Monthly Archives: June 2020

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?