Did you know that ASICS is an acronym for the Latin phrase anima sana in corpore sano, a healthy mind in a healthy body? Kihachiro Onitsuka, the company founder and quite possibly a father of the modern global running movement, chose this as the company name and motto when he merged his successful Tiger shoe company with two other Japanese enterprises in 1977.
Now ASICS is not my favourite brand of running shoes, and I have reservations about the fairly narrow range of people chosen for their FrontRunners programme, but when the Mindfulness in Schools Project sent out a call for runners to represent their small charity in the ASICS London 10k this year, I willingly volunteered. Given that mindfulness and running are two of the best ways I know to look after my mental health, raising money for MiSP by running was… perhaps ‘no-brainer’ is not the right word… but an easy decision nevertheless. A healthy mind in a healthy body, helping to train more of the same? I’m in!
So on 5th July 2020, I laced up my trainers and headed out. Not to central London, with its wide, flat, paved streets, but to the socially distanced chalky hills of East Brighton, on the edge of the South Downs National Park.
Until Covid-19, I was a determinedly no-gradient runner. A regular at one of the flattest parkruns in the country, I could often be seen plodding along the prom or the undercliff path. Hills were anathema; they took me out of the zone that I so carefully cultivated when running in straight lines. Lockdown changed all that. Suddenly the coastal routes were filled with people desperate to escape the house for their daily exercise. Careful about social distancing and increasingly aware of public abhorrence of ‘joggers’, I began to seek more isolated running spots, venturing further away from my beloved levels and reluctantly tackling the steep hills that are inevitable as soon as you move north of Brighton beach.
And something changed. Stimulated by glorious views, wildflowers and birdsong, I moved out of my internal zone of focus and began to appreciate the assault on the senses that comes with this downland terrain. As my training progressed, I was again able to look inward, but this time to marvel at the power and strength of my body as it took on hills and headwind with increasing ease. To feel my heart pounding after a steep climb and to whizz, arms outstretched, down the other side seemed to embody the principles of savouring the moment that are so often forgotten when using mindfulness as a tool to ease pain. My gratitude journal began to fill up with revelations about health, fresh air and freedom.
So when the day came for my mindful 10k, there was some nervousness as I thought about the expectations of my sponsors, but this was eclipsed by feelings of confidence and anticipation.
I’d spent the night before finalising my route. It’s difficult to hit an exact distance when the topography is so varied, so a lot of adjustment was needed to Strava’s original suggestion. I decided to head north from East Brighton golf club, skirting the top of Woodingdean and coming back via Ovingdean and Roedean. (Dean is Anglo-Saxon for valley, and lots of local village suburbs can be found nestled between the exposed hills… except Woodingdean, which is so high up that it has its own weather system. I’m still not sure how it got its name!) A hilly detour was necessary to correct the distance, and I also had to rely on Strava’s suggestion for an untested path going past Ovingdean’s pretty Norman church. I was fairly sure that the vertical line on the elevation profile was just a glitch.
My route took in the undulating farmland connecting Woodingdean, Ovingdean and Roedean.
I set off at midday on a windy Sunday, warming up and tuning in on my walk to the golf club before starting my watch. Now it’s well known that the first ten minutes of any run are guaranteed to be awful, not matter what your standard, so it’s always interesting to watch the mind monkeys that come up during this initial stretch. I’ve learned to ignore their warnings that I can’t do it, that I’m not fit enough, that it’s too hot, too far, I’m too slow. The monkeys were loud that day, but I congratulated myself that I’d planned the biggest incline for the first half of the run, so it would be easy going on the way back. Thoughts put aside, I decided to enjoy the experience of climbing the hill that was usually my downward home straight.
Something I’ve come to understand about trail running (and which has made me feel more well disposed towards it) is that you vary your pace to match the terrain. All those hills were very off-putting until I learned that it’s ok to walk them. So on my big climb up Red Hill and along the top of Sheepcote Valley (and yes, there were sheep), I took regular walking breaks and took care not to get onto any “walking is failing” thought buses. If nothing else, practising mindfulness teaches you to be kind to yourself. I was pleasantly surprised when I quickly reached Woodingdean and realised that the toughest part was already behind me. An easy run along the smooth Drove Road bridleway, overlooking Bevendean, saw me cheerfully greeting runners and walkers as I headed towards the highest point on my route.
