Birthday fun on the run
This newsletter was originally published on Patreon on 1 March 2021
“If you had told me 10 years ago that I would be doing this for my birthday, I’d have told you to shut up.”
I’m running with my friend Taz along the banks of the River Dart in Devon, the early morning sky fading up through pinks and purples above the black silhouetted branches of the winter trees. We have the valley to ourselves. How could you want to be anywhere else?
Still, the thought that this was a strange idea for a “treat” was hard to shake the night before, knowing we had to get up before dawn and run 16 miles from Totnes, where we both live, to the sea. Really? I mean, I loved the idea, but it wasn’t your typical birthday fare. That usually involved breakfast in bed, lots of cake, drinking wine. That sort of thing. Running, getting tired - and worse, from my point of view, jumping in the freezing February sea - was more closely associated with words like “training”, “effort” and “tough”, rather than “birthday treat”.
But as the sun dawned across the valley, and we trundled on, taking our time, stopping to take pictures, just to soak up the beauty of an awakening planet, it really felt like we were being spoiled.
As parents with busy lives, just being able to carve out the time to undertake such a run is a treat in itself. To have a whole morning just to do that thing we love, just to run.
“How else do you think I got a free pass,” says Taz when I ask him if it his actual birthday today.
Then there is the gift of the place where we live - everywhere has its own beauty if you open your eyes to it, but being able to follow the Dart valley, mostly on trails, all the way to the sea, to a beach as glorious as Blackpool Sands, was indeed something to feel grateful for, especially on a morning like this.
Sure, we got tired by the end, but it was never the sort of struggle you have in an ultra or a marathon. We kept ourselves in the easy ambling pleasure of the early stages of a long ultra, when everything feels comfortable. And a little tiredness is welcome, of course. Necessary, even. We wanted to feel like we had worked. It wouldn’t bring the same deep-lying satisfaction, the same sense of a pleasure earned, if it was too easy. But this run was perfectly pitched - just enough tiredness to give everything that lovely glow of honest toil, without ever becoming difficult, without ever feeling like we wanted to stop.
In fact, running a long way with friends, at an easy pace, around our little south Devon haven, is such a treat, that this was my second weekend in a row doing it. Seven days earlier, another friend, Bundle, decided to run 39km to celebrate her 39th birthday. Again we trundled along, chatting, popping out at one point by the sea, scuttling down hidden lanes, putting the world to rights.
However, 39 hilly kilometres was getting a little bit too close within view of the pain cave for me at the moment, so I scuttled off home at halfway and left Bundle to finish her run alone, which in hindsight wasn’t the friendliest thing to do. Especially on her birthday. Still, I’m sure the last few miles, while tough at the time, made the rest of Bundle’s day even sweeter.
That’s the thing, after the run you feel set up for the day. Whatever else happens, it is all going to feel so much better after that morning run. Sitting on the sofa? Glorious. A bath? Heaven. A second slice of cake? No problem. It will barely touch the sides.
So here’s to birthday runs, whether with friends or alone. And here’s to doing them early, no matter how much non-runners will look at you as if you’ve lost the plot, no matter how much your former self may sit there scratching his/her head in confusion. No, you haven’t gone mad, or grown old, or turned stupid, you’ve become a little bit wise. You know what brings you joy, and as it’s your birthday, you’re allowed to indulge yourself.
So, saying all that, it’s my birthday next week. I wonder …
Stat of the week
In the history of British marathon running, 2:10 has been bettered by 17 men. At Sunday’s Lake Biwa Marathon, 40 Japanese men finished inside 2:10.
Of course, if you’ve read my book The Way of the Runner you'll know all about the incredible depth of Japanese road running, but this was a special race by any standard, and included a huge national record by the winner, who ran 2:04. Of course, partly it’s the shoes, but even taking a few minutes off each runner’s time to allow for the shoes, the results were still amazing.
One thing that clearly helped was having so many athletes running at such a fast pace. Usually in a marathon if someone is running at under 2:10 pace, they’re on their own or running with one to two other people, but here you had groups of 25, 30, 40 men all running at that speed. It’s partly psychological, but just being able to slot into such a big group and “switch off” makes running feel easier.
But regardless of the reasons, the Japanese seem to be getting faster and faster in bigger and bigger numbers … and with a home Olympics this year I expect to see the Japanese runners pushing hard at the front of the marathon and potentially even winning. It would cause a national meltdown if it happened - as the marathons will without doubt be the biggest events for Japan in the Tokyo Olympics.