I actually finished writing a book! And nobody died!

A celebratory hedgehog.
Not actual printout.

Eight years ago my then-boss advised me to write books and do crisis comms rather than continue in that job. Quite perceptively, it turns out. I’ve done plenty of both since. If by writing books you mean writing incomplete books, and by crisis comms you mean talking about my life.

It’s much easier to be writing a book than to have written one. Who knew!? But I’m now extremely delighted to be able to say that for the first time I’ve completed a first draft, which I intend to edit later over the summer and send out into the world early next year. You may or may not have known I was writing it, as I’ve been fairly quiet, or at least, fairly vague about it. Because previous attempts to write books have taught me writing about writing is the best procrastination there is. And getting hung up on what people think of you or it is the best way to get absolutely nothing written.

I abandoned my first proper novel in 2015 after several years of stop-starting. The concept wasn’t sellable enough anymore, I enjoyed the research more than the writing, and above all I often wasn’t in the best of emotional health for doing much at all. For various historic reasons, plus because people kept dying. The book-interrupted-by-death thing became a bit of an in-joke (my friend’s boyfriend quipped: “Have you tried writing novellas? They’re shorter. It might be safer…”) although obviously not ultimately very funny. Cumulative bad experiences put me in a permanent state of waiting for the shoe to drop. I became convinced I shouldn’t write books because it was a bad omen. Which is bollocks, obviously. Although quite fitting too, because many of my previous assumptions about both writing and tragedy have had to be challenged in recent years. I used to assume it would be easy for me to write a book. I was wrong. I used to assume wanting and being able to talk openly about difficult things was the norm rather than rare. Also wrong.

In early 2015 I took up running on my mum’s recommendation, which essentially saved me. In spite or because of it being so utterly alien, running was also immune from my usual self-doubt, to the point I believed I could run the London Marathon. Yes, while telling me I couldn’t even do my job, my brain also told me I could run 26.2 miles. Brains are such a lark, aren’t they. With my writing career seemingly stuck down the toilet, while Marathon training I fell into working as a freelance proofreader (in a very flukey and unsustainable manner I would not recommend, BTW). Marathon running taught me so much more than I’d ever have anticipated about how to approach a big project. So afterwards (with a little slumpy interlude of anger over work and politics) I fell back in love with writing and decided to approach a book like a Marathon. A writing schedule like a training schedule. c.90,000 words, from January to May. And it actually worked.

I soon discovered that typing morning until night seven days a week is not good for your mind or body, that writing can injure you worse than a marathon, and that physio is brilliant but expensive. I bought a laptop stand, enforced bedtimes and an evening laptop curfew and started being kind to myself, similarly to how running taught me to. The book is not all about running or mental health as some have guessed, although it does touch plenty upon them. Besides a lot of running and a lot of therapy, what’s really spurred me on is winning a bursaried read of the opening chapter with TLC, courtesy of the Arts Council and New Writing South. That was at the end of 2015. When I got in touch with TLC again this year with a progress update, to my unexpected delight they said I could have another bursaried read of the final manuscript. There’s still a very long road from here. As I said, I’ll be doing edits in June and July and won’t be querying until January. But under the circs, just having finally got this far without catastrophe is immense enough.

As far as my day job goes, I’m still officially a freelance proofreader but due to a lot of client heartache over the past year I’m rethinking this pretty urgently. I’d like to do more journalism again but wouldn’t everyone; I’d also like to pass my driving test first time in August and have a holiday in the tropics but I doubt either of those will happen. I would certainly like to do more copywriting and social media, either for mental health organisations, or for writing organisations that support underrepresented groups. It’s also partly because I spoke to the director of a copywriting agency who sensed I had baggage, asked about the TLC bursary I’d mentioned on my CV, then sent me away with: “Finish the book before you do anything else” that I decided to commit to it. It was as if I finally had permission.

