Chest, rest

I fell ill. It began in Stockholm. I had a sore throat and a dry, tickling cough. I remember thinking, oh no, no, no. Not this week. Not with the Great North Run on Sunday. On the last run I did, I had to stop and cough a lot, but I was hoping that it didn’t get worse. By “worse,” I mean that it didn’t go down into my chest. The runner’s rule: anything above the neck, you can probably run. Anything below it, don’t. Or, chest equals rest.

On the Friday before the Great North Run on Sunday, I felt OK. I decided to do Parkrun on Saturday as I’d missed a run and wanted to work my legs. I cycled over to Roundhay with my running club-mate Andrew, and I set off with no intentions of being fast. In fact I was a minute faster than I have been for a while, which when you’re running for under half-an-hour, is more significant than it sounds. I don’t do Parkruns very often. I love them, I really do, but I’ve just had other running priorities. And much as I love their inclusiveness and encouragement of all runners of any ability, I do find the wearing of 50 and 100 t-shirts and Parkrun-totting-up to be a bit odd. Or at least, not something I must aspire to, as I’ve only done 11 in three years and I don’t think there’s a t-shirt for that.

After the run, as we gathered at the bandstand, I began to cough. Oh dear. And it was a different cough. This was not tickly and in my throat, but sending stuff up from my lungs. My cough had become what chemists and manufacturers of cough syrup call “productive.” I got home, delivered a marrow to the allotment association show, then lay on my bed and worried. I felt unwell, but how unwell? Was I bad enough not to run? But I had raised sponsorship for the run for WaterAid. I was supposed to be running with my mate Elliot. He was expecting me in Newcastle. I packed my things and set off up north. First though, I called at the designer outlet in York which I stupidly thought was on the way, as I always forget that to get to York from the A1 you have to go sideways. At the outlet, I felt worse and worse. My head began to pound. I was coughing. I phoned Elliot and he said, are you sure you want to run? I wasn’t. I set off in the car, intending to drive to Newcastle and then if necessary, cheer people on if I was too unwell. But then realised I had to take the road heading towards Leeds to get back on the A1 to got north, and it was raining, and I felt crap, and I just kept driving until I got home. I phoned Elliot, I went to bed, and I was sick for a week. I watched the Great North Run on TV, and thought Mo Farah’s victory was pretty suspicious, when it seemed clear that Kigen could have even only slightly kicked and trounced Mo. But I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t want to run. That’s how I knew I was ill. The thought of running even a mile horrified me.

That’s not like me.

I was unwell for a week. I went through bottles of cough syrup and packets of paracetamol. I couldn’t talk on the phone without collapsing into coughing. But after a few days, I began to feel better. Then I knew I was really better when I wanted to run again. Jenny, my trainer, suggested doing a couple of six mile runs on the weekend. But I was still coughing, and it was still in my lungs. I consulted my running mates, because I didn’t know what else to do. I’d done enough Dr. Google research to know that if I went to my GP, she’d tell me to start worrying when the cough had lasted for more than three weeks. I didn’t have three weeks to spare: the Yorkshire marathon is 26 days away, and my training has already been worryingly hit and miss. I remember at this point in my London marathon training I felt knackered but fit. I was  leaner and stronger than I feel now. My club-mates mostly advised caution, except for Laura, who said, do a half hour hilly bike ride and if you feel crap, don’t run. She admitted that probably wasn’t scientific. And Adam, who said he didn’t believe in the below/above the neck thing and if I ran without putting up my heart rate, it might be alright.

But I didn’t. I went to my allotment instead and madly gardened. The fresh air did me good. And on Monday evening I ran. And I loved it. Oh, I loved it. Not necessarily because I was running, but because I was exercising. Afterwards I felt like this:


That feeling continued even into this morning’s training session with Jenny. I usually start clock-watching halfway through. I admit I did look at the clock when she started me on atomic press-ups early on, and I realised how quickly I’d lost strength in my arms. But last night I ran easily and happily. I felt good. Now I just have to work out how to do a marathon.


When I lived in London, I was a swimmer. Not a competitive one or even much good, but swimming was the exercise I took, because I lived around the corner from the London Fields Lido, renovated and re-opened in 2006. It is 50 metres long, outdoor, beautiful, and heated. I would go there to swim in summer, but also in winter, when it was so cold that you saw steam rising from the pool. It was a wonderful, wonderful place to swim.


When I moved home to Yorkshire in 2009, I stopped swimming. There was no outdoor heated swimming pool round the corner, I don’t like swimming in crowded leisure centres, and I just stopped. I became a runner instead, slowly, and mostly by doing half of a couch to 5K programme on my container ship in 2010. And I never really swam again, except on holidays or business trips now and then. But even then, there were lots of occasions where I could have swum and I didn’t. I lost heart and interest.

Then I did the London marathon, and signed up for another marathon, and swore to myself that I would become a fell runner. It seems to me that most people who do marathons follow five paths:

1. They never do a marathon again
2. They do LOTS of marathons
3. They do ultra-marathons
4. They become fell-runners
5. They become triathletes

I signed up for the Yorkshire marathon so I suppose I belong in number 2, but I wanted to belong to number 4 and haven’t. And I had no intentions ever of doing a triathlon. I have two bikes and love them. In France, I cycle quite often, though less now that I run so much. But I would never choose to go on a cycle ride when I could go for a run. And I still hadn’t got back into swimming.

Then Janey and Bibi of Veggie Runners told me they had signed up for a sprint triathlon in Leeds, and would I like to join them? I looked it up and said, no chance. £48 for a sprint triathlon? No. But the organisers, Xtra Mile Events, kindly let me have a place and I said I would try to write about it, so I signed up. And then decided to undergo a training programme which consisted of:

1. Hubris
2. Denial

Hubris: I used to swim. I cycle four miles to my studio and back frequently, and two of them are brutally hilly. And I know I can run. The distances weren’t daunting: 400m in the swimming pool, a 21K bike ride up Harrogate Road, and a 5K run around Leeds Grammar School, where the triathlon would be based. So I signed up, borrowed some tri kit from my lovely club-mate Marion, and then basically forgot about it, deliberately. I had travelling to do, to Dallas and Cornwall, and a marathon training plan that I still wasn’t doing properly. So I got on with that, and didn’t do any Bric (bike/run or one of the two) training. By last week in Dallas, I thought, I’d better see if I can swim, so I put on Marion’s tri gear and got in the pool. It was only about 10 metres, and not much use. I tried again in Cornwall, where I was staying at a spa with a very nice 25 metre fitness pool. I set off doing front crawl and bam.


