Community service

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Monday 18th May marked the start of Mental Health Awareness Week 2020, and what a flipping time to be raising awareness of the importance of good mental health.

Being a locked-down runner who lives vicariously through Instagram, I’ve seen a ton of posts about the links between physical health (usually exercise and good diet) and mental health. One is often credited with influencing the other, whether that’s low mood or lack of motivation making it hard to get up and move around, or the head-clearing effects of a good workout. You’ll find 3.5 million Insta posts under the hashtag #runningmotivation alone.

This is not to say that mental ill health like depression or anxiety can be instantly cured by a run: for starters, although they’re often quoted together they are two very different things, can be experienced for very different reasons and in very different ways depending on who you’re talking to, and they are medical conditions not to be treated like a mardy half hour. But we also know that both are more widely reported now than, say, 40 years ago, in which time we’ve also seen an overall increase in sedentary behaviour, the introduction of smartphones, and a shift in the patterns of social interaction. (I’m not going to talk too much about this here but I strongly recommend Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism for a study of the effects of social media on social interaction, including a correlation between the introduction of the smartphone and a rise in anxiety in young people.) In any case, unless we can control for all the variables that define life in 1980 and life now, we can’t know for certain how much technology or lifestyle contribute to this increase, if at all. But we’ve worked out that we can use that technology to retake control of our lifestyle.

So it’s understandable that our sedentary, screen-addicted society increasingly pursues the idea of mens sana in corpore sano (a healthy mind in a healthy body) by following popular diet programs, taking up a new sport or activity (parkrun and CrossFit being pretty notable among these), and using apps and social media to create virtual communities with no physical base, such as the Lonely Goat Running Club and Runspire. My gateway drug to running was a pledge to raise money for the cancer charities that cared for one of my childhood friends; I stayed with it when my self-esteem rocketed; now I run because it gives me a whole new community of people that I’m proud to call friends, as well as a sense of self-worth and, most importantly, of control, of autonomy. If the growth of parkrun is any indicator, it seems there are thousands of others that feel similarly to me.

And now, here comes 2020 to hit us in the face with a massive brick. A massive coronavirus shaped brick. Bye bye mental health.

If you’re putting your life at risk every day just so the country can still rely on healthcare, groceries, education and utilities, there’s a whole new level of fear to face every day, compounded by the possibility of PTSD or moral injury among healthcare workers. If you run a small business or are self-employed, the risk of economic collapse could well be hanging like the sword of Damocles, bringing the anxiety of not knowing (or even having control over) when and how to safely restart operations. If you’re grieving the loss of a loved one, you’re likely doing it with little to no support, unable even to give them a send-off that they deserve and left without closure. Lockdown has presented the UK with a sharp uptick in reports of domestic abuse, and if you’re one such victim you’re faced with even less opportunity to escape. And if you’re one of the furloughed, working from home, homeschoolers and caregivers, isolation is probably forcing you to re-evaluate everything you thought you knew. Including what it’s like to talk to another grown-up.

So why am I talking about this on a running blog?

Something at the core of Cal Newports’ plea to digitally minimise our lives; something the LSE blog linked above calls key to the resilience that is “essential for key workers’ mental health”; something at the heart of both parkrun and CrossFit’s values; something that, frankly, pays my bills. Community, assembly, shared experience.

I create theatre for a living, I have done all my professional life and before that I traipsed around on my mum’s coat-tails as she did the same. An occupational hazard of working in theatre is being regularly asked why, especially when it pays so poorly and isn’t exactly key work, and the short answer is those three phrases: Community, assembly, shared experience. Coming together to share an emotional response, positive or negative, to see one thing from multiple perspectives, is the bedrock of empathy. Theatre, literature and the arts all allow us to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, and this is crucial for our sociological development as a sort of low-risk exposure to the unknown. As humans we naturally commune, for safety and for fun. Assembling with others is how we tread the path to civilisation, whatever we believe that to be.

So for me there are obvious parallels between theatre and running, and it wasn’t until I had both in my life that I realised how the experience of one helped me articulate the other, and vice versa.

This article, which first appeared barely a fortnight into the UK and US lockdown hit the nail on the head for me. To quote: “The coronavirus is so insidious because it attacks one of the central yearnings of human nature, which just so happens to be the bedrock theatre is built on: our desire to assemble.” I think you can replace the word “theatre” with “running”, “football”, “gaming”, “a vegetable growing club” and it’s still true. My clubmates at Clapham Chasers don’t just give me motivation when I can’t be arsed to run, they help me see my own value when I’m feeling worthless and encourage me to help others through my experiences, to pass on the torch. It’s no coincidence that I don’t blog as much when I haven’t seen them for a while. However we choose to do it, assembly and social interaction provides us with an invisible armour, physically and emotionally; you only know it’s there when you need to use it.

Quoting from the LSE blog again: “Resilience is personal, organisational, family and community… that’s why our ‘clap for carers’ on a Thursday evening may have such significance for frontline workers beyond the immediacy of expressed appreciation.” We look to our community, whatever form it may take, for validation and for growth, for support and for constructive feedback. That doesn’t mean we don’t occasionally want to tell that community to sod off, but by and large humans are designed to be pack animals, not lone wolves. To me, it seems obvious that community is how we will survive the lasting impact of coronavirus, mental and physical, the same way it has done for countless threats before.

