• Idle Chit Chat

Last night a radio DJ saved my life: An ode to Jo Whiley

I started running for two reasons: one dreadful, one not. They were listed, as haphazard bullet points in my diary, like so:

- Running could make me happier

- I want to lose weight - my favourite Reformation jeans are starting to pinch

I wish I had possessed the confidence, and lacked the vanity, not to have bothered with that shameful little second bullet point. I knew that I should be content at any size, and the slight cinch of some striped denim flares did not amount to a failure. I also knew that my running ought to have been firstly and foremostly a decision made for internal reasons (my happiness), as opposed to external reasons (my thighs). It would have been wonderful and feminist and sensible to have taken up running without the tiniest notion of, or desire for, weight loss; but it also would have been a lie. However, dishonourable as my intentions were, they propel me into ordering a clunky pair of trainers from Amazon, and so I begin.

A quick google of ‘running to lose weight’ leads me to the Couch to 5k running app, an NHS scheme designed to inspire activity amongst a generation of sofa-bound Britons.

“I have downloaded a running app which I will no doubt pay attention to for all of six days before quitting and resigning myself to a life spent in less exciting trousers,” I observe that evening in my diary.

The app is simple enough to use. I am first met with a short series of questions: my age, gender, weight, and height. I happily tap away at my screen. Then, a more complex puzzle: “What are your intentions for running?” I hover over the weight-loss button, embarrassed to admit my narcissism to the NHS. I reluctantly press it. “It will be our little secret,” I think, nodding to Aneurin Bevan in the sky.

From here, my athletic trajectory is laid bare. According to the app, I will run three times weekly, and the training will follow an ‘interval style’ (short, nasty bursts of exercise, followed by short, still quite nasty, walking breaks). Within eight weeks, I will be running for 30 minutes (which equates roughly to 5K). I already want to quit, but a glance at the too-tight Reformation jeans - stowed sadly away to a lofty corner of my cupboard - sparks a sharp feeling of anger in me and I persevere.

For my first run I’m told to pick a coach. A recorded voice, who will supposedly guide me through this hellish experience, dispensing running tips and chatter. There are three narrators to choose from: Sarah Millican, Jo Whiley, Claire from the NHS. I click on Jo Whiley. I don’t think about it much. I like her more than Sarah Millican and Claire is a perfect stranger.

We begin slowly. “We’re just going to jog for sixty seconds, then walk for ninety seconds, because, well, any longer than that and you won’t want to do it! It’s all about easing yourself into it,” Jo soothes through my headphones. I anticipate that I might find this sort of chippy motivation from a robot-mentor, grating. I picture Jo Whiley with blonde blow-dried hair and grey skinny jeans, sitting smugly in an air-conditioned recording studio, as I puff my way through muggy Putney streets. I want to resent her, and yet, as her narration continues, I cannot resist the feeling that there is something impossibly likeable about her. In a role that could be patronising, Jo is magically devoid of superiority. “You are doing really well, you are, believe me,” Jo assures me on our first run together. Written down the words look trite and hollow, but spoken by Jo they feel sincere and encouraging, believe me.

And so I go back for more - not because I crave the elusive runner’s high, but because I cannot bear letting Jo down. Weeks One, Two, and Three clip by quickly. I find myself looking forward to our mornings together, craving the way Jo punctuates my breathless jogs with sage jolts of wisdom. Her timing is so impeccable that I sometimes wonder if Jo might be clairvoyant. Just as I contemplate collapsing, her voice will cooly surge through my headphones: “If you stop, you’ll never be able to start again. Do. Not. Stop.” She is a magical mixture of militant and maternal, I cannot work out if I love or fear her; regardless, I keep running.

By Week Four I am starting to wonder if I even like running, or if I just like Jo Whiley. I casually refer to her in conversation now, as though she were a therapist or confidant. “Jo said the most insightful thing to me the other day,” I tell confused friends at the pub. “Sorry, I wish could stay longer but I have to run with Jo tomorrow morning,” I announce, swinging my backpack over my shoulder, preparing to leave early.

Week Five, however, marks the arrival of an unprecedented turn. Up until now my runs have not exceeded eight consecutive minutes, but by Week Five, Jo breezily tells me that we will run for 20 uninterrupted minutes. The news is outlandish. Reading my mind, Jo chimes in, “it sounds mad, I know, but take it slowly and you’ll be fine.” And so I dutifully heave myself across pavements, clinging onto Jo’s every word.

After 16 minutes, I start to tire. Jo has gone quiet and Bishop’s Park feels lonely. I might give up, I think to myself, on the uncommonly hot June evening. My hair has become a painful combination of sweat and frizz, and I am moving so slowly that I worry it may not constitute a crawl. Defeated, I stop; sinking onto a park bench, and angrily wondering what sort of a self-respecting 23-year-old cannot run for longer than 16 sustained minutes. I exit the app, knowing secretly that I have given up too quickly, and take the bus home.

“Couch to 5k is a stupidly designed scheme, might just give it up entirely” I vent into my diary that evening, “AND Jo Whiley’s Glastonbury coverage was actually really average,” I add, in a lie that stings even to write.

The next evening I come home from work early, to find the house empty, but with the radio on. It’s a trick we have to play on our skittish dog Maisie, to abate her constant fear of abandonment. As a rescue labrador with an unrelenting case of anxiety, we turn the radio on when we leave the house to con her into thinking she is not alone. It (sometimes) works, and that night Maisie is sleeping so soundly, she doesn’t even notice me come in. As a nondescript Coldplay song swirls to a close, a familiar voice cuts through the airwaves: “and we actually have Guy Berryman, the band’s bassist, in the studio today with us” announces the presenter, causing me to stop in the hallway. It’s Jo Whiley, of course it fucking is, my brain screams, as I feel increasingly like a derailed Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, haunted by ghosts of Couch to 5K’s past.

I am not a spiritual person. I don’t believe in fate, I laugh at horoscopes, and I was confirmed into the Church of England because I was promised a nice lunch and a silver necklace out of it. But, standing in the hallway, listening to Jo Whiley make polite small talk with an irrelevant member of Coldplay, I come dangerously close to a bedside conversion. It’s a sign, I think, dropping my bag and racing upstairs to put on leggings and trainers before I have time to change my mind.

Running two days in a row is actually against the app’s guidelines, but on my second attempt at the 20-minute challenge I feel a determined change. “You should be proud of yourself for doing this,” Jo forgives me, as I pad my way down the towpath.

When I pass the 15-minute-mark I begin to worry about a repeat of yesterday’s tantrum. I brace myself, turning the volume of my headphones up in an attempt to drown out the stitch that is knitting itself tightly inside my stomach. And yet somehow I am fine. This evening the air is cooler and the running oddly easier.

At around 19 minutes I look down at my legs. They still don’t fit into the Reformation jeans (I tried them on that morning), but they look different now, more purposeful, as they gently pound against the dusty park. I admire them quietly, uninterested in their size, marvelling instead at their capability. I am, strangely, content. Twenty minutes of running is not much, but it is enough for me to realise that I am lucky to have a strong, working body; one I should relish, and value as something more than a clothes hanger. “Thank you, Jo Whiley,” I whisper, as I regain speed, and run home.

- Maddy Fletcher