Gainful pain


Tyre slam Jul 2019

Here I am, banging on again

There is something soothing about slamming a very heavy hammer on to a tyre, swapping the hammer hand over hand as you rhythmically swing the weight in a figure of eight, squatting deep as the two rubber surfaces make contact, preparing yourself for the bounceback and the next blow. You can pretend the tyre is the head of someone you loathe. Or, if you’re not that way inclined, just be grateful that it’s a whole body exercise. A weight bearing one. Good for the bones of a middle aged woman with her own, permanent tyre to worry about.

Tyre hammering is just one of the many cross-training activities I throw myself into with some gusto at a Team 6 training session with the legendary Erik-Lee Briscoe.  The poor man has had to put up with a bellyful of my Achilles tendon woes, too, like almost everyone else of my acquaintance. And now matters have come to a head, thanks to an invitation from Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust to present myself for Achilles surgery at my earliest convenience. I chose early October, as I am a busy professional woman.

Now a decision has to be made. For three long years I have tried every non-surgical approach I can think of. I’ve spent my meagre wages on physiotherapy, podiatry, acupuncture, orthotics and, most recently, a course of shockwave therapy.

This last procedure used to be know as lithotripsy, but it’s not as exciting as it sounds. It’s a treatment that was originally used for kidney stones. I had a course of four sessions in July. It involved a sort of electronic hammering on the area where the Achilles inserts into the calcaneus (heel bone) . It will hopefully bring  a better blood supply into an area that has precious little blood, and break up anything that’s calcified on my ropy old frayed tendon, whose fibres, according to the physiotherapist who administered the therapy, look like tangled spaghetti. I had the last session six weeks ago. In six weeks, said the physio, so long as I do the rehab training in the gym to load the tendon adequately, I should know if the shockwave therapy has done any good.

So has it done any good? I think, some. But I want to run with no pain. I don’t want to limp the day after a run. And now my head has been turned by the prospect of surgery to deal with the swelling and pain around the insertion of the Achilles.

BUT, says the wise physiotherapist, I need to get my head around the notion of pain, and the individual’s management of same.

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve had fairly typical existential angst about what it feels to be me. I think it’s quite common. I wonder if, say, my best friend suddenly found herself inside my skin, bones and nervous system, how would she feel? Would she find my body was wracked with pain, or, conversely, would she wonder at the ease with which my body moves through space?

Pain is only what our head tells us it is. We have a whole language for it: burning, searing, stabbing, throbbing…I’ve used so much of it in my diary, trying to keep a record of what us really going on in this here left foot. I have evidence of damage, certainly. There’s the heel bump, the swelling, the fact that I am all crooked and limping sometimes, But then I talk to my friend Len, who’s my age and runs a sub-three hour marathon every year (it used to be nearer 2.5hours in his forties, now he’s disgusted by his 2:57 and feels he must try harder. Sigh). Len shows me his ankle bump and swelling and mentions he gets a bit sore in the Achilles department sometimes,but chooses to ignore it.

Would I find his body impossible to live in? Then there are those people who say they live in constant pain, and yet the medics they consult can’t see any reason for it. But these patients know what they are feeling, and the distress it causes has very real consequences.

And now I have read yet more on the subject of moving easily in ones own body, the idea of anatomy in motion, as written about most inspirationally by Adharanand Finn in Runners’ World. He didn’t take his Achilles to the surgeon, then face a one-year layoff from running while his body healed from that trauma. No, Mr Finn went to one Gary Ward, who made him stand on a piece of paper, while holding his left wrist, which had been broken three times in Finn’s lifetime. And there are a few more details, and a whole catalogue of movements that Finn does not share with us, which he practises in his training for an ultramarathon. And guess what, he runs 100K pain free and writes books about it. Cool story.

It’s the kind of feature that I devour and chalk up as another contra-indication of the wisdom of surgery (and ‘at my age!’) keeps popping into my head. It was sent to me by a new fell-running Twitter friend, who tells me he wishes he’d read the piece before having surgery.

I’ve a feeling that I’ve miles to go before I sleep (the anaesthetised sleep of the operating theatre). A probably a shedload more money to part with. Gary Ward is based in North London, I read with interest…



Capital gains


Heightened expectations at the start

Back in 2003 I was editing the Time Out guide to London and received an invitation to a cocktail party at Buckingham Palace. It was fun watching Liz get hammered on dirty martinis.

