Max’s Marathon WEEK 3: In which I go back to school and it’s totes emosh

This week’s post is not very much about running and very much about the feelings and reasons behind it all.  If you’re here for the photos of pasta dinners and reviews of athletics socks and not the suicide, mental health and grief bits, you might want to come back another time…

On Tuesday, I did a morning assembly talk to the boys grammar school which has very kindly agreed to support Mind as part of my Marathon fundraising. It’s the male equivalent of the school I went to fourteen-to-twenty years ago – lots of my schoolfriends had brothers or boyfriends there, and my mum’s worked there for a decade or so (no, I won’t apologise for the nepotism, sod off). It turned out I had wildly underestimated the ability of setting foot in a secondary school to make me feel like a useless teenager. Once I was over that, I had to wrestle with the reality of several hundred adolescent boys staring at me – something I, thankfully, never endured as a useless teenager. Taking out the rawest and most personal bits of the talk for the eleven and twelve year olds reminded me in a “ooof, someone’s just whacked me over the head with a shovel” way that my two late friends left behind nephews/sons a few years younger than that. I posted this to Facebook:

Afterwards, I went to see Sarah, my mum’s boss’s wife (currently filling in for my mum while she’s abroad), and we had a cuppa in her office and talked about running and lighter things. Sarah is gorgeous, taller than me and ten years older than me with a figure like a sixth-former. She’s going skiing at Easter and is currently training to run a sub-25 minute 5K. I hate Sarah. (I don’t, she’s lovely. As are her two children and her cat. She likes company on her runs and has suggested we go together once in a while. Hooray!  A running buddy!).

In the afternoon I ran a lovely 6K. Then I had broccoli and stilton soup for lunch and chatted about old Neighbours storylines to an actual Australian. Best lunchtime ever. And then a text came through from Sarah: “Hope you are enjoying your run. Just to say I’m hearing really lovely feedback about your presentation. Well done! You’ve obviously triggered a reaction as well as Matron has had a few boys asking for help.” 

Wow. I’d gone in with the usual speakers’ mantra: “If one person half-listens to this it will have been worth it.” The idea it would actually make someone do something towards their own mental health was truly incredible. I was completely stunned in the best possible way.

Later that day me and a dear friend went to see Ruby Wax’s Sane New World, a standup show based on her book about mental health, and what she’s learned from studying for an Oxford degree in mindfulness and neuroscience. We got our books signed afterwards. I wanted to say something about how pertinent the show had seemed given other events that day but the moment passed and a thank-you-very-much-it-was-brilliant had to suffice. Ironically given the show was about how we drive ourselves mad by expecting too much of ourselves, I’d expected too much of myself and had to remind myself I was there to see a funny show and get some light relief, not dazzle Ruby Wax with my own witty brilliance at a book signing.

Thursday was another running day, and another slightly-waylaid-by-emotion day. Recently I’ve been trying to look for a mutual friend of the second of my two late friends who’s willing to talk to me in any depth about him and it. I haven’t really had a chance to do this before and thought it might help, while being aware it was quite a long shot and a big ask. This week, somebody I’d found and contacted cautiously agreed to speak on the phone. In trying to keep my initial email brief I’d told her almost nothing about me, which might not’ve inspired confidence. She made clear in her reply that she was doing this to help me only and wanted to keep her own feelings private. It’s striking how different two experiences of the same type of death can be. When the first of my two friends killed himself I had mutual friends I’d comfortably known for years (loveable misfits, mostly) and took for granted that we’d talk to each other as and when we felt the need. The second friend was very different. Most of his friends are, like him, alumni of my ex university a decade older than me and/or City/ex-City people with jobs I don’t really understand, and – like the school talk – it’s brought back the kind of angst I thought I’d left behind a decade or more ago: “I shouldn’t feel like this. I shouldn’t talk about this. I’m nobody. Other girls are better at this than me and I’m the weirdo at the back who’s doing it all wrong…” It’s a bit like walking onto the set of some awkward ’90s soap.  (Which is sort of fitting, actually, because it is – tenuously – because of an awkward ’90s soap that I came to know him. If you want that reference explained to you, buy me a double Valhalla and then buy one for yourself…).

Predictably, Thursday’s run didn’t happen until late as I tried to get on with something resembling work whilst trying to think about what to say in this conversation about a sad thing with a stranger, which was now an actual event as opposed to a vague premise. I eventually trudged out for my calming 7K in the early evening.

“How are you?” asked Lodger when I got back.

“Better for that.” I said, because I was.

For Friday evening I’d bought some cheap wine to go with my (very nice) dinner (a packet katsu stir fry with my added marinated Quorn – paprika, soy and honey. Yum). In Bridget Jones saddo fashion I drank more of the wine than was probably advisable for someone with a weekend run planned, got to bed early and then listened to Boys For Pele until the early night turned into not-quite-as-early.

Saturday, and my weekend (not-so)-long run. It was bad. Oh bugger me, it was bad. An hour and ten minutes and I didn’t even get to 10K. There’s a limit to how well running can ease stress  – too many niggling everyday annoyances on top of big existential stuff just drags you down. First of all, I was delayed getting out by an hour (not just because of the excessive wine – I’ll spare you the details due to tedium and middle-class guilt). Then I realised I’d entered my workout intervals into Runkeeper wrongly (Again. Easily fixed, but annoying). Then my music wouldn’t start and I had to stop, take my glove off and jab at my screen until it would. Then I realised it had got too warm for me to need my gloves and had to carry them. By that point, there was a distinct air of oh-I-just can’t-be-fannied. I made it up to Penn but ran-walked bits I’d normally power through. To add to the fun, the delayed start meant no hot water for a shower afterwards.

I was in great need of something less rubbish to happen. Luckily, it did, in the form of a trip to Stratford to drink booze, play rude word games and eat home-made pizza with Lovely Charlotte, Lovely Jay and others. I stayed over, and Charlotte gave me the most wonderful late Christmas present: a runner’s goody bag of some Hilly Skins socks (seriously, I’ve been lusting after those since last March), some Neal’s Yard muscle-warming oil, and some fruit-flavoured energy gels which look like the hair dyes you buy from Camden Market when you’re sixteen. She and her OH also served me the best “slightly-hungover-due-to-being-over-30″ brunch you can imagine. IT WAS AMAZING, as you can see from my “I’ve just won a magazine competition” face. It was also super-heartwarming to see people of all shapes, sizes and colours out on their morning runs in the park opposite on a rare sunny day.

Next weekend I’m supposed to do my first above 10K run since October. Tomorrow lunchtime I’m having the phone call I mentioned above. I’ve given the person in question a bit more background over email since my initial approach so that she knows a bit about who she’s speaking to, which I think will probably help things along. Despite a China-sized inferiority complex I think I’m mostly fairly decent at knowing where the line sits between helpful and unhelpful openness. Us much-maligned “Millennials” are better at that than we get credit for…

On a tangent, I think one day I might quite like to write a piece of fiction – a novel, maybe; a play, probably – centred around a group of women who meet because of the suicide of a bloke they all knew: a dark variation on Top Girls. It’d be the sort of work that gets bashed out and then edited for eternity until it’s “ready”. I’ll need a bit more distance from recent events, a bit more life (and probably a bit more therapy….) before there’s an acceptable draft. Hold me to it, though. One day…

In the mean time, just the small matter of 26 miles and £1,750 to raise for Mind. You can sponsor me here. 

Edited to add (25/1): Obviously the details of it aren’t for here, but for anyone who cares, the phone call went well and I don’t feel so silly and angsty anymore. Hooray! And I’m running again tomorrow. Double-hooray!


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