Running Like a Girl – Alexandra Heminsley

If, between 1991 and 2011, you’d asked me what I did for exercise, or to come to a class with you, or to join a gym, my response would’ve been ‘I don’t do exercise’. Until I was 13, I used to dance – an hour of ballet and an hour of tap a week. I stopped ballet when it was time to start pointe, I couldn’t face the thought of mangled feet, but I only stopped doing tap because my music teacher told me I had to. If I was serious about being a musician – which I was – then I needed that time for practice. In hindsight, this seems ridiculous. What difference would an hour a week – an hour which was good for my head, as well as my health – have made? But my parents and I didn’t know any professional classical musicians bar my teacher and her husband, so I stopped dancing. Oh, we did PE lessons at school, if you count long-fielding so the ball hardly ever gets near you and walking the cross-country track. I used to be the last person chosen for the various teams we had to divide into – can’t understand why! Then over the next twenty years there would be various attempts to join classes – step, street dance, yoga, pilates – and two gym memberships that would work out at approximately £200 per visit – but largely I stood by my claim that I ‘didn’t do exercise’.

Then lots of things happened – my relationship broke up; I moved city; I changed jobs; I developed chronic insomnia – and throughout all of this, I put on weight. Lots of weight. By September 2010, I decided I had to do something about it. My insomnia was under control; I’d moved to the countryside; I’d stepped down at work. Starting a new job was a bonus as it meant I could take healthy meals to work and no one would comment on them as they wouldn’t know any different. I joined WeightWatchers. I weighed 18 stone, five and a half pounds (257.5lbs) and I couldn’t walk upstairs without being out of breath and my joints cracking under the strain. I still didn’t do exercise though. Well, apart from the ½ mile I had to walk – uphill – from the bus stop to work and back. Eventually I realised that this was helping my weight loss and when, six months in and three stone (42lbs) lighter, my weight loss started to slow down I decided to start walking.

Initially, I just wanted to shift more weight and, knowing that me doing exercise would not be a pretty sight, I started doing a three and a half mile circuit round the outskirts of the small town I lived in, in the dark. This was a temporary measure, right? It’d shift those stubborn pounds and then I could go back to sitting on the sofa eating berries rather than chocolate. Wrong.

And it turned out to be wrong not because I had to exercise, but because I wanted to exercise – dear god, what had become of me?

This is what I’d learned: that exercise toned your body – I was in a dress size smaller than I had been the last time I was the same weight; that exercise cleared your head – all that time in the open, with nothing but fresh air and your thoughts; that exercise brought out the competitive side of me – even though I was only competing with myself, I was getting round my circuit quicker. Then I went on a longer – seven mile circuit – and eventually I signed up to do a 10 ½ mile midnight walk for a local hospice. Me, the woman who didn’t do exercise, walking, at night (of course!), for charity. I raised £250. I think my friends and family were just so bloody gobsmacked that I’d agreed to do it. Not only did I do it, that evening I walked the two miles uphill to the next village (and back) to listen to Jackie Kay talk about Red Dust Road without a single ache to show for it.

In September 2011 – now four stone, 12lbs (76lbs) lighter – I did what I should’ve done years ago and joined a dance class. And then I joined another one. I loved it. And although I was hopeless for the first few weeks, when the six week trial period was up, I could see how much I’d improved and how much fitter I’d become, even in such a short space of time. I went on to lose just under another stone and a half (20 ½lbs), making six stone, four and a half pounds (88 ½lbs) in total. I maintained that loss for over a year. How? Exercise.

Now, I’ve moved house and job – again – and live with my boyfriend and his little boy. It’s been easy to let the exercise slip and I’ve put a few pounds back on. Not only do I want to get rid of those, I want to lose the other two stone that I’d signed up to WeightWatchers wanting rid of. For one thing, I have a wardrobe of size 10 clothes that has moved house with me five times now and I’m determined to wear it! So, a few weeks ago we were out for dinner with our friends Kev and Sarah and Sarah mentioned running. My first instinct – I don’t do running.

