The WhatsApp message came from a good friend last summer. “Listened to an interview with this woman. Maybe this can be your new thing???” The woman was Joanna Hall, a walking coach whose mantra “feel the peel” may embed itself in your DNA. My old thing had been running. But things had gone downhill rapidly. I was in a knee brace being called Jimmy (as in Jimmy Stewart from Hitchcock’s Rear Window). Funny and close to the bone.
I don’t know what went wrong with my joints. A guesstimate was a cluster storm of Covid, menopause (Covidpause, Menovid?) and jumping on spades in stony urban sites. Back then it seemed like my running days were done. In truth I didn’t want Joanna, the jolly strider, to be my new thing. But the grim weeks when I could barely hobble gave me a new appreciation for mobility.
The peel you were supposed to feel was the sensation of walking with your full foot, heel to toe. I tried it in the kitchen and my creaky knees felt weirdly better. I downloaded the app, paid for the basic “stroll to stride” programme and cycled to the Phoenix Park to try walking up Chesterfield Avenue. There was a triathlon on and the fittest of people raced past me while Joanna chirpily encouraged my “hip lifts” and to feel that peel.
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The path wasn’t all smooth. At one point she described one of the background songs as “groovy” and a small part of me died.
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But despite the cringe, Joanna delivered. I graduated from her “stroll to stride” programme to a “couch to 5k”. And now, a year on from the problems starting, I can run again, humbly and with more gratitude than ever. And when I remember, I walk with a straighter spine and squarer shoulders. Sometimes I even feel that peel.
Weeks of pain got me thinking about active travel, and how fossil fuel-enabled lifestyles build in problems that prevent us walking, running or cycling. Long commutes to spend hours at desks can seize us up like rusted tin men. We don’t use it and we lose it. Humility can be a positive tool to help us learn new ways of being, or relearn things we thought we had been doing properly. Active travel benefits everyone. The more we walk, the less burden we place on the planet, our creaking health service and our joints.
A stumble back to basics taught me that the more you do, the more you can do. Your walking buddy could be an in-person actual buddy, or someone like Joanna. And if you want to run, the brilliant Mary Jennings, who writes for this paper, is here to help. For our health and happiness, everyday mobility needs to become our thing.