I played hurling and Gaelic football at a high enough level until my early 20s. I did all this in tandem with a 30-a-day cigarette habit. Once I started working in journalism, that all kind of stopped. I managed to stay in peak condition with my nicotine habit though.
Scroll on a few years when I managed to quit smoking. Within two months I had balooned from being short and stocky to being short and roly-poly, and then some. When I’d lumped nearly 10 kg on it was then I decided to do something about it.
My first ever solitary run is one of the clearest memories of my entire life. It was at the NUI Galway playing fields in Dangan, a route that took you down the perimeter of all the pitches and then along the banks of the River Corrib before an ascent to the finish. It’s not a long run, certainly less than 3k. I was shocked at my lack of condition. I was barely able to run 100 metres without stopping, gasping for oxygen like a drowning man.
I think it took me about a month before I was able to do the whole circuit without stopping. Once you get over the initial hump – all the psychological battles you wage to overcome your innate laziness to go out for a run – you realise that running can become like nicotine… a habit that can be hard to kick. Sure, sometimes you have to force yourself out. But if you are too many days without going out, it can really affect your mood. And that peace and calmness that descends in the aftermath of a run – the serotonin high – is worth every cigarette that you have ever smoked.
I stress the word habit because running becomes habitual and the way you run becomes habitual and where you run becomes habitual and what when you do when you are running becomes habitual. In other words, it can show up your own idioscyracies and peculiarities.
I’m not going to attempt to grapple with the whole of that thesis here but there are a couple of observations about mine.
1. Mostly – and 100 per cent in the early years – it was a solitary experience. You go running by yourself. You don’t like going with other people. You don’t even like them seeing you running. Sometimes you resent when you encounter others going along the same track, because you have to speed up too much for comfort to pass them, or worse!, suffer the indignity of allowing them pass! And then I started running with my brother-in-law and entering the odd race… and was liberated.
2. Routes. I became a terrible creature of habit for cleaving to the same routes, no matter what. I did the same route in Dangan over and over again. When I moved to Dublin I would repeat the same route on grass and track through the Phoenix Park, without variance. The problem was that you become reluctant or unhapy running in other places and that was bad.
For years. I dont’ really know why it was. But you never improve because you never vary distance, tempo, or environment. It’s not that I do a different route every time now. And running where there is no traffic is always preferable to running where there is. But it doesn’t ultimately make a difference. All you need to run is running gear, a place to change, and time. After that it makes no difference. No matter where I am I try to go for a run. Naturally, I prefer scenic rather than the hard shoulder of a motorway. imapmyrun, runkeeper and run.com are always good for showing popular local routes – have used them for memorable runs in places as diverse as Curracloe in Wexford and San Francisco. I’ve listed a few of my favourites at the end of the blog.
3. Music. That was the worst habit. It got to almost obsessive proportions. I had a running list of songs and music that stayed more or less the same for years, with one or two additions and subtractions. If I was running and a song came up that I didn’t like, it would really affect my rhythm. And then one day I stopped. And have discovered that even in pretty awful traffic you don’t really need the music – there’s enough going on in your mind.
4. Counting. I remember reading about Paul Radcliffe’s techniques and the really really tedious way she went through a marathon, using counting to focus on the race. I also got into a habit of counting, one to a hundred, espeically when I got tired. Ultimately, it wasn’t good for me because it made a chore out of it. Now I just try to relax into the pace and rhythm and keep the mind clear for all the profound and silly random thoughts that will float into it.
5. Gadgets. Can’t say I have managed to kick these habits. I’m a divvil for devices that give precise details and metrics and statistics of every second of the run. My current favourite is the imapmyrun app on my iphone, though I use runkeeper as well sometimes. I used to use a heart monitor. I’ve resisted adding it but I think that resistance is wilting!
6. Running Gear. That’s also a good habit. I invest in good runners and good quality gear that wicks, is comfortable to wear and prevents chafing. Some people feel they will be incapable of running unless they are wearing a baseball cap. That’s one habit I never succumbed to (unless occasionally when it’s lashing down from the heavens).
1. Phoenix Park, Dublin. 10k route mostly on grass and tracks that starts near zoo and essentially follows perimeters with a few forays into heart of park.
2. Docks run. 7k. Start at Pearse Street and down by Grand Canal dock, over lock and up to Ringsend, through Ringsend Park, and out towards Sandymout, turn left on road to toll bridge, cross bridge, return from O2 along Northern Quays, turn left at CHQ, and over pedestrian bridge and back to Pearse Street.
3. Galway. 9k. Start at Claddagh, run through South Park, follow Salthill promenade and prom extension to Clybaun, run to Knocknacarra Cross, return by Kingston, Taylor’s Hill, through Nile Lodge and back to Claddagh via Fr Griffin Road.
4. Mayo. Westport. 5k. Start at quays and run along old railway line until the path stops and then retrace your steps. A very pleasant quick run.
5. Donegal. Dunfanaghy. McSwine’s Gun Loop. 10k. A newish spectacular coastal walk at Horn Head. This trail route takes you through enormous dunes, along coastal cliffs and then across farmland, with an exhilarating descent through a wood to the starting point. It’s a wonderful run.
6. Wicklow. Glendalough Upper Lake and St Kevin’s Bed. 8k A very good way of sampling trail/mountain running type situation. This is a popular 8k circular walking route that takes you on roughish terrain past an old gold mine and then up a winding path that follows a steep river. You then follow a path made of old railway sleepers that loops high above the upper lake and then down hundreds of steps through a forest. Again wonderful, especially if you go very early in the morning.