Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Unspecial Day

This morning I woke up, had a cup of tea, a bowl of cereal, a hot shower, settled down to the paper and enjoyed the rhythmic pattering sound of the rain against the paving stones.

I'd done my long run yesterday, giving me that deep sense of relaxation, of earned rest and lingering pride, enhanced by the tiniest niggling ache in my thigh and a dull pain in my second toe – the nail of which slowly turning a deep (and triumphant!) shade of purple.

Later, when the rain eased, I bundled up against the December chill and braved the shops of west London. Just ten sleeps until Christmas after all. Let’s get down to business.

I felt as if my skin fitted my body snug like a glove, my joints felt oiled, bones strong, muscles relaxed, and I was inwardly applauding my decision to take off no special Monday, for no special reason.

I floated along High Street Kensington, sauntering in to shops seeing price tags and darting out, chuckling in a slightly mad way, sipping tea in a takeaway cup, smiling at pram-pushing women, folder-schlepping students, winking construction workers and all the other souls, fortunate enough to be enjoying this morning; this no special Monday.


At the weekend I saw one of my closest friends, bearing the news that in January, she will be undergoing some medical tests to rule out a potentially serious – and life-threatening if not treated - health condition.

Her personality is like sunshine and she has an infectious smile, and even though I'm convinced all the tests will come back clear, her news reminded me of just how vulnerable we are and how important it is to savour every day - however ordinary, however mundane, however unspecial.

So that's what I did today: I sat in a cafe and watched the wealthy waft from boutique to boutique, I gave money to a Big Issue seller, picked up a toddler's dropped glove and handed it back to his stressed mother before starting conversation with somebody’s grandmother in the queue at the post office.

If she were to send the parcel first class, I assured her, it was most likely to reach her granddaughter by Christmas Day.
 And yes, I am sure she will like the socks, I do know how awfully cold it can get in University accommodation at this time of year.

Later - chased by the rain - I returned home, lit candles, chatted to my mother on the phone, wrapped presents, sang along to Christmas songs, drank more tea, ate biscuits and revelled in the thought of my sister’s eyes when she unwraps the new *deleted* I’ve bought her.

When the playlist ended and the wrapping paper ran out, I headed out again, armed this time with an umbrella.

I meandered along the streets, completely dark now, catching glimpses of sparkling Christmas trees in cosy sitting rooms, children playing with nannies or finishing up homework, pots of goodness bubbling on stoves and cats sleeping next to radiators. Good evening London.


As I write, I'm sitting on a couch, in a local coffee shop/lounge/bar, Amy Winehouse on the stereo. Scattered around the room are couples and groups of twos and threes, some talking in measured voices – “Oh really? I love running too!” – others dissecting deeper issues about life and love – “I can’t believe he didn’t call? What was he thinking?”

It’s lashing now, droplets hammering against the window pane and puddles splashing onto the pavements as cars pass. Outside people are bundled under umbrellas, ducking into doorways and trying to hail cabs, even though none seem to have their lights on.

Seeing the stiletto clad girls’ contorted face as a passing van drenches her toes, make mine feel all the more dry and warm in their ski socks and chunky boots.

It’s been a blissful rest day, for both my tired body and worn out mind and as I sink a little deeper into the couch, pour a last cup of tea, see a couple embracing beneath the street lamp and a spirited shorts-and-T-shirt-wearing runner brace the elements, I realise that unspecial days, in their own special way, really are the most special of all.

May 2014 bring plenty more special unspecial days to all my running and non-running friends.

Merry Christmas. 

Friday, 6 December 2013

Thank you, Nelson

When I was 16 I went to South Africa on an educational trip and spent two weeks exploring the culture, mingling with local youngsters - both human and animal - and learning how fortunate I am to have been born into such a privileged community.

In the lead up to the trip, and in an effort to prove to my co-travelers just how committed - not to mention educated - I was, I sauntered off to the library, checked out Nelson Mandela's autobiographical epos, and immersed myself in the story of his legendary life for the next few weeks.

A few months ago I published a post about heroes. Nelson Mandela, I can tell you now, was one of my first.

In my naive teenage eyes, Nelson had all the makings of a truly cool idol. An ethnic minority, a contested freedom fighter, one of those rare politicians who was popular in office and subsequently proved able to withstand the test of time, obviously a joker with a fine sense of humour and an appreciation for music, art and sport, but also a fierce freedom fighter and trained lawyer against whom you'd unlikely want to stand.

History books taught me that he is the Rainbow Nation's grandfather. I remember disagreeing. In my eyes he was everyone’s grandfather.

When our itinerary took us to Robben Island, I remember sobbing at the sight of his cell; his cubic cage for almost two decades.

Perhaps pubescent hormones had something to do with my tears, but I do remember feeling a deep-rooted grief in the pit of my belly. How can you lock up someone for such along time solely for expressing his beliefs, for fighting for democracy, for being black?

I wrote to Nelson a few times too, digging up various addresses from websites and agencies and once I got a reply. I remember my heart leaping into my mouth when I saw Pretoria as the return address on the back of the envelope. Inside was a photograph of the man himself, an autograph scrawled across his already then frail chest.

I bought a wooden frame for the shot, mounting it on my bedroom wall and boasting about it to anyone who would listen. Like a messiah, he'd look over me with those glassy eyes as I did my homework, read trashy magazines, gossiped with girlfriends and suffered teenage woes.

When I graduated from school and stumbled into my first bout of eating disorders, I propped the photograph on the table next to my bed at the hospital, scoffing internally when people asked why.

He was whatever I wanted him to be. A godfather, a mentor, a guardian, a hero and most importantly, he was mine.