I suddenly remembered this from my swims in the London lido. Towards the end of my time in London, I would start panicking when I did front crawl. I would panic that I wasn’t getting enough breath, and then the panic would ensure that I didn’t get enough breath. And here it was again. I did what I did when I panicked in London Fields, and switched to breaststroke. After four lengths, I thought, this is tiring. I did another couple, but I’d intended to do the full 16 and didn’t. That was very stupid, because I spent the next three days panicking about the swim. Last night I slept horribly, partly because of the heat, partly because of my noisy neighbours in their garden, and also because I was dreaming about the triathlon. I was dreading the swim.

I got up at 5.45, with the help of my cat alarm clock. (That is a cat who licks my neck to wake me up, not an alarm clock shaped like a cat.) I ate toast. I showered. And I got more and more nervous. I’d decided to cycle up to Leeds Grammar School, because I remembered it being only a couple of miles up the road.

Up. UP the road.

I’d not really thought about that bit. So when my lactic acid started burning, and I hadn’t even got to the event, I thought, I haven’t really thought this through. This feeling continued when I realised I’d forgotten my photo ID, the first item on my checklist. I’d remembered everything else:

talcum powder to talc my shoes & socks, the better to get wet feet into them
water bottle
puncture kit
allen key
bike lock
bike bottle cage which I still hadn’t fit on my bike
protein shake for afterwards
towel in a distinct colour so I could spot it in transition (I took the black one I was given after the ten mile Bluebell Trail)
change of clothes

I thought for a minute they were going to make me do a four mile round trip to go and fetch my ID, but they were nice and let me through. Outside, a few ectomorph men were sponging on their tattoos (nobody told me that triathlons are where all the handsome men are). They had the kit, but they said they were all novices too, and a bit nervous, and we all got on fine. I’ve never had a sponge-holder before, so thank you nameless man, who also cheered me when we passed later on Harrogate Road with, “COME ON LOVE!”

Janey and Bibi turned up soon with their partners Adam and Zsolt. Adam has done a few proper triathlons; I asked Zsolt if he was tempted and he said, “god, no.” Adam acted as our bike tech and fixed my bottle cage to my bike. Janey managed to put her tattoo on upside down.


But eventually we were ready and walked our bikes round to transition. This is where all the bikes are racked. There are so many rules to triathlons; the instruction booklet was about 15 pages long. The ones I remembered were that you can’t get your bike on or off the rack without your helmet being in place. It wasn’t a huge transition area, only two rows, so I didn’t have to memorise where my bike was by doing some geolocation with a fixed recognisable object. There were hardly any people there because the whole tri was done in waves, and we had asked for a “mates’ wave,” where you can compete against or compete with your mates. We were in the first wave, and due to swim at 8.

Leeds Grammar School is beautiful and looks very expensive. It has a very nice swimming pool, and after we’d got our briefing – more rules – we got in the water. You can’t jump in (another rule). There was no-one to count the 16 lengths which was worrying, as I often drift off mentally when I’m swimming. There were three people per lane, but our first swimmer hadn’t turned up. I still wasn’t sure what stroke I would do; I wanted to do front crawl but hadn’t done 400m since my London fields lido swimming, and I was already feeling so nervous about the swim. I’ve never liked swimming in crowded lanes, and the rule about overtaking – you tap the person’s foot, then the slower person hangs to the side at the end of the lane so you can overtake – made me anxious.

I asked Janey if she wanted us to stick together or if we were going to compete. She looked hesitant, and then we both said, “let’s see what happens.”

Then the whistle went, and ten seconds later the second whistle went, the man in my lane set off, and then ten seconds later off I went. He was doing breaststroke, which I was delighted about. I set off front crawling, I think, but soon switched. I intended to switch back, but the breaststroke was really comfortable, even with all the tall ectomorph men around us (Janey, Bibi and I were the only women in the wave) doing Alpha Male Crawl, so I carried on with that. I’d put down an estimated time of 12 minutes, having no idea how long it would take me, and that was one of the things making me anxious. I remembered when I went running Kathmandu with X (I suddenly can’t remember her name), who told me that she had done a triathlon in Islamabad (because she is an amazing woman which makes it even worse I can’t remember her name), and she was the last person swimming in the pool. This is what I pictured. My co-swimmer finished before me, but he would: he was about 20 years younger and he had longer, stronger legs, even doing breaststroke. But I was only two lengths behind, and though for a minute or two I thought I was the only person in the pool, I then thought, I don’t care, and just carried on swimming. I was so little concerned with getting a good time that I had no idea what a good time should consist of.

I finished, I got out, I walked to the far end of the pool, then I ran on the gravel to the transition point. I didn’t even think about stopping to wait for Janey, so obviously I do have a competitive spirit hidden beneath the phlegmatism. I put on my helmet, put my feet into the talcum powdered shoes and socks, drank something, got my bike, and dawdled a bit. I just wasn’t going to be stressed out by losing time in a transition. I’ll save that for my next triathlon. And off I went. I haven’t done a bike ride longer than about 5 miles for ages. In France I sometimes do a 20K loop, but I hadn’t done that for a while either. Before race, both Janey and Bibi had said, with some horror, “have you seen the elevation of the bike route?” I hadn’t, but I could imagine it. I knew it was uphill to Harewood. I didn’t realise there was loads of uphill after that too.

