Dan Rookwood on the joys of running.
It’s early. I’m just coming to. I blindly paw the bedside table for the alarm clock, knock my glasses to the floor which startles my wife, find the clock, press its light and squint through one heavy-lidded, half-open, short-sighted eye. “Time’s it?” muffles Sam through a pillow. “5.50am,” I croak. Got another 10 minutezzz. And so it begins – the internal morn-ologue, the comatose tussle between my inherent love of sleep’s soft embrace and the overpowering combination of guilt, vanity and self-discipline that gnaws away until it ultimately compels me to hit the gym rather than the snooze button. I’m not naturally a ‘morning person’, but if I don’t exercise before breakfast, it ain’t happening at all. And for the last year – since I became a father – it’s happened all too seldom. I do my daily push-ups and manage a long run at the weekend, but aside from that, I’ve had neither the time nor energy to exercise. Of all the things I’ve missed since becoming a dad – sleep, sex, disposable income – working out is top. (Actually, a liein at the weekend heads the list but exercise is a close second.) The struggle is real against the insidious creep of dad-bod. I originally started running in order to be able to eat and drink pretty much with impunity. Everything in my carefully and expensively assembled wardrobe – including several bespoke suits – is for a man with a 32-inch waist. I literally cannot afford to put on timber. But what I’ve come to realise in recent weeks, my fitness regimen now back on track, is that I need to exercise as much, if not more, for mental wellbeing as physical. Specifically, running. ‘Runner’s high’ – that wave of endorphin- and endocannabinoid-induced euphoria that crashes over some people postaerobic activity – is a palpable sensation for me. I need it like I need coffee. And as with coffee, if I go without, I suffer, as do people around me. Sometimes when I’m irritable and objectionable, Sam will ask: “Do you need to go for a run?” I return an hour later with an upbeat spring in my step. A lot of people say they find distance running too boring, but that for me is a large part of the point. I used to jog to podcasts and audiobooks – never a dull moment – but as much as my body needs the exercise, my mind needs the rest. So now I tune out to the metronomic beat of music. Since I can’t meditate so easily these days – as a new parent I’m so sleep-deprived, if I close my eyes for 20 minutes of TM, I might never wake – running is the answer. We hear so much about mindfulness, of being ‘in the moment’ – and I’m all over that. But in today’s always-connected, over-stimulated world when digital devices are reducing our attention spans to that of goldfish with ADD, we need some mindlessness too. To daydream, to not answer emails, to get lost in thought… Sorry, what was I saying? Oh yeah, thanks to smart phones and wi-fi, boredom has almost been eradicated. We don’t yet know the long-term effects of this. But we do know that boredom is a fertile state. We need periods of idle thought. That’s why we often have our light bulb ideas in the shower or when walking the dog or driving home. The lack of engaging activity in the brain sparks creativity. With running, the effect is amplified. There’s a compelling body of research in neuroscience linking aerobic exercise with subsequent cognitive clarity. It jogs memory, boosts focus and concentration, improves goal-setting, aids decision-making. Weighing up a potentially life-changing choice? Go for a run. Hit a creative stumbling block? Go for a run. Feeling a bit wound up or down in the dumps? You get the idea. Running helps you zone out. In his seminal book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, award-winning writer and serial marathoner Haruki Murakami writes: “I just run. I run in void. Or maybe I should put it the other way – I run in order to acquire a void.” He runs six days a week. As I’ve discovered this past year, it’s all too easy to get out of the habit. To encourage myself to stick to it, I’m now entering events so that I have targets to train for – 10Ks, half marathons, nothing injury-inducing – my frame isn’t built for marathons. I take running shoes on every trip – there’s no better cure for jetlag or better way to orientate yourself in a new city. I lay my kit out ready each night before bed. And yet, I still struggle to haul my achy carcass out of bed every morning. Just 10 more minutes.
I NEED TO RUN TO STOP MY MIND RUNNING.