Sweet charity

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It’s that time of year, if you were one of the people who applied for a London Marathon ballot place back in April, when you find out if your 12 to 1 shot was successful. Which means odds are you got home this week to find a copy of Marathon News with “Sorry!” splashed cheerfully across the front cover.

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You might have had a particularly stressful couple of weeks: an overwhelming workload or bad news from your family or disquiet in your social group or another abject loss for your football team. You might have run home from work that day, hoping to shake out your worries, been just about approaching normality again, then seen the parcel on your doormat and your heart might have sunk once again. Maybe that’s just me.

Alright; I am overdramatising the situation somewhat. Not getting into London for the third time in a row is a bit disappointing, but if I’m going to hang my chances of happiness on something, a 12 to 1 shot is a poor choice. In any case I have my health, and plenty more going for me besides.

Compare that with the thousands of families affected by cancer or heart disease; or the children born deaf or blind or both; or those afflicted both by mental illness and the stigma attached to it; and my disappointment at not getting through a marathon ballot is pretty pitiful. That said, I could do something about my disappointment AND help the less fortunate by taking up a charity place. Or could I?

My reasons for wanting to run the London Marathon – and I only really want to run it once – are entirely personal: because it’s my hometown event and because it’s an experience like no other. I want to tick off another classic race on my list, not to test myself or to break a new boundary. But if my only chance of doing it is by asking my friends for sponsorship again then I’m effectively asking them to subsidise my hobby. I don’t feel right about doing that.

Many of the charities offering places for 2015 require a minimum donation target of £1800-£2000 per person. This is for very good reason – the event represents a huge opportunity for income (not to mention publicity) for these charities, and the London Marathon has a strong tradition of fundraising, fundamental to the ethos of the event ever since its inception in 1981. Not everyone can finish a marathon, and let’s be honest, sponsorship isn’t just for the 26.2 miles at the end but the 6 months of training leading up to it. It’s a no brainer really.

But – and I’m going to sound awfully arrogant here – what if finishing a marathon isn’t that much of a challenge to you? Obviously it’s a challenge to any human being, but surely more so to a first timer or someone not obviously athletic than to a regular long distance runner. It can of course be a challenge for other reasons; more and more now we see people running dressed in outrageous and bulky outfits, or while knitting at the same time, or carrying an actual fridge on their backs. But if I just want to run a marathon, is London the event for me?

My first marathon, as I’ve mentioned here before, was Edinburgh in 2013. I had set myself a challenge to raise money for a charity – specifically, Macmillan – to repay the wonderful work they did caring for a friend of mine who had died of cancer a few years before. Mum and I had applied to the ballot for London and failed, were afraid of not being able to reach £4000 in sponsorship between us, and so decided to do Edinburgh instead. Even though our minimum target was a much more achievable £750 each, we got pretty close to the £4k between us anyway. It was easy because I was passionate about the cause, and because I was passionate about the cause I could drag myself out of bed and onto dark streets to train even when I wanted to be curled up in bed with a packet of ginger nuts.

The next year we failed to get into London again, so we signed up for Brighton which runs the week before. This time I was raising money for the other charity who had nursed my friend through his final months, CLIC Sargent. I felt as strongly about this cause as I had Macmillan and I had always intended to do two marathons so both charities would benefit, but this time I struggled even to make my £400 minimum. Was it because it was so close to London, and everyone who was going to sponsor someone had given all their money to the higher profile challenge? Was it because I was running alone this time with mum pulling out injured, and missing out on support from her friends and family? Or was it simply harder to persuade people to sponsor me to do something they already knew I could do?

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The thing is, despite the reasons for doing Edinburgh the first time round I now run long distances for me. I run them because I love them, because they give me freedom, because they give me the headspace that is so rare in this 24-hour constantly-connected age. That’s what they mean to me. That’s what I mean when I say it’s not that much of a challenge; not that it’s not difficult, but that there’s no hardship involved for me. By the same token, there are some for whom the challenge of finishing a 5k is the equivalent of climbing Everest. My finishing a marathon today doesn’t deserve anywhere near as much recognition as that.