One of the rules that the organisers were very firm about was no drafting. You can’t cycle in someone’s slipstream, but you have to hang back and then overtake within 15 seconds. I didn’t think that was going to apply to me. I was the first woman out of us three to leave, but I knew Bibi wasn’t far behind, and I couldn’t see anyone in front of me. But then I could, and he got closer and closer. He was slow on the hills, so that’s where I caught up with him, and that’s exactly where I didn’t want to have to overtake. So I hung back, and I hung back and then I thought, sod this, and overtook. My legs were sorely taxed, but there were enough downhills and sort-of-flat bits to recover from the hills. The man caught me on the downhill and overtook. On the way up to the roundabout a few miles north of Harewood House, the other men in the wave started coming back on the other side. That’s where I got my COME ON LOVE. So I did. I went on.

And I overtook the slow-hill-climber again, and he didn’t catch me. I saw Bibi on the other side, and she told me later she thought I wasn’t very far ahead but she couldn’t catch me. Thank goodness for my hockey/Hoy thighs. The turn-off for the school came quite quickly, and I cycled to the dismount sign, dismounted (unlike one bloke who kept cycling at top speed and then had to do a comedy brake-screeching stop, apparently).

Bike on rack. Helmet off. Frantic search for gels. Fast mouthful of a fruit bar. Drink of electrolyte drink. Off.

In my moments of tri-panic, I’d read lots of newbie tri forums. One tip was to let your legs hang straight on the final strait back if you can, so that your hamstrings get used to the different muscles that are used for running. I remembered this, but there was no time to do it, and I didn’t want to contravene some rule that said you had to have your feet on the pedals at all time, so I didn’t. But when I set off, I got the predicted jelly legs, but it was my calves. They were tight and complaining. For a while, it felt like I was running on someone else’s legs.

The course was two laps around Leeds Grammar School grounds, which are large and have nice grass paths. I didn’t see any other runners until someone passed me on his second lap. I’d left my Garmin in my bag and had no idea what pace I was doing. It felt like I was trudging, but actually I did it in 25 minutes, which, when my 5K PB is still 23 minutes, isn’t bad. I said “shut up legs” a few times, out loud. I looked at the posh housing, and the nice playing fields, and just kept going. I felt tired, and my stomach was rumbling. I should have had a gel, but I just felt hungry rather than having dead legs.

I kept going, and I got round, and I was the first woman back. I know, only out of us three in the first wave, but still. I’m pleased. And I won’t dread my next triathlon. Because there will be a next one.

Bibi wasn’t far behind me, then Janey. There was some confusion over our times, which you could print out as a receipt. How cool, I thought, until I noticed I’d done the swim in 5 minutes. I had no idea how long the swim took but 5 minutes seemed ridiculous. Finally the man in the timing tent realised that someone had written down that we’d set off swimming at 8:08 instead of 8:03. So I’d done it in ten minutes, which I was delighted with. And I did the whole thing in about 1:35. I was shocked by my bike time. I would have said I’d been on the bike for half an hour, but it was 56 minutes. That wasn’t particularly slow: a big strong man next to me had done it in 53. I supposed it just passed fast.

Afterwards we went for protein breakfast at Filmore & Union in Moortown, and the food was delicious. Then I went to bed and slept for two hours, happy.


(Thanks, Marion, both for this picture, and for turning up to cheer and take pictures. I was pointing at my shorts and saying, “GREAT KIT” as I passed her.)

Running on the run

I’ve just returned from Dallas, Texas. I say, “Dallas, Texas,” because it sounds better, not because there is another famous Dallas other than the South Fork one. I was at the Mayborn Conference, a gathering of rather prestigious non-fiction writers and journalists. It is held at the Hilton Grapevine Lakes conference centre, which is nice enough: there is a small lake, tennis courts and such. But it’s ten minutes from the airport, next to many highways with no pavements, and it is not the best place to figure out how on earth to stick to my marathon training plan and find a 12 mile running route.

Yes, I’m back in marathon training. I’ve been pretty crap at sticking to my plan so far, and I’m ashamed about it. Partly that’s because book festival season has started and I’m all over the place. I was in County Cork for the West Cork literary festival the other week. It was fun, and a full house of people turned up at 1pm on a Friday to hear me talk, which is always delightful. And on the morning that I needed to run 9 miles, I happened upon a man at the door dressed in running gear, and we looked at each other, and I said, are you running? And he said, yes, and I reviewed your book. It was Blake Morrison, and off we went to run together for a very pleasant six miles. No, I didn’t do my nine.

There are two reasons I haven’t been sticking to my – very carefully planned – plan. The first is the travel. The second is that I can’t stop signing up for races. Jenny is very patient when I say things like, “did I tell you I’m doing the Great North Run?” or, “I’m doing a sprint triathlon on Sunday, did I mention it?”. I’m nervous about but looking forward to the triathlon, though I’ve done no Bric training (i.e. bike then run). I suppose I could rectify that by cycling to Golden Acre park tonight, where I’m doing a relay with my club, and then running 5K, but I’m worried my jetlag will manifest itself as slow legs anyway so I don’t want to give them even more to deal with. So far my swim training for the triathlon has consisted of doing a few short lengths at the hotel in Dallas, thinking, “right, I can still swim,” and hoping for the best. It’s only a 400m swim – 16 lengths – in a pool, but when my club mates say things like, “make sure you kick hard at the end of the swim because blood pools in your legs and you may feel giddy,” I start to get a little worried.

So in Dallas my plan required me to do some fartlek runs, and a 12 mile long run. On my first morning, even though I slept through to 7am when I usually wake up with jet lag at 5, I decided to run around the hotel. I knew there was a half-mile “jogging track,” so I asked the receptionist where it was, and set off on it. But then at the side of the track I saw a track going off into some woods, then another track, then I found another track that led to a paddock with horses (the hotel had a “ranch” bit).



I managed to make a 2-mile loop out of the half-mile jogging track. I was lucky with the weather. It’s usually infernally hot in Texas at this time of year, but a weather front similar to a polar vortex but not actually a polar vortex had brought cooler weather, so that when I sat outside, I had to wear two sweaters. I am not complaining: I much prefer to run in cooler weather than hot. Though with the ferocity of the air conditioning inside, I never got to remove my sweaters even when it did get hot again.

