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Why running?

Richmond Park, London
Running has dominated my life, as readers of this blog and people who know me, will attest.  It is a passion, and maybe an obsession and addiction.  I believe people need to have a passion or passions to get the most out of life, but those passions vary widely.  It's hard to know how much is determined by nature versus nurture, or maybe just accident.  I think nature and nurture both play a role in the kind people we are and the things that appeal to and captivate us, but that much of our lives is determined by accidents or coincidences.  We encounter people, opportunities and things, often unexpectedly, that change our lives.

Schoolboys Cross-Country Race in Richmond Park (1967)
I have pondered what set me on the road to being a passionate (some might say obsessed) runner.  If I had to pick one thing, I would say 'size' - absolute and relative.  As a child, I enjoyed team sports, and was reasonably good at them, but I was a late developer and by my mid-teens didn't have the physical mass to hold my own in rugby, nor the height to be a good fast bowler in cricket.  Though still in the school teams for each, it was becoming apparent to me that I wasn't going to keep my place in senior teams.  Relative size was also important, because about this time my (20-month) younger brother caught me in height and not only started beating me at tennis, but was also an excellent rugby and cricket player.  I was losing the battle in the sibling rivalry stakes, and as many siblings do, I looked for something else where I might distinguish myself.

Tiffin Boys Grammar School
I was attending Tiffin Boys Grammar School in the London suburb of Kingston-on-Thames at the time (my father had been posted to London for three years with his job) and cross-country running was a school sport.  It was mostly inhabited by those not interested in team sports, and it was noticeable that when the annual school cross-country race came around, it was always someone from one of the rugby teams who won, not a member of the cross-country team.  It was a 'poor relation' sport, but that made it easier to excel and I had a number of friends on the team.  I even won a race once against another school's team, but was certainly not outstanding.  Many of our school races were in the nearby Richmond Park, a seemingly vast expanse of grassland, hills, small woods and many trails, and I came to love the place.

Running on the Tiffin Boys
Grammar School playing
field in 1967
As an incentive to train, there was a club within the school called the All Weather Running Club, looked after by my Chemistry teacher.  The goal of club members was to run from the school to the gates of Richmond Park and back, every Tuesday and Thursday night after school during the autumn and winter terms, regardless of the weather.  It was only a two-mile roundtrip, but for fifteen and sixteen year olds to do it voluntarily through frequently foul weather and in winter darkness, without missing a scheduled night, was significant and a source of pride.  I began to think of myself as a tough and accomplished runner, despite a lack of competitive success.

Around this time, at my initiative, a friend from the team and I rode our bikes up to the gates of Richmond Park one Saturday and then ran non-stop right around the perimeter paths of the Park, about 12 kilometres.  This seemed an incredible distance to us, our families and our friends, and gave me the kind of recognition and self-esteem I craved as an under-sized teenager.  Soon afterwards, I returned to Australia and continued my running career at Melbourne High School and Monash University where more encounters and coincidences further grew my passion for running.

My right knee was very sore overnight, and the right Achilles was stiff and sore this morning, but I expected that after yesterday's long run on fire-trails.  I haven't had a day off for a while so was happy just to walk gently for 5km this morning around the local streets.  The Achilles hurt a little while walking, but not enough for me to think running tomorrow will be a problem.  I feel a sense of optimism after yesterday's run that I'm on my way back.  It's hard to explain what has changed, and I have to be careful not to get too enthused.  My doctor has told me in the past that I have borderline low white and red blood cell counts, and it almost feels like the oxygen carrying capacity of my blood has suddenly improved in the past week.  No drugs are involved, so I have to assume that I've been ailing with something that has now passed.  Of course, this diagnosis is not based on anything other than a gut feeling, and may be wildly off the mark.  The next few weeks will tell.