'I'm fit for the London Marathon thanks to my Lycra tights and aerobics,' says Labour heavyweight Ed Balls
20:54 GMT, 21 April 2012
A toned Ed Balls before his big run on Sunday
The snow is coming down thick and fast. It’s January and I am six miles into a ten-mile training run. My legs are stiffening up and suddenly I’m anxious – very anxious.
It’s my first Saturday morning circuit of Pontefract race track in 2012. Give up now and I will fail to finish a critical milestone in my London Marathon preparations. Keep running and I may end up snowed in at the car park.
‘Speed up, Ed,’ shout a couple of walkers, as their dog yaps around my stiffening legs. The path is barely visible and very slippery and, as I pass the four-furlong post, the wind is bitter. What am I doing here Whose idea was this
A fit rugby player in my teens, a good footballer in my 20s, I have been a couch potato ever since. Gym Too boring. Swimming Too smelly. Golf Too time-consuming. As for jogging, is anything more dull
So you can imagine my horror when, 15 months ago at a fundraiser, I was backed by the chief of my favourite charity to run the London Marathon. Er, what Heavy-boned, 45-year-old, 16st me The assembled supporters clap loudly and my face locks into a rigid grin as I laugh off the ‘joke’.
My wife Yvette [Cooper] is more serious when I arrive home clutching my Whizz-Kidz marathon T-shirt. No way, is her view, I will never make it beyond mile 20.
I fear she may be right, so for five months I dismiss the idea as a pipe dream. I try going out for a run round my local park – once – but after a mile I’m exhausted. Back to the couch.
But I begin to wonder. When I watched the 2011 Marathon, far older and less fit-looking people than me seemed to be managing OK. More importantly, I think of the two causes I would love to run for – Whizz-Kidz, the disabled children’s charity I worked closely with as Children’s Secretary, and Action For Stammering Children, a charity close to my heart. As a lifelong stammerer, I know how tough and isolating keeping a stammer under wraps can be.
Whizz-Kidz put me in touch with one of their marathon advisers, Nick Berners-Price, whose advice was clear – it can be done.
After 20 years sitting behind a desk and lying on the sofa, serious running has to be the sure-fire route to injury. So three times a week, I do step-training at home for 40 minutes, using an aerobics step, plus stretching and core work using a flexi-bar, a weighted rod you shake to throw yourself off balance while doing exercises. It is odd to be training for the Marathon while never going for a run, but I’m feeling in good shape. And then, photos of the annual MPs football match make it on to the front pages of the papers.
Ed decided to step up his training and turn fitness finatic after seeing this picture
My bulging figure tells a different story; not much sign of the ‘squeezed middle’ in those shorts.
Those photos are motivational, so on October 6 my running begins with two miles around Hackney’s Clissold Park, and four miles at Pontefract racetrack the following weekend. Just, maybe, I can keep going for five miles. But 26.2
Once my breathing slows, running is a beautifully calming experience, especially on a cold, sunny day, and I prefer to run solo so my mind can wander off and think about nothing except the next lap. I establish a pattern. One short run during the week of three or four miles around Clissold Park; one session on the step in the front room; fortnightly sessions with Nick; and a long run every weekend around Regent’s Park or Pontefract.
So I finish my first ten-mile run (two hours 29 minutes), despite the snow. My training is on target.
In February, it’s decision time. For months Whizz-Kidz have held open a Marathon slot for me but the organisers need confirmation today. Yvette’s views are clear – I know she thinks it’s crazy. So do my office team. Yvette thinks it’s too far, but my office have a different view. They point out that no Cabinet or Shadow Cabinet member has ever attempted to run the Marathon.
If I finish, great. But if I don’t, what then
Ed Balls in his more usual attire with Labour leader Ed Miliband at the annual party conference last year
I’ve sworn enough people to secrecy in the past few months to make sure I can’t back out easily. And I want to do it, so the email goes off, and moments later I receive my confirmation. No turning back now, but doubts still nag away.
I go to Pro-Fit on Chelsea’s King’s Road to get a set of computer-modelled insoles, and a problem in my left ankle caused by a lop-sided running action is eased as they even out the surface of the shoe.
I endure the laughter of the family and have a proper sports massage. Lying in shorts on the kitchen table feels rather undignified but it works wonders on my aching hamstrings, stopping a tightening that caused real discomfort after mile 12 of a training run.
On Easter Saturday, there’s good news. After six half-marathons and extra runs, my suits are starting to hang off me a little. I haven’t lost any weight but my shape is changing as I get fitter.
My longest training run of 20 miles had been postponed for a week because I had a nasty cold. But at 8am, with rain threatening, I set off for four hours and nine laps of Pontefract racetrack. My extremely attractive Lycra running tights have solved the nasty thigh chafing that can hobble the best of runners.
Eating carb-containing gels keeps up my energy, but after 18 miles I feel light-headed and my legs are filled with lead. So far I have not hit the ‘wall’ – the barrier that stops even elite runners in their tracks – and the marathon runner’s nightmare.
But I battle through as I now believe I have the stamina and willpower for the job. After 20 miles, I scramble into the car, drive home and fall straight asleep.
So, today is the big day. The furthest I’ve done since the 20-mile run is 13 miles. I’m told more training will be counter-productive, using up energy I need to preserve for the race.
I’ve had a week of healthy eating, no alcohol and rest. As the starting gun goes off and, along with 36,500 others, I set off on those far from lonely miles, wish me luck. If you see me give me a cheer. Good grief. Whose idea was this anyway
Ah yes, I’ve remembered, it was mine.
lYou can back my run for Whizz-Kidz and Action For Stammering Children at justgiving.com/teams/edballs.