far enough, surely anyone can run 3 miles. Let's upgrade to the 10k!
Little did I know it, but that was the cornerstone of my permanent approach to running and racing: "of course I can do this, I can do ANYTHING."
To be fair, I should also credit my infant son for this swift journey into total confidence. He was obliviously dozing in the corner of the lounge, but had already long inspired me to put my own two fingers up to the very concept of limitations. He was barely a year old, born with Down's syndrome and already blowing every stereotype and preconception I'd had clean out of the water.
How odd that one death and one life could make such impact and fuel the same thing in measurably opposing ways?
Before my finger pressed that 'enter' key on the upgrade, I took one last look at my son and smiled. And then I was suddenly in training for the first time ever.
If there is one thing I remember about the earliest days of running it is that my shins were trying awfully hard to make me quit. But I'd committed to the task so took to 'Jeffing' like a duck to water. Run a few seconds, walk a few, only around the block at first, 15 minutes maybe? Yeesh this hurts. Good. I'll go again tomorrow.
It was short and sweet but I was on a mission. Didn't take long for the shins to settle and the distance to grow. There was no sport watch in sight until a fair bit later, so I largely didn't even know how far I'd gone until I checked it in Google maps. But I'd been going out regularly and would you believe it, I was enjoying every minute?
Roll on 22 June, cometh the hour and all. The Finsbury Park setting was awfully lumpy for a beginner used to flat pavement but hey ho, this is for my Pop, let's go. And I looked that dragon in the eye and absolutely slayed it, so ridiculously proud I'd run the whole way, finishing in some hour and ten minutes or thereabouts. Oh my goodness, the emotional offload was beyond measure. I smiled at my son, raised that bottle of Corona to the sky and toasted my Dad with my whole heart. This one's for you, dude. I love you big time.
And that was the start of everything. What a gift! What a blessing!
It wasn't long before I had a handful more RFL's under my belt, and I realised I could fundraise for causes related to my son Rukai. Soon enough I was running my first half, Royal Parks, fundraising for learning disability charity Mencap. I did a Race for Life trifecta with a 5k, 10k and half shortly thereafter where I met the fabulous Sophie for that first post-race treatment and there began my building the permanent training artillery.
I upgraded my kit. Garmin number one found my wrist. I ran more races, 10ks, halves, different places, for different reasons. I joined online forums for advice and camaraderie. Joined Run Mummy Run to find my tribe. As it grows on you, so too your network grows. So too, your knowledge grows.
After going out to support the Down's Syndrome Association's London Marathon runners in 2015, I was so inspired that I decided 'yes, I can do this. I'm going to run a marathon!' (Just the one? Ha!) But I really wanted my first to be back home in Chicago, so promptly entered the ballot. On a whim I thought I'd throw my hat in the ring for a place in the DSA ballot as well and would you believe I scored both places in 2016? Debut marathons anyone? No pressure there then!
Do you see a pattern of overly-enthusiastic denial of limitations here? What this running lark does for your confidence, I have no words!
Enter tribe number two, found online on the Realbuzz website, blogging about racing London. What a supportive bunch were those blogging Buzzers, having made a habit of being out en masse every race day to cheer on any of their number wearing a bib - and there were a handful of us that year. I reached them and hugged people I was meeting face to face for the first time as if they were family.
Oh, but they sure are! My circle of dear friends grew so much wider that day.
So what of those two races? Two injuries mid race relegated me to walking them out. I'd be back to seek more SV fixing up!
Still, two finishes. Two.
I realised after those results that in this racing I was truly racing myself, my own abilities, my fears, my hopes, my passions and beliefs. The finish times didn't really matter (roughly 6 and 6.5 hours). What mattered most to me was that I had faced adversity which threatened to derail me, that rocked my world and made me feel small and indecisive and unimportant. And I beat it. Twice.
That act of building up resilience and honing that ability to find strength when the vessel is empty is what keeps me chasing distant finish lines when they are so immensely tough to reach.
But gah! I was tired of injury. I found more forums. Inserted more gym sessions. On recommendation from my SV therapist at that time (the fabulous Jess) I went to The Running School to learn what I was getting wrong (most of it, as it happens - we should all be taught how to run correctly!) Game changing stuff. The techniques now so embedded in my mind it's easy to determine what's going wrong and course correct mid-run. I often stop to walk for a hard reset, which does wonders for the head game. But I walk all the time anyway–quasi-Jeffing is my norm. I'm no elite, why blow myself up all the time?
After taking onboard those valuable Running School lessons I'd go back to Chicago in 2018 on a mission to land a 5:30-something time which I'd been after since London 2016. I was delighted to be running with my old boss, who is a far sight faster than I am, but injured. We delivered a run 5 walk 1 pace to perfection - I helped him keep a manageable pace with that injury and he helped me keep a pace with that marathon exhaustion. We hit the home straight and when he told me sub 5:30 was in reach I legged it. We finished, beaming, in 5:29:08. Goal nabbed. Pride is so underrated!
Naturally the marathon had friends (six more including two Snowdonias, a Race for Life, Brighton, Beachy Head and the Phoenix Remembrance Day) and grew into ultra. My first was the second 50k of Race to the Stones (mostly walked) and I fell in love with the idea of walk hills, jog downhills and flats, eat food, sightsee stunning countryside. Who couldn't love the ultra? A few weeks ago I finished ultra number 9, which was the epic Montane Summer Spine Sprint. I was fourth last. I got the same medal as the winner. I covered the same ground. I spent more time out there. Perspective is everything.
I always remind myself to be proud of what I achieve, because my achievements are very personal. They prove I am making that relentless forward progress. I'm moving. Forward is a pace.
From that shin-crushing hobble around the block back in 2013 to 17.5 hours along the Pennine Way, self-guided and carrying some 10kg of kit. This is soul food, is this.
So what's next?
Over the August Bank Holiday weekend, I'll return to fight back against my first ever race DNF - the Ridgeway 86, a nonstop journey across the length of the Ridgeway National Trail. I had such immense plans for that race last year - I'd intended to tack on an extra 14 miles to make a neat 100 miles (just because I wanted to have a bash at a hundred) but a Covid-related reshuffle of an 80k a mere two weeks prior chewed up my feet and my energy so badly there was no pushing past 70 miles. I checked out at Foxhill (not before I wandered back and forth enough to make the mileage turn to 70), proud to achieve and so glad to stop at the same time. Sometimes the greatest courage comes from knowing when to quit! Albeit, I did go back to finish the end piece on my 50th birthday in October. Talk about bittersweet.
But this year I expect I'm going to fight that little bit harder because I've got a greater purpose beyond reaching my extended finish line. That inspirational boy I mentioned at the top of this rambling is now a gorgeous 10 year old who has moved from mainstream into the most incredible specialist school in Loughton - Oak View School - since last November. He's come so far, so fast, I pinch myself every day, so I've decided to do a bit of crowdfunding towards some facility renovations as a means of saying thank you. I'd be so grateful if anyone has a few bob they can spare to support this amazing school: https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/oakview100
That advert those nine years ago was the spark that made me take stock of what I needed to fill a substantial hole in my life. This gift of running has delivered such massive gratitude, such head space and freedom to be wholly me, out there, with nothing more to do but put one foot in front of the other. How we lack this! How we must work so hard to capture it!
If you want to run but think you aren't a runner, think again - you can do anything.
I'm living proof.