I was never a sporty child. I say this with a certain rueful regret, because it was not pre-ordained that I should be a butter-fingered nerd. My genetic pedigree was quite mixed: although my father was definitively bookish and sport-averse (perhaps in part due to his severe short-sightedness), my mother was so good at tennis that she’d once considered turning professional. Nonetheless, despite their differing personal histories, by the time I came along they were united in their valuing of the academic over the athletic. Being good at schoolwork was seen as essential, being good at PE pretty much irrelevant.
At school, I never had much flair for team games (or, it must be said, much enthusiasm for them). I wasn’t a particularly fast sprinter, and my hand-eye coordination was – erm – “middling”. During primary school, I had a fleeting window of relative success in high jump – but this was entirely correlated with the brief span when I was one of the tallest in the class. (I still wonder how I ended up 5’5″ rather than the 5’10″ I was ostensibly destined for – I wuz robbed, dammit!)
In all those un-physical years, there was just one moment when things could have gone differently. It was during early secondary school, when, for the first and only time, we did a session of “cross country running” in PE. This consisted of a lap around the oval, then an extended run all the way around the fenceline of the school’s extensive grounds, including a long pull uphill towards the end. I set off with everyone else, accompanied by my usual low self-expectations, but then two amazing things happened: first, I kept running as many people dropped away, and second, I found I was actually enjoying myself. By the end of the run, I was close to the front of the class, and utterly astonished at having enjoyed a PE lesson.
I was so encouraged by this experience that I spontaneously went and signed up for the cross country running club, which trained at lunchtime. On the day of my first training session, I turned up all eager and perky in my PE kit, and then, inevitably, made that same halfwitted and fatal mistake I always make: I let my enthusiasm get swamped by imbecile perfectionism.
Determined to have another “successful” run, and with an unsurprising lack of skill in pacing myself, I set off at a fearful clip. By the time I was halfway around the route, I was exhausted – and that was the downhill half. I found myself walking for most of the way back, and arrived shambling, slightly sickened, totally demoralised and really disappointed in myself. Predictably, that was my first and last outing with the cross country club.
I think back to this self-inflicted screw-up quite often, because in recent years I’ve finally embraced my inner runner – the surprising little sub-personality that was first hinted at in a PE lesson a quarter-century ago. How my conversion from desk sloth to distance runner came about is a story for another day, but the upshot is that I’ve successfully re-learned the lesson from that faraway PE class: that there is a sport that (a) I have a minor aptitude for and (b) I can actually enjoy.
Although running is now a well-established part of my weekly routine, I still get a huge and silly buzz from the novelty of thinking of myself as a “sporty” person. My athletic side feels new and a bit vulnerable, and I’m aware of a need to protect it – from, of course, myself.
My running friends often proselytise about distance racing (from 10Ks through to marathons and ultras), suggesting I sign up for some competitive events. If I ever feel near-persuaded, and begin to contemplate mile-building, pace-pushing, hill reps, speed sessions and all their nausea-inducing kin, I remind myself about the cross-country club. I remember my natural tendency to turn a pleasure into a perfectionist stick to beat myself with – and I go back to padding placidly around the countryside, the miles measured in wandering thoughts rather than urgent minutes. Perhaps I can actually learn from my own mistakes, once in a while.