Through an accident of genetics and opportunity I was something of an athlete as a teenager, running the 400m and 800m at school, and completing my first (and, so far, only) marathon by the time I was 15. But with the end of school came a more laissez-faire approach to fitness – I still ran, but usually only for the bus. By the end of 2013, I could count how many times I'd been for a run that year on one hand. So I made a commitment to try ("resolution" seemed too concrete a concept) to be fitter in 2014.
Which is how I came to start running again – and immediately hated it. I did 2.5km on my first go, and felt like death warmed up. The second run didn't go much better, although my running app told me triumphantly: "your old record never stood a chance!" The one thing I hadn't banked on was the loneliness and the boredom, even with a carefully curated playlist of Beyoncé, the Smiths and Kanye West. It turns out I hate running alone. And then, after complaining bitterly on Twitter, I got an invitation to join JoyRun.
This more sociable approach to running is the brainchild of Elelta Demissie Tafesse, 32, an IT professional and radio producer. She has completed more than a few international half-marathons but as her life became more hectic, had "fallen out of love with running", so set up JoyRun last August.
It's a running club that ... isn't really a running club. For one thing, they meet only on a monthly basis, and for another, the aim is pure joy – hence the name. Elelta tells me it's a "no pressure" venture: you don't have to hit a certain pace, no record-breaking (unless you want to) – and lots of music. Frankly, she had me at "no pressure"; I put the date in my diary.
I turn up and meet Elelta just after 10am on possibly the windiest day of the year. Soon, others join us – there's Tahirah, a writer, who's done a few half-marathons herself, and Charlie, a designer, who's using the time between dropping her daughter off at ballet and going to a "baby rave" later in the day to log a few kilometres, and then Ese, Chantel and Steven. We get to know one another, chatting about everything and nothing. Inevitably talk turns to the weather, but not because conversation stalls – it's just that windy.
We warm up by stretching to the sounds of Pharrell Williams, the selected artist for this run. Every JoyRun has a theme – last month's was "BoybandRun", and previous months have included the "RnBRun" and the "SocaRun". We jog on the spot in time to Happy, stretching our arms and legs, and set off along the canal.
The pace is the right side of leisurely, but after a kilometre or so, I am more than a little out of breath – and feel the beginning of a stitch. When I slow right down, and begin to walk, one of my co-runners is at my side, asking if I'm okay. A tip is offered: raise my arms above my head, tighten my core and bend away from the side of the stitch. It works. We carry on going, sprinting up a couple of hills, chatting among the group and saying hi to other runners on the route (some reply, a few don't). We even stop for a couple of dance breaks and more Pharrell-themed hits thanks to the tiny speaker Elelta has strapped to her backpack.
I can honestly say that this is the best time I have had while running for ages. I had never met any of these people before but you can't tell – there is a lot of encouragement, and easy camaraderie.
As we cool down in the park again, we exchange social media handles and someone brings up their book club, asking if I want to join. It is the easiest 5km I have ever done. I can't stop smiling.
If you'd like to join in, register at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit the website for all the playlists