The feats of the great athletes are endlessly inspiring, whether it's superhumanly fast times or tales of the sort of commitment to training that boggle the mind. My own personal favourite, Emil Zatopek, would train in a bath full of wet clothes when he couldn't run outside, or run miles and miles in army-issue boots. I swear I develop blisters even thinking about that.
But while I love these stories, and they do inspire me in theory, what actually gets me out the door and pushing that little bit harder is the people I know in real life.
My theory is that for most of us – amateur runners, that is – it's the people close to home who really provide day-to-day motivation. People with stories like our own – overcoming not so much insurmountable obstacles as just the same old tiring routines of work, or childcare, or commuting, that we all go through. Dealing with the minutiae of life and work and family, and getting out training nevertheless. I suppose it's obvious, really, that for those of us who are far from being full-time athletes, the stories of other ‘hobby’ runners are just that bit more relatable.
If you are a regular runner, and have a group of friends who you train with, you probably feel the most intense rivalries (however much you pretend you don't) with those people who are just that little bit quicker than you. The ones you always seem to finish near in races. Or – worse – the ones who USED to be a bit slower than you but now seem to be always ahead of you on the road, or track, or to the finish line. That guy, or girl, who finishes minutes ahead of you is quite literally out of sight, and out of mind, but the ones you can count the gaps in seconds with? Those are the ones you want to chase, and one day beat. Those are the ones you measure yourself against, and push yourself harder to stay with, or overtake.
And it's also the ones who make you want to do more. When I joined my running club, about seven years ago, I was new to running, and new to races. I'd done a 10km, and one half marathon, but the idea of a full 26.2 miles seemed a dream, and one I wasn't planning an attempt at any time soon. I didn’t really know that many runners at all. But at the regular club sessions I started going to, I met an amazing woman called Clare, who not only had run what seemed to me to be superhuman marathon times, but would also casually (and completely modestly) chat about this 50-mile or that 100-mile race she'd done recently. She was faster than me, and I dreamed of being able to keep up with her on those track reps. But what really inspired me, made me think maybe I could do that too (the marathon, not the 100 miler!) was actually how normal she made it sound. And more importantly: how much fun.
For amateur runners, a common way to measure yourself against others – perhaps those you don’t see often in real life – is by age grading. It might be meaningless to some, but as we age, it can be a nice way to keep in touch with how we are performing relative to those advancing years. There are calculators online where ‘masters’ runners can work out their age-related performances in percentages: very roughly speaking, upwards of 60% is ‘local’ class, 70% is ‘regional’, 80% ‘national’, 90% ‘world’ and 100% would be, well, a world record for your age group.
Reasonably local to me lives an amazing woman in the vet 55+ category called Clare Elms who regularly runs well into the 90% and has a few age-group world records to her name. I find her incredibly inspiring: I’ve been lucky enough to meet a fair few Olympians in my time, but when I once found myself chatting to her before a low-key track race, I found myself completely tongue-tied.
It’s the sheer willpower that amazes me. And others: several medic friends – doctors and nurses – who run after bone-achingly long shifts saving lives. My friend Julia, who loves running so much that a difficult pregnancy being unable to do much was torture for her – and who, beautiful son now born – has bounced back in a couple of months to run ridiculously impressively fast times in our club’s virtual lockdown races. I think she's so happy to be running again that her feet barely touch the ground.
Thinking about what all these women (and I hadn’t really considered before I starting writing this that they are, actually, all women – again, that relatability?) have in common is that they radiate a love of running. It might seem trite – I mean, why would anyone do it if they didn’t like it? – but not everyone manages to convey this so well. Actually, I think I’m guilty myself sometimes of making running feel like, or sound like, a chore: I’ve “got” to do this track session, I’ve “got” to do a long run. But I really don’t: none of us amateurs have to do any of it. And yet they – we – do it anyway. Without a reward, not for a career, but just because they – we – really, really want to. What could be more inspiring than that?