In much the same way that the war effort was credited with bringing Britain together, lockdown has highlighted the true heroes of the community, both among our selfless key workers and those who volunteer to support them. We’ve also seen more than enough examples of self-preservation, people behaving somewhere on a spectrum between blind panic and outright selfishness. Stress encourages us to classify information quickly as either good or bad so that we can respond appropriately to a perceived threat: during the chaos of the pandemic we have become accustomed to categorising people as “heroes” (Captain Tom, NHS staff) and “villains” (beachgoers, Hyde Park protesters). Presumably these binary definitions make for good headlines when there’s bugger all else to report on apart from death tolls, but the consequence is that you’re defined as either a good person or a bad person and you have to pick a side. To someone familiar with the curse of anxiety, this can lead to the logical conclusion that if you’re not a good person doing good things – fundraising, delivering sandwiches to NHS staff, staying alert and saving lives – then you must be a bad person. Even if the government instruction was, for starters, actual instruction as opposed to polite requests and secondly, completely unambiguous, I think the fear of somehow becoming a villain and being ostracised by the greater part of society will manifest as yet another risk to mental health.

How can we combat this? Well, a good first step is to be careful about the news you read and employ critical thinking. Evaluate and analyse the information you receive: its provenance, the source and its motivations, the details available, the age of the information (i.e. breaking news is not as trustworthy as an editorial summary a week later, for fairly obvious reasons). If you’re not sure what critical thinking means this might help.

And if we continue to be presented with heroes and villians, I think it’s important to use critical thinking to humanise “the villains” rather than demonise them. Did the loo roll shortage leave you wiping your arse with pages from the Tambury Gazette? How annoying. Still, ask yourself why people reacted to a global pandemic by panic buying. Better still, find an article that does it for you. Perhaps you’re a runner who suddenly found their usual route full of dog walkers, or someone on their government-approved stroll on a country lane having to veer out of the path of cyclists. Who’s in the right in each circumstance? You have to believe it’s you, because if you’re not the hero, you must be the villain.

It’s easy to mistake a kneejerk response for a rational perspective, but this is where community in all its forms can help. Perhaps we can’t physically assemble right now, but we can be together, we can try to exercise the empathy we developed once upon a time, and it might take an extra effort but we can do that. For instance, do you need to post that tweet about your neighbour’s annoying VE Day party? It was stupid of them, have a word if you have to but maybe leave the rest of the Twitterverse out of it. Social media, which has been a breeding ground for mental health risks for years, could be one of our only ways to assemble, but platform by platform it’s fast turning into a swamp of bile and fury. Zoom, Skype and Portal will soon be the only safe spaces left.

We must recognise that anger is a consequence of fear. Everyone has a right to be afraid but civilisation means resisting the temptation to turn every fear to anger. Our key workers go to work not knowing whether or not doing so will kill them, but knowing society depends on them. There are people trapped at home with their abusers, or their own torturous thoughts; despite the best efforts of the furlough scheme there are people scraping at the bottom of their overdraft to pay bills and buy food, not knowing when they’ll get income again; there are people overwhelmed by a double workload and half the resources to do it; there are people experiencing how isolating it is to be a stay at home parent, even though you’re never alone; there are people asking themselves what there is left to live for, if not the life they knew up until now; all of them are experiencing fear. If any of these sound like you, remember you’re not alone. You’re in that massive grey area between heroism and villainry just like the rest of us.

What I’m trying to say is: be kind. Be empathetic. If you can afford to stay home then stay home, because as far as we know isolation is the best possible defence against the spread of the virus (and because the sight of a beach crammed with sunbathers must be pretty frightening to a COVID ward nurse right now). But if you can’t – and there are many reasons why that might be – let’s not walk straight into a mental health pandemic by villainising each other. Community spirit isn’t about everyone doing the same thing, but doing what we can for each other. Assembly cultivates empathy. Empathy is what will keep us together when we can’t assemble.

I’m going to leave you with this BBC article which summarises the more practical ways to take care of your mental health right now, and some useful links below for those in crisis.

And then I’m going to pour myself a drink.

Love and cake xxx

For the UK:

https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/guides-to-support-and-services/crisis-services/helplines-listening-services/

https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/mental-health-helplines/

https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/coronavirus

For the UK, Ireland, US and Canada:

https://www.crisistextline.org/

 

 

Perfect is the enemy of great

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This is a post written in two parts: before Coronavirus and after Coronavirus. Settle in with a drink, if you’ve got any left. 

BC

Perfect is the enemy of great.

Like almost everything I know about the modern world, I found that quote on Instagram.

Have you ever had one of those moments where you can’t think of the exact right word, or even the words to describe it, and you skirt hopelessly around it like a tipsy Christmas day game of Taboo… and the person next to you gets it straight away? That’s how I felt about this quote. I didn’t know how to articulate myself, but apparently the internet has a babelfish to my brain. As soon as I found this phrase, I realised just how much I have been trying to be perfect instead of great.

I have grasped at the edges of this philosophy so many times over the last two years, and for want of a way to articulate it I’ve given up and ploughed merrily on, somewhere between fear of failure and fear of doing nothing. Now I think, perhaps they’re the same thing? Perhaps, to mitigate the risk of failure, I’ve been trying to give myself more chances at success in something, anything. There must be something that I’m successful at, and success means perfection. And if I’m not going to be perfect at it, why bother trying it at all.

Because the difference between success and perfection isn’t always that easy to recognise, is it? If you were to ask me what I’ve done since June 2018, I’d probably say not much. I’d be thinking, “well I DNS’d that race, and we missed out on our big honeymoon, and I’ve not been keeping up with the blog, and my uni grades have been so-so…” I’d be thinking of all the targets my scattergun approach to achievement failed to hit, not remembering that I’ve been firing with ten fingers on ten different triggers. Achievement is much easier to remember if it has context. Failure is memorable regardless.

