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.”

Advertisements

“Don’t do everything I did…” Some advice for new freelancers.

Six years ago this week I became self-employed full-time for the first time. Going freelance was something I’d vaguely expected to be doing circa my 45th birthday or some mythical point in the future when I had some sort of handle on life. I was 26.5 years old, and trying to convince myself that I was making a positive, go-getting choice, even though it felt like a choice in the way one execution method over another would. The thing is, I’m good at writing, not very good at anything else (as I was emphatically told when I tried to do anything else), and, you might have noticed, there aren’t a lot of staff jobs around for writers. What else could I do?

My preparation for this adventure amounted to a couple of how-to books, a couple of lessons on pitching during my journalism training (four years earlier), and one two-hour workshop in Grays Inn Road run by a couple of experienced freelancers. Despite the ad-hoc muddling through, things were all tickedy-boo for a while. Work built up nicely. Within six months, I was edging towards my former staff salary and being able to support myself. I was beginning to feel a bit pleased with myself – dare I say smug. Then it all changed. By “changed”, I mean “pretty much effing fell apart.”  One of my best friends died suddenly and horribly, and part of me felt guilty for having flaunted my new-found contentment at him. It’s difficult to explain exactly why and how, and this isn’t the place. Suffice to say, there wasn’t a “Dealing With Complicated Freelancer Grief  Not Long After Redundancy” module at my journalism school. Nor was there a “Dealing With Repeat Grief When Another Friend Dies The Same Horrible Way Three Years Later” module. Some things, you just gotta wing…

In recent years I’ve started to get emails from strangers asking for my advice or “top tips” for going freelance. My biggest advice is to be very suspicious of anyone keen to offer you advice. It’s highly unlikely to be anything you haven’t already heard, or that will guarantee you success. Then I realised, the advice you need most is not how to guarantee success but how not to really mess up. And I’ve got plenty of that. So here we are:

  • Be sensible. The first few months of self-employment can feel a bit like being a giddy student again with your own money (acutely so in my case, as one of my writing subjects was higher education, and I wrote for my undergraduate university’s alumni magazine, among other places, from national newspapers to teen pop fan annuals…). But just because you can drink wine at three in the afternoon and call it a work meeting, doesn’t mean treating your job like a paid Freshers Week is a good idea.
  • Make a crisis plan Stable work can take the edge off the worst personal tragedy. Work instability can add to one enormously. Remember the D’s (Debt, Divorce, Death) and be prepared for situations that might mean a big drop in productivity or earnings. Obviously don’t start dividing up your wedding crockery or writing obits for all the family, but do some quiet mulling over. It’s not just events that can affect you in themselves, but getting back into work after time off. Taking time away from a business in the first year is like starting from scratch, and a safety net of savings can store up trouble for later. Beside the obvious lack of sick pay, holiday pay or compassionate leave, something else incredibly important, and not widely known is that it can be much harder for self-employed people to get financial help from the state if work dries up. To be entitled to Job Seekers Allowance (a.k.a “the dole”), you have to be able to show that you’ve stopped working, and that this is for reasons beyond your control (i.e, due to market conditions, not that you’ve just packed it in one day because you’re bored). If you’re self-employed this can be much harder to prove, and given the dystopian lottery of the system in any case, don’t count on it.
  • Make a spreadsheet If numbers aren’t your friend (*cough*), get someone numerate to set it up for you. It doesn’t have to be fancy; it does have to make sense to you. Keep a separate sheet within the same document for a budget.  Work out a minimum disposable income by subtracting your essentials from your most reliable source of income. If you’re single, until you’re on more than about 40-50K, you probably don’t need an accountant. If you’re married and want to stay married, you probably do.
  • Manage your expectations about what “contacts” can do for you  If you’ve ever spent time with jobbing actors, you may’ve noticed they seem to hang around with all sorts of fancy-pants people but it rarely seems to help their career much. If you’re self-employed, especially in a competitive field, you’ll constantly hear “It’s who you know.” and about how “So-and-so got a job from a tweet”. Reality’s a bit more complicated than that. It could take months or years, if at all, for a new contact to win you work. Yes, a “gissa job” tweet or blog post could turn into one of those “How-I-Got-My-Dream-Job” magazine features. But it’s much more likely to win you a small project worth a few hundred pounds that takes months from first contact to payment. Even if you meet someone really “successful” or famous, unless they’re in a direct hiring position it’s unlikely they’ll be able to help you quickly. They’re also difficult people to build lasting relationships with as they’re so busy and so inundated with communications. It’s best to think of big-hitters in your address book as a boost to your confidence rather than your bank account.
  • Get used to a new relationship with time It’s extremely difficult to work to a specific time when there’s no-one there to care. It just is. You’ll probably never manage to be at your desk at 9:30 sharp. Rather than get locked into a miserable battle with yourself, accept it and be flexible and realistic. Instead of setting a specific time to start or finish work, set a window, e.g “Between 9:15 and 9:30”. and you’re more likely to stick to it. (N.B: This advice only applies to working on your own, not to things involving others. Respect other people’s time and deadlines if you want a) work b) to be liked in general). 
  • Don’t meet people at stilted “networking events”. Just meet people I’ve never been attracted to anyone on anything called a date, or met anyone useful to my work at anything called a networking evening (At one I went to, I met an unemployed male graduate posing as a Woman’s Hour producer. I sensed something was up when he hadn’t heard of the Wonder Stuff, which a BBC radio producer really should have…). Go to a couple of those things at the beginning, so you can tell everyone who suggests it that you’ve done it. Then just go to what moves you and meet people while you’re there. Conferences, talks, panels, workshops, museums, theatres all have interesting people in them. Books about networking I keep meaning to read and haven’t but that perhaps you should: Networking for People Who Hate Networking: A Field Guide for Introverts, the Overwhelmed, and the Underconnected by Devora Zack and Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain.
  • Do your due diligence Sadly, people you meet in business situations aren’t necessarily any more trustworthy than random people you meet anywhere else. When you’re self-employed, you need to think like a journalist, even if you aren’t one. It’s not creepy, it’s sensible. Being taken in by someone can cost you time, dignity and work. Public records are public – use them. Look people up and be prepared for awkward discoveries. Do basic fact checks and background checks before you share things online. Before you follow or meet new people online, do a basic sweep of their recent activity and who else they follow on social media (Despite thinking I’d learned these sorts of lessons embarrassingly a long time ago, I nearly got into some bother again just the other week…)
  • Know your “Night Twitter” if you’re working late… #JustSaying  Everything you were warned about late nights at the office applies to Twitter. As does everything you’ve ever been told about talking to strangers in pubs and on public transport. Social media after 10pm is like London after 10pm: it contains a lot of people whose relationships and emotional health are precarious. Very precarious, if they’re retweeting from those inspirational quote accounts run by spammers in Honalulu. (Incidentally, a good general life tip: if someone quotes: “Don’t promise when you’re happy or decide when you’re sad,” expect them to do both…)
  • Yes, talking to yourself when you’re alone is normal, don’t worry An old colleague of mine who’s recently left her job posted a Facebook status asking this question and the responses are the largest thread of solidarity and reassurance I’ve ever seen…
  • Yes, you will get past “That Stage” soon, don’t worry… Ahh yes, Mitchell and Webb’s “working from home” sketch* – referenced with a wink by many a tipsy freelancer. (*Polite warning: Not suitable for kids, workplaces, or people who aren’t on rude-jokes terms with me. Hi mum, go away…)
  • When you’re asking for free advice, know where acceptable ends and taking the mick begins Be brief and specific; ask politely; don’t ask people who can only tell you what you know already. And only ask people whose advice you’re actually interested in – if you’re just sticking a pin in Google, it shows.
  • If you pay for a mentor or coach, make sure they’re actually going to be any use  You can take general advice from anyone at all (hi…!) but you should only pay for advice about making money from someone who has it. I once used money from my savings to pay for someone so expensive and so useless I felt I’d been pickpocketed. Before you hand over a bean, you should know these things…:
  1. Have they actually worked in your field or something close enough? (In this decade…)
  2. Do they earn enough from it to support themselves on their own full-time? (if that’s your aim). If not, what portion of their income do they make from it, and where does the rest of their money come from? Have they made more money from giving advice than actually doing the job? What help from family, a partner, savings, investors, loans or bursaries have they had? You don’t need a half-hour accounts presentation, but you do need some basic honesty about this.
  3. Are they just going to tell you things you can read for free on the internet?
  4. Are they just going to tell you what you already know from university/training?
  5. If they’re passing on contacts, how sure are they that these people can actually help you, or are they really just doing it to fill time/cheer you up?
  6. If you have a disability or health condition, do they understand anything about it and what it means for your work?
  • Remember, remember, remember, that “success” is never the whole story  Self-employment is often a giant smoke and mirrors game and the people who you think are “successful” are probably hiding a lot. Nobody heavily in debt, living off loans or living off somebody else is ever going tell you that.
  • Be prepared to become a lot more cynical. And a lot more excitable. Sometimes at the same time “You see the best and worst of human nature” is a true cliche of many jobs. I was never a rose-tinted specs woman. I am now so cynical Halfords could bottle me and sell me as battery acid. But, I am also capable of finding joy in tiny things like pepper mills and parmesan cheese dispensers. (Which, for a writer, is a pretty useful skill. You’re lucky if you get paid to write about something a lot of people find exciting…)

