Finish what
you start

Little did Sophie Haydock know when she applied to run the over-subscribed New York City marathon that she would get a place

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Three years ago I hadn’t run for more than the bus. I’m sure many of you can sympathise. Then on 6 November 2016, I ran the New York City marathon in just over five hours. Not speedy, but still, I crossed that finish line in Central Park. I have a medal to prove it.

A million people lining the streets of New York cheered me and the 50,000 other runners on. It was a beautiful autumn day: warm, with clear blue skies. The route took me across five bridges – including the Verrazano-Narrows from Staten Island into Brooklyn – through five boroughs, including Queens and the Bronx, up First Avenue and through the famous park. I was stunned that I managed to cover 26 miles and 385 yards in one go. But as I found, it’s not impossible.

I was astounded when I first ran for 20 minutes without stopping

For beginners, I suggest the free NHS running podcast Couch To 5k, which I downloaded onto my phone in January 2014. It’s a nine-week programme designed to get people who don’t run at all to a point where they can run 5k (just over three miles). It encourages you to get out three times a week.

The podcast is full of easy-to-follow instructions that you listen to while you’re on the move – a nice woman tells you when to run and for how long, when to walk, and offers tips on how best to move your arms and place your feet, as well as what to wear (not a pair of old fashion trainers, as it turned out). The music is upbeat and keeps you going when you don’t know if you can run more than 20m.

The first couple of weeks were meant to be easy introductions. You begin with a brisk five-minute warm-up walk, then alternate 60 seconds of running with 90 seconds of walking, for a total of 20 minutes. Embarrassingly, at the time, it was a challenge. By the end of week nine, your stamina has increased to the point where you can complete 30 minutes of straight jogging.

There’s something addictive about running. It’s less the endorphins, or whatever else is meant to make you feel good after exercise, that did it for me, but the small incremental achievements that are easily measurable and make you feel like you’re always making progress: to be able to run for a full 10 minutes without stopping, then 12, and soon 14, then 16 and 18, feels good. I was astounded when I first ran for 20 minutes without stopping. I marvelled over it for days. Twenty minutes!

I was able to find a rhythm with my breathing, go slow and steady, and keep my legs moving. I always tried to enter a slightly meditative state where I wasn’t thinking about running, or much at all, but just doing – going forward. Later, I listened to podcasts and audio books, including Moby Dick and Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. As someone who spends a lot of time in front of a computer, it was refreshing to be outside in all weathers, explore my neighbourhood by foot, head out to green spaces, and feel my fitness increase.

“Running is an incredibly social activity,” says Tom Williams, chief operating officer at Parkrun, a non-profit organisation that hosts more than 1,000 weekly 5k runs, for free, in green spaces around the world. It was set up in 2004 and since then, more than three million people have registered. “It’s an opportunity to meet people of all ages and backgrounds who you may not have met otherwise.”

I found my local Parkrun to be welcoming and fun. “People use Parkrun to measure their progress, while others see it as a chance to get together with friends.” Anyone can join, Williams says. “Because Parkrun is open to people of all ages and abilities, we see a full spectrum of people, including those who have never run before and families taking part together.”

Each week, around 6,000 people turn up at Parkrun for the first time. In January, the proportion of first-timers always increases, Williams adds.

Running is certainly one of the cheaper get-fit activities. You don’t need expensive equipment (though you can certainly spend a small fortune if you want to) – and you don’t need to sign up to costly 12-month gym membership. You can do it for free wherever you are, at any time of the day.

I did my first 10k in May 2014, which may have been a bit ambitious, but I signed up with a friend and we were raising money for the British Heart Foundation, so we thought we’d give it a go. We finished in one hour 11 minutes. Again, not particularly speedy, but we were happy to have done it.

Raising money for charity is a huge incentive for many people to finish a race. Runners in the 2016 Virgin Money London Marathon raised £59.4 million for charity – a new world record for an annual single-day charity fundraising event for the tenth successive year. The total raised for charity by the London marathon exceeds £830 million since it was founded in 1981.

I missed birthdays and christenings and cut back on alcohol

I kept running for the rest of that year, and trained to run a half marathon (13.1 miles) in May 2015 – again, ambitious, but if you know you have to be able to run a certain distance by a certain date, it’s a great incentive to get moving. However, it wasn’t all plain sailing. I developed pneumonia a few weeks before, perhaps from pushing myself a bit too hard and running when it was cold and damp.

I postponed that run to give myself time to recover, and signed up for another one in October 2015 – running in the summer when the days are longer was a much better experience. I did the half marathon by myself, with friends cheering me on, and finished in two hours 22 minutes.

I don’t know what possessed me to sign up for the 2016 New York City marathon. All I can say is it was a moment of madness and I never expected to get a place in the ballot. I was one of 19,083 names selected from a total of 82,172 people who applied in the lottery. When I received an email saying “Congratulations, Sophie, you’re in!” I went white. What on earth had I got myself into?

I had seven months to train for it. I bought Marathon: The Ultimate Training Guide by Hal Higdon, a running guru who has taken part in 111 marathons. It offered an easy-to-follow 18-week training schedule for novices, as well as programmes for intermediate and advanced runners. I followed it religiously. Of course, I was daunted and exhausted by the number of miles it demanded you run each week, but buoyed by the message: “Success is guaranteed.”

It was tough. All my spare time was spent running. I’d run for two hours before work or when I got back at 8pm. I had to do three-mile training runs while on a hen-do in Margate. I’d wake up on a Sunday and go out the door before eating breakfast. I missed birthdays and christenings and cut back on alcohol. I was full of fear that I’d go all the way to New York and not be able to finish the course.

My fears were unfounded. I was one of 51,388 finishers, out of 51,995 people who started the race that day – a 98.8 per cent completion rate. The NYC marathon may now be the largest marathon in the world, but it’s come a long way from its inaugural event in 1970, when 126 men and one woman ran four laps around Central Park – only 55 runners managed to finish the 26.2 mile course.

There are marathons closer to home, including London, Manchester, Birmingham and Edinburgh. And if that feels too much, there are half marathons (including in Sheffield and Leeds), as well as various 10ks and the weekly 5k Parkrun. Start small, and just put one foot in front of the other.

I tell myself I don’t have the time or inclination to train for another marathon. The thing I fear most is that now that I’ve started to run, I won’t be able to stop. How long before I impulsively sign up for the next overly ambitious running challenge. Ultramarathon, anyone?

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