The future of work

Ronnie runs June 2017


Can it be that my regular dose of the much-vaunted runner’s high makes me believe in a green-tinted utopia?

Possibly, but in these scary and frankly unstable (whatever Mrs May say) days leading up to the election I would rather be researching modern utopias than impending dystopia, which is why the Green Party manifesto is the only one I really want to read and believe.

The case for a universal basic income, which Caroline Lucas explained neatly a year or so ago, makes a welcome second appearance in the manifesto, and would suit me down to the ground.

As a self-employed writer and editor, my career hit the buffers during the credit crunch, when the work dried up, and the little work I could find was paying me roughly 60% less (sometimes I was offered no money at all, just expenses) than I was paid pre-crunch.

So I did that retraining thing, working as an assistant in a school sixth form for a few years, while keeping on writing about running and fitness, then took the plunge and secured myself a (very mature) student loan to qualify as a personal trainer. I reckoned that working to inspire people to love what you love would be a job made in heaven.

(although some people really HATE running, and come to me for personal training with nebulous goals to lose a bit of weight and become ‘more toned’ while insisting they don’t want to use the most obvious means to do so, but that’s another story).

My coaches on the personal training course told me I could earn fantastic money as a personal trainer – particularly if I trained rich people for seven hours a day and charged them the going central London rate of £50/hour.

The only problem being I’m not very good at asking people for money, and I cannot charge Lewisham folk that much, and training others for seven hours a day means I can’t do much of my own training.

So I work far less often, charge less, but still pay the bills with my coaching work and a little bit of writing and reviewing and ducking and diving. And it’s do-able, provided my trips to Berlin to see grandson Charlie Catford (and the odd overseas marathon!) are my only luxury.

If I were paid the basic income, though, I would train people and charge nothing. I would volunteer more for my athletics club. I would work at FoodCycle and other local community concerns, like the people who wander the River Ravensbourne in waders pulling out shopping trolleys and old computers. And I would lead more walking/running/fitness groups to improve participants’ mental health. In short, I would make sure I really earned my basic wage.

Yes, I suppose it is all a bit idealistic. And a superannuated Pollyanna like me probably has no business greenwashing in her blog like this, when so many young people cannot get on the housing ladder and feel obliged to work as account managers for ghastly big corporations for £40k/year so that they can save for a deposit. I would love to see a pilot scheme for the universal basic income launch in this country, though (there’s one ongoing in Finland, I believe), and see if it would reduce the stress borne of applying for benefits and justifying your need to do so. Would carers feel better able to care? Would charitable organisations benefit from a new influx of volunteers keen to do something worthwhile, not just toiling for a wage packet?

It would be fascinating to see outdated attitudes to work/life balance and the toll such attitudes take on mental health be properly addressed by a political party, but I live in a safe Labour seat, and though the Labour party considered the universal basic income, they didn’t run with it.

I’m happy to report though, that our Labour candidate Heidi Alexander, does run with us, giving up half an hour of her precious time to Hillyfields parkrun once in a while, and I can only hope she feels the runner’s high when she does so.

My own last brush with that high came at last Thursday’s Assembly League 5k in Battersea Park, which I enjoyed greatly (as is evident from the picture), even though my time suggested rather more leisurely running than the energy I expended.

It was a cheap night out: cycled there, cycled back, paid £1 for my race entry and dined on a pint of ale and a packet of ready salted. My basic income can definitely cover a great night out like that.


Cool runnings – or how to look a complete tit in your local leisure centre

Ronnie squats

 Marathon Gran in contemplative mode



If that looks ridiculous, you should see me in the swimming pool.

I stay in the deep end. Round my waist is a bulky blue foam belt. I am upright, my shoulders and upper arms working erratically. My face is red. Whether that is through exertion or embarrassment is a moot point. It’s my weekly pool running session and, as usual, I am getting a few quizzical looks from my more horizontal companions in the slow lane.

My blue foam fashion accessory is called an AquaJogger® buoyancy belt. I feel slightly idiotic, bobbing about like an infant in waterwings, but if this is the way to mimic a track session without putting weight on my damaged ankle, I will train like an idiot.

Physiotherapist to the stars (of Kent AC) Paul O’Hara at Back on Track lent me the Aquajogger. He’d seen me looking even more of a tit than usual, bouncing on a trampette during a Team 6 training session and doubtless felt sorry for me.

