Mur­phy’s Lore

Sam knows run­ning is not a cure-all, but what it can do is amaz­ing

Runner's World (UK) - - In This Issue - BY SAM MUR­PHY

Bet­ter sex, a fit­ter body, more en­ergy, a longer life, youth­ful looks, stronger mus­cles, a health­ier heart, greater op­ti­mism, weight loss, a sharper brain, higher pain tol­er­ance, less stress and de­pres­sion, slower phys­i­cal and cog­ni­tive de­cline, and a lower risk of car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease, os­teo­poro­sis, os­teoarthri­tis, di­a­betes, obe­sity, Alzheimer’s dis­ease and some can­cers.

If you read that sen­tence with­out draw­ing breath, it’s be­cause you have run­ning-honed lungs – and these are just some of the ben­e­fits at­trib­uted to our sport. Read­ing the list, it’s dif­fi­cult to imag­ine why any­one would choose not to start run­ning. But while there is re­search to sup­port each of these oft-cited ben­e­fits, there are no writ­ten guar­an­tees. Run­ners feel pain. Run­ners get de­pressed. Run­ners have crap days, and even crap sex. Some have dodgy tick­ers, arthritic joints or they get can­cer. Run­ning – whis­per it – is not a panacea.

As a run­ner, you prob­a­bly know this. How­ever, I worry oc­ca­sion­ally that the fer­vour with which our sport is pro­moted risks promis­ing what can­not be de­liv­ered – at least, not straight away. It is fan­tas­tic that run­ning has be­come a mass-par­tic­i­pa­tion sport – taken up by more peo­ple, and for more rea­sons, than ever be­fore. But it some­times feels as if the ben­e­fits that used to be con­sid­ered un­ex­pected – but wel­come – side ef­fects of a run­ning habit (‘since I started run­ning I’ve coped with work stress a lot bet­ter/ re­duced my med­i­ca­tion for de­pres­sion/felt more con­fi­dent’) are now seen not just as a rite of pas­sage but as a right. Place any­thing on a pedestal and it has a long way to fall – and, as writer Mar­garet At­wood noted: ‘ Pedestals ac­tu­ally have a lim­ited cir­cum­fer­ence. Not much room to move around.’

I’ve worked with a lot of new run­ners over the past cou­ple of years. A few weeks into one 10-week be­gin­ners’ pro­gramme, a woman con­fided that she wasn’t feel­ing any bet­ter yet. Was she do­ing some­thing wrong, she asked me with an ex­as­per­ated laugh. Was there some­thing wrong with her? When could she ex­pect to get the run­ner’s high? She never fin­ished the course – run­ning failed to meet her ex­pec­ta­tions.

Eigh­teen months ear­lier I’d had a par­tic­i­pant who I’d have laid bets on drop­ping out. She strug­gled through each ses­sion, look­ing solemn and stay­ing silent while oth­ers waxed lyri­cal about how run­ning was chang­ing their lives for the bet­ter. But she kept com­ing to the group and a year later, at the end of a run, she an­nounced with a ra­di­ant smile, ‘That was the first time I’ve ever en­joyed it.’ ‘ What made you stick with it?’ I asked. ‘The en­cour­age­ment and sup­port from other run­ners,’ she told me. ‘I’d been through a dark pe­riod. It was a mo­ti­va­tion for me to keep com­ing and make con­nec­tions with peo­ple – oth­er­wise, I’d just go home from work and watch telly. Be­ing in my late 50s, it was also a de­ter­mi­na­tion to be­come phys­i­cally fit­ter.’ Hav­ing pa­tience, and re­al­is­tic ex­pec­ta­tions paid off for this run­ner – she’s since done her first race and, I be­lieve, would hap­pily at­test to many of the ben­e­fits out­lined ear­lier. As do I.

How­ever, when I first took up the sport, it was sim­ply to stay fit and keep my weight in check while I was trav­el­ling around the world dur­ing a gap year. It worked a treat, but many of the mi­nor mir­a­cles that run­ning works hap­pened later – years later, in some cases. It’s al­most as if the run­ning gods have some kind of re­ward-card sys­tem in op­er­a­tion. The more miles you ac­crue, the more ben­e­fits you un­lock. But just like the points you earn on a real re­ward card, the add-on ben­e­fits aren’t the rea­son you run (or shop) – you were go­ing to do it any­way – they’re a big, fat, beau­ti­ful bonus.

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