In truth, I barely saw any Royals as I accepted glass after glass from silver trays at the reception for members of the tourism industry, but I did appreciate their interest in folk like me, whose work was to sell London to Johnny Foreigner. And it’s a fine story to tell the grandchildren. Every year I am reminded of this city’s pulling power when I run, or support, the Virgin Money London Marathon.

This year, as I believe I have mentioned, I could not run the marathon owing to injury.  I was, however, delighted to play the part of bossy old aunt (as well as Marathon Gran) to my nephew, Douglas, who was running this distance for the first time.

In fact, you could say, if you were as obsessive as me, that last Sunday was the first time the young man had run any distance. Training had been hard to fit in alongside work and two young children, he confessed. Then knee issues, coupled with shin splints (curses of the beginner runner, both) had scuppered his schedule. The the family had gone to visit his Brazilian wife’s family in Fortaleza and he hadn’t had a moment to himself to take a few long slow runs along the beach.

The upshot of all this was that his longest run had been 17 miles. My prediction, therefore, was that his first ever marathon would not be a comfortable experience, rather a test of mind over matter. I foresaw frequent walking breaks and a long, slow race.

I had downloaded his number, and that of my running buddy Sarah, who’d also had a truncated training schedule owing to illness, on to my VMLM app, and set off with white-faced, porridge-filled, Vaseline-nippled nephew to the red start in Greenwich Park. Once I’d seen him enter his pen, I jogged home to collect his wife and two children, aged four and one, to track his progress through the festive streets.

Dani, Douglas’s wife, is not a runner, or the most enthusiastic of walkers, but very proud of her husband’s ambition. She blanched when I answered her question about the length of a marathon, and practically fainted when I told her that public transport wouldn’t be an option when it came to following the route, because of the sheer weight of supporters. If I had told her before we started that we were going to follow the runners from Surrey Quays to St James’s Park, and that would be a four-mile route march, she may well have decided to  watch her beloved’s progress on the app from the comfort of a coffee shop near the finish.

Most people don’t share my geeky obsession with London Marathon facts and figures, and Dani, like most people, wasn’t aware of the huge crowds the best marathon in the world (don’t let people tell you it’s New York) attracts, and that it’s nigh-on impossible to catch a glimpse of your favourite runner, let alone feed him a jelly baby, unless you set up camp at a very specific non-landmark and have some sort of a banner.

Dani loves sightseeing, though, and as I steered her through the cheering crowds to watch the 40,000-odd (some very odd) runners stream across Tower Bridge (we viewed this from More! London on the river), then distracted her with HMS Belfast, the Gherkin,  Walkie Talkie building et al , Tate Modern, the Millennium Bridge, St Paul’s Embankment Gardens, Westminster, Whitehall and St James’s Park, I felt a huge surge of pride in this extraordinary city and its fabulously eccentric marathon route. It’s true there are some hideous longueurs around the Isle of Dogs, where some of the views are less than edifying, but Dani didn’t have to witness the grubby bits. She snapped the pretty views on her phone, and watched on my phone app as her husband made his torturous way round the Docklands loop. I stationed her at Mile 25 to await his triumphant, if painful, final mile, with instructions on how to get to the Finish, so that I could divert to the Chandos pub, where Kent AC marathon runners convene to discuss triumphs and disasters, and where I was due to buy a pint for Sarah, who, according to her little red dot avatar, would be gagging for ale having trotted seemingly effortlessly round the course in a pleasing three hours and 45 minutes.

Meanwhile, Dani and the children had to wait awhile before she could catch sight of her husband finishing the last mile, but she was having a spot of bother making the marathon app on her phone, not to mention keeping the children amused. Sensing her frustration, a woman offered to help: searching for his number on her phone and keeping Dani apprised of his impending approach. Thanks to this kindly stranger, Dani filmed Douglas jogging bravely past, waving and blowing kisses on his way to the finish.

Douglas ran the whole way, finishing in four hours and 44 minutes, and was re-united with his family in the park, wearing his medal with pride. The little family live in Dorset, but visit London pretty regularly to stay with me and show multitudes of Brazilian relatives the picture postcard sights. Whenever they visit I do my bit for the tourist industry and big up London enthusiastically. It took the London Marathon, however, to show this city at its biggest and best. With music, dancing and impromptu street parties at every mile, this was a London ebullient enough for the most Brazilian of tastes.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year

Dementia Rev2

Star turn: Jamie Borthwick is not quite as excited about the run as I am…

It’s just under two weeks until the Virgin Money London Marathon 2019. Runners will be tapering and fussing over diet tweaks: caffeine depletion, fat loading, carb cutting…the advice is boggling. It’s too late to try to squeeze in any more long runs, but quality training sessions with generous recovery times are the order of the day.

