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.