I love my feet

I do. I love them. I love their 52 bones, 33 joints, 107 ligaments and various tendons. I love that they have been working perfectly for 44 years and are still going, although by running I subject them to constant and huge pressure. I haven’t measured my cadence, but it should be between 160 to 200 steps a minute. Each of those steps is forcing the 9 stone 3 lb weight of my body into my feet, and that force is being met often by hard tarmac. It can’t be absorbed by tarmac, so it is absorbed by my feet. And still they run.


There have been problems. I’ve only been running since 2010, and since then have had a few injuries. The problems are always on my right side. It started with my right foot. It began during a seven mile run with Jayne around Roundhay. It hurt, but I ran on it. It hurt more, but I continued to run. It hurt more, and I stopped. Thus began a year of appointments. Physio, first, where my pain (up the inner ankle) was diagnosed as a tendon problem. I was advised to rest, and did, even when I went to Long Beach, California, to do this TED talk, and, expelled from my bed by jet-lag, would go to the hotel gym and gaze longingly from the cross-trainer at people running along the beach-front running path outside, as the sun came up. I did my exercises – single leg squats and more single leg squats – I rested from running for three weeks, and nothing got better.

Next, a podiatrist. He examined me, sitting, standing, walking and running. He said, “you have quite frozen feet.” Oh? He said, I think you probably have some small bones fused together that wouldn’t normally be. He said that my foot flexing action when I run is also somewhat frozen, or not as flexible as it should be. He said, it’s not a tendon issue. It is anything but a tendon issue. He guessed I might have the beginnings of arthritis, and advised me to ask for an MRI. That was more than a year ago, but my first MRI appointment got lost, and I’ve not yet had the results from the second. But I haven’t felt any great urgency because a) he made me orthotic inserts for my shoes and suddenly I didn’t get much pain in my foot any more while running, only while doing squats and b) I started getting pain in my hip instead. I ran a Parkrun at Hyde Park in Leeds, and I ran it for the first time in racing flats, shoes that are more minimalist and less cushioned and therefore supposedly speedier. My clubmate Adam swore by them and they worked, despite being hideous: I got a PB, I think. And I got a sore, sore, right hip. I remember a few years ago my mother thought it hilarious that I had never encountered the words “pantechnicon” or “camber.” I haven’t had much cause to use pantechnicon since but I have used camber, because I run on it, and it can be difficult. The camber in Hyde Park in Leeds is severe, and it didn’t help matters when I was already making my feet take all that weight, pressure and force, without the usual cushioning they were accustomed to.

I tried a sports massage instead of going back to the physio. The masseur is called Ward, he has magic hands, and he can inflict more pain than people who work in dungeons. He has a special way of doing an intake of breath to convey shock at the state of things. He did that a lot when he started to massage my right side. He undid knots in my iliotibial band, a procedure that made me clutch things. He said my hip muscles were impossibly tight and did his best to loosen them.

I realised something was fundamentally wrong with how I run. It must be. Although my right side is stronger than my left, everything was failing on the right. I knew the injuries must be related to my biomechanics, to my gait and to my movement. It was logical. My club mate Adam, who runs freely and beautifully and fast, told me he’d had his gait analysed and changed at a running clinic in Harrogate called Pure Running. I immediately made an appointment. Teri, an ever cheery running coach, had me run on the treadmill and videoed me from the side and the back. Then we sat down at her laptop and she showed me how I run.

Good lord. What a catastrophe.

She put yellow lines on the screen to show how my body’s alignment should be, if if were moving as efficiently as possible. On the left side, they weren’t too bad. On the right they were comically off. Every time I moved my feet, my pelvis sank on my right side; my whole torso twisted; my foot kicked back like a Dick Emery move. My gait was all wrong: my backwards kick stopped below 90 degrees, which meant my gait was making a long flat oval shape, which was making my heel hit the ground with brutal force. I have bad posture anyway, and I had bad posture when I ran. I was twisted, slumping, thumping. It was all wrong. No wonder my body was hurting.

Children run freely and beautifully. They don’t think about it. But then we start sitting. We sit at school. We sit at university. We go to work and sit at desks. Then we come and sit in front of the TV. We sit, sit and sit. We slump. We crouch. We twist. Our sedentary lifestyles are now thought to be as life-shortening as tobacco or alcohol or heart disease. And they make us run badly.

