THE WAY I see it, more people should take up running – preferably fat, hungover, drug-addicted, injured people. I started running because I was bad at it.
I was tired of excelling at everything – actuarial science, baking red velvet cupcakes, astronomy, applying fake eyelashes, Formula 1, ballroom dancing, making documentaries on the subtleties of the ape economy. I wanted to be humbled; experience life at the back. I wanted to be free from performance pressure. I wanted to lurch with the losers and feel the wind on my face, the sun on my shoulders.
But it turns out I didn’t want to come last.
After a year-long running hiatus – during which I learnt to speak Russian and fly a Cessna Citation – I recently entered a half-marathon, determined to show the world how useless I could be. I bought new shoes. I plodded around Rondebosch like a constipated sloth. I ran backwards on the gym treadmill. I wore an ugly cap.
On one of my long Sunday runs – a 17km route which skirted dangerously close to three wine farms – I proved my athletic inability by gate-crashing a church gathering to beg for some water. It was about 30 degrees outside, my face was car-guard red and I thought I was going to pass out. The church folk were nice, but not as welcoming as I thought they’d be, what with their taking-pity-on-fellowman-in-need stuff.
Maybe it’s because I wasn’t a man – or, more likely, because I smelled like armpit. About 500m down the road, I stopped again at a petrol station and the nice men there let me suck their tap dry.
By the time I staggered through our front door – my eyeballs like exploded bird embryos – I was positively giddy with how rubbish I was at running. Finally, I had found my weak point.
On race day, I eyed the competition. The chubby woman with the hair clips had the potential to be slower than me. The old geezer wearing so many knee and ankle guards he looked like a skin diver could be a threat.
The megaphone blared, the professionals sprinted and we were off. I shuffled along the tarmac, humming All The Single Ladies. Insects clicked, someone farted and the air was filled with egg and banter. After an hour, I was comfortably ensconced near the back. A tubby man with grey hair sprouting from his shoulders kept overtaking me. At this rate, I would definitely be the best at being the worst I could be.
Which is when things fell apart. Suddenly I realised I like being good at things. I enjoy success. This quest to be a shoddy shuffler had been a pathetic attempt to protect my ego. Yes, I lied about the actuarial science, the Cessna, the Formula 1 and the ape economy, but I couldn’t lie about this any more: there was no way I was going to lose to Chewbacca.
So I ran – not fast enough to feel the wind in my hair, but slow enough to feel the sun on my shoulders (and, later, my nose, neck, hands, legs and eyelids). Gulping acres of air, I fixed my eyes on the road and changed gear from sloth to elderly squirrel. I passed Chewbacca and chubby clip girl as well as a clump of women wearing head scarves and a wiry man complaining about his buggered knees.
Five kilometres from the finish, I mustered up all the musty strength I had left, and staggered past a man whose belly seemed to be doing the running, a woman dragging her blisters behind her and a comely young man who looked like he could have tried harder.
I crossed the line in a time reserved for long-haul flights to LA and demanded a medal. I got a Coke instead – and some pitying looks from runners who had finished so long ago they’d already returned from the holiday to Zanzibar they’d won in the lucky draw.
But I’d done it. I’d fought my failure demons and resisted the temptation to pee in my shorts, just to see what it’s like.
A few days later I received the race results. I counted from the bottom. I’d come 23rd-to-last. Next time, I’ll aim for 30th-to-last. I’ll also practice driving faster than 80km/h, take up stargazing and learn how to turn on the oven and say “I am strong woman” in Russian.