I am so jealous it hurts. Choosing not to run this year jarred almost as much as the Achilles tendonopathy that finally defeated me in January. Since then, I have tried to throw myelf into other, supposedly endorphin-producing activities:

  • swimming (too wet, deep end scary)
  • spinning (too much indoors)
  • the gym. Sigh.
  • cycling (that’s how I commute, so it’s not special, and it is trafficky)
  • yoga (a bit annoyingly spiritual and I tend to nod off)

Fortunately Physiotherapist Number 5 understands my pain. That’s because he is a pain specialist. He’s interested in ‘holistic ‘top down’ models, addressing health care inequality… tendinopathy and in particular shockwave therapy.’ He also has a huge and luxuriant beard and looks like a friendly viking. I’m hooked. True to his biog, he sent me a brilliantly holistic appraisal of my woes after our initial meeting. From the gloom I’m experiencing because I’m not running, through related sleep disturbance, irritation and feelings of inadequacy, he’s got my number. He put me on a ‘get back into running programme’, explaining that my grumbling left Achilles needs to be stressed a little over time, so that it doesn’t keep reactively flooding me with red alerts every time I attempt a run. I’m halfway through the programme. It’s a bit like a Couch to 5k. I’m following it to the minute and I’m feeling a little more positive every day.

My more buoyant mood coincided with a couple of pleasing offers of writing work, and a perky little email from a millennial at BBC Radio 1, who thought it would be fun to have Marathon Gran advise young Jamie Borthwick, of Eastenders fame, prior to his first attempt at the London Marathon, to raise funds and awareness for the charity Dementia Revolution.  He, and seven of his cast colleagues from the soap opera will be running on 28 April, on behalf of a former colleague whom they love dearly – Barbara Windsor – whose dementia diagnosis in 2014 was made public four years later by her husband Scott Mitchell, who’s leading the self-styled Barbara’s Revolutionaries.

Jamie and I met up at Tower Bridge last Saturday, for a Radio 1 Newsbeat recording during which Marathon Gran (thankfully not quite old enough to be his gran, even though the lad is younger than my sons) dispensed marathon training wisdom and London Marathon course tips. As I described the highs and lows of running that beloved route (I’ve either run, or volunteered at, the London Marathon for the past 10 years) I felt the old excitement mount. I wasn’t exaggerating when I wrote, in my script for the Magic of the London Marathon tour for Secret London Runs, that I love marathon day more than my birthday or Christmas. And this year, even though I can barely run a mile without pain, I can still derive a vicarious pleasure supporting friends, relatives and soap stars, and be of good cheer… at the most wonderful time of the year.


Injury time

Running sucks

This T shirt caught my eye while volunteering at Peckham Rye parkrun. Sums up my mood

Since my last post (bless me, it’s been 11 months since my last confession), I have limped from physiotherapist to podiatrist to physiotherapist recommended by podiatrist to extra expensive physiotherapist recommended by the physiotherapist recommended by the podiatrist. Each physical therapist has been more high-fallutin than the last: steadily increasing in price until I found myself paying £82 for every follow-up visit of 30 minutes (having paid £102 for the initial 45 minute initial consultation). As a self employed freelance writer who has to supplement her writing income with a below-London-Living-Wage job in a cinema I would not be able to afford this if I had not been left a few thousand pounds in my godmother’s will. Each physio has asked if I have private health insurance to ease the pain. I don’t. I realise there’s a growing gulf between me and my better-heeled clubmates, whose private health care, which comes with their proper jobs, pays for all their physio visits, and ultrasounds and shock therapy to boot.

There’s an operation I can have, and I’m on the waiting list for it. The waiting list is about nine months. I think the NHS half hopes that people with insertional Achilles tendonopathy, once they’re put on the waiting list, forget that they ever enjoyed running by the time they get to the front of the queue, so don’t bother to have it. That won’t be me. I dream of pain-free running. I volunteer at parkrun to look out for runners of my vintage who don’t limp. I read about people like my idol Angela Copson who didn’t even try running until she was 59. And I tell myself that I have three years to be on a waiting list, go under the knife to have my Achilles debrided and my heel bone shaved, be in a cast, then a boot, then do the rehab and then learn to run again, then build up the miles, then burst on to the marathon scene again. Marathon Gran, rebooted.

