born to run
From mad dashes to outpacing an eating disorder, running has always been a part of Ruby Tandoh’s life. But she still doesn’t consider herself a true runner. So why does she always decide to jog on?
For this writer, running is so much more than exercise – it’s helped her battle anxiety, too.
Iam not a runner. That’s not to say I don’t run: I’ve jogged back from nights out, cutting a weaving path down empty streets, phone in one hand, pilfered beer coaster in the other. On the last day of Year 6, I ran home through pouring rain, half crying, half gasping for breath. I’ve done a run-skip shuffle to the supermarket in pyjamas and a coat for a carton of milk. I’ve run cross-country races and pounded pavements. I even planned to run the London Marathon.
But still, I’m not a runner. A runner is a strange thing – a neon-lycra-clad, grilled-chicken-anda-salad type of person. They’re light-footed and competent; I recently discovered I’ve been incorrectly bending my knees my whole life. What kind of person can’t even bend their own knees? Running has been part of my life since I was 11 or 12. The reason I started was to be good at something. I was ungainly and lanky and I didn’t have many friends, so the more activities I could be good at, the less I had to worry about feeling good. I’d go running after school, slink into the gym at lunchtime and even do laps of the field. I was the only person sick with excitement, not dread, on cross-country days. I’d always finish with a ferrous tang of blood in my mouth and my lungs burning, but I’d still want more.
I wanted to win. I never did, of course, but I couldn’t stop myself from pulling on my trainers and setting off around the track. I loved the feeling of it, no matter how average I was. I’ll never forget turning up to a cross-country event after a summer of training and being effortlessly lapped by a girl called Naomi, who had not trained once. I hated her, but I was still proud of how far my body could take me, and how fast.
Other than these spikes of emotion, I find it difficult to remember the thoughts I have while running – it sends my mind to a strange place. Running is so often a world of high-performance sportswear and heart-rate trackers, but my shambolic kind of jogging is a long way from all that. When I run, I don’t think about personal bests. Fragments of words and phrases get stuck on a loop in my head until the words barely make sense. Other times, it’s a broken thought – recently I silently role-played ordering a pain au chocolat for the entirety of a two-kilometre run. I end up thinking about tiny details that were useless then and are even more useless now, but that somehow stay in my head after being drummed in by the rhythm of my trainers hitting the ground. I know the exact weight of my old water bottle and the grassy smell of my cross-country races. These things make me so nostalgic I almost want to take to the streets and run, right now.
I remember one summer in my early teens when I ran nearly every day. A family friend took me out on long runs with her during the holidays. I kept a journal listing how far we’d run, where and in what time. It was perhaps the happiest school holidays I ever had. Later, I joined my grandmother’s running club. She didn’t take up running until her forties, but to this day – even now, with her knee replaced and her body hosting a million aches and pains – she stays active. The running gave way to jogging, which became power-walking, but she’s my inspiration. With the running club, I went on a few of their shorter jogs. On one, I pushed myself so hard I threw up, 100 metres from the finish, into a stiff breeze that sent my vomit flying over the man who had been my pace-setter. I got a good time, though.
As I grew older, my teenage body began to fill out and become strange and new to me, and my running took on a different role. Suffering from bulimia, running became a way to make my body smaller. I knew all kinds of terrible things, like how many kilometres equalled a Mars Bar, or how long I’d have to run to earn a packet of chips. I’d purge after a day of compulsive eating and then go running, desperate to sweat out any fat that might have come to rest on my bum or thighs. I ached after every run.
With this history, it might seem dangerous to choose to run a marathon only a few years after finally shaking off my eating disorder. To run it for Beat, an eating disorder charity, is an extra twist of irony. But that’s exactly what I planned to do; I wanted to rediscover the kind of running that punctuated those carefree summer holidays more than a decade ago. I was ready to become a real runner, once and for all. I didn’t want to run for my weight or my speed or my fitness. It barely had anything to do with my body: being a real runner meant throwing myself into a sport that I love, that keeps me active and fuels my mind with endorphins. I put the idea of running the marathon to my fiancée Leah during a half-hearted mid-week jog. We hadn’t done much running together before, but as soon as our competitive anxieties had worn off, we found it was the perfect way to stave off the boredom of those dull weekday jogs. As we were walking the final leg of the run, I said, “Maybe I should run the marathon.” “Maybe we should run it,” she said. And that was that.
Training was hard. I live in a city of hills, and even the gentlest jog can feel like a mountain hike. There were some sparks of glory, such as when I ran my first 10km in an event where (and I’d be lying if I said this hadn’t swayed me to enter) all finishers got a free Christmas pudding. But mostly, it was tough. We would train when the sun was sinking low in the sky. In winter, we ran into the countryside, cutting through frosty grass, our skin smarting with the chill of the icy air.
Then I developed shin splints, which made every step feel like running on glass, and the marathon dream was over – for the moment, at least. Leah and I have had to defer our places until next year. But somehow, it doesn’t even matter. Running has become so much more than this one race. What’s caught me off-guard is I’ve hardly given a thought to my body. I’m sure parts of me have grown fatter and others have become leaner, but I’ve hardly noticed. With all this running, I’ve started thinking about health in a way that’s so different to the kilojoule-counting, kilometretracking kind of fitness that used to interest me. Now, it’s my mind that I’m working out when I stretch my legs: I’m getting better at running off the anxiety and I’m becoming stronger at batting away creeping feelings of depression.
My mental health is better than ever. You can’t run off mental illness, of course, any more than you can stride away from diabetes, but the physical outlet helps to distract me from the mess of my mind. When your brain is tying itself in knots, it can be cathartic to work your limbs, fill your lungs and remember that you are a miraculous, living, breathing human body. I’m still not a “real” runner. I haven’t got the hang of sportswear; my bedtime and running outfits are one and the same. But when that familiar feeling of anxious energy comes over me, I hit the streets. I nurse my bad legs back to health. The first few steps are like wading through golden syrup, then my body starts to move a bit faster, I gain momentum and my legs begin to stretch out in joyous strides. I am up and running again.
“MY MENTAL HEALTH IS BETTER THAN EVER. YOU CAN’T RUN OFF MENTAL ILLNESS, OF COURSE, BUT THE PHYSICAL OUTLET HELPS TO DISTRACT ME FROM THE MESS OF MY MIND”