Friday, 13 March 2015

Running Home

Running away made me love where I am.

Seven years ago I moved to Scotland from London for work. It was a good career move but I wasn't happy.

I am a Londoner, I love London and my wife was still living and working in London. For the first three years Glasgow was where I worked and London was where I lived. On a Friday I would jump on the 7pm flight from Glasgow to Gatwick. On a Sunday night I would climb aboard the sleeper train at Euston at 11.45pm and wake up in Glasgow ready to start the working week.

The whole point was to try and maximise my time in London and minimise my time in Scotland.

Things changed marginally when my wife was able to get a job in Glasgow and moved up to be with me but I still wanted to be in London. My outlook on life was; "I have a great job up in Scotland but I just wish I could move it down south". Whenever I laid out the positives and negatives of spending a weekend in Glasgow versus a weekend in London, London won every time. My wife's presence only ameliorated the negatives of being in Glasgow.

The fact was outside of work I didn't have a reason to be in Glasgow. Friends and family and social events I was familiar with were all in London. I had a million reasons to be in London every weekend and none to be north of Watford - let alone north of Hadrian's Wall.

Then I started to run.

It was Hannah, my wife, who first suggested we train together to run our first marathon. It meant every weekend we would go on a long run together.

I began to look forward to our long runs. Over 13 miles of quality time between just me and my wife. (I've written before about how much I love running with my wife).

Then as the training started to get more intense going down to London meant I would be too tired do all the running I was meant to be doing, not just on the weekend by also during the week. (Try doing a 8km run after you've just got off a sleeper train).

Slowly but surely I not only had a reason to be in Glasgow but I started to resent going down south. London would eat into me marathon preparation.

Then something even more remarkable happened, I discovered Scotland's beauty. The beautiful canals, countryside and parks. Scotland has some of the most amazing running routes in the world.

Glasgow was no longer a "waiting place" between my trips back to London, it became a place I enjoyed.

Finally I started to look at what else I could do in Scotland on the weekend "between runs".

The shift was imperceptible, similar to how your running improves over time, but one day I woke up and realised I didn't want to go down to London.

I wanted to stay home.

And home was Scotland.

(The picture today is of me running the Cumbernauld 10k, in the background you can see my wife with a big smile on her face. We are both enjoying our home - Scotland)

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Old Gifted And Black

I achieved my greatest sporting success over thirty years ago at the age of 11. The occasion was the borough school athletics championship. On that hot summer’s day I won the 100m sprint, the long jump and - in a piece of inspired running my old school friends still talk about - I came from fourth place in the final leg of the 4x100m relay to bring the baton home in first place.

Due to the points I racked up, my school that year won the athletic championship for the first time in its history. In recognition I was allowed to take home the championship shield for a week. My mother still has a picture on her mantelpiece of me holding the inter-school trophy above my head dwarfing my pre-teenager self.

On that day in the summer of 1982 I was sure I was the fastest boy in my school. I was also the only black boy in my school. And at that young age I had bought into the racial stereotype: black people are more athletic. In an incredibly unscientific experiment, by winning those races, I had become living “proof” of this stereotype.

Yet it’s that same stereotype that held me back from taking up running for a long time when I was grown up.

For most stereotypes to really take hold, they often require the people being stereotyped to be partially complicit in the prejudice. To partially believe it themselves.

An example of this was demonstrated in a seminal experiment where American college students were given the task of completing a round of crazy golf. At first the participants were told the task was an experiment in analytical skills and lateral thinking. When they were told this the white students performed better than the black students.

The experiment was then repeated with another set of students and this time they were told it measured their natural athletic ability. The second time the black students performed better.

We all too often buy into our own stereotypes and then - for better or worse - act accordingly.

The trouble is as a black person this stereotype meant I used to think athletics was about being gifted, being “super-human” and definitely about winning. It’s a stereotype many black people buy into. And for good reason. It can offer comfort when life grinds you down in so many other ways.

However, mass participation running is the antithesis of all of these things.

Distance running is definitely not about being “super-human”. It’s about discovering your very human limits and trying to extend them just that little bit further. No matter how gifted you are initially as an athlete, I’ve discovered that most “gifts” seem to run out at mile 20 of a marathon. And as for winning, with most city marathons having over 30,000 participants, it’s obvious that 99% of  people don’t enter to win.

To really enjoy running, a lot of black people - myself included - have to relearn what sport is all about and face some uncomfortable truths about ourselves.  I’ve had to breakdown beliefs I subconsciously held from the age of 11. I am not “super-human” nor particularly gifted nor am I going to win any of the races I enter.

Instead, for me, distance running has been about self-discovery. I have discovered aspects to my character and physical limits I never knew before I started running. I’ve discovered a new way to enjoy sport that has nothing to do with winning or proving myself better than other people. But most importantly, as a black person, it’s given me mental strength in the rest of my life during those moments when I feel like the only level playing field out there is in sport.

At the beginning of this piece I wrote that my greatest sporting success came when I was 11. That is really the old me talking. In truth my greatest sporting success came just a few months ago at the Frankfurt marathon. The race did not go well and I didn’t even get a PB. As for winning, I seriously have no idea what place I came - I stopped counting beyond 3,000. But the reason it was my greatest sporting success is because I completed it despite being injured and having to stop at mile 19. Ironically, in those last 7 miles I lived up to all the stereotypes: I was “super-human”, I drew on every gift nature had given me and when I crossed the finish line I was a winner.

And that is a truth all of us can experience regardless of our race.

(This article was first published in my favourite magazine of running writing "Like The Wind" and I would highly recommend people buying a copy online at . The picture is of me at 11 and is still on proud display in my mum's living room)