The Jews who taught me to run
I have always been influenced by Jewish writers, from the biblical authors of my secular-Anglican childhood to an adolescence dominated by Franz Kafka and Leonard Cohen. One of the first books I reviewed in the mid-1980s was Primo Levi's The Drowned and The Saved, which probably did more to form my political outlook than any other work of non-fiction. David Grossman and Aharon Appelfeld taught me about Israel. I was late to discover Philip Roth, but now he is teaching me about America.
In journalism, too, Jewish writers have also been an inspiration. It is a tribute to the intellectual life of the UK community that, when I judged the Orwell Prize it would have been possible to fill the entire longlist with Jews.
So I had always assumed Jewish writers would influence my writing. But when I picked up the Guardian last July, I had not the slightest inkling of the effect two Jewish writers were about to have on my physical and psychological well-being. The paper had commissioned a feature entitled "Why I Run" in which writers had confessed to their running addictions. Jon Ronson wrote that he had been running every day since he met George Clooney and noticed that he was considerably less trim than the star. He talked about running for 40 minutes in one go and unfeasible distances of four miles a day. He claimed he had shed a beer-belly and even outrun muggers in New York.
Something clicked. Could it be true? Was it possible for a middle-aged man to run for more than a few minutes at a time?
I read on. I couldn't really identify with Catherine Bennett, who is not a middle-aged man and strikes me as someone who has never had a problem with fitness or weight.
I vaguely remembered the 'buzzy buzz' feeling
But Simon Hattenstone, whom I had spotted several times bravely labouring around north London in his running gear: could this be my role-model? The picture he painted was not obviously attractive: "Tight lycra shorts highlighting my belly bulge, wife- beater T-shirt, back humped after decades of pitiful posture, feet splayed." But he also talked about the "buzzy buzz" that comes from intense exercise, a feeling I vaguely remembered from team sports in my youth.
Another Jewish writer, the JC's own Simon Round, has been trying to persuade me to take up running for years. But his impressive tales of running home from central London to the outer edges of the northern suburbs were too dispiriting.
I began slowly, running around the woods at the end of my road. The most I could manage was 15 minutes but I began to take a certain pride in my limited achievements. As I built up my stamina, I wouldn't say the pounds dropped away, but I began to feel lighter on my feet and ventured further afield. As autumn turned to winter, I could dare to describe my daily run as "training".
Then, on one of the darkest days in November, a friend visited clutching a medal he had won for completing a 10 km race and challenged me to join him on the next one. Thus began my love affair with the monthly Regent's Park 10K. I completed my first race in a sluggish 50 minutes and though I was near collapse for most of the final lap I was delighted to avoid hospitalisation.
Messrs Hattenstone and Ronson talked about being addicted to running and certainly for me this has become an obsession. I have run the Regent's Park race five times, each with a gradual improvement. I even once ventured to Reigate for a race in the country. Meanwhile, the weekly Hampstead Heath Parkrun, a timed 5K race, also has me hooked. The web means I can now spend hours madly comparing my times with other runners of similar ability and age (I have a Run Britain handicap of 12.7 and an age grade of 65.1 per cent for anyone who cares).
I will be in Regent's Park again this weekend for the third race of the summer, hoping to improve on my time of 45.28 minutes.
So thanks Jon and thanks Simon for writing those words. I can't tell you what a difference running has made to my life. And thanks also to Maurice Raynor, the race director of the Regent's Park 10k, who emailed me from Israel when he heard I was writing this piece to tell me he had been in the audience at a London Jewish Cultural Centre event I had chaired. Perfect really that he turned out to be yet another inspirational running Jew.