For my long run, I couldn’t face running the same loop ten times, so I did my Kathmandu technique. I searched for Grapevine, TX runners, and found the Lake Grapevine Runners and Walkers (RAW) club. Lake Grapevine was five miles from the hotel, and apparently has a 60-mile perimeter. RAW did 8 and 12 mile runs on Sundays. So I wrote to their email address and within five minutes Joe, the club president, had written back and said I’d be most welcome to join them, and that they met at their clubhouse near the lake, and could I come a few minutes before they set off at 7?

I could. I did. And it was great. The sun was already shining hard by then (the polar vortex was on its way out), and at the clubhouse I found a couple of dozen people in rather fine and colourful running kit – I LOVE buying running kit in the US – ready to run or walk. They were going to do 8 miles, but said I could do another 4 after that. We set off. Joe was a walker, so I set off running with a lovely Parisian woman, 20 years in Texas, named Helene. I carried a water bottle, because after all this was Texas, but then after a mile, lo: RAW sends out a volunteer before every run to put out water stations! How cool is that? I know that we don’t have much cause for water stations in Leeds temperatures, but still, I was very impressed.


The route ran on roads skirting the lake but not on lake paths. The paths were quite busy: early morning is exercising time in Texas. Later when I went to the nearby shopping mall, I was flabbergasted at how many obese people there are, as I am every time I go back to the US. I was also shocked to see two TV ads that starred obese people, but that were advertising products totally unrelated to diet (one was for Febreze). So the obese people were there to denote the norm. That is shocking. It’s so odd, because the US also has such a strong health and fitness culture, which is why so many people were out running, walking, cycling at 7am on a Sunday morning. I know how to solve America’s obesity by the way: cut every portion in half. Every portion of food I was served could have fed three people.

So I had a great run with the RAW lot, and invited them to come and run in Leeds or the Yorkshire Dales (which of course I rarely get to) if they ever come over. I won’t bang on about the tribe of runners, but it is great to know that exercising and running and being outdoors can be something that brings total strangers together. I never did do the extra four miles though.

And it’s always good to come home:



It’s been a horrible week. I have two cats who I got from Leeds Cat Rescue in January. Mother and daughter, Tamcat and Dora. I love them both very much. They are funny, affectionate, curious. On Friday Tamcat was killed by a car a nearby road, which she was crossing to get to the park. I was out, but my neighbours recognised her body and phoned me. They had very carefully wrapped her in a towel, placed her in a box and sellotaped the box so that foxes couldn’t get in. But I had to bury her: it was 10pm on a Friday night and I didn’t know what else to do and didn’t want to leave her out for foxes. I unwrapped her and saw that she had a massive head injury and her legs were broken. There was blood coming out of both her ears and her eyes were open. I really hope that means that she died instantly, and I think she did because my neighbour Natasha had been stroking her only five minutes before some other neighbours told me they thought the dead cat on the road came from our terrace.

So I buried her, and cried a lot. Her daughter Dora seemed OK. She is eating and sleeping, though also sniffing and miaowing. And the reason I’ve put this in a running blog is because I wanted to write about grief. I really loved my cat, and I am grieving for her. And I would have thought that meant that I immediately went off and tried to get rid of my grief by running. But I didn’t want to run. Not at all. It seemed inconceivable. I was supposed to run a 15 mile race on Saturday and I’d been really looking forward to it. On the phone on that Friday night, my mother – whose usual reaction to my running is “don’t overdo it” – said, “I think you should run,” and I snapped NO. It was a violent reaction but I couldn’t think of anything worse than driving an hour to a race and then running. So I withdrew from the race and spent the day quietly, hanging out with Dora, seeing friends, drinking too much. And I still didn’t want to run.

On Sunday though I did. I ran with Norrie and Dean around Harewood again, and it helped, even though we cleverly waited for the hottest time of the day to do it and even though we had planned to do two laps and only just managed one. It helped enough that even after doing a hard training session on Monday morning at the gym, I ran five miles in the evening with Veggie Runners.

I wish I could think of something more profound to write about exercise and grieving, but I can’t. I’ve encountered too much death in my life and I don’t think I’m getting any better at grieving. But I’m sad, but I’m running.



Where did ten days go?

I’ve been exercising, but not enough. I’ve been eating cream cakes too much. My appetite still seems to be of marathon capacity, but my training schedule doesn’t match it any more. I’ve been running, but in such a relaxed fashion that I haven’t used my Garmin since I did the Bluebell 10 trail race two weeks ago (and have no idea where it is). I try to vary my runs: some alone, some with Veggie Runners, some with my club. I went to Copenhagen, and went running again with Roger Harris of ISWAN. We met at 7:30 and ran through the city to the water, and ended up here, appropriately, as we were both in Copenhagen to attend a shipping conference:


The next day I got up at 6.30 and headed out of the hotel door towards the Frederiksberg Palace. I ran for a mile and found myself in a cemetery and thought, odd to have a cemetery in the grounds of a palace. But I ran around amongst the gravestones – I like graveyards very much, and this was a beautiful one – before realising I’d run in the wrong direction when I left the hotel. So, back along the busy Falkoner Allee, where as in all of Copenhagen, the biggest danger seems to be being run over by bikes. Copenhagen is bike heaven. I never saw a road without a dedicated cycle lane. And because every driver, cyclist and pedestrian has a dedicated urban space, everyone seems happy to wait. There is no jumping of red lights. Taxi drivers are cyclists too so they don’t want to kill them. It’s wonderful. Anyway I ran back to the hotel and carried on and half a mile later I found this.


And then I saw this:


And I ran down the hill in the park and into some woods and found a gingerbread witch’s cottage, too:


If I hadn’t gone running, I would never have found the cemetery or the palace, or walked seven miles through the city. It’s the best method of exploring I know of.

When I got back, I played squash. I’ve been wanting to for a while. But it was a mistake.