Phew, that was a long post. But come on. It’s January. We’re both waiting on inboxes to ping here; you probably needed the distraction didn’t you…

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.

mumpic

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!

IMG_3859 (2)
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…

charispic

charispic2

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…

25mile_2
Brilliantly composed photo with the Eye in the background. Thanks Michelle and Andy!

25mile

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.

mhm

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…

maxdad

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…

IMG_3858

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 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

Are you looking for a writer or social media person interested in mental health? Read on…

Hello, friends and internet strangers. I know I’ve been asking rather a lot of you all lately, what with my Marathon fundraising and all the banging on about running and power-ballads. But I’d be honoured if you could read and possibly help with the following….

After much soul-searching about my life’s future direction over the past year-and-a-bit I have decided I’d like to use my copywriting, journalism and/or social media skills more directly in a mental health setting. Over the last ten years I’ve written about everything from social policy to couture latex (a story best served with wine). But I believe I do my best for others when I bring lived experience as well as skills to my work. Mental health, always a subject close to my heart, has grown ever-closer to it in recent years. This idea has come to me like the person you end up marrying after you’ve been friends for years and you realise it’s been staring you in the face all the time (I don’t know why I picked that analogy, I’m more likely to climb a mountain with the England football team in the near future than get married, but anyway….).

I wanted to announce this here first, rather than scattergunning mental health organisations with standard begging letters, or trying to shoehorn my freelance portfolio into application forms asking for “At least three years’ experience in a similar role, preferably within a similar organisation,” because it’s easier to show what I can do outside those boundaries. I feel that looking for advertised jobs or tenders with large, branded firms or mental health charities – wonderful as they are – isn’t the only way, or necessarily the best way, to find work. The best evidence that I use words and social media is not on my CV or in speculative emails or “competency frameworks” but here in front of you, and in my published writing, over at my work website. And at @shakeandcrawl and @MaxineFrances), in my 35,000+ tweets since 2011 – plenty are about TV or cute animals, but plenty are about mental health. Sometimes both.

