Anonymous Athlete

I have made a decision: I will become a world champion. I have never run at national or international level, have never held records or stood on a podium, but I will become a world champion.

I know this is probably an impossible goal – to attain a global title for my age group over 800m – but I don’t think that matters. Here in this column, we will look together about what it means to truly devote yourself to a goal – even if you never reach it.

And no one knows that I am doing this – not my friends, my family or even my partner. The editor of this fine magazine just has an email address and no name, and I don’t think that matters either.

Why do we run?

For almost every single one of us it’s not about breaking the finish tape, travelling the world, or appearing on a television screen at a major championship. It’s about what it means to struggle through, to sometimes succeed, to often fail, and to always be enriched by trying.

Running works, and part of its beauty is how quickly, simply and surely it rewards that trying. The warm rush of endorphins that glow in you for hours after finishing, the easy smile that comes after a silent moment of achievement, and the untangling of complex problems as your brain finds new ways to cope.

I ran from an early age, but resisted joining a running club – and doubly resisted racing. The idea of running in shorts was even a horror, with early fun runs involving long tracksuit bottoms and coming dangerously close to seriously over-heating.

And the passion, and confidence, grew. Perhaps like you, I fell into a deep love of cross-country and athletics. From crunching over frozen mud in deepest winter, to cheering teammates from the edges of small regional athletics tracks. Whether at the back or the front of the race, both felt incredible.

But the joy fades over time, as you get better, more serious, more committed and invariably hurt and disappointed. Injuries creep in, teen anxieties swell and quietly, without you at first noticing, it becomes easy to lose the point. To lose the reason why you run.

Missing a personal best becomes a terrible race, a hugely upsetting experience. The training then suffers, and a downward spiral begins.

Running around again

Returning to running can be the hardest thing of all. Memories of previous fitness, of the beautiful flow you experienced in fleeting moments at your fastest, now feel alien. They feel like someone else’s stolen memories. And it hurts, you feel sick and wonder if it’s all now too late.

Joy, however, can be rekindled and reclaimed. Through stubbornness and disregarding that hurt, through remembering that training does over time build and build, something starts to change. You start to change, and not back to the athlete you were before but into something else entirely.

New passions, goals and wonder can then take hold, and it’s this joy that I’m now holding and nurturing, careful not to let it be snuffed out again. And this all comes back to that wild, impossible goal: to become a world champion.

I may never make it, but I will train for that goal. I am quite possibly not blessed with the right physiology or psychology, but I am sincerely committed to winning that race.

And by committing everything I suspect I’ll win something else far more important: a new, reinvigorated version of myself and a deep sense of pride. The powerful, anonymous pride of a runner who has given everything.

I hope you will join me along the way.