Lockdown week 10: That’s life…

Sunday 31 May 2020

My parents may have been member of the Elgar Society, but they were also huge fans of iconic Rat Pack singer Frank Sinatra. He was the soundtrack to my Dad’s wake and this week, as I hear Small Boy jazz-handing his way through the intro to ‘That’s Life’ it starts to lift my mood…

I am in need of a small morale boost because Week 10 of lockdown does not start well. I get turned down for a job. An exciting, challenging new role, featuring travel, data and lots of writing is dangled before my eyes and then snatched away. I think I’d be pretty good at it, but I do accept that, in an online interview from my kitchen, I struggled to sparkle.

Rejection! Always such a blow. And so I resolve to set aside a little time to indulge in disappointment before picking myself up again.

Space to be gloomy, however, in a socially distanced world? Well it’s tricky! There’s no pub to retreat to. No rehearsal to take my mind off things. No long drive – well unless I masquerade as a senior government aide! Nowhere in the house to escape from my children and their volley of teen-centric demands. My only option is to go out for a run. So I do. I am out for over an hour. And as my feet pound the pavement, round and round in my head, Frank cheers me on,

But I don’t let it, let it get me down
‘Cause this fine ol’ world, it keeps spinning around
…”

And do you know what, Ol’ Blue Eyes, you are right! The uplifting anthem seems to chase away the cloud of negative thoughts and clear my brain for recharge. Is it the familiar, easy melody? Is it the fit of the lyrics ? Is it merely an overdose of exercise endorphins? Is it simply the joy that comes from a precious 70 minutes to myself? I cannot say. What I an certain about however, as I eventually sink in sweaty relief onto my sofa, is that I feel better. Not just about the job but also better about the the last 10 weeks, the scary prospect of the next chapter of Covid and careering on through life itself.

The ups and downs, and let’s be honest the last couple of months have dealt up plenty of both, will keep coming. But, mirroring my run, for every uphill struggle, eventually there will be a glorious downhill. All around, living, loving, time itself; they play on, inviting us to join them and add to the tune. It feels suddenly reassuring to be just a little part of something much bigger.

Tomorrow the calendar page announces that 2020 has made it to June. Here’s hoping that when it comes to the first month of Summer that Frank is singing for us all…

That’s life
That’s what all the people say
You’re riding high in April
You’re shot down in May
I know I’m gonna change that tune
When I’m back on top in June
..”

(That’s Life : Dean Kay and Kelly Gordon circa 1963)

No time … for a change?

Saturday 7 March 2020

Tomorrow is International Women’s Day and, in celebration, Parkrun are on the radio this morning, encouraging women to join them this weekend. It is true that this national running organisation does attract female members, indeed they make up 52% of the registration. The sadder statistic however is that, whilst they constitute over half of those who have signed up, women make up only 44% of actual participants in the weekly 5K. Of the 1.8 million registered on Parkrun, 650 000 women have yet to take part. I wonder how many men too have signed up but not taken that significant step of actually standing on the starting line. It seems such a shame, because running can be wonderful for the heart and soul. There will doubtless be many reasons behind this but one issue I have pondered recently is the value of the timing chip. Do we really need to record times and ranks and aim to ‘beat personal bests’ every time we pull on our running shoes? Does competition actually motivate people to take part in sport and exercise or does it just put up more barriers? Does a list just reinforce the fear that you are ‘not as good’ as everyone else? Is it time to ditch the Garmin and try ‘no times’ for a change?

I am no anti-competition zealot, in fact I am quite the opposite at a personal level. I recall coming ‘second in category‘ once in a Parkrun and immediately spending the next few weeks running to the point of vomiting, in an attempt to come ‘first’. On one 10K, I broke the 55 minute barrier and was so thrilled that I worked my finishing time into the next computer password-change at work! My worry however is that I am not the target audience for the latest national fitness campaign. I have always been pretty active: a child gymnast, a school long jump champion, a uni netball player, a regular (before I became a single parent) at aerobics, yoga and even adult ballet! I don’t need running to get active. I choose my trainers to keep up a decent level of fitness because running is friendly, free, flexible… and has never involved childcare .

