Love it/ Hate it: My Marmite Love Affair with Running

by Anna-Jane Thomas

At the grand age of 38, I decided that I should try to get fit. 

I’d dabbled with exercise in school, until I no longer had to do it, and then I pushed it aside in favour of music and, on going to University, socialising and drinking (well I was a medical student!).

So, in 2010, pre-smart phones, I bought myself a Couch to 5K book and set about getting fit. I’d recently read that, if you didn’t get fit before you were 40, then you’d never really get fit and, after 2 kids, I needed to get into some sort of shape.

My husband watched me leave the house on my first walk/run. I ran to the end of the road, turned the corner…and walked! I don’t really recall how long it took me to complete the program, but I do remember being stuck at running for 20 mins and struggling to get past that. I can’t say I was enjoying it either.

My youngest had just started school and I’d become friendly with a mum at the school gate who offered to run with me. Thanks to her, I found myself increasing my distance gradually over the weeks. Running with company was so much better.

My first official run was a 10k in Margam Park just before Christmas which I ran with 2 friend’s husbands. It was so cold, the water at the drinks station had frozen. Cardiff 10k followed where my friend and I found ourselves chasing someone dressed as a blueberry, there was no way we were being beaten by someone dressed in a big foam costume! Why would anyone want to run in fancy dress?

My first half marathon was the Forest of Dean Half which was so scenic but I found myself running alone as my friend had a finish time in mind and all I wanted to do was finish. That was tough as I had no music either and found myself at the back of a rather fast pack.

I took on Cardiff Half several times with another friend, back in the day when it started and finished in Cardiff Bay and was a much smaller event but I wouldn’t say I enjoyed them.

It seemed natural to progress to a marathon, especially when my school-mum friend decided she was signing up for Snowdonia Marathon. I had no plans to complete another marathon after this one so, I figured, I may as well do a tough one! What was I thinking? We’d drop our kids off at school on our day off, head off for a run, go home, eat, shower and pick the kids up. 

The race itself was amazing, the views were stunning, the atmosphere was so uplifting and the support fantastic. I so loved the event but the endless training beforehand put me off running so far again.

Not long after this, I started to experience lower back pain and running seemed to be exacerbating it, so I stopped. I was diagnosed with a couple of prolapsed lumbar discs and, although I returned to some running, anything more than 10K seemed to bring on back pain so I turned to exercise classes because, by this time, I’d found a love of exercise and wanted to set a good example to our children.

In 2016, I came out of “half marathon retirement” to become one of Hollies 100, raising money and awareness for Anthony Nolan after our friend’s daughter was diagnosed with a rare blood cancer. This was going to be my last ever half.

My back started to niggle at 10 miles and, at 11 miles, because I’d started to shuffle, I tripped on the speed bump by the Indian restaurant in Roath Park (henceforth known as “AJ’s speed bump”). I ushered Andrea and our other friend onwards, it was only after they’d gone that I looked down at the road to see a small red object beneath me. I’ve never been particularly vain, but the thought of losing a tooth was awful. I checked my mouth…all my teeth were there so I took another look at the ground…a red jelly bean. The grazed lip and egg-sized lump on my head didn’t matter once I knew my teeth were all still intact. I was never doing a half again so I had to finish this one. The adrenaline carried me for those last 2 miles, I saw several friends spectating on the way and each one got a tearful hug, they must have wondered what the heck was going on. Crossing that finish line was so emotional. 

That was it, no more halves, in fact, for a while, it was no more running. I turned my hand to marshalling instead, getting involved in the next Cardiff Half (coincidentally being placed at my speed bump) and Women’s running 10k as well as park run. Cheering on and encouraging friends and strangers alike gave me a buzz that was similar to actually running it.

I struggled to get back into running, my mojo was missing. Every now and then I thought I’d found it but I just didn’t seem to have the drive to run anymore. Every run was hard, I didn’t enjoy it and it became a chore, even with my trusted running buddy, Gary Barlow, serenading me. 

