So, last year, I took part in a running race against a train. A friend, Dan, who organises outdoor adventure races, was scoping out a course for a new event called Steaming to the Coast [external link], and I was part of a small group that had volunteered to be his crash test dummies. Several among us had missed out on an entry to the London Marathon, which was taking place on the same day, but we were soon treated to a 26-mile challenge that (in my humble) knocked the spots off that overcrowded pavement-pounding sufferfest.
We met at the station of a restored railway in Somerset, and over the following few hours, Dan sent us along a real rollercoaster of a route between the beautiful village of Bishops Lydeard, through the stunning Quantock Hills to the coastal town of Minehead. It was a proper leg-burner, but the twist was we were racing against the heritage steam train that chugged along tracks between the same two destinations.
I lost, of course. Trains – even classic steam engines heaving heavy coaches full of families – have far more power in their pistons than my poor old legs can muster. None of my fellow runners beat the loco either, but we all enjoyed a significant win of a different and more valuable kind: we’d puffed around a sensational off-road marathon course together on a mission (impossible), and it was probably the most fun I had with my running shorts on all year. And at the end of it all, the victorious train’s prize was to carry us all back to the starting point while we kicked back and supped some celebratory beers.
Would I line up to take the train again? Too right, I would. Bring on round two. In fact, right now, I’m actively looking for other non-human things to race against. Any opponent considered: animals, machines, zombies… so long as there’s an interesting concept behind the challenge, I’m totally on board. Because getting fit and staying in shape can be really boring if you let it get that way. It’s so much easier if you can have the odd grin between the grimaces and smile through at least some of the sweaty miles.
To hell with good intentions – aim for enjoyment
The dark days of January and February are populated with people desperately trying to cling on to New Year’s resolutions, all made in good faith (albeit fuelled by expectation-enhancing substances) amid the heady days of late December, when everything and anything seems possible… after just one last big blow out.
Thankfully, most of the time, best intentions do tend to at least outlast the worst hangovers – especially when they’re backed up by new seasonal acquisitions such as a great pair of running shoes or a fancy new running watch, but keeping them going beyond the first few weeks is the real endurance game.
To help maintain the momentum, I find it more efficient not to rely simply on willpower (which, let’s face it, is a finite resource for most of us) and instead set your sights on having some fun with your running (or whatever activity floats your boat).
In the past, I’ve done organised challenges that have pitted me against trams, trains and ferries (the latter in a kayak), and this year I’m hoping to take on a field of equines in the new English version of the classic Man Versus Horse race and try and outpace the furious brain-eating undead in a zombie run. Outside of running, I quite fancy a tilt at the Real Ale Wobble [all external link], a mountain bike knees-up in Wales where the trail-based pedalling action is paired with some strenuous pint lifting at the end.
Entering these kinds of events can inject a real sense of enjoyment into your exercise routine. You still have to train hard for them and give it your all on the day, but there’s more of a party atmosphere during and after the ordeal. It’s also much easier to convince your mates to join you in entering a race if the experience at least sounds like it will be a bit of a laugh – and doing events with friends not only makes training for them a bit easier (as you encourage each other along), it also seriously amplifies the fun factor. Whatever happens on the day, you’ll walk (wobble, hobble) away with some great memories to go along with your medal.
If all goes well, I might even ‘reward’ myself (and anyone else I can tempt to join me) in September with a Caligula-style blow-out at the Marathon du Médoc, where you don’t even have to wait until you’ve crossed the finish line before starting to party – indeed, quaffing wine en route through the vineyards is more than encouraged, it’s virtually mandatory.
See you out there. Cheers!
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