The lunatics have taken over the asylum

Erik's axe 1 July 2020

Crazy axe woman

Shall we call this Week 14 of Lockdown, or Week 1 of New Normal? Perhaps it’s safest for me to label it Week 1 of marathon training. Rather deluded, surely, given the circs, but the organisers of the Richmond Marathon, which I signed up for back in January are still game: hoping to get the go ahead to host a mass gathering of runners (and their attendant hawking, coughing and sweating) on quite narrow riverside paths. The website assures us that:

‘…we will continue to work closely with our stakeholders and monitor the advice given. Let’s keep all fingers crossed for 12 and 13 September and please do everything you can to stay safe and healthy.’

It would probably be quite foolhardy to go ahead with the race weekend, but it’s good for a runner to have something in her diary, and this Good For Age marathon isn’t going to run itself. I suppose I’ll have to do a physically distanced one if push comes to shove, but I am not sure how much clout my uploaded Garmin result will have with the London Marathon authorities when it comes to claiming my old lady pass to the 2022 race.

Foolhardiness seems to be the name of the game as the population sits with its ear to the wireless and meekly accepts everything Mr Boris Johnson instructs us. So last weekend we were all encouraged to go out on the piss. No, sorry, that message was seasonally adjusted on the day of the proposed piss up, when Mr Boris Johnson corrected his instructions and advised us to have a meek sherry in a responsible fashion and use our great British Common Sense to avoid ending up face down in a gutter and requiring the stomach-pumping services of a Covid-fatigued paramedic.

My husband, a Boris admirer, was very keen to go to the pub. I am not, and was not, being knackered after a busy day and slightly off the beer at the moment, stung by my slow 5k times. We ended up compromising, and selecting a usually neglected Irish pub of such extreme, slightly squalid Father Tedness that we adore it. Sure enough, it was pretty quiet and we were able to have a drink at a physical distance from the chatty bar staff and talk about all the parts of Ireland we would like to go to and where my grandmother may have come from. They were delighted by my ancestry  but disappointed that my only Irish credentials were red hair and copious freckles.

So much for the glorious 4 July, then. I hope the pubs made some money. Pubs are good places and they’re paying my wages at the moment, as I’m doing some editing work on the excellent Good Pub Guide and reading about country hostelries whose winsome charms are making me almost cry with longing. One, I have noted, has a fabulous menu (with more than a nod to veganism), rescued donkeys in the grounds, a herb and veg garden, and beer straight from the cellar cask. I will visit this place if we’re allowed summer hiking and pubbing.

On the inglorious 6th, Mr Boris Johnson rammed his foot firmly in his mouth once more by implying that care homes had invoked catastrophe on themselves by not following shielding guidelines when accepting elderly residents from hospital, which is why about 20,000 of these residents and their carers died. This implied criticism was again swiftly retracted and carefully reworded, but hopefully, some more damage was done to this inept PM’s reputation.

The lunacy referred to in the title, is acceptable, I hope, given that it is a reference to Fun Boy 3’s 1980s hit of the same name, which I don’t think has been banned yet. I may be wrong, given the massive furore that landed on the head of Portuguese Vogue for its insensitive cover portraying some One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s nest style of mental health professionals and headlines referring to madness.

If Mr Boris Johnson displayed some quite lunatic behaviour by exposing his rather dodgy style of push-up to the world’s media to prove he’s fit as a flea, the illustration at the top of this blog shows that I am no better than the object of my disdain. In this one respect. Yup, it’s another loony-tune method of fitness invested in by Erik of Team 6 training. That axe is a heavy thing to swing around, and apparently does wonders for your obliques.

You read it here first.


Mother Superior

Horses and Sanderstead

Jelly legs: me and the foal both

Last weekend was spent trying to get as high as possible, but I didn’t need the services of the local dealer. Kent AC continued their series of virtual, physically distanced running challenges for the 13th week of lockdown with a south-London based version of  the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB), which in reality will not be going ahead this summer.

The UTMB is a 106-mile trail run, with 10,000 metres of elevation gain. Our challenge, those of us who chose to accept it, was to complete that distance and height as a team. We were divided and matched up according to speed, age and hill-friendliness, into 10 fair teams of 10 and undertook to complete our runs between Friday morning and Sunday afternoon.

Each member was committed to achieving 1000m. Efficient running machines chose the steepest hill in the area (this was either one of the steeps of Greenwich Park or the knackering inclines between Sydenham Hill and Dulwich). Then they ran up and down them many, many times. I overthought it, and decided it would be pleasant to cycle to a more bucolic hill for my first efforts. The problem with hill repeats, though, is that they’re boring after the first few,  wherever they take place, and you don’t want to waste too much time going from one hill to another. Although you do have to complete the mileage. I did too much mileage (21 miles) and too little height. Amateur.