Here’s the thing – I’ve actually ticked off quite a few things from the bucket list since we last caught up.
I am now OFFICIALLY an Associate Member of the 100 Marathon Club, having completed 50 marathons and ultras. *smug dance*
I’ve done my 100th parkrun and my 25th volunteer stint 🙂
I’ve started my dream job as a production manager in a producing house. It’s literally the answer I’ve given every time an interviewer asked “where do you see yourself in x years”. NOW I HAVE TO THINK OF A NEW ONE.
I’ve passed my first half year of uni with a respectable result. Not bad considering I barely got GCSEs in the subjects I’m studying.
I got married, rescued one and three quarter cats, renovated the hallway, embraced my Turkish eyebrows, got my QPR season ticket back, started therapy, and finally won a ballot place for the London Marathon.

The problem is, I don’t immediately remember these moments. (That last paragraph took as long to write as the whole rest of the post). I remember the races I didn’t start or finish; I think about how much sooner I’d have hit my fiftieth if I’d done them all. Or how much my average time has come down, or how long it’s been since I went sub 4, or ran 50 miles, or how Western States doesn’t seem to be any closer. Focusing on perfect has made it impossible to recognise smaller successes, let alone enjoy or remember them. And in being so afraid of documenting failure, I have to admit I gave up on writing full stop… forgetting that the reason I started this blog in the first place was to share and to reflect.

And to challenge myself.

2020 target – 20 challenges:

Including…
London Marathon – and finishing with a GFA time. YES I SAID IT.
Sub-23 parkrun again
Race to the Tower in a day
Autumn 100. Adam M, I’m getting my name on that list if it kills me.
Ealing Half Marathon, sub 1:40

to be continued…

AC

To anyone who guessed that it would literally take a global pandemic for me to get off my arse and finish this bloody post: congratulations! You win a bonus bog roll. (Disclaimer: may be made of the unread pages of the London Marathon commiserations magazines…)

How many times have I sat down to finish this and not even opened WordPress? Behold an increasingly inventive list of diversionary tactics. Weekday evenings are so tiring. Maybe I should try another blog platform. I shouldn’t spend my weekends blogging. That old classic about not having time. Look, a moth.

Talk about taking your own advice…

I started my job last April with good enough intentions: take your lunch breaks, don’t get caught up in other people’s projects (subtitled: don’t be a busybody), don’t volunteer for all the exciting jobs, leave time for running and uni and life. Because that’s who you are.
But-
London training plan!
so many fun shows
learn calculus in three weeks kthnxbye
ooh new books to read
we need you we need you we need you
did you learn calculus yet
new book stack getting highhhhh
SHINY BAUBLES
So there I am, knee deep in work again, frustrated with myself for slipping into that well-worn groove: NOTenoughtimeNOTenoughtimeNOTenoughTIMEnotenoughTIMEnotenoughTIME

When suddenly, wrapped in a big velvety bow: time.
My job is to make things that bring hundreds of people into a room together. As I write, that doesn’t look likely to happen for months. I can’t pretend I’ve got my head around that yet.

Having been too busy to finish anything seems like a churlish thing to complain about with the context of the last two weeks, in this new reality. My dream job – which has been more like one of those exhilarating, exhausting, directed-by-Michael-Bay type vivid dreams – now consists of me replying to emails from home, with no shows to production manage and next to no human interaction. Two weeks ago a 50 hour week was me taking it easy. Soon I’ll barely be able to fill 5 and 4 of those will be on Zoom.

Wary as I am of productivity porn, I did a thing that makes me prouder, in a way, than all my challenges combined. I spent last week and a great many Post-It notes reconstructing and practicing my ideal daily timetable. Instead of waiting for routine to find me, I finally went out and tracked that wily bastard down, and in doing so I realised that it’s not time I’ve been short of so much as structure. I remember being able to multitask. In fact, I remember it being something I excelled in – once upon a time.

Which led to me rediscovering, not just the liberation of routine, but something of my old self. A problem solver, which is sort of key to my job. A person who could look at a tangle of wool and immediately see the end of it buried deep. Impervious to decision fatigue, able to tune out the noise. Someone who could dig into imperfection and find greatness. I miss being that person.

Rereading the last full-length post I published, I reflected on the theme of identity; or in that particular situation, a lack of one. There’s also an argument that too many identities is as bad as none. So now when I ask myself “what have I done since I last posted?”, I feel compelled to rephrase it: who have I been for the last eighteen months? Who do I want to be?

I’ve been a mid pack runner.
I’ve been a freelance production manager.
I’ve been a resident production manager.
I’ve been a mentor.
I’ve been a mentee.
I’ve been a wife.
I’ve been a friend (albeit a rubbish one).
I’ve been a sister (an EXCELLENT one).
I’ve been a university student.
I’ve been a therapy patient.
I’ve been anything but perfect.

What I want to be is a normal someone who does great things. And I think, perhaps, the key to becoming that is simply deciding to.

Cover image from Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion. A film that embodies this philosophy and is also awesome in every conceivable way. 

Is this thing on?

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*taps microphone* Is this thing on? I mean, still on?

Well it’s nice of you to come back (thank you two people). To say I’ve been wallowing in a mudbath of self-pity is… a bit of an understatement. As I scoop the gloop from my eyes I notice that my last post was 9 whole months ago. Standard jokes about I could have had a kid in that time blah blah – fuck it, you’d have known all about it if I had.

No, nothing so productive as that I’m afraid.

I have at least changed jobs, started a degree, switched my Twitter handle to @medalmagpie (WHY have I not done that before?) and been to the bottom of a well and back. That’s a story for another day – for the meantime I’m still here and still alive and still very much looks for all that glitters.

Why I’m writing now is simply to overcome inertia; to rev the car a couple of times before releasing the handbrake. But I have been sitting in the driver’s seat for months. Plucking up the courage to go.

Key’s in the ignition now…

x

Born again runner

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Sitting on the monument at the Trig point, legs dangling over the edge, I refresh the Centurion tracking page on my phone every couple of minutes. I can see the runners who have officially passed the Stepping Stones checkpoint, around 24 miles in to the North Downs Way 100 and a mile below us, and I’m counting them as they make it to the crest of Box Hill. I feel as though I am watching a procession of warriors, marching into battle, and I am in awe. When I grow up, this will be me.