My celebrations are being hampered slightly at the moment by a stinking cold bordering on flu and someone kindly deciding to clone my bank card last week. Soon after finishing, I had a lovely snotty, croaky ugly-cry at my mum (I swear I’ve done a life’s worth of public weeping the last few years; I’m basically a wandering cucumber). Then I listened to a song I used to play at university on the way to lectures and imagine I was in a film. (Did I just publicly admit that? Oh). But once the lurgy has bleeped off and my bank have sent me a new card, one of my treats for finishing will be going to the Comment Awards Conference and hearing Channel 4’s Matt Frei and the Beeb’s James Harding discuss Fake News. I heard about it through a journalist friend who told me she binge-read this blog, which even my mum hasn’t, so that’s nice.

Thank you all and thank you again.

One year on! Some advice for Sunday’s London Marathon runners…

Hey there April, month of ALL THE BIG FEELINGS. I’m currently busy finishing a big writing project (more on that later…) and trying to fend off some financial bother [nameless client] has left me in. I’ve just been invited to give evidence to a Parliamentary Select Committee early next month on my experience in the workplace (Spoiler: My last boss advised me, without irony, to leave my media admin job mid-recession and go and write books…). Late-April is also the anniversary of when I last saw two people alive in person, in the same week of the same year. And, it’s a year since I ran the London Marathon for Mind. Which I’d solidly recommend to anyone looking for a socially acceptable outlet for obsessive tendencies and a penchant for things all-consuming. (It’s better for your mind, heart and finances than many alternatives; trust me…). 

I’ll be at this year’s Marathon on Sunday. Thankfully not running, but with my family and some of the other Mental Health Mates, to cheer on the lovely Bryony Gordon who is running for Heads Together. If you haven’t already, go and hear her Daily Telegraph interview with Prince Harry and subscribe to the Mad World podcast. 

For anyone running this year, or considering it for the future, some tips for the day…

  • Look after your feet. Slather them in Vaesline before you get dressed, clip your toenails to whatever length is most comfortable for you, and wear your best running socks. I was so worried about ruining my feet that they ended up looking better after the Marathon than they do after half an hour on the Bakerloo line in summer…
  • Be comfortably early.  Your Final Instructions magazine should guide you on where you need to be and when.
  • Stash some tissues and plasters in your bra, or whatever the male equivalent is. Mine had a handy front pocket for them. (I had a cold, so I soon ran out of tissues and had to ask the St John Ambulance people for extra, which meant queuing behind a load of people clutching their legs…).
  • Have some spare safety pins on you in case your race number falls off.
  • Keep a couple of paracetamol on you, and any medication you might need This is really important, because the medics on site aren’t allowed to give you any pills. Take them out of the foil or cut the foil so that the corners are round or flat and don’t dig into you.
  • Start slowly. Everyone tells you this, but it’s deceptively hard to do, even in a crowd! Because you’ll have lots of energy from tapering, plus nervous energy, it’s difficult to tell how fast you’re going. I looked at my Fitbit after the first five minutes and saw I was running a five-minute mile. Unless you’re aiming for a three hour finish, you don’t want to be doing that.
  • Use the loo beforehand whenever you can. My dad went to a boarding school where needing the toilet at a slightly inconvenient time was considered a character flaw, so I always try and go if I see one. It’s a helpful approach at running events as the pre-race loo queues are huge. Last year, the Travelodge near Greenwich DLR opened up their ground floor toilet for runners. Don’t panic, though, there are plenty on the route where there will be less of a queue.
  • Keep warm while you wait for your start. The usual advice is to wear bin liners or some old trakkie pants you’re happy not to see again over your kit and just chuck them to the side at the start, where a band of volunteers clear them up and recycle them. If like me you doubt your ability to disrobe quickly in a crowd without panicking and whacking people in the face, just wear a thin long-sleeved thermal top under your vest.
  • Smile hard and enjoy it, but prepare to be bored at times too. New parents always say “No-one told me it could ever be so boring.” As your more experienced equivalent in this situation, I’m telling you, bits will be boring. You will run across Tower Bridge, down the Mall and all the iconic bits you’ve seen on TV. You will also run past endless chicken shops and Deptford retail parks feeling decidedly meh.
  • The pain will be awful at the time but you’ll forget it afterwards. Women who’ve given birth say it’s similar in this respect. I wouldn’t know, but if you have, this may help.
  • Think of the physical pain as a substitute for your emotional pain. Enough said.
  • If you run with music, save it until the second half, when you’ll really need it.
  • Drink your energy drinks gradually from the halfway point onwards. Before that if you need to but certainly after halfway. Don’t wait until you hit the wall.
  • Not everyone hits their wall at Canary Wharf Some do it earlier, I did it later. Canary Wharf was actually one of my favourite bits.
  • Drink plenty of water, not just the energy drinks You’ll want to balance out all the sugary glucose which makes your teeth go fuzzy. For most of the final third, I carried a small bottle of water in one hand and bottle of Lucozade in the other and took small alternate sips. There are plenty of drinks stations as you head towards the finish so you’ll never be short.
  • Don’t try and run the whole thing. If you want to save some energy for the finish line, walk for a mile or two. I had my walk at about Mile 19-20 during one of the dull bits. Kirsty MacColl’s They Don’t Know came on my playlist, and it rained…
  • Know where you’re going to eat afterwards. Everywhere will be full. I booked somewhere weeks in advance, told them I was running, chose my dish from the menu and made sure they’d have it.
  • Be proud and look forward to finding small-talk easier for the next two years.

