It was my 31st birthday this past weekend.
About 6 months ago, in the grip of a depression, I decided that signing up for the Cardiff Half Marathon, scheduled for the day after my birthday, would be a Good Idea.
The year progressed. I ran less and less. It's not that I wasn't exercising. About the same time I signed up for the half, I also discovered roller derby, so I was skating fairly intensively. I'm also a fairly active person, walking or cycling everywhere.
I thought I should train. I got hold of a training plan from a running magazine. It didn't take long to stress me out. I was beginning to regret my rash decision to sign up for the race. The idea of it made me unhappy. When I did run, I wasn't having fun: it wasn't intensive enough, I wasn't pushing myself hard enough, I was going to do badly.
Eventually, enough was enough. I threw out the training plan. I stopped nagging myself to run. I decided that I'd run the half if I felt like it when October rolled around, but I wasn't going to use it as one more way of undermining my ongoing struggle to be content in myself.
The summer progressed. I was busy. I went to Edinburgh (I took my running kit - unused); I went to Poland (I took my running kit - unused); I worked in London (running kit, still unused). I relished being busy. I had moments when I realised that I felt more like myself than I had in, well, years perhaps.
And then my birthday arrived. I came back to Cardiff from London for the weekend. I had a lovely birthday, celebrating quietly with friends. Then, early Sunday morning I took myself down to Cardiff Bay, alone. On the way, I passed many runners on my bike, headed in the same direction. I felt excited. The crowd at the Bay was huge - 15,000 people. It was a perfect autumn day, crisp and fresh, with a cloudless blue sky. I was cold until I found a place in the mass of runners waiting to start. We waited, jumping up and down, stretching, staring in front blankly, rubbing arms and legs. Then nine o'clock arrived and we started shuffling forward to the starting line. Eventually, as one with the crowd around me, I was able to break into a gentle run. The crowd thinned as we progressed and I found my pace. I found myself running with a smile on my face. I was doing it! I didn't think I would. I didn't think I could. But here I was running, and I felt fantastic. I thought, I'm 31, my body mostly does what I want it to, and most days I'm in moderately good mental health: these things are worth celebrating. Oddly as well, I needed to celebrate the fact that I'd managed not to train. Obviously I don't endorse this; I approached the run with a fairly accurate appraisal of my own physical health. But I could have pushed myself, I could have made it into something that wasn't fun but was rather about proving something to myself about myself. I consider it an achievement that I didn't, one that outweighs any time I could have achieved.
And you know what? It was fun. The whole 13.1 miles. I wept a bit at the beginning from sheer bloody euphoria, a Thanks-Be-To-Whatever that I've had a pretty tough year and I'm still standing. Still running. I ran with a smile on my face. I waved with joy to two dear friends who came out to watch me pass the end of their street. I wept a bit more in the last mile, because last miles are the longest, and are made longer by painful legs and an achey knee. I wept and laughed a little more yet once I'd crossed the finish line, alone in a crowd, overwhelmed by a flood of endorphins and emotion.
I don't think I'll ever run a marathon. I feel no need or desire. I might run another half. Who knows? This one felt like a little victory, and one that had not much to do with running. Perhaps there'll be another period in my life that will call for a similar trial. If so, I hope I also find a way to the finish line, weeping and laughing and still on my feet.