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Let's get one thing straight. I hated running. HATED IT.
Running jogged unpleasant memories (no pun intended, but hey, that's good!) It reminded me of the endless circuits round a school playing field, trailing behind all the sporty types, the ‘real’ runners and being shouted at by my sadistic PE teacher. I felt ashamed and embarrassed and just, well, rubbish. It put me off running for life.
I got a stitch, I got out of breath, I could only ever run for a short burst of a few seconds and then only if critical to survival – like running out of the way of an oncoming bus!
I always thought I was reasonably fit but admit that walking up a hill I would get way out of breath (“I am stopping to look at the view”- that old excuse). I wanted to improve my aerobic fitness and stamina – but I also needed something simple that I could do anywhere, at any time, to fit round work, family and home – and that was free.
Two years ago (I know! Crazy!) I downloaded the Couch to 5K app onto my phone. I looked at the details, I chose the voice (there are celebrities who talk you through the sessions) – I chose Jo Whiley - and yet, I could not quite bring myself to press the button on the first run.
Fast forward to this June and I was off-loading apps I no longer use. My finger hovered over the Couch to 5K button. Keep it? Ditch it? Lots of LiveWell clients have done this – and very successfully. Hell, go on then, let’s just give it a try.
I don’t own any trainers so shoved on some walking shoes, pressed the Week one, session one button and set off over the fields at the back of home. This would be an off-road Couch to 5K, living as I do in deepest, darkest rural Dorset.
I soon changed route though when I discovered that pushing through overgrown bridleways and jumping over cowpats can be quite exhausting and distracting! I found a little footpath circuit which is still a bit uneven but involves some roadwork. Oh the joy of smooth tarmac under your feet after tree roots and wet grass. If you can find a good flat loop round a park, that would be perfect.
It started with a five minute warm up of brisk walking – yep, I can do that. And then the running began, 60 seconds. How hard can that be? Actually, quite hard! It felt a lot longer than 60 seconds (are they tricking us?). I was so glad to hear Jo’s cheery voice cut in to tell me I was done… for now. I confess, I was puce, really breathless and had a sneaky 10-second slump stop to get my breath back!
The sessions are broken up into little sections of walk and then gentle jog, walk then gentle jog. The gentle bit is really important – pacing yourself is crucial. If you go sprinting off, you’ll soon burn out. Take it steady, go slow but just keep going – that’s the key to getting round.
I soon discovered it was always the second run in the session which I found the hardest. My body was like: what? Again?!!! But I felt proud of myself for pushing through - and finishing the whole session – which takes around 20 minutes – felt epic! A bell rings when you are half-way round – the first time I heard this I thought it signalled the end – oh boy!
Those 60 second runs become 90 seconds (WEEK 2), then three minutes (WEEK 3). Yikes, that's a lot! But it sort of creeps up on you. It's important to have a least a day inbetween each session to allow your body some recovery time. Three sessions a week or a session every other day, which is what I generally try to stick to. I find I need the momentum of frequent sessions to keep me going. Too big a break and I might end up going back to the couch!
I am really enjoying exercising outside. I put the run in my work calendar so that I can break up my morning and MOVE. I had been doing workout videos indoors but It's actually a much more refreshing break to leave the house and I come back to my desk feeling animated and ready to roll. I am also noticing more of nature going on around me - including being dive-bombed by a buzzard on one of my sessions. He followed me, swooping around my head, for the longest time. A really special moment.
Now, as I enter week four, things just got serious. I am running for five minutes at a time in the run segments. Wow! I mean I never believed I would be able to run for FIVE WHOLE MINUTES. It isn’t pretty and I am still getting breathless, but I can honestly say I am really feeling the difference. My legs are more toned and I have more energy. I still can't believe I am going to make it to 5k mind. There's a long way to go!
I am also hearing myself say – I’m off for a run! Me, a runner! I wish my old PE teacher could see me now!
I was worried about week five because everyone told me that’s when things start to get tough. A lot of people seem to give up and drop out at that point – and I was worried I would become one of those statistics. The runs suddenly get longer and the breaks shorter. Would I be a survivor?
Things are getting serious now! No more three minute runs - it's all five minute segments from here on in... and we are in the middle of a brutal heatwave! I am trying to run as early in the day as possible because even in late evening the temperatures are in the high 20s. I'm also choosing shady routes where I can and making sure I drink plenty of water before and after.
The first five-minute run of the session feels OK but the second is a killer... I start to puff and pant a bit towards the end. I try and focus on my breathing and get into a rhythm as I find that is something to focus on and take my mind off the sheer effort. "Think about something that inspires you," says Jo Whiley in my earpiece. Well, being able to run for five minutes, then another five minutes and then another five minutes... that's pretty inspiring! Plus... I am over half way in this nine-week course. Yayyy!
