It was around 2017, I was a passionate cyclist living in London and I loved mornings. I’d discovered over the years that I’m most hopeful when I wake up. This led to planning activities during 0500-0900 before the 0900-1700 workday. It was like finding the bonus disc of a DVD (millennial reference) – and realising you’d been missing out on a whole bunch of good stuff. Morning walks with a friend, cycling to a bakery that was just opening or focused hours on writing and illustrating. When I recently heard about a group of runners who self-organised mid-week half marathons before nine, I was immediately fascinated. As someone who adores sport, I was eager to witness the raw physical challenge but more nosily, the buzz, emotion and spectrum of thoughts they shared at the finish line.
Many self-help books and click-bait YouTube videos, loudly exclaim the life-changing benefits of waking up early and ‘smashing the day’. I’m not here to talk in those terms. People’s brains, motivations and life conditions are far too varied for a ‘one size fits all’ approach to how a successful 24 hours is cultivated. It would be dishonest of me to say every time I start a day with exercise, or a morning activity, everything else that follows is beautiful and transcending. It just shifts my mindset periodically into one of optimism, flow and calmness. And we all have different times when that happens, that pocket of time where the ambitions we have during vulnerable reflection are aligned with what we are doing in that very moment. Through the story of the half marathon before nine, I wanted to share one route towards that – the morning.
Our minds are complex little things and figuring out how to motivate and inspire them is a life-long journey of successes, failures and inevitably the realisation that there’s no secret sauce. Some days you have it and other days you’re an a**sehole to yourself. What I’ve found in my experience is that community, habits and simple intentional activity can be an antidote to the forever wandering and unforgiving self. Simply put, having plans with good people. Given how busy and relentless our lives can be this can feel indulgent and overly reductive. But our daily existence has become so driven by set time-frames we believe are immovable that we’ve possibly forgotten there’s an option to change them.
“Habits gradually change the face of one’s life as time changes one’s physical face; and one does not know it” – Virginia Woolf, diary entry, April 13 1929
Who says the commute has to be a train journey only? What if you boarded the train part way and jogged the rest? Who says the evenings can’t be for micro-adventures – packing a picnic and sitting in the garden with your partner or kids if there’s no time to visit a park? For me, it was the early morning hours I could most control and therefore could intentionally fill with adventure, curiosity and craft that otherwise wouldn’t fit into the day.
In the morning the world appears more friendly, like seeing that strict teacher in school at the weekend in her ‘normal’ clothes. There’s a quietness. Humans are constantly emitting fizzing energy but that low level buzzing we feel from others is sleeping. The day promises possibility – the person and character you want to be is still there for the taking. And anything you achieve feels somewhat more special – as if you’ve found a secret level of a game with gold coins no-one else has access to.
This group of runners organising half marathons before nine experience this magic level every Tuesday. A subversive start to the day which allows them to see the city through the eyes of a child who’s visiting London for the first time.
They meet at 0630 which at this time of the year means waking up in the dark, putting on your uniform and watching the sun rise fully in time for the start line. For the next 2.5 hours they weave between roads, houses, parks and other visual feasts around the capital. A small huddle of humans being propelled forward on the empty roads by each other’s heartbeat and promise of coffee at Climpson & Sons on Broadway Market. After a short celebration whilst their endorphins are working overtime like oompa Loompas in a chocolate factory, they grab their backpacks and head to work.
Who says your long run has to be a Sunday? This group of runners aren’t just teaching us how to fit more running into our lives. They’re teaching us how to question habits and routine and cultivate new ones. How to remind ourselves of the impact of community - the combination of two Latin words. 'cam' means together and 'munis' means serve i.e. Serve together. During all of our progression as a civilisation, it’s these simple terms that have somehow become muddied.
It may seem tough to set your alarm an hour earlier (and you can totally ignore this if mornings just aren’t your thing). But if you want them to be, your mind may find it easier if you provide a plan. Just like getting in a taxi is more effective when you tell the driver where you’re going. Set an intention tonight – no matter how small – and see what you uncover in the morning. It’s not a mission to add more. It’s a journey to focusing on less. Half marathon or half an hour reading. Starting that novel or starting a short conversation with a friend. It won’t drastically change your life overnight, but it’ll change your morning. And waking up with a clarity and purpose, for even a small window, is sometimes all the hope we need.
See the limited edition Half Before Nine newspaper