There’s no hiding that the path to here hasn’t been easy or pleasant. Bluntly, a lot of my adult life reads like an answer to the interview question: “Tell us about a time you overcame something difficult.” At 21, during my second undergraduate year, I was identified as dyspraxic. After graduating, I trained as a magazine journalist at Cardiff, and applied for lots of big-brand jobs I nearly-but-not-quite got. I stayed in a largely-admin-based graduate job that wasn’t a great fit for as long as I could, then used the experience to train businesses in supporting people with dyspraxia, alongside writing features for various national papers and magazines. I’ve given dyspraxia talks and training everywhere from youth clubs to boardrooms, and am a trustee of The Dyspraxia Foundation. The anxiety and depression that’s affected me throughout my life is largely because of my dyspraxia being unrecognised for so long, and is pretty manageable by playing to my strengths as far as possible.

My own experiences first got me engaged with mental health. I started blogging about it as a student, in amongst my musings on theatre, politics, boys, girls and other studenty concerns of the day. But seeing friends struggle with depression – and some, very tragically, lose that struggle – has turned me from an armchair advocate into an active one. Five years ago, one of my dearest friends took his own life. It was just six months into my full-time freelancing career, and my burgeoning business struggled to recover. When a second friend did the same at the end of 2014 and it triggered another mental health dip I couldn’t figuratively or literally afford, I took up running and started fundraising for mental health. I also set up a small dedicated mental health blog to smooth those difficult few months, including a widely-shared post on how to talk to someone dealing with suicide. I’ve run, vlogged, guest-blogged and blogged some more. By the end of April, I will have run the London Marathon and raised over £2,000 for Mind. 

There may be people I know reading this and wondering whether it’s such a good idea. Whether that by taking my work in this direction, I’m letting myself be defined by my mental health – or by other people’s – when I should just try to brick it all up and forget about it. But you can’t stop feelings by trying to ignore them, any more than you can fix a leaking roof by trying to ignore rain. I can’t help what I feel. I can help what I do with it, and whether I let it tear me up or make the best use of it by supporting others: especially those who live with mental health problems without the benefit of a supportive family, a marketable skill, or having the Arts Council read their writing.

What exactly happens next obviously depends who I can connect with. I’m looking at either returning to a salaried job or staying self-employed but working with a small number of rolling clients rather than the mostly one-off, word-of-mouth writing and proofreading jobs I do now. My ultimate wish (which is about as likely as a lottery win) would be doing regular journalism again, including but not necessarily limited to mental health writing. Outside traditional journalism, the most obvious organisations I’d fit into are seemingly charities/CICs, or communications agencies with a lot of mental health clients (for copywriting in particular, most big organisations employ agencies rather than a single person in-house). I once turned down an interview for a staff job with an agency because I wasn’t clear on what it involved, and at the time I didn’t feel able to ask the right questions in the right way. Five years on – despite some very difficult times – I’m more confident, experienced and open. I look forward to whatever that may bring. I’ve had a five years a Lib Dem press officer wouldn’t envy. But, like him, I can make a good blog post out of a bad situation.

A few other details….

  • I don’t have the means to retrain as an anything (and it’s highly unlikely anyone will fund me to do it as I’m over 30 and have a postgraduate qualification already), so please bear that in mind if making any suggestions. I think I might like to do a counselling training one day if I have money and time, but not right now. Ditto volunteering. I’m looking into doing a bit with a particular organisation, but I can’t apply until the end of the year, as they have a rule for volunteers who’ve known people die by suicide that they won’t take you until at least two years since the most recent. I can understand why, and I’m sure many related organisations have something similar.
  • This isn’t just about guilt over the deaths of friends. I have felt that, of course, as anyone does on some level when someone they know takes their lives. But it’s not the defining factor. There’s a paint chart of feelings involved in situations like these, and public words are only the half of it. Reducing it to just guilt is too crass.
  • Words and I were made for each other; Numbers and I don’t and never will get on. The careers lady at school told me I wouldn’t get into a good university because of my Maths GCSE. I got into eight of them (and, somehow, scored a high 2:1 in a compulsory stats module…), but work involving Maths and spreadsheets is generally best avoided. Much the same goes for high-level admin although this depends on the situation  – I’m happy to discuss in more detail if you want to.
  • I’m based in South Bucks, just outside London, at the moment but will consider relocating, including internationally, if the opportunity’s there. What I do is more important than where.