‘Oh, I couldn’t run a hundred yards when I first started’, said Sarah and then went on to come up with a plan that involved the park near me – it’s one of the few flat places in a city built on seven hills – and talk of power-walking if necessary. Tentatively, I agreed. And then it snowed. What a shame.

But the idea niggled and then another Sarah (Sarah Rigby of Hutchinson) pointed me towards Alexandra Hemingley’s Running Like a Girl. What’s the worst that can happen, I thought? It’ll be sanctimonious drivel and I’ll have lost a few hours. So, on Saturday, I was in the pub waiting for my boyfriend to come back from the footie. I ordered a pint of stout and sat in a corner, Kindle in hand. He arrived somewhere around chapter four and I told him he wasn’t allowed to talk to me.

I wasn’t the sporty type, it was as simple as that. I was a curvy girl with little or no competitive spirit.

Yes! That was me.

That was it, I was going to run around the block. I had high hopes: hopes of the arse of an athlete, the waist of a supermodel and the speed of a gazelle.

‘The arse of an athlete’ you say? Well, maybe I am interested.

Within seconds – not even minutes – my face had turned puce with intense heat and my chest was heaving.

The wobble of my thighs, the quake of my arse, the ridiculous jiggle of my boobs, they seemed to mock me as the Saturday dads stared at me in horror from the playground.

When I woke up the next morning I felt as if I had been run over by a truck. A big truck with huge grooved tyres.

Oh, I was so right about this. That’ll be me. Running is so not for me.

Heminsley goes on to say the same:

I remember being thirty, having total confidence that running was utterly beyond me…I wasn’t a runner and that was that.

Phew!

But then, several months later, she decides to try again:

Finally I could see with startling clarity that the time I had spent experiencing any pain on account of running was embarrassingly outweighed by the amount of time that I felt good about it. I was aglow. I was invincible. I was thinking I might be able to do it again.

The next day I applied for the London Marathon.

Bollocks.

But you know what? I’m interested in what it feels like to run the marathon. I’m in awe of people who can push their bodies to do amazing things – I can’t watch sporting events without crying at how incredible it all is. So I kept reading.

There are several things about this book that are really good:

  • it’s not sanctimonious or preachy. In fact, Heminsley details the times she’s been in pain; felt like she’s been unable to finish a run, and given up running altogether;
  • it’s funny! And full of tips about things that Heminsley wishes she’d known before she started (Including a hilarious story about needing the loo on a training run.);
  • it’s got a whole section to help you get started and answer any questions you might have, including equipment, make-up which will stay put while you run and possible injuries. Although apparently running won’t destroy your knees, which has always been one of my top reasons for not doing it. Oh.
  • the chapters where Heminsley talks about running marathons will restore your faith in humanity.

So, whether you run, whether you’re thinking about running, or whether you’re just interested in what it feels like to run a marathon or up and down Arthur’s Seat as part of a light instillation, this is the book for you.

One of the most interesting sections for me was the one about pioneering women who fought – by turning up and running in events they weren’t allowed to – for women to be able to run marathons. Did you know marathon running for women wasn’t an Olympic event until 1984? That’s within my lifetime and frankly, outrageous.

Has it convinced me to start running? Well, two things just might have – the opening line:

The secret that all runners keep is that they don’t do it for their bodies, but their minds.

and the fact that women weren’t allowed to compete in long distance runs until the 1960s and then the Olympic marathon until 1984. Anything that sticks two fingers up at the patriarchy, eh?

Heminsley says that she wants to ‘create a nation of runners, strong and proud!’. I might just join her but, for all our sakes, I’ll be doing it in the dark.

 

 

Thanks to Hutchinson for the review copy.

