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Interview: Alexandra Heminsley

Alexandra Heminsley, 38, is a freelance journalist, author and broadcaster, who described her experience of sport at university as “eating bags of Walkers crisps while watching Cindy Crawford work out videos from the sofa – trying to smoke off my hangover!” She took up running in 2007 in order to run the London Marathon. Five marathons later, in 2013, she penned a book on her running journey, entitled Running Like A Girl. In 2015, she has set herself the challenge of running 1,000 miles and learning how to swim in the ocean. 

In what sometimes seems like a moment of madness, I signed up to run my first ever race, the Oxford 10k, on May 10th. However, like many a student I can find it a challenge to drag myself away from the procrastinator’s favourite, the Facebook News Feed, and get myself round University Parks. I asked Heminsley about her thoughts on running motivation and procrastination, especially during the cold and wet winter months.

“In terms of busyness, 5k is a really decent run and if you get up to a decent fitness that’s about half an hour. I refuse to believe there are people who want to run, but believe they’re too busy, who aren’t spending maybe 90 minutes a week messing around on their phone. Those half hours do exist. It’s a matter of choosing them. And then when you have done it you feel like you’ve reclaimed a bit of your life back. I don’t remember what I possibly got when I was sitting in a chair scrolling through Facebook, but when I’ve been for a run and then I kind of think ‘Ah, I haven’t got time to look at that now, I’ve got to get in the shower, I’m freezing,’ you feel like ‘Oh I got that bit of my finite time on Earth, I got that back and did something decent with it.’ It’s a matter of how you sell it to yourself.

“The thing about when it’s cold and wet and miserable and you go for a run, it’s like you reclaim the weather! I was thinking that today when I was running back from swimming – I hadn’t checked the forecast, I didn’t have the right kit on and I got absolutely drenched! And actually I felt like, ‘Screw you! I won’t be told when it’s appropriate to be in and be out.’ It’s not forever, it’s probably half an hour of running. When you’re outside in the rain for shorter than the washing cycle that is going to be cleaning the clothes anyway, it can’t be that bad!”

Last month, SportEngland published new research showing that 2 million fewer 14-40 year old women play sport regularly than men in the same age bracket. Despite this, 75 per cent of women surveyed said they wanted to be more active. In response, SportEngland has launched the ‘This Girl Can’ campaign, which is “a celebration of active women up and down the country who are doing their thing no matter how well they do it, how they look or even how red their face gets”. The campaign’s advert has reached over 5.6 million YouTube views in just two weeks. Heminsley shared her thoughts on the reasons behind this gender gap.

“Partly, it is that women tend, not always, to be less competitive. They sort of seem to bracket fitness as an indulgence, almost as if it’s an unnecessary whim, rather than something really fundamental that will lengthen your life; stop you using the NHS so much; make you happier; your hormones more balanced; make you use the food that you eat more efficiently and make you eat better anyway. Whereas a way that a lot of men approach sport is that’s it’s integrated, you know, five-a-side football or whatever, it’s part of the fabric of their lives.

“Exercise is largely sold to women through weight and looks. But the minute you start exercising regularly you realise that you just don’t really care what you look like when you’re doing it. You feel a kind of untethering from, ‘Oh no this will make me have thin legs’ and a tethering towards, ‘this will make me have strong legs that I’m proud of.’ Yet sport is still consistently marketed to us as a kind of luxury to give you the perfect, bikini-ready image.

“I think the ‘This Girl Can’ campaign has been magnificent at counteracting that. I absolutely love it. There’s a massive moving screen at Brighton station and I see it every time I go to London and it just makes me smile at these women just having an incredible time sweating and loving life.”
Heminsley’s personal sporting goals for 2015 are to run 1,000 miles and swim in open ocean. “For three and a half years I was constantly in this loop of the training plan for a thing, and now my only goal is to get the – however many – miles done per week to keep up with myself. So I’m running back from swimming, and I thought that would be the most horrendous exhausting thing in the world! But actually you’re so lovely and warmed up and loose it feels like nothing. If I’m half an hour out, I’ll put on my running backpack and I’ll run to Waitrose and pack it all in my bag. So sometimes I’m running really slowly because I’ve got like a chicken and a bag of potatoes in my backpack and some of the time I’m literally just running up and down my road because I’ve worked out the miles a bit wrong and I just want to get the right amount done today.

“It’s made me realise that running also has a purpose beyond fitness, like I can get to places by running! And I’m really enjoying that. I feel completely unshackled from the training plans and if I can do this time for this event. I don’t care, as long as I am running along the seafront in Brighton with a glass of champagne at midnight doing my final mile, I don’t care how I get there now!

“I took an open water swimming intensive day course last summer. I thought I would be fine; I thought I’m pretty fit and healthy and I was fairly sure I could do front crawl quite well as a kid and I’d done breaststroke on holiday and stuff since then. And it was horrific. I completely and utterly couldn’t do front crawl, my breathing was all screwed, and my legs were much heavier than my top half so I had a terrible position. I basically cried for most of the afternoon!

“So I’m taking a year long course in open water swimming and I’m absolutely loving it! It’s so much scarier than teaching myself to run because if you get tired when you’re running you can just pop your bum down on a park bench or just stand on the side of the road. But if you get tired and overwhelmed swimming, especially if you’re in the sea, you can die. So you have to sort your head out as well and make yourself strong enough to get done what has to be done physically. It’s turned out to be a bigger challenge than I realised. It seems like an unbelievable freedom to be able to swim in an ocean.”
Finally, Heminsley shared her top tips for starting running.
“The most important thing you can ever tell yourself with any run, from your first to your last, is that no part of your run will be as bad as the bit just before you head out of the door. Because you just dread it so much and the sense of doom so many people feel is so intense. But it isn’t all like that and you will have carved back a bit of your day for yourself and done something excellent with it.

“The mistake I made was to dart out of the door at what I thought ‘a runner should look like’ pace, and then completely put myself into stress and exhaustion in under five minutes! I think loads of people go for their first run, do that and then think that running is always like that, but it just isn’t!”

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