In time, brisk walking became slow jogging, and within months Angela, from Northampton – who previously “couldn’t even run if I was being chased” – was hooked on running.
By last September she was the second woman to cross the finish line in her first half-marathon, nailing 13.1 miles in just one hour 38 minutes. Her weight is now less than 9 and a half stone, down from almost 14 and a half stone before the pandemic.
On Sunday, she will be running for Alzheimer’s Research UK, a cause close to her heart, as her grandfather has the disease. But she is also running to celebrate a transformation in her life.
“I absolutely love running,” she says. “Since the first day I started doing it, I’ve not had a day without a run. I do it for fun, for fitness, for mental health, to deal with stress. Once I’ve done my run, I’m set up for the day.”
I’ll be running the London Landmarks on Sunday, too. Or plodding, to be more truthful. It’s 15 years since I signed up for my first half-marathon, and I’ve stopped getting any quicker. But running will always be my escape – an instant taste of freedom.
I first took it up to escape from an awful boss. Work was hectic and stressful, gym visits were hard to squeeze in, and as a health journalist, I was all too aware of the risks of my sedentary ways.
Putting on a pair of running shoes, and heading to a nearby canal to run for five miles at the start of the day became a kind of therapy. Increasingly I’d feel I had a kind of ‘Ready Brek’ insulation, or resilience to cope with the day. Now running is almost second nature. I’m older now, and injuries sometimes flare. One doctor (a former medic for Millwall FC) inspecting a hairline fracture, suggested that I wasn’t a natural athlete (‘Put it this way, you’re no Ethopian’).
But for me, like so many, the pleasures of a simple plod remain life-enhancing.
And no more so than during repeated lockdowns, when it seemed that running was one of the few thrills that hadn’t been outlawed and an element of our lives we could control.
Sports psychologist Dr Josephine Perry suggests many felt the same way.
“Overnight we all lost so much. With lockdowns, the ground beneath our feet shifted and we often didn’t feel in control of our own lives.”
“Running can be really compelling, especially when you are new to it, and come on in leaps and bounds,” says Perry, author of The Ten Pillars of Success.
“As you put a lot of effort in, you get a lot back – you might get healthier, you might lose weight, meet new friends, get healthier, and feel more cognitively ‘with it’. Then on top of that, there are lots of metrics tracking progress – you can see that you’re doing the same loop two minutes quicker than you used to, and that gives some sense of control and real feelings of achievement.”
For many of us, the endorphins that come with exercise – the so-called runners’ high and the release of chemicals that affect mood, such as serotonin and dopamine – are factors that keep us hooked.
But as Perry notes, there are longer-term gains too; the feeling of satisfaction that comes from achieving long distances and the sense of perspective from getting outdoors and taking in the views.
“We used to think that our neurons in our brain died off once we hit a certain age, and you couldn’t grow any more. And then we discovered the one thing that actually does make them grow is exercise. And they grow in our hippocampus – our learning and our memory area,” she says.
“And while we are doing it we are increasing the blood to our prefrontal cortex; it’s a kind of blood rush that often helps us to make good decisions.”
The sports psychologist is among many interviewees to note that the most vexing of problems are often solved during a run, when the person is not actively ruminating, while stresses melt away.
During the last two years, many have faced unrelenting pressures.
Issy Davies, 28, a respiratory physiotherapist from East London, working in an intensive care unit at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, began running to work during the first wave of the pandemic.
She embarked on the daily run in an effort to avoid public transport and the associated Covid risks, before a day spent with highly vulnerable patients.
But soon she found that the 20 minutes pounding the pavements at the start of each day became her “daily meditation”, clearing her mind before a hectic shift working with the sickest of patients.
“I had always kind of used running as a bit of a coping strategy; the thing that I did when I was feeling really anxious, or sort of angry, and needed some kind of release. And it became even more of a coping strategy when work was pretty relentless.”