The daddy of all compromises: trying to be a father and a runner


The essence of Nick Hornby’s biographical Fever Pitch is that Arsenal is the author’s constant in life. Amid the flux of education, work and relationships, happiness, sadness and indifference, Arsenal and football remain resilient to the vagaries of life. Come what may, for Hornby, it is Arsenal yesterday, Arsenal today and Arsenal tomorrow. The love is timeless and unconditional.

For Hornby, read me. For Arsenal, read running. I have run up clag-shrouded mountains in the western Highlands, pounded pavements in every British village, town and city I have ever visited, persevered non-stop for 19 hours in the hills of the Lake District, jogged 41 miles around a sweltering London in pursuit of the summits of the capital’s inner boroughs, raced horses in mid-Wales, grown dizzy circling a track in Tooting Bec, trudged through the mud of Parliament Hill, become hypothermic at Tough Guy, and been out-sprinted by a Womble in the London Marathon.

There have been life-changing runs. Winning runs. Inspiring runs. Good runs. Mediocre runs. Bad runs. Awful runs. Occasionally – very occasionally – I have felt like the hero in Alan Sillitoe’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner: ‘The first and last man on the world.’

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Running is my thread, the simplest of sports that links a scrawny 12-year-old boy on a cross country course in Worcestershire to a husband and father on today’s seven-mile run around the better bits of Croydon some 20 years later. I will always run. I will always be a runner. Life will always attempt to intervene, attempt to woo you and I into lethargy. School tried. University tried. Alcohol tried. Jobs tried. Girls tried. Triathlon threatened to seduce me. Injury glowered. The dreaded monster ‘work’ forever looms.

But the thread – at times twisted and stretched, tense and ravelled – endures. And it needs to; the temptation of an easier, different life – a non-running life – is ever-present.

There is something more devastating to the delicate thread of being a lifelong runner, however, than triathlon, injury and work.

A baby.

It happened 19 months ago: six pounds of helpless flesh and bone called Arielle that turned two lives – mine and my wife’s – into bafflement and exhaustion. A baby means you do not sleep. A baby disrupts the rhythm of a life you have spent decades moulding. A baby distorts your judgement.

It distorted mine. I stopped running.

Even at three months, my daughter preferred nocturnal living. One night – a night that was probably no worse than many others, but seems, in hindsight, a psychological turning point – I frantically wrote in a diary: ‘Fatherhood is hard, desperately hard. I struggle for one all-defining adjective as every day the reality is shaped differently. Compromise. That is the great battle of being a parent and a father. Where do your priorities lie? Pre-baby, I ran a lot. Not as much as some, but up to 60 miles per week. There is very little more important than our health. As clichéd as that sounds, you only have to glance across a street, office or train carriage, to realise how many people forget or ignore that. They are fat. They have given up. They are lazy. Yet fatherhood has deeply compromised my sport, my running. I wonder if it will forever. Get your priorities right, some might say. Baby comes first, not an inconsequential trip to the track or a 10-mile tempo. She does, of course, but then other parts of my life do not simply stop because of her existence. No parent should feel guilty about maintaining a sense of independence, should they? Yet I feel guilty for even intimating that my personal pursuits might – for some minutes or hours of a day – be more important than the upbringing of my daughter.’

I re-read the words in the morning, pausing over one sentence: ‘Other parts of my life do not simply stop because of her existence.’

I resumed running.

But I was a different brand of runner.

Over the previous two years, I had looked to far-flung challenges. After completing a 13-hour Fellsman in Yorkshire and a 19-hour Bob Graham Round in the Lake District within six weeks, I became the fastest person to run the 66-mile Vanguard Way a year later. My running trajectory was seemingly clear: ultramarathons in the South and North Downs, the West Highland Way Race, the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc.

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Not with a baby.

I would run, I decided, but I would be a reasoned runner. A clever, time-savvy runner. A faster runner. That meant no ultramarathons, no trips to the Alps and no 100-mile jaunts through the south of England.

I stopped looking beyond what was on my doorstep and considered what I had at my immediate disposal: an outstanding group of club mates at Herne Hill Harriers, access to one of the most competitive cross country leagues in England, numerous races within 30 minutes of home, countless runs that could start and finish at my front door, a commute to work of eight miles. I live in south London. We have parks and pavements. The hills are modest. I would be a road runner by necessity. I would focus on shorter distance by necessity. Most importantly, I was trying to find time: quality time to train consistently and most effectively.

