Wednesday 25 April 2018

Why a running book for girls is a runaway success

Tanya Sweeney meets the marathon runner and author Alexandra Heminsley, who decided to put pen to paper and write an accessible, chatty book -- one that, for a change, is from the female perspective

Alexandra Heminsley out for a run
Alexandra Heminsley out for a run
Author Alexandra Heminsley

Tanya Sweeney

As is the wont of many people around this time of year, Alexandra Heminsley strapped on her runners in the quest for a fitter, slimmer body.

That first time she ran, however, she didn't get very far. A mile later, she was back home, sore and deflated.

Suffice to say that her journey from that fateful first mile to the finish line of the London Marathon isn't your common-or-garden athlete's experience. Yet it's precisely her candid, unpretentious and very real approach to running that has made her book, Running Like a Girl, a huge success.

Believing the age-old maxim that you should write the book you would want to read yourself, Alexandra noticed a dearth of real, approachable books about running in the marketplace.

"There were some quite serious manuals around, talking you through the basics and the safe way to train for a marathon," explains Alexandra. "Then there were quite emotive books from a male perspective, mainly about intense endurance stuff.

"People on Twitter started asking me, after I started tweeting about my runs in between book reviews and articles, why I didn't write a book about running. There seemed to be quite a few people like me, wanting to read something that was a bit more chatty."

Her first runs were borne out of plain vanity. Jaded with the gym and done with yoga, her thoughts turned to running. "My very first run came out of that thing that people have at this time of the year - 'new year, new me' - and I just thought, 'I'll get those lean thighs'. It was very visual," she recalls. "There's nothing wrong with wanting to tighten yourself up a bit; it's a completely valid reason to want to exercise. But the negative is when that's presented as the only benefit. It's one benefit in a spectrum of things."

Perhaps crucially, she went on a second run despite her initial reservations. It was a marginally less punishing experience, though she was some way off the elusive 'mind click' that gets runners out on to the road regularly and willingly.

"When I couldn't deal with the first run, I was mortified," she confesses. "Once I saw people looking around running, I felt excluded, like they knew a thing I didn't know. But my dad, who also runs, said to me, 'it's not that you can't run ... you don't run'. Whatever it was that needed to click in my head, it wasn't about running.

"Soon I began to realise that people who run for any length of time get over that initial feeling. If it felt like those horrible eight minutes all the time, nobody would do it. You start to realise that you have so much agency within your own body for change."

Warming to the art of running, Alexandra locked herself in for the London Marathon later on that year. A clear goal helped to galvanise her efforts, as did the ringing of her friends' laughter in her ears.

"I was like, 'screw you!'" she laughs. "The thing about marathon training is that every week you exceed your own expectations. You go from one mile to three to five, and within a month you are doing six or seven miles more. You keep improving, and that's something that's quite rare in life. But it's really a high."

But Alexandra advises that investing in a sports bra is something that many female runners can't circumvent. "The people you see (while out running) that really, really need a sports bra, are not necessarily people who don't know that. They simply feel that the experience of buying a sports bra is so bloody awful. It's an intimidating environment to try on a sports bra in a sports shop. The assistants are often male, and look a bit shell-shocked when you ask them about sizes. But you really do have to brave it."

Bra-shopping misadventures aside, Running Like a Girl is shot through with some refreshingly confessional anecdotes. Runners will laugh with uncomfortable familiarity at the time Alexandra needed an emergency bathroom break or the moment her toenails began to fall off in protest.

Predictably, the first time she crossed the marathon line in 2011 (she has run four other marathons since) was as intoxicating an experience as she had anticipated. Alexandra doesn't publish her marathon times in the book, preferring to give the tome a more universal element, and to discourage readers from comparing themselves to her.

"You spend the day running through your capital city with strangers cheering at you and you get a medal afterwards," she enthuses.

"Getting to the finish line blows your mind. You come off the course and people are thrusting a banana and water in your hand. You feel like a rock star coming off stage ... a bit like Madonna in the film In Bed With Madonna.

"It was great to get my weekends back and to invest more in my friendships again afterwards. A week later, going for a 5k run does feel like a massive comedown, but that's the point where you have to re-evaluate why you did it. To me, marathon running is like having a baby or doing a book deal. You'll always have done it, and you'll never regret it."

This year, Alexandra has another goal in her crosshairs: "I want to learn how to swim better this year," she reveals. Given her previous form, there's no doubt she'll be swimming like ... well, a girl, in no time.


{HTML_BULLET} Remember that all you have to do to be a runner is to go for a run. There's no secret that everybody else knows.

{HTML_BULLET} At race events, it helps to understand that not everybody knows what they're doing, either. On the whole, people are really kind and nervous about what lies ahead, too.

{HTML_BULLET} Remember, that there's never a run you regret going on. The worst part is always getting out the door. All you ever regret is having left the house a bit later.

{HTML_BULLET} On race day, always remember the weather can change during a run, so pack accordingly.

{HTML_BULLET} If you're doing anything less than a half-marathon, you don't need gels and sports drinks, banana and water is all you need. Anything else will confuse your digestive system.

Alexandra Heminsley's 'Running Like a Girl' is out now

Irish Independent

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