Actually, it almost was, twice.

For the first time since Brighton Marathon in 2014 my running shoes gather dust on the shoe rack, seven bizarre weeks. For the first time since Brighton 2014, I actually feel no guilt for not running, although the effects of FOMO were far more crippling than a broken metatarsal. I go back in time, back to when I ran once, maybe twice a week, slightly laboured stride and happy to be under nine and a half minute miles. Back to when I looked forward to the day, far in the future, when I’d be able to cover more than a marathon. Back to when I believed it was possible because I didn’t know any better.

Now I’m armed with the double edged sword of knowing it IS possible… but knowing what you have to sacrifice to make it so. Knowing that I just have to put the hard yards in if I want to reach that goal – knowing that hard doesn’t begin to describe those yards – and knowing how impossibly far away that goal is right now.

In a weird, deja-vu way it’s kind of liberating.

Spool on a month and I’m pretty much over the broken foot (I read a New Scientist article about how pain is probably all in your head so that’s that sorted); I finally brace myself and step on the scales. Yes, definitely time to get back running, I think – it was time to get back running about ten pounds ago. But my body disagrees; first in the form of flu – actual influenza, not your sachet of Beechams and a good night’s sleep – chased down by a diagnosis of seasonal asthma. It’s like breathing through a snorkel. I make it into work a couple of times, gasping and sucking on my inhaler, and am unceremoniously sent back home again. I’ve missed more work in a month than I have ever missed in the eight years since I joined. And here I am now. Sulking.

nemi ill

Oh Nemi, you get me… 

The hardest thing to get my head around was that I’m not used to feeling ill, so I refused to believe that I was ill to begin with – that was the extent of my empirical reasoning. Unsurprisingly, simply behaving as if I was perfectly healthy did not, in fact, make it so. I’m talking Theresa May levels of denial here. After three visits to my GP and another to a walk in centre, I was on the way home from work again, missing yet another big event, and as I phoned Andy to tell him I was on the way home again I broke down in tears – not because of my health, but because missing out on more of my life genuinely frightened me. And then I realised what I’ve really been fighting against: the loss of identity. I’m a runner who isn’t really running much. I’m a blogger who hasn’t got anything to blog about. I’m a production manager who’s not well enough to manage any productions. So without those identities, what the fuck am I?

Who

The contents of my brain, as captured by the talented Clever Fish Illustration

I’m an idiot, that’s what.

The first step has to be rest, proper proper rest. Not sitting down for ten straight minutes then deciding to hoover the house. Not going to sleep only to have anxiety dreams about everything I thought I’d do that day and didn’t. Not dragging 60% of my capacity into work to do a half assed job and come out having jeopardised my health for no real value. I hate not being useful, but right now I am the very definition of useless.

Then and only then can I take the second step of rebuilding. Or rather, recapturing the four years ago version of me which had drive but also humility, self awareness, and a long way to go. Except this time I get to add experience into the mix. Isn’t that the perfect situation to be in? Potential plus direction? Ambition plus self-awareness? That’s how I’m choosing to see it.

I remind myself of pretty much the second ever thing I vowed after I decided, halfway through my first marathon, that nothing but ultras would do for me. As soon as I heard it existed I wanted to run Western States 100, and I wanted to run it well – which meant I would need to comfortably finish a bog standard one before even getting on a plane to the West Coast, and not just because the entry requirements stipulate it. And then I wanted to run the Grand Union Canal. And then I wanted to further, longer, harder. And despite the lack of training – or inadequate training – I’ve logged in the last couple of years, despite the two failed attempts at the North Downs 100 and the ever rising tally of DNFs, I remember how much I want this.

This is what I think, back there on the top of the monument. I think, I want to be you. All you people dying in the heat, barely a quarter of the way through, with sleep demons and blisters and aches and nausea to look forward to, I would swap places with you in a heartbeat. I want my identity back.

So, get used to this born-again devotee evangelising about the wonders of ultra-running, carrying on like I invented it.

Maybe… after a nap.

Best foot forward

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It’s been a big year. And it’s not even half over.

I write this in a period of… forced rest, shall we say. I haven’t run in nearly three weeks. Possibly I’ve forgotten how to. Is that a thing?

Tuesday 5th June was a big day. We flew over to North Cyprus, the home of my father and my unpronounceable name, a well-preserved Mediterranean paradise, for the start of a holiday that would be anything but a holiday. The flight itself was the first ordeal: we were travelling with Andy’s mum who hadn’t flown in 25 years and my aunt who has no kneecaps and can’t walk further than the front door. We were due to change planes at Istanbul with just one hour to make the transfer and with the help of pre-booked “special assistance”, whatever form that would take. Special assistance basically amounted to Gatwick Airport staff telling us to walk to Departures to pick up the wheelchair we needed to reach Departures, and Turkish Airlines forcing my aunt to sit in the centre of the plane by a window because her disability would make her a danger to other passengers during emergency evacuation. It’s not a very optimistic policy, if I may say so.

Then our first flight was delayed, leaving only half an hour for the transfer. If Istanbul Airport staff hadn’t saved the day with a motorised buggy we might still be looking for Gate 307.

When we finally landed at Ercan Airport, North Cyprus, the island was already cloaked in a navy velvet darkness. Every time I visit I forget how different the darkness is from the darkness in London. I mean for starters it’s not a hazy sodium orange, it’s profoundly, thickly dark. Andy wrestled the cumbersome minivan we had hired around the twisting mountain roads to the soundtrack of our jokes and daft questions, relieved to be nearly there. I made a pithy quip about which of my family would uphold the tradition of falling over and needing hospital.

