If you’re lucky enough to be in the position that you and your friends have everything you need and don’t have to worry too much about money, giving to charity instead of buying Christmas presents is a lovely idea. As my (probably) last blog post of 2017, below are some great causes I have given time or money to in the past, and/or which have helped me in difficult times, that you might like to consider helping. If you know me but not well enough to see me or buy me anything for Christmas, I would also be very honoured if you would donate to any of them in my name.
A disclaimer: I can be cautious about cheerleading too much for any one organisation, as different people’s experiences of using the same one for support can be very varied. However, if you use a service as a vulnerable person and get someone unhelpful it’s always worth persevering and asking for someone else. I had a so-so experience with Cruse Bereavement Care and another extremely helpful one when I reluctantly went back three years later. While I wish I hadn’t needed it twice, the support I got the second time was amongst the best I’ve ever had for anything.
Here’s the list…
Mental health support
As well as national charities Mind, Heads Together,Rethink, Young Minds and The Mental Health Foundation consider donating to small local charities providing counselling and therapy for free or at reduced rates, such as Number 22 in Berkshire. While the Samaritans do great work for a lot of people, their volunteers aren’t trained mental health professionals. With NHS services thin to the bone at the moment, local dedicated charities are pretty much the only qualified support available to anyone who can’t afford anything from £50 to £500 an hour to see a therapist. They need all the money they can get. Organisations that train people in mental health first aid and suicide prevention are worth your time too.
Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) are specifically a male suicide prevention charity I do volunteering bits for, and they’re lovely. Their helpline also uses trained counsellors.
Arts Emergency – An alternative to old-school-tie networks, supporting young people from underrepresented backgrounds making a living in the creative arts.
Regional writing organisations provide Arts Council bursaries to talented low-income writers – the Free Word Centre has more information and links – they are also office neighbours with the lovely TLC, who’ve supported me.
Reprieve – Provides free legal and investigative support to those facing torture, execution, rendition and extrajudicial killing or imprisonment.
Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide (SOBS) are a network of regional support groups where those affected can meet others like them. I haven’t personally found these especially helpful, but some people very much do.
Refuge – support for women affected by domestic violence, including gift parcels for families spending Christmas in refuges.
Bliss supports premature babies and their families. I bumped into one of their trustees by chance when I was a spectating at this year’s London Marathon and told him I was one. That was a nice conversation.
Thank you for reading and have a lovely Christmas.
My blog posts tend to be Marathon-length. For once, this one deserves to be…
I DID IT!!!!
And here’s how it went…
I’d hoped to be packed and able to relax by Saturday night but being in bed for two days during the week with a cold has blown that out of the water a bit. I’ve been planning scrupulously for months; I know I have everything I need; packing is just a matter of bringing it all together. Predictably, I get to bed too late but still manage to sleep for the 5:30am start. I’m still full of catarrh. The weather is dark, dank and horrible. It’s actually sleeting. I do not want to run a Marathon in this. I don’t even want to go outside in this. How is this morning even allowed to call itself April?! But, I remember the London 10K when the weather looked apocalyptic until the sun broke through at 9am and it was glorious. Sure enough, by the time we get to Canary Wharf, there is blue sky. I’m nervous about using up my phone’s juice but I have a scroll through some good luck tweets and texts. I spot a tweet from Clare Balding, saying she’ll try and read out tweets from charity runners on Radio 2 in the afternoon. I tweet her to tell her I’m running for Mind (Did anyone listen to it, by any chance…?). London seems oddly quiet at first. I’m expecting lots of happy people in zany costumes, instead everybody’s in Swedish-made running kit and looks as tired, edgy and in need of the loo as me. Mum and I dive into the Travelodge by Greenwich DLR which has kindly opened up one loo on the ground floor for passing runners. I am greatly relieved. I have regressed to toddlerhood and want to tell strangers about my bowel movements. My nerves get worse as we head up to the top of a heaving Greenwich Park and closer to my bag drop and goodbyes. There’s a first day at school atmosphere. Until two days ago I hadn’t seen my parents for four months and now I don’t want to leave them for a few hours. I am nearly 32; this is ridiculous. I have no idea where I’m going and need the loo again. It’s all a bit frantic and time is ticking. I find the right-numbered baggage lorry, and starting pen. Phew. Big relieved sighs. A DJ is shouting out motivational blather in a booming Geordie accent over pounding drums. As we wait for the off, I spot another Mind runner, Na (pronounced Nai, short for Naomi). and her friend Ellie who is running for Breast Cancer Care. Their names are on their vests. I start to introduce myself, then remember my name is also on my vest. The sun is now streaming down despite the chill. “Why didn’t you bring sunglasses and sun cream, idiot?” yells my inner critic, before remembering it was practically mid-November when I left the house. Then, woohoo! I see my mum waving alongside me in the fenced-off spectator area, snapping photos with her iPad. I didn’t think they’d get near. Mum’s relieved. She did not like saying goodbye to an anxious and disoriented me and is happy I’ve found my bearings. “I love you mum,” I say, chuckling and rolling my eyes to disguise the wobble in my voice.
I AM RUNNING THE LONDON MARATHON
Miles 1-2 ‘So this is happening…’
Everyone warns you it can take ages to get from your pen to the actual start line but it all seems to happen fairly fast. My need for the loo has increased from a nice-to-have to a really-want. Not ideal. There are Portaloos right before the starting line and lots of men are diving in but I’m too nervous to queue now and decide to wait until the next opportunity. As I’m crossing the start, my running armband loses its stick and I fumble to fix it. I calm down and settle in. The most universal Marathon advice is not to start too fast, and to treat the first half as little more than a light jog. What they don’t tell you is how difficult it is to judge your pace at the beginning. At half a mile, my Fitbit announces I’m running a 9-something minute mile. Wow. It’s not just too fast, it’s the fastest I’ve run at all since last year. But, it means I can afford a toilet stop after ten minutes. There’s barely a queue but some impatient people decide to wee behind the Portaloos. We’re on a motorway bridge, in full view of traffic. “I don’t care! They’re never going to see us again!” trills one woman. I take the dignified option and wait. People are unimpressed at themselves for needing the toilet so soon. “This toilet situation is crap. Literally,” one geezer grumbles as we rejoin the race. For a moment, everyone seems to be cheering on somebody called Vinnie. I don’t understand it. Is he famous? Is Vinnie Jones here? Why is he getting all this attention? I look to my left and realise Vinnie is dressed as a rhino. Fair do’s.