I’m not very good at squash. I played tennis for so long that I still think there is such a thing as a double-handed backhand in squash, too. When my opponent is doing his special back-of-the-court-dies-in-the-corner serve, a double grip on a racket is the last thing required. I used to play squash against my mother when I was a teenager. She would be devastating, and she never had to move from the T-bar. She stood still and angled the ball all over the place, and I had to run like a banshee. I was always exhausted, she wasn’t, and she always won.

Paul, my next-door studio neighbour, wasn’t as good as my mother. He won the first game to love, but then I warmed up, and he had to run too. By the third game, I had an advantage because I was fitter and had more stamina. He played better, but he was tired and not running for shots he was running for in the first two games. He still won all three games, but only by two or so points. It was great fun. But it was still a mistake, because squash is a series of jerking sudden movements. It is stretches and lunges and reaches. And during one of my stretches or lunges or reaches, something stretched too far.

We played squash on Thursday and I didn’t run again until Saturday morning at the Mob Run Parkrun at Roundhay. Mobrun entails two things: each Leeds club tries to bring the most runners, and the race director dresses up like Al Capone. My friend Jason was staying for the weekend, and he gamely came along with his American-tourist SLR slung around his neck. He looked rather alarmed at the Parkrun and said he didn’t much like organized positivity (that’s right, isn’t it, Jason? He reads this). He went off for a walk, and we set off. Up the hill to the mansion, along the top. I felt good, though I’d had the usual “I have no idea how to run” thoughts at the start. I was overtaking people, because as usual, being a woman, I’d started modestly far back in the field. But then my shin started to hurt.

I was wearing my new Brooks Pure Connect. They are more minimal than my other road shoes, so I know I need to get my feet used to them. I’ve tried them out on two runs and had no problems. But, I thought, maybe they were causing my shin soreness. I kept running, down to the cricket pitch, past the pavilion. I had the usual runner’s dilemma running through my head: is this bad enough to stop? Should I run through it? I’ve just finished reading Scott Jurek’s book Eat and Run, which was actually fascinating. “Actually,” because not many running books are, and ultramarathoners can be even more dull about running than the un-ultra kind. But Scott is a vegan ultramarathoner and that is interesting to start with. Also, he gives recipes, though I don’t think I’m ever going to be a person who makes eight-grain vegan pancakes for breakfast, however good they sound. I also don’t think I’m ever going to run more than 160 miles around a one-mile course in 24 hours. That just sounds nuts. But I do admire his ultramarathon running up mountains and over trails. And he does seem to run with injury and serious discomfort most of the time. So perhaps I should too.

But I didn’t. I stopped. And then I dropped out. I don’t think I’ve ever dropped out of a race before. I dropped out because the pain was getting worse, and because I suddenly had an image of my muscle tearing. Nothing less serious than a broken leg is going to stop me running the Edinburgh half marathon this weekend, so I dropped out, and then disconcerted most of my club-mates by standing at the side and cheering them on. Their reactions were identical and lovely:

Are you OK?

I would like to run tonight but I can feel that the muscle is still sore. I don’t want a shin splint and I certainly don’t want to run 13.1 miles with a shin splint, so I am on total run-rest. That means I will miss the Apperley Bridge Canter on Thursday, which is disappointing because it’s a lovely run. It may also however mean that I may actually get to the swimming pool over the road as I’ve been threatening – in that vast space in my head where my good intentions are – to do for weeks.



People have been asking me if I’ve recovered from the marathon. Yes, I have. Last week we had our club Chairman’s Chase race. It’s a very-nearly-10K handicapped race around Leeds. That means hills. I had no particular ambition for it, nor any target. But I ended up flying around the course. I remember feeling as I’d felt in the marathon: strong and fast. Even on the hills. I was expecting to be overtaken any minute, but no-one overtook me until the last mile, and even then it was only two speedy runners, Niamh and someone else. I knew that Paul and Chris had been setting off behind me, and they are both usually slightly faster than me, but they never caught me. Afterwards, Paul came up and said, you were flying, I was trying to catch you but I just couldn’t. I did the very-nearly-10K (it’s about 300 metres off 10K) in 49:07, which is not far from my best ever 10K time of 48:34, done at the Humber Bridge 10K a couple of years ago. I’ll be running the Humber Bridge again this year, with my brother. I was going to try and beat that PB, though I’ve no idea how I managed to get it in the first place, but now I’ve signed up for a steep fell race the day before, so speed ambitions have been sacrificed to mud.

Anyway that was last week. Speedy Rose. Magic legs. And last night at training, 7 days later, it was like I had been invaded by slugs. My legs belonged to slugs. My energy belonged to slugs. From the first mile, I knew something was wrong. I had no force. It was a serious effort just to lift my legs. It was much worse on uphills. I couldn’t understand it. We were running my favourite training route: up through woodland, more woodland, some roads, more woods. I hadn’t eaten anything different. I hadn’t particularly focused on eating carbohydrates, but I’d eaten properly. I’d slept fine. I wasn’t hungover. But from being uncatchable last week, I was suddenly the last of all 20 of us, and I couldn’t go any faster. Paul and Chris, who couldn’t reach me last week, were half a mile ahead. I was mystified. Afterwards, I was so exhausted that I went straight home and had to lie down. And then I remembered.

I gave blood.

I’d been due to give blood a few weeks before the Marathon but read somewhere that that wasn’t sensible. So I’d postponed until now. I got there with the usual expectations of being turned away. The last time was because I was dehydrated and my veins were too small. They had got me into the donating chair – it’s probably called a venepuncturist cot or something – and tried to get a needle in. After several attempts, they tried a paediatric needle, which is smaller. But nothing had worked. So this time, I was very hydrated because I was determined to succeed. I went through the usual questioning: where have you been and is it malarial? The Blood Service is much stricter than other NHS departments. I’d gone to Bangladesh and Nepal in September and checked whether I’d needed malarial prophylaxes, and the NHS website told me I didn’t, because neither Dhaka nor Kathmandu nor western Nepal hill country was considered malarial. But the Blood Service thinks all Bangladesh and all Nepal is risky. I was still allowed to give blood because six months had passed, and because the acupuncture I’d had – another flag – was done by an NHS physio. By the time I got to the chairs in the donating area, I felt like I’d survived an interrogation by my headteacher.

You’ll feel a nip, said the venepuncturist. I liked the fact that she said “nip,” as I’ve never understood why nurses always say “you’ll feel a sharp scratch,” when the insertion of a needle feels nothing like. It didn’t feel like a nip either, but it was painful enough for me to make a noise. She wasn’t particularly apologetic except to say, “the needles we have to use are quite big.” But the insertion point is still sore two days on, so I conclude that the needle is big, but that she was also uncommonly heavy-puncturing.

Never mind. My blood started streaming out into the bag, and I kept squeezing the ball, and it kept streaming. I was pleased. I’m normal! My veins aren’t too small! I find giving blood so soothing. I know some people can’t bear the sight of it, and that they are horrified at the thought of watching their blood pour out. But I watched the collection bag being rocked side to side on its rocking device, and I felt calm. That blood had just been pumping around my body quite healthily. It looked strong and rich.

I gave my pint, and went for tea and snacks. Thank goodness for mint Club biscuits. I stayed 10 minutes and then walked about a mile to do some errands. When I got back to my studio, I knelt down to get something from the fridge and suddenly felt extremely weak and dizzy. I know you are not supposed to exercise when you’ve given blood, nor lift anything heavy with the arm you’ve used. So after that I took it easy for the rest of the day. But no-one said I couldn’t exercise at all, nor that giving blood would affect my energy levels for more than the day of donation.

But it does. Powerfully. So after that awful run, I started to research. I knew that the donation – 470mls – was about 13% of my blood supply. I learned that red blood cells should replenish very fast, as millions are created and dying every second. White cells and platelets are also replenished quickly. But red cells aren’t immediately replenished, and the red cells carry haemoglobin, which carries oxygen around the body. When I ran seven miles last night, I discovered on this fascinating Marathon Talk podcast about running and giving blood, I was running with 10% less oxygen capacity, because my haemoglobin and iron levels – haemoglobin contains iron – are still low. It was like training at altitude.

It can take from four to 12 weeks for haemoglobin levels to get back to normal. That’s quite shocking. So I looked into what I can do to help my haemoglobin. If I weren’t vegetarian, I’d be eating liver three times a day. But I am vegetarian, and there is as far as I know no iron-rich vegetarian liver. I’m slightly disadvantaged because plant-based iron isn’t as easily absorbed as meat iron, and women need 14mg of iron a day. Also only 10% of any iron ingested is absorbed by the body.


But there are things I can do. I can eat good iron-based plant sources:
Leafy green vegetables

I can drink orange juice with my food as Vitamin C aids iron absorption. I can cut down on caffeine as that doesn’t help. So that is my diet for the next few weeks. Luckily, that was my diet already, apart from the caffeine-reduction. Luckily, I’m not running the Leeds half-marathon this weekend but cheering from the crowd and I can just about manage that, even though I had to sit down after walking half a mile today.

So, I have learned a few things.
1. I never want to train at altitude if it feels like it did last night.
2. I will continue to give blood when I can but never in the week of an important race.
3. The next time I give blood, I will not run 7 miles the next day, but take it easy.

In conclusion: I don’t want to sound negative about giving blood. I’m not. Only 4% of the UK population are donors and that’s rubbish. I’m reading a book about blood at the moment, and the history of blood donation is astonishing. Please give blood: it’s easy and a wonderful thing to do, and you get as many mint Club biscuits as you can eat, afterwards. But runners should time it right, that’s all.

(As for the images below: they were called Artery and were part of an NHS campaign to increase blood donations before the Olympics. I’m not convinced it would have worked.)

Body Artery


Walk, jog, run

It’s odd, now that I am not thinking constantly about marathon training, to realise how constantly I thought about training. I didn’t run for a few days last week and for now that’s fine. Then again, I think of what I did last week: a 5 mile run on Monday, a hard gym session on Tuesday, a fast 6 miles on Wednesday, Pilates on Thursday. And yet in my head it feels like I haven’t done very much.

And all that was on top of a 23-mile walk around the Three Peaks the previous Saturday too. Which was sodden, windswept, glorious and exhausting. It was the day of the Three Peaks fell race. Even the description of that race makes me feel tired. 23 miles. 5000 feet of ascent. Time limits. No way could I ever do that. (Although I once also said the same thing about a marathon.) Anyway Alan in my club thought it a good idea for us to do a walk instead, so about 20 of us met at our clubhouse at 6am on Saturday morning and set off to Settle. I don’t know Settle very well, except as one end of one of the most beautiful train journeys in the world, the Settle-Carlisle line.


The Three Peaks walk starts from the village of Horton-in-Ribblesdale, near Ribblehead. One day I’ll look up what a ribble is. By the time we got there, it was already busy. We encountered about 100 Sikhs who were obviously setting off on a walk. To be frank, I had no idea the Three Peaks was seen as such a challenge. I hadn’t really thought through the fact that 23 miles is a long way to walk, especially with three big hills/small mountains to climb. I didn’t know that it was hard enough to be a fundraising challenge. That’s marathon smugness. Or just my own denseness. Also I didn’t even know where or what the Three Peaks were. I’d once driven a van between the three national Peaks – Snowdon, Ben Nevis and another one – and I hadn’t thought much beyond “oh there must be another three peaks.” There are.


The weather was awful. It was cold, and the kind of rain that has the power of rain but the consistency of drizzle. It was interesting to see how runners kitted themselves out as walkers. Alan had come in lightweight lycra, tiny socks and lightweight trail shoes. I had all the walking gear, having joined the Ramblers when I moved to Yorkshire, though I didn’t go often as I got tired of telling my life story to endlessly new people, over several hour walks. That’s a lot of conversation. Also I discovered running instead. But even I didn’t think to bring proper gloves or a hat because I didn’t think it was going to feel like winter. We set off up Pen-y-Ghent and it was wet and miserable. The higher we got, the worse the weather felt. It was slicing into our faces as the wind decided to join forces with the rain. As I climbed up rocks that had streams running down them, soaking the gloves that I’d borrowed from Andrew, who had had the wit to bring a spare pair, I wondered what the hell we were doing and when we could abort. Nobody suggested it though, and afterwards I found that loads of us had been thinking the same thing but nobody wanted to be the first to suggest it. So on we went. My stupid phone died after I took all of two pictures, so these are the only records of the walk: Laura, then me. No filter, no added fog. It really did look like that.



On we went. Every so often we passed some walking Sikhs. Young men, old men, women, some men in turbans, some women in turbans. Some of the turbans were bright orange or blue and lit up the fells. We descended Pen-y-Ghent and set off for Whearnside. And at that point the runners started arriving. They were so fast. I watched them go with mouth open with admiration. Then I started watching their shoes, and decided to get shares in Inov8, because that’s what 80% of them were wearing.

By now the weather was clearing. We reached the Ribblehead Viaduct: Beautiful. Then the pub: lovely. Especially the toilet. Then the couple of miles to Whearnside. The runners would scramble on all fours directly up Whearnside, but we took the gentler – but only in relation to scrambling on all fours – path up. It was somewhat exposed, and the winds were of a force to knock you off your feet. There was quite a lot of gripping. We had no target in mind, but we are all fit, so our pace was quite brisk. Somewhere between Whearnside and Ingleborough – known as Inglebugger to any fell runner who has to run up it after 17 miles or so of fell running already – an enterprising farming family had set up a snack van in their barn, along with a toilet and dry socks and hats for £2. I had an icecream, because I needed sugar and I needed comforting: my boots were beginning to be painful. I’ve had them for years. They are Meindl, hand-made in Bavaria. Or as their slogan says, Hand-made For Actives. I’ve got a heavier pair in France that I love, and have loved for the six years I’ve had them, and they still feel like walking on marshmallows. But this pair I don’t like and never have, but can’t justify getting rid of them. Now I can, because by the time we had scrambled up sheer rock to the top of Inglebugger, every sharp edged rock was making me wince with pain. I could feel my ankles getting bruised, and at the summit, I dared to take my boot off and found a large blister. Thank goodness Laura had brought blister plasters. I didn’t even get a blister in the marathon. I blame wet feet and not having walked 20 miles in the boots before. So the last five miles down was a hobble and really not much fun, although the sun had come out after Whearnside and the fells had been stunning.

We got back in less than twelve hours, which means we qualify for the Pen-y-Ghent cafe walking club. Afterwards I was so tired I didn’t have the energy to speak, and when I got home all I could manage was to put hot water in my mop bucket and put my feet in it. I was more tired than after running the marathon. But it was a great day, blister and bastard boots notwithstanding.



I have not been writing but I have been training. I’m slightly diverting from my marathon plan but only in when I run: so my Monday 10 miles has been put off until this morning and then at 7am I knew I was going to put it off again until tomorrow, which means running Friday, Saturday (at the English Cross-Country championships), then getting 17 miles done somehow on Sunday. I realised at club training last night, where I bored poor Marion with my running clinic and injury geekery for about five miles, that although I’m only running three times a week, I’m still doing 35 miles.

So, I need to look after my feet. I currently have two black toenails and two thickened toenails, but other than that, my feet are fine. They are fine because my shoes are great, and my shoes are great because they are Brooks.

I got my first pair of Brooks a few years ago at Up and Running. I went in there with no preference. I think I wasn’t even running 5Ks at that point. They felt the most immediately comfortable. And though I’ve had injuries, I don’t think my shoes had anything to do with them, and I’ve never seen a reason to run in anything but Brooks. (Except for cross-country mud and bogs, for which the tractor treads of Inov8 are unsurpassable.) I run in Brooks Ghost 6, and I have a pair of Brooks Ravenna which I bought when I was misdiagnosed with a tendon problem and thought I needed support shoes (and to their credit, the Sweatshop staff tried to persuade me not to buy them), and my trail shoes are Brooks Cascadia. I also have a pair of Brooks racing flats but haven’t run in them for a while. Why do I like Brooks? Because they fit. Because they are comfortable and giving but supportive. Because I’ve never had a reason to switch.

So when I heard about the scheme that Brooks was running called Try it On, I signed up. They were lending a pair of shoes from their Pure range, for a week. I can’t remember my thought process when I chose which shoe, but I can’t have been thinking straight, because I chose the Pure Drift. I am scared of minimalist shoes, since my hip injury happened when I ran in more minimalist racing flats. So when I got them out of the box, I was puzzled. They looked a) gorgeous


but b) extremely low to the ground (it’s called a heel drop in shoe geekery) and flat. I looked them up and saw they were the most minimalist shoe in the whole range. That worried me. Minimalist shoes require months of transition. They’re fine for tippy-toe ninjas who run lightly with a forefoot strike, like Gemma or Alan “Bambi” Brydon, one of our fastest club runners. But I heel strike. And I have an ongoing ankle problem. I need some cushioning between my feet and hard ground.

Still, I ran in them. I put in my orthotic inserts, and I ran in them for 8 miles, mostly on road, but with some trail too. I got them very muddy.

And I didn’t hate them. But I didn’t love them. I didn’t get injured, and they got me round 8 miles, but I didn’t like the impact on my feet. It felt like my feet were slapping against the ground. And afterwards, all sorts of muscles I don’t normally use ached, and I was very tired. That’s a good thing and not a complaint but it all added up to me not loving them.

I didn’t run in them again, because I was doing a cross-country and then my long run, and I didn’t want to risk them on a 15 mile run. So I took them back to the shop and waited my turn for a while, as a man had arrived just before me, also returning his borrowed Brooks. The Brooks rep, a young man called Chris, apologised when he got to me, but I didn’t mind: it had taken time because he was extremely assiduous and thorough, which was fine by me. He was also impressively calm when I opened the box to show the state of the shoes. I apologised. I should have rinsed them, at least, but I hoped to use them again and then didn’t. I told him the truth: I didn’t get on with them. And he said he understood, and that other people had also mistakenly chosen the Drift without realising quite how minimalist it was. He asked if they should put an alert on the website when people pick the Pure Drift, asking, “are you sure you want a shoe this minimalist?”

Yes. Good idea. Chris was knowledgeable, charming and introduced me to new terms in shoe design that even I, with my vast geekery, didn’t know: a caterpillar? Shoe DNA? He said I was right not to take them on my long run, and he wouldn’t do long mileage in them. We both agreed I should have picked the Pure Connect instead, as it has more cushioning. I wish I had. Chris gave me my voucher for £25 on the Pure range, and suggested I consider using Pure Connect for my shorter faster runs and stick with my Ghost for long runs and the marathon, as that’s what he does.

Agreed. Except I can’t thoil another pair of shoes at the moment. And I’m going to the US where they are cheaper. And I think I need to replace the Ghost if I’m doing 35 miles a week and going to be up to 40. But if I do buy another pair of shoes, even though I didn’t get on with the Try it On, they will still be Brooks.

I asked what would happen to my muddy shoes. Would they end up being sold at races, as Sweatshop does with their returned shoes? No, said Chris. They will be distributed to the community. He was looking into donating them to a young people’s beginners’ group. Lucky them.


Why I run

A rainy, cold Monday. 4pm. This is what I am thinking:
I can’t do it I can’t think of anything to write but I have a deadline and it’s late and why am I always late and why can’t I be better and more organized and do my book proposal and why can’t I think straight and why do I feel so black and I can’t do it and people don’t like my book and just to prove it I’ll go to goodreads and amazon and read people’s reviews and look I knew it here’s one that says it’s “scrappy” and here’s another that says it’s wrong and here’s one that prefers a similar book by a young man and they say I have errors in my book but I don’t or not the ones they say but maybe I do and shit people hate it and why are reviewers so sodding mean and I feel crap and a failure and look it’s 4pm and I’ve done nothing today but waste time and I’m supposed to have made an important call but I don’t have the energy to do it it’s like something black and viscous, like tar, is pulling my soul down into my boots and when the tar is pulling me down I can’t pick up a phone, picking up a phone seems like an impossible thing to do and really all I want to do is weep and shit here’s another reviewer who says the book is awful and all over the place and you see I know that’s actually true because I found giving the book some narrative logic so difficult that I probably didn’t manage it and even though my publisher has sent though the images of a new edition of The Big Necessity and even though there is a quote on the cover from the New York Times calling it one of the best non-fiction books of the new millenium that has no effect on the black tar because I feel sad and gloomy and awful and I’m going to go home and see my cats and when I do all they want is food and to play with string and though they are lovely they don’t help because the blackness is so so black and I know I have to go running and I’m supposed to do eight miles but I also know I’m supposed to make that phone call and I haven’t and oh shit what can I do to feel better I’ll sit on the floor by my radiator and read this new running magazine and that’s soothing for a few minutes and now it’s 6pm and it’s dark and the black tar is not letting me find the energy to get up and get running clothes on and get out of the door and run because I feel drained and tired like my soul is tired and everything is wrong everything the world is awful and I’m alone and will never be otherwise and people hate my book and they think it has mistakes in it and now it’s 6.15 and I think I’ll go to club training instead but no I don’t want to run for 7 miles doing sociable run chat with people because the club is full of new January members and I can’t be bothered to be curious or it’s worse than that, I do not have any curiosity, I only have blankness, but then again if I don’t go I won’t run and maybe running will dissolve the tar it’s the only thing I know that can and it’s that or a sleeping pill and somehow at 6.20pm I stand up and I move upstairs and I get my running kit on and I feed the cats and I leave the house and I drive and I know my mood is awful because when it’s awful I can’t bear the radio and now I switch off the radio because it’s Just a Minute and I don’t like that even when I have the strength of a good mood but I keep driving and I keep going and I get to the leisure centre and I go inside and I go into the lounge/pool viewing area where we meet and I still feel black but I say hello and I sit and I wait for us to set off and I find some social veneer that lets me be jollier than I feel and I wait to run and we set off to run and we get up the hill and I keep going and it’s black and cold and a bit wet but there are 20 or so of us, just running through dark streets on a miserable Monday night and then something happens and

I feel better.

Only the night is black now.

Everything is fine.



Screen Shot 2014-02-11 at 12.16.07


Yesterday I was sick. I was woken by my cats at 7, fed them, then wondered why it seemed impossible to climb the stairs again. It was like I had been drained of all energy, suddenly and inexplicably. I had no appetite, and didn’t want to drink. I felt vaguely nauseous and had faint stomach cramps but didn’t vomit. I got back upstairs and slept for another 6 hours – the benefits of freelance life, which will be balanced by my impending tax bill – and that was all the day consisted of. I had a headache and felt hot but wasn’t feverish. I didn’t want to eat, I didn’t want to drink, all day. Eating and drinking seemed like extraordinarily weird things to do, as if I had never done them. That was odd. But the reason I knew that I was ill was because it was club training night and the thought of running 100 metres terrified me.

My self-diagnosis: stomach bug. I had to sleep because my body needed to deal with whatever was trying to colonise it. I had no energy because I wasn’t supposed to do anything while my immune system worked. I slept and slept and lay on the sofa and watched Three Colours: Blue, which I loved the first time I saw it, and the second, though I always think: there’s no way she would find an empty swimming pool. But it’s beautiful, and it helped. I slept another 12 hours overnight, and today I feel better. I still don’t want to run, but I can climb stairs, and I ate food. And so far it seems my body has fixed itself. Of course my mother’s reaction was, “are you sure you’re not overtraining?”

There is not much reason this post is on a running blog, except I think running makes you think about how your body works. You notice its deficiencies, because you come to love its strengths. I have endometriosis, which is a chronic disease, but I am rarely ill. It gives me pain now and then, and some alarming energy and mood swings, but I usually manage to run and exercise, because that’s how I treat it. That’s also how I treat my tendency to low moods and black thoughts. I love that at the age of 44, I can run 14 miles. I never thought that possible. So when my body doesn’t work right, it’s a shock, or it would have been, had I had the energy to care.