Writing retreat week! (Book Edits: 1, Anxiety: 0)

I’ve just spent a very marvellous three and a half-days at the Devon writers retreat Retreats For You – courtesy of my very kind grandma – to help me crack on with book edits. I’d been there twice before but not very recently and perhaps my biggest achievement of the week was getting there at all. For the last three years I’ve suffered from especially debilitating anxiety attacks that are especially brought on by travelling. The retreat was originally offered to me as a birthday present for 2015 but travelling alone, writing books, or spending a week with a group of strangers in the middle of nowhere were all very much off the menu then. Long-term therapy has been helping with the why’s. Thankfully necessity won over anxiety – I have an Arts Council mentoring bursary and a deadline for using it. I’ve been sludging through edits over the summer and knew going away was a matter of now or never.

Retreats For You has also had a tough couple of years and is now under new management after the original owner Deborah D.’s husband died suddenly in early 2016. I was on a train back from a long run when I heard the terrible news shortly afterwards. A crowdfunder was immediately set up by writer and regular guest Angela Clarke (I blogged about it at the time, she wrote about it for City newspaper The Wharf). Like many returning guests I assumed Deborah would close shop. However, she decided to find a buyer so it could continue, and it was taken over at the end of last year, by another Deb, Deb Flint.

I’ll admit I was cautious about the idea of going back at first, not knowing whether it would be The Same without the Deborah and Bob I knew and liked. But much is still the same, and the few changes suited me well. New Deb has kept the twee and cosy spirit of the place, with a bit more of a help-yourself vibe to it. Rather than it being her family home she lives in London half the week so guests get two or three days with her to settle in and one or two days left to their own devices. Everything began in my favour: Avoiding all the train mess at Waterloo by getting on at Basingstoke, then travelling through beautiful rolling hills in heatwave sunshine with National Express by the Divine Comedy in my ears. There were five other guests when I arrived, which is as busy as it gets, plus two resident chubby and docile Labradors, Daisy and Gracie. I had the downstairs room which used to be a TV room and still has a TV, with the neighbouring bathroom virtually to myself. I can live with a single bed when it’s so comfortable. There’s also wifi throughout the house but treat it as a normal working week and you shouldn’t get too distracted; it also helps with anxiety to know I’m contactable if need be. Bob’s former workshop has been converted into a studio for extra writing space. I couldn’t use it because my laptop needs a plug to run but there’s also a huge TV and exercise machines, should you be so inclined. Deb’s helpers Linda and Wendy come in three times a day to do all the cooking and do a great job with everyone’s dietary needs whilst playing vintage music and arguing with the Alexa in the kitchen. There’s a ready supply of tea, coffee, snacks and homemade bread so delicious it’s worth the gastric consequences. Deb has cutely labelled cupboards, walls and containers with magic marker so things are easy to find, and you don’t have to spend most of your week saying: “Sorry, where’s the…?”‘Wine o clock’ is daily at six (and it is the only place in the world where the phrase ‘wine o’clock’ is acceptable to me). There are often tutors in residence for writers to get feedback and mentoring if they want it. The tutor for my week was Jayne Watson (from my hometown! I always meet someone from my hometown when I go anywhere!) I’m already getting feedback from somewhere else through my bursary so I didn’t see the need to pay extra, but from what I overheard the sessions were helpful and those who had them seemed to think so. Jayne was also lovely and told a funny story at dinner about getting pissed with a prominent Old Labour irritant…

I resolved that unlike in the past I wasn’t going to talk much to anyone about what I was writing and instead I’d adopt the Monty Python approach (“Get on with it.”). Generally fellow writers respect this and are similarly modest about their own work. I held my resolve, keeping my mouth shut and my head down. Despite Enya, lavender balm and a good sleep routine, by Day 2 I was knackered and being propped up with matches at the dinner table “You look shattered. You’re suffering, aren’t you girl?” said Jayne as I sat opposite her with my head spinning after one glass of white. I also had neck strain – my laptop stand which protects me from RSI was too bulky to bring on the train. I improvised an ice pack thanks to guest Joceyln – who was into her third week – and propped my laptop up on some big books. The neck strain receded and Day 3 was both productive and pain-free. Deb treated us to a dinner rendition of Cheek to Cheek in preparation for her daughter’s wedding. Someone spotted a Dionne Warwick CD in the hall so we put it on and all sang Do You Know The Way To San Jose. I arrived a quarter of the way into edits and by the end of Day 3 I was just over halfway through. As a last-night treat for reaching my target, me and a couple of the other writers had a movie night and watched Whip It with Drew Barrymore and Ellen Page which was funny and silly and very American. Unlike the finale of Trust Me which we’d watched on Tuesday –  strewth! I chatted to writer Penny who has a blog called Great Things About Cancer, which is candid and funny with no cheesy motivational quotes Photoshopped onto sunsets – big win.

Early on Friday before I left I went for a gorgeous run in the early morning sun out to the nearby village of Totleigh, where the Arvon Foundation have a retreat. I missed the sign for the Arvon house itself and the route was much hillier than I remembered from walking it three years earlier. Thus a 5K run ended up being 8K run-walk but I’d allowed the time for it and who minds getting lost in a big bucket of fresh air and twee? My playlist featured Come Up and See Me Make Me Smile, Lorde’s Green Light, Don’t Give Up by Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel (one of my London Marathon anthems), the theme song from St Elmo’s Fire and the Todd Terry remix of Missing by Everything But The Girl (how this has only just made it onto my running playlist I do not know). The downstairs shower I was using throughout the week had no water pressure so I couldn’t rinse my hair very well and by day 3 it looked like straw. But after I came back from running everyone else had finished in the upstairs bathroom so I went in there and had the best shower and hair-wash of my entire life, with high pressured soft water. Deb’s a presenter for a shopping channel so she gets lots of divine hair and beauty freebies and puts them in the bathroom for guests to use. I emerged with swishy shampoo advert hair and smelling like an all-over Boots counter. There’s also a superb massage chair in the living room, which I availed myself of while waiting for the taxi. Apparently my voice was deeper when I’d finished. Ooh-err.