I’ve read many times that Jo Pavey incorporates pool running into her training regime. It confirms my suspicions that huge success in distance running comes not only from faultless physical conditioning but also the will to grit teeth and do something incredibly boring because you know it’s good for you. Ms Pavey’s physical and mental grit and endurance makes me look like Homer Simpson. But at least I’m giving people a good laugh.

If any readers out there want to know more about pool running (sure you do!) these are the points to note:

  • Adopt an upright, slightly leaning forward position with chest lifted.
  • Your shoulders should be above the hips
  • Brace the tummy muscles a bit (I do that always when in a swimsuit, especially when I catch a glimpse of my rapidly rounding post menopausal midsection in the changing room mirrors)
  • Squeeze buttocks and tuck ‘em in that pelvic tilty, Pilates way
  • Stay in the deep end, otherwise you’ve missed the point a bit

Try to do intervals. Try to do 180 strides in a minute. This is a good way of preventing boredom. I watch the clock count down each minute and do alternate bursts of 180 strides/minute and 100 strides/minute for 30 minutes total. Then I get out of the pool, remove my blue belt and enjoy the freedom of lying on my belly and attempting to front crawl (but mostly giving into breast stroke) for as many lengths as time allows.

And my ankle? It doesn’t hurt so much, and I have been back to the rack for a few painfully slow, wheezy sessions. I am sill waiting for the MRI to tell me what is really afoot (see what I did there?). The Achilles area is often swollen and painful the day after a run. I am doing many heel raises. I’ve done a parkrun (my time was 2 minutes and 20 seconds slower than my PB). I feel as if I will never run totally easy again, but time is of the essence. I’m 54 for pity’s sake, I cannot spend these years waiting not to ache. I am going to ache, so I may as well get on and run.

The Berlin marathon is in 18 weeks. I have time to build up my training cautiously. There’s no point being wet about it.


The doctor will sort you now

SortedAny committed couch potato gathering evidence for a treatise on the evils of exercise need look no further than our running group’s WhatsApp chat in the weeks before a marathon. Taken at face value, our graphic descriptions of runners’ trots, nipple chafes, urine leakage and wall-hitting are enough to convince the ‘running sucks’ brigade of the wisdom of a life more sedentary.

It’s true that embarrassing incidents involving poo, wee, blood, sweat and tears form a rich, if pungent, seam of wincingly frank confessional material in my writing about running. I’ve learned to suppress embarrassment in this regard, but I contend that being completely honest about barriers to exercise will help people to transcend them and move on, move more (and move their bowels a couple of hours ahead of a big race…)

This is also the spirit in which Dr Juliet McGrattan, GP, sports coach and marathon runner, wrote her new book, Sorted: The Active Woman’s Guide to Health. She’s a doctor, so you can trust her not to shy away from bodily functions, but still, any book that has ‘fanny farts’ as a topic of discussion gets a thumbs up from me.

McGrattan has, true to her word, sorted all the barriers to exercise that women cite when excusing themselves from PE, from menarche to menopause. Rolling up her sleeves and washing her hands thoroughly, she gives her readers a full pelvic examination – suggesting ways of coping with heavy or dysmenorrhoeal flow, the chafing of sanitary towels or the grumbling ache of period pain – then moves on to childbearing and attendant issues, not least the business of dealing with the ultimate issue when trying to train post natally. (And no, it’s not all about trying to attain beach-ready bodies weeks after the happy event).

The good doctor then turns her attention to the perimenopausal woman and her elder sisters, gently persuading us that although weight gain and fatigue are an all-too-common symptom of this time of our lives, it does not have to be inevitable.

There’s no hectoring in her well-researched and informative writing. Each chapter starts with a chatty, easy-to-absorb biology lesson, then moves on to the types of exercise people can try to alleviate their symptoms. There are also chapters on common injuries and other health problems, as well as moods, motivation and medication. Opinions and advice are sought from clinical specialists in all of the fields discussed: psychologists, diabetes doctors, surgeons, cardiologist and specialists in respiratory medicine all give second opinions.

Then there are the women’s stories: funny, frank and encouraging all. There’s the woman who discovered the hard way what a rectocele is (go on, look it up, then make a mental note not to do too much too soon after parturition). Then there’s the student athlete who has to plan her training around her IBS. Another, aged 60, is training for a one-mile open-water swim following a hip replacement. Even well-known good sports get a word in, including television presenter Carol Smillie, who cheerfully writes about a particularly gory occasion in peri-menopause when she felt her ‘insides literally fall out.’