If you think you can help in any way (whether it’s with a specific opportunity or advice on where best to find them), please comment below or email me. If you think there might be someone in your circle who could help, even if it’s a really long shot, please pass this along; I’d be very happy to hear from them. Thank you. 

Max’s Marathon WEEKS 7 & 8: Whoaah, we’re halfway there…*

(* Yes, those are the immortal words of Mr Jon Bon Jovi, which were playing in my vicinity ten years ago on the evening I found out my undergraduate degree result a day early by voicemail. It’s a long story…)

I am now over halfway through my training for the London Bloody Marathon. To accompany this milestone, I’ve made a video, which took so bloody long to upload it felt practically as arduous…

For those who are reading this squashed like a swatted fly against a train door and can’t watch the video, it’s basically a bit of My Story and a giant SPONSOR ME plea. SPONSOR ME.

Sooo….lalala, Weeks 7 and 8…

At the end of last week, Week 7, I was chin-scratching a bit about my progress. According to my training plan I was supposed to have done 10-12 miles on my longest run and I wasn’t even getting up to the lower end of that. Working from home can be more draining than you could ever believe. Some days this year I’ve felt as tired as I did when I got up at 6 every day and had arthritic pensioners on the Central Line offering me their seats. (How anyone with a huge commute ever manages to run a Marathon I can’t even begin to imagine…).   I was in Devon all last weekend with extended family for my aunt’s 70th (which was nice), leaving no time for my long run, so I had to do it early on the Friday morning instead (which wasn’t). My longest runs involve about half a mile of semi-rural road with no pavement – fine at the weekend, not so much on a Friday morning when every Hugo and Harry in Bucks is on them driving up to London from 4am onwards. Starting too slowly meant I’d barely managed 5K before getting to the point (usually 6-7K) where I had to slow down for traffic. I spent a solid five to ten minutes being forced into a plod by Volvos and brambles. I desperately glugged some Lucozade at 10K but I was pretty sure this was the slowest I’d ever run. “Start-slow-and-finish-fast” is all very well but “start-so-slow-you-might-as-well-not-have-bothered-until-10K” is pretty demoralising.

I chivvied myself that it was better to be running slowly at this point in training than injured or exhausted and that nigh-on erotic fantasies about going to bed at 9pm are just a sign I’m in my 30s and nothing else. Martin Yelling‘s Lunchtime Q&A comforted me. What matters is time on your feet, and a shonky run is invariably followed by a better one. Sure enough, my weekday runs in week 8 were pleasant. So far, contrary to worst fears, I’ve managed the interval runs (the ones where you vary the pace) without falling flat on my face, and even actually enjoyed them (for the first 5 reps out of 10, anyway….). Despite my dyspraxic shodditude at most sports at school. I was noted to be a fairly decent short-distance runner at one point – it’s nice to be reminded I can run fast for short bursts and not die.

For this fortnight’s shop (thank you Ocado, you lifesaver) I ordered a packet of a high-protein breakfast cereal from the makers of Weetabix. I was drawn in by the words “high protein” and didn’t see that they look like dog treats. Thankfully, they taste much nicer…

On Saturday morning I went to Time To Talk at St Martin-in-the-Fields church, an annual service of reflection for those affected by suicide, featuring readings, music and personal testimonies. I went to the inaugural event at the same time last year, still pretty raw from November 2014. I was there this time partly for obvious personal reasons and partly for less-obvious professional ones, of which, more another time. As arranged, I sat with M. from Grassroots, a Brighton-based suicide prevention training organisation. I met M. at last year’s event, during the post-service drinks reception in the crypt, where she very kindly rescued me when I was standing around on my own with no-one to talk to. We joked about it being our yearly meetup, and kept a lookout for anyone on their own who looked as though they needed someone. Do unto others, etc. I won’t say too much about it here because, considering it was yesterday, and I ran for two hours this morning (see below) , I’m pretty whacked. But you can read the guest blog I wrote for Grassroots after last year. The format was pretty similar this time apart from a couple of different speakers (Angela Samata who presented BBC1’s Life After Suicide, and Jonny Benjamin of the Find Mike campaign were there this year). As I had hoped, on a personal level, this year’s was slightly less harrowing. There were Moments, of course. There always are. Again, now is not the time…