In doing so, I became a better – for me, that means quicker – runner. I made an agreement with my wife. Tuesday night – for interval training – was mine; Thursday night was hers for whatever she chose. The arrangement was hallowed. I would get up early with the baby on Sundays while she had a lie-in; she would take over and I would run. The rest I would fit in when I could.

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Jonny and Arielle at the Tooting Bec track

Running with the buggy

In 2006, I quit my job to spend three months cycling and walking some 5000 miles around the UK, climbing the 92 traditional county summits, from Inverness-shire’s Ben Nevis to Huntingdonshire’s Boring Field. It was my obsession, as long self-propelled journeys must become. I would set daily targets: to climb the highest point in Derbyshire and cycle 50 miles, for instance. If I failed to meet the objective, I would almost be reduced to tears, torn apart by my frustration at failing to meet an arbitrary goal that meant nothing to anyone but me – even if weather, illness or bad luck had been the cause.

Heights of Madness map

I would adopt the better part of this philosophy to running, I decided. Not the obsessional lunacy of run at all costs, but a logical, rational assumption upon beginning a new day: today I will run. Once you have emotionally committed to this idea, made it possible and probable, time is found because time has to be found. I would run to work or run home, rather than taking train and tram. I would escape at lunchtime or – being a teacher – during a free period. I bought a running buggy; now my wife and I could run at the same time. (I once used the buggy to run up the zigzags of Box Hill). I would get up early. I would go to bed late. I told myself that there were two forms of tiredness: being tired from life’s demands and being tired from running. My energy to run came from a different source, I convinced myself. I would always find the required energy. I would never be too tired. I built a rigid, virtually unshakeable schedule into my week: Monday recovery, Tuesday intervals, Wednesday easy, Thursday hills, Friday easy, Saturday race or threshold, Sunday long. I became more efficient at everything as a result: I marked by books faster; I planned lessons more quickly; I answered emails with greater alacrity.

Such was the rigidity of training and life – aided by the dismissal of apathy and procrastination – I could run around 55 miles per week. I lowered my 10k time to 34.19, my 5k time to 16.28. I raced on the track for the first time in 15 years. I was not a bad father. I was a father who recognised his existence was not exchanged at birth with his daughter’s.

And so the thread stretches into a third decade. I can see it coiling ahead of me, up more mountains, along more pavement, around more parks. Although I cannot see the end, I glimpse a knot a little closer, another test to the strength of the thread.

Baby number two.

It will be hard. But I will find a way.

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Ten ways to find more time to run

  • Run commute. – You have got to go to work; you have got to get there. Kill the time you may have spent driving, on buses, trains or trams by running. The run commute can be recovery miles, a longer midweek run, a tempo or threshold session or include a series of hill repetitions.
  • Be ready to run. – Have running kit, shoes, a watch and whatever else you need – money, refreshment and so on – ready to go. I would have missed evening training sessions on numerous occasions had I not previously set out kit.
  • Do not procrastinate. – Do not worry about the weather, where you are going to go or whether you are adequately fed and watered. Just run.
  • Do not use the ‘too tired’ excuse. – Life is tiring, even more so with children. You will feel less tired after running.
  • Buy a running buggy. – They are not cheap and they are bulky, but they guarantee you time outside. The cost alone will make you feel guilty about not using it.
  • Be more efficient at everything. – If you need to find time for family and running, make time by being more efficient. Take a shorter lunch break, avoid time-wasting and become faster at mundane, everyday tasks.
  • Establish a routine. – Humans are creatures of habit. Make running an indelible part of your daily routine. You will run today. It is as simple as that. You find time for other things. Why not running?
  • Compromise. – Ensure your partner is explicitly aware of your running plans. I train on Tuesday nights. That is the law in my household. My wife goes out on Thursdays. I unfalteringly abide by her law.
  • Combine racing with a family outing. – This, of course, depends on a number of variables – not least the mood of your loved ones and the length of the race – but why not plan a day out around a race in a notable location or a weekend away at a European marathon destination?
  • Remember, nothing is more important that your health and wellbeing. – There should be no guilt attached to exercising. Running stops you becoming that fat oaf sitting at home watching hours of television and stuffing his face with fast food. You are a runner; you are different.

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This article was first published in Men’s Running.

@MuirJonny

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Anonymous says:

    Nice one, Jonny !

  2. I’d like to hope I can follow this inspiration but not sure il be anywhere near as disciplined!

    1. heightsofmadness says:

      You’ll discover discipline you never realised you possessed.

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