Miles 3-6 ‘Where am I? I don’t do South of the River!’
The next few miles are a blur of smiling children and chicken shops. I realise that in my haste to slow down I’ve slowed down too much and am now some way off my target pace. But I can’t seem to make myself go any faster. To be honest, it’s a bit tedious at the moment. I don’t recognise anywhere, and no-one is calling out my name yet. A bloke in a balcony flat above a shop has rigged up a booming sound system, like they do for the Notting Hill Carnival, and is shouting amusing encouragement. But all I can focus on is my pace, which is pants, and my bunged-up breathing, which is too. My eyes are stinging, my nose is starting to run. I keep checking my belt and inside my bra to make sure I’ve still got enough tissues. God knows what it’ll be doing at Mile 18. And it’s getting warmer. I have long sleeves on under my vest. Just as I’m thinking I could really do with some motivation, a sound system pumps out C’est La Vie by B*witched, contender for worst song in the history of recorded sound (nicely parodied by Smack The Pony). Unlike previous events I’m not running with music yet (I’m rationing it to save my phone’s battery. I’m allowed it after halfway, when I’ll really need it).
Miles 7-13 Cutty Sark and Tower Bridge
I’m still not sure where I am, and a bit despondent that I’m running so slowly. “Where’s 10K?” I keep wondering. I remember it’s at Cutty Sark. “Where’s Cutty Sark?” I wonder next. “Ooh, there it is, and there’s the Observatory!” I’m still chomping at the bit for the halfway point, when I’m allowed to put music on. I’ve never run without music for this long. It’s hard, even with an atmosphere. I focus on getting to Tower Bridge. In the piece about doing the Marathon I wrote for the Durham alumni magazine, I said I hoped running across Tower Bridge would feel as iconic as graduating in Durham cathedral. It does feel iconic. The view is the kind you really want to stop and savour rather than run past. It’s misty, which gives it a certain romance. And it’s over a bit too quickly. But I try and take it in as best I can: The river, City Hall, the Gherkin. Just afterwards, at the halfway point, I spot the Mind cheering squad, with a photographer. “MAXINE, MAXINE, MAXINE” they chant. Hooray! I feel much better now!
Miles 14-18 The surprisingly good bit
The supposed worst bit of the Marathon; the bit where everyone slumps, around Canary Wharf and the Isle of Dogs, is actually my favourite. The sun’s out, I’ve got my music, I recognise where I am, this is fun. My traditional view of Canary Wharf (dystopian hellhole for people who got rich on being extroverted and good at Maths; whoop-dee-bloody-do…) changed recently when I went carol singing there with Mind and some bankers joined us. I’ve been here often enough now for various professional and personal reasons that the enveloping skyscrapers are oddly comforting. Don’t Give Up by Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel comes on from my playlist. I spot Charlotte and Naomi, friends since school, on opposite sides of the road at Mile 17 and squeal incoherently at them. They’ve been tracking me on the app. I want to stop and chat but I also don’t want to cause a pileup so I carry on. The spectators are lovely: “You’re doing great!” You’re looking good, girl!” There’s even another Maxine who exclaims: “That’s my name too!” From now on, fluids are all-important. I develop a system for drinking so that I don’t get too sickly from all the sugar: bottle of Buxton water in one hand, bottle of Lucozade in the other, alternate sips of each. By now I’m long out of tissues and have to ask the St John Ambulance ladies for more. This feels a bit silly when there are people clutching their limbs. My leg isn’t broken, I’m just sporadically ejecting snot. But, an impediment nevertheless.
Miles 19-22 ” ‘They don’t know…”
I hit that infamous Wall at Miles 19-21. I’m amongst a sea of runners in charity vests walking in silence like philanthropic zombies. My legs hurt more than I knew legs could. I made a rule for myself that I’m allowed a walk once I get to 20 miles. I’ve no idea where this rule comes from, it just seems a good one to have. It’s difficult to tell whether the water on my face is rain or just water sloshing out of my bottle. No, this is definitely rain. My music playlist starts trolling me: Kirsty MacColl’s They Don’t Know comes on. I’ve had it on there for a good few weeks but it’s never come up on shuffle before now. Oh what timing! One of my late friends loved her so much he named his cat after her. I have a framed photo on my desk of the two of us with him wearing a purple Kirsty memorial t-shirt I bought him for his birthday one year. The song has other resonances too. I well up as I attempt to power-walk through the drizzle. I’m in too much pain to even squeal “BABY!” into the ether just before the final verse. Next is the pounding punk of Love In A Void by Siouxsie and the Banshees. Normally I’d sprint through this, today I’m barely hobbling. Oh, for heavens sake. I decide I need more fluid. What eventually gets me through the stupid wall is the stupid weather. The wind has picked up and it’s suddenly freezing cold again. I decide to keep running because otherwise I’ll cool down too much and the cold will make the pain worse. I need to get warm. I want my friends – and the Mind cheerers – to see me happy at the end. The more I run, the sooner it will be over. My inner-chivvying works. At mile 22, my legs come back to life. “Come on girl, that’s it. Come on,” a man says, as though I’m a horse. It sounds a lot more alluring in this state than it should. Lots of spectators are offering jelly babies and orange slices but they’re too fiddly for me to grab. Ditto my Shot Bloks, so I just stick to fluids. I take a drink at every station, accepting the grab-sized bottles of water with an emphatic thank you as though they’re Oscars. Just before Mile 23 I see my mum running alongside me on the raised pavement yelling encouragement “GO MAXINE, YOU’RE NEARLY THERE GO GO GO!”. I squeal. A couple of minutes later I see Ash, alias Lodger, and her colleague. Another squeal. Charis, an internet friend who’s known me since the earliest blog I kept more than ten years ago, is also here cheering, but I can’t hear her over music and don’t find this out til later. Most internet friends from that era I have subsequently met “in real life” (one, I’m bridesmaiding for in June) so it was a shame not to speak to her but I’m very happy she came along. These two are her photos…