Of course charities don’t see it that way, and likely as not neither do my friends – they’re a pretty generous bunch – so I realise this is basically my capacity for overanalysis exceeding itself once again. I could suck it up and do it for a charity anyway, put that extra bit of hard work into the fundraising effort and make a crucial few hundred quid for someone who needs it, because at the end of the day it’s not about me. Following that logic, I probably don’t deserve a ballot place anyway. London is all about community and inclusivity and bringing the sport to more and more people each year, which is precisely why the applications outweigh the available places by larger and larger margins each year. Soon enough, even the charity route will become a lottery in itself, so oversubscribed the event has become. This is a brilliant thing. There SHOULD be thousands of people clamouring to raise £2k each for charities who rely on the spare change in our pockets. There are plenty of other marathons out there that don’t require runners to fundraise. And anyway, aren’t I always going on about big city marathons not really being my thing?

I just can’t let London go though. However selfish or facile my reasons for wanting to do it, the only person I need to justify them to is me.

So, I’ve decided not to enter via a charity again this year; I can’t run with a fridge on my back and I’m not sociable enough to organise coffee mornings or raffles. Those places really should go to those who will make the best use of them. I will however do the one thing I can do, which is offer my services as a marshal or bag handler. If one day I am lucky enough to get through the ballot, well, I’ll run my bloody heart out. But for now I’ve got five other marathons lined up to prepare for. I’m pretty lucky even to be able to say that.

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Ealing Half Marathon 2014

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September is something of a spike in birthdays in our social group – presumably all my friends’ parents had more than their fair share of fun on New Years Eve – and 1984 seems to have been a particularly popular year. Obviously, all the coolest people were born in 1984. Ahem.

So how do we celebrate three 30th birthdays within the space of 8 days? Why, by watching QPR play away of course! Duh.

Which is how I found myself, the day before the Ealing Half Marathon, smuggling four bottles of vodka onto a rattler train from Southampton Central to London Victoria via most of the south of Britain (including a stop on the Isle of Wight, I’m sure of it), accompanied by eight miserable QPR fans all lamenting a poor display by the team and an even poorer one by the fans. St Mary’s is a ground QPR had never lost at before the game and Southampton are often excellent value; not for no reason did they start the day nudging the Champions League spots. Last time we visited St Mary’s we got a stopping service there which took us on a grand tour of the Home Counties, costing less than a tenner for the return fare. We ended up with a win for QPR (one of only four that season), our photo in the local paper with a man in a bath full of baked beans, a disco in the first class compartment, and one of our number spent the night in Paddington hospital. Yeah, we’re that sort of football fans. Sorry.

That was great fun last time, we thought. Southampton are terribly good hosts, QPR have half a chance of getting points, and the two and half hour journey back on a basically empty train will doubtlessly turn into something even the Romans would find OTT. Not so.

Bad enough as it was that QPR lost – despite a swoon-worthy second half volley from Charlie Austin – the day was pretty much ruined when a coked-up meathead two rows away rounded on a guy and his 8 year old kid in the row in front of us – ostensibly for the crime of complaining about a poorly executed short corner but odds are anything would have set him off – and started laying into them. I mean he properly went for them, screaming and throwing arms and everything. And after he’d been removed by the authorities his son took over, shouting abuse at a terrified (now crying) kid and his dad, for no reason. Scum of the earth.

A little shaken by the episode, and having missed about ten minutes of actual football by now, we turned back to the game when an unfamiliar chant came drifting down from the back row of the visitors stand. It had been going for parts of the first half too, but we couldn’t hear then what they were saying over the rest of the cheering. We heard them now. Suffice to say, it succinctly covered every angle of bigotry and violence imaginable, aimed at a black ex player who recently left for a rival club. Never have I been more embarrassed by a QPR fan. Although it has to be said I never saw that cokehead family or the racist idiots make it to Yeovil away or Sheffield Wednesday away (midweek) or Middlesbrough away; there’s maybe a handful among the thousands of decent people, they only really come out of the woodwork for the brief spells QPR spend in the Premier League, and they represent only themselves.

