My mum bought me a running journal for Christmas because I like running. The journal has sections like 'Running Goals', 'Personal Records' and hundreds of pages for single-run summaries across the year, assessed by the following categories: weight, distance, time, pace, heart rate, resting heart rate, and so on. I flicked through while eating my 20th Ferrero Rocher on Christmas Day in my pyjamas and thought: Actually, maybe 2019 will be the year I don’t ram my brain with targets.
Revered Japanese author Haruki Murakami published his running journal in 2007, to great acclaim. Titled What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, over 175 pages Murakami writes about training for and completing various distances and races. "Running day after day, piling up the races, bit by bit I raise the bar," he writes. "I’m no great runner, by any means. I’m at an ordinary – or perhaps more like mediocre – level. But that’s not the point. The point is whether or not I improved over yesterday. In long-distance running the only opponent you have to beat is yourself, the way you used to be."
The narrative around running is often like this. It’s about pushing yourself to the limit, achieving that all-important personal best, getting better and better and better until you can’t get any better because you’re old. I didn’t start running because I wanted to test myself and beat myself; I started because I like the solitude, the thinking time, the fact that it’s free and outside, the fact I don’t have to plan ahead or pack a gym bag or spend time commuting to a class. But since I started running with apps in 2015, I’ve become obsessed with the data. How many calories did I burn? What was my fastest mile time? What was my slowest mile time? How can I call myself a runner if I haven’t run a marathon? I’m so beholden to my app that if it cuts out for any reason, like bad signal, I feel extremely disappointed. What was the point? I ask myself. Stats or it didn’t count.
"This isn’t the army" my mum texted me when I insisted on running a half marathon last year in the snow when it was minus three degrees. I was aiming for a specific time, of course, and the fear of not doing it in that time caused me a huge amount of anxiety in the weeks leading up to the race. Despite the weather conditions, I did it in the time I wanted, but the temporary relief at having met my self-imposed target was absolutely not worth the worry and panic that preceded it. And the fact I could do it in the time I wanted despite the conditions just made me think my target wasn’t difficult enough in the first place.
"Why does everything have to have a target?" my friend said to me when I was panicking about not having done enough training. "I thought running was the thing you did to relax?" It’s all too easy in the Instagram age of self-congratulation to get into the habit of doing things for the way they look and sound, rather than because you actually enjoy it. Since wellness became the new religion, I’ve been walking around with a lot of targets on my head. Eight glasses of water a day, 10,000 steps, at least eight hours of sleep a night otherwise you’ll contract all these diseases, function at just 20% and cost the economy billions. Nothing makes you more awake than thinking: I’m only going to get five hours sleep if I fall asleep now… I’m going to get four hours sleep if I fall asleep now… And nothing slows you down more than being interrupted as you’re panting up a hill by a voice telling you that indeed you have slowed your pace by over a minute. Obviously, all these things are good for your health but if, like me, you're a bit obsessive, it can end up being counterproductive.
With over 160,000 wellness apps on the App Store, the choice really is overwhelming. The most popular running apps include MapMyRun, Nike+ Running and the slightly more hardcore Strava, which works more like a social media platform and encourages you to post photos of your victories. With a plethora of audio interval training sessions and leaderboards to compare with your friends, solo jogging has morphed into a competitive sport.
Last year, Nike introduced a Headspace collaboration to the app, where mindfulness teacher and Headspace cofounder Andy Puddicombe coaches you through a much more relaxed jog. The mindful runs are tailored – morning run, evening run, come back run – and it’s more about noticing your surroundings and tuning in to your body than about giving 100%. These guides are great, but still prescriptive: start by running with level 2 effort, then progress when told to level 4, then 7, and so on. If your mind wanders to anything stressful, refocus on your breathing. But another reason I started running was to work through stress. If I’m focusing on the stress while I’m running, it feels like I’m conquering it.
In 2017, I interviewed the 5 and 10k Olympian, Dominique Scott. I asked what the furthest distance she’d ever run was and she didn’t know. "Probably about 15 miles," she said. I asked whether she’d ever want to run a marathon and she didn’t seem fussed. "You don’t always need to be running further," she said. "Do what excites you! If it excites you to run a marathon, go do it and see how tough you can be. But if you love the 5k or the 10k just keep doing that. Not everyone likes running really far!"
So what, then, does a run feel like when you’re not abiding by any pace or time or distance, you’re just running however your body feels like running, moment to moment, and you’re thinking about whatever is at the forefront of your mind. For the last week, since Christmas, I’ve been running without apps, trajectories or goals and oh my god, it’s so much more fun. I start however I feel like starting – fast or slow – and when I’m feeling energised I’ll run as fast as I can until I feel a bit sick, then walk for a bit. I feel totally free and thoroughly fit. The only issue is that now I don’t feel like I’m being watched or judged, I think I’m running significantly faster than before and I’m pretty sure I’ve beaten my personal best, so I’m a little sad not to have the evidence. Maybe I'm not actually running faster, maybe it just feels that way – but since there's no way of knowing, I'll just tell myself it's true.