At this point, lots of spectators are holding “witty” motivational signs: “You’re running London better than Boris!”. “I’m so proud of you, random stranger!” “Toenails are overrated!” I grin and give the thumbs up to “Pain first. Wine later” which is funny the first time. Perhaps less so after the third variation…
Miles 23-26 “We can be heroes, just for one day…”
On my fundraising page I’ve invited people to suggest songs for my running playlist. A bloke who sponsored me after reading my Durham alumni magazine piece suggested Heroes by David Bowie. It’s more heart-wrenchingly appropriate than he could ever know. It reminds me of the Berlin Wall, of my heritage, of doomed love, of absent friends, and of a few same-age Durham friends who are huge Bowie fans. And of my dad, who disliked him with a vehemence I’ve never quite understood. I’m near Mile 24, heading out of the dreary Blackfriars tunnel and onto Embankment, when it starts playing: “I, I will be king. And you, you will be queen…” And I start crying. I can hear my sobs and sniffs and feel the tears slide down my face. Part of me’s embarrassed/worried for my hefty expensive makeup, part of me doesn’t want to stop. It feels cathartic. This is the only place I’m allowed to have these feelings without explanation, and I just want to be left to bawl my eyes out – it’s a bit difficult in front of 33,000 other people. A girl wearing a cancer charity vest puts her arm around me and asks if I’m alright. “Just a bit emotional,” I nod. “I think it’s happened to lots of people,” she says. Or something similarly reassuring, I can’t even remember. The song finishes. Some much less profound ones follow as I run further down Embankment, and the mood lifts. I grab a Mars bar from someone to save for the finish…
I spot Big Ben, which means I’m truly on the home stretch. Then Buckingham Palace, where Polly and Miranda from Mental Health Mates are waiting with Polly’s WONDERFUL banner.
I’M SO NEARLY FINISHED. But, I remember from the 10K how those final few hundred metres down Birdcage Walk seemed to drag, and that there are going to be photographers all along it. It’s not quite over yet; I still need a bit of strength. That drizzly walk I allowed myself at Mile 21 feels like the cleverest decision I’ve ever made. “Get ready to smile for the cameras,” warns a man on the side just after the last kilometre. Most people around me are walking; I’ve still got just enough power in my legs to run. Some un-clever decisions may have brought me to a Marathon but GOD DAMMIT, a clever one is going to get me over the finish line. I AM WONDER WOMAN. Thank you Lucozade! Thank you Kirsty MacColl! Thank you David Bowie! Thank you friends, dead and alive! I raise my arms and smile as I cross the line, then pause for another photo with my medal and goody bag.
The runner Meet and Greet area at Green Park is less than a minute from the baggage lorries but in this condition feels like an hour. The area is divided into sections with letters A-Z. My folks have promised to meet me at the letter M, and that they WILL – NOT – MOVE under ANY – CIRCUMSTANCES. I limp to the letter M and can’t see them. We’ve been told not to rely on mobiles as the networks jam but there isn’t much choice. I ring mum. She tells me they’re just by the changing tent, just a little further along, and that my big cousin Marcos and his girlfriend are there too. I spot mum’s flame-red hair. “MUM!!!” We hug and cry and babble. She leads me into the tent and helps me into some wildly clashing layers and a scarf. I pose with dad for a shivering photo…
Mind have laid on a post-race reception at the Corinthia Hotel near Whitehall. It’s full of gleaming chandeliers, oligarchs and minted pensioners; I’m hobbling backwards dressed like a scarecrow. We say hello to the girls from the events team (the ones who very kindly helped me out during my period drama back in Feb) and sit down for some hot tea and canapés, but they’re almost packing up, so we don’t linger. I’m given a pin badge as a memento…
With a little help from Google Maps, we find our way to a pub in St James’s I’ve booked for a family dinner. Michelle, another friend from school, and her other half Andy have come. I can remember not going to their farewell party when Michelle moved to Edinburgh for university because it was at a time in my life when I was quite ill and hated going out. Nobody really knew how poorly I was until a lot later, so it’s particularly nice that we’ve stayed in touch all this time. The more I look back, the more grateful I am that my oldest friends bothered with me through all that awful caper… Back in the present, I’m offered a drink, and all I can contemplate is water. Food is another story. By now the sickly glucose has worn off and I’m hungry. I’ve chosen my food in advance; the manager who took my booking promised me the menu would be the same on the day. It’s not. The only vegetarian dish is salad. For a moment, I want to commit murder. I did not run 26.2 BLOODY miles for a BLOODY BUGGERING SALAD. I NEED CARBS. I convey this sentiment more politely to the waiter, who admits they’ve naughtily reduced the menu to save themselves work and assures me I can have the macaroni cheese I was promised. Food comes and everyone’s happy. We inspect my finisher’s medal. “It looks nicer than my degree certificate,” I joke. “But which did you work harder for?” Andy laughs. Good question. I could have worked harder for my degree (I scraped a 2:1 when I could have scraped a First, blah blah yawn yawn) but the reasons for that have a lot to do with mental rubbishness, so it all interlinks, really.
Heading home after dinner, I get chatting to a couple of archetypal cheery Scousers on the Tube. They’re Evertonians, so my blue and white Marathon nails impress. I’m impressed they’ve heard of the bookshop in Liverpool my friend runs. I tell them about running for Mind. They get off at Kilburn, a couple of stops before us. One of them pulls £20 from his purse and gives it to me towards my sponsorship.
“What’s your name?” I ask.
There’s a lump in my throat. A stranger has just given me £20, just because I ran a Marathon. What a beautiful, poignant end to a beautiful, poignant day.
Back home, I sink myself into a bath of Radox salts and apply some muscle rub, before joining the family for a glass of celebratory Prosecco. I head to bed just after midnight, and fall asleep virtually as soon as my head lands on the pillow. I’ve given myself the week off so I intend to spend Monday morning horizontally going through everyone’s messages from the day before. I wake up, hobble to the bathroom, go back to bed and have a bit of a weep. Physically I’m as well as can be; the muscle lotions and potions have done their job. Mentally, I’m less sure. A friend tweets me asking how I’m feeling. I admit to being a little flat, and scared of being alone with it. It’s not always easy to enjoy “duvet days” when they remind you of anxiety and depression. She instructs me to look after myself and my limbs and then tells me she’d love to read a blog post about my experiences. And so, I write this, of course. Seriously, it was as hard as running the thing. But, similarly, I’m very glad I did it…
Mentally: A mixture of things. But proud. I’ve raised loads for Mind, paid the best tribute I could to two people I miss terribly, and compensated myself and my family as best I can for my own years of mental rubbish.
Physically: My legs are back to normal with just the odd twinge. My toenails are ridiculously amazing (they look better than before I started running). I’ve booked myself a massage at Browns today, thanks to some “treat money” from my proud (and lovely) grandma. I took my mum there at Christmas for her 60th, and I traditionally always have a drink in the bar there at this time of year, for Reasons, so it all fits.
I’m still a ball of phlegm. It’s the most bloody persistent cold I’ve had for years.
Would you do a Marathon again?
Monday morning’s answer was HELL NO NEVER AGAIN. Today’s is “I won’t say never again, but not for the moment.” Part of me is still bummed that I had a cold and wishes I could try again in peak condition, but a bigger part of me thinks I could never go through all the rigmarole again. I don’t do things by halves, you’ll have noticed, and I won’t take on anything unless I can commit to it with my whole heart. If I do another one, it certainly won’t be for a few years, and that depends on the state of my life and my body in a few years. Being young (well, nearly 32…), single, childless and self-employed are all mega-helpful to running a Marathon. It’s a huge physical, emotional, financial and logistical commitment. I truly don’t know how 46-year-olds with kids and clever jobs (like Sophie Raworth – BBC newsreader, mid-40s, gorgeous, mother of three, 3:35 PB) do it.
Will you carry on running?
Of course I will!!! I’ve been running regularly for over a year and can’t imagine life without it! I’m taking a three week break, then I’ll be back trotting around the neighbourhood. I’ll happily do 10Ks (I loved absolutely every minute of the London 10K last year) and the odd half Marathon. I think I want my next fundraiser, if and when I do one, to be something different than a running event, though.
What’s the best way to get through the pain of The Wall during a Marathon?
There are worse things than Marathon pain. For example:
Period pain, in a really bad month (honestly…).
Any invisible condition.
Being unemployed. Or under-employed.
Having a breakdown you can’t talk about.
The above, when you’re 18-19 years old and about to go to university.
Having feelings about somebody else you can’t talk about.
Doing nearly ten years of free PR for someone you virtually worship who, for the most part, barely cares if you live or die.
Taking part in a Sunday supplement feature about ” couples who disagree over Brexit”, where you have to pose snarling and finger-pointing at each other in front of a European Union flag. In a wildly alternate universe somewhere, this could be happening to me. I’ll take a dancefloor and “All the single ladies…” instead…
I’ve mostly forgotten the acute pain now. Runners who’ve given birth say it’s like that…
What Big Thing are you going to do next?
Several people have rightly surmised that I’m a ‘do-er’ and need Things to keep me going. Whether this is because it helps my mental health, or because of never having been in a relationship remotely serious enough to define me, I don’t know. Anyway, that’s how I roll, as they say. So of course, I’m thinking of my next Big Thing.
Here are some things that are definitely/maybe happening…
The CLASP Walk Out of Darkness for suicide prevention, in May. This is definite. I’m doing it with lovely new friends from Mental Health Mates. Woohoo!
Volunteering for SOBS I can’t do this til at least November as they have a rule for volunteers (quite rightly, IMO) that if you’ve known people die by suicide, they won’t take you until at least two years since the most recent. If I can help anyone not to be where I was eighteen months ago, I want to.
Start food blogging and possibly launch my own dedicated one, aimed at people with dyspraxia and other conditions that can affect dexterity. I know the world isn’t short of food bloggers, but reading Liz Smith’s excellent post on Dyspraxia in the Kitchen recently made me realise how valuable it could be. And how lucky I am that I learned to cook, despite my limitations, and some pretty exasperated taskmasters.
I’ve had feelings in my life that are pretty lonely and scary to experience at young ages (or any age, frankly). As anyone who has done will tell you, all you want is to feel less alone and weird. Through my Marathon training and fundraising I’ve had some incredibly touching conversations with close friends and near-strangers alike about mental health, grief and the like. Equally, it’s allowed me to share those feelings with people who can’t relate to them, and/or find it too awkward to actually talk about them. I couldn’t end this without lots and lots of thank you’s…
Everyone who’s sponsored me, helping me raise £2,146 (and counting) for Mind. As I just said, if you haven’t, you still can. And guess what? Added to the £700 I raised from running the London 10K last May, I’ve raised nearly £3,000 for Mind in a year.THIS IS AWESOME.
All my friends, those who came and those there in spirit. Especially Ash who had to live with me and endure my endless running references. And Les, for all the coffees and drinks, and especially for coming to cook a stonkingly good curry for me during peak training week when I was knackered and jokingly said “Come and cook for me.” Maybe I should joke like that more often…
Bryony Gordon and Mental Health Mates. Some of the loveliest people I’ve found this year.