So, Saturday night was not a well slept night. Obviously I didn’t get drunk, I’m not completely stupid – the four bottles of vodka were an ambitious gambit on Andy’s part – and I made sure I was in bed by half ten at the latest. But I still couldn’t sleep for hearing that poor kid’s terrified cries and the racist chants ringing in my ears. Some things cannot be unheard.

I got up at 6.15 on Sunday morning, bleary eyed and heart already racing, and stumbled to the station. At risk of a real first-world-problems moment when I got to Wimbledon and found all the coffee stalls still closed, I rounded the corner for the District line trains and found a bunch of similarly bleary eyed runners and a girl manning the till alone at Costa, somewhat surprised to see so many people before 7.30 on a Sunday, and still trying to find the scissors to open the milk. Insufficient baristas in a coffee shop on race day is like insufficient bar staff on match day: playing with fire.

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I’d been looking forward to this race for months – this fixture is always a highlight for me, it would be the first race I’d run for six weeks and it was my first time running a half marathon since Ealing last year – but I was far more nervous than I’d like to admit. Since last year, I’ve lost a fair bit of weight and my form, pace and stamina has improved in leaps and bounds. Question is, how many leaps and how high the bounds? I knew in theory I should be aiming for sub 2:00, which would mean shaving over 8 minutes from my previous time, but was that really realistic? Would I be knackered from the night before (attendance at which, needless to say, was a three line whip), and was I overestimating how long I could hold up a decent pace? I’m not fast, I’ve never been fast, I kept telling myself. Just keep around the 9 minute mile mark for as long as you can.

So I squeezed into the starting pen behind the 2:00 pacers, switched on my iPod, and shuffled towards the timing mat. Ealing is very well organised, but like any large race it takes a while to let the pack thin out through the opening straight. Hovering too near the pacers was a dangerous game, and a game that plenty of others were playing too, so I pulled in front of them into clear air where I could follow them from the front, so to speak, and if I dropped my pace too much later in the race they could scoop me up.

It was a gorgeous day; slightly too hot and dry to be classed a perfect day for running, but just sunny enough to come away with some dodgy tan lines. Feeling strong but not taxed around an 8:30 minute mile pace, I basked in the sun for a bit and enjoyed stretching my legs. Before I knew it, the 2:00 pacers were nowhere to be seen.

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Race tactics is a thing you only really learn through experience. How do you strike the balance between going out too hard and leaving it too late to make up time? While there’s anything more than a mile to go, the only strategy I know of is to run easy. By that I don’t mean within my capacity or slower, I just mean listening to my body, allowing my limbs to move the way they want to rather than forcing them into an uncomfortable rhythm or straining to keep pace. Sometimes, that means speeding up when a slow plod is making me feel heavy, or lifting my knees when my feet hit the ground too hard, or pulling my shoulders back when I find myself reaching forward for the next step. You’d be surprised how much faster you can run with good posture.

Another good reason to keep your back straight and head high is the local support. Despite being only three years old it’s clearly already very popular, and although it doesn’t exactly have the party atmosphere of London or Brighton there’s rarely a ten yard stretch without someone clapping and cheering everyone on. In fact I quite like the civilised, genteel applause that follows you round and the dozens of kids eagerly waiting for high fives – although you know me, I’m not exactly a party person. Unless I’m on a rattler train to Southampton.

And then I realised what had been making me smile all the way round. It wasn’t the sun, although that was lovely. It wasn’t the high fiving kids – well, it was, but it wasn’t just them. It wasn’t the exuberant and tireless marshals, or the local residents cheerfully helping out at the water stations so no one would have to wait for a bottle. Everywhere I looked, among runners and supporters alike, I saw QPR shirts. A community of fans wearing their colours with pride; dads and their children in matching strips, a gang of girls with hand painted hooped vests, middle aged men running in their replica shirts, all reminded me of the motley gang of Rangers fans that kept an eye out for me when I first moved to South Africa Road. These are the people I call my fellow fans, not the cokehead clan or the bigoted Neanderthals with their nasty songs. This is West London – not glamorous or perfect, but home to me and home to my team.

