Turtle Steps

This column by Simon Gear first appeared in Runners World SA in April 2008

Up here on the highveld, April smells like cross country season. It’s a hard-to-pin-down mixture of dust, Antarctic air and fear that pervades the running community and makes you realize that now is the time to haal uit en wys. I love the smell of April.

The Comrades guys are looking lean, mean and focused as they hit peak training. The speed merchants are beginning to reap the first benefits of some early season track work and the rest of us know by now whether we managed to stick with the January resolutions to (once again) get our running back on track. You know who you are.

I picked up one of the wife’s “I’m okay. You’re okay” books the other day, the kind where the author pops up on Oprah every few months to explain how it’s all in the mind. But in between the advice on inner self-actualization and karma realignment, I found the perfect come-back running program.

We’ve all been in that place where, for whatever reason, running takes a back seat for a couple of months and when you eventually pull out your road shoes some time in mid-January you find the socks in which you ran a mid-winter’s 10k still balled up inside them. You’ve spread a little in the middle and your legs seem to have lost their automation so that every running stride requires a conscious decision to proceed. It’s a horrible, frustrating place to be and it’s compounded by the fact that, out of your whole running career, these next few runs are going to be the least pleasant, slowest and least fulfilling. It’s no wonder that it’s harder to get out the door for those first runs back than it is to run the second half of a marathon.

Anyway, this life guru person told a story of procrastinating over the writing of her PhD thesis, the sheer enormity of the task having completely paralysed her ability to sit down and get on with it. That was, until she stumbled upon a clever little mind trick that broke the log jam. She called it “taking turtle steps”. She negotiated with herself and came up with a unit of time for which she felt she could sit down at her desk without panicking at the amount of work that awaited her. In her case, it was 15 minutes.

Immediately, I realized that staring at an empty training diary, stretching out to a first half marathon, pegged like a challenge in the sand 6 months hence is exactly like trying to write the first pages of a thesis. So here’s how you’re going to get back in the saddle. Once you’ve finished reading this, you’re going to go and find those shoes in the bottom of the cupboard, put them on and walk out onto the street. You’re not actually going to run, you’re just going to walk out into the road, look up and down it, take a deep breath and remember, briefly, what it was like to own that street at the end of an epic training run. Chances are you may even pluck up the courage to briefly jog up and down that road but no pressure. Because all you need to do is promise yourself to repeat the exercise tomorrow and the next day. Just commit to putting on your shoes, walking outside and thinking briefly about running. I guarantee that by the end of the week you’ll be running every day and within a month you’ll be back into the swing of things completely. 

But the secret to this is not to make elaborate plans. Settle for the least possible and allow running to sneak back into your life. Let her casually insinuate herself when you’re not looking. You may not have run since high school, but I promise you this: If you have ever journeyed into the red mist, found yourself and come screaming down the final straight, gagging and blowing, stars on the edge of your vision as your heart pumps all available blood into your pounding legs, you are, and always will be, a runner. Turtle steps, my friend. I’ll see you on the road. 

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