TODAY’S SPORTING ACTIVITY
- MILES: 6:57
- TIME: 1:07.49 (slow, but it was a stop-start club run)
- WEATHER: wet
- ROUTE: see below
In 1988, I arrived at Somerville College, the University of Oxford, with great trepidation. I knew I wanted to be at Oxford. But I’d applied in my A-level year to St. Edmund’s Hall and been rejected (not surprising when I later learned that it was not particularly northern, very male, and very into rugby). I decided to re-apply on the strength of interview and my A-levels and got into Somerville. My first year hall of residence was called Vaughan, something that was astonishing, as it was a) my unusual third name which no-one can ever spell right and b) it was spelled right. I don’t have a wonderful memory so I don’t recall it exactly but I know that by the end of that first day, as a scared fresher, I had made three friends. Nathalie, a frank-speaking Geordie studying history; Charlotte, a posh (I thought) blonde doing zoology, and Louise, a tall and somewhat intimidatingly beautiful lass, from Yorkshire like me, also studying French, though I was doing French and Italian, and she had stuck with German. (I abandoned German after A-level because after four years of studying it, it sounded ugly to me, so I chose the prettiest language I could think of, however useless in diplomatic terms Italian is). We have been friends ever since. We shared a house together in our second year, on Marlborough Road. We lived next door to a group of American lads who were a) Catholic b) studying at an odd Catholic college for a year and c) hilarious. I fell in love with one of them, Ted. Lou became great friends with Brian, a loud Californian who was like no-one I’d met before. We spent the year shopping for affordable food, with Lou in charge of the budget: No, Rose, you can’t have the expensive cheese, and then eating it. I remember Lou’s veggie bakes and Brian’s gnocchi – pronounced gnowwwwki – and a lot of fun.
We all stayed in touch, though we moved all over the world. We didn’t always phone or write, but that didn’t seem to matter. Then Louise got sick. She had a benign tumour in her leg which was later diagnosed as cancerous. It was a rare tumour. Later – and inside that later are so many diagnoses, appointments, hope and disappointment as it kept coming back – it metastasised. She lost her leg, bit by bit. Throughout it all she was wonderful. She must have been in increasing pain, but she didn’t complain. She stayed out late when we visited, although she must have been exhausted. Still she didn’t complain. She protected her friends. After Lou received a terminal diagnosis, on 21 December 2012, she and her husband Al started a blog. Lou was asked to participate in a photographic project by Rankin, which became a show at the Walker Gallery called Alive in the Face of Death. She did, and she loved it. She made it to the opening of Rankin’s show, although her prognosis shouldn’t have allowed her to, because she was determined to do so, and she looked beautiful. But she was exhausted although once again she didn’t complain. She died three days later at her mother’s house, with Al by her side. She was 42.
Why is this on a running blog? Because a month after running the London marathon, I’ll run the Edinburgh half marathon for one of Lou’s chosen charities, the SCAT Bone Cancer Trust. Dodgy acronym, noble cause. There are about 15 of us running for TeamLOU already, including Lou’s husband Al (if he ever gets off his bike and starts running instead of thinking about it), friends from Edinburgh, Rugby, Leeds, people who knew her in person and people who came to know her through her blog. So please, if you can spare any money, donate on our fundraising page here.
Here is Lou, photographed by Rankin. I love this picture. Lou loved this picture. We miss her. We will run like the wind.
Kirkstall Harriers. It used to be the running club of the Leeds Postal Sports Association, which is why we still meet there for drinks after training runs and although we have been doing that forever, pins still drop amongst the old posties when young women dressed in lycra enter the pool hall. Our origins may be why we’re the only club – we think – to run on Monday and Wednesday, when most other clubs run on Tuesday and Thursday. We wear purple. Our symbol is a monk, because our club is near the magnificent and beautiful Kirkstall Abbey. During our Kirkstall 7 race, the valiant and very speedy Richard Joyce dresses up as a monk and races with cassock flying. We belong to the PECO cross country league, which is a series of 5 miles or so races around the mud and woodland of Leeds and surroundings. The races are great and sometimes you get hot pies or peas afterwards. Sunday was at Middleton Park, hosted by Rothwell Harriers. I’d had chips and mushy peas the night before and though I know that neither Veggie Runners nor my trainer Jenny will approve of that dietary choice, I swear the fat and carbohydrates made me faster. I ran 4.73 miles in 42:36. I nearly caught up with Paul Glover, who is faster than me. I was pleased (especially when they served jacket potatoes and mushy peas afterwards). And I was even more pleased when our ladies team placed first in the Premier Division. All these are things that I never, ever thought would matter to me. I didn’t think I was competitive about sport, especially having taken up running at the age of 41. And usually the person I’m competing against is me. But I have started visualising a target on my club-mate Marion’s back (a catching-up kind of target, not a murderous one), though it’s probably a vain hope: she is fast. Anyway here is my club at the PECO on Sunday, though without a monk.
I’ve had a difficult few years, as most of my friends know. A stepfather with dementia, a diagnosis of my own, a relationship breakdown in the middle of a book deadline (thanks, ex). Along the way I’ve had great support from my friends, from Twitter and Facebook, from all sorts of quarters. And one of the things that calmed me most was running. And another thing that calmed me was KIT.