The five-minute segments that became eight-minute segments...that became 20 whole minutes of running non-stop. Uh-oh! How on earth would I cope with that. Just no way.
For every run I was still experiencing this strange situation in which the first run would be moderately hard, the second almost impossible and the last... easy! But that’s the magic behind Couch to 5k. The programme is designed to build resilience and stamina... and I guess it was doing just that! But the 20-minute run at the end of week five - I was utterly dreading it...
There’s only one way to find out if I will make it through, and that’s the get started. Setting a regular run time (mid-morning) and sticking to that routine was really helping. I was thrilled to get through day one of week five and manage all the five-minute runs. It felt like a huge boost to my confidence. Day two was trickier. The second eight-minute run left me absolutely gasping and ready to quit. I had to take a minute before continuing on the power walk – and I felt I was taking longer to recover too. I was still a bit breathless when I began the final push. But when the third eight-minute run moment arrived, somehow, I got into a rhythm with my breathing and felt better able to pace myself.
Day three and this is it. The Big One. The 20-minute run. A five-minute warm-up walk and then...I start a slow jog. I am waiting for Jo Whiley to chip in on the voiceover and tell me I am nearly done or even just halfway there. But it doesn’t come. I run on and on and on. I run out of my usual bridleway and across a lane to another. Jo tells me I am 10 minutes in. Ten! Is that all? The next five minutes are excruciating, and I am struggling. But then I realise it’s because I am running uphill. Not a steep incline but a gradual climb. Uphill by stealth. I use nature markers to keep me going ...just run to the tree with the twisted branch, just to that flower, just to that grassy bump.
Jo tells me there are five minute to go so I turn and start running back. Downhill! Joy, this feels amazing, and I am getting a second wind. When she finally tells me I’ve made it I feel like I could keep running for another five minutes. How about that? I am amazed. And so, so happy...
The runs are getting chunkier – a whole 25 minutes!!! - and I feel too focused on my breathing. If I stumble, have to pause to cross the road or – and this has happened a few times – I swallow an insect (I know!) I find my breathing loses rhythm and goes erratic. I end up panic breathing and feeling like I am about to run out of oxygen. I think it’s time for a bit of extra help.
Music! It covers the sound of my breathing so I forget about it, plus, of course, if you pick the right tunes it can be hugely motivational. Up to now I have just been absorbing the sounds of the countryside around me but actually I need a pumping soundtrack to my labours.
My choices are a worryingly mixed bag including…Kate Bush (not Running Up That Hill, bizarrely, but Wuthering Heights), The Big Country (a great classic Western film score), and the theme tunes to Mission Impossible and Thunderbirds – but hey, whatever works. Certain songs definitely help me up my game with a longer stride or a faster pace. It even starts to feel a little bit heroic!
Poor old week eight begins with a lack of sleep and a lot running (another no pun intended!) through my mind. Spirits are low (blame the menopause) and that has impacted on my energy levels big time. The thought of running for 28 minutes feels ridiculously unachievable…even though it is only three minutes longer than the week before.
The first run is one third tears, two thirds struggle. I feel boiling hot all the time and just exhausted. I am feeling very sorry for myself. I can’t do this, I CAN’T. But come on, I can’t NOT do this. After seven weeks I just have to finish. HAVE TO. For the second and third runs I pick a brand new route to distract me. New scenery, a fresh start. It’s a tactic that works. Before I know it, I am just three runs away from completing Couch to 5K. Wow.
It's the finale. Three 30-minute runs. It sounds big and it is big. But this is what I have been training for. All those runs, all those weeks. From 60 seconds to thirty minutes. Who would have thought I would have made it through this far? I made it past the first week, when all the teeny runs seemed impossible. The drop-out week (5) when people often quit as the run times suddenly get much larger, my panic attack week (6) when I struggled to breathe properly and I made it past my meltdown week (8) when I blubbed and felt I'd had enough.
One run, two runs...and then Jo counts me down for the last ever Couch To 5K run. It feels amazing. The music is pounding, the feet are pounding, the sun is shining. The uphill sections are tough, granted, but fantastic. I pass a dog walker who tucks in to let me pass. I salute her and grin without breaking pace. She grins back. I feel like a proper runner. People stand aside when they see me coming! Respect! And then...it's done. Jo is congratulating me. I stand on a tree stump in the middle of nowhere. My podium finish. There is no medal but there is a reward - I feel fitter and happier and proud. I did it. I DID IT!
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