In London, I run every other night along the Thames. A sneaky dread hangs over the whole day beforehand. Running may not be strictly awful, but it is an effort, and who wouldn't rather slob in an armchair with a glass of wine the size of a swimming pool and watch Jeremy Paxman? Make no mistake, I'm a great advocate of vices, but – secular by catechism, Protestant by temperament – I have to earn them.
Some people find my schedule outlandish, but there's nothing exotic about the anti-social hours that my feckless freelancing facilitates. If I eat dinner at midnight, go to bed at 3am and get up at 10 (or so …), that's a regulation schedule merely shifted a few hours later. What it mandates, though, is that I start my daily exercise around 9pm, so I run mostly in the dark.
Hence my husband learned long ago to discount sudden bursts of affection mid-evening. He pushes my little nuzzlings and kissy-kissies away: "You're just putting it off." I mope to the drying cupboard, where my crusty gear has stiffened from last time. I don't even mind warming up; a few squats, lunges and toe-touches probably don't do any good, but they at least delay my departure 10 more minutes. Finally, after a soulful look at my husband – who glares with this "Don't you come near me, you make a mockery of our marriage with that procrastinating pawing shit" expression – there's nothing for it, and I'm out the door.
I doubt I'm alone in running exactly the same route, down to which side of each bridge I cross, every single time. And why not? However detestable the trudging bit, the route I trace surely constitutes one of the most beautiful runs in the world.
Especially at night. After skittering along a few grotty streets in my neighbourhood of Borough and dodging the usual splatters of pub vomit, I potter north over the Victorian iron of Blackfriars bridge. To my right, the illuminated dome of St Paul's rises over the sloop of the Millennium bridge, dotted with late-night museum-goers. Behind me loom two industrial edifices: Tate Modern, banded in glowing purple, and Oxo Tower, its funky retro signage gleaming in red. Left on to Victoria Embankment, heading upstream towards the West End. Restaurant boats disgorge tipsy girls in precarious heels and men in tuxedos. Trees on the opposite South Bank glitter with cobalt pin lights.
Chugging out from under the Waterloo and Embankment bridges, I can track the variable colour scheme of the London Eye's lights, some nights red, others blue or white. Back over Westminster bridge, trying not to ruin tourists' photos of Big Ben. Heading down the walkway towards Lambeth, I often scuttle past news crews interviewing politicians. Behind them, the grand floodlit verticals of Parliament shimmer in the wakes of pleasure boats; why, you'd never know the nation holds it in contempt.
I cross the river again on Vauxhall bridge, at the end of which an arbitrary lamppost is my turn-around point. I always loop the pole counter-clockwise. Then I retrace my steps. Every bloody step. The round trip is roughly nine miles – more than 14km – and how I'd love to be able to claim that over the years that distance has started to seem shorter. That it's got a lot easier. Uh-uh. It never seems shorter. It never gets easier. But then, exercise being hard is, you know, pretty much the point.
Still, there's hard and harder. Which brings us to seasonal distinctions. Even running in June has a dreary side – it's still nine freaking miles – but with that attenuated crepuscular light, and being unfettered by sweats and woolly hats, the air sweet and soft on bare legs and all, well … the enterprise borders on bearable. But then there's January.
A wind is almost always blowing along the Thames, and in winter that's not a freshening breeze but a chill rip. Once the howl gets fierce enough, it's like running headlong into an upright mattress. As if you're running not beside the Thames, but in the Thames. When the wind's velocity approaches gale force – which in the UK it does with gleeful frequency – it feels as if you're burning twice the calories for half the distance. There's something especially demoralising about the fact that wind is invisible. Rarely conscious of the fact that the atmosphere is churning like a smoothie in a giant blender, folks in cars glance disdainfully out their windows and think: God. Isn't she slow!
Likewise a little pitter-pat in summer is cooling; winter torrents are miserable. The lamentable business of grinding along will generally forestall hypothermia, but sweats get heavy, and it's hard to see. Mincing across the icy lumps from last winter's fluke London snowstorm took me 20 minutes longer than usual. (I don't recommend ice. Too high a falling-on-ass factor.)
Yet there's one massive upside to crap conditions: self-pity. The emotion has an undeservedly bad reputation, because I think self-pity is delicious. Furthermore, for people who work indoors, as I do, braving the elements in all seasons is at least an opportunity to appreciate that there are seasons. Without forcing yourself into the maw, it's easy to spend most of the year within some version of four walls – an office, the tube, a car – where the air is always still and it never rains, and the Earth's orbit around the sun effectively doesn't happen.
Running is also a great way to keep up with what's happening in your burg. I can tell when a parade is scheduled from the brace of police barriers lining the Embankment. I knew when the Battle of Britain memorial opened to the public, because I'd been running around its mysteriously boxed-off building site for months. I've followed the sedulous repairs to Westminster bridge since 2003, and I rejoiced when the reconditioned lamps were finally restored to their pedestals last year.
If going on lengthy runs is a way of owning a city – really living in your own city – it's also an excellent way to get acquainted with foreign cities. I run everywhere I travel: through the maze of cobbled streets in Barcelona's Gothic Quarter, along the Med in Tel Aviv, from the island of Kastellholmen to the Viking Line ferry terminal in Stockholm. There's no better formula for paying keen attention to where you are and what it looks like than fretting the entire time about getting lost.
For me, the regular rhythm of these slogs, the comparative quiet of a city at night, and the solitude of the solo jog serve a mental purpose. I solve problems on runs: how to end chapter 12. What to title a new book. What sauce to put on the salmon.
Of course, the biggest impediment to this contemplative serenity is other people. A high PII (Pedestrian Interference Index) will slow you down, and the relative scarcity of strollers, gawking tourists and darting children at night is the best reason to run in the dark. Gloriously, too, the lateness of the hour thins out other runners, the ultimate bane of running, especially for women. Overtaken by a mere girl, the average male is plunged into an ego crisis, and almost always passes you back. Then slows down again … It's tedious. Night running keeps these petty ad hoc rivalries to a minimum.
In truth, no matter how odious I may sometimes find it, I'd find it far more odious to be unable to run – from illness, injury or just worn-out joints. In fact, once I finally got back to my old routine after a strained hamstring had knocked me literally out of the running for six months, I coined a maxim, my antidote to self-pity: "Running is a privilege."
But that doesn't mean I buy into all that "runner's high" nonsense. To me, this is runner's high: punching my stopwatch and slowing to an amble. Shuffling upstairs and taking a criminally long shower. Popping a bowl of popcorn and pouring that glass of wine the size of a swimming pool, just in time for Newsnight. My runner's high has sod-all to do with endorphins; it's purely a celebration of the fact that, tonight at least, the run is over.