My son made me into a runner, and I wouldn’t be one without him. I write this with a smile now, but it wasn’t always a happy story.
After his mother and I separated, when Andrew was six months old, I didn’t see him for 18 months. This affected me very deeply, both mentally and physically. I had always been quite active and grew up playing cricket, but soon stopped moving completely. On comfort-eating dinners of whole pizzas followed by whole cheesecakes, I put on a lot of weight. Worse than what I saw in the mirror was what I felt in my head. My emotions were numb, and my thoughts were stale; the creativity that I used to be so proud of evaporated into an insecure lethargy. I realise now that depression had closed in on my mind, like a cuckoo moving in on another bird’s nest.
At the time (2013), I just thought I was unhappy and lonely; it was only the shape of my belly and tighs that pushed me to join a gym near my office. I began to spend an hour after work most evenings on the cross-trainer, rowing machine, and - after a few months, once I felt brave enough - using some of the easier weights machines. I didn’t then really understand the connection between exercise and mental health. But I knew that, if I couldn’t see Andrew in the short-term, I had to do something that would make me a better father to him when he was back in my life. At the time that meant that I wanted to be physically fitter to play with him. I often thought about him while working out: whenever I needed the extra strength for one last heavy rep, or when words in a song on my gym playlist reminded me of him.
I became much more disciplined about what I ate. I found less-sugary substitutes for chocolate; instead of pizza I had fishcakes and vegetables every evening. My speeds on the cross-trainer improved and I slimmed down. My head began to feel clearer too: there was something to look forward to when I woke up - a reason to get out of bed - and seeing my fitness scores improve literally every day made me feel good about myself. I was healthier.
I was still nowhere near as fit as I wanted to be: after my first outdoor run, a flat 2K along a country lane to end up at my parents’ house, I felt sick and had to go straight to sleep. I had new respect for my younger brother, who had run the Bristol half-marathon a year or two before. Even the 10K distance that people spoke about seemed impossibly far, but in 2014 I signed up for my first 10K race, the Superhero Run in London, and gave myself a few more months to get in shape.
I trained by running about 5K around my neighbourhood a couple of nights a week. It always made me sore - I still had no understanding of stretching or hydrating properly - but when the Superhero 10K came around my body held up well. I even had enough strength left at the end for a little sprint finish. For the run I raised some money for the children’s charity HealthProm (www.healthprom.org): while I still couldn’t see my son, I wanted to feel that I was doing something good for children.
Thanks to running regularly, and the care I had taken over my fitness in the 18 months without Andrew, when he came back into my life in 2015 - now aged two - I had much more energy than I had felt before. On trips to the playground (which I still ran past some evenings) he was like an extra weights session: I enjoyed lifting him up to the top of the slide as much as he enjoyed sliding down it. I worked on my strength to make sure that as Andrew got heavier, I could still carry him in my arms for the same length of time. Running after him felt easy.
I ran my first half-marathon in 2017, in Copenhagen, finishing in a couple of minutes over two hours. I thought back to the 2K run three years earlier that had almost made me sick. For the time that I had a new partner in my life, when we would spend time together with Andrew, running and fitness was how we would all bond.
Because we both enjoyed keeping fit, Andrew learned to love it too. Some of my happiest memories are of us all running to a bus stop together (him - aged four now - keeping up with us over a couple of hundred metres), us taking him to play rugby for the first time, and of us all swinging kettle-bells in the garden. Because we always ate healthily, Andrew has a taste for rice-cakes and Skyr - not pizza and cheesecake.
Now that there is only two of us again, my dream is for running and fitness to be ‘our thing’ - what Andrew associates me with, and what he looks forward to before seeing me at the weekend. At five, his running style is much lighter and more efficient than mine, and it is something that he really enjoys. In the park it’s getting harder to chase him. He thinks you always have to run to a bus stop.
I want to enter us into a parent-and-children’s fun run this summer, so he can have a medal of his own, to go with the ones he enjoys playing with at my flat. And I hope that one day, if only once, we can play cricket together on the same team: when Andrew is 13 I will be 40.
As I wrote at the start, running and my son are both happy stories in my life now. When they happen together, they are the happiest I ever feel. But there is still sadness too. Just keeping physically fit hasn’t been enough to take care of my mental health; I have understood recently that I still have a lot of work to do to manage all of my emotions healthily. So, I am beginning cognitive behavioural therapy next Friday. It’s a couple of kilometres away from Andrew’s school, 15 minutes after I drop him off. A healthy little run.