Ambulating myself

Hill sprints: honestly, there were hill sprints

As I crack my knuckles and prepare to write this I hear that ‘the patient is ambulating himself and is in good spirits.’

The patient is Donald J Trump and the speaker is one of a multitudinous team of robotic medics that buzz around him at all times. Two days ago he travelled by large helicopter to book himself into a hospital 15 miles away. Yes, 15 miles. It is to be hoped that it dawns on the many thousands of Trump followers in danger of losing their health insurance, that this one 74 year old obese guy is possibly receiving more top dollar medical care than is entirely fair. They don’t think like that, though. More dangerously, they really believe that the Donald thinks like them.

Since I wrote that paragraph Mr Trump has climbed into an armoured car to showboat for his faithful fans still waiting outside to catch a glimpse. How joyful that he is well enough to do this. How the world celebrates that his oxygen (and hot air) levels are good.

Back in the real world. the world feels more unreal that ever. Yesterday was the 40th London Marathon (since 2009 known as the Virgin Money London Marathon). The money bit is very important, because the organisers had to find a way for people to raise their usual hundreds of thousands of pounds for their favourite charity while running 26.2 miles, but in a physically distanced way.

While the elites ran 19 laps of St James’s Park (fabulous sprint finish by Ethiopian Shura Kitata in the men’s race) the other 40-odd thousand fun runners and club runners ran their own 26.2 mile route, then posted their results to the VMLM website to earn their medal. I watched a bit of marathon coverage after I’d run in the wind and rain with my usual Sunday running mates. We saw a few people with numbers pinned to their vests, running their lonely challenge in the Greenwich area, where the real-life marathon has started every year since the 1980s. On the telly, Gabby Logan bigged up the brave souls running their lonely distance in costume, smugly on holiday beaches, tragically in their rain lashed neighbourhoods, heroically in their 80s (Ken Jones, an Ever Present, who has done every London Marathon since 1981 ran it with his daughter, to be on the safe side).

Everyone looked to be in good spirits, but it was a sad old day, in truth.

Since lockdown began and fixtures hit the deck, I’ve tried the whole virtual racing thing. I even paid a race company to run a 15 miler in the location of my choice, all on my tod. I didn’t bother posting my time, though. I am not on Strava, whose peculiar brand of showboating I have never really understood.

Strava devotees tell me that the online competition keeps them sharp and competitive, but I am growing weary with the bonhomie of it all. I was quite pleased last week, however, when my Garmin watch awarded me a 50K Challenge award after I’d combined a very long run with a trip to Wisley Gardens in Surrey to meet my sisters, but didn’t feel the need to share these glad tidings with anyone.

Recently I downloaded a mapping app called Komoot to see if it would guide me on a bike journey more efficiently that Google Maps. It proved more of an irritation than an inspiration, and when I finally stopped it, mid ride, exasperated that it was taking me on a scenic ride around Brixton en route to the Surrey Hills it awarded me a virtual high five and a ‘What a Tour! Why not share it?’ comment, which made me feel like throwing my phone into the nearest wheelie bin.

The whole virtual racing idea is just race organisers, unable to make a living out of creating events that involve lots of excitable amateur athletes crowding together and shedding blood, sweat and tears in their bid for a PB, trying to make the best of a bad situation. I don’t blame them for that. Neither do I blame runners and riders who like to claim their glory on various social media platforms.

As the days get shorter, wetter and greyer, and the shadow of Covid 19 casts a darker shadow over the human race, the need to get out there in real life, in the rain and mud and wind seems all the more important. I’ve invested in a tiny lightweight tent with which to go exploring through deserted countryside. I am not sure how much of this therapeutic meandering i will share on various digital platforms. Although I like doing this, for the record. Unlike the orange man in the armoured car, whose noisy, crowd-drawing ambulations and expostulations must always be subject to public admiration, I’ll try to leave no trace on the world in its season of grief.

Six of one, half dozen of the other

Old Compton Street’s last hurrah?

There was a slightly feverish air to the weekend of 12 and 13 September 2020. The announcement that the much-vaunted Rule of Six would come into effect on Monday 14, coupled with the promise of late-summer sunshine, sent everyone out on a mission to enjoy themselves before the dark cloud of isolation rolled in once more. The new regime, stating that no more than six people can gather together, indoors or out, means that you need to choose your friends carefully, or if you have been blessed with a quartet of children who still live at home, you cannot choose your friends at all, at least if you want to see them in the flesh.

