Sunday, 21 August 2011


Left: a big cheesy grin

A few days ago I noticed a comment from a fellow runner on how we didn't have a lot etiquette; we don't do that "how do?" that country people do when passing each other on a ramble. Indeed we barely make eye contact despite the fact that cyclists almost dwell in packs and that so many of us runners lurk in social media nudging each other to join ridiculous events.

So we (a loose association!) started a campaign (and even looser sense of the word) to get more Runners Who Smile. Ok it's not really a campaign yet, but that's where my three readers come in (yes we dropped two after I posted pics of my eczema.) When you go out for a run, why not smile at the person you run past?! I mean, why not?! After all, I live in London, where everyone thinks you're a mugger / terrorist / fraudster if you so much as ask directions to a hospital and I gave it a try.

And the result?

Starting point: LimeHouse. Arrival by DLR. On the way down into the station, I pass two lycra-clad people with Garmins and give them a big beam. They look confused, either because they wonder why I am smiling at them, or because they wonder if which one of us is going the wrong way to a race start.

On the DLR, I practice my smile - not too enthusiastic, but gentle, in camaraderie. I try it out on the old man sitting next to me as I ask to see his tube map and he leaps as if I am asking for his wallet. When I give the tube map back he is hesitant: "are you sure, you can keep it?" he suggests, one eye on the door.

At Limehouse I am quickly on the waterfront. There is a man coming over the Basin Bridge looking like he needs some kit; clad in sweaty cotton and wearing a normal backpack. This, I think, is a man who needs a smile. I beam but he is looking at the floor and thuds past.

Undettered I seek out the next runners. A bit of a blur but I do remember coming across some nuns (not running) and gave them a hearty hello, have a nice day etc. They were blue, the nuns. I thought that was just a wine.

It was a warm day and as I plodded past Bethnal Green I had to stop, my heart rate was near 180bpm, my lungs were on fire and I was pumping ventolin faster than a kid inflating a football. I never want to run sick again. So I started off again with a bit of a heavy heart and decided that being a Runner Who Smiles was really going to help me get through 16km.

Man in Berlin Marathon T shirt was the next person to be very smiley (wish I wore mine).
There are a lot of runners on the Regents Canal, and a lot of serious and very good runners. There were not many people having fun I have to say. There was an awful lot of grimacing and groaning and looking generally like people were in a lot of pain. I had always thought it was just me who looked like this. Perhaps it was the heat? Perhaps that is just how people look around these parts when they run, you know, real and gritty. Or maybe I was just paying an awful lot of attention to people's faces because I was trying to catch their eye and make them smile. Just goes to show how much avoidance usually takes place.

At Hackney, near Ron's Eels I had a big cry. Not one of those crocodile tear cries where you think you're hurting but a proper bloody sob. I think it was because Snow Patrol was on (thanks Michael) and I was thinking of everyone I know who was dead and thinking a bit of a tight lung while running was nothing compared to cancer. Cheery stuff. Can you believe I was still trying to smile at people when this happened? Anyway, I crouched behind a block of flats, sucked a gel and wept. The Significant Running Other got me going again via text message and I hit the tow path again with my eye on the pace clock, even if running at a slower pace meant hurting my joints more, it hurt my lungs less.

Hackney's part of the canal with the nice cafes and shops, had been overtaken by a mega diversion inland and by road. A nice man in a yellow t shirt shouted over to get me in the right direction. I couldn't keep up with him and only just kept him in my sights. I felt better later seeing him stop to take a gel and on the home straight near Regents Park he passed me on his way back. He had the biggest and best smile on a runner but probably because it was the recognition that we were both out for a decent sortie.

A similar smile of recognition came from a man in a Paris marathon t shirt. We must have bumped into each other three times, who knows how.

The best smilers were hard core pros who seemed delighted that someone wasn't grimacing. A bloke who could have run for England was super cheery. The women never made eye contact, except one at Camden who sensibly turned back before getting lost in the market food stalls. It was a surprised smile but a smile none the less.

So that was my first run as a Runner Who Smiles. We have a hashtag, and soon will have merchandise (at the moment, I could afford to give every member a t shirt). I have contacted two running journalists in the hope of spreading the word but not got a massive response. I think celebrity involvement could change that. And some great sponsorship. And some less miserable runners.

And my smiling? Well I managed to either be poised to smile, or did smile at the hundreds of runners passing alongside me that made eye contact. But my individual smiling was pretty limited. There was a lot of grimacing until I got back to Baker St, when I ended my run with the Biggest Smile Ever. And that's why I do it. It feels good when you stop.

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