A couple of weeks ago camping in the New Forest, I was doing a lot of fast 5 mile runs. Not knowing the area, I was forced to run a there-and-back route each time (beautiful, but all of those Gruffalo woodland trails look dangerously similar after a while, and navigating on the basis of ‘fallen leaf to the left of a logpile’ or ‘slightly thicker bracken underfoot for a bit and then some hoof prints’ is a shaky basis for getting back to the tent again).
At home I judge each run based on a number of different things. I start with my training plan for mileage and a pace guide, but how much sleep I got, time of day, mileage so far in the week, how many more miles I’m planning later, mood – they’re all significant. I might listen to some upbeat music, distract myself with a podcast, or run in silence. I may really push some hills, or keep it pretty flat. Sometimes I’ll strike out on a new / complicated route, or instead choose circuits past my house, giving me the option to keep it simple, or possibly stretch into a longer distance.
Because of my temporarily enforced A>B>A 5 mile route, every time I began the fourth and penultimate mile (and therefore just as I was seriously running low on energy, enthusiasm and determination) I would start up a long, slow hill. The ascent ran for 0.7 mi, over which I climbed exactly 100 feet, before a steep downhill all the way home. Mile 4 started to assume nemesis-like proportions for me – I knew I’d be trudging up this little killer at the end of every hard and fast outing.
There wasn’t much I could do about it. Can’t vary the route (or I’d be having lunch with a Gruffalo) and I wasn’t about to choose running on the terrifying country roads (high-hedged, tiny, basically single lane), nor ditch a week’s worth of running in one of the most idyllic settings in the south of England. Remaining option: suck it up.
To get round, I tried distraction. I started to think about how many Mile 4s I encounter in other areas. Patient and kind (mostly) all day long with four fractious children, and half an hour before bedtime I’m faced with one meltdown too many. Holidays, bringing endless rounds of pub lunches, bizarre camping meals, ice cream stops and ‘gouter’ offerings (whenever we stay with our friends in Brittany, at least!) – how many unnecessary carbs and sugary rucksack snacks can I resist before completely falling off the wagon and sabotaging a healthy diet? Managing work demands with calibrated calmness, balancing life without tumbling into panic or stress – and then one more deadline drops in my lap… In all of these Mile 4 moments, what pulls you forward, past exhaustion, laziness, irritation, or boredom? So many of the pressure points in life are predictable, even unavoidable, and the choice is to work through them, or quit.
What gets me up that hill is essentially a basic refusal to stop. I dig in: heart pounding, legs lead-like, doggedly ignoring the temptation to slow to a walk. I imagine how disappointed I would be with myself; I envisage the triumph of knowing I pushed on and made it the whole way round. And I know it will end. This hill can’t go on forever. My kids will one day put themselves to bed all by themselves (and I’ll miss bedtimes dreadfully when they do). My hearty post-run dinner tastes much better without a dozen snacks sitting heavily on my stomach. Eventually the work gets done; I’m stronger through it, and satisfied by it. The best bit about Mile 4 is finishing Mile 5.