What did you suck at at school?
For me, it was P.E. And the sciences.
But I want to write about the first one. Specifically, running. When it was time for our termly cross country run, I’d be the kid at the back of the group. You probably couldn’t even class my position as being part of ‘the group.’ I was one of the people dribbling along behind everyone else, wheezing, gasping for air, clutching at my stitch and desperately trying to stumble to the finish.
This evening, I went to my local running club. I’ve now been six times, so I guess you could call me a regular. I’m a regular! This isn’t a ‘meet up for a jog around the park’ affair — it’s a full-blown, intensive, gruelling, run-’til-you-puke (I haven’t, but another guy did) heavy workout; a mix of drills, sprints, and short distance work at lightning speeds. On a track. Like, a proper running track. No hipsters or yummy mummies in their far-too-fancy-to-run-in sportswear — just a lot of raggedy old vests and sweaty bodies.
Back in 2010, when I was making music full-time, I spent hours stuck in front of my laptop, sending emails and trying to get people to listen to my pop songs. (Most people’s vision of pop stardom is travel, sex, drugs, double-necked guitars, but you actually spend most of your time on the internet. Or maybe I did something wrong.) One day, I became concerned that all this computer time, and very little leaving-the-house time, was going to result in me becoming morbidly obese. Looking for the easiest sport that required the least gear, no one to do it with and that could be done anywhere, I settled on running. I was not a runner.
I bought some cheap running shoes, socks and (very) short shorts and hit the fields next to my house. On my first run, where I ran at a gentle pace for about ten minutes, I returned to the living room and promptly collapsed, tried to swallow down the urge to puke and stared at the ceiling — which was spinning above me. This was a bad idea.
But I persevered. The next run wasn’t a resounding success. But I didn’t feel quite so awful afterwards. And by the fourth run, the burning sensation in my throat (you know, where you can taste iron and when you cough it feels horrible) had pretty much disappeared. I was starting to feel, tentatively, like a runner.
Needing a goal, something to encourage me to persevere with this wretched task, I signed up for a 10k race. Then a half marathon. And then, after a brief running hiatus, I ran the London Marathon in 2013. And felt really tired afterwards.
At school, no one told me that it’s natural for it to feel horrible the first few times you run. And because I never got past the first few times, I never knew what it was like to run and not feel like you’re going to die. School can be a horrible place, full of bullies who tell you you’re no good, and teachers who do little to encourage you. (While school wasn’t as hellish for me as it is for some people, I certainly wasn’t one of the popular kids.) And soon, you start to believe it when people say you’re not a sporty person. Or an arty person. Or that you can’t write / run / paint / sing / spell / [insert your thing].
I was discussing this with my friend, Mia, and she summed it up eloquently:
“A lot of our sucking at things at school is the result of adults failing to tell us the truth about them.”
No one told me that running gets way easier, really quickly. It does! And it’s good for your mind. I don’t get depressed per se, but I have frequent low spells where I enter what Tom and I affectionately call The Pit. The Pit is a horrible place. But I go there less frequently when I run regularly. My brother also took up running to spend less time in The Pit (he spends more time there than I do, often with the Black Dog) and it’s been a wonderful addition to his life. (And to our relationship — we’d never been particularly close, due to a 13-year age gap, but we now meet up to compete in runs together.)
While I could regale you with compelling arguments for why you should run, I’m not going to. Maybe running’s not your thing and never will be. (Although I should note that most days, I don’t think running’s my thing either. It’s hard. Some runs are very slow. My legs feel like useless hunks of meat. But some runs are pure elation! Joy! Even after years of running, you still have to take the rough with the smooth.)
My concern is that many of us have decided that we suck at something because of our experiences at school, or in early life. My dad, for example, will frequently say he’s stupid. And while Dad might not have thrived in academia (mind, it was a different time — one where he received the cane for being left-handed), he’s far from stupid. He’s a smart man in many ways — and I suspect he could do well in academia, too, should he decide it’s something he wants to pursue.
You are capable of more than you know. You are capable of things that you were told you were incapable of at school. You are capable of things you’ve been putting off for fear that you won’t be capable of them. Age is no excuse (read Alan Rusbridger’s glorious book about learning a complex Beethoven piano piece in later life for evidence). And as for time — well, if you want to do something enough, you make the time. Time is elastic.
What did you suck at at school — and is it time to give it another chance?
If you enjoyed this, you might like my weekly newsletter, Ten Things.
And if you want to get excited about running, I recommend What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami, and Like the Wind Magazine — which is written by and for runners. We can also keep each other motivated if you add me on RunKeeper.