“Come on, join up, it’ll be fun.” A mum from the preschool where I dropped off my son was encouraging me and my husband to join her gym. I had never had a personal trainer before and I was unsure if I could perform up to the standards that were expected. I didn’t really even know what personal trainers did. But I was so keen to meet people and make friends in my new city, I agreed to sign up. Our first session wasn’t too terrifying, and soon we were integrated into the group. We did the boxing and spinning and push-ups and weights with the rest of them. But when we went outside and had to run, well, that separated the groups. Sure, I could do 700 shoulder presses while peddling a stationary bike, but I couldn’t sprint up a 100m hill in under 30 seconds. That’s when I saw that there were two types of people in the group: those who were gym fit and those who were running fit. I was in the former group, and I was sure I would never move into the latter group. Those were real runners.
We were training outside one day when they went past. A streak of white and green. The Sydney Striders running club. Even though I had improved with the personal training group, and I was the fittest I had ever been as an adult, I still couldn’t fathom being a part of an actual running club. Sure, our gym group would do sprints and hills and even some longer repetitions in the course of our 90-minute workouts, but running clubs — no way. Over the next few years, I would always see the white and green singlets at City 2 Surf and the SMH Half-Marathon and other events. I even spoke to some of them. They seemed to be very nice people, but I was sure I could never be one of them. No, that wasn’t for me. Those were real runners.
Eventually, I realised that the running was what I liked best about the personal training, so I started signing up for more “fun runs”. Through some crazy middle-of-the-night online madness, my husband and I found ourselves registered for the Sydney Marathon. We fumbled around, trying to run as much as possible, but without really having any plan. We rocked up at the start line with very little understanding of what to expect. Sure, we’d done some half-marathons and some various fun runs, but we had never experienced 42.2kms of continuous running. We went into it with a naivety only matched by giving birth to one’s first child. Only because you have no idea how much it’s going to hurt do you show up on the start line with a smile on your face.
3:52. I finished my debut marathon in 3:52. Was that fast? Was it slow? I really had no idea. I didn’t know if it was something to be proud of or something to mutter excuses about. I remember lying on my back in the Botanic Gardens after the event, with my legs propped up on a tree trunk thinking that I would need someone to carry me out to Macquarie Street to get me home. Would an ambulance driver do that? I wondered. All around me, people were laughing and slapping each other on the back, meeting up with friends, exchanging funny anecdotes about their races. And there was the Sydney Striders tent. All of those satisfied, experienced runners, in their exclusive little tent, eating special runners-only foods, sharing special runners-only secrets. I watched them enjoying their post-run high while I lay there on the grass, unable to move. Those were real runners.
I somehow found the strength to get up after God-knows-how-long, and I immediately put on my “FINISHER” teeshirt. I thought if I wore that all the rest of the day, people would understand why I was limping around and looking so exhausted. We got back to our house, and later that night, still high on the endorphins from the race, signed up for the Comrades Marathon: an 89-km race through the mountains of South Africa. I don’t know what we were thinking. There is some kind of invincibility that one feels after achieving something previously considered impossible. So, there we were with exactly one marathon under our belts, thinking we could take on one of the toughest road races in the world. In parenting terms, it’s like having a newborn and thinking you might as well go for triplets next since you’re so experienced.
We decided we needed to leave our general fitness group and get some proper running coaching. A friend had told me about a running coach in Centennial Park, Sean Williams of SWEAT Sydney. A running coach? What a big step, I thought. I’m not prepared for that. Running coaches were for real runners.
But we needed help from someone, we knew that. Sean’s sessions were within a five minute walk to our house and he charged less for a month than the PT did for a week, so we dived in. At the same time, my husband signed us up as Striders. I call it our 24-hours of insanity.
My first few months as a Strider consisted of looking lovingly at my new green and white singlet and reading the club’s magazine from the comfort of my couch. It would be at least half a year before I was brave enough to wear the green and white in public. I had been afraid of being exposed as a fraud when someone saw me in the singlet and watched how I ran. Sure, anyone can sign up for membership, but the people who wear the singlets are real runners.
Then we slowly started to dig in, participating in weekend training runs. Eventually, we were nominating as”Sydney Striders” when we signed up for races. And we were wearing the white and green, Regularly. We went to our first Awards Ceremony and watched in awe as various members were called up on stage to receive trophies for their achievements during the year. Wow, I thought. I might be able to sign up for the club, but I would never be good enough to get an award. Those were real runners.
And then one year, I got an award. From the club president. I was thrilled beyond belief. Oh, my goodness. I had worked so hard. I had trained and raced and been disciplined. I did it. The club president was shaking my hand. That was amazing. Being in charge of a running club. That was something I could never dream of. Being club president. He was a real runner.
Last week I was elected Vice President of the Sydney Striders, a club that I used to believe was so far above me it might as well be a star in the sky. And now I am helping direct the club, leading the membership into a new year of challenges and opportunities. It is quite amazing for a girl who started out in a gym in Rose Bay, watching “real runners” fly past.
As I look back at this journey, I wish I had realised that there really is no such thing as a “real runner”. Anyone who puts on her shoes and propels herself forward with at least one foot off the ground at a time is a real runner. There are fast runners and there are slow runners, for sure. There are daily runners and there are weekend warriors. There are professional runners and amateurs. But we are all runners. We should never sell ourselves short, believing that only the next level is “real” running.
By April Palmerlee
April Palmerlee is a wife and mother of four. When she is not out on the road or trails April is working on her own business Pink Skirt Productions and race directing for The Southern Highlands Challenge. April is also an RMA ambassador and Vice President for the Sydney Striders running club.