On being thirtysomething and single by choice

I’ve hesitated over writing this because I hate the massive market for articles by people – overwhelmingly women – justifying their lives to the public. Justifying myself to other people is something I’ve done too much of throughout life and am trying to do less of. And there are about seven more important things than this I should be writing right now, including circa 37,000 words by early May. But an event last week twisted my arm. A playwright friend of mine, Nicky Werenowkska, has just written a relationship play, HIDDEN, which is about to go on tour. It’s semi-autobiographical, and centres around a woman who is diagnosed with dyspraxia whilst adjusting to being a new parent and coping with her husband’s redundancy following the 2008 financial crash. To help bring the play to life, and add another perspective, she asked me to do an informal Q&A about dyspraxia with the cast last week during rehearsals. Nicky is in her 40s, married to a former City lawyer, and has three young children. I am emphatically none of those things so my perspective on dyspraxia (and life) is a bit different to hers. Inevitably, during said Q&A I was asked about my own relationship history and attitude towards relationships. I decided afterwards, having been asked and answered that I am essentially single by decision, to put some of my thoughts around it down here in writing. Also, doing it specifically off the back of being asked professionally feels a bit less like a self-indulgent random ramble…

It’s generally thought that there are various “windows” in life for finding love and if you don’t manage to succeed in one, never mind, there’ll always be a next one. Unlucky as a teenager? Well, aren’t we all, dear. Wait until you get to university. Nothing good going on there? Never mind, you’ll meet someone at work. Or try online dating. Forget running bores; online dating evangelists are the worst. “Have you tried online dating? Everyone does it these days!” they chirp, as if its existence might have escaped your notice. Yes, thanks. I spend half my life online but there are plenty of things you can do online that I don’t want to. I know people who’ve met partners on Tinder/Match/Soulmates and whatnot. I know people who’ve met their partners on dearest Twitter, but my own impression is that it’s basically a dating app for people who are too dysfunctional to be in relationships, already in one, or both.  Through my twenties I progressed – if you can call it that – from unrequited boarding school-type crushes on people I didn’t so much want to be with as be like or be fixed by, to mutual but hopelessly messy attractions to larger-than-life but vulnerable men. The bottom line is that at pretty much every life stage I have consistently attracted people in the wrong circumstances or for the wrong reasons, and now, at nearly 33, I’m just too, too tired of it. As a teenager I used to look at single people in their 30s or 40s and think “What’s wrong with you?” Now, I think: “What happened to you?  And who are your might-have-beens?”  