The effort I put into it was noted by my Garmin GPS watch, and I became pretty fascinated by the statistics it helpfully furnished me with. I’d never really explored the stuff about VO2 max and maximum heart rates, but the technology on my wrist kept me informed, and in one category described me as ‘overreaching’ and in another congratulated me on my ‘superior’ fitness. There’s no denying that I held these stats to my heart and smugly rejoiced in my superiority.

Granted, the effort rendered me pretty limp and useless for a couple of days afterwards. I kept falling asleep and raiding the larder. Still, recovery is key to the elderly athlete. We need double the amount of it. I took four days off.

Early nights with the latest book by Vinegar Lil herself – Lionel Shriver – soon wiped the smile off my face. I am this contrarian author’s Number One Fan, yet I know if we were ever to meet she’d chew me up and spit me out.  We’re pretty diametrically opposed politically, yet her arguments are persuasive and against the politically correct grain, to the extent that she’s been dropped by her Swedish publisher and is, these days, persona non grata among much of the liberal elite. Her contentious pronouncements on Brexit and Covid-19 have seen to that.  Yet we love her books and want her to keep writing them.

Shriver’s latest novel is The Motion of the Body Through Space, and it pulls no punches in its relentless mockery of Weekend Warriors, endurance runners, amateur triathletes with all the gear no idea, and the whole idea of team spirit. People who really care about times and VO2s and mileage in late middle age come in for particular scorn. I imagine her reading the first three paragraphs of this piece and sneering ‘why the hell would you do that?’ I imagine her taking down Marathon Gran with a few excoriating paragraphs of her own. She is fearsome,  eccentric and fascinating.

Shriver is 63, and her hero, in this book, is Serenata Terpsichore, whose relationship with her husband, Remington Alabaster (Lionel Shriver delights in bonkers names), both in their 60s, has always been based on comradely, whip-smart repartee and a sense of their superior intellect against the stodgy, herd-like masses. Running was always Serenata’s thing, but she did it quietly , before it was fashionable, and never entered mass road races. She ran punishing distances for 47 years, until the cartilage in her knees wore out and she was forced to stop. Now Remington has announced he is going to run a marathon, and his waspish wife is vocal in her distaste for his running with the herd of wealthy boomers. Running is, she says:

‘…dull and hard, as in effortful but not as in difficult to master. It’s repetitive. It doesn’t open the floodgates of revelation, as I’m sure you’ve been led to expect. I’m probably grateful for an excuse to quit. Maybe that’s what I can’t forgive myself. Though at least I’ve finally escaped the great mass of morons chugging alongside who all think they’re so fucking special.’

Ouch. It gets harsher and more compelling as Remington staggers through his marathon in just under the generous cut-off time, then decides to dive into triathlon. Shriver, given free voice by the belligerent and horribly hurt Serenata, relishes her description of elderly endurance runners ‘stringy and weathered with cropped hair…at least fifty-five, she doubtless imagined that she didn’t look anywhere near that old, though her bony, sinuous frame advertised every year…’

Double ouch.  My mind wanders back to last week’s self-congratulatory blog. I am guilty of thinking myself part spring chicken and part mountain goat. And therefore superior. Shriver takes superiority to the next level. She’s looking at folks like me with her ‘been there, done that’ curl of the lip and laughing behind her gloved hand. She carefully dissects her subjects and reveals their ridiculous vanities, and just for a minute I feel flayed and moronic.

Then I remember my knees still work and yes, actually, I do find running revelatory. But I find Lionel revelatory, too, and I finished her book in three early nights.


Where’s my tartan shopper?


…sure I left my glasses around here somewhere….

A bit of a Twitter flurry caught my eye this week (week 12 and Lockdown melting down as crowds gather outside Primark). In a ruffle of outraged feathers, the excellent Henpicked (‘the website for women who weren’t born yesterday’) rounded on a ridiculous piece of advertising promoting ketogenic eating habits. Some benighted diet company had published an infographic of such staggering ignorance and casual ageism that we all felt moved to pile in. Was it a wind up?

In the piece, under the headline ‘What to Eat on Keto ACCORDING TO AGE’, five age groups are illustrated: The first three, 18-30, 30-40 and 40-50 are represented by svelte, cool looking women pouting, their hands on snake-like hips, their jeans skinny, their chests pert.