It’s not really lockdown, though, in that parents do not have to start homeschooling again (unless their child’s school suffers a big, classroom-closing outbreak – a few child-free teachers I know are thinking fondly of one of those, given the chaotic working conditions they’re having to accustom themselves to). Everyone’s also being told they must go into the office, or risk losing their jobs, if they haven’t lost them already.

Officially risk-assessed team sports are exempt, but meeting your mates for a kickabout in the park is not. Controversially, donning a Barbour and rusty coloured cords and going out with your equally blessed country casual acquaintances to shoot at unfortunate game birds has been given the government seal of approval.

‘We get the government we vote for,’ announced J, drily, when we were discussing this after early doors training this morning. Although club running is allowed under the new rules, the athletics track remains firmly closed, which means our club’s Tuesday evening training takes place in the surrounding park. This, to me at least, doesn’t seem fair to the other, more sedate park users, who may not enjoy having 20 or more breathless and sweaty clubrunners hogging the metre-wide paths. At 7am, however, you’re only likely to encounter dogwalkers and other lonely long-distance runners, so I remain in my bubble of five other women; we keep each other on track in a comfortably competitive way.

There was some consternation (salacious optimism?) in the media that the last weekend before the Rule of Six deployment would be some sort of Bacchanal, in which masks would be tossed to the four winds while people mingled in vast groups, spraying bodily fluids and partying like it’s 2019. When I cycled into town to lead a Secret London Runs Gin Tour I felt a little guilty for adding to any potential mayhem to the mix.

I needn’t have worried, central London’s still reasonably sedate. Inner cities generally are bearing the brunt of a general falling-out-of-love with The Big Smoke, coupled with an all-pervading national mood of bewildered hypochondria. Those that are sightseeing, eating out and visiting galleries and museums are booking ahead and lapping up (behind their masks) the unwonted physical distance between them and the other person goggling the Van Gogh.

I met my half-dozen gin runners at St Bride’s churchyard, and we jogged and chatted our way through 10k-worth of the history of gin, from 1550BC to the Ginaiisance of 2008. En route for the horrible history of the Gin Craze in the slums of St Giles’s parish, in 1723, I lead the runners through Old Compton Street, always a bit of a bunfight at the best of times. I once lost three runners in the crush there during Pride. When they finally popped out of the crowd, like corks from a Bollinger bottle, they were covered in lipstick and glitter from all the exuberant half-naked party people.

Let’s pause to imagine that now.

Old Compton Street still looked as inviting as ever, to me at least. No cars are allowed, and all the restaurants have decamped outdoors on to the street. Tables are carefully placed a metre apart, and the beleaguered waiting staff are behaving like Patience behind a face visor. We walked politely along the length of the street, masks up and hungry eyes assessing the lunch choices and considering this brave new world.

The Gin Craze, and all its ruinous consequences, fizzled out after a definitive act of Parliament in 1751. I can only hope that the new rules spare the recently unemployed, the new undergraduates denied Freshers Week, the worried well and the terrified sick any more misery and anxiety, and that it doesn’t take many more months of Covid Crisis to emerge with a vaccine and efficient testing regime to help those people who want to party mingle freely again. Me, I’d just like to jump on the Eurostar and see my little Berlin boys.

Returning to the Shire

20200812_145228

Tangoed legs in peaty river shock

Too much thinking time uncovers dangerous patterns of thought. One effect this global crisis has had on many people is to open up vast tracts of what would have been the working day and make a gift of them.

‘So what are you going to do with US?’  These hours seem to say to the bewildered office worker on furlough, the under-employed self-employed journalist, the tourist guide with no tourist industry.

Even the workers who never stopped working have spare hours they would have spent in cinemas, theatres, pubs and family gatherings just sitting there, waiting to be filled up.

I’ve lost count of the weeks, (never mind the hours) but I reckon it’s something like Week 20 now since total lockdown. Most places are vaguely, lethargically open. The British Museum will open on Thursday (27 August 2020). My little local cinema opened 10 days ago. I even have a shift there on 2 September, so I will feel like Shakespeare’s ‘whining school-boy, with his satchel and shining morning face, creeping like snail/Unwillingly …’

That will be weird, going to an actual workplace instead of repairing to my attic study every morning. My other employer, Secret London Runs, has also re-instated private running tours of London, and I’m leading one of those in a couple of weeks.