Sunday’s long run was oh-so-much-better – no, unimaginably better – than last week’s. Thinking back to my half-Marathon training, I realised I needed to take energy drinks/gels slightly earlier on in the long runs so that my legs don’t go to sleep 30 seconds in and take an hour to wake up again. So, off I trotted with Lucozade and a Shot Blok (I’m alternating Shot Bloks and SIS gels the lovely @DuchessOChutney gave me for Christmas, which I keep calling “ISIS gels”…). Before I’d even taken either of them I realised that for some reason I was running faster than I had in a long time. And it was slightly killing me but somehow I didn’t want to stop. I ran my fastest 10K since last summer, even faster than I did it in the Half. Just after the exact 10K mark, having belted down the hills into Beaconsfield to Abba’s Eagle, now realising that – shit the bed – I had to run back up them home again, I stopped, still at the bottom of a hill, and cried out breathlessly “My God woman what have you done??!!”. Then I laughed because that sounds like what a man around there might breathlessly cry out to his secretary. (Maybe not on a Sunday morning unless he’s a real rat…).

I speed-walked the hills – you can’t not – but I’d run fast enough elsewhere for it not to dent my time too much. Ellie Goulding’s Army came on during one of the worst hilly segments. As usual,  I welled at “No-one fucks it up like us” and the big waily chorus “When I’m with you I’m standing with an army…”. I managed High Wycombe to Beaconsfield and back in 2 hours. Which, considering the hills, is pretty shiny. I came back not entirely sure I still had legs and a mite concerned about having to run that distance twice in two months’ time. But overall, dead pleased with myself and muchly reassured. An hour later I was looking at my training plan and realised, as it was written by a man, those mad distance targets on it were probably meant for blokes. OH MAXINE.

Next time I write this it will be MARCH. For anyone who went a couple of weeks ago or is considering going, I’m hoping to make it to the next Mental Health Mates on the 6th. Please come, it’s lovely!

I have a work-oriented mental-health related post to write, which I keep meaning to and not doing. But I will this week. Really…

Max’s Marathon WEEK 6: Old mates, new mates, mental health mates…

There wasn’t supposed to be a Marathon blog this weekend because I was supposed to be writing something for Mind Tank (I still am…). But it’s been a good week, and I’ve been especially fired up today by – GASP –  talking to strangers unpaid. So here’s a thousand-word blog about Nice Things Happening…

Week 6 began with a whimper and then a bang: I came back from a so-so run saved by Bryan Adams’s infidelity (yes, it was THAT so-so…) to a rather lovely Facebook message from a primary school friend who’s now a firefighter and most recently, a dad. He sponsored me the other week, and he’d written to me to tell me he hadn’t run himself since June, and that reading my blog had inspired him to get out again. The message was accompanied by sun-dappled photos of his running route and of him in trainers. Yes, apparently a man who pulls people out of burning buildings for a living and has a newborn baby feels inspired by a woman who trips over her own feet and worries about flea-treating a cat… Who knew that a couple of your mates killing themselves could reconnect you with so many old ones in such a touching way?

I ended the week by going to the first Mental Health Mates, a London social organised by Daily Telegraph columnist and writer Bryony Gordon, for people interested in mental health to meet for a coffee and a jog in the park (because I’ve become a person who runs 8-10 miles on a windy, rainy Saturday and then gets up on Sunday to jog…). I wasn’t sure what to expect but was fairly sure it seemed a better way to spend February The Fucking 14th than I’ve ever had the option of before (Fun fact!! I was dumped just before Valentines Day in my Dissertation term, and ghosted in early Feb three years ago by my last boyfriend…).