However, be warned, women! In the two years it takes to get from 49 to 51 a terrible transformation occurs.

The 50 to 60 age group is represented by a Mrs Brady Old Lady (yes, I used to read Viz) with glasses, her hair in a neat bun, tartan shopper on arm. Her frame is roughly twice the width of her sprightlier younger sisters and to celebrate this she wears shapeless frumpy clothes and comfy shoes.

The 60+ age group shows a woman wider still, with a home perm, a really hangdog expression, a bit of a stoop, dressed in what look like Polyester slacks and a barely done-up cardi. She carries a lighter sort of shopping bag. Presumably because she cannot carry anything heavier than a packet of fig rolls and some Sheba.

This is outrageous on so many levels I barely know where to start. The evident lack of care about appearance! The beleaguered stance and expression! The fact that shuffling to the shops is all that women past 50 ever do! The fact that some sort of Art Editor checked this piece and declared it a reasonable portrayal of five stages of womanhood beggars belief.

If  this kind of stereotyping of women post menopause still exists, it’s no wonder that prospective employers hesitate before interviewing applicants with birthdates before 1970. They see Mrs Brady in their heads and automatically fear she’ll fail to understand the computer system, continually complain about her lumbago, take frequent time off to buy cat food and ‘have a fall’ at inopportune moments (memo: women of a certain age ‘have a fall’ they do not simply fall over).

Fortunately for women of our age group, there’s a growing social media community building up to support our sisters as their menstruation stops and we move into a different stage of life without the need for ‘feminine hygiene products’. Because that is all menopause is, for many of us. For women who find this time rough, or who suffer physical symptoms of menopause, organisations such as Henpicked can also help.

I believe it is crucial to celebrate our strong physical bodies at every age. I also believe that vigorous physical exercise spares you from aches, pains, (hormonal) sweats and attendant lethargy. But I know that makes me sound a bit like Robert Baden-Powell whose statue is being so carefully guarded on Poole Harbour so I should perhaps tone it down a bit. I am a big fan of ‘beastliness’ (look it up), which I hope distinguishes me from Baden Powell.  A lot of people hate vigorous physical exercise. And they just don’t want to do it. Hopefully they wouldn’t be reading this.

There is no reason why you cannot run, jump, throw, ride and swim at any age. Yes, I bang on about this all the time, but the drum needs to be banged, if only to keep those cartoonish old biddies out of people’s heads and get them to look around to see what mature women can do. I am an avid follower of Alex Rotas, the photographer and speaker who has done so much to promote active ageing and dispel the stereotypes. Some of the photos she has taken of athletes in their seventh, eighth and ninth decades and beyond are incredibly heartening.

That’s why I felt moved to pile into the Twitter conversation with an image of me, running as fast as I can in my 50s. I’ll be 60 in two years’ time and I will still run as fast as I can.

You’ll notice I am not carrying a shopping bag.

Remind me of the rules again?

Lightning photo credit June20

Nice weather for a picnic (photo courtesy David Holmes, I love SE4)

Week 11 of Lockdown. Or is it? Are we locked down any more? Some people want to be more locked down than others. Teachers dig in their heels. Publicans would rather throw caution to the winds than beer down the drain, and Boris Johnson would like us all to trust in a new, Covid 19 definition of the word ‘bubble’. Some people wear masks, others have torn down the masking tape and plastic wrap on park benches so as to sit on them, defiantly, while indulging in a picnic (allowed, so long as it’s not a barbecue and everyone’s food is kept separate from that of their picnicking companions).

It seems pretty churlish to sound aggrieved, since I am fortunate not to have been affected by the virus, nor has anyone I love or care for, but the more I read about the rules and regulations as they  trickle down from on high, the more distressing I find them. Current restrictions seem designed wholly to offend people like me who have long taken issue with tissues, and all other forms of single-use hygiene products. Having waged war for the past 10 years on such horrors as wet-wipes, plastic wrapped fruit and veg and liquid soap in plastic bottles, I find we’re being actively encouraged to find safety and comfort in these things.  And that’s from my own privileged little bubble of wellness: out in the big dangerous hospital environment,  NHS employees are donning and binning vast swathes of plastic PPE thousands of times a day.

When the weather was at its sunniest, and rules were relaxed a bit to allow people to gather in parks with picnics, my outrage also reached its zenith. Other people, in their hellishness, were trooping to the parks with carrier bags full of individually wrapped sandwiches and polystyrene  boxed fried chicken, to be carefully cleaned off fingers with wet wipes and conveniently portable bottles of hand gel, and washed down with cartons, bottles, cans of drinks. All wrapping and containers to be thrown in bins, and if bins were full, placed around bins. Bringing all these plastic wrapped goodies to the picnic was clearly effort enough for these al fresco eaters – why on earth should they worry about carrying all the wrappings and containers home with them?