So I began to learn to run better. I learned to stand straighter, to have a stronger torso. I learned to move my arms in front of me, like a piston, not across my body. Not every elite runner does that – Mo’s arms aren’t straight – but when they can run 26 miles at a four minute mile pace, they can do whatever they like. I learned from my friends Jayne and Bibi to keep my hands relaxed by pretending I was holding baby birds and didn’t want to kill them. (Butterflies work too.) I started to strengthen my gluteal muscles in my backside with exercises (glute bridges, clam shells). They were hardly firing at all because they had been slumbering after decades of doing not much more than sitting for hours on end. But you need glutes to run. They are the most important locomotive muscles. I wasn’t using them enough, so was using my hamstring and thigh muscles to compensate, and together with the twisting from my weak pelvis, this was was putting immense pressure on my hip.

Meanwhile I went to my GP. She’s a marathon runner, and she is sympathetic to running injuries, even though they are, I suppose, self-inflicted. But running keeps me healthy. This is ironic in the context of a GP visit, but true. It keeps my cholestorol down, my heart-rate healthy, my lungs fit. So she said, right, more physio, and sent me to my local hospital at Chapel Allerton, where I got more exercises, and the most striking acupuncture I’ve ever had, that melted knots in my tight muscles and made me grip the bench with shock. But it’s worth it, and it’s on the NHS, and the service is brilliant.

I graduated from Teri’s sessions last week. She videoed me again. I stand straighter. I kick higher. My flat, brutal oval has shortened into a safer circle shape. My heel strikes the ground at a much less brutal angle. My pelvis does not sink. Now when I run, my backside aches, which means my gluteal muscles are firing properly. It’s not perfect, and sometimes I have to stop and do hip-opening exercises, such as yesterday, when I tried out a pair of Brooks Pure Drift which I had been loaned for a week because I signed up to their Try it On scheme. They are minimalist shoes, and since my hip and foot problems, minimalist shoes have scared me. But I put my inserts in them and ran eight miles. And honestly, I’m not sure my feet like them. I know about the great debates of barefoot or minimalist running versus us cushioned clod-hoppers in our big shoes. And I know that I am able to find all sorts of excuses to avoid progress (such as convincing myself that treadmill running was far better than going outside, because I didn’t dare get off the treadmill.) But I think that my beloved feet prefer my cushioned Brooks Ghost shoes. I’ve put them through so much, and I demand so much of them, they probably still need the assistance of cushioning. I’ll try the Pure Drift again, though not on my 15 miles tomorrow. I meant to keep them pristine, although there is no obligation to do that, but as I ran up Harrogate Road, my feet turned right into Primley Park Avenue and then started running up to Eccup Reservoir. They love Eccup reservoir and so do I. So the Pure Drifts have been tested, and mudded. And I am doing my daily Pilates exercises, and using my spiky massage ball to iron out my knotted muscles after running. And I make sure, unlike a surprising number of my club-mates, to do a dynamic warm-up before running, and to stretch properly and massage afterwards. And all in all, I am running better, more safely, and more kindly on my hips, my knees, my feet.



TIME 1:13.58 average pace 9:14 min/mile

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


I don’t like being ill. I don’t see it as time off. I see it as time when I can’t exercise. On the other hand, over the past few days I know I wasn’t well because the thought of running was horrifying. I would pass runners on the street and think, ugh. So I have been taking it easy, forcing myself to eat though something has gone wrong with my hungry signals. I feel like I have no appetite, but when I eat, I realise I want to. Weird. This week is taper week but as the taper is not supposed to be zero, and as my mood yesterday descended to unable-to-exercise depths, I wanted to run today. My training plan called for 12 miles, so Jayne and I had planned to get the train to Saltaire, run to Shipley then get a train back to Leeds. It would have been nice and flat and different canal views to the usual city centre-Kirkstall-Rodley that I do quite often. On Friday I thought I could run 12 miles on Sunday, on Saturday I realised I couldn’t. So Jayne suggested running with the staff from Asics Leeds instead. Like Sweatshop, Asics now do free club runs, 5K on Wednesday and 10K on Sunday. I think this is great: that running has become so popular that shops are putting on runs, and supermarket chains and big high street shops are doing decent running gear (well done, H&M and Asda).

We ran 10K up to Kirkstall and back, and the pace was, er, brisk. At one point it was 8 minute miles. It’s odd for me to feel that I was the slowest in the group, but I was. But people ran at my pace to keep me company, and I was never left behind. Possibly it was because the pace was faster than I’m used to now I’ve slowed a bit with marathon training. Possibly it was my recovery energy levels which thought, what on earth are you doing? It felt hard. And then, afterwards, it felt great.

And so I meant to write a post about how wonderful it is to be able to run again, and exercise, and feel healthy, and I went upstairs to fetch my laptop, and then fell down the stairs. I banged my back on the stairs and my head on the door. Tomorrow my back will be black. But as long it’s mobile, I’ll still run with it.