Rae Earl (author of My Mad Fat Diary, who ran the London Marathon herself a decade ago) for just being continually lovely and inspiring
I read lots of people’s Marathon blogs for inspiration/reassurance alongside writing my own. One of those I liked best was Kat Brown’s. She ran the Marathon for Mind a couple of years ago, was also at Durham and Cardiff and is also a journalist (I don’t know if I’m still allowed to call myself that but she definitely is). Being on the verbose side, I was concerned my longer posts would get so long-winded, people would opt for a more accessible read instead, like Ibsen. I especially liked the layout of Kat’s Marathon Day post and the way she broke it down by miles into readable chunks, so I semi-consciously* went for something similar. (*I mean, the decision was semi-conscious, not me. Although I was pretty tired… )
Carroll at Fingers and Toes.
Alex and Kelly at Salon Fourteen
The Mind events team for being so supportive of their runners
All the London Marathon staff and volunteers who help make the day run smoothly for everyone
A week until the London Marathon. I’ve smashed my fundraising target for Mind, and have raised it from £1,750 to £2,000. Thank you, thank you, thank you very much.THIS IS AMAZING.
Let’s be real, I’m not voluntarily running 26 miles across London just to look good in lycra; I’m doing it to raise as much money as possible for a cause I care deeply about. Even so, when I entered the Marathon, reaching the £1,750 (minimum) required sponsorship felt more challenging than the run. I have the admin skills of a sieve; I don’t work for a swish big company with a matched-giving scheme; I’m self-employed, and have been known to get paid more for cat-sitting than doing my job (hire me, if you like). Not many of my close friends have a lot of money to throw about either (the few big-name writers I know don’t “do” sponsorships anyway as they’d be swamped with them otherwise…).
All of which considered, having raised this much is pretty bloody fabulous.
My routine has been all over the place for the last few days. You’re warned about the tapering phase of training, and it’s true that it seems to make people go a teeny bit bananas. The Mind Marathoners Facebook group is full of frantic posts from people panicking about their injuries (“Taperitis with a touch of Maranoia” as someone put it…), and various admin stresses “OMG, I’ve really let the housework go; the kids are having chocolate Weetos with crack cocaine for dinner!” Thankfully I have no injuries or children to worry about (although the cats could give toddlers a good run at times…)
I’ll be blogging one more time before Marathon Day, sometime during the week, probably after the expo. And it will be an emotional one. Yes, it will; I’ll say that now. I keep being all “Next weekend I’m running the London Marathon, in the anniversary of the week I last saw two friends alive in person! Which is just after my fifth Twitterversary! Oh, and a bunch of new friends and a newspaper columnist are coming to cheer me on! Oh, and I’ll be seeing my parents again for the first time in four months. Gosh, where have all these FEELINGS come from??!!!” as if that’s surprising…
For now, so that it doesn’t get lost in a load of blubbering waffle later, I just wanted to thank from the bottom of my heart all the people who’ve sponsored me so far. My fundraising page is very much still open; it’ll stay open for a month after the Marathon, so if you haven’t sponsored me and want to, there’s still plenty of time to raise my total to £2,000.
FOR ANYONE WHO’D LIKE TO COME AND CHEER…
The Marathon is next Sunday, the 24th.Mind have several official cheering points along the route, including a pub they’ve hired out. The official London Marathon website also has lots of information for spectators on where to go (and where to avoid…) on the day. If you’re pushed for time it’s best to aim for somewhere between the halfway point and the finish line as that’s where I’ll need it most! Mind are doing a post-race reception at a rather stunning hotel in Whitehall until 5pm. It’s for runners and immediate family only, alas, but I shouldn’t be there for more than an hour or so, and you’re welcome to say hello outside before/afterwards. The state I’ll probably be in, I may need persuading not to empty my bank account and book a room for the night (it looks seriously swanky in there. As swanky as Browns or the Landmark, FFS). For later on, I’ve provisionally booked a table for an evening meal at a pub in St James’s (about 5-10 minutes’ walk from the finish line), at 5:30. The booking is for five people, which is basically my family, to make sure we can all eat, but anyone else is welcome to come and join us in the bar if there’s space – if you fancy it, drop me a line and I’ll let you know where it is. Other halves, kids etc more than welcome, of course.
Another weekend, another fine display of generosity…
On Saturday, I did a second supermarket collection for Mind to bump up my sponsorship total; this time outside Waitrose in Gerrards Cross. The night before, @Afrofilmviewer (whose OH is a lucky woman…) spontaneously stopped by and cooked a delicious lentil curry. In added spontaneity, we drank three bottles of wine with it. Happily, @DuchessOChutney was up from London the next morning, and met me for a Fego breakfast of pancakes, French toast and some hangover-taming black coffee. “It’s brilliant! It’s full of olds and they’re playing Bryan Adams!” she texted as I was arriving. Also: “OMG THE CLOTHES SHOPS HERE ARE TERRIFYING AND AMAZING. There’s a shop that looks like it’s been vomited up by the Italian Mafia.” (It’s called Gita. Gerrards Cross is also popular with wealthy Chinese women whose style icon appears to be Bet Lynch from Corrie. Lady in the long silver leopard-print coat with the hot-pink shellac nails, may God bless you and keep you…).
My hunch that the shoppers here might be a tougher crowd than last week’s seemed disappointingly accurate at first.
“Who are you?” a silver-haired man in a suit asked me abruptly, within minutes, as though I’d approached him and not the other way round. For tone of voice, think somewhere between a grumpy boss meeting the new intern and Francis Urquhart talking to a muddy Spaniel.
The branded t-shirt and collecting tin would be a giveaway, you’d have thought, but there we are. I explained what I was collecting for.
“Is it in this country? It’s not going abroad?”
“No,” I said, once I’d picked my jaw up from the floor.
“OK, you can have 50p.”
“And you can take it back and go and choke on it you awful little man.”
I didn’t actually say that, obviously. But it’s probably just as well I’m too dyspraxic to work in retail because if I had to listen to people like that all the time I might do. Another man went out of his way to donate to me and praise Mind, then decided to let me know he Did Not Approve of a lady nearby selling the Big Issue. “You know what that is? It’s pyramid selling! You know how pyramid selling works, do you?” (“Gosh, no sir, I don’t! Please explain it to me!”)