Early morning runs for me in warm weather are marred by the evidence of picnics of the night before. And a pre-breakfast wave of loathing for my species and its insatiable appetite for small tubs of hummus and sachets of tomato ketchup.

Picking my way through Friday-night rubbish piles almost put me off my stride on my Saturday morning 5k challenge. Throughout lockdown I have been trying to replicate parkrun in my  own, physically distanced way. I have noticed that having no-one to chase has resulted in my 5k times being an average one minute (at least!) slower than mass participation events, but I am going to keep trying. My latest source of encouragement has been the great little race company, Nice Work, who back in the glory days of real racing, organised some wonderful competitions. In one I won a bottle of wine for being an old biddy who could run a reasonably chipper 10k, so I’ve always been a bit of a fan. It was the Nice Work online 5k challenge I was running when I suffered the  environmental dark night of the soul that I am venting here.

The wider environmental concerns hit me with every feature I read, briefing I watch and every new set of rules I try to absorb. With the fear of contracting Covid 19 on public transport comes the covert suggestion that all travel should be undertaken by car: so one million more cars are on the road as whole furloughed and off-school families go off for a change of scene. And the trains run empty. And the supposedly heartwarming news that pubs and cafes are doing lots of takeaways so people can queue in a physically distant fashion for plastic boxes of food and plastic pints of beer and coffee in throwaway cups. Because the rules state you cannot bring your own containers from home in case they cause a peak in the viral load. Never mind the unhealthy quantities of fat and sugar being consumed while everyone seeks comfort in these distressing times in the only way they know how: filling their faces on the pavements.

Good news comes from the bike shops, who report a mounting interest from the public in their wares, and government, local and national, talking the talk about getting more people out on two wheels and their own two feet. Persuading them they can do this without industrial quantities of snacks may be another matter.



Idyll contemplation

Glastonbury Tor View

Tor, blimey

Week 10 of my Catford lockdown, and a series of lasts (last clap for carers, last home alone and deliciously spacious king-sized bed just for me, last lonesome dinner…) and firsts (first piss-up in the physical presence of a loved one, first trip in a car, first day in the countryside) since the country shut up shop on 23 March have exhausted this tough old bird.

As I adjust to having another human being in my midst I anticipate my training runs with some relish, even when, sleep deprived, I attempt a speed session posted on the Club’s WhatsApp. It was not a success, but it was completed, rather like much of my work schedule, which is a haphazard series of attempts and semi fails and issues with overloaded internet.

So far, the best day of Week 10 has been the one I spent admiring the views, through a haze of rose wine, on a post-lunch walk around a series of winsome little Somerset villages, where it seems to be the law that roses clamber around the front door and people greet you cheerily and offer up their excess tomato and chilli plants,  sun warmed strawberries and bunches of rhubarb. How bucolic, how utterly wholesome. Remind me why I live in south London, again?

It is still against the law for people from one household to stay in the households of others, however closely related they are. So if your husband’s mother is 87 and living alone 120 miles away, you have to go there and back in a day. Pretty exhausting.

Thank goodness, then, for the large gardens of the countryside, where extensive family sized tents can be pitched on the rather parched lawn and London-lurgy carriers like me can be told to sleep inside it.

I love camping, so am counting the days before I can pitch my politically correct second home, in the hope that the old man, and main carer, will think better of it and retire to his bedroom indoors. There’s an outdoor privy and basin so a wash and brush up won’t be out of the question and I’ll be able to rise with the birds and go off for my long Sunday run across rolling fields and past pretty Somerset orchards.

The weather, however, may be a fly in the ointment. After nine weeks of wall-to-wall sunshine we’re facing a weekend of rain and gales, so our plan to leave the tent pitched so we can return every weekend, like posh Londoners with their place in the country, may require adjustments.

In terms of lurgy-carrying, however, it seems London folk have weathered the worst of Covid 19. The city’s lockdown – up until the weekend of 30/31 May at least, has served us well, and cases, hospitalisations and deaths are on the decrease. It’s the West Country, apparently, that’s suffering a spike. However, witnessing the crowds in my local Lewisham park yesterday, on the last hot day for a while, you’d be forgiven for fearing a new wave of infections may be coming.

