How I went from a couch potato to the Great North Run
Sweaty, buggered, no make-up, hair scraped back – this is one of my favourite photos of me.
It was taken on 8 September 2013, I was 46 and I'd just completed my first 5k race.
I was reminded of this when a friend posted a video of her running club:
(One of the leaders is my pal Emma, who runs an inspirational running blog here. Go check her out.)
I'm not a runner. I'm not a runner in the same way Mo Farah is not a sit-on-the-couch-with-a-G&T-while-bingeing-on-Chilling-Adventures-of-Sabrina-er. At school, we used to do a run around the field, which was probably a mile long, tops. I was always either last or near last, with a time double everyone else. There was a spot, about one minute after the start, where we had to turn a corner and that was my cut-off point to start walking. The idea that I could run the entire course made me laugh – this girl definitely couldn't.
That was my attitude to sport throughout school. It was a necessary evil, something I had to do by law, apparently, and I hated every minute of it. Team sports don't engender team spirit when you're last to be picked. (Well, I say picked, I mean last girl standing so the unhappy team leader has no choice but have you join them.)
Thank goodness for the encouragement and support of my teachers, telling me I could do it, cheering me on, eh?
My arse. The only feedback I ever received was Mrs X shouting at me in frustration when I dropped the netball – and she was the nicest one! She apologised afterwards, but that didn't take away the shame and horror and feeling of uselessness. I mean, even the teacher thought I was rubbish. That was compounded when Miss Y told me I didn't need to bother with hurdles come athletics season because: "I don’t think you'll like it."
I was fat and unfit and couldn't see that ever changing. Certainly I didn't feel as if my teachers thought I could change; I mean, I didn't like running, didn't like netball, didn't like hockey… a lost cause.
Then Rosemary Conley came into my life. Me and Conners, as I call her, met over a packet of Special K. Collect so many tokens and get a workout video. By this point, I'd lost some weight but more importantly, I was starting to get educated about how keeping fit is important. Yes, the women at WeightWatchers taught me more about PE than my PE teachers.
And I discovered I really enjoyed some exercise. Cheesy 80s songs, handclaps, a woman doing the easy version that I could follow and a woman doing the advanced that I could aim for. It was great – and still is: I have a Rosemary DVD that I still put on for old times sake.
My biggest push had to be joining an amazing group of women on Facebook all aiming to get fit. The group had various levels of exerciser, from the absolute beginner to a woman who can do yoga poses that make you cry. Seeing how much they got from exercising pushed me into trying a bit more and every small step got such a huge, positive response it pushed me into more and more.
Through them, I discovered C25K, which gets you off the couch and running a 5k. Not by pushing you round a school field when you're too unfit to even run round a classroom, but by gradually building up your running times. One minute followed by a minute walk to begin with and then so on and so on.
My first attempt was when I was living in Madrid – and I told my friend Inés it was impossible as I was looking at my watch after 30 seconds to see when I could stop. "That's why you keep at it," she said. "Thirty seconds becomes 40, and then 50 and before you know it… Poco a poco (little by little)."
She was right, I did build up. But I couldn't get that little schoolgirl out of my head. Last one to be picked, last one round the field, teacher shouting at her… It would constantly be there as a reminder that I was useless when it came to sports and as a consequence, come 25 minutes running and I would give up.
I would never run a 5k. I was useless.
But I kept seeing my e-friends getting better – and running because they enjoyed it and it made them feel better. Didn't manage their set goal one day? Didn't matter. There was always another day to try. The more I saw others being congratulated on overcoming hurdles – metaphorically – the more I wanted to do it. So when we went to Toronto, I was determined.
Mr 50Sense has always been a gym bunny so spending our sabbatical in Toronto getting fit was high on his priority. We joined the YMCA – which you can read about here and if you're in Toronto, JOIN IT! – and I began to hit the running track. It wasn't easy: it took nine laps to run one kilometre, but in a way, that helped. I could count how many laps I'd done and aim for one more the next day. Plus there were all sorts of fitnesses plodding round with me, some lapping me, others walking behind.
But by now, I'd learnt that I couldn't just do cardio – although I did join the Y’s amazing Zumba class for a little more – so me and weights became best friends. I even went into the Big Boy free-weights room (I drew the line at grunting as I lifted, though) and joined a kettlebells class, where I discovered I did have a competitive streak as I determined to lift as much as the other regular woman in the group. The results bore fruit in a yoga class, where I saw myself in the mirror and watched my biceps and triceps move and interact with each other. It was amazing seeing my body in action.
Throughout it all I followed C25K faithfully and right on schedule, I thumped my way around the 45thlap.
I'd done it. I'd ran 5k. It had taken 45 minutes, but I'd done it.
That was such a momentous occasion. I was knackered but I didn't care. In fact, I loved that I was knackered. I loved the fact I'd pushed my body further than I'd ever thought possible and it had done it. I couldn't wait to do it again.
So I signed up for the Longboat Island Race around Toronto Island and I GRINNED as we set off. Ahead of me was the amazing skyline and I knew I could run 5k – I'd done it several times since then, although this was my first time in the real world.
It wasn't easy, I have to admit. The sun was hot and during the last section it bounced off Lake Ontario and I thought I was going to fry alive. I sprinted when I saw the finish line – only for it not to be the finish line and I still had another 200m to go.
When I did cross it, I thought I was going to throw up. That ended as soon as I got my medal over my head and I realised I'd ran it in a little more than 36 minutes – nine minutes quicker than my first run. I'd also raised £300 for research into Aspergillus and I recommend you read up about it because it needs a lot of support.
Course, the 10k racers who'd started 15 minutes after us were starting to come in right behind me. So that was my next target. Except I bypassed that and went straight to a half-marathon – and the biggest one: the Great North Run. I completed it in 2017, at the age of 50, in a time of 2:31:51 (and just under £500 raised for guide dogs).
And then I lost it all. We moved and I changed jobs, moved to a part-time position and needed extra freelance work which took up all my time – the excuses can go on and on but I stopped putting my trainers on (unless I was taking the rubbish out).
Which is crazy, because I love running. After a crap day when I had an incredibly stressful job, I’d go for a 5k and forget about it all; losing myself in my breathing and a podcast. But for the last year or so, I’ve sat around and wondered why I feel down. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my menopause symptoms have worsened since I stopped exercising, too. Running’s not going to stop the hot flushes, I know, but it will ease my stress and that has to have an effect on the rest of my life, right?
It also makes me think about how we treat exercise. All those years at school thinking I was no good at sports when the truth was, I was good but I wasn't encouraged – far from it. Nor was I taught sports. It was netball, hockey and those horrendous cross-country runs and that was it. With today's rising obesity rates (and I was very obese as a teenager), I hope schools today are handling PE much better than merely presenting a field and telling children to run round it. I love exercising – yoga, kettlebells, running (at times – hey, I'm honest), Zumba, pilates, weight machines – but I still have all those years of not feeling good enough to overcome.
Which is why, in order to get my fitness levels back, Mr 50 Sense has decided he's my new PT and we’re hitting the gym. "Come on, wife, little by little, just push yourself to do one more…" I’m back to C25K, too, and am aiming to do the Paddock Wood half-marathon next April. Now I’ve written it, I’m committed – I have you lot to answer to.
As a result, I now spend days feeling every muscle in my body start to complain about being stretched out of its Sabrina comfort zone.
I feel bloody fantastic.