Me, Myself & I

Words by James Dunn – Illustration by Grace Russell

This story first appeared in issue #13 of Like the Wind.

People ask why I prefer to run alone. The simple answer I usually give is that I prefer the quiet. The truth is somewhat different.

The fact is I don’t run alone, so to speak. I have tended of late to run with myself. To question where I’ve come from and where I’m going. More often than not I talk to the person I was just before I started running: I was struggling with depression at the time and had just lost my grandmother. I was five-and-a-half stone heavier and didn’t see my outlook changing.

I find it a great comfort to talk to that version of me, although I know it won’t change anything, telling him how great his life will soon become. But that conversation also convinces me to keep running; my life has gone from strength to strength since I started running and the act of looking back pushes me to keep moving forward. Past me never responds, but the conversation acts as a catharsis; a technique to keep my spirits up when the road gets long and dark that never fails to push me forward.

I also visualise myself when I first really started to run: my battered old trainers, with frayed laces and holes in the big and little toes that made them look more like Swiss cheese than running shoes. I can hear the door click shut as I headed out for a one-kilometre run with no understanding that in less than a year I would be running marathons. I look back at that slow run in the pitch black as the moment the lights finally flickered on. I know that when I began to struggle again, I must remember the feelings I felt at that moment.

Every run since has added to the mountain of running moments that keep me smiling, whether I’m pounding through howling rain at home, along the beautiful streets of Rome or among the ancient trees in Muir Woods.

I was always told at school that my active imagination wouldn’t be any use when I grew up, and while I’m pretty sure I have yet to grow up, being able to take my mind to other places is a wonderful running trick. I run down memory lane. I not only run with myself but I take myself back to runs I’ve done before. I find this exercise relieves training-related boredom and helps me to dig deep come race day.

I relive past runs during dull training runs as a way of taking my mind away from the moment; removing me from the pain in my legs or the belief that I was at mile 10, not mile four, or the self- doubt that creeps in through laboured breaths. Usually I picture myself at the final mile, or recall a moment during a race when I saw my friends and family; I can almost hear the cheers, feel that swell of indescribable pride.

I always find that music helps me get back to those big runs; I have always listened to music, plugging in for a bimble to the shops or for company during the 13-hour bus journeys I used to take when I was living in India. I can listen to a song and the music and lyrics take me back to a moment of clarity. My running playlist started with 10 songs and now has hundreds, added to with passing time and miles. By increasing but never deleting I retain the experiences. I can hear 27 by Passenger and be running through cobbled Copenhagen, Baba O’Riley by The Who and I’m rain- soaked in Rome’s marathon. One song I have listened to before every race is Too Close by Alex Clare – whenever I push “play” I see every start line I’ve ever nervously crept towards. It’s a potent reminder never to stop trying.

But the road also matters too. There’s a really straight bit of road that forms part of every training run I undertake, and on that stretch I can so easily picture myself on the Embankment running the London Marathon, or crossing the Golden Gate Bridge during the San Francisco Marathon. I know full well that I blank out the pain and emotional stress of both races, but if I only focused on the bad parts I would never leave the sofa.

I am a strong believer in the power of memory: it can boost your performance towards the end of a race, especially if you’ve run a similar race before. You can visualise how great it felt finishing and getting that medal around your neck. Memory pushes you to kick on through the pain when the end is almost in sight. By visualising the elation you relocate the negative thoughts. “I can’t” flips to “I will” in an instant when you know you already have the strength to do it.

When there’s no one on the road but me, myself and I; when the kit has been washed and the medals put away, I allow my mind to wander back to the positive memories. Like every runner, I get asked what I’m running from… the truth is I’m never running away from anything. Sometimes I simply run to remember.

James Dunn is a running blogger from the UK who went from 130kg to the finish line of the Marathon Des Sables.

Grace Russell is an award-winning freelance illustrator based in London.

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