Whether people will be willing to forgo the summer-holiday travel and treats in order to flatten any new curves is a bit of a moot point. But the general movement of folk seems to be toward the open spaces, and estate agents have opened up their emails again to witness a surge of disconsolate city dwellers looking to sell their overheated gardenless apartments to invest in the healing spaces of  the shires, moors, uplands and downlands.

If this is the case, will we see a return to  the inner-city poverty of London of centuries past, when the healing breath of the countryside just three or four miles outside the urban stews became the destination of choice for those with means?

And the towering glass penthouses of £6m-plus apartments, such as those at One Blackfriars? Who will buy? What will become of us city folk who are left behind? And can I even remember where all the bits of the family tent are?

The blue normal

Greewich river gloom

The future’s not so bright, but we’ll make like it is

Week nine, and the silver linings glimpsed through the fug of lockdown are losing their lustre. This Bank Holiday weekend has been a particularly fractious one, what with all the Cummings and goings (the joke that keeps on giving). Twitter is savage, though, and the spectacle of the man himself being verbally abused by his neighbours in his (possibly Islington…usually is) street came as a hideous counterpoint to the Thursday Clapping Show.

The clap this week will be the final encore, as most people have begun to feel a little conflicted about it. Standing outside ones front door and clapping – while the country goes to hell in a handcart and the ‘heroes’ would rather have been rewarded for their heroics with respect and salaries that paid the rent  – felt increasingly mealy mouthed.

With my last slightly awkward round of applause this Thursday evening, and the prospect of hiring a car and fetching the old man from Somerset this week, I am bracing myself for that new normal that seems to be preoccupying the nation.

The old, new and normal normal I have always taken for granted is the particular joy of planning The Sunday Long Run in marathon training. During lockdown, as mentioned before, the restrictions caused by avoidance of public transport, closure of cafes and public toilets has rendered the SLR shorter and somewhat brisker, and the surroundings are now too familiar. The parks I have always loved can’t show me new views, the streets and pavements are rendered even more toxic by the palpable waves of disapproval directed at runners. Swapping the long run for a long bicycle ride to get further into the suburban countryside is a possibility, but risky, as I never learned how to fix a puncture, and, anyway, cycling is a pain in the butt after a few hours in the saddle.

One of my most memorable summer training runs back in the old days was a 19-miler to Gravesend, followed by a pint in a riverside pub, then a train ride back. Or there was the marathon training by the sea in Dorset, while staying with family. Making a weekend of it, exploring the hills of Shropshire, the fields of Lincolnshire, the wild side of West Wales.

One of the coaches at Kent AC sent out a very welcome email announcing a route back into marathon training. It is, of course, a virtual, online route, but something we all can share, The virtual training, incorporating advice, routes and weekly session suggestions based on our goals for autumn marathons that may or may not go ahead have come just in time, because yesterday an attack of stir-craziness sent me running into trouble. I chose the river route into central London with scant regard for my lack of breakfast, water, sleep and good humour. My disinclination to get back to the empty house full of unfinished projects drove me further.  The result wasn’t pretty. Fortunately a couple of quid in my shorts pocket and a handy corner shop countered the dehydration and hunger, but 10 miles in, then deciding to run the six miles back from Waterloo Bridge, escalated my normal Sunday  mileage into a new normal my body wasn’t ready for.

The rest of the day was spent in an achey, limping fug of self pity. That kind of physical fatigue is not great for the body, setting up an inflammatory response that necessitates very careful recovery and lots of sleep. However, next door’s partying, unseasonal heat and my self-imposed over tiredness and subsequent daytime caffeine and sugar put paid to that.  The online training schedule created by my coach will require me to focus.

As the grip of lockdown loosens, perhaps I will cast my sights beyond the M25 and run far away. Already an opportunity has presented itself to me. The hire car I am driving 110 miles to fetch my husband, so that we can self-isolate together in a way that I *think* is legal now (I think Mr D Cummings would be lenient if he knew) is my passport to a change of scenery: country lanes, rolling hills and no pedestrians (it’s rich farmer country, everyone’s in a LandRover or tractor). The mother-in-law’s daily carer will be coming back in hygienic mask and gloves and I will promise not to have any senior moments when it comes to playing fast and loose with the mileage.


The View from Nunhead cemetery

Squint very hard and you can see St Paul’s. The view from Nunhead cemetery

Week 8 of lockdown has been eventful. Despite the lack of actual running races, those of us in Kent AC;s C group have been under pressure to put our foot on the gas in search of glory.

The keen, young and more technically minded runners in the top teams put together a Virtual Comrades Marathon (the real one having been abandoned owing to…yeah, you know). So we found ourselves being sorted into teams of eight to run 55 miles between us.

