Learning to run saved my life

After recovering from brain surgery, Rosie Millard ran the London Marathon in less than 4 hours

“when we removed your skull and looked at your brain I could tell you were a runner.”

Waking up from brain surgery there are many things which you could be told. I probably don’t need to list the most scary ones. The first, and best thing which my surgeon told me was, “we removed the entire tumour.” The second thing he told me was probably a few days later, namely “when we removed your skull and looked at your brain I could tell you were a runner.”

“This is Rosie Millard. She is going for surgery on X. She runs marathons”.

I was so shaken by the concept of having one’s skull referred to as a removable part that it was a few days before I processed the impact of this statement. He could actually tell I was a runner from the state of my brain, and in a good way. Indeed, my progress through the ordeal of having a benign brain tumour removed was marked by the amount of times I was introduced as not only a runner, but a marathon runner. “This is Rosie Millard. She is going for surgery on X. She runs marathons”.  

I knew running was good for your mental health, but I never for one minute thought that this could also mean the actual health of your mental engine, namely your brain. But it does.   

I was a day off my 42nd birthday when I completed the London Marathon in 3.51, and I only did it because I had been commissioned by a newspaper to write about the trauma of running it. I had never done anything comparable. No sport at school, no sport at university, smoked and drank my way through my teens and early twenties.

Since the age of 42,  I have run about 60 half marathons, about 10 races of 16-20 miles, a couple of triathlons and 10 marathons including all the Majors and one on the Great Wall of China.  

Running, however, has a weasel way of coming and grabbing you when you are least interested, and once it is in there, it worms its way into your life. It is then very hard to shift. Since the age of 42 I have run about 60 half marathons, about 10 races of 16-20 miles, a couple of triathlons and 10 marathons including all the Majors and one on the Great Wall of China.  

Oh, and after brain surgery I ran London again, coming in at a respectable 3.57.

My marathon experiences have been various. I have been swathed in jumpers, a hat and gloves running the New York Marathon, I have grooved along to cabaret standards while doing Berlin, I have been cheered by women puffing on fags and holding their Pomeranians at the Paris Marathon, I cried during the Boston Marathon when a leg injury meant I had to walk (a bit) and I achieved a personal best of 3.48 at the Tokyo Marathon, 10 years after London. Oh, and after brain surgery I ran London again, coming in at a respectable 3.57. Just to show the (now extant) tumour who was boss.  

Five of my marathons have been sub-4 hours; five just above. To put this in perspective, the world record for the women’s marathon is 2.14.04, set by the phenomenal Brigid Kosgei at London. However, the global female average for the marathon is 4.42, so my performance is not too shabby.  

The times matter. As a placard at Mile 23 in Chicago memorably expressed: “Pain is temporary. Internet results last forever!” The times are what pull you round. Would I have been able to train, and run such a long distance so regularly without the goal of successfully completing a giant urban marathon? Of course not. Do I enjoy them? Not really.

I can hardly speak in the run up to one of these contests, let alone sleep.   

I get so nervous and so worked up in the weeks beforehand that my beloved partner even has a phrase for what I am going through. PMT, meaning Pre-Marathon Tension. I can hardly speak in the run up to one of these contests, let alone sleep. But after the task is accomplished, 26.2 miles, and you are running down that long awaited strip towards the end, tears pouring down your face, as the banners gladly count you down from 800 metres to 200 – and then – then the great FINISH sign looms before you, and you look up and see your time up on the gantries, you cross the mat, you hear the cheers, you are hugging the lovely person who is hanging the medal round your neck and then wandering stiffly and slightly dazed away from the line, in search of your bag, your partner, your world; these are life memories. 

Running is part of so many people’s worlds, not least because it is so easy and so rewarding. 

It’s more than the big day, however. Long distance running is not about the medals; they are the icing on the cake, particularly if they are beautiful (Boston’s is particularly gorgeous). You do not have to run a marathon.  Running is part of so many people’s worlds, not least because it is so easy and so rewarding. No essential gear is necessary, bar a pair of shoes and a bra. The rest of the clothes are easy enough to wear in everyday life, which is more than can be said for (say) ice hockey. You don’t need gym membership, a track or even a road. You can do it all over the world, and I have. It fits in with whatever you are doing and it can mould to fit your daily routine, although I cannot ever imagine running in the afternoon, and only do it under duress.

If I have been for a run, no matter how long or short, at least I have done something. I have been out, I have seen life, and more than that, I have seen it at that lovely pace of the runner.  

It also gives you an enviable sense of having done something with your day. If I have been for a run, no matter how long or short, at least I have done something. I have been out, I have seen life, and more than that, I have seen it at that lovely pace of the runner. You aren’t whizzing past; this is not life as seen out of the window of a car, but neither are you dawdling. If you don’t like something, you just run past it. If you are inspired by something, you stop and gasp. 

…small but perfect moments in life which stay with you forever.  

Running over Waterloo Bridge in the morning, or the Humber Bridge in the mist, or the Champs Elysees just at the magical time when the street lights are switched off, and the silver grey light fills the avenues; these are small but perfect moments in life which stay with you forever. 

I sometimes run with my youngest son, which is lovely. More typically I run alone. I don’t run with music; I don’t speak to people on the phone, I don’t very often run with a watch. I like being with my thoughts and I like being with my brain.

Which, as we now know, is a mutual feeling.  

FIVE WAYS TO MAKE RUNNING A HABIT 

  1. Devise a repertoire of routes from your front door, and stick to them. They will become a habit and become easier, the more you do them. I suggest a variety  including a 2-mile, 3-mile (5 km), 5-mile and 7-mile distance. Try to include things of beauty and interest. Bolt them together to increase your stamina. 
  2. Always put your stuff out the night before. You will go for a run in the morning rather than face the shame of putting it away unworn.
  3. Tell people you have signed up for a race, be it a 5K Park Run or the 42K marathon. For the reason why, see point 2.
  4. Don’t glug huge amounts of water beforehand, or during. It will weigh you down. 
  5. Don’t go out swathed in hoods, jackets, snoods or scarves. You will get hot and bothered and hate the experience.  

 – Rosie Millard

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