Learning to run - at age 40-plus

Jogging can be mastered at any age; just take it in your stride

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 April, 2013, 11:50am

Unlike the current wave of tiger mums coercing their children into an exhausting array of extracurricular pursuits, my parents embraced a more laid-back style. When I say style, I really mean freestyle, or even no style. When I was growing up in Australia, there was no mad dash to swimming classes followed by a session with a tennis coach. Saturday mornings involved waking up before the rest of the household and watching a marathon session of Scooby-Doo, The Flintstones and Speed Racer.

My call to action was usually a result of mum nagging me to get out of the house. As a Scottish immigrant, she thought the sun's rays were a magical elixir that would fix most health problems. As long as I was exposed to the sun, her nagging stopped. So, I heartily embraced the outdoors. I kept busy climbing trees and helping the Italian neighbours tend their vegetable gardens.

Without these team-bonding experiences to push me, I assumed there were physical feats some of us were simply not designed to achieve. At high school, my best friend, Tracey, would glide along the running track on her dangerously long legs. "Beautiful, just beautiful," I recall one physical education teacher saying as she watched Tracey lope past. The words that often tumbled out of Tracey's mouth, however, were more appropriate coming from a long-distance truck driver. I'd skulk on the sidelines, frantically waiting for the bell to ring, to avoid the humiliation of running the relay race about half a track behind everyone else.

I was fit, though, because of my silver Malvern Star 10-speed bicycle with drop handlebars. It was my ticket to freedom as a teenager. Tracey and I cycled the streets for hours daily.

Alcohol helped my feet gain a little momentum in later years. The synthetic surface where I could apply this new-found skill was indoors and had a loud accompanying soundtrack. Like all professional athletes, I devoted countless hours to perfecting my talents. But the Olympics committee kept overlooking the potential of including the exhibition sport of Drink Two Vodkas, Then Flail Around on a Dance Floor, so I didn't see much value in pursuing this.

Thankfully, I've always enjoyed walking, and living in Hong Kong and New York gave me some of the most inspirational settings in which to stay fit. But as I hit my 40s, it wasn't enough. I had an epiphany one day doing a tedious walk around a local park. An impossibly pert bottom overtook me, attached to a female jogger whose grace took me back to Tracey's laps of the school track. As those high cheeks taunted me, I realised I had to move faster. For inspiration, I dug out a beautifully written story by Japanese writer Haruki Murakami of his transition from night-owl bar owner to celebrated novelist. ( The Running Novelist ran in the New Yorker magazine in 2008, if you're interested.) Murakami recounted that when he became a professional writer at age 33 he took up running to offset his sedentary and chain-smoking lifestyle. Even a 20-minute jog would leave him panting, his heart pounding, his legs shaking. But today, more than 30 years later, Murakami still runs daily.

Soon, I was interspersing my walks with short bursts of speed. But I'd feel ungainly and self-conscious, holding my breath, then gasping for air as my lungs began to burn. After countless frustrating sessions, something happened to shift my approach: I saw a woman maintaining a similar pace nearby, only jogging. Her pace was fairly slow, and that's when it clicked: jogging wasn't about working the body into overdrive until you collapse in a heap; it was about finding a gentle rhythm in your breath and stride.

Unlike Murakami, I'm not dedicated enough to give up alcohol, meat and late nights. But I'm inspired enough now to keep improving. And finally, at age 40-plus, I've finally mastered all of my gross motor skills.