Obviously, if you’re a 2:20 marathon runner and you find yourself  with a team-mate who goes by the name of Marathon Gran you’re going to have to do some  creative thinking. You don’t want to hurt the old girl’s feelings, or in any way patronise her, but you can’t have her running many slow miles in this game….

My team-mates were very diplomatic and set me a three-mile challenge with a nice speedy finish time (I blew that, of course) and we wound up coming in second. Well done us. Them.

It is great to focus on running a bit faster, however. It’s important to do it in the right place/time of day so as not to intimidate or annoy other park users, but I have managed up the pace on grassy playing fields these past few weeks.  The urge to get out into proper countryside is overwhelming. Our benighted government has proclaimed that we’re allowed to visit One Person in a given beauty spot…provided we drive there. I (carless) could weep. People are actively being encouraged to get into their cars, congest the roads and make life harder for pedestrians and cyclists. I am not allowed to get on a train.

All the reasons we live in cities are no longer relevant. Going for a very long bike ride (I cycled 40 miles around the central, west and north London last week) means your putting some strain on the old bladder with nowhere for a wee and coffee. Of course, some isolated parks (sorry Wimbledon Common) are fine for bush wees.

So, apologies, too, to Samuel Johnson. This Londoner is a bit tired of London. And the rusticated husband is tired of Somerset. The lack of a decent village shop selling locally produced food (it’s a salad cream and teabags sort of place) means he’s reliant on supermarket deliveries, and his mother’s penchant for ice cream and millionaire’s shortbread is causing a distinct straining of the shirt buttons. He has started digging over the garden to grow veg. His mum likes that, because she was in London during the war and helped her parents dig for Britain  in West Hampstead.

Time was, when training for a marathon (will my 13 September marathon happen?), the jolly London runner could set out for her Long Slow Sunday run before anyone else was up, pick up a couple of team-mates along the way, run into town, stop at mile 13 for a coffee and banana from a pleasant little park cafe, run home again and still have the rest of the day for decent pub lunches or afternoon tea in a local park/gallery/museum…

Now, most of my Kent AC friends (except a very special quartet of women I hold very dear and run with distantly) are messages on WhatsApp or tiny wiry figures on Zoom strength & conditioning sessions. I was grateful, though, to a couple of young athletes from this hugely burgeoning club to invite me and my best running buddy to chat on the weekly podcast. Despite the fact I sound like a posh sixth former and come out with clangers like ‘I am entering my 58th year as a human being…’ Portentous. What was I before? A meerkat? I think it’s quite entertaining.

I certainly get into a bit of a riff on my favourite subjects: An older runner should push herself to be the best she can be. Stay competitive. Keep an eye on the best runners in your age group and quiz them mercilessly on their training/eating schedules. And don’t be afraid to talk about weeing in unexpected places. Sorry, again,  Wimbledon Common.

You can listen to the podcast here.

Go wild

Richmond park deer

Just me and you, deers

‘Wild go wild, go wild in the country, where snakes in the grass are absolutely free…’

Bow wow wow

At the end of the seventh week of lockdown, the Prime Minister broadcast an update, during which he clenched his fists in an attempt to look prime ministerial, and confused almost everyone. Except, I imagine, The Dailies Mail and Torygraph, who love him whatever.

If I understand correctly, which I probably do not, because I have gone into a period of continuous deep sedation, people are now allowed to go further afield to take their exercise. However, if they think they’re going to meet more than one family member, who’s not already living with them,  in the taking of that exercise, they can forget it.

That means, I think, I can take a train to Hampshire and go running on the chalk downs near my sister’s house. I think I may be able to have a cup of tea and a piece of cake in her garden, because she lives alone. I’ll bring my own mug. That would be lovely.

I would quite like to run somewhere countrified and lapse into that wonderful, mesmeric state of unthink, as you run along muddy paths and rutted fields, eyes always scanning for the next potentially ankle-turning bit of terrain and forget about all the bollocks going on inside your head.

Running in London – even without all the latest physical-distancing disapproval you deflect as you swerve into the middle of the road to avoid upsetting someone, who swears at you anyway because they hate runners – is beginning to pall. I have run hundreds of miles round all my local parks, and this last week have been cycling loads to explore distant parks. The nearest I have come to wild remoteness is (don’t laugh) the Royal Park of Richmond.

Richmond Park is very big, the biggest in London (the perimeter measures 7.75miles) and, I discovered having cycled there, the current pandemic means you’re not allowed to cycle in it. You’re allowed to run or walk in it though, So I did. With no planes drowning birdsong and no cafes open to attract human foragers, it felt remarkably rusticated. It’s easy to get lost.