I inwardly sighed, and looked at my watch. At this rate, it was going to be a very long four hours…
After that, though, all changed, and everyone I met was super, super kind and lovely. People crossed the street, gave coins to their kids, wished me luck, told me stories, and reminisced about fundraisers they’d done themselves. A man said: “You helped my son, so I’ll help you.” A lady thanked me with a wobble in her voice. Another just touched my arm and looked at me. The day had started with bright sunshine, but by mid-afternoon it’d disappeared. As the wind picked up, so did my donations, as people enquired after my health (physical, not mental, but possibly both…), warning me not to freeze. A very nice lady named Soo-Ray bought me a coffee as I was shivering and we chatted for a while. I’d worked out I could go home when it was 4pm, I’d completely frozen my tits off or my tin was full, whichever came first. Only, I couldn’t then decide how full was full or how cold was too cold. A man bought me a tea “(You look so cold and lonely!”) and seemed to be working up to a meet-cute but was either too shy or too married to continue. By then, I was too cold to speak in sentences, so that worked out alright. As I was signing out at the front desk, a man who’d already donated, and who looked a bit like a bearded Stephen Mangan, spotted me and stuck in an additional fiver.
I had a very special chat with a man who told me he’d run the very first London Marathon back in 1982, in just over three hours. He talked about technique, warning me against the classic mistake of starting too fast, and so on. His lovely wife was with him, wearing a lovely bright pair of running shoes.
The pattern of the day mirrored my experience of university, where I spent freshers dinner listening to someone enthuse about clubbing on the Kings Road and his gap-year shooting bison in South Africa, thinking “Shit, if they’re all like this, I’m going home.” Luckily they weren’t all Like That, I didn’t go home, and over the next three years, and beyond, Durham introduced me to some of the loveliest people you could ever meet, often most memorably in situations I didn’t expect. Sometimes, it bears remembering that getting over yourself for a moment and giving things a chance is the best thing you’ll ever do…
I raised over £200 in five hours (and £28 more than last week). Special thanks to the Waitrose staff for being especially welcoming and attentive, and letting me use their loos and canteen when I needed to.
Two weeks to go means I’m officially tapering, and the longer runs are getting shorter. On the 22nd (two days before Marathon Day) I’m seeing my parents again for the first time in four months. And the week of the Marathon itself is a very bittersweet anniversary (to be explained…). From now until then I’m basically going to be a puddle of emotion on legs, so bear with me if you will….
I’m 80% of the way to my fundraising target. THIS IS GREAT. Please, please sponsor me and help me smash it, and help Mind help more people with mental health problems. My minimum target is £1,750. and I’d LOVE to get to £2,000.
If it helps, here are some of the groovy things your money will do…
I’m a bit late to this blog, we’re actually more than halfway through Week 14 now. But this will be a long one (ooh-err, etc), so let’s crack on, shall we…
Last week I did my second, and final, very long training run. When on earth did running 18 miles become a thing I semi-matter-of-factly did?! And when did runs only start becoming enjoyable after two hours? I’d planned to go up to 20 miles but only did another 18 in the end, because The Internet says there isn’t much point going above 18 in training unless you’re aiming for a sub-three or four hour finish, which, no. The first 10K felt like a Marathon in itself. One, I needed the loo not long in and it took me ages to find one I had the right coin denomination for. Secondly, I started without music to practice rationing my phone’s battery for Marathon day, which was quite tedious (and it still died after three hours). Thirdly, I extended the run from Hyde Park through to Green Park, which meant crossing the heaving roads at Hyde Park corner. Boo! And, I tried fruit-flavoured energy gels, which taste of fruit in the way Dairylea Triangles taste of cheese. Their sheer repulsiveness makes you gag thinking you’ve swallowed one of those silica packets from new handbags with Do Not Eat written on them. They also spurt out of the tube in a most unbecoming fashion, just to make your repulsed gagging look even more dignified (I much prefer Cliff’s Shot Bloks, which I discovered while training for the Oxford Half. They’re like jelly sweets and much more flavoursome). Outside the loos, a child pointed to the water bottles in my belt and asked why I needed them: “Because they make you run faster,” I said, snorting wryly to myself at my shuffling. The best part of the run was probably the 2-3 miles in the middle, when I ran up and down the banks of the Serpentine River in the sunshine. I think Don’t Give Up came on then, too. Also, at about 17K, a man gestured towards my Mind vest and gave me the thumbs up. Thank you, Random Man, you made my day.
Other recent happenings…
Publicity! Ooh, shiny!
Dunelm, the Durham University alumni magazine (formerly Durham First), printed a segment about me doing the Marathon, which was lovely of them. Thank you to Liz Stephen, for sponsoring me having read it, even though they didn’t actually print the URL to my fundraising page (which is here, BTW)
Mental Health Mates
I went to the first weekday evening meetup of Mental Health Mates, which normally meets in Hyde Park on Sundays (I’m the red-trousered one on the left of the photo – insert political gag here). The reasons why this group is such an amazing and important thing deserve a whole blog post to themselves (which I will get around to, hopefully within the next couple of weeks). But, briefly for the moment: Every MMH meeting I go to just gets better. They have been wonderfully supportive about my Marathon and everything else, and I’m incredibly lucky to have found them.