Unsurprisingly, given that it’s a London race, there are quite a few switchbacks along the course which means plenty of opportunities to see the elites and faster runners glide by. It also means, on a course with a few short sharp inclines, that what goes up must come down, so it’s rare that you’ll have to climb a hill and not get to freewheel down it later on. In actual fact, the course isn’t quite as hilly as it seems but there’s definitely enough twisting and climbing to keep you on your toes.

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I’d been keeping half an eye on my pacing band, but I was way ahead of it by the time I turned the hairpin on Cuckoo Avenue at seven and a half miles and even spotted the 1:50 pacer about 300 yards ahead. Of course, I’ve done this before – ooh look, I’m on track for a good time I KNOW I’LL SPRINT THE REST OF THE WAY oh no crash – so I kept my cool and held my pace steady, reasoning that I could gradually catch him up over 5 miles without too much extra effort. Having run it twice already I knew where the sneaky inclines were hiding and when I could really open the throttle, and when I finally saw the 12 mile marker I switched to my playlist of upbeat music to carry me home.

The last mile wraps around Lammas Park – site of both the start and finish lines – before turning in towards the centre so it’s quite easy to think you’re closer to the end than you actually are. For most of this stretch the route is lined with supporters cheering you on to the end, giving everyone a hero’s welcome. The last two times I ran this race I peaked too soon and found myself tiring before even reaching the final 400 mark, unable to appreciate the crowds, but this time I shifted up a gear and kept an even pace all the way home. I crashed into the finisher ahead of me at 1:50:39, nearly 18 minutes faster than before.

I’m always saying I’m a long runner not a fast one – and I’m under no illusion here, after three years of busting my balls to reach a pace many others start off at – but my improvement didn’t come through a program of intense speedwork, or high-altitude training, or eating only minted peas for a month. It came from a gentle increase in miles every week, drinking a little less alcohol and eating slightly less junk food. The weight loss made running easier, and the running helped the weight shift quicker, simple as that. But most importantly I ran only for enjoyment, not as a chore, and without denying myself the little pleasures that get me through a week.

Last time I made a concerted effort to improve my speed I did too much too soon, became disillusioned with the lack of improvement and almost gave up running altogether. It became an exercise in self-flagellation. I had to convince myself to leave the house, I felt guilty about every pint or packet of crisps and started to compare each lost second to potential culprits – was it that Snickers bar that made me go slower? Did missing that run to go to the football ruin my chances of a PB? I was miserable.

Since Ealing last year, the only sub-marathon distances races I’d run were the Petts Wood 10k and Bromley 10k, and they were both pretty taxing. I knew then it wasn’t the race’s fault, it was mine. I knew I had to change my mindset, incentivise myself with something that wasn’t finite or unsustainable. And I had to stop punishing myself. The 50 Mile Challenge back in July – and the inspirational Gil: “miles mean smiles” – switched on a lightbulb for me.

So, I’ll continue to follow QPR around the country with my obnoxious little band of train yobs, and I’ll enjoy that as much as I always have. And at the same time I’ll continue to run whenever and wherever seems like fun. I’m 30 years old this year. I’m too old not to have fun.

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Gimme fuel, gimme fire, gimme that which I desire

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This time last year, my mother and I had been rejected for the London Marathon, and fearful that we wouldn’t be able to raise the minimum amount required for a charity place, decided instead to enter Edinburgh. Although mum had run London in 2000 (13 years younger and 5 stone lighter, as she reminded me regularly) it would be my first marathon and the longest distance I had run beyond a half.

We arranged regular weekly runs together, we calculated the miles we would need to cover, we looked up training plans and exercises and advice on form. We tried carb gels and energy drinks and protein bars and identified which ones made a difference and which ones inflicted us with Montezuma’s revenge. As we upped our running distances each week we tried all sorts of weird and wonderful kit until we found what we were most comfortable in (as it turns out two bras, two bumbags and a brand loyalty to Asics). And finally, having planned a run/walk strategy that we could both deal with, we plotted a 24 mile walk up and down the Thames path one sunny Sunday in May so we knew what it felt like just to cover the distance.

