In two days time, I leave for the tiny town of Kangerlassauq, Greenland, a hundred kilometres north of the Arctic Circle. It is the location of the annual Polar Circle Marathon, one of the toughest long distance races in the world. I am going to compete in it next Saturday.
The UK is in the bottom half of a league table of European countries when it comes to physical exercise. Around 27 million of the UK’s 60 million people do not exercise moderately for the recommended 30 minutes, five times per week (BMJ, 22nd August, 2009). Until six months ago, I was part of that statistic. In the previous three years, I hadn’t undertaken a single session of exercise apart from rushing around in my daily life or the occasional walk. Earlier in my life I had been an enthusiastic runner but other aspects just took over and there was just never enough time for dedicated exercise.
I rewind to a stage earlier this year when my 50th birthday loomed and my destiny as an increasingly amorphous, exercise deplete, blob beckoned. I knew that I had to do something drastic so I signed up for a) a marathon in the Arctic and b) a six month intensive training programme to enable me to get round it. I like big goals. They really help me marshal my forces to face the hard work that lies ahead.
Now I am at a stage that I never dreamed of. I can run forty miles a week quite comfortably. Although I am somewhat daunted by the profound physical and mental challenges that the race will present, I am quite confident that I will complete it in decent time (for me) while hopefully keeping a step ahead of any hungry polar bears...
Being fit at (nearly) 50 is a much bigger deal for me than being fit at 30 or 40. I suspect this is the case for many others as well. For two years prior to starting race training, I suffered from debilitating migraines. On average, I got an attack every week. My GP said that they were probably “hormonal” and a result of “my age”. We were discussing the option of daily medication to stop them from happening. Since I started running regularly, I haven’t had a single migraine and I haven’t taken any medication. I probably don’t spend much more time running than I used to spend recovering from migraines. I am enjoying eating (nearly) whatever I want and not putting any weight on. My alcohol consumption has reduced by at least 50% (probably because Friday night runs really eat into pub time). Ladies, do you have a cellulite issue? Forget expensive creams, seaweed body wraps or fat-busting magic knickers. Running is the best cellulite treatment in the world and it’s completely free.
There have been many other positive aspects of this training regime, many of which are not directly related to health. For starters I used to go everywhere by car so I really didn’t appreciate the amazing landscape that surrounds Coventry (which I happily relocated to two years ago). I have discovered a magic kingdom of bluebell woods in the spring and riverbanks where wild orchids burst forth in late summer. I have watched the wheat crop evolve from tiny green tassels to a ripe golden harvest. I didn’t ask questions when the adorable new born baby lambs that I had witnessed in the spring suddenly disappeared in the summer.
Not every aspect has been positive, truth be told. I ran in a rural half marathon event on the only really hot day this August. As a result of two hours of blistering heat, no breeze and no shade, I got sunstroke. There was the time I planned a long training run but due to circumstances, ate a roast beef dinner rather than my normal carbohydrate load prior to the run. As a result, I completely ran out of energy at 14 miles, fell over on the road and had to be rescued. That’s not to mention the many times I came home from an exhausting work day late in the evening and had to literally force myself out of the door and onto the road to keep to my training schedule.
To be honest, I will be glad when the marathon is over. If I kept training at this intensity, it would probably finish me off. However, I also know that after this race I can’t go back to where I was. I’m already thinking about my next athletic goal.
I wouldn’t necessarily recommend as demanding a path as I have taken over the last six months. However, I really can’t think of a better feeling in the world than achieving your athletic goal after months of training. That applies whether it’s ten kilometres or 26 miles. You don’t have to be a superstar to be an athlete. It is unlikely that I will ever finish above the bottom 25% in any organised marathon or half marathon but that isn’t the point. There is real solidarity within the running community. Even if you finish last (and I have been there), other runners will still treat you with respect and encouragement, because they appreciate better than anyone else the effort that you have put into training and running the event.
Over the past few months, I have learnt that I cannot separate the aspect of my life which is being a healthcare improvement leader from the aspect which is about being a fit person who has taken control of my own wellbeing. We know from the change management literature that “role modelling” is one of the most powerful influences for change. In an era of prevention and self management of health, maybe every senior leader in the NHS should consider the extent to which they are a role model for the workforce and the wider population. Whatever the outcome of the marathon, I know that I am already a winner because of the difference this process has made to my life.
My next posting will be from the Arctic, after the race.