As in previous years, I was the youngest guest by quite a long way. As in, the next-youngest was 48, and most were old enough to have me as a daughter. But I held my own, and left with a feeling Retreats For You had grown with me. When I first visited seven years ago I had little more than a big set of drafted scenes and fragmented notes for a novel. I was not far over 25, financially stable but in every other respect a kid: a little unsure of myself and in need of mothering, which Deborah The First, being a mum of three twentysomethings, was more than happy to do. On my second visit in 2013 I had half a novel but ended up abandoning it a year later at 60,000 words. I arrived this time as a 33-year-old with a completed 90,000-word draft and a gritty determination to Get Shit Done. And I did. And it was lovely.

From the kitchen. A rare motivational quote I can get behind…

 

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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.

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

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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
marathon_certificatie_mini
I’m not joking; this really does look nicer than my Durham degree certificate…
heroes
“Though nothing, nothing will keep us together. We can be heroes; just for one day…”

Max’s Marathon: IT’S HERE!!! The LAST pre-race blog…

Dedication wall at the Expo
Dedication wall at the Expo. The two T’s were my friends. Rico my cousin, who also took his own life in 2010.

So, my plans for race week didn’t quite involve spending Tuesday and Wednesday in bed nursing the worst cold I’ve had in a couple of years, and going to the Expo to pick up my running number on three hours’ sleep because I was up all night coughing. Then again, my plans for adult life didn’t really involve living back at home at this ridiculous age, relying on cat-sitting to bump up my money, or being knocked off my feet by men in entirely the wrong circumstances. Or, knowing two friends take their own lives in less than four years, taking up running in a desperate attempt to contain my own mental rubbishness afterwards, and then running the London Marathon. Funny old thing, life.

Of course I knew about distance running making you more vulnerable to colds, of course I studiously took preventative Vitamin C, and of course, I bloody went and got one anyway. Despite my very great wish it hasn’t quite buggered off yet. Thankfully, I’m long over the worst. The aching bones, the shivers and the streaming had gone by Wednesday; all I’m left with is a chesty cough and slightly croaky throat. Less acutely horrible, more of a persistent, nagging discomfort that you know could spill over into something worse if you don’t watch it. In fact, much like the low-level anxiety and depression I’ve had for all my adult life, barring the very worst episodes when I was younger which very nearly prevented me going to university, and staying there…

I had been planning, amid an arm-length to-do list, to write my one last pre-race blog earlier this week. It was going to be about how, in this week five years ago (remember Spring 2011? The heatwave? The Royal Wedding?) I was the happiest I’ve ever been as an adult, and how I last saw two friends I knew separately alive in the same week, and how all that hope and happiness was blown out of the water when the first of them took his own life just two months later. Needless to say, the lurgy has set my writing back a bit. Amid all the things I actually needed to do (cook, shop, plan work meetings for May, get my parents’ house ready for their return after their four month round-the-world trip), I haven’t had time. Perhaps being so focused on kicking my cold and getting what little work and admin I could done around it was my body’s way of saving me from myself, and distracting me from the emotional intensity of it all. Or, my body’s way of telling me that I’m nearly 32 years old and not some bloody student who has the time to sit around writing about my Big Feelings and making music playlists. (At least, not unpaid. I’ll save all that for my book instead. Of which, more anon…). 

At the Expo photo booth. Not bad for 3-4 hours' sleep...
At the Expo photo booth. Not bad for 3-4 hours’ sleep…

I will say this until the cows come home: I’m genuinely stunned in the most wonderful way by the love and support so many people have shown me during my Marathon training, and ever since I started training for my first 10K last year: from family and old friends, to new ones who’ve known me barely a couple of months. In the nearly ten years of my youth I spent doing free PR for someone who barely gave a fig about me, I didn’t allow myself to realise how kind people who actually do could actually be. If you’d told me eighteen months ago that so many people would be so wonderful, I’d have thought you were madder than me.

And on that note: Depression is limiting enough. I’m buggered if the dying gasps of a cold are going to stop me running my best tomorrow.

I’m £50 away from raising £2,000 for Mind and you’ve still got a month left to sponsor me if you want to. Please do!

Of course, I’ll be back here after it’s all over to tell you how I got on. Until then…

Made by the Mental Health Mates.
Thanks to lovely Polly at #mentalhealthmates for the banner. And to the brilliant Bryony Gordon for starting such a wonderful group, and organising everyone to come and cheer me on. You have all brought much light into my life this year!

Max’s Marathon: A WEEK TO GO!! THANK YOU ALL!!

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 TwitterversaryOh, 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.

THANK YOU AND LOTS OF LOVE. 

Max’s Marathon Week 14: TWO WEEKS TO GO! More fundraising, more loveliness, more food…

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.

On Sunday morning I was tired from being out for dinner and the cats were being pains in the bum so running didn’t happen until after 10, and breakfast was lunch. But Penn was lovely and twee in the spring sunshine and I had Lady Grey by the Mystery Jets twice at the top of the same hill.

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… 

2015-02-10 13.39.36

Max’s Marathon WEEK 13: Last long run! Happy fundraising! High drama!

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)

Dunelm Magazine
Dunelm Magazine – click several times for bigger
  • 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.

  • Stupid dreams

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!).