After her teenage training schedule ended in tears, Kate Fox didn’t think she was cut out for running. Then, twenty years later, she found herself volunteering to run a half marathon. Here, the poet recalls what happened next.
When you’re little, running is just something you do, not something you train for. You start sprinting across the park just for fun, you race your friend to the shops, you play scarecrow tig without minding that your hair gets messed up. For most of us, that changes in our teens. For me, it changed because of an ITV programme called Young Krypton. It was like the adult Krypton Factor but with fewer accountants from Braintree. The producers had put out a call for “superkids” who could solve puzzles, answer questions about the Tudors and run for two minutes without dropping dead. Ten thousand kids from across the country applied for the chance to be eternally teased in their school playground. 36 were selected and I was one of the additional eight who were picked as reserve contestants.
A few weeks before the filming they sent us a green shell suit with a Young Krypton logo on and a sheet with suggestions for how we could prepare. We were encouraged to revise general knowledge questions, do brain puzzles and go running. I’m sure wandering the corridors mumbling the capitals of European countries to myself helped my popularity at school no end. Meanwhile, my stepdad took me out running. Well, I went out running; he followed me in his Ford Sierra.
After two miles jogging through open countryside looking as if I was being pursued by a kerb crawler, he stopped the car and said I’d done enough. Between choking gasps and with puce face, I agreed. The next morning he said we’d go out and do it again. I said that I had terrible stomach pains and had contracted a debilitating illness (we also had to practice spelling and big words). He let me off, but the next day we went out again. The stomach pains came back. It turned out that my stomach muscles were protesting at the unaccustomed exercise. I refused to go out training with him again.
Alas, it turned out that my worst skill was the only one I was going to get the opportunity to prove myself in. In my untrained and physically unfit 13 year-old state I came third out of four in our assault course competition, though only because Rosie from Sutton Coldfield sprained her ankle after coming off the climbing nets and didn’t finish. The highlight of the Young Krypton filming day was being bought a jam doughnut from the American Adventure Theme Park cafe by the show’s presenter, Ross King.
Twenty more years went by and I didn’t attempt running again. Then I was made Poet in Residence for the world’s biggest half marathon, the Great North Run. I could have just written poems about the crowds and the runners but, in a meeting to plan the residency, I suddenly heard myself saying that I would like to run the 13.1 miles myself and write poems about the training process. The organisers agreed. Their other artists in residence didn’t always take the job so literally. Douglas Gordon had just created a piece that involved filming a grand piano being burned on a hillside. I wondered how badly his stomach muscles ached after he’d been running.
I bought Running World magazine and Paula Radcliffe’s autobiography. I bought fancy trainers and downloaded half marathon training schedules from the internet. Then I realised I could put it off no longer. I was going to have to actually go out running. The training schedule said 12 minutes for your first run. You should walk for a bit, then run for a bit, then repeat. I did. I kept going. It felt good. When I got home my cheeks were pink, I felt pleasantly buzzy. The next day I woke up expecting my stomach muscles to hurt, but they didn’t. I went out again, twice more that week as the schedule said. Each time adding a minute and reducing the time I walked, increasing the time I ran. My leg muscles would sometimes ache a bit, but that was it. I increased my times bit by bit, kept at it three times a week and in only a month I was running for half an hour without stopping. It felt like a miracle. I had become a runner.
I began getting up on Saturday mornings to do the parkrun (a 5k run that happens in parks every week all over the world). It’s where I discovered that I’m not a rubbish runner after all. Yes, I’m slow. I was usually last, or nearly last out of a hundred people or so, taking forty minutes to do it. But I’d be cheered on at the end by encouraging stewards rather than pursued by my stepdad in a car.
After doing it a few times, running 5k began to feel almost easy. I’d learned how to control my breathing and pace myself. I’d feel the endorphins flooding my body for hours afterwards and wonder why anybody needs to take drugs. I also came to understand that if I kept running for a bit longer, then a bit longer, my muscles would gain strength, my lungs would develop their capacity and I’d be able to keep going for the full length of the 13 miles. In the end, after six months training, I did. Very slowly. Three hours 36 minutes slowly. I was supposed to be filmed doing my poem at the end but the cameras had all packed up. Seeing my disappointment, the presenter, Sue Barker, gave me a banana. But I felt an enormous sense of achievement at having managed to keep going for all that time (though I feel a lot more comfortable at the 5k distance and still run that now when I can).
Learning how to run slowly has helped me learn to trust my own body. To allow myself to get better at something at my own pace. To have faith that not being naturally good at something isn’t a sign to give up. Also, that minor celebrities may give you snacks that help you along the way and both jam doughnuts and bananas can be more easily burnt off if you’re moving quicker. But most of all, I’ve learned not to be afraid to go faster, slowly.
Standup poet who's been poet in residence for Radio 4's Saturday Live, Glastonbury Festival and the Great North Run.