Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Dear Personal Trainer,

At the gym today a personal trainer asked me where on my body I wanted to lose weight.

Uninvited, while I was running on the treadmill, watching the evening news with my headphones on, he thrust the question at me. Not whether I was trying to shape up or shed pounds, no. He asked me which part of my body I wanted to lose weight on.

I'm just under five foot six and weigh no more than 130 pounds. I ran a marathon last year, usually go to the gym three times a week, eat way more than my boyfriend and I'm totally happy with that.

Crucially though, I suffered from anorexia a decade ago and battled with the issue of body image for years. I'm one of millions who fought and are still fighting, but he probably wouldn't have thought of that.

Thankfully, I'm ok with what happened today (frustrated, yes) but others might not be.

As a health and fitness professional -- and I particularly stress the former -- he should be the first to dispel the myth that working out is all about aesthetics.

What happened to getting the blood pumping to clear the mind, oxidise the cells, strengthen the organs and just relax? What happens to strong-is-the-new-skinny and curvy-is-the-new-size-zero? What happened to feel-comfortable-with-yourself-just-the-way-you-are?

I also can't help but wonder why he asked me that question and not the man next to me? Or the man next to him or the man next to him?

There was a girl working out behind me and he moved on to her after he'd spoken to me. I'm pretty sure that if I hadn't put my headphones back on I would've heard him ask her the same questioned he asked me.

Come on. This is 2015. Do women who work hard, earn a living, do their part and dream big deserve this kind of treatment?

Do you seriously think that we're all weight-watchers and calorie counters? Of course some of us are, but please wake up and take a long hard look at your job description and responsibilities.

And perhaps think about what your reaction had been if I had asked that question right back at you.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

The Ice Bucket Challenge: I Nominate Modesty

In ten years, when people strain to recall the defining moments and themes of 2014, what will they remember? 

For 2004 it might be the launch of Facebook, the tragedy of the Madrid train bombings or the fact that Ireland became the first county in the world to ban smoking in public places.

For 1994 it might be Steven Spielberg's holocaust drama Schindler's List cleaning up at the Oscars, Richard Nixon's death or the Russian army finally retreating from Estonia and Latvia, marking the end of Eastern Europe's Soviet occupation.

But if we're unlucky, if we don't cure Aids, discover life on Mars or crack global warming in the five remaining months of this year, the annals of 2014 might lead on the strange fad that enticed millions of people to tip a bucket of freezing water over their heads, film the whole thing and post it on the internet. And how would we all feel about that?

Dozens of my friends have risen to the so-called ice bucket challenge, and I don't for a second wish to criticise them for taking part. After all, on the surface, it's a charitable act and all charitable acts are - at least to an extent - commendable.

But beneath the squeals and drenched white t-shirts, beyond the soaked bathroom mats, splashed onlookers, "likes", "tags" and "shares", the trend reveals a deeper, more awkward, and unflattering truth about who and what we have become.

Never has our desire to self-publicise been more palpable: We like to cherry-pick and display the details of our lives that make us look noble, intelligent, valiant and selfless, and document the incidents that inspire sympathy.

Another night shift with no company. Another weekend of studying for exams. Another delayed plane as we dawdle away the hours (and check-in on the free wifi if we’re in the first class lounge).

Sharing it for the world to see makes everything more manageable. Everyone knows how exciting the life is that we lead and no doubt wishes they were just like us. Taking our selfies, listening to our music, tweeting like the world depends on it. Sharing is caring…what everyone else thinks.

But let's get back to buckets of ice and our love of feeling charitable.

What's the only thing that makes us feel better about donating our hard-earned cash? Doing so and then telling people we've done it.

For a few measly minutes (far from fifteen!) we are not only do-gooders, but celebrities in our own right. We're sharing a message with the world of our heroism. Not only that, but we're looking fabulous while doing so and having more fun than ever before. We're changing the world one ice cube at a time, and you should take us by example and do the same.

