After 25 years, I’m scaling back my running mileage. Here’s why.
I remember the first time I went for a proper “run”. It was November 1993 and time for the annual cross-country race that we all had to do at secondary school. I was 11 years old. Without any prior training and clad in the most impractical and uncomfortable of compulsory school sports kits, we were lined up on the school field and sent out into the northern English drizzle. No complaining and — almost — no excuses.
Through the mud and the rain
Because our school was on the edge of town, the course took us out over cattle grids, across farm tracks, through frigid streams and muddy ditches before coming back to school and the finishing line. Cross-country in the most literal sense! It was cold and wet, I almost lost a hockey boot in the churned-up mud on the edge of the school field, and felt like my heart might explode from the strain. If that sounds grim to you, it’s because it was — as you might expect from outdoors sports in Yorkshire in early winter.
Yet unbelievably, for someone who had never previously shown any kind of sporting talent, I came 11th out of over 100 girls. And found that I had quite enjoyed the experience, despite the discomfort. Spurred on by my admiration of the Scottish long-distance runner Liz McColgan, I continued to do well over longer distances in both cross country events and summer athletics (800m, 1500m) and took up running as a regular hobby when I was 14. I sweet-talked my parents into buying me my first pair of Nikes (blue, pink and white — real beauties) and took off on the narrow country lanes around where we lived.
A part of me
I continued to run in London as a student and in Munich during my Erasmus year, where I lived next to a forest criss-crossed with paths just begging me to get lost on them (I regularly obliged). I ran more and more, my weekly running mileage went up and up…until, during my first year living in Vienna, I decided to take the plunge and enter the annual city marathon. Boom — right off the bat, a time of 3 hours 48 minutes! Not too sloppy. I could do this!
The next 15 years saw me complete two further marathons (in Berlin and Regensburg: with times of 3:40 and 3:43 respectively), numerous half marathons and so many weekend and evening runs I just can’t count. I loved running — and it gave me so much back! A healthy weight, a better relationship to food and nutrition, a fitness level that my doctor likes to call “extortionate”, a great way to relieve stress…and so many happy hours out there on the roads and tracks, revelling in the fresh air and physical exertion. Running wild and free and letting my thoughts do the same.
For 25 years, running was a part of who I was. I couldn’t imagine life without it.
Age gets us all eventually
During that time, I had very few injuries considering the running mileage I was putting in. A bit of overtraining before a marathon, Achilles problems when a pair of shoes wasn’t quite right…but nothing too bad or that I couldn’t fix with a bit of rest or new shoes. Then, just before the pandemic, I had a small accident. I had to dodge a scooter which was riding along the pavement and twisted my right knee slightly. It wasn’t a dramatic or painful incident, but afterwards I could feel that something wasn’t quite right.
The issue persisted so I spoke to a doctor about it. She looked at my x-ray, sighed, and said: “You’re almost 40, this is what it’s like. Your body is starting to age. And why are you running 10km at a stretch? That’s far too far!” I decided it was best not to elaborate on the distances I’d been running for the past quarter century…
The general conclusion was: you aren’t young anymore and your body is bound to start wearing out at some point. There’s nothing we can do for you right now, so just manage the complaint/weakness as best you can and avoid doing stuff which makes it hurt.
Ready to step back
Some years ago, this message would have thrown me into a state of high emotion — terrified that I couldn’t carry on with running at the same level. But now? I wasn’t bothered about scaling back at all.
The truth was that I had got to a point where I had done everything with running that I ever wanted to do — and more! At 40, my glory days are behind me. I’m unlikely to get another personal best in a half marathon and I definitely don’t feel like spending my time chasing that rainbow. Throughout my running career, I’ve known several people like this — trying all the gimmicks, diets and technology just to get one more PB and prove they’ve “still got it”. I’ve always found them a bit sad and not worth emulating.
I tried trail running and barefoot running to see if I could “evolve” my hobby and achieve a renewed sense of progress and learning, but didn’t take to either of them. (I don’t like running on uneven surfaces or down hills and my Achilles tendons just won’t tolerate the barefoot lark).
The project simply felt “done”. And so, with my body sending me signals that it needed different treatment now, I cut back on the running mileage.
A new routine and a lower running mileage
Whereas I used to run 3 or 4 times a week, covering between 30km and 50km in total (depending on whether I was in training for a race or not), I now run 1 or 2 times a week, doing 8–10km a time. If possible, on a soft surface (the mulch-covered tracks next to Prater Hauptallee in Vienna are perfect for this). As long as I stretch properly afterwards, my knee doesn’t hurt. Mixing aqua-jogging into my weekly swim at the local pool allows me to “up” the training effect with hardly any impact on my joints. I am as fit as a fiddle and feel great!
There are probably doctors out there who will say I should stop running altogether. But I won’t — the plan is to just listen to my body as I always have and structure my sporting activities accordingly. As long as nothing is hurting and I’m still healthy and having fun then the net effect on body and soul is positive. No doctor could complain about that.
The key word for this transition is ACCEPTANCE. Whereas in my younger years, I feared being told I could no longer carry on with running at previous levels, age has just calmed me down and brought a sense of acceptance that time has passed. I’m (happily) a different person now to the one I was at age 25 and that goes for my body too. It’s no tragedy, just a fact of life and treating yourself with respect and understanding makes for a much more fulfilling life than desperately trying to regain some kind of past glory.