There was one time, one little window, in my late twenties – this time about six years ago in fact – when I felt on the verge of something big, which might eventually include a serious relationship, along with other watershed-type things. I was newly-freelance, work was progressing rather well and certain people who appeared at the time felt like an affirmation of that. It prompted a lot of big questions, but, you know, my mum defied the Berlin Wall to marry my dad, so big questions are rather in the genes. With a heritage like that, I suppose I was never likely to make things easy for myself and fall for the boy next door. Suffice to say, unlike for my mum, there was no happy ending here. There really is such a thing as an extraordinary meeting in the wrong universe…

As things currently stand, I don’t want a relationship where someone sees themselves as my carer and me as a person to be micromanaged, or where I’m a carer for someone, and vice versa. Hypocritical as it may sound, I no longer want to attach myself emotionally to men with mental health issues. This is not because I believe they’re unloveable, have nothing to offer or anything offensive along those lines – quite the reverse. Most halfway intelligent and empathetic blokes are somewhere on the spectrum of anxiety or depression. But it’s a pattern that hasn’t previously served me well, and I don’t want to get into a repetitive pain sequence where each reminds me of the last. I’ll always be a passionate mental health campaigner. I will lobby, letter-write, chat, tweet, run and walk for the cause. And the affected friends I have will always be dear ones. But I now step back from situations where I’d have leaned in before. It’s not selfishness; it’s self-care. I prefer the word “decision” to “choice”, incidentally, because choice is complicated. Choice suggests complete autonomy, and nobody really has that. “Decision” is more about reacting to circumstances you have varying amounts of control over.

It’s very hard to feel this way at the exact point in life when you are assumed/supposed to be feeling the exact opposite, and society is organised around that assumption, with little empathy for those who are going off-script. Even if you’re not the sort of person who’s planned your wedding, named your kids and can picture your future partner like an e-fit before you’re 25, you probably don’t picture what not being with someone when others are will look like. There are various forums and support groups for the infertile, disabled, divorced, widowed and all sorts. But I don’t fit neatly into any of their tragic boxes. The fact that I actually like and would like to have children is another complication. But if life so far has taught me anything, it’s that growing up and into yourself is about so much more than the accumulation of people and stuff. I haven’t grown or matured by having things. I’ve done it through losing things, or not having things. Or dealing with David Lynch outcomes in a society of Disney aspirations. And maybe the root of preferring to be alone is in what I said at the beginning: “Justifying myself to other people is something I’ve done too much of and am trying to do less of.”

In which I try to write a book. Again. Hoping nothing awful happens. Again.

Oh, hello, blog. I feel I’ve neglected you somewhat. For a change, this is a blog post about writing. Not about Brexit, or putting my body through ridiculous things for charity…

Seasoned Max Watchers will know that two or three years ago, I was writing a book. I’m no longer writing that book: I stopped writing it at the beginning of 2015 and am still having to grit teeth and explain why; as if I’m going through a divorce…

“Oh, God, I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to…I didn’t realise you two had…”

“Oh, no no, it’s OK! You know… c’est la vie. Che sera sera. Mange tout Rodney, mange tout…” 

There’s a different book now. Well, there will be, soon. At the end of last year I was awarded a New Writing South bursary for a TLC free read of the first few pages of a memoir I’d started. Fed up with weaving bits of my life into bits of fiction writing that nobody ever seemed to be getting excited enough about, I’d wondered whether it would be better to remove the fiction altogether and write openly about my early attempts at doing journalism. Chapter One’s about the first ever journalistic interview I did, back in 2002, when I was still in my last year at school. The rest’s about where that led: A bit later, 280 miles North; and, very much later, 26 miles around London. Together with the very unique-to-me stuff are the standard experiencees every twenty and thirtysomething can nod along to. You know the ones…

Why do it? The usual reasons people write about experiences: To appeal to people who can relate to them, laugh at them, and help myself move forward from them. I sent the chapter to New Writing South, basically asking: “Do you think this is any good and should I carry on with it?” 

Having won the bursaried read, which basically meant “Yes”, I immediately set about…not writing anything. So far this year I’ve been busy Marathon running, tin-shaking, learning to drive (I meant to blog about that as well didn’t I. Oh. I will, promise!) and getting upset over Brexit. In September I decided that as I started the year with four months of the London Marathon I’d end it by finishing my first draft by Christmas.

Then, there was a death. Another one. People I know seem to keep dying whenever I’m in the middle of writing books. (Friend’s OH: “Have you tried writing novellas…?”) This time it was my dear grandma. Not as horrible and unexpected as the others, clearly, but still family life went pineapple-shaped. Writing did not happen.