Best of all, it was bizarrely deserted when was there last Friday, given the heaving population of south-west London, the heat of the day, and the unwonted clarity of government advice on daily exercise (ie, take it). Once the bike was chained up, I trotted off across the grass and up some wooded slopes, around various ponds – all of which have names, (I tremble to think about Gallows Pond’s history )- along sandy trails and very soon went into a sort of trance.

That’s the lovely thing about running in places where there are no cars, no fences, no petty rules or angry farmers, you can lapse into a state of thinking but not thinking. You see things that burn on to your consciousness, such as the pretty dappled back of a young deer, the tiny blue butterfly you disturb as you pass, the crow chasing the squirrel across the grass and they all absorb you. Everything about this weird time; loss of income, loneliness, anxiety about those you love or those enduring hardship goes on to the back burner while you enjoy the springiness of the grass.

I will probably always live in London. It’s too much of a leap in the dark to move away now, and the tumbledown house I have here in Catford is my children and grandchildren’s inheritance – I have nothing else to give them being an improvident, pension-and-savings-free, workshy loser. However, escaping this city, whenever possible,  has become a gnawing obsession, exacerbated by the lockdown. Not forever, though, because I have no wide-of-the-mark romantic illusions about the countryside.

It’s easier to carry the countryside in your heart and take a deep draught of it whenever time, budget or Covid 19 allows, rather than decide to invest your whole life in some bucolic dream that no longer exists.

The views are lovely in Somerset. Lush and green they are, admired from the hilltop above my mother-in-law’s house. Black and white milk cows graze on some of them. Two of the biggest dairies are less than a mile away. They produce cheese for many supermarkets, on an industrial scale. I fear many black and white cows, and the calves separated from them at birth, are grown on an industrial scale, too. Heavy silver milk tankers rumble through the lanes, pressing you into the hedgerows, taking the spoils of intense bovine lactation across the country. There seem to be an awful lot of lorries, tractors and  top-of-the-range Land Rovers whipping down the country lanes. I don’t like to think about farming too hard. Or ingest any of its brutishness towards animals. Yes I’ll eat its cabbages. A woman’s got to live.

And the Daily Torygraph once listed the village next to my mother-in-law’s one as the most desirable place to live in England. That’s enough to put anyone off.

So, I cycle to parks, near and far. I’ll take a train to a Home County and run up and down The sunny Uplands and Downlands. I’ll dream about Snowdonia and my little tent. I’ll harbour no illusions though, while I run unthinkingly, off the tarmac and out into the green.



Dear Life

The book that shows us how to live

‘Most runners run not because they want to live life longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest. If you’re going to while away the years, it’s far better to live them with clear goals and fully alive than in a fog, and I believe running helps you do that. ‘

Haruki Murakami

While we’re whiling away the lockdown – and we’re in week 6 now – every item on self-imposed schedules and agendas thrums with significance. Some people say they’re living from meal to meal, especially people who love to cook and who have other people to cook for. Others are taking enormous pride in cleaning out their kitchen cupboards, sewing quilts or sowing seeds. It’s all there on social media, or described in great space-filling detail in the rather slim volumes of weekend supplements, as staff columnists scrape frantically at the ideas barrel.

Everyone has been given leave to ‘take exercise’ and, as would be expected, that has been roundly explored on social media too. TikTok videos of fat dads falling over back-garden steeplechase courses abound. My favourite is a honed and toned young woman in sports bra, pants and mascara carefully bracing her washboard stomach as she swings up her kettlebell with some vigour…and smashes the light fitting above her head.

For runners, it’s business as usual. Training early in the morning means you physically distance yourself from anyone else around, and the world is more beautiful then, anyway. Every run is significant. There’s the one that replicates the usual Tuesday track session, the one that’s all about tempo, the threshold run, the hills, the long and slow…they all mean a lot. Granted, the mass gatherings that bring you medals, T-shirts and exciting texts and emails are cancelled for the foreseeable, but we don’t all run to race. We run because it’s a celebration of life.

The scheduling, the goals, the hopes and dreams of running faster, longer or just running for five minutes when you’re coming back from injury, or a spell in bed after illness, they all help lift the fog of this confusing life. Now more than ever. As the poet said, man is a top piece of work, and being physically active rings that observation into sharp focus.

