By the time I turn 25, I’ll be fluent in German. I want to have lived abroad – either Berlin, or Toronto – or New York, maybe? I definitely want to be able to drive by then, and hopefully I won’t still be at home. Age 25 is where you pretty much have it together, really, isn’t it – so I’ll probably have a boyfriend, one I’ll have a real future with. My body needs to be BANGING as well, I’ll only have a few years left of bikini wearing left. Because 30’s just round the corner… GOD, 30!? Oh – your career needs to be on top form too, you want to be making some serious moves. Yeah, 25 is the right time to have everything on the way to being settled in life.
This is a peek into a conversation I had with myself on my 21st birthday, back in April 2013. High hopes, new notions and a whole dose of coming-of-age cockiness were in abundance – and I was looking forward to spending the next four years working tirelessly at making sure my aims were realised.
You can probably guess where I’m about to go with this… because yes, upon remembering these self-promises, I realised that none of the goalposts I set had quite been met.
And in January 2017, it dawned on me: the age where I thought I’d be The Best Nicole™ would soon be mine… but were my goals accomplished? Was I even trying to reach them any more? And the even scarier question – would I ever be able to, now that I’m about to reach the age of ‘proper adulthood’? Enter: a crisis of confidence.
Here was a rut, and here was me stuck right in the middle of it. Though the start of a new year is supposed to inspire some optimism about the future, all I could feel was a sense of wasted time. It’d be silly to disregard the things I’ve done since the age of 21 that have made me very proud – graduating university, working for a national newspaper and magazine, and being a lead in a show being a few high points in particular – and as Aaliyah and Pretty Ricky told us years ago: age ain’t nothin’ but a number.
Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling of underachievement.
Full of doubt about where I was going and anxious that I was ‘running out of time’ to make good on these life goals, I was in serious need of a new challenge, because I was playing a whole orchestra of violins for myself – and if I was bored of going over my failed plans again and again in my head, I could only imagine how my friends felt…
So when my friend Sherin signed up to run the Hackney Half Marathon, something inside me told me that I needed to do the same. We’d discussed it briefly about a month before, but instead of filing it away in the brain folder of ‘That’d Be Cool, Maybe/Nope’, I paid the £50 entry fee and marked the date, at the end of April, in my calendar.
What I hoped to gain out of this:
- some reinforcement that I wasn’t totes a failure
- a reminder that I was still able to make big things happen
- a boost of positivity
- a reason to get back into running, because my MOM jeans had slowly turned into skinny jeans… not cute.
A race of this length isn’t a task I, someone not naturally sporty, could just cram. For me, the half marathon had to begin a long time before race day – because if I ever hoped to finish, my body needed to be prepared. *cue Rocky music*
With the help of training apps, Instagram fitness accounts and the fear of crashing out at 2 miles, I was soon able to run 4 miles without stopping. Then 5. Until one fateful Wednesday in mid-April, when I managed to run the 9 miles from my office to my front door in one go.
Though I couldn’t deny that I felt much fitter than before, it was not at ALL easy. If 9 miles was a killer, how could I do MORE in just under two weeks time?
The answer: shutting down that ‘can’t’ voice completely. After telling everyone in earshot about this damn half marathon, there was no turning back – I was going to have to convince myself, no matter how beat I was on the day, that I would complete this race, no matter what.
Soon enough, it was the big day. Time to put my feet where my mouth is. Or something to that effect.
Peanut butter sandwiches for breakfast? Check. Pre-race espresso shot? Check. Best of The Saturdays playlist at the ready? CHECK. Go time.
You can do this, Nicole.
The first 4 miles – a breeze. Like the tortoise, hoping to outsmart the hare leading to total exhaustion, I kept it slow and steady, saving the energy for when I’d need it most.
Miles 4 to 8. I feeling strong, so I tried to step the pace up a little. Ha, maybe I’m actually gonna get through this okay – I’m not even tired! As I slapped the hands of kids watching from the sidelines, I felt like Jessica Ennis-Hill, the pride of a nation, athletic goddess – grains of sweat-salt prickling my face and all.
