When I was a girl I was a runner. I ran barefoot, like Zola Budd. I ran fast, loving the feeling of grass under my feet, of crossing the freshly chalked lines on the school field before the competition. I remember Dad telling me as we waited for the start of the next race on Sports Day, my stomach turning somersaults, that he’d always run barefoot too.
Back then I could throw as far as Nicky, run as fast as Anthea. I went fourth on relay races, fielded fourth base at rounders matches, feeling a glow when I came into bat and the opposite team waved warnings to their fielders to “Get deep! Get deep!” Fast and agile, I was picked to play Centre in the netball team and as captain got to write and read our match reports in school assemblies.
And then adolescence hit. Like many teens I became self-conscious of my body. I stopped playing games altogether and bunked off on sports days. A kind of stasis set in which I’m only starting to address now (and very gently) as I approach my fifties. Menopause is changing my body. Age is changing my body. When I complain about this to my friend Emily she tells me that Victoria Wood said that her forties were spent lying on the sofa watching telly with trails of Monster Munch down her fleece and her fifties bouncing off it in leather trousers, exclaiming, “This is my time now, Derek!”
A while back I sloped along to an exercise class, expecting a bit of rolling around on the floor and stretching. My suspicions were raised when the woman next to me began jigging up and down on her mat, doing a sort of pre-routine routine, with all the energy of a racehorse nosing the bar at the starting stalls. As the instructor bounced up onto the stage, Eurodance boomed from the stereo. I was on the front row, there was nowhere to hide. I joined in clumsily with the jumping, sliding, clapping, skipping. It felt like dancing.
“How was it?” asked the kindly instructor, after the class.
“It was amazing,” I said, “I feel great!”
But I didn’t go back. On Monday nights it was either too cold to go out, or I was too tired. Or, Covid. At the back of my mind the advice not to be too careful of yourself as you get older, rattled. I heard somebody on the radio talking about changing our way of thinking about exercise – that instead of thinking, “Oh no, I’m puffed out! I must be unfit and definitely going to die!” to, “Look at my body working! Doing what it needs to do! Isn’t that fantastic?”
I hear about a study on the placebo effect in which a group of office cleaners are given a presentation on the health benefits of their work. They are told that these are the same benefits that people who pay to go to the gym, get from exercise. After a month the workers’ blood pressure and weight has dropped and their mood improved. I’m prone to be a bit sceptical about the positivity movement, but this piqued my interest sufficiently to explore what effects a shift in my focus might have.
As an adult I’ve always likened running to ironing – it’s just showing off. I’ve looked at runners and thought, but what are they actually running away from? I’ve believed my thoughts when I told myself that I couldn’t. That I didn’t like it. That I’d probably die if I tried. For a long time I’ve worried about my body’s capacity to look after itself. So I have begun to run. Very slowly, and not very far. And when I hear myself wheezing, feel my chest stabbing, I think, “clever body” and keep going. And I haven’t died. Yet. But then I’ve only done it five times.
I do still feel it’s a bit showy-offy, and have to stop myself from apologising to the people I meet who I imagine are thinking “yes, but what is she running away from?” but it makes me feel better about myself too – as if I can trust my body. And for a while afterwards I feel great. I’d forgotten about the rush of endorphins that you get from exercise.
I’m slowly remembering the athletic girl I once was, the trust that she held in her body before *life, fertility, *relationships, came along. As I leave all of that behind, I’m starting to feel my power, and trust return. I’m realising that I can choose differently.
This must be the freedom that I’ve heard older women talk about. The energy that you reclaim as your own. I think I’m going to enjoy being an older woman.
Move over Derek, this is my time now!
*not relationships, I’m not leaving those behind. Or *life. Mainly just the fertility. Yes, just the fertility.