This week the outstanding spring weather that made the first five weeks of Lockdown almost dreamily beautiful – all blossom and blue skies that made that daily outdoor exercise like an intoxicating fix – dissolved into rain and cold, and the nation’s mood became noticeably more fractious. More mental health crises presented at Accident & Emergency departments of hospitals, where they had to be separated from the Covi19 admissions, as lockdown felt like house arrest.  No-one could see an end to this period and it was dispiriting.

Under a lowering sky, it became even more important to run from your demons, and make the very most of a healthy physical body. Reading the excellent book pictured at the top of this post helped me avert my eyes from my navel and throw myself into this wonderful self-indulgent period of my life. With no-one to answer to, and only the cats to feed, few deadlines and the occasional Zoom piss up/quiz/yoga class, life, and health, should be savoured. True, there’s no money coming in, but neither is there anything I particularly need to buy. I hope that HMRC freelancers’ agreement will stump up enough cash to pay the mortgage for a year or two. Most importantly, I’m fit and well.

Reading Rachel Clarke’s affecting descriptions of people who live life to the very fullest once they know they have a finite stretch of dear, sweet vitality left to them is enough to make your heart burst. For some, like 96-year-old Dorothy, it was reading the newspaper, cover to cover, and fitting in one last game of bridge on the Thursday before she died on the Sunday. For the others, like the young dad, Simon, frantic about leaving his wife and daughters, it was feeling well enough to enjoy the last couple of weeks in their company. Carefully modulated palliative drugs can do that.

Boredom and anxiety are energy sappers in lockdown. We’re all pissed off about not going to the pub/theatre/office but most of us are in comfortable homes with enough food and access to parks that still wear their vivid spring finery. Run, walk, skip or dance in them and enjoy the hours. While them away if you have to, but don’t lose them in the fog.


Healthy competition

virtual Half Mara

A little peace of Marathon Day

Week 5 of Lockdown sees the city’s runners in mourning for the London Marathon. The greatest race on earth was supposed to take place on 26 April. When Covid 19 first struck we were promised the 2020 race would be postponed to October 4, but that looks doubtful. I reckon we’ll hurdle that one and go straight into VMLM 2021. I wonder what will happen with all the medals and T- hirts?

My club marked the day by organising a paired marathon challenge. Slower runners were paired with the top flight ones – each runner ran a responsible, physically distanced 13.1 over the weekend and logged their results on a spreadsheet. The fastest pair to run a whole marathon between them were the winners. The fastest pair logged 2 hours and 40 minutes. One member of that fast pair ran the distance in about 70 minutes. I am in awe. And I was, of course, slow.

It’s really hard to run a competitive race when you’re all on your own. My long, slow Sunday runs have been isolated. I’ve seen my usual travelling companions across the park and on Zoom strength and conditioning workouts on Tuesdays and Fridays, but mostly I’ve looked faintly ridiculous, especially on Tuesday ‘speed’ and  Saturday ‘parkrun’ days, trying to run quick laps of park grass with my Buff over my nose and mouth and my sunglasses on.

I don’t run with music: chatting is my preferred distraction on a long slow run. We talk about work, spouses, lovers, children, hopes, dreams, frustrations. Since lockdown, Sunday runs have involved inner conversations, literary aspirations and plans about what I will write in my daily email to my husband. His are more compelling because he’s describing the challenge of being rusticated in Somerset with a mother whose powers of recall have been so decimated by dementia that she can’t remember the answer she received to questions she asked 10 minutes ago. He’s never watched Groundhog Day but is assured that that’s what his life is like. On the other hand, he’s comfortable; in a big smart house with an expansive garden, his brother is bringing in bags of groceries, he’s going for pleasant country walks, writing a lot, making music and his mother peels all the potatoes. Even when they’re not eating potatoes. She just sees a potato and peels it. She also likes to empty the fridge and put perishable items in interesting drawers. Smells ensue.

Her memories of being a girl in London during wartime are detailed and undimmed. She just repeats them. A lot. You can be assured of the fact that London in 1941 was absolutely nothing like London in the time of Covid 19, for all Boris Johnson’s bluster about ‘the conflict.’

I miss my running buddies, but the competitive relationship I have with my best one is still alive and kicking. We agreed on the route we’d take on Sunday, and we kept each other in our sights for the first seven miles or so. She’s a good deal faster than me, however, so pulled out of view at London Bridge and I was left to my own circular thoughts and the slightly sarcastic beeps from my Garmin’s mile counting (maybe that was just my slight derangement in the heat). She didn’t crow later, when we compared our times on WhatsApp.  Maybe she will when we do our potentially hilarious podcast. We’ve already decided it’ll be warts and all. Be warned.