‘Those moments when it feels like flying.’

That was Sophie Mullins, Scotland’s 100km champion, answering the question ‘What do you run for?’ in an interview for Glasgow TrailFest.

My heart soared as I read her words. Yet with every run since then, it has sunk little by little. Those moments when it feels like flying are the ones I think of when I scroll past an image of Emelie Forsberg floating along an Alpine trail, or Usain Bolt’s ridiculously cheeky grin for the camera on his way to win Olympic gold in the 100m sprint. The sense of flying is what I imagine when I dream of the races I want to run and the places I want to my feet to take me. So when I read Sophie’s answer, my heart soared: yes! THIS is the sport that I fell in love with.

But, run by run, I began to concede: running does not feel like flying to me. It feels nothing at all like flying. Very often, it feels like dragging the too-heavy bulk of my body around routes that are dulled by familiarity, on legs that are tired, with a heart that is more dogged than elated and a mind that’s never quite free from thoughts of all that I should be doing as soon as I can haul myself back home. On a very literal level, running is often hard work. I realised that I couldn’t remember the last time that it felt remotely like flying.

It doesn’t feel remotely like flying.
As I acknowledged these truths one by one, I recognised too that they are are feelings that I try to ignore or hide. Even from myself. Because they’re grossly at odds with the romanticised, Instagram-fuelled vision of I want to feel, about the thing that I believe that I love. So I began to ask myself: why am I doing this? Really, truly?

If my love of running has its basis in a sensation that I just don’t feel, does that mean I am a fraud? Am I living some extravagant, well-documented lie in continuing not only to run, but to talk about the joy of running and encourage others to do the same? I’m even organising a festival to celebrate the love of trailrunning, for heaven’s sake … who am I trying to convince?

I tried to imagine my life without running. To my relief, it felt empty. Directionless, even.

There may be a hefty disparity between my idealised vision of running and my personal experience of doing it; yet nevertheless there’s some aspect of that personal experience – however difficult, painful and laboursome – that has become integral to my sense of who I am. Running might not always feel comfortable, but it seems that somehow, I love it anyway.

It isn’t really about running at all: it’s about me
The more I thought about it, the more I realised that my relationship to running isn’t really about running at all: it’s about being ‘me’. Running is the metaphor that I have chosen to express and test my philosophy of life. The trails have become my training ground: not for winning races, but to learn and hone the traits and skills that will define me not just as a runner, but as a human being. When I run, I practice determination. Discipline. I reaffirm my belief that today’s limitations – heavy body, sore legs, too-small, too-pressured windows of time – will not keep me from building a future that might just feel like flying. If a strong will can build a strong body, that is material proof that the inner life can define the outer. By choosing to run even when it feels like ploughing through treacle, I prove to myself that I am not a passenger in my life; I am the driver. When I run, I test the hypothesis that my own actions (or inactions) – mine alone – will shape my destiny.

Not just my training ground; its my act of meditation
And another thing: these thoughts all crystallised in my mind whilst running. So running is not just my training ground; it is my act of meditation. It’s my moving hiatus where I step back far enough from the daily whirl to make some sense of it; rationalise and prioritise it.

Thinking again about Sophie Mullins’ feeling of flying, I recognise that such moments aren’t granted as gifts, but as rewards: and therein lies their value. Like the grace of a dancer, that sense of flying is won through hard graft and hours of training; it is a testament to dark times lived through and faith held. If every moment felt like flying, the feeling would hold no currency: it is powerful precisely because the struggle and the sense of flying are two sides of the same coin.

Those moments that feel like flying are real for me: they are part of what makes me want to run. That doesn’t mean that I will feel that way every time I lace up my trainers.

And that’s OK.

This morning, I ran up in the hills where I often go. I was making my final descent back to the car, as I always do; my head full of thoughts of ‘what now’ and ‘what next’, as it always is … when I noticed a feeling so unfamiliar amongst all the others that it took me a moment to identify it. It was pure and simple pleasure. The joy of moving, confidently and at speed, feeling at one with the landscape. Just for a one tiny moment, it felt like flying …