Alexandra Heminsley had high hopes: the arse of an athlete, the waist of a supermodel, the speed of a gazelle. Defeated by gyms and bored of yoga, she decided to run.
Her first attempt did not end well. But years later and with several marathons under her belt, she agrees with her dad: you run with your head as much as your legs.
I knew straight away that I would enjoy this book. Just from reading the blurb I picked up that while it would recount Alexandra Heminsley’s running story and offer some advice based on her experiences, it would be done in an alarmingly honest way that would be both engaging and hilariously funny. And that’s exactly how it was:
“This book is the one I didn’t have but would have liked to have read before I went on my first (disastrous) run. Something for those people who think they can’t run for whatever reason. For the women who think they aren’t slim enough to wear running kit or that it’s not worth it if they don’t want to complete an entire marathon, for the women who think that running around in circles is an idiotic way to spend the best part of an hour. For those women who don’t yet trust that it really is a source of immeasurable pleasure, self-belief and unexpected companionship, rather than a necessary purgatory – that they might, just might, enjoy the confidence, the physical ease or the mental clarity that running brings”.
Heminsley was never a runner, never sporty. She did what many of us do as we get older – go to a gym, try out yoga and/or join some kind of club in a vain (and usually clueless) attempt to get fit. Of course, none of this was ever successful so she decided to try running.
As I read about Heminsley’s first, ill-fated run I couldn’t help thinking back to my own rather poor first effort. For me, a PE teacher friend helped me get started, but I quickly discovered that I had no stamina and could barely run for a minute without having to stop and walk. How was I ever going to manage 5k? (And forget about anything any longer, that was for the superhuman types!). So I found myself relating to Heminsley’s description of her own first run: the bright red face, the struggle to breathe and the racing heart that lead so many to give up before they really get started. We’ve all been there and I’m sure your first run was not the graceful, gazelle-like bounding you envisaged either! Hopefully, like me, you persevered. Heminsley took 3 months before she gave it another go!
As the book progresses, we learn more about Heminsley’s journey to becoming a multiple marathon runner. Like many of us, she believed for a long time that she “couldn’t run”. As runners, how many times have we heard that from others? “I can’t run” or “I’m not built for running”. Nonsense. Anyone can run, so many just don’t even though they are more than able to. We just have to get past that belief (and not expect to be able to run a marathon at world-class pace on our first outing!). Heminsley’s story helps demonstrate that getting past that mistaken but oh-so-common belief IS possible. She documents the procrastination of “faffing around on iTunes trying to compose a playlist of such magnitude that it would propel me round the park”, the early failures and the soul-searching questions about exactly why she wanted to do this in the first place. And then she applied for a place in the London Marathon…
Much of the first half of the book is therefore all about how Heminsley went from non-runner to finishing that first marathon…and beyond. She documents the ups and downs of training and the disaster scenarios we all construct when we first start out – getting lost, getting injured or getting “caught short” – and provides some reassurance that these things are by no means a certainty. We learn about the importance of the right kit and accompany Heminsley on a rather off-putting trip to buy running shoes. We learn of the importance of Vaseline to runners (and the consequences of over-looking it!) and she’s not afraid to cover some of the issues that beginners might be too embarrassed to ask about. We nod in sympathy as she is struck by her first injury and ride the emotional rollercoaster of that first marathon. She also covers that no man’s land we arrive in after the marathon when the goal has been achieved and many lose their running mojo. For Heminsley, helping a friend to achieve the same goal kick-started her running once more and led her to make running a big part of her life. Yes, it wasn’t always easy, but in her tales of the difficulties she has encountered and pitfalls she has overcome, we see the determination and tenacity that is so often the hallmark of a runner.
If the first part of the book is all about Heminsley’s journey, then the second part is designed to help others overcome some of the problems she encountered along the way:
That was my story, and this part shall be about making it yours. Here are the answers to the queries I tormented myself with when I learned to run, as well as some extra ones I have been asked over the years since.
Heminsley begins with a potted history of women’s running via the stories of some of the greats such as Kathrine Switzer and Joan Benoit Samuelson before attacking such issues as injury (including debunking some common running myths), going to get fitted for your first pair of running shoes, running clubs/groups, running style and, of course, all the myriad issues and worries related to running a marathon.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. While it may seem like it would be aimed more at those just beginning their running journey, in actual fact there is something in there for everyone: for the new runner it is an honest, helpful and inspiring breakdown of what to expect; for the more experienced runner it is full of tales we can relate to and advice we nod sagely about, knowing that we, too, made those same mistakes. If you’re looking for a running book to stick in your suitcase this summer, I highly recommend this one.
You can read more about Running Like A Girl on the official website.