Within an hour we turned into an exclusive looking cul-de-sac high above the shoreline and pulled up in front of our villa. Or rather, underneath it. Turns out when you build a villa in the side of a mountain the fourth floor and the ground floor are sort of the same thing, and both entrances need a minimum of two knees per person. Ah.

Somehow we managed to squeeze the van into an alley at the back/top of the villa where we dropped off passengers and luggage, and with my expert banksmanship definitely didn’t scrape any water hydrants on the way back out. By this point I’d been awake and on edge for fifteen solid hours, and all I wanted was not to be wearing wedge heels and high waisted slacks, because what kind of vain moron dresses like that for travelling. On my way back down the cobbled pavement to guide Andy into the underground parking bay, I might have been a little bit stompy.

SHIT. Crack. Boom. Wedge caught cobble edge, foot turned inwards, I hit the deck. That crack resounded in my ears. It was like I’d heard it from inside my body, not through my ears.

The systems check kicked in. Am I bleeding? Not enough to matter. Can I put weight on that foot? Just about – enough for it not to be broken, not enough to convince Andy I was OK. Within half an hour it had ballooned, but I insisted it was just a sprain and I could tough it out with rest and elevation, otherwise known as bed. At 3am I was woken by excruciating pain, and realised I had no idea how hospitals worked in North Cyprus. So we didn’t go to any.

Lying awake with my right foot burning a hole through the mattress, all I could think about was the roasting I would get from my mum and sister the following day. No way I could admit to be the family klutz so early on in the week. I’ll admit that my overriding motive for avoiding treatment was not to be the person that caused a fuss, not to spend the whole holiday as the centre of attention.

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Oh, did I mention why we were on holiday with half the family? We were there to get married.

The run up to the Saturday would be hectic; making sure all fifty of our guests landed OK and made it to their respective villas, buying last minute provisions, greeting and hosting welcome dinners and barely being off our feet. I didn’t get rest but I did at least stick my foot on the dashboard while Andy drove us everywhere – plans to split the work so we could relax more went out of the window. Each day the foot progressed through shades of purple and green, the swelling straining the straps of my flip flop. I still harboured hopes of a wedding morning run in the mountains. Andy growled at me a lot.

Saturday 9th June was a BIG day. And after a few false starts – probably the first wedding you’ll read about where the bride arrived early but the ceremony was delayed because the groom had to flag down a coach – it was a FUCKING AWESOME day. We had so much fun, or as much fun as you can have in a gown and a suit in 38 degrees of heat. I forced my feet into glittery Vivienne Westwood high heels for the ceremony and danced all night in bare feet, determined to enjoy my big day. All that hassle had been worth it. The stress dripped from my shoulders, the pain in my foot even let up. It felt perversely good.

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The rest of the week was a poolside haze. My sister’s wedding present – a personalised hip flask full of gin – came everywhere with me. I could dangle my feet in the infinity pool, gin in hand, gaze out at the sea and pretend I was in an episode of the Night Manager but with fewer terrorists. Now that I wasn’t stubbornly dancing and dashing around on it my foot would heal in a jiffy, right?

Saturday 16th June was a big day. A World Cup barbecue at a friend’s house, the other end of the Northern Line. Apparently it was a ten minute walk away from the tube. Ten minutes after Andy said this, we were still at least fifteen minutes away at my hobbling pace. I’d never felt like such a burden to him before, and that’s saying something.

Monday 18th June was a big day. Two whole weeks away from work, the longest holiday I’ve ever taken without spending it moonlighting. Never mind remembering how to function as an adult, I’d forgotten how much walking I have to do. At the end of the day I was in so much pain I considered sleeping at the office and eating the goldfish for dinner.

Tuesday 19th June was the day I finally admitted defeat. The swelling had gone down but my foot still wasn’t bending where it was meant to bend, and the pain was getting worse. I made it through the day with the help of one of Andy’s old crutches and signed in at St Helier Urgent Care Centre at 5pm, mumbling vaguely about a two week old sprain that wouldn’t heal. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t get rated as a priority. One woman came in shortly after me with a toe missing and a young guy in overalls was washing chemicals out of his eyes, and even they had to wait nearly two hours. Andy brought me a picnic of Capri Sun and crisps. We settled in.

When I was called in the nurse on duty asked if I smoked or drank as she prodded my foot. Confident that it would all turn out to be a waste of time I brazened it out for Andy’s benefit, then she hit a spot in the middle of my foot and I screamed. “I’m going to send you for an X-ray,” she smiled grimly. “That was your fifth metatarsal.” The first thing I thought was, “That’s what happened to David Beckham, at least it’s World Cup appropriate.” Then I realised what she was saying. You don’t X-ray sprains. Drat bugger balls bollocks arse.

Thankfully the fracture was so small I got away without using a cast, but I did get fitted with a snazzy support boot. When I asked how long I would need to wear it she said told me six weeks from the point of fracture, meaning another four weeks at least, giving a good deal of emphasis to that last bit. I avoided Andy’s glare.

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This Thursday should have been a big day. I had a place in the SVN Teddy Bear’s Picnic Challenge, aiming to rack up another marathon for the 100 Club bid. It took me a few days to face up to the fact I wouldn’t be running it, and email Traviss. I gave away my ticket to the Salomon trail running festival at Box Hill. I did a load of laundry and it had no running clothes in it. None whatsoever.

Then a large brown envelope flopped onto my doormat. It was the long-awaited issue 9 of Ultra magazine, which is exciting enough in itself, but this issue would have one of my own articles in it. I did a little one foot jig as I re-read it. The article was about a race I did 18 months ago, wrote about a year ago, and I was finally seeing it in print! I remembered staying up to the wee hours to finish it, my plans to write it over a weekend scuppered. That felt like yesterday.