TIME: 55:06

Screen Shot 2014-02-09 at 15.55.35


I don’t count calories. I can’t be bothered. But I do get weighed every week at my training session. And I was a little surprised to have gained 3 lbs in a week. My weight does fluctuate according to my menstrual cycle, and I can tell because a) my ring gets harder to put on my finger and b) I feel like an elephant. But this wasn’t related to that. This, I realised, was alcohol. I broke my abstinence ban to celebrate the 50th birthday of a good friend. I broke it spectacularly with nearly 12 hours of drinking. I was drinking Prosecco and Champagne mostly. 70 calories a glass. Lots of glasses. And it went straight to my waist and weight.

So I am back to the abstinence. It makes me feel better. I sleep better. I weigh better.

As for food, Jenny will give me a block diet plan. That’s “diet” as in “the kinds of food that a person, animal, or community habitually eats” not “a special course of food to which one restricts oneself, either to lose weight or for medical reasons.” I don’t diet. I follow Michael Pollan’s advice:

Eat food.
Not too much.
Mostly plants.

One block for each food group: protein, carbohydrates, vegetables. Then she will advise me what each meal should consist of, and beyond that it’s mix and match and up to me. I love food. I will not stop having treats. I would never banish cake. But I need to think about fuelling, because I need to haul my body around 26.1 miles, and at the moment that’s not something I think I can do. I have running mates who think I’m a geek and over-obsessed. They don’t run with watches. They don’t sign up for races until the last minute. They would laugh at the sight of a training plan. But they could also probably run a marathon from one day to the next. They are younger, and fitter, and though they eat what they like and it’s often crap, they have more reserves. Lucky, lucky them. For now.



“You’re vegetarian?
You run?
But how do you get protein?”

I am asked this a lot. I am asked it even more in France, where the thought of not eating animals is generally taken as a national insult or a sign of insanity. However, with marathon training, and after my horrible nausea run the other day, protein is something I am going to think about carefully. Marathon training requires calories, and it requires carbohydrates and protein and fat and everything. But I fell into the mistake of over-emphasising carbohydrates in my food, especially when it seemed like my ideal pre-race dinner was a chip butty, mushy peas and gravy. I base that on a very enjoyable PECO cross country run after chips but I think it was wishful thinking. It certainly shouldn’t be an ideal pre-race dinner, because it consists of quick-release carbohydrates. Those are known as The Wrong Carbs. The Right Carbs are slow-release complex carbohydrates such as brown rice or wholewheat pasta. So maybe it was the crumpets with nutella I had for breakfast instead. Or lunar tides. Or something.

But now I am all about protein. My muscles need protein, and so, on recent evidence, does my stomach. So now and again if I make a successful meal, I’ll share it. And today, I did. It was a day where leaving the house seemed impossible. That happens a lot now I have two charming cats at home.


I procrastinated and lingered and loafed. One moment of loafing involved sitting in a chair watching my cats chase each other around the room like cats on crack, while I drank coffee and looked through Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s Veg Every Day. It is an excellent book. I want to eat pretty much everything in it, and I can’t say that of many other vegetarian recipe books except maybe Madhur Jaffrey’s World Vegetarian. I was about to leave and planned to go for lunch to Emmaus, the homelessness charity that is next to my studio in Leeds, and which has a cheap and cheerful – depending on who’s on that day – café. I did that yesterday, and had some very good vegetable soup made by Martin, who likes to add spice. But the man working in the café wasn’t coping too well with the lunchtime rush and the soup was cold. It was good soup, Martin, really, but not so good that I enjoyed eating it cold (there was no chance of getting it warmed up; the man already looked close to collapse from stress).

So I read Hugh, and I changed my mind, and made a warm winter salad. It took less than fifteen minutes to make. I don’t remember the quantities of everything, but it consists of this:

15-Minute Protein Salad
1 sweet potato, boiled and chunked
A handful of feta
A cooked beetroot
A stick of celery
A handful of kale, steamed then crisped in a frying pan with sesame seeds
Peanuts, walnuts, mixed seeds (sesame, linseed, sunflower), toasted in a frying pan

Dressing (a good splash of everything):
Rice vinegar
Soy sauce
1/4 teaspoonful of sugar
Sesame oil (teaspoon)
Vegetable oil (teaspoon)
A bit of lemon juice

That includes protein from the nuts and feta, Good Carbohydrates from the sweet potato, all sorts of goodness from the kale, water from the celery, and deliciousness from the soy sauce dressing.

It’s a poor picture, but it tastes amazing: