I've changed recently. Just ask anyone who knows me. In just three weeks, I've developed a taste for self-inflicted torture and pushed my physical and mental barriers to the max. And I'm loving it every painful moment of it.
To the amazement of my family, my friends and myself, I've joined a running crew. And with their help, I've done more exercise in the last 21 days than I'd done in the last twenty years.
I'm lucky enough to have my mum's physique, so to the untrained eye I look fairly healthy. But the truth is that my colourful outfits hide a multitude of sins. Not least that I am extremely unfit. When I was in my early teens at school, I was the 'sporty type'. I did gymnastics, judo and fencing, training regularly and doing well in all the inter-school competitions. I also used to run. Definitely NOT long distance. But the 100m sprint and relay race were my thing. 200m, with coercion, if someone else had dropped out. But that really was a bit far for me. Sadly though, by the time I reached 15, I had a full and, in my mind, complicated social life. With school to contend with as well, sport began to take a backseat.
I got a Saturday job and started earning my own money and I began discovering the freedom and fun of being that bit older. Enjoying teenage life, growing up in South East London - which in itself brought the added excitement of being able to jump on the number 12 bus all the way 'into town', to exotic places like Covent Garden and Soho. Going to great parties, starting to sneak into pubs and clubs, learning about different types of amazing music, trying not to get caught smoking, thinking about boys... I was a busy girl. 'Til eventually, I dropped all sports except sprinting. And because I was good at it, I took it for granted. I would turn up just in time for the start of my race, not bother to warm up, run and win. Yes, as I got older, I'd collapse in a panting heap just past the finished line, but I'd still win, so I thought it was fine. In hindsight, it must have been really annoying for my fellow runners - and probably a bit arrogant on my part. But the saddest thing was that this scraping-by approach didn't encourage me to invest in my fitness past the age of 15. At 18, after The Great Summer of 1989, I left for university and the next phase of my life, and from then on the only thing I exercised was my drinking arm.
Over the last 20+ years, I've realised the need to rectify that. But what to do? I tried the gym, but got bored silly on the machines and in dance classes. I'm rubbish at swimming, plus chlorine's really bad for black people's hair. The one thing I did get into a few years ago was kickboxing. I even passed an exam to get a yellow stripe for my white belt. But then, totally unconnected, in August 2010 I dislocated and broke my wrist. After the operation to have metal pins inserted, the doctor made it clear that kickboxing was firmly off the agenda, as my wrist was now too weak.
So, another sloth-like year passed. By December 2011, I realised I couldn't continue like this. I'd got away with it for years but my body was finally crying out for help. Everything I'd previously taken for granted was totally out of the window - I was breathless just running for a bus or walking up escalators. Plus, I'd turned 40 in July. I was officially no longer a spring chicken.
Shortly after my operation, I'd read an intriguing article about some runners in East London, called Run Dem Crew. I checked out the website and read: "RDC is a collective of creative heads with a passion for running and the exchange of ideas. We meet every Tuesday to run and explore the streets of London". I wanted in. Further investigation cemented it - RDC was the brainchild of one Mr Charlie Dark - DJ, musician, poet, writer. A cheeky chappy with a great smile and big personality. Intelligent and generally one of life's nice guys. I know all this because Charlie was part of my formative years. An old, old friend from my school days. I must've known him for about 30 years. And as such he will always be dear to me, regardless of how often or seldom I see him. In those aforementioned days, where my interest in discovering new music and finding new life experiences was stronger than my interest in sports, Charlie was at the same parties, hanging around with the same people, going through many of the same South East London experiences. After leaving school, we didn't specifically stay in touch but somehow our paths have always crossed over the years - I'd bump into him DJing at clubs where my musician ex-boyfriend would be playing or when I'd be out for a boogie with friends. Even more randomly, on one occasion I arrived at a friend's garden party, in a north London house that I'd once lived in, only to find Charlie on the decks. By the time I read about RDC - it had already been going for three years and I probably hadn't seen Charlie for at least two. But there are some old friends that you just know things will always be alright with. So, from that moment, I blocked Tuesday evenings out in my diary for RDC. Except, I was a bit chicken. This looked like serious running. And so, I never actually got round to contacting them. In the end, my dear friend Louise tried to take me around Clissold Park in North London - I even bought new trainers for the occasion. But I couldn't've jogged more than 200 metres before admitting defeat. She was shocked, I was embarrassed. We never really spoke of it again.
Eventually, on 23 December 2011, I contacted RDC's general email with a message entitled 'Getting Off My Butt' and explained that I needed to do just that. And, by the way, if this email goes to Charlie then hi - it's Janet from school... I didn't hear anything for a while. Weeks, in fact. I thought I'd been blanked, to be honest. And then out of the blue on Friday 17th February, I got a great one-liner email: "So my friend, when are you coming to Run Dem Crew? Charlie". During our subsequent email conversation he explained that everyone who joined the group needed to be able to run for 45 minutes, so that they didn't impact the training of other runners. I was family, so he would give me a chance, but if I was worried about the distance then perhaps I should wait until I was more confident, or at the very least bring my Oyster card with me, in case I couldn't complete the course. I thought that was really generous of him.
After talking about joining RDC for so long, I needed to finally put my money where my mouth was and go for it. If I couldn't manage it, I would bow out gracefully, jump on a bus home and allow the others to continue unhindered. So, after fighting the urge to just not bother, I hid my nerves and on Tuesday, 21 February 2012, I joined Run Dem Crew for the first time. And I loved everything about it. From the moment I entered the Nike 1948 building in Shoreditch, where they meet, I felt a really warm and positive vibe. The room was nicely full and buzzing with lively people. They were excitedly sharing stories about races some had recently run - like last weekend's Brighton Half Marathon - and races that are coming up - like the Berlin Half Marathon. Everyone was friendly and welcoming - making me part of their conversations straight away. Plus full of helpful advice - like, I really wouldn't need all six layers of tops that I'd worn. Or the thigh-high socks under my tracksuit bottoms and additional legwarmers over my ankles. Before we hit the road, Charlie did some 'housekeeping'. Reminding people that this was a running 'crew', rather than a running 'group', for a reason. We weren't there to outshine each other, but rather to support and motivate each other along the way, creating a positive community where everyone achieved something and everyone left on a natural high. Their moto may be 'Go Hard or Go Home' but complementing that is the core belief that you look out for each other when on the road, as in life. The RDC style and philosophy is right up my street. Above all, you could tell that this really was a family. People spoke very affectionately about Charlie to me. And despite the number of people there, he clearly had a connection with everyone, addressing them by name. He got those who'd completed the Brighton HM to go up and receive their medals. And despite not knowing them, I enjoyed being able to applaud them and help them celebrate their success. Charlie welcomed the various special guests and newcomers, including me. He also introduced a couple of teenagers from RDC Youngers - the offshoot that he's set up to help mentor and motivate young people.
Then it was time to run. Each run lasts approximately an hour. RDC members are divided into five groups, depending on their speed: Tortoise, Hares, Greyhounds, Cheetahs and Elite. Joining the Tortoises, I was nervous as hell. Even though it was the slowest group, could I do this? The other groups were running to the London Eye and back (are you sure!). Comparatively, we had it easy.
As it transpired, we were *only* running: along the bottom of Shoreditch High Street, past Liverpool Street station, along Bishopsgate, over London Bridge, left down the stairs onto the embankment, alongside Butlers Wharf and the River Thames, up the stairs onto Tower Bridge, over the bridge, up to Aldgate, along the Minnories, back up to Bishopsgate, past Liverpool Street station, back along Shoreditch High Street, RDC home.
Luckily, I didn't know all of that. So I just focused on getting through the basics of running. Following the leader, one foot after another. As simplistic as that. And soaking up the view. It was wonderful running through the streets of London - my beloved home town - at night. Admiring the architecture in the city and around the river, under pretty lights. Everyone in the group was absolutely lovely. Checking that each other was alright and giving lots of encouragement. At times their attempts at conversing with me were fruitful. At other times I was so focused on not collapsing that I could only look ahead and grunt a response. As an urban running crew, RDC doesn't do the jogging-at-traffic-lights thing that you often see. If the lights are red, we (*we*) just stop. And let me tell you, those red lights are a god-send.
I'm really proud to say that I completed the route, keeping up with the group all the way. (Luckily, I'd headed the earlier advice and lost most of my layers, socks and legwarmers - they would've pushed me over the edge.) But just as I was starting to mentally pat myself on the back, we passed Liverpool Street for the second time, on the return. Out of nowhere, this overwhelming wave of exhaustion just hit me and I realised I was completely spent. Myself and my new friend, Veema, looked at each other at exactly the same moment, expressing exactly the same thing - Oh my god, suddenly I don't know if I can make this. It took every ounce of my being to run that final stretch, despite the brilliant encouragement that I was getting. As we reached the petrol station at the bottom of Shoreditch High Street - so close to base camp that I could practically see it, but still a million miles away - there were no traffic lights to save me and I just had to stop running - it was literally a ten second breather, to stop the pain. But nonetheless, I did stop. But Chaka, one of the more experienced runners, wasn't letting me off - not this close to the finish. His encouraging shouts of "C'mon, you can do it" made me dig deep, pick my knees up and run the rest of the way. Some of the others sprinted that last bit, but that was one 100m race I wasn't going to win. I was just happy to get there. When I reached Nike 1948, I was too shattered to celebrate. I just lay down in the street, in agony, until someone advised me to get up and stretch it out straightaway: "Otherwise, you'll never be able to get up again".
After catching my breath, someone high-fived me. I'd done it.
4.37 miles, in 54:48 minutes, with an average pace of 12:31/mile. I was ecstatic.
For the next few days, every inch of pain - from aching butt cheeks to throbbing feet - was overshadowed by the elation I felt after that run. The feeling of achievement. And, through Run Dem Crew, the feeling of support and camaraderie.
And how apt that after all these years, it's my mate from school, Charlie, that's helping me rectify the mistakes of a lazy teenager. This time, I definitely don't want to turn up just for the race. Each block, bridge and stretch of road that I ran with the Tortoises was a mini-milestone that we all achieved together - and I loved it every step of it.
I'm so proud to see the community that Charlie has set up, the philosophy that he is living to - and inspiring others to live to as well, especially the younger generation. And I'm honoured to have the opportunity to be part of it. Plus looking forward to getting to know the interesting people that I met on. Despite my sore butt and aching thighs, I will definitely be there every week.