Every year I promise myself that this will be the year that my holiday will truly live up to its name. I will relax and do nothing for a whole week. I’ll pack a bikini, a vat of sun cream and a stack of novels and start each day with an epic lie-in, before bagging a sun lounger by the pool.
Then summer arrives, and once again I find myself cramming an extensive range of running kit into my suitcase, along with my wetsuit, bike shoes and pedals (that’s if I’m not taking the bike itself) and a selection of portable exercise tools. Last year in Greece, I was up by 7am every day in a bid to beat the full force of the sun. I ran 27 miles, cycled 113 miles, swam 3 miles, went kayaking, waterskiing and paddleboarding, oh, and did core exercises every day. Not everyone’s idea of a holiday (including me, at times) but though I came home bodily tired, I was mentally rejuvenated.
It’s easy to underestimate how energising newness can be when you’re feeling fatigued and jaded. You’re convinced bed rest is what you need, when maybe it’s simply a new routine – or a new route.
When we are on terra incognita – be it Skiathos or Skegness – our senses awaken. The air smells different. The light looks different. The ground feels different under our feet.
In Thailand, on an early morning run to a temple at the top of a hill, I met a local runner and ended up having breakfast with him and his family. That was over 20 years ago and I can still recall the morning mist shrouding the temple’s gilted tower – and the fiery rice porridge we ate. I don’t recall our average pace or how far the run was, though – which brings me to another good reason to step away from the familiar. Comparisons become meaningless. You can’t berate yourself for running your staple 5-miler slower than usual when the terrain, altitude, temperature and elevation are all different.
It’s precisely because they are different that holiday runs imprint themselves so vividly in our memories. New environments keep our minds and bodies guessing. You can’t slip into autopilot like you do on the well-trodden routes near home; you’ve got to step out your comfort zone and experience something new. Where does that road lead to? Will I come face to face with a wild dog/snake/grumpy goat if I go along that track? (Unlikely in Skegness, I’ll admit.) I wonder if there’s a path to the top of that hill?
All of this, quite possibly, will lead to getting lost. If I had a euro for every holiday run on which I’ve got lost, I could afford to upgrade to Strava Summit, and sit tight in the knowledge that Jeff will always be able to locate and rescue me. But losing your way can have its benefits.
Once I got lost among redwood groves on the return leg of a run up Mount Tam, north of San Francisco, and ended up bearing witness to the most incredible blaze of sunset over the Golden Gate Bridge. Another time, I found myself on the wrong side of a tall metal fence bordering sea cliffs in Portugal and had to summon up every ounce of courage to overcome my fear of heights and make my way along the narrow and vertiginous path.
Holidays force us to change our habits. And although habits can be useful (they allow us to get things done without too much conscious thought) they can also dig us into ruts that don’t allow us to challenge our boundaries, mental or physical.
Your fortnight in Florida or weekend in Wales provides the perfect opportunity to push back against the walls of routine. It doesn’t necessarily mean packing your running shoes – as I found in Greece last year, there are many other ways to work up a sweat and recharge your motivation. But then again, those trusty shoes don’t take up much space. And who knows what holiday memories you’ll create together?
This blog first appeared in Murphy’s Lore, my column in Runner’s World magazine.