Monthly Archives: May 2020

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.

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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.

 

Meanwhile

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.