Updated: Sunday, 5th April 2020 @ 7:32am

The undiscovered art of running backwards

The undiscovered art of running backwards

By James Riches

It’s a crisp Sunday morning in Heaton Park, and 80 hardy souls are planning to run backwards for a mile in aid of community charity Forever Manchester. James Riches thought this sounded like a fun idea. But was he right?

My dad is laughing so much I can barely make out the question. In the end it is a simple one. Why?

It is a fair question, because I’ve just told him I will be entering the UK Backward Running Championships, and this is definitely not what he was expecting to hear.

One of his favourite photographs shows me taking part in a primary school sports day sprint. Grim determination is etched across my face as I dash for the line, not a rival in sight as I reach home.

However, look again and you will see that this is because they are all in the background, badges newly pinned to their vests by proud, beaming parents.

Not me though, I’m still trundling along as my dad perfects the laugh that echoes down the phone fifteen years later as I tell him I will be foregoing my usual Sunday morning mega-sleep to run a mile backwards.

As I’d filled out the necessary forms, I had delighted in my quirky undertaking, but as the day draws near I am scolding my recklessness as I stare at the gleaming new trainers that give me away as someone for whom running is normally reserved for the pursuit of ice cream vans.

With around a month to go, I ask organiser Sally Raynes for advice.

“Everyone says how tough the race is, so the more training you do the easier you will find it,” she says. “You should at least go out and have a couple of practice runs, and we recommend trying out a hill up and down as this is the hardest bit.”

This is dangerous, as she has presented me with a minimum requirement. Two trial runs? This will be easy.

In the days that follow I guiltily shuffle past the field next to my flat, unwilling to put myself in a position where my neighbours might see me and give me an amusing nickname. Backwards running is very much like shouting at a football referee. Do it in a group and you’re fairly inconspicuous. Do it on your own and you look a bit mad.

All too soon, I am standing shivering on the start line as Sally gives us our final instructions.

Of greatest concern is a phenomenon called ‘the wobbly legs’, a fairly self-explanatory affliction for which the sole remedy is ensuring a soft, grassy landing. Sally tells us that “if you get the wobbly legs, you will fall and there is nothing you can do about it.”

“We had four people break their arm last year,” she adds cheerily. My jaw drops. This is not mentioned on the website.

I have entered the presumptuously-titled ‘fun run’, which is preceded by a competitive race fought so seriously that it almost becomes comical.

The favourite is Garret Doherty, whose record stands at 7mins 30secs. He is the UK, European and World Champion, and has done several marathons. I suspect I am not a threat to him.

 “It’s the best form of exercise there is,” he says, his defensive tone suggesting that not everyone he meets shares this opinion.

“You burn way more calories than you would going forwards, and it also makes you use the right hand side of your brain.” For emphasis, he smashes his own record in 7mins 6secs.

I notice a fellow athlete dressed as a dog. The costume is thick, heavy and the occupant must be roasting. I cannot get beaten by this dog.

The start is utterly terrifying, as a cluster of runners all set off at different paces. I tiptoe along to the foot of the hill.

I’d been warned, and after about thirty seconds I wish I’d listened. My legs are screaming in protest, and I’m edging towards the grass in preparation for my wobbly pratfall. The dog is gaining ground.

I have to stop a couple of times, but I reach the top unscathed. Garrett has decided to go round again, and offers encouragement as he blazes past. I am halfway there, and at least it’s downhill now.

Except of course, I haven’t practised. If I had, I’d have known that running downhill is not so easy in reverse. The likelihood of falling seems greater than ever as I trundle blindly towards the lake. Passers-by hilariously shout that I am facing the wrong way.

Finally, I can see the last bend. I have a little rest out of sight before the turn so I can go for the sprint finish and look cool. My girlfriend, waiting at the line with a stopwatch, will later tell me I was fooling no one.

I finish in 17mins 30secs, but at least I beat the dog, which is now flat on its back attempting to peel off its head.

I’ve seen enough films to know that extreme physical feats such as this are supposed to leave you feeling elated and all-conquering, but I feel neither as I wait for the tram home.

I just feel knackered and achy, but at least I have a shiny gold sympathy medal for finishing.

I look around at the other passengers, smiling apologetically for my dishevelled state. Hang on. I’m the only Backward Runner here. And I’ve got a gold medal around my neck. As far as this lot know, this is a genuine symbol of victory.

I stand tall and puff out my chest. For the rest of the way home, I am a champion.