Meanwhile, all those expensive physiotherapists have given me a programme of exercises, then, when my injury has flared up as a result of such exercises, and I can’t walk, let alone run, they suggest Rest, Ice, Anti-inflammatories. So I’m finished with physios: I’m going to save my money, look forward to surgery, stop swallowin ibuprofen and spend my rehabilitation time reading about my fellow marathon grans. I just hope I haven’t lost my place on Run Young 50’s blog roll over these past, bitterly silent 11 months…

A friend in need…

marathon hand in hand

Just so happens that was my PB year; the 2015 finishers’ T-shirt honoured the inspirational Inge Simonsen and Dick Beardsley, who caught each other’s eye as they raced their last few metres in the first ever London marathon in 1981 and held hands over the finish line, both recording a time of 2:11:48

My friend indeed during this year’s Virgin Money London Marathon – my PW year – was Siggy.

After marathon 2018

That’s Siggy, on the right. We held hands for the last few metres of the 2018 London Marathon, and were just euphoric to reach the finish line relatively unscathed.

Both of us were sorely undertrained because of long-term injury when we lined up together on 22 April. We had made a vow to see the race through together, and we did, every single stride of the way. It was the best time I’ve ever had while running 26.2 miles.

The heat was an extra challenge, but it made it easier for us to run without the pressure, and just bask in the sun-warmed high spirits of the rowdy, euphoric crowd.

I first met Siggy when she and her husband were helping to set up our local parkrun (Hillyfields, in Lewisham)  and we hit it off immediately. She was born on the same date as me (one year later) and we quickly settled into friendly rivalry over parkrun PBs. When I turned 50, I crowed over my status as first V50, until Siggy hit her half century and we sparred over who was going to wear the V50 parkrun tiara (an imaginary tiara) every Saturday.

When injury struck, and volunteering was all we could do (Siggy’s, more serious, skiing accident saw her toiling up to Hillyfields on crutches every Saturday, so I tended to pipe down about my Achilles problems in the light of such heroism), we moaned, commiserated, made plans for future glory and fretted about losing Good For Age status.

And we lost it in style. Finishing 27 minutes after the Good For Age time (for women in their 50s) of four hours meant that we both kissed goodbye to our hard-won GFA status together on 22 April this year, and we had an absolute ball while doing so.

Setting off sedately, and never really speeding up, we stuck together and looked out for each other, matching each other stride for stride, chatting until we became too fatigued to talk and just repeated, dazedly, the mantra we’d settled on (having tried out several for size – a recommended diversionary tactic).

‘we’re small but strong….we’re small but strong’

By mile 23 I was feeling heavy but weak, and could scarcely shuffle.  I felt so sick I thought I was going to pass out. Siggy had far more strength and energy than me, but stuck with me, gently checking I wasn’t losing consciousness by pointing out people in the crowd, or among the runners…anything to keep me from walking (or indeed keeling over onto the hot tarmac). My abiding memory, as we rounded the corner by the gilded statue of Queen Victoria presiding over Buckingham Palace, was being overtaken by a woman who looked to be in her 70s:

‘That,’ I slurred bitterly to Siggy,  ‘is the real Marathon Gran.’


Hand in hand we jogged in granny’s wake, and hand in hand we crossed the finish line, Siggy practically holding me up as I threatened to hit the deck once that medal was safely round my neck.

Thank you Siggy.

We were small, but strong, we learned how to get along, and we survived.

I could not have done it without you.

Deep pockets

kit shot

Kit shot. Look at all the food I have to fit into those pockets

It’s 12 hours until the Queen, from her vantage point in Windsor (great views of Greenwich Park from there!) sets us running in a generally Woolwich direction, dreaming of getting to The Mall by lunch-time.

My kit’s ready. I am, as has been frequently hinted on Twitter and to my longsuffering friends, going to wear mufti. That means I shan’t be wending my inevitably slow and painful way to the finish in my club’s colours.  My hastily daubed Marathon Gran lettering onto a lightweight vest (temperatures are predicted to be unseasonably high tomorrow) will emphasise the FUN in funrunning. No Garmin, either. I do not want to be constantly reminded of just how far off a Good For Age time I will be.

My leisurewear shorts (bought as hiking wear from Decathlon in the days before I ran) have capacious pockets, for my little stash of GoBites and bananas. Because I am a Naturally Fuelled Runner.