We forgot one thing. Any guesses?

The Thames path is my favourite running route for many reasons. It’s like a cross section of London, carrying you alternatively through both affluent and poor areas, historical sites and new developments, industrial concrete grey, warm fiery brick and fifty shades of vibrant green. Hugging the river’s edge is like having a Sherpa with you every step of the way; not one of those fishwife GPS trackers you get in cars that shout at you to U-turn, more like a St Bernards gently nudging you in the right direction when you’re too tired to care. Depending on where you pick it up from you can follow it as far as your feet will carry you, and yet never be far from public transport if that turns out not to be anywhere near home.

Our hike that day was due to start at Embankment, where we would track the Thames going west along the north bank all the way to Kew bridge, and then over the bridge to the south bank which we would follow back to Wandsworth and eventually home. Literally bouncing out of the station like a pair of joeys (to the surprise of some hipsters doing the walk of shame), we cheerfully zigzagged around the Houses of Parliament and the evergreen gardens of Chelsea and in no time found ourselves alongside the peaceful Fulham Palace Park. We were still pretty fresh, not to mention feeling smug about our healthy breakfasts and our energy bars, when my mum look wistfully across the water at an ice cream van parked outside the Star and Garter on the Putney side.

“I want a proper 99. Haven’t had one in years.”
Like the sort of white lie you tell a child to avoid a tantrum, I said something I didn’t really intend to honour. “If he’s still there on the way back we can get one.” I stopped short of raising the fact that would be in something like 18 miles time.

Next up was Hammersmith, a prime example of schizophrenic London. Only a few hundred yards inland you can find your standard rough looking estates, chicken shops and graffiti. The strip along the water’s edge however is like something out of a costume drama – all picturesque pubs and impeccably groomed bankside gardens. We planned which of the gingerbread houses we would buy when we won the lottery and where we would moor our modestly furnished longboat. And then we smelled food. Delicious, gastropubby, hot, nourishing food. And then we looked at our Powerbars, and realised they weren’t going to cut it.

Not yet being even halfway we didn’t exactly panic, but it was a bit of a dampener on our otherwise bright mood. Either the psychosomatic effect of the smell or the fact that we were actually getting hungry started to hit us, as the needle on our fuel gages brushed the red line. By the time we passed Chiswick Eyot and lost sight of a bridge in either direction, mum was flagging hard. The energy bars rationed for the whole journey were almost through, and I could tell her temper was shortening. To make matters worse, I had optimistically spotted Kew Bridge two bridges too early, meaning that after three times declaring us nearly there she was inclined not to believe me when we did reach it.

And as the path leading up to the main road and the bridge crept into view, so did something else. Probably the world’s most expensive sandwich shop.

I can’t say it was worth nearly ten quid for two sandwiches (handmade in a mere HALF HOUR and lovingly packaged in chic little origami parcels, which we immediately and unceremoniously tore off) but if you’d given me a scabby donkey wrapped in a poncho right then I wouldn’t even have stopped to ask for salsa. How did we forget food? After all the planning we had done – lists of accessories, hours agonising over whether to wear shorts or tights, hiding bottles of water all over our persons – how did we forget the only thing a person can’t run without: fuel?

I can take a stab at a couple of reasons for this – for starters both mum and I were still a little preoccupied with losing weight and somewhat foolishly were concerned with taking on too many calories, rather than concentrating on taking on enough. In worrying about overeating we had massively underestimated how many calories it takes just to walk that far. It’s not that we didn’t know that you need a lot of fuel to run, we just assumed that walking used a lot less. Lesson very much learned. The whole point of the walk was, after all, to find out what we would need to cover that distance; what we learned is that staying on your feet for that long requires fuel, even if you are only walking. I don’t know why even I assumed walking would take a small fraction of the calories required for running – just existing means a minimum of around 1300 calories each day for me. Fundamentally though, I don’t think either of us are at the stage of thinking of food as fuel. We started with what we liked and then chose the items most likely to help, not the other way round. Hence forgetting to take on some slow-burning carbs and mincing around with fashionable pods of glucose instead. What a pair of wallies.

And we still had 10 miles to go. As soon as the last bite of her tuna sandwich was gone my mum’s mood picked right back up and even the prospect of another 3 hours of walking didn’t immediately dispirit her. We were going back the way we came on the south side of the river now now though, even less populated than the north, and being overtaken by the same dog running rings around us put her a bit on edge. I had the Runkeeper app going on my iPhone, tracking our route and pace, and I could see our mile timings were getting slower and slower. I know from experience that when your feet start to weigh heavy is when you need to get a bloody move on to avoid the psychological wall, and that the longer spent on one’s feet is less time spent relaxing them, but in seeing how far we’d come on the other side of the river mum was struggling with the constant reminder of the distance left and we slowed. To make matters worse, what should have been a wonderful inspiring view became endless miles of GREEN GREEN AND MORE GREEN. Almost every day I marvel how lucky I am to live in a city and still be surrounded by nature. NOT TODAY.

When that bloody dog finally scampered off ahead – not sure if I was more pleased it was gone or annoyed that it had overtaken us – we were almost as far as the first of the rowing clubs that populate the south side, and finding a dry concrete bank used by the rowers to drag their vessels to the water, we decided to rest for ten minutes. By this time every little niggle was a nightmare, and mum had to switch to my spare pair of socks to alleviate the pain of a blistered heel while I basically bathed in Tiger Balm and stretched. The break seemed like a failure to keep up the pace at the time, but in retrospect we should have planned one much earlier and restored our energy instead of plodding on at a soul destroying speed.

Only a couple more miles to Putney, I thought, if that. If we push on we’ll be back in Wandsworth and turning into Garrett Lane in time for dinner. My optimism did not help mum. I was told to shut up.

So, we hadn’t planned our fuel properly, or our rests. Rookie errors. We’ve learned a lot about intake of carbs and effort levels since then, and if there’s a running magazine or training plan we haven’t read between us in the last year, I wanna know about it. But what we stumbled upon next was something I can’t ever imagine Runners World recommending.

Approaching Putney Bridge the pubs became more frequent and the ducks less so. The path widened to a pavement which became a road, and on that road was parked… the ice cream van. I’m telling you now – however much fuel your body needs your soul wants its fair share too. Like a pair of Enid Blyton characters we skipped up to the window and ordered two 99s covered in red syrup with two Flakes in each. I can’t speak for the nutritional value of a double Flake 99 but I can confidently speak for the morale boost (not to mention rediscovered sense of humour) it gave us on our final three miles home. Of course we had deserved it, but I don’t subscribe to the carrot and stick approach to exercise because it’s a system too easily duped, so I didn’t see it as a reward. Fairly obviously, it was no longer a fuel issue either, unless the E numbers in the optimistically named “raspberry syrup” are some kind of superfood. I saw it as a symbol of pure childish joy, the thing that makes me enjoy a sport I am so totally uncompetitive at. I run so I feel like I’m 4 again. I run so I can still tear about with boundless energy, like I did when I didn’t care about grownup things and wasn’t afraid of zombies. I run just because I can.

All I remember of the rest of the trip was openly and hysterically giggling at a man in tight stonewashed jeans pulled up so high he had a full-on camel toe. 29 and 55 years old respectively, and that amused us for a good forty-five minutes. For all our diligence and earnest, the camel toe and the ice cream are what we always talk about when we talk about that walk. I checked the estimated calories spent when we got home – 2,316 according to my Runkeeper, set to my height and weight. 150% of the calories I usually use in a whole day spent in one walk. No wonder we were so crotchety until we got that sandwich and ice-cream. I introduce you, dear readers, to the definition of the word hangry.

So what did we learn? What we knew all along – that in life, a person needs food, water, and a little bit of joy.