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6 thoughts on “Running Like a Girl – Alexandra Heminsley

  1. I love this. Actualy, I’m always thinking “I’m going for a job today” but never do it. I like it, although my feet end up hurting a lot, it clears my head and I feel usually better after it. But next day I usually come up with a fever – which has no explanation – plus, I like running outside, but not if it’s rainning or too hot (both end up in getting sick) and had I mentioned I’m allergic to grass and flowers and I run near a river (and its greenery?). I know, too many excuses I could get rid off if I run inside a gym but someow I prefer the occasional jog outside when everything just clicks. Luckily I don’t have any health problems (weight, insomnia, stress, breathing etc).

    This book sounds great although I usually stay away from non-fiction as I think everyone has their own way to do things and while we could sometimes learn, comparisons inevitably show up. And I hate them.

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    • Thanks, Elena. I prefer to be outdoors too, so much nicer and fresher. I think what I’ve learnt today is running’s hard but not hard enough to put me off having a go.

      I didn’t read non-fiction until I did a ‘life writing’ class at uni and found I really enjoyed it. Think I just like nosying around other people’s lives!

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      • Uhm that’s interesting. I’d never seen it as “nosying around” so, now that I think about it, maybe I should try to read non-fiction focusing on that 😀

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  2. Naomi,
    This sounds like an interesting read and I love your story at the beginning – good for you for working towards your fitness goals. I’ll tell you my running tale. I hope I don’t bore you…
    I’ve always been quite petite and never had major issues with my weight other than small fluctuations, which I guess is lucky for me. When I was at school I was really sporty and was good at it, but when I went to university I just sort of stopped, I was never good enough to join the uni teams and I was made to feel like I wasn’t good enough. Once I started working I had similar experiences to you with gyms and classes, I never felt content with any of it. I could tell I was getting more unfit, but didn’t really know how to address it. Then to make matters worse, I had two children. By this stage I was 34 and if I was going to get fit again I needed to get on with it. One new year The Guardian printed a Military Fitness plan most of which I ignored but it had some great tips for starting running. When I first set out I experienced exactly what the writer did (I called it BTW – butt & thigh wobble) and felt utterly deflated, but soon, using the tips, I found I could run without stopping, then I could run further, then I wanted to run further. I set myself small targets, like entering the Race for Life (3 miles). I read Haruki Murakami’s truly inspirational book “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.” The man is a machine, but not a natural runner. One line stood out for me “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional” It became my mantra when running hurt. Then something really extraordinary happened – I would run on autopilot and suddenly find myself 2/3 of the way round my route having put my life in order in my head – then I started writing a book in my head (soon gave that up – it was shit). Anyway, I’m now 41 and run for fun, regularly running 4 or 5 miles 3 times a week, although I fell in the woods running on boxing day and am still injured, which is a major pain in the arse. But what running has taught me is that exercise is good for my body and my mind, and if I can run then so can anyone else, plus I can put my mind to anything else. With that and my injury in mind, I’ve now returned to swimming and in only 4 weeks can swim 1500m no problem – I’ve signed up for an open water swimming race in October, that’s how confident I am that I can do it.
    I know Sheffield is hilly – my husband studied there, but hills are good for short sharp sprint training, plus there are some nice parks to jog around. But if running isn’t your thing, walking is good for you, especially up those hills!
    Sorry to have rambled…
    Sarah

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    • Hi Sarah,

      You haven’t rambled at all! Your story’s helpful and inspiring – I’m going to tell my friend Erica to read it too as she told me earlier today that she recently started running and is finding it hard.

      Love the Murakami quote – I have that book so will add it to the tbr pile for when I’ve finished the Women’s Fiction Prize longlist.

      Everything people have said to me today has encouraged me to give it a go. I’ll be back here reading your comment each time it feels too hard and will hopefully keep going. It’d be nice to set some sort of goal but for now I think that just needs to be getting out there and running regularly.

      Good look with the swim, it sounds like an amazing thing to do – and very cold! Wetsuits or grease? 😉

      Thank you so much for your comment.

      Naomi

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  3. Pingback: Inter-Media | The Writes of Woman

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