The message is that, though it may not always be pretty, keeping active is always the better option than opting to do nothing at all (and the statistics are provided to back it up). Even osteoarthritis – commonly, and mistakenly, called the ‘wear and tear arthritis’, responds better to exercise than rest. Getting active doesn’t wear down arthritic joints further, as Arthritis Research UK concurs.

It is, of course, not a new message. The Exercise Works campaign has been banging the same drum for years now, but Doctor McGrattan has a lovely, reassuring manner way with her; it’s just like bagging an appointment with your favourite GP (we all know how hard that is) and having as long as you like to talk about the stuff you wouldn’t even share with your partner.

‘Pooing your pants with excitement and fear happens at any age.’ she writes, comfortingly. And suddenly, those barriers to exercise seem surmountable.

Sorted: The Active Woman’s Guide to Health is published by Bloomsbury, £16.99

Why the long face?

Greenwich horses

Horses from Woolwich Barracks are quite an uplifting sight on a March morning in Greenwich Park

Sometimes the relentless cheeriness of my twitter feed, especially the happy bunnies I tend to follow (parkrun buddies, running club comrades, nature writers, gardeners, treehuggers and vegans) can catch me on the raw. I’m sure I’m not the only one who excuses herself from the twitter party when life isn’t going so well.

A series of half-arsed attempts at training runs, in the mistaken belief that a lack of pain when jogging along with clients or taking part in a spinning class means that I can pick up my pace and distance, have ended in (near) tears. Unmistakeable Achilles/calf pain kicks in after a few miles, and is now accompanied by non-specific knee crunching and glute pain. I am just one big pain.

So I volunteer at parkrun (instead of running) and to be a bag lady at the London Marathon (checking in runners’ belongings on the baggage trucks). I excuse myself from pacer duties at one half marathon and wonder if I can race another (one of my favourites, the Paddock Wood Half, it’s on 2 April).

I try to keep cheerful, but found myself wobbly lipped as a bade my excited and deliriously happy daughter farewell as she shoulders her rucksack en route to Ho Chi Minh City to stay with friends. And I clench my jaw as I read on twitter that today is the International Day of Happiness.

Not if you’re an injured empty nester who relies on running endorphins to get to her happy place, it isn’t.

Exclusion zone


These women can (photo by Horst von Bohlen)

Last week I wrote for  The Guardian running blog about the inaugural 261 Fearless marathon on 28 May 2017, in Tipton St John, a beautiful corner of Devon. In it, the connection between the second all-women marathon to take place in this country, and the woman who changed the face of distance running for women, Kathrine Switzer, is explained.

The illustration that always accompanies any piece of writing about the great Ms Switzer (marathon PB, 2 hours 51 minutes) is a three-part black and white sequence of the then 20-year old, wearing a delightfully baggy grey tracksuit with the number 261 pinned to it. The year was 1967. At that time women were not allowed to run further than 1500 metres because they were considered too delicate for the task. Kathrine and her indomitable coach, Arnie the postman, both decided to enter the all-male Boston Marathon (the most prestigious road marathon, then and now). Registered as K Switzer, and with no question asked on her form about her gender, Kathrine got to the starting line on time, but was almost manhandled off the course a few miles in. Fortunately, she was also running with her husky young hammer-thrower of a boyfriend, who barged harder into the official barging Kathrine, resulting in his exclusion from the Amateur Athletic Union.

Researching the piece was a perfect excuse to re-read one of my favourite books about running – Marathon Woman – by Kathrine Switzer. I love the description of her training regimes, workload, and her honest, if disappointing in these enlightened times, recollection of the way she needed to seek approval from men, or at least work along the line of least resistance, to make things happen. Sometimes it’s hilarious, such as her brilliant description of putting together running outfits for her marathon appearances (she lost about 10 minutes during one hot Boston, having to perform urgent costume changes in some public lavatories, but she still ran the race in around three hours).

Another reason I am still reading inspiring books about running, when I should be out there running, is because I am still grounded by Achilles/shin inflammation and unable to run three miles without pain.

So that’s my 2017 London Marathon dream over. I am reading my fellow runners’ social media posts about their long runs, intervals, training race triumphs and disasters, massages and mileage and unable to join in. Soon I will pull mysef together, but not until I’ve re-read Kathrine’s 6-month training plan that constituted her campaign for a sub- three-hour in Boston, 1975.

I have six months to heal, rehab and prepare for my putative sub 3.40 Berlin Marathon.






Gran, interrupted


Greenwich Park. Where I go to avoid interruptions


On the last day of January the most famous run streak in the world came to an end with (I imagine) a bit of a whimper.