The people the government needs to reach are the half of women and the third of men who are not active enough for good health. In their 2020 report, Health Matters, Public Health England outline the significant benefits of exercise for our physical and mental well-being. They also explore the difficulties for adults not engaged in sport and activity. These are varied and, in some cases, complex but most barriers are internal ones and I find their fear that exercise is ‘not for people like me‘ a little heart breaking. Would those battling to find the confidence to move to a more active life really be helped by a timing chip? Competition, yes it is great if you are a competitor. But if you’re not? If you are the name at the foot of the list how does that feel?

I once took the kids to Parkrun. Two were fine, but Prom-dress daughter got in a panic about the number of people in front of us compared to the dwindling amount behind.

What if I am last?” she whispered tearfully.

I really don’t care if we are last ” I encouraged her in reply “In fact I will be proud. We are out here running and keeping fit and that’s what really matters.”

But it wasn’t what really mattered to my daughter that day and she refused to finish. The same child ran happily around the laid back and festival feel of the Race for Life 5K and has recently completed a 6 hour Duke of Edinburgh hike. Her fear was the list and the label. Because for every top 10, others must be condemned to be in the bottom 10.

I may have stumbled across running because of single parent circumstances but now I love it. Love the oxygen in my lungs. Love the freshness in my face. Love the strength in my legs Love the calmness in my mind and lightness in my soul. Love the feeling of life and vitality. I claim there’s a ‘runner’s glow’, a joy that comes from just being out there and feeling your body move. And, whereas I have long since lost any of the toy medals you get given at the end of a ‘race’, this feeling stays for ever! And I would love to empower more people to experience it.

I did once post on a Parkrun forum the notion that this event could become the one timing-free race in the running calendar. It went down like a lead balloon (I still quake at the memory!) And probably rightly so. One very valid point, in a tide of perplexed pb-obsessed outrage, was with over 2 million runners Parkrun have clearly found a winning formula so why meddle with it. And they are right, I have absolutely no right to hi-jack their event. So perhaps instead, when I have retired and have some time, I’ll set up my own event. A strava-free zone, where ranks, times and judgement are vetoed. It’s our pace, our distance, our minds and bodies growing stronger with every step and we just ‘run because we love it’.

And so the year ends…

Sunday 29 December 2019

As I pull into Norton Canes, the service station on the M6 Toll Road, it seems as good a place as any to reflect back on 2019 and put together my final post of the year.

It is homeward bound after a lovely Christmas break in Oxford and Cambridge. My old university stomping ground as it happens, but on this occasion, just exciting to be visiting friends and family, as opposed to wandering around the dreaming spires. The closest we come to anything you could deem an ‘Oxbridge activity’ is breaking out of a Cold War themed Escape Room (with 5 minutes to spare.) We are the ‘Squad of Seven’ – move over Cambridge Five!

The Toll Road on the return journey, now that is my guilty pleasure! I loathe queuing. I am really not a patient waiter. In my time I’ve driven huge (and probably time-costly) detours to avoid the grim misery of gridlocked traffic. So paltry charge of £5.60 for the utter luxury of 27 miles of well-lit motorway, wide lanes and a joyous lack of other road users seems a very small price to pay! Eventually, of course, it will be a return to the endless cone-lined crawl of the 50 mph zone on the M6, but a coffee break delays that for another half an hour, so here goes…let’s review 2019. I take a deep breath, I fire up my blog on the laptop, click on ‘January’ and step back in time.

It is not just the end of the year in a couple of days, but also the end of a decade. As I re-read my blog however, re-visiting each month in turn, I realise that one year is more enough for me to look back upon. I try to decide if, as the midnight bells chime on Tuesday, 2019 will it count as a good year or one to regret? But there’s no answer to that…because it’s neither. What it is, is just one full calendar year… 365 unforgettable days of ups and downs. And I like that. There have been moments of great happiness; fun times, cloud-9 times, laugh-until-you-cry times. Equally, I’ve shed a fair few tears and I re-live days of disappointment, even sadness. I’ve met new people and I’ve had to say ‘farewell’ to others. I’ve relished new challenges and I’ve battled with the drudgery of daily routines. I think it’s called life! It strikes me that we don’t actually need significant temporal landmarks such as years and decades to make sense of our lives. In actual fact every day matters. And that is true of any year. The difference for me in 2019 is that so many more days have been captured and will be remembered. Because I have written their stories down and that’s one thing that is not going to stop.

Exactly one year ago, the blog was my New Year’s Resolution. Little did I know how much I was going to love it … just love writing again. It’s not enough to tell you that it’s fun to have a record of the year to re-read and share. It has been a complete joy. I start with a blank screen. I set off. I rarely know where I’m going or what I want to say. The words just dance on the page, then blend and reform into thoughts, sentences and stories. It feels exciting, it feels creative and it has been, without question, astonishingly therapeutic. I recommend it to anyone. Whether it’s building basket ball stands (Slam dunk – my most popular post of the year) or conversations with your friends that transform your outlook on life (Single parenthood necessity) any day or event can make a memorable tale.

Carrying on with my blog, that’s a definite ‘Yes’ for me. I would also add writing to my previous tips of running and reading, for any stretched and stressed parent. All three pastimes are free and flexible. They fit around you and your schedule and are fantastic for health and well being. Hey, reading, running and writing – the veritable 3R’s of sanity, for people of all shapes and sizes.

Glancing up from my reveries, I notice that it’s getting quite dark. I drain the last of my coffee and reluctantly, resign myself to the fact that my therapy time is up for today. If I ever want to get home again, I need to face the M6 ….

In need of a boost…of juice!

Friday 17 May 2019

I am appalled at how rubbish I am on this Friday’s run and it leads me to commit to a week free from alcohol, free from toast and rich in … juices! Now that could be a real challenge!

It’s our first fine Friday for many weeks. We tough, Lancashire lasses have doggedly run through rain, sleet, snow and gales over the grim and grey winter months. Some colleagues have marvelled at our unstoppable madness, and many have chortled at the sight of us returning windswept and wild from our endeavours. So the upturn in the weather has us giddy with excitement. Many routes are proposed. Reservoirs and valleys are spoken of, as are fields and trails but eventually we settle on a beautiful route through the woods. It should be a glorious treat … but it’s also a three-hill-killer and I am quickly slain. I do get through it, mainly because the one rule of Run Club is that ‘we never stop’, but it is a huge struggle. I am at the back, I am red faced, I am dry mouthed, I am hot, I am bothered and I am slowing down with every step! How can this be, I ponder? How can I go running twice a week and now start to go backwards? It makes no sense and I start to puzzle about what is different.

I am under the weather this week, in fact I do have to confess to a ‘Granny Nap’ today, when I was shocked to jolt back into consciousness from confused doze on my desk at work. Could that be it? It was also an off road route. Is that too much for my trusty trainers? And continuing the doubt in my running shoes, I add, to sound like a bona-fide athlete, that I do carry a permanent and painful niggle in my right ankle. So like the proverbial bad workman, do I blame my tools? Umm …one thing that certainly cannot be helping is that break-time toast at work and wine-fuelled evenings, out and in, have developed into definite guilty pleasures of late! A doctor friend recently told me that he aims for 2 alcohol-free evenings a week … and I’d be struggling to meet that threshold at the moment. Here, at least, is somewhere for me to start, healthier diet.

I have a plan! After a few moment clattering around my kitchen cupboards, I unearth…the juicer! I place it proudly on the worktop, dust it down and then gingerly plug it in and risk the on- switch. It whirrs back encouragingly and I decide there’s no time like the present. I rummage around in the fridge for a few wizened fruits and vegetables and off we go! With in moment I am triumphantly sipping on a glass of green sludge which tastes…pretty good actually. It’s surely giving my weary body the boost of nutrition and energy it needs! I put aside, for now, the chore of of having to clean the thing, and raise my sludge glass , ‘To a week free from wine and toast but rich in nutritious juices! To a fitter and faster me!‘ …

This mum runs too

1 March 2019
March gets off to a great start with the return of the work Friday Run Club!

I have been running for about 5 years now. It began with me huffing and puffing my way ‘around the block’ which was exactly a mile. Gradually, I’ve built it up, to a Park Run, then a first 10K, and I now manage a couple of 5 or 6 miles runs each week. It is the perfect sport for a single parent because it’s cheap (all you need is a pair of running shoes), and it’s totally flexible (you go running when you have a spare hour.) But what a huge struggle and often a dreaded chore it was at first! I think it was about 3 years ago, that someone recommended running a bit slower and that was a complete revelation! I went from enduring running to loving it overnight! I did slow down and now I run further and, ironically, faster than I ever thought possible. To quote Matt Frazier, author of ‘No-Meat Athlete Cookbook’,
If all you know of running is running fast, then you don’t know running. You know gym class mile-run torture, and almost nobody (not even runners) thrive on that kind of pain. If you’re having trouble running consistently, just slow down.”