So far, so industrious, but there are still empty hours in which to brood, and to dream up alternative lives to the rather unsatisfactory one that Covid 19 has left us with.

Last week, my friend R and I hired a car and drove up to Sedbergh, just within the Yorkshire Dales National Park. She is minded to change her life, and has spent many of those Covid -scoured hours looking at new homes, where the air is fair and people don’t dump chicken shop refuse in your front garden. We looked at a couple of strangely proportioned houses with thick stone walls.

Our northern break saw me haring, then scrambling, up dales and dipping in rivers and watching clouds scud over great big skies. It was lovely.

My attention was increasingly caught by isolated small barns and tiny cottages flanked by craggy fells, which will be snow topped in winter. From there I could reacquaint myself with fell running and become a lean, hardy old biddy running with her Border collie every day. I would live alone (with fantastic collie), bake bread and write my novel. I would swim in rivers and one day, in, oooh, say 25 years, they’ll find my little body curled round some wind blasted hawthorn tree and my spirit will roam the dale from that day forward. Ghostly Marathon Gran. She got better with age.

R listens to these flights of fancy patiently, then goes on looking at sensible-for-the-airbnb-market dwellings in the well-to-do town. I find the whole multi-bathroom thing a bit depressing, but I am old school. And this old house I live in, here in Catford, has had many a flood owing to a badly plumbed attic shower room.

R says she feels a magnetic, atavistic pull to Yorkshire, owing to the fact that she was born there. In fact, Sedbergh is officially Cumbria, but being part of the national park makes it Yorkshire for R’s purposes. We discuss often, these days, what the point of London is, given the pollution, the rubbish and the lack of open libraries and charity shops.

And I too, still feel a pull to the Shire of my birth, the rolling green hills and cottages that aren’t unlike the Hobbitty settlements that made Elijah Wood’s big blue eyes brim in Lord of the Rings. My big sister still lives in my Shire, a stone’s throw from my old school. Last time I ran round the hills and tracks I met no-one. I could buy a little slice of cottage in the market town near the village where I was born…

Then I remember  the last time I cycled into the quiet West End of London and had a pleasant wander about Bond Street and found myself in an Andy Warhol exhibition in the Halcyon Gallery, sketching and discovering stuff I never even knew I was interested in. That’s what happens in London, it’s unlikely to happen in the Shire, even if the beer is cheaper. London can still fill up those empty hours until term starts, and who knows, a British Museum visit, booked online, maybe all I need to shake off this malaise.

 

 

 

What do you want to return to?

pink sky thinking

Pink sky thinking

Roll out, press play and zone in: online yoga classes have been a source of pleasure these past 17 weeks. It’s becoming easier to see the unrolling of the mat as a balm to my increasingly enervated mood, as the endless torrent of gloom spews out of the news feed. On non-running days (and runners of senior years need more of these to imbue each run with strength and purpose) you need the positivity a run delivers, without the physical wear and tear. Yoga provides this, and a decent stretch for tight muscles and inflamed joints, garnished with a generous dose of kindness.

A friend of mine, Carrie, is a kindly yogi, and a friend of mine and roughly  four million other people, Adriene Mishler, is another one. I tune in to the first weekly, the second daily (I recommend Adriene’s Home 30 day challenge). Both women are generous,  dispensing their wisdom free of charge (although I know far more about Carrie’s finances than Adriene’s and can safely assume she is no millionaire, so I pay what I can afford) and both make me feel better.

Up to a point. There’s something I struggle with, and that’s the whole affirmation thing. Sometimes one yogi or another tells her adoring viewers to ‘set an intention’ for the practice, to intone some phrase or other, and repeat it ‘on the outbreath’. It sets up a panicky wracking event in my small brain cells, coupled with a cynical vision of those perfume advertisements that everyone takes the piss out of, in which some fabulously overpaid actor draped in chiffon exhales a word like ‘be….’ and pouts moodily.

What’s my affirmation for the week at 8am on a Monday morning, perched on my ‘sit bones’ on my yogamat in my pyjamas?’

‘Get my work done’

‘Don’t eat half a jar of peanut butter on toast for breakfast’

‘Be kind’

I am particularly sick of that last one. Invariably the people hashtagging ‘bekind’ on the likes of Twitter are the least likely exemplars of lovingkindness, but their exhortations are accepted by the gullible, who believe that they are nicer than ordinary people, underneath all the gloss and trappings.

Yesterday Adriene Mishler had entitled her Day 15 of Yoga practice ‘Return’ and requested that we asked ourselves ‘what is it that I want to return to? What feels like home?’