It’s now late-October and there are two months (or, 66 sleeps, as e-marketers who still live in 2009 insist on describing it) until Christmas. I don’t even know if it’s physically possible to write about 75,000 words in two months and do anything else, but I would very much like to get something resembling a book written by then. And for nothing else horrible to happen. Obviously….

In other news, yesterday I saw Bryony Kimmings’ A Pacifists Guide To The War on Cancer at the National, a musical about cancer (singing patients! Dancing cells! Inflatable tumours!) which, in her words exactly, tries to make us, Society, suck a bit less at talking about illness and death. Some criticisms of the play, though understandable, remind me a bit of times I’ve felt judged for being open about mental health, or dyspraxia, or bereavement. I think the therapist I see at the moment has sometimes felt I can’t grasp that not everyone feels as comfortable as I do talking/blogging/tweeting about those sorts of things, and that it’s her job to try and make me. It’s not that I don’t understand their reluctance, but I sometimes find it hard not to take it personally because of my stupid brain, which is sort of the whole point of therapy. I must admit I had reservations around Bryony’s earlier play, Fake It Til You Make It, based on her relationship with a depressed man (sour grapes, really, because the way some men handle their depression is not conducive to any lasting relationship at all) . But having seen this play, I’d like to have caught that too. I went with someone who has supported my writing for a long time, and had cancer recently, which made it particularly moving. Thank you!

Unrelated to-anything footnote: For those who read my brief post last month, I wrote to the hospital trust about the person concerned, with recommendations. Thank you to those who persuaded me it was worth doing, and helped with it.

Five years.

Saturday was the fifth anniversary of a dear friend’s suicide. I still winced slightly typing that word and it still feels slightly as though I shouldn’t by now. The last time I saw him in person – in the same week that I also last saw a separate friend who more recently died the same way – means more to me personally, but as we had quite a few mutual friends, I go along with others. I had to go to exactly the same charity AGM I went to on that Saturday five years ago, which felt a bit Groundhog Day-ish, in the worst manner. I wouldn’t have gone, had there been a choice, and for the first hour I was fairly desperate not to be there, but by the end I was glad I went. I’ve also written to his parents, which I hadn’t since the first Christmas. They’re probably the last people on earth not to know I ran the Marathon and it seemed like they should…

According to received wisdom (and the writer Julian Barnes), five years on is a milestone in wanting and acquiring distance from any significant or traumatic event. It makes sense; I can remember feeling this way during my graduation year about things going back four or five years then. A smattering of people have affected me probably more than they’ll ever know or would wish, and grief is the very ultimate manifestation of that. My feelings ebb and flow. There are good and bad days, weeks and hours. At best, I make big plans, run long distances and remember how to go out just for fun or buy something just as a treat, which had become vanishingly rare since 2011 until about the end of last year. At worst, I worry the good stuff isn’t tangible enough, worry about money, doubt myself to the extent I need reassurance that past events took place even when I know they did, and take other people’s distance personally when it turns out their reasons aren’t personal at all and they’d probably think I was loopy if they knew I’d thought so. But running the Marathon taught me the importance of always having something to aspire to, which in the post-Brexit hellmouth of news I’m trying my damndest to keep in mind.

Some Good Things…

First: I’m quoted and pictured in this month’s Glamour magazine, for the lovely Bryony Gordon‘s piece about how she started the wonderful Mental Health Mates, which has introduced me to a group of fantastic, galvanising women. I slightly regret mentioning that I’m single, which makes me sound as though I’m pathetically desperate for a boyfriend and went to the group to try and pull someone – not at all the case and not at all going to happen, FYI. They’ve printed my occupation as “Proofreader” because having too many writers and journalists in it would’ve made it look too incestuous, but I’ve done more proofreading and web-editing work than anything else this year because it fitted best around Marathoning and running a fairly large house virtually single-handedly, so I can’t really argue. I was also in Grazia back in May with some of the other girls from the group. I blogged briefly here about the very first MHM meetup back in February and have been meaning to write/blog about it again for a while but I didn’t want to look as though I was trying to steal Bryony’s thunder – as if I could – so I will hold off on that a bit longer…

Second: I was commissioned by a health and public sector comms agency recently, along with a researcher from a leading UK university, to write an online pamphlet on how to support a friend or colleague who has been affected by someone’s suicide. This was in line with wanting to use some of my insight and experience from the last five years in my paid work and, as they say, Give Something Back. The brief was to highlight why the right support is so important, and give suggestions of what to say or do (and what not to); backed up by quotes from interviews the researcher has done with bereaved people. Her research bears out some of my experiences in terms of how a suicide can affect those left behind. Mental health dips in the aftermath are quite common in those with a predisposition to anxiety or depression, and even those without. I’m very lucky, though, that people around me have generally been very supportive and said and done the right things. Sadly, this is the exception more than the rule. I hope the leaflet will be useful to those who want to support someone they know but aren’t sure how to go about it. It should soon be available online as a PDF though relevant agencies like Cruse and The Samaritans – I’ll link in due course…

Third: I want and hope to be able to go abroad alone for the first time this summer, even if just a city break for a day or two. I have my eye on a boutique hotel somewhere that would annoy Nigel Farage. The family atmosphere post-Brexit is still fairly awful but that’s a whole other post…

Thinking of everyone who misses someone. Xxx

End-of-week rant: Not everyone can wait for “success” to disclose a health condition

Very recently I saw a prominent writer and journalist tweeting about trying to get a diagnosis for a neurological condition often found under the same “umbrella” as dyspraxia.  My first thought was: “Cripes, here we go. She’ll be accused of doing this for attention;” the standard trolling line thrown at any well-known person who discloses anything personal. My next: “Well, isn’t she lucky she got to write about plenty of other things before she had to tell anyone about that…” 

That probably came off as more snarky than I want to sound. I have nothing against the writer at all. I really like her writing on some subjects, and I empathise with what she was tweeting about how her condition affects her (it’s not the same as dyspraxia but there are overlaps, especially around the effect on mental health). A neurological condition or mental illness doesn’t stop when you’re on top, as I well know having met a few prominent writers in the same “league” as her who live with various ones and struggle the same as anyone. And we all know that – tragically – “successful” people can take their own lives (some of whom in any case probably didn’t have quite the careers they portrayed…). “You can’t suffer from X because you’re rich/famous” is an ignorant and dangerous belief. But it’s also important to point out that not everyone with a health condition has had the chance to build a dream career before they have to tell others about it. For some, a full disclosure to Occupational Health is the only way they’ll ever hold down any job. Many more never disclose for fear of losing one.

I went public about my dyspraxia, not when I became a famous writer with millions of Twitter followers (you’ll notice…) but because of an experience in my first full-time job, which had been advertised as a writing job but was 95% admin, i.e not my best suit. Whilst I was hanging on in there, I contacted a firm who specialise in career coaching and workplace needs assessments for disabled and neurodiverse employees; mostly in government and big biz. The director said that under the circumstances I seemed “a very together lady” (I didn’t feel like one whatsoever, but was grateful). A year later, she asked me to speak about my experience of dyspraxia in the workplace at a conference in London she was giving to some managers of large organisations. From there, very gradually, came more speaking and writing gigs. Selflessly I did it because I wanted to help others not go through what I did. Selfishly I also needed money and experience, and after two years in a well-paid admin job it was the only way I could get paid to write. When I applied for staff jobs (the few that there were at the height of the recession) the response mostly amounted to: “Lol, no, you’re in what’s basically an admin job and you’ve hardly done any journalism for two years; get lost, love.” I think having a good education and training, plus work experience going back years followed by admin made me seem more suspicious somehow. My CV seemed to be asking: “Aye aye, what’s gone wrong here then?”

I tried to write out-of-hours as much as I could during my full-time job (often for free, even though I was 25 at the time and had been writing for audiences since my late teens). Unfortunately this had the unhelpful consequence of irritating my boss by strengthening his belief that I was in the wrong job and should leave and do what I was actually good at, rather than cocking up admin and threatening his Belsize Park mortgage application.