The only souvenir I have of my last relationship: a photo of a 90s Guardian mug. Yes, really, I can't even find a picture of him...
The only souvenir I have of my last relationship: a photo of a 90s Guardian mug. (Yes, really, I can’t even find a picture of him…)

I went in with the idea that I’d be content to manage an articulate sentence, and came away with the feeling I’d made one of my best decisions since taking up running. You know those days when everything just seems to work…? Despite not-enough-sleep I left on time, remembering pretty much everything I’d intended to bring apart from gloves. Google Maps got me to the right side of Hyde Park and back again, and London was particularly quaint (if you’ve ever been fortunate enough to see London when it’s virtually empty you’ll know how much more of it you notice). I’m reluctant to say too much else because Bryony rightly promised everyone that everything was off-record and not column material, and I still have more feelings than I can put into words, despite the thousands of them I’ve written on this subject. But, I had a fantastic time with a fantastic group of (mostly) women. Among them was a very talented writer who was arts editor of the student website at university in my first year and now writes great pieces for national papers on mental health and other subjects. Technically we knew each other but she was a much more prolific joiner-of-things than I was and other than the odd virtual nod we hadn’t spoken in twelve years. She ran the London Marathon for Mind a couple of years ago AND is a fan of Twitter and The Archers (which is basically me, with a husband and stable employment…). We started jogging together in the interests of not freezing to death in our very proper running gear designed for, well, that. We ended up jogging-whilst-chatting until I had no idea where I was going or where any of the others were (we found them…). It was the furthest she’d run in a year and the first time I’d ever run and attempted a conversation at the same time. We were very proud of ourselves, even managing a high-five (I haven’t high-fived anyone since the half Marathon. My usual feelings on the matter can be likened to a jellyfish trying to dance).

Yes, this is London
Yes, this is a London street…

 

London, you beauty
I have to run 18-20 miles around here on my own in March. I am extremely likely to get extremely lost. Oh well, it’s pretty…

On a completely different but still me-being-gushy-and-reflective note: There’s been a bit of bother on the Mind Marathoners Facebook group recently. This week someone left the group, upset at being made to feel rubbish by the glut of more experienced runners posting triumphant selfies of their 15-milers or despondent whines about “only” running an 11-minute mile. I’ve felt twinges of this at times when skimming the posts there and have had to remind myself balls-to-all-that. The best thing about doing the London 10K and the Oxford half last year, despite the unimaginably bloody awful events that triggered it was how personal it felt and the utter lack of self-doubt I had around it. I did it entirely for myself and my two late friends, without giving a monkeys about anything or looking over my shoulder to see what anyone else was doing. As someone who spent my youth unhealthily obsessed with the notion that other women were more capable than me (FFS,  I chose my university on the recommendation of a soap actress I interviewed for a piece when I was 18…) deciding to run was one of the most refreshing, liberating experiences of my life just for that. I still have the dregs of that unhealthy, misery-inducing competitiveness and envy. As an act of self-care I have to be aware of the sort of people or situations which exacerbate it and do my best to tape it. Like someone who knows their relationship with booze can be a bit on the problematic side, it’s about knowing when to – proverbially – put down that drink or not have any more; only, my equivalent of a double vodka is a woman who’s better-looking/richer/less awkward and clumsy than me and doesn’t realise that her existence is a reminder to me of Why I’m Rubbish, or that if she doesn’t come for coffee with me, my brain will tell me it’s Because I’m Awful….). ANYWAY. MY POINT ISTo anyone doing the Marathon for a mental health charity, know that I think you’re absolutely bloody wonderful whether you run it in two hours or ten. And to those who can’t – as in physically can’t – run, anything else you do in support of mental health is wonderful too. 

I will now stop gushing and eat this, because, Happy Valentine’s Day to me from me.

[Insert usual friendly prod if you’d like to sponsor me].

IMG_3619