Collecting for Mind. SO. MANY. FEELINGS…
If you want your faith in humanity restored, a la Hugh Grant’s airport speech in Love Actually, I’d recommend doing a supermarket collection for charity. On Sunday I collected for Mind to add to my Marathon sponsorship total, and people were so generous I nearly cried (The last time I nearly cried in a supermarket was when I tried to work in one, when I was 17 and didn’t know I was dyspraxic…). The donations barely stopped rolling in all day. I wasn’t allowed to call people over or shake the tin so I relied on a keen smile, the Mind t-shirt I got from carol singing, and a lot of blue eye-makeup. I got good at reading body language to work out who was going to stop. Most people acknowledged me and smiled even if they didn’t donate; a few apologised for not having change. Ironically I rarely carry much change myself because it’s too fiddly, so I was astonished by the effort people went to, pulling over heavy trolleys and faffing through coats and bags for coins. I admired people’s outfits, bags and purses to fill the silences, wondering what each person’s “story” was. Some clearly weren’t sure what they were donating to (one man said “I’ve got mental elf – nah, only joking!”, as if he was taking the piss, then carefully handed me his change…) but most people clearly knew and expressed their admiration for Mind’s work. A middle-aged man spoke to me candidly for a good couple of minutes about his breakdown forty years ago. Another middle-aged man called out: “Mind helped me through my schooldays. They didn’t help much, but at least they were there!” I smiled a bit too hard at an attached guy in a Deep Purple t-shirt, who was clearly thinking: “Is she clocking me or have I got breakfast on my face?” Parents often gave the money to their excited children to drop into my tin. Some also tried to explain to them what the money was for and why it was important, which was very touching.During a quiet moment, I nipped away to get some bread. When I came back, the security guard told me a lady had been looking for me with notes in her hands. “Sod’s law,” I thought. Later on, she found me, relieved: “I went to the cashpoint especially for you. They told me you’d gone home!” She had three little boys with her, who were being boisterous. She hadn’t quite done all her shopping. “Wait til I’ve finished; I’ll come back,” she said. She was last to the checkout before closing, the boys were still playing up. Then I saw her put something in each boy’s hand and point to me. They came and handed me the money: £20 in notes. I went over to her. “Can I just say, you’re wonderful,” I said, my voice cracking. “No I’m not,” she dismissed. “You’re the wonderful one for doing something. Not me doing nothing.”
In five hours, I raised a bloody marvellous £185. Thank you to Sainsburys for having me. I’m doing another one next week, at Waitrose, in Gerrards Cross. And now I’m welling up again…
My stomach trying to kill me
Ways Marathoning is like pregnancy, aside from fatigue, not drinking, and becoming a single-minded bore: Discussing gross bodily functions with strangers… Two days after Long Run I started getting persistent stomach cramps and feeling apathetic and useless. Going for a relaxing swim to try to ease it and having to get my locker bolt-cut open because I couldn’t work the padlock did not help. I suspected a slightly early visit from Aunty Flo (Marathoning can do that), but hours went by and nothing happened. The Internet told me it might be from all the glucose in energy drinks, and the solution was plain rice. I’m not sure whether it was, but a vegetable broth with plain rice and Quorn makes lovely comfort food anyway.
Everyone in the Mind runners Facebook group seems to be having scary “Marathon dreams,” lately; like the ones students get during exam time: standing at the start line naked or otherwise unprepared, etc. My 5am nightmares aren’t about the Marathon. Mine are mainly just a ridiculous mashup of dead people and dyspraxic panic. Terribly dull, really. Brains; who’d ‘ave ’em?
High drama – fictional and real
The media is slightly surreal for me at the moment. The husband of someone I used to know, and interviewed for my first big piece of journalism when I was 18, is involved in a big soap storyline which is currently all over Twitter/Radio 4/the papers. I’ve never actually met him, but my relationship with her was what you’d generously call a learning experience. She influenced several of my most important formative decisions, some good, some bad, many somewhere between the two. Basically, it was a long, painful, one-sided hero-worship situation where I held her up as a example of how I ought to be versus how variously inadequate I felt I was. I’ve since learned this is classic behaviour for young women with disabilities and/or mental health problems: most I hear from seem to have had some equivalent to her in their lives at a similar age, which is both sad and reassuring. I was surprised (bless my naivety…) to see her named and photographed with her husband and kids in a Sunday paper recently, given her concerns about privacy and the horror-anecdotes she told me about the press when I knew her. During our interview, she said some rather impolite things about someone who, nine years later, became my friend, and then – sadly – late friend. I pledged some time ago not to devote any more unpaid words to her, so you’ll just have to wait for the book. But, in a weird upside-down way, I have her to thank. If it wasn’t for her, none of this would be happening…
A very relatable sentiment
I’ve been terrible at long-reads recently.By long-read I mean anything longer than a tweet which I’m not being paid to look at. But, a line from a typically-thought-provoking post at Superlatively Rude, on using writing to deal with bad experiences, jumped out at me. “No-one wants to believe they hurt for no reason.” My public writing is often driven by that sentiment: I can cope with any amount of adversity as long as I can turn it into something good. Unfortunately, trying to do this before has often led me to more pain: from one slightly awkward, ambiguous relationship to another, and so on and on. With the Marathon, I wanted to do something that would actually help me more than just hurt. That I could give something to others with, as well as learn and grow from. And that was as much for me as anyone else. It’s the closest I’ve come yet to compensating for years of mental rubbish, and it is, hands down, the best decision I’ve made in the decade since university.
TWO AND A HALF WEEKS until race day, Sunday 24th! I’ve now raised £1,148 for Mind – that’s nearly 70% of my £1,750 fundraising target (Maths not mine). Thank you so so much to all my lovely sponsors so far:friends, family and strangers alike (“Neil Tarrant”, I’m not sure whether we’ve met – Google suggests you’re a footballer or a Scottish science lecturer and I don’t meet many of those, but if you’re reading this, thank you!).
An unanticipated aspect of Doing the Marathon for me is being invited to comment on media stories about people who’ve run some inhuman number of Marathons in a week/month. I never really paid attention to them before; now they seem to be everywhere. I don’t know if it’s the same for new parents: you have one baby and suddenly all these articles fly at you about someone who has ten kids and runs an intergalactic empire with daily meetings before breakfast. Does this happen? Anyway, my opinion (with respect to Eddie Izzard – one of my late pals was a huge fan) , is that I am not over-keen on these extreme stories. We have two pervasive strands of media at the moment that it would be quite nice to see less of. One is pointing and shouting at vulnerable people who do “wrong” things (eat too much, eat too little, claim benefits, etc). The other is glorifying people who do something excessive which, if they weren’t famous or media-genic, would probably land them with a psychiatric diagnosis.