Anyway, back to our Friday Run Club. Friday was once a day when I just didn’t want to get up. The teens have a Friday rehearsal which finishes at 7 and I am the ‘pick-up’ parent! By the time I finish work it’s not possible to make the pick up if I go home first. So every Friday, I’d leave for work at 7:30 am, and finally make it back home by 7:30 pm, instantly have to start cooking so that our hungry and grumpy household could eat before 9! There was also dismal, dead time at the end of the working day when I’d try, but utterly fail, to be productive and get ahead with jobs for Monday. Let’s be honest, who wants to work late on a Friday?

At the start of October, a work colleague suggested a Friday run and it has been a ‘Friday transformation’ ! My week now ends with a small group of us running together for an hour, clad in bright clothes (even I’ve dug out a pink running top) and never once mentioning, ‘pace’ or ‘PBs’. Instead for the first 2 miles we talk work, and with every sentence and every step I feel work being put aside and laid to rest until the start of the next week. For the next 2 miles, as the incline we’ve been climbing steadily intensifies in steepness, I actually can’t speak! But I come back to life on the glorious 2 mile descent back to work , and now we discuss weekend plans and life, the good parts and the bad. ‘Never stop!’ is our motto, but if anyone gets tired or feels under the weather we all slow down. It’s running for fitness but, more importantly, for friendship and it is the perfect start to my weekend. Back home, Small Boy’s Friday technology class have been cooking since January and so we have had the added bonus of (cooking class) meals ready on the stroke of 7:30 pm too!

I marvel at the achievements of Jasmine Pace, a mum who became the first female winner of the Ultra Marathon. At Christmas, one of our runners bought us all buffs in support of the ‘Doing it for Laura‘ campaign, that you may have seen on the the BBC news, and I marvel, not only at this inspirational teen, but at her runner mum, too. I marvel at my own mum friends who have run with their children, or around their children, and now complete astonishing running feats. And because of them and because running keeps me fit and sane and because running’s made me appreciate that my amazing workmates are so much more than the jobs they do, I am proud to say ‘This mum runs too…”

Some days are an up-hill …

24 February 2019
A mood of back-to-school gloom hovers over the house today and for me the weather is only making it worse! Whilst everyone else rejoices in the unseasonably warm weather, my single-mum eyes just look out of the window and think ‘Garden!

Assisted by my trusty team of decorators, I was feeling on top of the house and my grown-up homestead duties until the sun came out! The garden, which I’d hoped to cheerfully ignore until mid-April, is suddenly a verdant abundance of weeds and rapidly growing grass and it demands more immediate attention. With a sinking, and all too familiar, feeling of being impossibly overwhelmed, I add ‘weeds’ and ‘lawn’ to my to do list! Coping with the endless demands, of all the adult jobs at home, is a daily battle for any single parent and, for me, the garden has to be the worst. I think about starting a Single-Parent co-operative where we all help each other out. I don’t mind a bit of extra ironing or a few more bathrooms to clean, if someone is going to weed my garden, and deal with drains and pipes in return! However, as that’s not likely to happen soon, I consider heading out in search of weedkiller.

But the thought of gardening is not the worst thing for me today. The sunny weather has reminded me of the ‘pretty nice fella’ I broke up with a few months ago. This is just his kind of day. I picture him dusting down his shorts and heading out for a glorious hilly bike ride. I remember how he used to come clattering triumphantly back from his adventures into my kitchen, a little bit sweaty, but his face alive with energy and smiles.And I know he won’t be clattering into my kitchen anymore, because he clatters into someone else’s now, and that hurts. And what hurts even more, is that the sunny weather marks the arrival of Spring and I realise that it’s not enough that I have made it through Winter, I have to make it through Spring, Summer and all the seasons ahead. I have to make it through year upon year without my ‘pretty nice’ friend, partner and lover by my side. And that is …heartbreaking…

I am overcome by a wave of sadness and I know I need to do something to stop it, because if I let these tears start to fall I don’t think they will ever stop. I decide that weed killer can wait, pull on my trainers and head out for a run instead. One thing to love about running is that it’s a perfect analogy for life. You know that the reward for every up-hill struggle is a downhill where you can recover and repair. There’s sometimes even a fantastic finishing line. And although I know there’s no magical happy ending for me this time, I’ll settle or a bit of recovery and repair right now …