After I left the job, I wrote a piece for the Guardian about dyspraxia, and a few more for the national press. Consequently, I am “the lady who writes about dyspraxia. And sometimes mental health.” I’m very honoured to have been given this opportunity; to have family and friends who are by and large understanding and have supported me emotionally and financially through difficult times. It’s heart-warming to get an email from a stranger saying I’ve helped them or made them feel less alone (just the other day, a Westminster PA told me sincerely she thought she recognised dyspraxia in herself). I wouldn’t swap what it’s done for me for the world. I’ve met lovely, fascinating people everywhere from assembly halls to the House of Lords. Surreally there was even a thread about me on Mumsnet – a nice one. As I’ve said recently, in the light of events of the last few years, I specifically want to move my writing more directly into the mental health field.

But all this is not how I planned my life. I would rather have written about dyspraxia, or anxiety, or depression, after becoming a theatre critic, or a political correspondent, an education correspondent (one of the most interesting and life-changing things I’ve done in journalism is write for my uni’s alumni mag), or goodness-knows-what else I wanted to be ten years ago when I was 22. These days, if I apply for anything not disability or charity-related, I’m usually politely told something which translates as  “You write well but your experience doesn’t fit with our brand.” If someone wants an article about dyspraxia I can reasonably expect to be chosen to write it. If I pitch a general piece about – say –  relationships, consumer issues or careers; well, there are plenty of better-known writers who can do that. So, I can only move about within the quite small and cut-to-the-bone sector I’m in. I did manage to break the mould for a while back in 2011 (my freelancing glory days…) and do a bit more arts/generalist writing, but the shock of my friend’s suicide halfway through the year took me away from that. The only way I feel I’ll ever become more versatile now is by turning my media experiences into a book and trying to make it as darkly funny as my life will allow (Someone else agrees with me: I won an Arts Council/New Writing South/TLC bursary just before Christmas and am working on it now). Meanwhile, the trollumnists who occasionally like to bemoan people getting rich out of “the disability lobby” or “the social justice industry” might like to have a look at my bank statements from last year and see where I live.

Bottom line: Talking about conditions that affect me wasn’t something I did after I’d achieved enough in life to do it safely; it came from trying to do the best I could under limiting circumstances. Celebrities and public figures absolutely should raise awareness of neurodiversity and mental health, and it’s fantastic that they do. But we should remember that the less-famous sometimes talk about it because we have to as much as want to.

A Marathon-length blog post about running the London Marathon for Mind…

marathongps

My blog posts tend to be Marathon-length. For once, this one deserves to be…

I DID IT!!!! 

And here’s how it went…

PROLOGUE… 

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.

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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!

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My 95-year-old Grandma drew this “well done” card of Tower Bridge for me.

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…

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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…

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Brilliantly composed photo with the Eye in the background. Thanks Michelle and Andy!

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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.

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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.

Afterwards…

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…

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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…

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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.

“Tony.”

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…

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS… 

I haven’t sponsored you yet. Can I still?

YES YES YES YOU MOST DEFINITELY CAN. My fundraising page is still open, and will be for a month yet.

How are you feeling?

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…).
  • Chronic pain.
  • 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!
  • Looking for more work (copywriting and journalism) more specifically within the mental health field. I’ve had a couple of leads on this and have a small work project coming up in May. Please get in touch if you can help! It is much needed; I’ve been splurging on this Marathon as though it’s my wedding. Which it may be the nearest equivalent of…
  • Writing my new book.
  • Jumping out of a plane.
  • 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.

THANK YOU…

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.
  • My family. My mum’s advice to take up running saved me, almost literally. My extended family have rallied around me so touchingly while my parents have been abroad. I have never known them be prouder of anything I’ve done.
  • 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
  • Litsa Williams for this piece on disenfranchised grief. And Thom Dunn for this piece, 5 Lessons I Learned after 5 Friends Under 30 Died In 5 Years. Both have been helpful.
  • 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
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I’m not joking; this really does look nicer than my Durham degree certificate…
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“Though nothing, nothing will keep us together. We can be heroes; just for one day…”