This run’s for you, Will: losing a friend and learning not to hate jogging

“Distance. One kilometre” says the computerised Strava voice into the wireless headphones. “Time. Five minutes. And 48 seconds.”

Almost six minutes? That must be wrong. Please no more than five. It felt fast. Suddenly my calves start burning. My lungs tighten. Psychologically defeated by an app. Nine more of them? There’s no way. I could just do 5k. I didn’t sign a binding contract before I left the house. No one will know.

There are those runners who glide, or even bounce, along the pavement. Innsbruck Marathon finisher 2009 T-shirt. Tiny shorts. A laid-back, almost indifferent expression – commuting with a rucksack, little straw poking out of it. Some even capable of conversation – managing to take pleasure in someone else’s company while they run.

On the same streets – the rest of us. Every step is heavy – the ground feels it – no give in the ankles or knees or hips. Cartilage ebbing away with every stride. Something always niggles: is that a calf strain? Is that a tendon? Have I got shin splints? Is that headphone rubbing a bit on my ear? Terrified about the pedestrian 40 yards ahead because even a slight sideways move will take that little bit out of you, and that’s before you factor in the extra energy required to briefly hop off the kerb.

It’s less fluid movement, more a set of individual completed actions. Land. Stop. Lift leg. Land. Stop. Repeat. Your face crimson after eight seconds. It’s slow motion. Walking on the moon. The run is always in charge, eating away at your willpower with every second until you reach the end and somehow you’re still alive, holding yourself, panting in enthralled relief.

Like the tedious cliche I am, I discovered jogging in lockdown – or more accurately I discovered it was actually bearable. I had been aware of the pursuit for some time. I’d seen people do it. But faced with literally nothing else to do, for the first time I actually tried to run – to turn it from an ordeal into a hobby.

I had completely avoided anything of the sort until I was 25 years old, when a girlfriend left me and the physical agony of running was the only thing that outweighed the emotional angst of my first broken heart.

I signed up for the London Marathon. I hated it. I went to Goa six weeks beforehand and got dysentery. Not ideal preparation. I was overtaken by a cream bun on the Mall. The mile markers got further and further apart. I remember hobbling through the 18th – huge number 18s flanking a yellow Flora archway. Balloons everywhere. Eight to go. What seemed like hours later I saw the next marker in the distance. Eighteen miles. The huge number 18s. Again. Not a 19 in sight. My mind had added a mile. It broke me. By the end I was going so slowly I could talk to the crowd. “Don’t ever do this. It’s not worth it.” I finished. But I didn’t run it. There’s a difference. Never again, I promised myself.

And then the following year 16 of my friends decided to tie themselves together to get a world record. I signed up; I wanted the attention. Colin Jackson interviewed us on Tower Bridge on BBC1! Five and a half hours. I made a solemn promise with one of the others. Remember this pain. Never again. Never.

Then a few months ago, buoyed up by a competitive WhatsApp group of pretty much those same friends I was tied to 15 years earlier, and the Strava app to continuously tell you when everyone else has gone running – something finally clicked.

Running has succeeded in helping us in some small way remember the importance of our friendships
It turns out the pain of running relatively quickly is identical to the pain of running incredibly slowly – it just takes less time. My 5k personal best fell from almost half an hour to under 21 minutes; 10k in less than 44 minutes. I discount the Strava glitch that gave me the women’s 400m world record the other day. I didn’t love running. But for the first time, I didn’t hate it.

In February this year we lost one of our best mates, Will. He had been ill for a while. But his final descent was sudden and unexpected. Or at least we never wanted to expect it, so we never did. Your school mates are invincible, and he was the best of us. WhatsApping a final goodbye video to a mate is an impossible task. As many readers will sadly know too well, a funeral under Covid restrictions, with so many watching only on Zoom, is heartbreakingly sad.

Perhaps more for us than for anyone else, we embarked on a running challenge. To cover the distance from the village Will grew up and lived in, Shelford near Cambridge, to Cartago in Colombia, where his wife was born – 8,640 km – raising money for the hospice that looked after him so incredibly well in his last two weeks. For the past three months, a group of us have gone out in all weathers, at very different speeds, and have run very different distances to remember our mate.

Each run popping up on the app – #Run4Will #Shelford2Colombia. Fearne Cotton’s Sounds of the 90s podcast has got me through almost every step. Memories of sixth-form discos or a “free house” – Oasis, Alex Party, TLC – can really give you that push when there’s nothing in your legs.

People all over the world have donated money and donated miles – both enormously appreciated. While the hardiest are past 500km, I broke the 200 mark this week. That’s more than I’d run in the previous decade.

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I still sometimes revert to my pre-pandemic running attitude. I like to think Will would forgive me for jumping on an e-bike after 6km the other day because my knee felt a bit sore. And our challenge is nothing compared to those running marathon after marathon, day after day. Fundraising gets more and more extreme with every year.

This time the physical pain doesn’t outweigh the emotional. But running has succeeded in helping us in some small way remember the importance of our friendships and more importantly to keep remembering our friend.