I am not a runner. My running water bottle, fancy little phone belt, and awful reflective waterproof jacket might suggest otherwise but calling myself a runner would be like adding some chilli flakes to pesto pasta and calling myself a chef.

I like to think of myself more as a jogger, closer to the group of suburban, American, posh mums that you see clad in their Lululemon at the start of a Reese Witherspoon TV series. My perfect run would not be characterised by time or distance, but by whether I had listened to a good podcast or if any of the houses I passed had pretty coloured doors. Yet while I will always hesitate to label myself a runner, it would be fair to say that I’ve pretty much mastered the whole jogging thing.

With millions of people downloading the Couch to 5k App last year, I’m sure very few will be surprised when I say that I really got into running during lockdown. As the initial excitement of Zoom-quiz-making, banana-bread-baking, and Tiger King-watching slowly became tiresome, I was one of the many people who fished their running trainers out from the back of the cupboard.

“While I would be lying if I said I still run nearly as much as I did during lockdown, running quickly became a part of my life at university too”

Before the craziness of 2020, I was the kind of runner that could probably boast about being able to skip straight to week four on the Couch to 5k App, but I was also the kind of runner who would be overwhelmingly relieved to hear the dulcet tones of a pre-recorded Michael Jordan tell me that my eight-minute jog was over and it was time for another 30 seconds of walking.

Running always felt like a chore for me. Pulling on my trainers and setting out around the block rarely ever felt like an act of my own free will. However, when the real claustrophobia of being confined to the same four walls filled by the same four people began to set in, the thought of leaving my house for half-hour to have some time to myself didn’t sound so bad, and I slowly started to look forward to a daily lap of the block.

The first time I really ran much further than my trusty “through the golf course” route came purely from curiosity. In the depths of March last year, I wanted to see my home city of Edinburgh while it was completely empty. The ghost town of a once bustling city centre was something I wanted to see for myself. Going by foot came merely from the fact that using my Johnson/Hancock-endorsed daily exercise outing to get there somehow felt a little less illegal than jumping in my car. Like some neurotic Forrest Gump – on this particular run – once I started, I just didn’t stop.

Being a naturally goal-motivated person, the initial glee at the announcement that my final school year exams wouldn’t go ahead quickly disappeared, leaving a large hole that looming exam pressure and impending deadlines once filled. But feeling the sense of accomplishment that came after that first run, and the new possibility that maybe with some effort I could run even further or even faster, I found a new goal.

“On one occasion, going for a little jog to Mainsbury’s to grab some chocolate saved me from almost throwing a printer out the window when it refused to produce anything but multicoloured lines”

I never consciously trained, nor did I have any sort of fixed improvement plan, but the little moments where I would notice that I was suddenly running up a hill I used to walk up or that a route I once dreaded was starting to feel easier, the motivation to keep shoving on my leggings and trainers became stronger. Going on a jog soon became a fixed part of whatever constituted my lockdown routine.

At the end of last summer when I was preparing to start my first term at Cambridge, I was certain that my commitment to running would slowly teeter out to make space for the mountains of work that would pile up before me. While I would be lying if I said I still run nearly as much as I did during lockdown, running quickly became a part of my life at university too.

Although the same routine of dragging myself out of bed, shoving on a woolly hat, and queueing an episode of BBC’s ‘Desert Island Discs’ while plodding along the pavement stayed exactly the same, my reason for running was completely different. I no longer ran because I had time to kill, in fact I had to squeeze runs into a packed schedule where the odd Netflix episode had to be crammed into the small gaps between studies and socials. I no longer ran because I wanted some deep thinking time, instead I ran because, outside of my philosophy degree, I wanted time where I just didn’t have to think at all. I no longer ran because I needed an adrenaline rush, I ran because I wanted to switch off and relax, focusing on nothing more than a few paces ahead of me.


Mountain View

Working out my relationship with the gym

To say it was a weird and unpredictable first year of university would be an understatement. It became uncomfortably normal not knowing whether an outdoor, socially-distanced supervision would go ahead until we waited to see if the rain held off, or how we wouldn’t bat an eyelid when a friend would cancel last minute because practically their whole college was isolating at once. But through this all, through every new restriction, every closed pub, every rule of six and postponed event, nothing was allowed to stop me from going out on my run. In a time of what sometimes felt like we were in captivity, running wherever and whenever I wanted felt like the closest to freedom I was going to get.

There were moments during the hectic term where a steady jog through the fens in the morning, or a quick weave through the weekend tourists on King’s Parade, could give me the time and space I needed to realise that the world wasn’t about to end if my supervision work hadn’t been properly referenced, or that my essay would be just fine even if all the copies of the library book I needed were out on loan. On one occasion, going for a little jog to Mainsbury’s to grab some chocolate saved me from almost throwing a printer out the window when it refused to produce anything but multicoloured lines.

A year on, I would still hesitate to call myself a runner. I will always prefer to stick to a good old 5k around the block whilst listening to some old Taylor Swift, and the “through the golf course” route still remains one of my favourites. However, a couple of half-marathons later, it would be fair to say that something permanent did change when I was simply faced with a little less stress and a little more time. There are still occasions I find myself ready for a run yet the motivation to head out into the cold and wet just doesn’t arrive and, in these moments, I swiftly strip off my ugly waterproof and make myself a hot chocolate instead. There are still times I set out for a long run and turn back when I reach the post-box at the top of my road, and times I just don’t even bother to try to run at all. But there are also instances when the feeling of one foot in front of the other, with the sunshine bouncing off the River Cam and ‘Love Story’ blasting in my ears, that I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.