The streaker who stopped streaker was Ron Hill. His streak lasted 52 years and 39 days.

He kept his clothes on. A run streak (for those unfamiliar with the term) is the act of running at least a mile every day, no excuses. They’re often held up as challenges on Strava and other public declarations of personal running greatness.

Ron Hill (78) is a fantastic athlete and veteran of 115 marathons. He was the first British runner to win the Boston marathon and competed in three Olympics. His running every day was not even interrupted by crises of ill health and car accidents, until this year, when the pain in his chest warned him that all was not well, and he felt a duty to his family to back off.

I’ve toyed with the idea of daily running a mile before breakfast. I managed that for a while. Not an especially impressive streak, but even that resolution, one of many listed in my (thankfully very private) diary proved too much for me.

I’ve been running, but not well enough, often enough or, indeed, happily enough since then. After last November’s salutary first lesson in fell running various muscle-and-tendon niggles all seemed to gang up on me and make every run a pain. My parkrun times plummeted. I did a couple of cross country runs with my club but felt off-form, so decided to give blood, rest up and stay away from track and road running for a couple of weeks.

Coming back to it in December, I could still feel trouble brewing in my Achilles tendon but, of course, ignored it. It refused to be sidelined, however, and eventually drove me to the physiotherapist.

Since then I have spent a lot of time on my yoga mat, and doing many heel dips a day and, after another 10-day lay off at the beginning of January caused by a bout of bronchitis, I am gradually seeing improvements. I am still a lumbering parkrunner compared to the granny that scorched round and earned her PB in 2015, but I no longer feel hopeless about my running.

Best of all, I am really enjoying my running, and now mornings and evenings are lighter, am happily stuck into training for the London Marathon.

I’m on day 53 of 116 days of marathon training. All those 116 will not be running days, though. I don’t think I’m Marathon Gran enough to streak.

More rabbit from the Catford bunnery


Blythe Hill Fields, looking at Hillyfields, having run through Ladywell Fields…bucolic Lewisham

It’s time you got it off your chest….

The biggest gift that running has given me is a whole new circle of friends, who, like me, love the social benefits of the sport just as much as the fitness ones. Running for the good of your mental health, therefore is the perfect combination of two wonderful things.

Being appointed one of Sport England’s volunteer Mental Health Ambassadors has given me the opportunity to write about how exercising outside has made me feel better inside; I’ve also talked about this new role with my club, Kent AC , fellow parkrunners and various clients and runners (including those at Greenwich Runners, Buggy Runners) I’ve had the pleasure to meet in the course of my work as a personal trainer and running coach.

I hope that I can inspire as many of you as possible to join me on Monday 10 October, which is World Mental Health Day, for a nice, easy social run, taking in the full gorgeousness of the leafy London borough of Lewisham.

The week from 8-14 October has been designated Run and Talk week by England Athletics and Mind, the mental health charity. Anyone who has ever been for a run with me will know I love both activities dearly. Hind legs and donkeys spring to mind.

Of course, there’s a serious side to all this. There are any number of people out there who struggle with anxiety and depression, and have learned that they feel so much better if they get out into the parks and jog around a bit. Many of these people learn to love running so much they start entering races and training for marathons. Other just prefer to run socially.

Yet for all the people who have read and absorbed the theory about this therapeutic aspect of running, there are many that feel that the whole pavement pounding thing is too daunting. And the running track? That’s just downright intimidating.

I’d really like to welcome people who are nervous about getting started as runners, to show them that it doesn’t have to be about racing and pacing and sprinting and negative splits (which aren’t as painful as they sound). Running can be about jogging along at the speed of chat, admiring the scenery, thrashing through a few issues, whether it’s Helen in the Archers or why your boss is a tosser.

Me? I’m qualified to talk about anything. Don’t get me started on particle physics.

The run I am organising will be the Lovely Lewisham Hills Dusk Run (working title). We will meet at Ladywell running track at 6pm on Monday 10 October and head over the curly bridge, on through Ladywell Fields and Blythe Hill Fields, then up One Tree Hill to be inspired by the view and stretch a little, then down again, through Honor Oak recreation ground past Brockley Cemetery to Hillyfields. It’s about 4 miles, or nearly 5 if you run back to the track at Ladywell with me.

Does that sound long? Don’t worry.

We will run at the speed of the chattiest, not at the speed of the speediest. No-one will be left behind.

And if anyone fancies a pint afterwards, I’ll be up for that, too.