It was at Mile 9, nearly two hours in when I really realised that I’d been running for quite a while. Not because I was particularly out of breath (my tortoise plan was still working), but because my right knee was making the rest of my body know that it was very much over this distance running lark, and would prefer to be elevated and treated with paracetamol, in front of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Oh dear…
From around 10.5 miles, the trail led us Hackney Half-ers through the Olympic Park. Though an impressive location, the crowd had thinned and so had the motivational atmosphere. Without east London locals standing outside their homes and handing out jelly babies from Tupperware dishes, it became harder to keep the positive vibes going – I was tired, my knee was not feeling good and it was damn near silent apart from the tapping of hundreds of feet, steadily hitting the concrete.
Despite my desire to find somewhere to curl up and take a little rest, I knew if I stopped now, my knee might not let me start back up again. I kept on.
Around mile 12, the crowd came back with a roar – and after only having Zara Larsson and friends singing in my headphones and my inner voice masquerading as a cheesy personal trainer, hearing absolute strangers yelling ‘Come on Nicole, you got this!’ was such a humbling experience.
My breathing began to get shallower, and I felt a sudden lump in my throat grow…was I about to cry?
It was one of those rare movie-like moments where things start moving in slow-motion; where the details of your surroundings become unsettlingly clear.
I noticed the soft pink of the blossoms on the trees; the top-row gap of the teeth of a woman cheering with her baby in one arm, a sign in another; the sweet, sweet smell of a chicken shop, undoubtedly getting a box of five wings and chips together…it was glorious, and life was truly wonderful.
I also saw a photographer in the distance – and I’d be damned if my race picture was one of me with tears and snot all over my face, so I swallowed that throat lump, pulled out my best cheesy grin and kept it pushing. Time to make like the Clovers & Toros, and bring it on home.
Mile 13. 0.1 miles until I complete my first half marathon. Yaaaas, girl! The event I’d been cold-sweating about for months was about to be over, and somehow, I was going to finish – and NOT on a stretcher.
My lone, in-person cheerleader Jamila shouted my name as I came round the final corner and the twinge in my knee, which had been getting progressively worse, suddenly flittered away.
And just like that… it was over. I DID IT!
My finish time of 2:30:22 isn’t going to go down in history books, or blow the wigs off the heads of more serious runners – but before Sunday 30th April, I didn’t have any finish time. At the start of the year, running 3 miles without stopping was a mission – and now, practice has meant that I’ve added just over 10 miles to my ability. Score!
It’s so easy to get stuck in a vortex of feeling rubbish about yourself, or beating yourself up about all the things you didn’t do but ‘should have done by now’. But in the four months of training, and really focusing in on ONE goal, I learnt that stepping back, just putting one foot in front of the other, and repeating it for as long as you can is the key to taking a sledgehammer to that wall of self-doubt.
I needed something to remind me of how determination and hard work is the only way to move forward, along with an injection of self-confidence – and who’da thunk it – I got it! Not everyone needs to do a race to realise that hey – you’re not so bad after all! – but it was a great reminder for me, and was well worth the two days of limping that followed.
So what if I haven’t done all that I thought I would by this time? Goals may change, disappear, or take longer to come around than I thought – but it doesn’t mean that I have to succumb to feeling completely powerless about it. Through positive thought and hard work, I achieved one big win that I barely thought was possible before.
I’m still going to set timed goals for myself – like writing a book, or moving abroad again for a while, because my visions of being the black Carrie Bradshaw of Kreuzberg deserve to be realised. I may not reach all of these goals by 30 – the next big benchmark – but if they’re truly important to me, I’m more confident than ever that they’re possible.
Because if I, certified sofa-dweller and dry Crunchy Nut scoffer can take on a half marathon and beat it, where’s the limit to what else I can do?