Marathon Runner's Prescription
Run For Your Life
Jude Howell, director of the Centre for Civil Society, London school of Economics, was in India recently to promote a new book she has co-authored, entitled, ‘Civil Society and Aid in India during the War on Terror’. Apart from being a scholar, Howell has an unusual passion that takes her miles from the groves of academe: Running. As Howell, who is in her fifties, prepares for the London Marathon that takes off on April 25, she sprints through her philosophy of life:
There are many reasons why I like running. First of all, I love the sense of space when one goes running. This is all the more special because I live in the UK and commute to London. So most times one feels like a sardine in a tin box in those very crowded trains and conditions. Running out in the open in the fresh air feels so rejuvenating. The weather in the UK is not always inviting. It's windy sometimes, it rains and the winter days are short, so there are lots of things telling you why you shouldn't go out for a run. But I know this: No matter what the weather is like, every time you go out for a run, you get back feeling really, really good. You feel refreshed and have a whole new burst of energy. I even found I became much more creative. The brain gets tired and running refreshes it. I discovered that all my tensions dissipated and one even solved problems while running. Besides, there's that sense of freedom.
As a child, I was quite sporty, but when one becomes a teenager one's body changes and I stopped. Then, in my 20s, I remember thinking that I need to do something... take a walk perhaps, or a swim. At that point, there was no culture of women running. In fact, it was only in the mid-seventies that women were allowed to participate in the London Marathon. It was in my late 30s that I started running: Nothing serious, just running in the countryside, with the birds chirping and the mind emptying. Slowly, I got into the habit of running regularly. Of course, as with any other activity, one has to be disciplined. It is so much easier to slip in front of the TV! With running, you have to make a habit of it - it must become part of your routine.
Working out in gyms is not the same as running. In fact, I find gyms boring. If I go running, I can run along a different route every day, see different things, and breathe fresh air, whereas in a gym, it's like being in another box full of sweaty people. Also, compared to gyms - where you have to have paid-up memberships and follow set timings - running is more flexible. You can go at any time of the day; you can go with a friend or you can go alone. It doesn't cost much - apart from the fact that you would need to invest in a good pair of shoes. I would advise people to start slowly. I try always to run on a soft surface, like on grass or sandy soil and try to avoid hard surfaces like pavements.
Obviously, as you grow older, you run much slower. But I do some races. I am not going to win anything, of course, but it's interesting to see that even though I am in my 50s I am sometimes quicker than people in their 20s, because they are not fit. The younger generation in the UK is overweight. Many have become couch potatoes. I am in much better shape than some of them and I hope to keep running well into my eighties. There are lots of people in their eighties who are running today, even doing marathons.
Ultimately, it's all in the mind. If you have a pair of legs, you can run. In fact if you have one leg, you can run. I remember once meeting a trainer working for a charity that raised money for victims of landmines in Cambodia. He had been a de-miner in the army and had, in the course of his work, lost a leg and a part of his arm. He runs the marathons.
When I first started running I remember going in the dark so that nobody would see me running. Now I don't really care what anyone else thinks. And people do say things - not necessarily sexual things, but stupid things. At first, this would make me quite angry: I would think, here I am just going on a run so what's the problem for them? Now I just ignore these remarks.
But there are issues about public space. I travel to different cities in the world. In some, you just can't run. In Delhi you can, but it depends on which part of the city you are - and how people will react. I remember once, while in Delhi, I was running near Connaught Place. I had children after me and men saying funny things, and I thought, 'Oh goodness, I am now in my fifties, and I cannot be left alone.' If you run, however, say in Lodhi Gardens, it's very pleasant. Ultimately, I think this is also about women taking back public spaces.
Actually, if you start running, you find other runners very friendly towards you. You become a part of a community. I have noticed how running has really taken off in the UK over the last 10 years and the London Marathon is proof of that.
The first marathon I did was in 2004 in London. I was in my late 40s, and I had never ever done a marathon before, but I noticed there were many people of my age doing it and I joined in. The London Marathon is a huge event - it's the world's most sought after marathon to take part in, largely because of the crowd support. For the whole of the 26 miles you can see crowds to cheer you on, whether it is raining or sunny. If it is raining, there are people with umbrellas clapping, if it is bright there are bands playing.
When I did it for the first time - and I finished it - I thought it was the most incredible thing I have done in my life. It's very funny when you finish, because you never know whether you will actually finish. This is because when you train for a marathon you don't run the entire 26 miles, you run up to maybe 18 or 20 miles two or three times. This is because if you do the entire 26-mile stretch you would need time to recover. So when you get to the end it is very emotional. You feel elated for days. In most races I am among the last fifth of the people completing it - and it doesn't matter. This is not about winning. I know I will never win, because I am not an athlete, and not at my age.
My experience with the marathon has only gone to underline my joy in running. After all, unlike our ancestors, we don't use our bodies very much. Most of us do no hard manual labour. To go for a run, therefore, is the minimum activity the body needs. So go for it!