Once again I was thrown into a fever by the weight of Adriene’s expectations of me. I did not want to let her down. But what do I want to return to?

A pre- Covid world? Well, yes, a global epidemic is truly terrible, but on the other hand my life before it hit us wasn’t all beer and skittles.

Childhood? Not really, except that I would have been able to proceed with A level German if I sent a note to my 17-year-old self  prior to my return. But I’d have to go through the heartache of my late 40s again.

A world where there’s little or no single-use plastic and factory farming and fewer cars on the road? No Kardashians and the cult of celebrity, Trump or Assad? Of course, but I think Adriene is talking about putting my hands to my heart space and returning to the ‘real authentic me’ and all that kind of talk is flustering because I don’t know who that is and my thoughts just turn to the unsightly yellowy tough skin on the soles of my feet and wishing I had the defined abs and better calves of proper athletes.

Turns out the true authentic me is a total airhead.

There’s a rumour in the news that the Government may decree all over 50s to self isolate until all this is over. I am not sure where this leaves Mr BJ so it’s clearly a silly rumour, but I’m not sure if self isolation would be ideal for this inept yogi. I would navel gaze myself into insanity.

Don’t drop CLANGERS

Clangers blog

Running: it’s cheap and enjoyable – try saying that without sounding smug

Catford looks like it’s been dragged through a hedge backwards. Everywhere you look people have taken the opportunity to dump unwanted furniture and household junk. Many businesses remain resolutely shut, some boarded up with optimistic To Let signs. Advertising hoardings display just peeling relics of a time when businesses could afford to advertise. The only people who look cheerful are the crowds of moped drivers, visors up and enjoying the sunshine outside kebab and chicken shops. Everyone’s comfort eating, and the Thames has the highest concentration of microplastics from fast food containers of any river in the world.

Running along the river bright and early in soft, refreshing rain last Sunday, we weren’t aware of the breaking microplastics story as we admired the new urban planning that has created wooden sun loungers for all on the promenade outside the posh flats around Greenwich. In the lush planters, there are water fountains that have not yet been declared a Covid hazard. There’s artwork, an eco garden centre, interesting sculpture, pretty gardens and shady spaces. And boats a bobbing on the tide. Away in the distance, the Thames Barrier is our weekly destination.

I won’t be needing to run any further, since my September marathon is finally cancelled, and the only exertion on the horizon is the virtual Bewl 15. My favourite summer race, which usually sees its devotees charging around the pretty Kentish reservoir, has become a physically distant one, but my friends and I intend making it as sociable as is legal, by running the route on a week day, at the crack of dawn, preferably in the rain to avoid the crowds. We will have to bring our own cake and ale, which is the usual refreshment after the effort.

That’s something to look forward to, in the absence of anything else to look forward to in this, Week 16 of loosened Lockdown. No Berlin, little gainful employment (plenty of unpaid work); no money ( a wee bit more from HMRC in August); no marathon training; no parkrun. Many runners like me will be bereft if the cross country season is cancelled (and England Athletics are being particularly cautious about letting runners compete in anything exciting…despite cricket, tennis and football all being given the green light. Basketball was one of the first sports to be allowed. Why? All the players get to hold the ball. Is it because they only bounce it for seconds, the virus doesn’t get a chance to stick? Answers on a postcard. I’ll be sure to de-contaminate it).

As usual, my Covid 19 voice of reason is MD (Dr Phil Hammond) in Private Eye. He writes comfortingly about an appealing mnemonic, CLANGERS. No soup dragons here, just

Connect, Learn, (be) Active, Notice, Give back, Eat well, Relax, Sleep

I describe the reasoning behind this slightly tortured Pollyanna-ish aide memoire to my running mate, who is a hospital consultant, as we run along the feelgood riverside at Greenwich.

‘Medics love acronyms,’ she mutters, scathingly, going on to explain (as MD did, to be fair) that all these goals are easily achieved if you aren’t cast low by debt, depression, poor housing, a lack of self esteem and unemployment. When all these harsh realities bully their way into your life, riding on the coat tails of a global pandemic that’s terrifying everyone -no matter how rich and successful they are – you’re likely to be exhausted and more interested in the next Deliveroo dose of cheer than a bracing run along the river with your more fortunate girlfriends. And microplastics will be the least of your worries.