I’d been looking forward to the next stage, a spectacularly exposed track heading south from the back of Woodingdean primary school. On a recent walk, I had noted the amazing views from the playground, which backs onto meadows of wildflowers and spring barley. The path is popular with horse riders and boasts long vistas in three directions. Today was no exception, and the slight downhill slope nicely offset the gusting southwesterly. I had to switch my focus to navigation at this point, because this was the location of the hilly detour that I’d reluctantly mapped onto my 10k course. Spotting a grassy path to the right, I headed down with trepidation, knowing that I’d have to climb the steep slope on the other side of the square field rather than simply continuing along the top edge. The wind hit me as I reached a steep chalk scree, making my eyes stream and forcing me to focus and slow down to avoid twisting an ankle. So much for the benefits of the downhill. A dog walker, immersed in her phone, complained that she hadn’t heard me coming.
Reaching the valley floor, I looked around in wonder at being surrounded by green fields with no buildings in sight, all within the bounds of the city. This is one of the things I love about Brighton. The motto on the city crest, “Between Downs and Sea We Flourish” has never seemed more apt. It even inspired a new logo for the college where I work. Finding the corner of the field, I headed back uphill, taking a quick photo and snack stop halfway, just as the gradient increased sharply. Looking at Strava later, I discovered that that steep incline has a segment name: Kate Bush Moment. I intend to come back and run up that hill properly one day.
Back on the main path with an invigorating pace, I eventually reached the road dipping into Ovingdean village and squashed myself into the hedge as a huge 4×4 sped past. At the bottom, I turned away from my usual farm track route and headed for the church, hoping that the previously unexplored path would be obvious. It wasn’t. Finally, I spotted a tiny stone stile hidden in a corner of the churchyard. On the other side, a shady, nettle-lined path headed steeply uphill, following the line of the dilapidated flint wall. High above, an old tree lent its roots as steps for people climbing to an elevated stile on eroded ground.
Hmm, maybe I should have read this before!
Strava doesn’t lie. That vertical elevation on my route planner? It’s real. Above Ovingdean church, there is a hill so steep that I had to use my hands to help me climb. This is not conducive to a good race time. Luckily, this is not a race. And of course, no race planner in their right mind would consider sending participants on a route like this. Luckily, I am not a race planner. Even the cattle that live in the field aren’t silly enough to tackle this steepest of sections. This is where the mind monkeys kicked in again. It was hard to let go of the thought that this important run, which people had thought worth sponsoring to a total of £350, would be recorded in history as one of the slowest ever.
When I finally reached the top, the wind hit me again like a train. I struggled to run on the flat, and two more high stiles nearly defeated me. Finally, the ground began to slope away and the towers of Roedean School came into view on the southern horizon, followed by the hospital and the marina ahead. I breathed a sigh of relief – the end was in sight.
Somewhere along Roedean Road, I suddenly realised that perhaps Strava had lied after all; this wasn’t a 10k course. I was nearly home and had only covered 9.2 km. I’d specifically planned to avoid running round the block to make up the distance; I wanted to make this a ‘proper’ trail run. A quick detour down an overgrown footpath to the side of Marine Gate would have to suffice – that counts as a trail, surely? Along the seafront and then away from the wind onto the unadopted Boundary Road – definitely rough enough to pass. Carefully watching my watch, mindfulness of everything else lost, the digits finally tipped over to 10k. My work was done. A short walk home and a red-faced selfie sealed the deal.
Many running conversations conclude by saying that running is a metaphor for life. Afterwards, I can never remember exactly why, but it seems to make perfect sense at the time. What I do know is that running can connect you with life, physically, in a way that few other activities can. You are forced to focus on body and breath, and given the right surroundings there is plenty to keep your awareness in sensing mode rather than getting lost in thought. It’s a perfect moving meditation. Tracking stats and competition can be a distraction, but part of the practice is noticing that and coming back to awareness of the present moment, accepting however that feels and making small adjustments to form. As they say, the only real competition is with yourself. So my time? 1 hour 14. Not my fastest, but nowhere near as bad as those mind monkeys made out.
Thank you to all my lovely sponsors, MiSP and yes, even ASICS; Mr Onitsuka was really onto something all those years ago.
Lucy Aditi is on a mission to help stressed students enjoy their education and meet their life goals without cramming or therapy. With over 20 years’ experience working with young people, she is the creator of Ride the Waves, the mindfulness-based life coaching programme specifically designed for people aged 14-21. She is also a busy teacher, entrepreneur and parent.
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