I went off to university, leaving the photograph behind, but Nelson still crept back into my life every now and then.

I bought a copy of his autobiography in a charity shop and would reread chapters sporadically - recognising their significance to so many different aspects of my life - as a runner, a student, a human.

That book was also one of the few that travelled with me when I moved to Berlin, and later to Frankfurt and London. It was a staple in the way that Great Expectation and even the Oxford English Dictionary never was.

Recently I was trying to decide what to write in someone's birthday card and stumbled across some of Nelson's quotes while surfing the internet. 

"It always seems impossible until it's done," applies to everything from completing any half marathon I've ever mastered to ending my last relationship. Nelson knows.

And as I embark on training for my first full marathon in spring next year, his words seem more relevant than ever.

I found out about his passing through the New York Times website late last night.

I'd always wondered whether I'd cry when he died, but I didn't. I got that sinking sensation in my chest that you get when you realise you've come shopping without your wallet or locked yourself out of your flat without a key, but it wasn't grief.

I read the obituary and then felt an overwhelming sense of relief that Madiba - as his countrymen affectionately call him - has finally been given peace. 

He'll always be a hero in my eyes - and a cool one at that - and I hope that teenage girls continue to read about him, look up to him and learn from him.

His resolve to change the world was one of his most admirable assets but perhaps more so, was his ability to forgive and bear no grudges for the hardship the world had challenged him with. 

Let's not forget about Madiba. Neither as athletes, nor as humans.

Thank you, Nelson. 
(Image courtesy http://www.knowledgeoverflow.com)

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Running with a Stranger

On Friday night my boyfriend and I went out for dinner. It had been a long week. Neither of us have had a holiday since August and work has been manic to say the least.

He chose a pleasant Italian, with an obscure enough wine list and a specials board that made me think of my mum’s cooking, and as if the waiter could read my mind, he showed us to a table in the furthest corner – away from the hustle and bustle of birthday meals and first dates.

The food came swiftly and after a post-work speed session the energy gratefully flowed into every corner and cell of my body. He sipped his wine, I stretched my achy legs under the table, and even without words both of us knew just how glad the other was that the seemingly endless week had finally succumbed to the weekend.

It was one of those moments of pure bliss. Ripples of relief wash over you, and every exhalation rids a little bit more pent up stress, until only the bare dregs remain and silently settle for two glorious days of peace.
Just as our plates were being cleared away though, that deep inner tranquilly, nestled in the pit of my stomach, suddenly awoke from its slumber. At the next table - up until now unoccupied - a young woman, barely older than me, had just taken a seat opposite a faceless gentleman.

I’ve always been an observer, naturally curious, eyeing up people from across the room just to see what clothes they’re wearing, company they’re enjoying or book they’re reading, but unusually, my eyes were quite literally fixated on this woman, glued to her.

Her lean legs were clad in what I can only describe as metallic leggings, hugging her toned derriere. Despite the winter chill, she wore a silvery silk vest top, against which the colour or her tanned arms radiated, and her long blond locks shone. Her face was glowing, and she radiated an aura of prestige, punctuated with a Colgate smile. For want of better word, she was stunning.

I glanced from her exquisite stilettos to my worn out winter boots, then caught myself cringing at my jeans, polo neck and ponytail.

“Have you seen that girl?” I enunciated almost inaudibly across the table, quite obviously squirming and pointing awkwardly.  My boyfriend just shrugged nonchalantly, sipped some more wine, gave me a confused grin and offered me the last complementary biscuit.

My appetite, though, had vanished without a trace.


On the way home I replayed the scene in my head.

The precision of her make-up, her gait in those five-inch heels, the way her hair didn’t look frizzy when she came in from the drizzle - all those things made her appear larger-than-life. There was something superhuman about her that had hit a nerve deep within me and almost made me angry. Or sad? Perhaps embarrassed? 
Maybe even jealous?  Either way, she made me feel incredibly uncomfortable in a very unusual way.

I pondered for a while, hating the fact that I cared so much and struggling to come up with a rationale for being so preoccupied with. Everyone is different, I kept telling myself, but somehow that didn’t help.
It wasn’t until we passed Hyde Park that I was able to start shrugging off the discomfort and confusion.
I looked out onto the dark field, silhouettes of trees flanking the running track.

When I head out in old shorts and a washed out t-shirt, I thought, every runner I pass is the same. Young or old, rich or poor, ugly or beautiful, intelligent or stupid, we’re all using our bodies to boost our minds and reach a personal goal – whether that be weight-loss, fitness or something far more sublime.

While some of us run faster or further than others, we’re all athletes with a shared passion, nodding as we go in a sign of unique camaraderie as if to say “keep going, you’re doing great”.

The girl in the restaurant may have been different, slimmer, sexier, smarter, but perhaps she runs too, and when she does, I’m sure she too would smile as we pass each other, send me unvocalised cheers of encouragement, even though we couldn’t have been more different back in the restaurant.

Life is not about comparing everything, but about accepting that some things simply cannot be compared.
On Friday I would have hated hobbling around in stilettos, she no doubt would’ve have shunned the prospects of teaming her leggings with battered winter boots, but on Saturday, if she’d like to, I’d gladly meet her at Hyde Park corner and invite her to join me on a brisk 10k.

Yes, we may be chalk and cheese but that doesn’t mean we can’t be two of a kind as well.
 And when we’re done, panting and stretching, feeling proud and strong, I’d even go as far as to say that I’d share with her that last complimentary biscuit.

Now my appetite’s been restored, I could really do with some sugar. 

(Images courtesy www.rapgenius.com)