 

A to B and 2 Seas

 

Lizard 2020

Keeping a beady eye on the litter louts

All the least attractive bits of normal life – fly-tipping, crowded buses, motorists-on-a-short-fuse, fast-food dependency, work deadlines – are back, but Covid 19 is still casting a long shadow. It’s week 15 of Relaxed Lockdown. I’m not relaxed. The Richmond Marathon website is still bullish about the organisers’ intention to go ahead with the event in mid September, so I will call this week 2 of marathon training.

As the mileage requirements go up, my distaste for the same old Lewisham/Greenwich routes increases, so public transport is called for. In typically laggardly fashion, our esteemed (by far too many) leaders have finally decreed that face coverings are an essential piece of kit for public transport travel. Today, the announcement was that we should perhaps don them in shops too. That was about 24 hours after Mr Michael Gove implied that wearing masks in shops was a bit pansy, or something. I have some rather fetching tartan face coverings that my son sent from Berlin – his partner likes sewing and is as keen as me to avoid single-use PPE. Inside my masks are a piece of the muslin squares everyone buys for babies. I find this comforting. I am breathing through cloth that once mopped up little Charlie Catford, my much-missed grandson.

Thursday’s run was to Stratford International, then, en route to the Kentish coast.  My route went along canals out east from Poplar. I stopped to snap at this pampered pup on the side of a towerblock on Chrisp Street:

Chrisp Street dog

….and ducklings bobbing on the Regent’s Canal. Around Bromley-by-Bow I indulged my usual fantasy of seeing out my days from the confines of a houseboat. Just me and a roof garden. No room for guests and the freedom to push off wherever I wandered.  Lockdown gave me a taste of the sweetness of singledom.

There are many women like me, who go from being one of many siblings, to one young student among thousands in university digs, to flat/tent shares in various parts of the world, to monogamy and child-rearing. It is no wonder we empty nesters become a little giddy and impulsive when faced with the last decades of precious life. We seek a bigger change to go with our hormonal ones. No new partners, thanks, just glorious solitude. Funny how middle-aged men don’t crave that. Some do the new model thing when it comes to partners, but few seem to long to be alone.

Anyway, there were the houseboats, then the still-shiny splendours of the Olympic Park and Stratford International Station, through the mostly closed Westfield Shopping centre. It had been four months since I’d set foot in a station, and this one, gleaming and shipshape at the best of times, looked clinical. Staff all wore plastic face shields and proffered disposable facemasks, gel and wet wipes. There was a special sanitiser fountain outside the loos. You could have filled your boots with sanitiser. Each of the five other train travellers had a bench to themselves. I boarded the train and found I had half a carriage to luxuriate in.

The dreamlike nature of this masked journey continued in Deal, where the clouds sit stodgily on the soupy sea; no waves, just sluggish lapping on to the shingle. It did not look as if it would refresh the overheated runner. The air was still and humid. I drank local ale and ate chips, and admired the seafront flat of a friend of a friend. Londoners like Deal. Almost as much as they like Whitstable. They have bought up second homes here to (English) Channel their inner Jarman.

After Deal and 24 hours back in Lewisham, I cycled to Waterloo to catch another empty train to Poole, and my sister’s beach hut. I took a tent and camped in the garden, the better to distance myself from various members of family foregathered for the seventh birthday of one of my great nephews. Sunshine, strawberries, beer and sandcastles. And bold (protected) lizards sunbathing on the beach hut steps. The one pictured took a speculative bite out of a strawberry, but seemed more interested in the remnants of a bacon bap one of the meat eaters enjoyed for breakfast.

The Sunday long run was by the sea: 11 miles in the heat with a slight hangover, obsessing about my beach-hut breakfast. I became so over heated I removed shoes and run on the sand and into the waves: proper waves, not soupy ones. Despite the heat the beaches were not bothered this weekend by the hordes that generated so much opprobrium in the last heatwave in June, when beleaguered locals (volunteers, all) had to pick up 41 tonnes of rubbish left by revellers.

This morning, a beach hut not so far away from my sister’s sold for £330.000. It is a wooden hut. My sister, a resident of Poole for the past 40 years, rents hers from the local council, by the way. Seems everyone is fantasising about owning their own little beach kingdom, but they need deep pockets for such bragging rights, whether they settle for the pebble dash of Deal or the sandblast of Bournemouth. They’ll still be joining the angry trippers and litter spreaders when the sun shines, however. I think I’ll stick to my houseboat fantasy.

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?

typicalv55

…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.