There’s a difference between challenging yourself (which, at some point, in some form, is healthy for all of us) and doing something plainly ridiculous. Unless you’re a pro athlete (and probably even then) doing several Marathons a week or month isn’t good for you at all. It’s probably about as healthy for you as recreational drugs, burning yourself or covering your entire body in tattoos – we don’t celebrate people for doing those. And while we’re here, I don’t understand why having six kids and running a business empire is considered “inspirational” as opposed to masochistic either (regardless of gender, I mean. Although of course only women are asked why….)
It’s understandable why excess sells, or why people think it does. “Parenting pieces are boring, we need extreme parenting!” ” Running pieces are boring, we need extreme running!” “Fundraisers are boring, we need extreme fundraisers!” “We all have to balance different priorities in our lives, let’s find people who take perverse pride in having the biggest amount on their plate!” And of course, people who achieve things want to talk about it. Writing about your achievements or experiences is not inherently offensive to someone who doesn’t have the same ones as you. Most people who manage something “against all odds” want to tell their stories (“Look! I did it – anyone can!”) to encourage others, not to boast or bully. Unfortunately, achievements, extreme examples of them in particular, can be used to belittle those who really can’t match them “Look at you, person who might be struggling with normal working hours, moderate exercise, an ordinary-sized family. Look at what this person over here does!” For the record, I don’t want the Marathon or anything else I ever do in life to be used to kick someone else. It’s quite true each of us is probably able to find sanctuary in achieving something that we haven’t thought of yet. But it’s up to you, not me, to find your own Something, in your own time – and yours might not be the same as mine.
I heard a speaker recently who, a few years ago, ran a Marathon a week for a mental health charity and got a lot of press for it. His motivation came from compensating for an injury that left him unable to play his beloved rugby, and from losing his dad to suicide as a teenager. Bloody good for him for finding some comfort out of those two awful situations, and of course it would be horrible to rain on that in any way. But the focus of the reporting – and his talks – was very much on the grief that led him to such an extreme, and his mental health awareness drive, not on celebrating what he put himself through as such. He’s now a personal trainer and often works with other mental health charity runners to help them achieve what’s realistic for their own situation. He doesn’t encourage other people to do what he did, or be like him (quite the opposite, actually – he has said the sponsorship he actually got – little more than most people get for a single Marathon – wasn’t worth the pain).
At a certain point in any excess, the question of what are you trying to prove, to whom and why has to be asked. If exercise is not about keeping fit and happy but effectively torturing yourself, how is that different to addiction or self-harm and why is it better than those things?
This is pretty much a week I want to forget about except for these five rather nice things…
My chuck-everything-in-and-hope-to-drown-in-it comforting risotto. Yes, you’re allowed to put parmesan and cheddar into a risotto together. Nigella says so. And I’d do it if it carried a prison sentence because it is THAT GOOD. HONESTLY. I’ve become one of those people who almost exclusively Instagrams their dinner. Sorry about that…
On Saturday night I had a most wonderful night’s sleep and was awake at 6:45 chomping at the bit for my Sunday long run (the long runs are still pretty comfortable – 6-8 miles. They get to half Marathon length in the next 3-4 weeks and then the really bonkers-long ones are in March). I waited until it was properly light just after 8 to set off. It was raining and my legs forgot they were supposed to be running for the first 45 minutes and needed a slug of Lucozade and some good tunes to remind them. But I was still finished by 10, in good time for a nice breakfast and to pretend to care about the Sunday Politics while shivering in a fleece and jumper with wet feet and an extra heater on.
Eliza Doolittle’s Mr Medicine. Between a difficult meeting and a difficult phone call (see below) I dived into a pub and asked for a drink just so I could use the loo (I know…). “I’d like a drink,” I said to the barman. “A soft drink,” I quickly clarified, aware that I probably looked anxious enough to be wanting booze at midday on a Monday. As he ran through some suggestions as to what I might like to order as though I was a confused child, this sweet little song was playing. I couldn’t work out what she was singing at first and didn’t think to use Shazam (hardly surprising when I could barely think to order an orange juice). Luckily I’d remembered enough lyrics to Google later and add it to my running playlist.
A remark made to me by a close friend of my late friend in the phone chat she very kindly agreed to have with me despite being a complete stranger. I hesitate to do this because she seemed quite a private person and quoting private conversations without permission is generally an iffy thing to do. But, I will, without names or identifying deets because I think it’s beautifully-put, and helpful to anyone. We were talking about his history of depression, and my own, and I repeated an analogy I’ve used elsewhere a couple of times, about he and another friend taking their lives: “I feel like I’m in a terrible video game and they’re at the level above and I’m trying to understand how they got there…” “I beg to differ,” she said politely-but-firmly. “He pressed the self-destruct button and left the game. You’re still playing. And you have to keep playing.” What a lovely thing to say. Her comments were, I think, some of the most insightful and on-the-nail I’ve ever heard about depression from someone who (as far as I know) doesn’t live with it. Afterwards I told her a couple of things about him that were relevant to our shared connections and that I thought she and other mutual friends might be interested to know. And I gave her the link to this blog. I doubt she’ll ever read it but hello if you are…
I’VE NOW REACHED OVER £500 IN SPONSORSHIPof my £1,750 minimum target. That’s £500 raised for Mind in the first month. THANK YOU to my wonderful sponsors, especially my mum and dad (currently in Asia), and an old friend from school who’s recently become a mummy for the second time. She suggested we meet for coffee once she’s sufficiently recovered from the trauma of the birth. I told her that running a Marathon might be the closest I get to the trauma of giving birth. Many a true remark made in jest. Although I like kids, I’m inclined to see the fact that I only ever experience any kind of mutual attraction under the wrong circumstances, and that so many people in my life have had depression as the universe’s politer way of saying “Look, petal, don’t be silly, just concentrate on being the best mental health campaigner you can be and forget about relationships or having babies. The world’s a much better place for it.” This probably needs a much longer blog post than I have the time or inclination for right now. If you’d like to sponsor me and help me raise even more, please do.
The next week of my training plan is a lighter week (to adapt to my training). I hope it’s lighter in lots of other ways besides…