One Track Mind

Gareth Mason found his cross-country habit hard to kick. But running isn’t just for schoolboys – it’s one of the best, and most accessible of sports for women too. Pull on your trainers and join him…

I became a runner through my magnificent failures elsewhere. My school liked rugby best while football was sniffily accepted as an alternative for the less fortunate. But psychotic gym teachers and mindless drills soon took their toll – let alone the kid with the crazy look in his eye every time he got the ball. My quest for schoolboy glory required fresher fields.

The leftovers, misfits and smokers were left to contest for the dubious honour of a place in the cross-country squad. The three-mile trial was an eye-opener. If my hobbies had involved more mental and physical abuse and less Subbuteo, it might have been less painful. But when staggering aimlessly from the finish line, I was informed I’d made the team.

My diminutive 12-year-old frame, and lack of ball skills, had not endeared me to the gatekeepers of the major teams. But I was surprised with the ease my hitherto rejected physique had pulled ahead of the sweaty pack. The mediocrity of our fledgling team became the key to my success. A modicum of training was enough to hurtle me up the rankings. I even managed to twist my lack of a sense of direction to my advantage. Straying from my familiar training grounds I consistently ran double the distance I’d planned. Beaches, fields, woodlands, country roads and rustic bogs were all witness to my misdirected footfalls.

After four years, I’d got lost so frequently that I ran myself blindly into the county team. Going faster required running further or harder than you did last week. Not the gentle, lolloping trot of the jogger, but rather the joys of hill training, 400m sprint intervals and the quaintly named fartlek (Swedish for fast-slow). The racing experience was an odd one. It lacked the excitement of my minor triumphs in the lower leagues of other sports. Tripping over the try line or slicing the ball into a completely different part of the net than I’d aimed at were the occasional highs to light up the otherwise low-skill tedium. Running gave you something altogether more consistent and reliable. It gave you pain.

We found many cunning and ingenious forms of experimenting with our chosen poison. An annual charity run required four foolish people to be tethered by the waist using a small stretch of rope. Somebody, whether the well-connected organisers or some meteorological deity, even provided several hours of torrential rainfall every year I competed. Being only the third fastest of the quartet it was a time of great suffering. It was a very hilly park and it went on for 24 miles. The quiet moans of the slowest still remain with me. I returned the following year. But I had grown wiser. I chose three slower companions.

Once I climbed weakly out of bed midway through a particularly virulent dose of flu to run a half-marathon. Exhausted after 400m, I scared hundreds with my haggard, crazed gurning as the metres and miles ticked away with agonising tedium. While this time I had thousands to witness my struggle, it was a rarity for interest to filter down to the finish post. Most of my greatest triumphs were accompanied by silence – and it wasn’t an awed one.

I gave up competitive running when I left school mainly because my name stopped appearing on a team sheet every Saturday morning. And I’d never got to watch Tiswas before. It may also have been due to a phenomenon I’d noticed over the past year – people kept beating me. I celebrated by going to college and taking up smoking and drinking heavily. After two years of this unhealthy living, I’d contrived to lose a stone off my already spare frame and the useful ability to run up and down the same hill for hours on end. Chastened by this decline, I shocked my body with several near-death running experiences and regained the habit of putting one foot in front of the other with vague fluency. Now dabbling with a healthy diet, I achieved the unlikely by putting some weight back on. Despite the odd hiatus, for the last five years I’ve been jogging three or four miles a few times a week. While this may be a healthy riposte to my less salubrious weekends, it’s still a working compromise.

My physical prime is likely to remain in my increasingly distant adolescence but I regularly feel the benefits over many of my more sedentary peers. Whether it’s staving off illness, requiring less sleep or surviving three floors of stairs, a little exercise really does go a long way. From the desk-bound to the flabby-thighed to those not won over by the bright lights and artificial atmosphere of the gym – all can benefit. Age is no barrier. Witness the pigeon-stepping progress of the octogenarians in the London marathon. Over half the population of our industrialised nations have sedentary lifestyles. Many would be surprised how much latent energy is pent up in those slouched office-bound bodies.

Such passive existence deludes the body into feeling tired. Exercising regularly doesn’t exhaust but invigorates. Improving your fitness by running requires a balance of restraint and persistence. Many feel that submitting your body to a Dantean hell round the park will purge your damned body of all the ills of a decadent life. Such running careers are usually brief. A little and often is the key. As your fitness improves you’ll start to get experience the strangest addiction of all. You’ll feel physically frustrated if you don’t exercise. The only real effort is slipping on a pair of running shoes. Do this a few times a week and you’ll be surprised at how far you can go.

The jogger can always be a hero in their own park. It doesn’t matter what strip of grass or road you choose to lay your trainered feet. In your dreams, you can still be entering the Olympic stadium in front of 80,000 screaming fans and in the fading light, the fat guy just ahead almost looks like Steve Ovett.

Women's Health 1998