I have flown.
Madame Toastmaster, Mr President, fellow Toastmasters and most welcome guests, we begin in 2012. I’ve been going to spinning classes for a year. And I have become so unbearably bored of them, that I do something I never thought I’d actually do: I step outside, and I start jogging.
I have to stop and rest after just a quarter of a mile. Thanks to my asthma, there’s a cold fire in my lungs, my muscles are burning, and a voice in my head screams at me to give up. I manage no more than a mile in the end, and I feel broken.
But, for years I’ve felt ashamed by my lack of fitness, and I feel inspired by my best friend, who’s just run the Paris marathon. So I keep going out again, and again.
And… it starts to get easier. I start to go further. Faster. There are still moments when I dread setting off, but there are also moments when it’s… amazing. I hit a plane of existence I couldn’t have imagined, and I’m not being metaphorical – it physically feels like my legs have grown longer, and the world is blurring past, and I could run forever.
My first 10K is a race, and while I’m not the fastest, I’m no way near the slowest – and I run up all the hills when most other runners slow to a walk. After conquering that distance, I know that I will run the London Marathon. Nothing can stop me.
Nothing should stop anyone with a healthy body from running. A huge meta-review recently proved definitively that running is the single best form of exercise, if you want to live longer, and live better. And you don’t have to run marathons to get the benefit – one study found that just five to 10 minutes a day of running, at less than six miles an hour, reduces the risk of heart disease and so many other causes of early death.
Of course, it also helps you keep the weight off, (and sometimes, you can have your cake and eat it), and it makes you look better. Once I started running, I watched in fascination as my body toned itself, as it re-sculpted itself. And I began to feel more confident about my body, not just because of how it looked, but because of what it could do.
And the benefits of running don’t stop with your body. Running is known to be one of the best anti-depressants there is. Matt Haig, who wrote Reasons to Stay Alive, which is his frank memoir of living with depression, pinpoints running as one of the things that keeps him alive. And while I’ve fortunately never experienced depression, I do know the power of running to unravel all the knots clogging my mind and my mood.
Now, a common riposte I’ve heard when I’ve pontificated* about running to people is that it knackers your knees. Apart the fact that I think this is an excuse used mostly by people looking for a reason not to run, it isn’t an excuse. Just take precautions – first, go to a running shop where they can analyse your gait on a treadmill and recommend a pair of trainers that are right for you. Also, run on grass whenever you can – almost half of this city is green space, after all. I particularly recommend Regent’s Park – if you start from the Rose Garden in the south, you can go all the way to the other end, into Primrose Hill, go up Primrose Hill – it’s really steep, it’s a great challenge – then circle back around and go past London Zoo and say hi to the camels while you’re at it.
Once you’ve got a good pair of trainers, running costs nothing. You step outside your door, and the world is your gym. To run is to be free.
But I can’t run anymore.
Around the time that I did that 10K race, I started getting more and more pain in my hips and back. I’d had this kind of pain in my hips before, and I’d had it checked out, but the person I saw just threw some anti-flammatories at me and that was that.
But this time, the pain wasn’t going away. And I started waking up every morning trapped in a white-hot cage of it.
So I got a new specialist, and a new MRI scan. And I got a diagnosis.
I didn’t realise just how serious it was until I saw my mum’s reaction. She’s a GP, and usually you have to be losing a lot of blood to get her attention. But this time, she was ashen, and I became afraid.
I had been diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis. It might sound like an obscure species of dinosaur, but really, it’s a kind of arthritis. A degenerative musculo-skeletal disease that gradually causes your joints to fuse. I once saw a woman who couldn’t have been older than 40, at a hospital clinic. The condition had warped her body, sort of like this [I curl over sideways].
Hopefully, I won’t end up like her. Because the most important thing to do when you have arthritis, especially my kind of arthritis, is to exercise. I had to stop running, but I didn’t stop. I walk a minimum of 10,000 steps a day, I do pilates, I swim, and I use weights – I have actual muscles now [I flex my right arm to show off my biceps]. I even did a walking marathon once, back when I could still walk that distance.
But nothing will ever come close to how running made me feel.
I am not a noble sufferer. I constantly whine to myself, and to others, about the pain I’m in. I hate my body for trapping me like this. And I feel angry. Not just at the hand that life has dealt me, but at all the people in the world who don’t do any exercise at all. And it makes me angry not just because they are wasting the beautiful gift of a healthy body, but because they are gambling with the risk that in the future, they will suffer what I suffer now. Because while my kind of arthritis is genetic-based, some forms of arthritis are preventable. Arthritis is not something that just happens to you when you get old – the less active you are, the greater the risk you’ll get it. More and more people in this country are now being diagnosed with arthritis. Go figure.
I have never, ever regretted running. It might have hastened the symptoms of my arthritis, but that meant it got caught earlier, when I might have not known for another 10 years or so. That’s the average amount of time it takes for someone to be diagnosed, from the time their symptoms first appear. That could’ve been 10 more years of my joints quietly rotting and becoming even more damaged.
But just as importantly, running changed my understanding of what I was capable of. When I was younger, I simply could not imagine being able to run. I saw other people running and thought “there is no way I will ever be able to do that”. But I did. Overcoming that physical and mental mountain that was a watershed in my life.
I know that I would have run a marathon. And I know that I will never run a marathon.
But maybe you will.
If you’ve never run before, just try it. And if for whatever reason it can’t work for you, try something else. Keep trying.
Find the thing that makes you fly.
Everything about this speech (apart from the camera!!!) went perfectly. The only thing I’d tweak, in hindsight, is to make it crystal-clear that running shouldn’t give you arthritis – it was going to happen to me, no matter what.
I truly encourage anyone with an evening to spare every few weeks to try out Toastmasters. And running, of course.
*Originally I was going to say “evangelise”, but the Word of the Meeting on this occasion was “pontificate”, and one of the challenges of the evening is always to get it into your speech.