I know ALS is a devastating disease, but how many of the people who were quickest to fetch the bucket and fill it up can even decipher the acronym? And what's more, once it's done, shared and liked, will they ever spare another thought for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis?

Once again, well done if you have donated; I'm sure every little helps. But let's not sing our praises too loudly. Ice turn to water and water to thin air, but it's not as easy or natural to make a real change and become a real hero.

Even if Facebook likes to makes us feel that way. 


Saturday, 31 May 2014

Bring Back The Pleasure Run

Like watching a movie or reading a book, I’m a firm believer that the type of run you choose to do, has to match the mood you are in.

Since the marathon, I’ve struggled to get back into the habit of running regularly.
The intentions have been there, as has the will, but when it comes to lacing up and heading out, there’s usually something that needs doing urgently.

In the evenings, it’s the unfinished piece of work that keeps me from leaving the office on time, at weekends it’s that coffee date with a friend who I haven’t seen for months, or the appeal of simply spending time lounging around the neighbourhood with my significant other.

Running has crept down my list of priorities and I’m struggling to find a way of hauling it back up.
The crux of the problem – at least I think - is that I’ve lost focus.

I don’t have a particular aim at the moment, and while I am someone who gets a high after pretty much every workout, there’s very little reason why I can’t delay that long run until tomorrow, that speed session until next week, that interval session until the week after that.

After all, there’s no deadline and nothing to which I am committed. I don’t need to lose weight, I don’t need to enhance my cardio capacity, and I’m not striving to score a 10k PB in two weeks time.

Today, while trotting around Hyde Park – my first proper run in six days -  I realised what the problem might be:  In the lead up to my 26 (and a bit) mile feat, every run I did was for a specific reason and with each training element I got that little bit fitter, that little bit more ready for the big day.

If we classified runs by genre, every run I did during that time was a functional run. Of course I mostly enjoyed the runs and mostly found them hugely satisfying, but none were pure enjoyment runs;  none were just-for-fun-runs.

If you’re a creature of habit, like me, then you will know how easy it is to become used to something and how hard it is to break routine. But my aim over the next few weeks is to rediscover the fun of running and to appreciate it for what it is.

At the risk of digressing into an overly spiritual psychobabble monologue, running really is a true gift. The ability to exercise outdoors, safely, independently and freely, should be cherished.  And what’s more, we are free to run as slowly or as swiftly as we like, in circles, squares or spirals, on grass, trails or roads, along rivers, over bridges and through trees.

Running is beautiful. It helps our body to pump oxygen into our lungs and to invigorate every cell in our body. It helps us clean out blood and clean our minds, replenish energy and become one with our bodies.

Of course we may choose to train for a major event, run a marathon, complete an Iron Man, climb Mount Everest – and I’m sure my own next challenge is on the not-too-distant horizons -  but for the time being let us not forget that very important genre of running, the one that brought us all here in the first place: The simple, gracious and oh so satisfying Pleasure Run. 

(Image courtesy: http://www.ultrarunningltd.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/jumping.jpg)

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Falling in Love Again

Falling out of love can be sudden and shocking. Often, we don’t notice it's happening until it has, leaving us with an empty feeling in our gut, and lingering questions borne out of guilt and frustration.

Losing the sense of affection for a person can leave you raw, but seeing it fade for anything at all – be it activity, object or something much more abstract – can be devastating too.

I don’t think there was ever a way that my love of running was going to continue seamlessly after the marathon.

Especially in the final months of preparation, I became so enslaved to training, that crossing the finish line was like throwing off the shackles of discipline and regime.  On top of that, my body was screaming for rest and relief. I’d tirelessly tested its tolerance levels, with only intermittent phases of recovery.

I always knew that I would crave a break from pounding the streets, but I didn’t expect it to last this long.
Falling in love again, you know, is no easy feat.   

On Thursday after the marathon - aches and pains subsided and appetite and hydration levels restored to normality – I ventured to the gym.

I had two weeks off work straight after the race – a holiday between finishing my old job and starting my new – and I had vowed that I would use it to recover. I also hoped, though, that the early signs of spring would bring with it invigorating morning jogs through Hyde Park and along the Thames  - gentle workouts, of course, but rewarding nonetheless.

That first session proved to be nothing short of a chore.

Even though I steered clear of the treadmill, conscious that my joints were yet to recover fully, my body seemed off kilter as I laboured away on the bike and stretched afterwards.

By the weekend – encouraged by rising mercury and full of hope that things were “back to normal” – I finally allowed myself to slip back into my running shoes, but a slow slog along the top of the park was all I managed.

Crippled by a stitch, achy feet and – perhaps most painfully - a severely bruised ego, I returned home in a lousy mood, dismissing questions of how the run went. I tried again some days later, but the outcome was equally poor.

So that’s when I went dry, so to speak.

For a week I didn’t run. I barely spoke about running, read about running or thought about running.  I read novels and the news, went for walks, shopping and watched a film or two. But my trainers stayed in the wardrobe – out of sight and out of mind.

Perhaps that’s what did it.

Gradually, something small started growing inside my heart and head, and the stronger and more robust it became, the easier it became to recognize. It was a feeling that something was missing, a desire to run again. And that was delightful.

I waited a few more days, careful not to stifle it, but when I eventually headed out - just last weekend - the running stars seemed to have realigned.

What helped was that a handful of discouraging sessions had lowered my expectations, so I headed out of the door having set myself no standards or goals – except to rediscover my love of running.

I started off steadily, weaving my way through crowds of pedestrians, and adopted a solid rhythm after the first mile.

Five later, I returned home with that familiar and sorely missed feeling of satisfaction, enhanced – very unexpectedly – by finding out that I’d knocked an average of 30 seconds per kilometre  of my usual six mile pace.

I didn’t want to push it, but today, three days later, I carefully laced up again. And this time it had a more tangible purpose.

With London paralysed by a yet another tube strike, a run-commute home seemed infinitely preferable to being packed – like sardines – into a smelly bus.

Initially, I found myself frustrated, my tempo frequently cut by pedestrians, occasional cyclists and other runners, but later I started to enjoy the challenge – a bit like an urban and very human assault course.

The five miles passed quickly and as I turned into my road – rosy cheeked, dry mouthed and pumping with adrenaline – I noticed how beautiful the blossom-covered trees looked in the golden evening sunlight.
I stretched, drank and breathed and then for the first time in over the week - I sat down to do something else 
I’d found myself unable to do for weeks.

It’s now starting to get chilly.

I’m still in my running gear, its pitch dark outside and my tummy is rumbling.


But you know what? Today I fell in love again properly - with both running and writing. And that, I reckon, is one of the very very few things in life that is worth postponing both dinner and a long lingering shower for. 

Friday, 11 April 2014

The Story of the Flying Ice Cream

Training for a marathon is gruelling, testing, punishing, painful and later on, rewarding, triumphant, moving and life-changing, but upon reflection, and amid all the loaded, poignant emotions, it’s easy to forget the downright amusing things that can happen while trudging through the world in pursuit of fitness.

One incident that I’ve been dying to share, but somehow never found time to, happened about a month ago, on one of my final long runs ahead of the Brighton Marathon.

It was one of the first warm Sundays of the year and the fine weather had drawn hordes of people to the streets and parks of London -  to such an extent that the latter part of my workout turned into a veritable assault course, around trundling tourists, warbling babies, flocks of shoppers and fellow frustrated athletes.

I was nearing the end of my run, about to turn into my borough, when suddenly, as if having fallen from the heavens,  a perfect scoop of strawberry ice cream came hurtling towards me and planted itself firmly on my sweaty collarbone, narrowly missing my perplexed  face.

Any distance runner will know that towards the end of a long session, your mind can become absent. Often I find myself in nearly meditating as I conquer the final kilometres. Obviously, in any situation, a lump of ice cream landing on you out of the blue would come as a surprise, but in my oblivious and self-involved state, almost hypnotized by the rhythm of my gait and the music from my headphones, I was so stunned, that all I could do was stop dead in my tracks and laugh.

Now there are few things that are funnier than the bewildered look on someone’s face when they’ve unexpectedly had a scoop of ice cream catapulted at them, but one thing that has an edge on that, is if that face happens to be sweaty and as red as a tomato and laughing hysterically in a sort of possessed I’ve-got-no-idea-what’s-going-on-so-all-I-can-do-is-laugh-about-it way.

I would have felt more comfortable had I known someone to share this bizarre joke with, but I was alone in a throng of shoppers, who’d now inevitably labelled me as a madwoman. Mothers were probably tugging at their children’s hands. “Walk on this side of me darling, stay away from that crazy lady.”

A few seconds later I caught the mischievous eye of a young boy in the crowd, with a mix of guilt, amusement and intrigue plastered upon his angelic face and a tell-tale empty cup in one hand, a plastic spoon in the other.

I could tell he was weighing up his options. “Do I run for dear life? Do I apologies profusely?” But a split second later, a cheeky grin curled its way across his lips, quickly transforming into an infectious and face-splitting smirk. I gave him a mock look of disapproval, but with strawberry ice cream now dripping off my chest, I could hardly sustain it for long.

I gave him one last shake of my head, tried to flick a drop or two of the gluey mass in his direction, before resuming my run, a little stickier but certainly more flavoursome than before.

And the moral of the story?

Well as runners, we should always expect the unexpected, and as humans? Perhaps just try to learn to live with whatever life throws at you.

Be it a set-back, a challenge, or a defeat, if you can’t laugh it off, at least wipe it off. And if it makes your hair and skin smell of berries, sugar and cream, then it can’t really be that bad after all, can it? 

(Image courtesy www.sodahead.com)

Monday, 7 April 2014

26 (and a lot more) miles

Four hours and fifty-six minutes is the approximate time I spent wondering yesterday how to put my emotions into words. I changed my mind about 26 times and reached a grand total of zero conclusions, but perhaps that’s the beauty of it. Perhaps running a marathon has the unparalleled power of rendering even a garbler like me speechless.

It’s just too soaring. The grafting and expectations, followed by the most overwhelming sense of relief is enough to reduce a warrior to tears, so what chance to do I have? And when I finally crossed the finishing line, anything I had previously decided to put on paper seemed ridiculously inadequate and trivial.
In the end, Brighton ended up being so much more than a debut marathon.  It was a weekend of families meeting, of revisiting the past - metaphorically and physically - and a celebration of friendship, love, recovery, health and life.

You may have read my blog post about my battles with depression and its ugly off-shoots, and yes, those wars are buried under oodles of happy memories and experiences, but yesterday marked yet another milestone in my voyage away from that past.

In a deeply satisfying way, I was able to give something back by raising money for the mental health charity Mind, proudly drenching their logo, printed on the front of my running shirt, in sweat and, a little later, tears. But I also felt like I was gifting something to myself. The honour of being able to run 26 (and a bit) miles, finishing with a smile, is a sort of prize for clearing all the hurdles – even the highest - with nothing but a few scratches and scars.

Don’t get me wrong, it was not all pretty, I didn't love every minute of it, and during one fleeting moment after hitting the dreaded Wall, I did contemplate stealing a small child’s push bike. But would I sign up for another? In a flash.

Last year, I never thought that my journey from sign-up to finish line would influence so many far-flung corners of my life. Of course I learned how to truly appreciate my body and all its physical needs, but my long training runs also served as oases of calm in my otherwise hectic life. It was after returning from one long run that I decided it was time to move on professionally, and it was after yet another that I knew I would accept an offer and quit my old job. Training helped to pin down what I want in life, namely to invest all my heart and soul in the most precious of relationships and friendships.

And speaking of friendships, my training yielded some of those too. My running mentor and, in some ways role model, has become very dear to me. I’ve met incredible people, who have demonstrated bravery, courage and strength, who have helped me reassess my own priorities in life and re-examine my own values.

And lastly, but for me certainly not least, training for a marathon has provided impetus and inspiration to write. Yes, I am a journalist and therefore writing is my profession – I have to write to earn a living, but there is a world of difference between stringing words together to create a compelling overview of a financial market, and doing so to share your thoughts and perhaps – if I’m lucky - even inspire emotion in others.

I’ve learned the world, built precious friendships and made decisions that have flipped my life by 180 degrees for the better. If there is a god of running, I’m sending him my heartfelt thanks here and now, for over the last twelve months, he’s worked overtime and taught me a lesson that will remain etched in my mind for good.  26 (and a bit miles) is so much more than just a marathon. 

Friday, 21 March 2014

Taming The Taper Worm

Training for a marathon is like riding a train. When you embark at the station, a suitcase brimming with confidence and determination in tow, you’re energised and fresh, oblivious to the hardship ahead.

Slowly the locomotive chugs out of the station, easing into the tracks as it picks up pace. Very gradually at first, it weaves through the inner-city buildings, stopping quite frequently, but as it travels beyond the urban borders, spills into the outskirts and eventually over the rolling rural fields, the wheels start rotating more smoothly, in perfect harmony.  Faster and faster, what was once a spluttering irregular chug becomes a dependably accelerating rhythm, like the heartbeat of a giant animal, galloping across terrain, in pursuit of its prey.

The faster this train travels, the more fuel is pumped through its roaring engine, but it’s ok – because the tank is still almost full and every time the tempo is notched up, it adapts and stabilises, ensuring a smooth ride for all aboard.

That train has just reached peak performance.

Last week I finally clocked my longest run – a slow and steady 19 miler. Sticking with my metaphor, I was roaring through the country side, hurtling past trees, fields, abandoned farms and hamlets, the sun pounding down on me and every cog, every screw, every bolt and every lever perfectly in sync.

I never thought it would, but my body has acclimatised to the rhythm of gradual increase and progressive overload. An extra mile each week? I’ve taken it in my stride.

So studying my training schedule after that long run, it really comes as no surprise that I feel a little knocked off kilter this week. The tracks are starting to feel a little wobbly, almost as if one my carriages might fall over if we slow down any more.  

STOP SHOCK

For weeks I’ve been craving a Sunday evening without aching limbs, raw toes and hunger raising its cheeky head every hour. But now that I’ve finally reached the “taper phase”, I’m finding it quite tough to adapt.

It’s just not natural for a train to cut from 100mph to 20mph in the space of a few fleeting seconds.

I’m used to the pre-fuel, and then the long hours of trudging through lifeless London, sending intermittent progress texts to the sofa at home, where my yawning boyfriend has just started his second cup of tea and is poring over the weekend papers.

I’m used to hobbling up the stairs three hours later, and lying down on the carpet, propping my legs against the wall as my quivering fingers unwrap a protein bar. Then wallowing in a hot bath, before wrapping up in a sweatshirt and pyjama bottoms and then eating. Everything. In. Sight.

But I have to get used to it. This weekend I’ll “only” be running a half marathon. Yes, that’s still 21 kilometres, but it is also eleven less than I ran last weekend.

It will feel short, and I might have a niggling voice in my head telling me that I haven’t run as far as I should have, but habits can be broken and I have a feeling that doing so will be a lot easier with the help of a great big lazy breakfast and the splndid spring sunshine.

(Image courtesy http://livelikeavip.com) 

************************************************

I'll be running the Brigthon Marathon on April 6th and raising money for Mind, the mental health charity. To sponsor me, please click here.