August 2018, I was invited to a hen weekend near Gleneagles so I took my running kit, attracted to the romantic idea of a run in the Scottish countryside. Whilst everyone nursed a hangover on the Saturday morning, I set off for a loch nearby with Del Amitri singing to me (well I was in Scotland!). Over a couple of fences, through the woods, following the directions I’d been given. Finally, I’d found my mojo in the wilds of Scotland. The path around the loch was rather overgrown and a misplaced foot on a loose log resulted in me ending up on the floor with a painful puffy ankle. I limped back the remaining mile and smiled happily during breakfast despite the pain making me feel sick. The ankle grew and grew in size over the course of the weekend, luckily the planned activities were sedentary with lots of (pain numbing) gin. I flew back to Bristol and drove home but, 3 days on from injury, I thought I’d better get it checked out. I returned home from A&E with a fracture and the “boot of doom”.

There’s nothing like not being able to run to make you yearn for running. That feeling of envy as you see runners out on an evening or Sunday morning run, the Facebook posts from friends enjoying their running.

My gradual return to running was a very happy time post-injury and, in 2019, when Andrea mentioned a ladies running group she’d been thinking about joining, I was keen to get involved. This was what I’d been looking for all along. Running with others can take you so much further.

In October 2019, I was one of 30 ladies sitting around a pub table discussing the possibility of a new ladies running group. She Runs Cardiff was born and these ladies became our Run Buddies and good friends too. 

Our first event as a group was the Cardiff Half. I’d signed up to marshal (remember I was “never doing another half”) and my friend and I were placed at the midway point. From here, we had a perfect vantage point to cheer all the She Runners as they passed. Even though I wasn’t running, I felt part of something good.

At Christmas, we suggested that ladies may want to wear fancy dress to our social runs. I had acquired quite a collection of fancy dress outfits from previous participation in the Merthyr Mawr Pudding Run over the past few years (no-one expects the fancy dress runners to be fast!). I wore my whole Christmas wardrobe in the weeks before Christmas and, suddenly, I got why people would run in fancy dress.

Being in the group, I was encouraged to sign up to more events planned for 2020, the FOMO is so real! I had trail 10k, Cardiff 10k, Cardiff 5k and Castle to Castle booked. 

Early 2020 saw COVID-19, a Public Health crisis like nothing ever seen before. My workload, as a locum GP, increased and I needed my running more than ever. It allowed me to shrug off the stresses of the day and relax.

When the lockdown happened in March 2020, I lost my physical running support and prepared myself for another falling out with running. It didn’t happen, SR:C assumed an immediate online presence and switched the Wednesday and Sunday runs to virtual runs with a round up of all runners at the end of the day. We started monthly challenges, Bingo boards, Around the ‘Diff in 31 days, Self care and a virtual baton relay around Cardiff. There was plenty to keep us interested in running. We were also blessed with stunning weather and I began to really enjoy my pre-work 5Ks around Forest Farm and the Glamorganshire Canal. Our Spotify playlist and #runversations meant we never had to be alone but I became increasingly happy to run solo. I did try running with my bearded running pixie (my husband, Gareth) but my pace increased significantly and I realised I wasn’t enjoying it and returned to running alone. During the height of lockdown, my life seemed to consist of work, running and sleeping but it felt like a happy balance and the running stopped me from drinking much (the way some of my colleagues coped with the pressures). 

During the times that restrictions were lifted, I started to get out running in company again and completed 2 half marathons last summer and another two early this year….so much for never doing another one again!

I’ve done so many virtual events, the Tough Runner Trifecta in August, the Wales Coastal Path Challenge, Gin Runs and even a Santa Paws 5k with Charlie, our dog.

Over the past 18 months I’ve ventured out in a Birthday Cake Costume for SR:C’s first birthday, Christmas attire (again), a Polar Bear (Tudur) and an Easter Duck (Wil Cwac Cwac), often in the company of my long-suffering running buddy, Andrea, the Stevie to my Miranda.

I’ve also gained a whole new running wardrobe, moving from plain, usually black, leggings to the brightest I can possibly find and adopted the SR:C running uniform, our own, ever growing, merchandise range.

All of these things make me happy and fuel my love of running. But the biggest fuel is the She Runs: Cardiff group itself. The unending mutual support and care for each other, the healthy competition, the opportunities it has brought us and the amazing friends I’ve made. 

Thank you all for restoring my passion, I truly am a lucky lady.

And, as for never doing another half, I’m considering an Ultra….

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