A couple of weeks ago I completed the Inverness 5k Fun Run in 30 minutes (and 22 seconds, to be precise!) yet six months ago I would have been out of breath running for a bus. I heard about the NHS running programme Couch to 5k a couple of years ago but it took a while to find the motivation to tackle it. I had a pretty active 2015. Highlights included kayaking and canoeing, climbing Goatfell, cycling around the Isle of Arran in a day and acquiring a Fitbit Charge HR which motivates me to monitor my weight and aim for daily exercise goals. As the dark autumn evenings descended last October, I knew I was going to have to make a special effort to stay active over the winter months.
Out of the blue, my partner bought me a second hand treadmill and set it up in our outbuilding (a former horse stable in our driveway). Suddenly the prospect of tackling Couch to 5k seemed very appealing. I could run whenever it suited me without having to plan a trip to the gym into my day and without having to deal with unforgiving tarmac or soggy or bumpy ground conditions in the outdoors during the hours of darkness. I could also run in private. I could push through the embarrassing, sweaty, red-faced stage in the privacy of my own shed then skulk across the driveway, dash into the house and jump in the shower. Easy.
Couch to 5k is designed to draw people away from the TV and get them running 5km within the space of 9 weeks. I was no couch potato back in October but the prospect of running this distance seemed like a massive challenge. Thankfully the podcasts (which are free to download here) are designed to give you short-term goals so that you don’t feel overwhelmed when you begin the programme. The first week involves 60 second blasts of running interspersed with 90 seconds of walking for a total of 20 minutes. Over the weeks, the runs increase in length to 90 seconds, 3 minutes, 5 minutes, 8 minutes and so on until you’re running for a full 30 minutes. Each session also begins and ends with a brisk 5 minute walk. The programme requires you to run three times a week so there are a total of 27 sessions. It sounds confusing but all you have to do is download the podcasts and listen to the instructions and music.
I kept my expectations low every time I put on my running shoes so that any failures weren’t too disappointing and each success was all the more satisfying. I was surprised by how quickly I progressed through the programme. I followed it to the letter, never skipping a session or cutting short a warm-up or warm-down walk. Running soon became natural but I hit an obstacle around Week 7 when I started to struggle with stitch. I abandoned a few training sessions, then forced myself to complete them successfully before moving on to the next week. I began paying more attention to what I ate and drank before a run and I also focused more on regular breathing to overcome my battle with stitch. Finally, a week or two into 2016, I embarked on my final run of Couch to 5k. As always, I didn’t get my hopes up and I aimed for 10 minutes of running, then 15, 20 and so on. Suddenly, with 25 minutes under my belt and no sign of a stitch, I knew that I would step off the treadmill as a Couch to 5k ‘graduate’! Sure enough, it was a very satisfying moment and worthy of an air punch!
As I neared the end of Couch to 5k, I signed up for the Inverness 5k Fun Run which was held on 13th March, on the same day as the Inverness Half Marathon. In the weeks beforehand, I’d been flat out with evening sessions at Inverness Camera Club, Gaelic classes and kayaking practice in the swimming pool. That, combined with landscape photography and work and social commitments, meant that I was spending less and less time on the treadmill with the pressure of the 5k run looming on the horizon. I’d planned to complete at least a couple of 30 minute runs in the outdoors before the big day but, for one reason or another, it didn’t happen.
Before I knew it, I was queuing at the start line at Bught Park on the banks of the River Ness, sporting my new running gear and my trusty Fitbit. 5km. 3 miles. Well, I knew I could walk that in an hour. I set myself a target time of 40 minutes and joined the hundreds of other people jogging towards the centre of Inverness. When I was using the treadmill, I never really got a sense of the distance I was covering. It was so rewarding to run in the outdoors for the first time and in familiar surroundings and capture that sense of progress.
The first kilometre took me past Eden Court threatre and on to Inverness Cathedral. I was there in no time and felt as fresh as a daisy. The route then crossed the River Ness in the centre of town with Inverness Castle dominating the skyline above. I turned south along Castle Road and Ness Bank and onwards to Ness Islands where my energy suddenly dipped 3km into the race. With no spectators around, I reluctantly dropped to a brisk walking pace for half a minute before picking up speed again. Back on the west side of the Ness I passed my partner wielding my wee bridge camera and cheering me on! I pressed ahead with Inverness Leisure Centre (the finish line) in sight but I had to drop the pace yet again.
I walked to the rear of the sports stadium trying summon up a bit more energy then jogged into the arena towards a cluster of spectators lining the last 200m. Over the sound of the pipe band and commentary on the race from Radio Scotland’s Bryan Burnett, I could hear ELO’s ‘Don’t Bring Me Down’ starting to play through my earphones. Feeling instantly re-energised, I picked up speed and, like I’d done on the treadmill so many times previously, I sprinted for the finish line but this time to the sound of cheering! With a medal around my neck and various freebies in my arms, it was time for a few final photographs before the walk back across town to the car and the promise of a tasty lunch at Simpson’s Garden Centre!
As I crossed Bught Park after the race, I reflected on my Couch to 5k journey as well as some less happy memories of PE (Physical Education) at school. As a victim of bullying for many years, I can safely say that my school days definitely weren’t the best days of my life. PE was something of a nightmare. Despite never being overweight or particularly bad at exercise, I was always the last girl in my class to be picked for team sports. I can recall being hounded off the playing field by a group of boys and, on a separate occasion, having the shower door kicked in on me in the changing rooms. Thankfully I haven’t encountered any of these people again during adulthood and I’ve learned to live with the legacy of my school days. That said, I still give team sports a wide berth, preferring to compete with myself when I’m on the treadmill, in the swimming pool or out on my bike, aiming to improve my time, stamina and endurance without the pressure of pleasing other people.
Turning 30 loomed over me during the last few years of my twenties but it hasn’t been at all traumatic! I have a few laughter lines forming on my face and I don’t get asked for ID at the supermarket so often, but I’m still young… or so I keep telling myself. In fact, I love my age and, more so than ever before, I feel like I know who I am as an individual. Time passes very quickly and I’m now closer to my 31st birthday than my 30th (but only by a few weeks!), yet I’m making a concerted effort to make the most of that time. I live in a beautiful part of the world; I fill my days with interesting things; I’ve formed the friendships and found the confidence that I didn’t have in my younger days; and I’m looking after my physical and mental health by eating well (although I still satisfy my sweet tooth!), getting regular high intensity exercise and doing my best to avoid and better manage stress. I’m sure that I’ll continue to evolve as I grow older but, in the meantime, I can safely say that these are the best days of my life. Right now.