I have consumed a very large plate of pasta, made to a GoFaster Food recipe I tweaked to make vegan. I processed a lot of toasted walnuts, spinach, garlic and oil to make a very green sauce for my pasta. I have also eaten malt loaf, porridge and a great deal of toast and peanut butter throughout the day.

Tomorrow I’ll have my porridge, banana and toast at about 7.30am to top up the carbs already packed into my system. No Imodium this year. Minimal caffeine.

Let’s see how the digestive system copes with mid-run date-and-walnut snacking.

I made the happy discovery that turning 55 has opened up a new Good For Age category to me: tomorrow I only need run under 4 hours and 5 minutes. A few months ago I would have considered that a highly attainable goal, but the way I feel at the moment, it’s seems as out of my reach as a sub 3.

On the bright side, it’ll be fun to start a marathon not shivering, cold, wet and with the weight of my unreasonable expectations weighing heavy. And if I’m as super slow as I fear I will be, I can blame it on the weight of all the snacks in my pockets.


The Galloping Gourmet

full of beans

Full of beans

There’s an obvious reason I call myself Marathon Gran: I am old enough to have grandchildren, and to have been around in the 1970s to watch (on one of three channels) a telly chef called Graham Kerr – the eponymous Galloping Gourmet – show people how to cook (and then be slightly creepy about dragging a woman up from the studio audience afterwards to share the meal). And there’s a reason why I have made a pot of beans my cover photo for this blog: the culinary assistance I have been given this training season with another, very much more sporty, 21st century food guru, galloping Kate Percy.

The title popped into my head when I was marvelling at my speed-cooking prowess while preparing home-made gnocchi and home-made pesto. I kid you not. Not only did I attempt such delights, but they were prepared at a brisk pace. I say this as one who, left to her own devices, prefers to subsist on bread, peanut butter and bananas. And chocolate.

My sudden culinary interest has been set in train following a challenge thrown down by Kate last Christmas, which I have blogged about previously. I am one of her little troupe of marathon hopefuls, who have vowed to train on proper, unprocessed fuel, following Kate’s Go Faster Food recipes. My pledge means that no gels will tamper with my blood sugar, no sports drinks will threaten my tooth enamel, no processed whey protein gloop will be sloshing around in my belly and threatening to move my bowels.

The Go Faster Food for Your Active Family cookbook has brightened what became a bleak spring’s marathon training. The injury that made me defer my place in 2017 hasn’t gone away, despite endless physiotherapy, massage, a steroid injection and rest. A couple of weeks with bronchitis, coupled with the Beast from the East hasn’t done a lot for my lung capacity. Now there’s four weeks to go and it’s too late to ramp up the mileage.

Having made the sensible decision to be as fit as I can be, given these circs, it’ll be really interesting to jog around the marathon course on 22 April, untroubled by PB pressure. I probably won’t even bother with a watch. I’ll carry a couple of packets of Kate Percy’s Go-bites, the refuelling ones, made of apricots and seeds, and I’ll drink water, a beer if I’m offered one in Deptford, and I’ll high-five small children. It’ll be a fun run.

Given the low mileage, I’ve plenty of energy to cook up a storm. This week alone I have toasted jumbo oats with honey, walnuts, sunflower seeds and spices (GoFaster granola); I have boiled up haricot beans with molasses, tomatoes, garlic and paprika (GoFaster baked beans) and I have baked for my grandson’s birthday tea party using all wholesome ingredients (Go Faster carrot cake and Go Faster banana maltloaf).

So, I’m eating well, sleeping well and diligently alternating physio drills with the running ones. There’ll be little need for a three-week taper, since there’s no big mileage to taper from. I feel a bit guilty on Kate Percy’s behalf, because the point of the Naturally Fuelled Runners experiment was to see if I could attain my goal marathon time (3:37) without the use of the usual processed carbohydrate ‘fuelling systems’ that certainly weren’t around when my idol Kathrine Switzer  ran her 2:51 in Boston in 1975. Now that there is no goal (other than to stay conscious, and, I suppose, be home in time for tea), I’m not really a useful study for her. However the other members of the naturally fuelled gang are posting PBs in all the 5ks, 10ks and half-marathons they’ve taken part in since January, when the experiment began, so there’s good news coming through. As for me, the proof’s in the pudding, which I am just about to take out of the oven, and wouldn’t you know, it’s another GoFaster triumph…