I love kit. I’ve loved it ever since I had my first Dunlop Green Flash trainers, then my beloved hockey boots and shin-pads. In 1993 I went to Siberia with Operation Raleigh on a three month expedition around Lake Baikal. We had three different projects each: mine was a survey of the remains of a nuclear underground explosion ten years earlier (that meant gathering mud and leaves and giving them to a bearded scientist named Viktor and never knowing the results); a paleontological survey with a delightful Buryatian scientist Margarita Erbaeva; and a three week hiking trip through the astonishing Sayan mountains. Throughout all that, whether digging for million-year-old frogs legs or gathering mud or hiking, our conversation covered three topics, consistently: food (that we couldn’t get), toilets (of course) and kit. So maybe it’s the memory of those soothing conversations about bivvy bags and Thermarests that gently pushes me to spend hours on sports kit and running gear websites. This habit gets worse when I’m under stress. I bet my running related purchases spiked during the three months last winter I was rewriting my book.
I love my daily email from sportspursuit.com even though I rarely buy anything. But oh, those merino wool long-sleeved tops! I love looking through sportsshoes.com; running geek; Striders Edge; far too many other sites to list here without you wondering how I get any work done. Sometimes I even go to Sports Direct, although I never buy online. But clicking on the colours, the shoes, the accessories: it calms me down. I think it helps me get work done. I think it must be a form of meditation.
It also means I have a lot of kit. They say that running is cheap. It’s not, if you buy expensive race fees (£50 for the Great North Run? really?), and if you spend as much time gathering accessories and clothing and shoes as I do. It would take me too long to do an accurate list, but here is one from memory of my running possessions:
1 Garmin 210 watch
1 massage stick
1 foam roller
1 spiky massage ball
2 boxes energy gels
About 15 short-sleeved or vest running tops
1 club vest
3 long-sleeved running tops
3 high-vis jackets
3 pairs capri running tights
2 long running tights
2 pairs running shorts
6 pairs Karrimor running socks
2 pairs orthotic insoles
2 Moon finger-held lights (though they double as bike lights)
1 pair running gloves
6 pairs running shoes: road, fell, trail, race, freebie, mistake
Then there are the massages, podiatrist and physio appointments, and running gait analysis. It all adds up to a lot of money, and every penny is worth it.
I used to live in London, and shared a house. One day my housemate Karen and I decided to go for a run. Until then, I was a swimmer. I lived a short walk from London Fields Lido, a heated, outdoor, Olympic-sized swimming pool that was open all year round. Why would I not be a swimmer? But then that day we decided to run. We made it about 400 metres to the end of the street and had to walk back. It hurt. God, it hurt. Legs, arms, eyes, lungs. It underlined everything I thought I believed about runners: they were smug and they were idiots. So I left running alone for a while, until I moved back up north to Leeds, and there was no heated, outdoor, Olympic-sized swimming pool that was open all year round, or even at all. There’s Ilkley Lido, but it’s cold and far away. I had to find something else to do. I don’t remember now what led me to the Get Running Couch to 5K app, but something did. Then I had to go to sea on a container ship for five weeks to research my book, and there was a gym on-board Maersk Kendal, and a treadmill. I learned to run (and wrote about it here for The Guardian); I did half of the Couch to 5K, and although I didn’t love it – I had to run with a towel over the clock and something to watch on TV or I would stop from a combination of boredom and my stop-running voices in my head – I didn’t stop. I carried on, and on and on. Of course, being stubborn and insecure about running, I stayed on treadmills for about a year. I tried running outside and it was harder (because it is, the first time, because of wind) so I fled back to my treadmill and persuaded myself that that was the best place to be, that all the runners – ie nearly all runners – who said running outside was better, far better: they were wrong.
They were not wrong.
Since then I’ve had two lots of surgery for endometriosis. I have the most severe form of endometriosis, which I wrote about here. My insides are riddled and various organs and parts inside me are stuck together. But I’m lucky that unlike many women, I don’t have chronic crippling pain. Two days of co-codamol a month is the current average. And I think that partly that is because I run. I run because if I am diseased, and incurably so – at least until the menopause – then I want to be the healthiest diseased person I can be. I also run because it heals my brain and my passing depressions better than anything I have ever tried. My friends think me a running geek now. They smile at my six pairs of running shoes (although they call them “trainers”.) My mother worries that I’m running too far, or too remotely, or at all, but she admires my fitness, I think. And I am infecting people. My friend Charlotte said, “I can’t run,” though she was walking regularly every day, so I showed her the Get Running app, and now she runs, a lot. My friend Elliot, who used to run, needed something to soothe his mind, and I said: RUN. And now he does, a lot.
I began racing. The first race I did was the Bradford 10K, and though it was flat and boring – though I knew no different – I finished it, and it was OUTSIDE. Then I did the Kirkstall 7, a lovely seven mile race around Kirkstall Abbey in Leeds, run by Kirkstall Harriers. I’d written to them a year earlier enquiring about joining and though they had sent friendly emails back, I’d been too scared. Clubs are intimidating. Club runners are far too fast. I would get left behind.
But at the Kirkstall 7 they seemed so friendly, and I liked their purple hoodies. So I joined. And it has been one of the best things I’ve done. There are fast runners, and slow ones. No-one is ever left behind. We encourage each other, we give each other advice, and we run through muddy woods on a Sunday morning together and afterwards someone hands round a tin of chocolates, and you are sweaty and cold and sizzling a little, and you take the mini Snickers bar and think: there is nothing I would rather be doing on a cold Sunday morning in January.
Yes. Runner’s crack. Endorphins. But they work.
The capitulation of the title: when I started running with Kirkstall, I thought people who talked of marathons were weird. I said, I will never run a marathon. What is the point of running 26.2 miles? I will never, ever say something as ridiculous as “sub-40” or “PB.” But I do. And I will run 26.2 miles, because I’ll be running the London marathon on April 13 for Seafarers UK. Because, why not?
TODAY’S SPORTING ACTIVITY