In an ideal world I’d spend all my time either running or writing about running – as it is I have to squeeze them in around gainful employment, seeing friends and family, every Saturday committed to QPR, the list goes on. There’s so much I want to do, too; I’m on promises to try kickboxing, bouldering, Crossfit and manicures but they somehow keep falling out of the diary. I never have time for anything. I’ve almost run out of time to bitch about not having time.

But here’s the thing, I do now. Instead of bemoaning the running I can’t do, I thought about what else I can do with that time, googled “exercise on a broken foot”. Swimming is high up there, stationery cycling, some yoga moves… presumably hang-gliding and parachuting are worth a punt too. I’ve already read four novels and I’m working through A-level maths. Now that I don’t have a wedding to plan, I’ve even managed a bit of rest.

Not that I’d wish an injury like this on myself or anyone else, I think this particular cloud might have a silver lining. Obviously I’d rather be running (as would my appetite) but now it’s not me making the decision not to run I feel oddly liberated. I feel less guilty about devoting more time to my blog, or to reading the backlog of twenty or so books on my iPad; I’m saying yes when my friends ask if I’m free to catch up after work. I’m spending quality time with my new husband. What a novelty.

That’s not to say I’ve given up on running – the sooner I get fit again the sooner I can stop gawping at people who run by (I only notice I’m doing it when the saliva hits my chin). But I am going to treat the next four weeks as a gift, not a burden. I’m going to appreciate the time I have, take advantage of new opportunities, do the things I “never have time for”. I’m going to appreciate my body more, pay closer attention to those niggles and make the most of my fitness. I’m going to have to work bloody hard to get it back.

And the minute the fracture clinic gives me the all clear, I’ll be back on those trails.

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London Marathon 2018 – the day after

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Cover photo courtesy of the supremely talented Neil Dejyothin

Resume the position. Feet up, laptop on, well, lap. I’ve even got the glass of wine (don’t judge me).

So, did I leave it all out on the course yesterday? It’s hard to tell; I certainly left about six pints of water out there in the form of sweat (and a handful of tears). Did I run hard? No, no I fucking didn’t. I ran smart; I wanted to get to the end on my own two feet and not in the back of an ambulance. It was 24 degrees out there but it felt closer to 34; the only marathon I’ve ever run that was hotter was the Hampshire Hoppit last year and I pretty much had to walk that guy from start to finish. Did I confront my fears?

You know what, I think I did.

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I faced up to the danger of the heat, and embraced it. It’s just another factor you can’t control, and frankly it was nice to get a decent bit of sun. I faced up to the likelihood of a slow finish time. That is to say, I started off like the clappers, but in a pace that was comfortable and hardly troubling my heart rate. In fact the lead I gained over my 4hr20 pace band was over 8 minutes after halfway and I’d been on course for sub 4hrs for the first 10k. But when I realised it was becoming unsustainable, I did the sensible thing and dialled back. After seeing the countless bodies lying on the side of the road I’m bloody glad I did.

I’m not exaggerating about the perceived heat by the way – as someone with experience of near-equatorial temperatures, that was proper sunblasted bone dry heat. Not the muggy fug like a bad trip in a sauna that you usually get in what passes for an English summer. But gosh it was fun. Like a 26 mile long carnival with runners instead of floats. One of my clubmates even stopped for a cider on the way round. Let’s be honest, nobody’s counting times for yesterday.

London 2018 pace chart

London 2018 map

I faced up to the reality of not being able to finish, right from the start. But I also decided that I would finish this race come hell or high water (not far off), and I knew exactly what I’d have to do to make it so. Drink, eat, drink. After mile 2 there were water stops pretty much every mile plus Lucozade drink and gel stops sprinkled in between, not to mention the good residents of East London and their many slices of orange and buckets of jelly babies. The trick turned out to be keeping my body temperature down from the outside as well as in: namely, drinking half of every bottle of water and dousing my thighs, head and neck with the other half. It worked a treat, but I was still bone dry before the next water station.

I faced up to the crowds. However overwhelming I found them last time round, I realised the only thing to do would be to embrace them. And my god did they put on a show. This is what makes London Marathon so great, and so different from any other – the indescribable atmosphere. Whenever I felt a bit wobbly all I had to do was wave back and smile and I was carried along with another surge of cheer. London Marathon IS the crowds and yesterday made me so blisteringly proud to be an adopted Londoner.

I faced the no mans land beyond my comfort zone. This would be my 41st official marathon finish, but the majority of those have been on trails, in ultras or on low key races, where the pressure doesn’t affect me. The runners there are a different breed altogether; a co-operative of like-minded people, a subculture even. A runner drops, and three people stop to help them up – a few seconds is unlikely to matter, and a race is just another race. On the other hand London is, for most people, their first or only experience of a marathon, and it is nervewracking as fuck. I was pushed and elbowed – not accidentally – on a number of occasions, including one where a guy shoved me out of the water queue to pick up the bottle I was reaching for. It pissed me off, but then I remembered how he must be feeling, imagined how he saw yet another body between him and the water on a hot day. These aren’t the SVN regulars, or the Centurion regulars, or the perennially friendly 100 Marathon Clubbers – there’s no place for etiquette here. These are people miles out of their own comfort zones while I’m barely dipping a toe out of mine. For me, the scariest thing about London will always be other people. But I faced them.

I faced the fear of failure, and in doing so took my own fate into my hands. Instead of handicaps, I found challenges. Instead of disappointment, I have resolve. Yesterday made me realise what I could do if I stopped finding excuses not to try. Four hours and thirty nine minutes on the road is nothing to write home about, for me, but it’s also a pretty respectable time for the second hottest race I’ve ever run – Hampshire, by comparison, took me almost an hour longer. I know I did well yesterday, and I know I can go faster.

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Finally, I faced myself; or rather, I faced my definition of myself. I am not defined by my fears, my hates, my foibles. I am defined by what I want to define myself by. We all are.

#spiritoflondon

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Pilgrims Challenge 2018

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Hello, old friend.

When I finished the North Downs Way 50 – just – back in May of last year, I swore the whole way round that I was DONE with the much-loved national trail which had been the backdrop for much of my trail running career. I’ve run this route so many times, in so many circumstances, and although I’d had my fair share of happy memories it had chewed me up so much that a return would be tantamount to masochism.

As soon as I finished my volunteering stint on Druids at the end of November, the first thing I did was sign up for Pilgrims again. Glutton for punishment.

I first ran the Pilgrims Challenge in 2015 at the start of a year that became my most prolific and most successful so far. When I took to the start line of the 2-day, 66 mile event run by Extreme Energy it was the first time I’d run two back to back marathons, and the thing I was most worried about was how the overnight camping no-home-comforts bit would work. As it turned out, thanks to the incredible support of Neil Thubron and his team, I needn’t have given it a thought. Although I have learned the value of taking a couple of clip hangers for drying out a race vest overnight and a bundle of newspaper for stuffing shoes.

This time all I wanted to do was finish, however slowly. And I knew it would be slow. I believed in my adjusted expectations instead of still vaguely hoping a sub-6 hour finish could be on the cards. And thank goodness I did, because nothing about the terrain and conditions suggested optimism.

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My trouble with the North Downs Way, I realise, is that it’s just too familiar – it beats me because it knows me so well. It knows how to lure me into a false sense of security, how to make me believe that I can push through a runnable section and straightaway knock me down, how to use reverse psychology to its most brutal effect by tempting and then taunting me. I’ve mentioned before that this route – which I know so well, have run so many times – seems to distort and rearrange itself when I’m racing. Whole tracks pop up between hills that before I could have sworn were back to back.

And the worst parts of it aren’t the hills at all. You’d be surprised how much of the trail has little or no elevation change; the demon of it is that the ground yields so easily it’s like running through sand – well, sometimes it actually IS sand. So you beat yourself up for not being able to run the “fast” bits, and wear yourself out before the real test begins. All this is what makes it surprisingly effective training for the Marathon des Sables, which is exactly what many of the runners this weekend were preparing for.

My aim really was just to finish it – I’m not humblebragging here, genuinely I’d have been happy to get to the end, given how much fitness I’ve lost. I had taken for granted my ability to grind through these distances, having been successful at it in the past, that I’d actually forgotten how to suck it up and get to the end on the tougher races. And I’d started a worrying trend of DNFs that were close to outweighing the Fs. So, get to the end, by any means necessary. There would be a lot of hiking.

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I nabbed a fairly jammy parking spot close to race HQ (tent), swapped my bag for a number and a timing tag, and huddled up with the second wave of starters. It was so cold – find me a synonym for cold, somebody, that word is gonna get WORN OUT – that RD Neil decided to hold our briefing inside the tent, having braved the bitter chill on the first wave and nearly lost his loudhailer. There was a wonderful little touch when the owner of the farm we were on blew the horn to start the race then joined us as far as the first checkpoint; just before we started he told us how, nine years ago and no kind of runner, he watched the Pilgrims competitors leave the start line for the very first time and was motivated to give this running lark a go himself.

Normally I’m quite sociable on races like this, but I knew this weekend I could be out there on my own for a very long time; this would be more meditative than conversational. I loaded up the iPod shuffle with hours and hours of podcasts – I’m a bit obsessed with Astonishing Legends at the moment – and zoned out. That’s not to say I was planning to shut myself off from the experience; I just planned to be cautious, considering how naively I’ve been diving into races recently without any real respect for the challenge. Never take a race for granted.

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This last year has been like learning how to run all over again. This race was no different. I felt comfortable through the first checkpoint nearly 9 miles in, having passed the familiar ground of Guildford and the bridge over the River Wey (where on Centurion races you will usually find Allan and his bacon butty barge), but I’d be taking it really easy. It was a long old stretch to the next checkpoint at 19 miles which included the climb to St Martha’s Church and the sandy downhill after it, but as usual it was a glorious opportunity for aeroplane arms. I wasn’t pushing the pace, but I was still conscious of it, running on my own and in my own head for a change. Deja vu – this is almost exactly the runner I was when I attempted this race the first time three years ago, too nervous to engage with anyone else. Well, maybe two of her.

By the time I got to Denbies, around 20 miles, I was feeling perfectly capable of forward momentum but there wasn’t any kind of pace in my legs. That’s fine, I thought, just keep one foot in front of the other. The downhill towards the dual carriageway is usually where I open up a bit and scoot about like a kid, but this time I was on a leisurely old lady jog at best. Nonetheless with the eerie canopy of evergreen trees, the biting chill of the clear winter weather and the soundtrack of a horror story podcast, this leg of the journey scored 10/10 for atmosphere. In fact it came as a bit of a shock to pop out onto the relative banality of the dual carriageway before Box Hill.

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Being close to freezing for most of the previous week (month) there hadn’t been much rainfall, but I still figured they wouldn’t risk sending us across the Stepping Stones. Those things are my arch-nemesis, regardless of the season. I don’t care how deep the river is or how safe they are to stand on, I still get knocked sideways with vertigo when I step on them. But no – to my horror, I watched as the snake of runners in front of me skipped deftly across them instead of diverting left to the stone bridge. It took me a good five minutes to cross – first letting the people directly behind me pass first, knowing they wouldn’t want to be held up, then giving myself a ten count and a pep talk to jump onto each one, terrified that my feet would slip on take off or landing and I’d end up a pile of bones on the riverbed. Thankfully the runners around me were very sympathetic – outwardly at least – and I got across without incident. Of course, if I’d bothered checking the route card in advance I’d have known that we were actively requested not to use them anyway. Ahem.

As unlikely as it sounds, Box Hill is probably my favourite bit. Sure it’s slow, but it does at least give my muscles a chance to swap shifts and even that change of pace can make you feel fresh again – for a few steps anyway. By this point though I was sliding beyond 7 hour finishing pace and only getting slower; not that it mattered in the long run, but I started to pile up on food to prepare myself for the energy needed just to stay warm out there. That turned out to be one small win; I never exerted myself enough to be unable to eat, which made me realise just how low that threshold really is for me. Having spent so long wondering why I struggle with food, the penny finally dropped: the reason I’m no good at it is that I’ve not been training properly for it. And it turns out, when you eat you can run for longer…

Drifting away with the fourth episode of my podcast, I pretty much trotted through the rest of the NDW section, even Colley Hill and Reigate Hill which normally reduce me to swears and tears. And again, I noticed how much easier they felt when I wasn’t running on a deficit. When I thought about it afterwards, I realised that I’d been confusing my perceived effort with my perceived pace for years. Every time I’ve done this section I’ve assumed that slowing down “a bit” would be enough to cope – certainly on previous runs I’ve been more concerned with time than I was today – but this was the first time I’d slowed enough to see a real difference in my heart rate and it shocked me just how slow I had to go to bring it down. But it also shocked me to see how much better I felt when it was under a steady limit. I’m sure if I can bring this threshold up a bit I can do that hill – that series of three hills, actually – without being overcome by nausea, either through effort or inability to eat. Have my past mistakes really been as simple as that?

And having reached the fort, although I was puttering along like a steamboat, I was still moving consistently. My Strava data won’t show that since the data seems to have gone a bit haywire, but my watch readout shows an average pace of 14:42 minutes per mile, which is much better than I could have hoped for. I certainly didn’t have any bursts of speed to call on, but by the same token I wasn’t really getting out of shape. I negotiated the instructions for the diversion to our overnight stopoff, skipped across the timing mat, and that was that.

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My “efforts” that day had bagged me just over  seven and a half hour finish – an hour slower than the first year and with one less mile to cover thanks to a course change. It was comparatively slow, but since all I had to do was get to the end I managed that with effort to spare. No massage needed, a cursory bit of stretching, the main thing I had to concentrate on was warming up. I got into my duck onesie – something I’d often considered bringing but never had the courage to until Druids last year – and curled up with my podcasts.

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The next day my legs were… still fine. Still absolutely fine. I’d had a tiny bit of cramp overnight where my lackadaisical stretching routine had missed a spot, but other than that I could have believed we were still on day 1. So another thing to be thankful for – I might not be winning any prizes for speed at the moment, but I’m using the resources I have and right now that’s experience and momentum. I don’t think it’s complacent to readjust expectations and goals as long as you recognise it works both ways. But I still had another 32 miles to go, and I still didn’t want to take anything for granted.

The previous day I’d got through a series of episodes about Black Eyed Kids – a supernatural phenomenon about hollow eyed children who demand help from strangers and curse people who give in – so naturally I was seeing them in every tree knot and dark patch of woodland. I decided to go for some more historical than ethereal and started a series on the Nazi Bell, an alleged superweapon developed during WWII that could have changed the course of European history. Being confident in the route – because that’s never stitched me up before – I let myself drift off while I put my feet back on autopilot.

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The weather on the second day was colder but clearer, and there were breaks in the clouds for the sun to shine through every now and again. The engine was as sturdy as the day before, if a little lower on power. That didn’t matter – all it had to do was last the distance. Touch wood I still hadn’t had any real injuries or even niggles to worry about or nutrition to consider. In fact I still planned to drive home from Farnham, so there was no room for heroics.

That day was about juggling three things – my ability to use the foot pedals on the way home, my ability to stay warm enough to get there, and my ability to stay conscious. Only by keeping a light touch on the tiller would I keep all three in balance – trying too hard to manage one would only jeopardise the others. If I hurried too much to get out of the cold I would either risk a tumble or shut down my digestive system, and subsequently everything else. If I stopped to eat too much I’d take vital blood flow away from my muscles. And if I went too slow and too gingerly I’d likely freeze to death out there. Somehow, keeping all these things in mind kept me going.

It was a slow day though, for sure. Not leisurely, just slow. It wasn’t helped by the fact that my arrogance got the better of me once more and I took a wrong turning at Newlands Corner, an area I’ve been to more than any other on the NDW, forcing me to double back in the claggiest and heaviest mud on the whole route. As the day wore on I became more and more alone, watching first the elites pass me, then all the one dayers, then most of my start group. I think there might even have been a walker or two overtaking me by the end. But, I remembered, my ego wasn’t going to get me home today. My feet were, and they would do it on their own terms.

As the farm at Farnham drew into sight I called on my sprint finish… and found it wasn’t there. In fact, having hiked more than half the day I still had to walk quite a bit of the last 100 metres. But neither that nor the total absence of other people could stop me from belting over the line. I must have been one of the last people home, but I’ve rarely been happier to finish a race. Eight hours, forty seven minutes and change – nearly two hours slower than 2015.

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What I took away from this race though wasn’t a result but a fresh start, a new perspective. After spending the last three years trying to help new runners I realised I was one of them again. There’s no point comparing myself to the person who finished 16 marathons or ultras in a year, the person who ran a 3:41 marathon or the person who came third in her first ever 50. Right now, I’m a person who takes two weeks to recover from a late finish at work, who sleeps up to ten hours a day and still aches in every single muscle. That said, I’m also someone with experience of running ultras, and if I’ve learned anything it’s that low points never stay low, You always bounce back eventually.

You just have to believe that you can.