The Accidental Runner

I’ve taken up running, entirely by accident. I’m not even sure how it happened. One minute I was a fervent anti-runner, would never have put the words fun and run in the same sentence… then quietly over Christmas, my body started whispering that maybe she might quite like to start running, much in the same way that she’d whispered earlier last year that she thought she’d really rather enjoy swimming. The swimming has been going -ahem- swimmingly, my face spontaneously breaking out into a grin when I enter the water and begin my old-lady-breaststroke 15 lap minimum. But running? Surely not. Running involved getting hot, sweaty, red-faced and out of breath, putting undue pressure on feet that had only just recovered from plantar fasciitis, and being seen in public wearing dodgy Lycra outfits. Yet my body remained quietly insistent that yes, running was what was required, and I know by now that it’s generally worth paying attention to what my body says she wants. It’s only taken me 46 years to understand this.

Apart from a brief spell of jogging in my teens, which was as much about wanting to get as close to Nature as I could in urban Liverpool as it was about actual exercise, I’ve never been running. Plus this time around it was Christmas, I was at my parents’ home in Liverpool without so much as a T-shirt or pair of trainers and with a large pile of chocolate to work my way through. As actual running was clearly not an option, I did the next best thing – reading about it. Firstly Anna McNuff’s The Pants of Perspective, an account of her solo run through New Zealand- literally all of New Zealand, from South to North. Crazy Lady. While impressive and inspiring in its own way – and kinda funny in that McNuff clearly isn’t a planner and the trip was alarmingly and refreshingly ad hoc rather than having been thrashed out in military detail beforehand – it didn’t have much relevance for a couch potato like me who’s not in the habit of tackling a mere 40k before breakfast. Bring on Bryony Gordon’s Eat, Drink, Run. Overweight and struggling with severe mental health issues, Gordon found herself running as a way of dealing with her depression… then, in her role as a journalist and mental health advocate, ended up chatting over-enthusiastically to several members of the Royal Family, and accidentally putting herself forward to run the London Marathon. Which meant that she really did have to take up running. Much more relatable. Not that McNuff’s book wasn’t enjoyable, just that it’s far easier for me to relate to someone who is completely unfit and falling apart and then takes up running by accident.

A Proper Running Shop was required to buy myself a decent pair of running shoes, realising that my “good” trainers were over twenty years old. The very nice man had me running on a treadmill to check my gait and found shoes with as much support as possible, given my previous injuries. Testing several pairs out in this way showed me that there really is a difference; with some of the shoes I felt flat-footed and landed heavily, while others felt much lighter and bouncy. Although blimey, they don’t come cheap. Terrified that I’d wasted a ridiculous amount of money on trainers that I’d never wear again, I signed myself up to the aptly named NHS Couch to 5k app, and the Red January programme run in association with Mind, the mental health charity, with the aim of exercising every day in January. Then on the 2nd January, I crept out into the grey light of dawn and with Sarah Millican’s reassuring voice in my ears, began my first run along the nearby cycle track. Or rather, my first walk. Week One had me walking for 90 seconds, running for 60 for repeated intervals. My Aldi fitness leggings began sliding down with every step, leaving me clutching the waistband so as not to get arrested for public decency offences. My other hand juggled my phone and water bottle. It was freezing out and I was nervous that I wouldn’t even manage Day One as I was so out of condition. But I made it, with an imaginary orchestra playing a triumphant Thus Spake Zarathustra behind me as the final seconds counted down (that one from 2001, A Space Odyssey.)

I’ve just completed Week 3 of the Couch to 5k app, now up to running three minutes at a time. My body is loving it, craving it even. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a rubbish runner, just as I’m a rubbish swimmer; I have no intention of entering any kind of 5k race or timing my personal bests. I’m just doing this for me. What I’ve realised is, it doesn’t matter whether or not I’m any good at it. Doing it anyway is what counts.

On World Mental Health Day

Crashing, over and over. Fighting to pick myself up, keep going, trying to make things better. Getting knocked back over again, each time the fall coming harder, the pain deeper, the resilience less. A good weekend is followed by a clash with Lily’s therapist, who alarmingly manages to actually make things worse. Over the past two months, this woman has left me feeling suicidal no less than four times, steamrollering me with her procedures and rules and now forcing me into the role of Bad Cop with Lily while she gets to play the Good Fairy; not even the Good Cop. Another post for another time, but I was left curled up on my bed, sobbing, unable to function. Not able to leave the house to drive into town to pick the kids up off the school bus, not able to cook dinner, locking myself in my room because I couldn’t face dealing with the kids and I didn’t want them to see me in that state either. Literally wanting to die and feeling trapped because suicide isn’t an option when you’re a single parent. Fighting the urge to gulp down most of a bottle of whisky as the next best option. Discovering a whole new level below rock bottom, one in which suicidal is something to aim for, something better than you’re currently feeling. There is nothing of me left, I died a long time ago. This empty shell should have crumbled into dust, but is forced to keep moving so that the kids have food, clothes and a ride to school. The small voice in my head becoming a scream I can’t go on like this any more, day after day after day I can’t go on, but with no way of making it stop.

Casual plans had been put in place to head north last weekend to visit my parents and see the final outing of Royal de Luxe’s giants in Liverpool. Exhausted, I realised there was no way I could drive 150 miles on Friday evening after school, spend a hectic two days giant-watching and then drive 150 miles home again on Sunday evening. I figured we’d head up on Thursday evening, then by Wednesday night, broken, realised that it was still too much to manage. I wasn’t coping, was barely functioning. So we took Thursday off school as well, packed a bag each and set out on the journey North, having left an early message on the school’s answering machine that Ivy and Lily were both ill. In the end, we took not only the Thursday and Friday but also the Monday off school, knowing that after a full-on day watching the finale in a massive crowd, I was too tired to drive home safely (due to roadworks as the motorways are upgraded, the three hour journey takes five hours or more.) Three illicit days off school, two struggling kids, one mother who was an emotional wreck. I told school that the kids were ill, intending to use the excuse of food poisoning if questioned further, developing this into full blown Noro virus if pushed – knowing that school were unlikely to want us back until fully recovered if this were the case. Because what am I supposed to say? Sorry, I’m feeling suicidal so my kids aren’t coming in for the next few days as I need to be with my family, I don’t feel safe on my own.

To Liverpool then, for 3 days of Giant-watching. Trains, buses, huge crowds. Wishing that my Dad was more inclined to take tea-and-cake breaks, or that chairs had been provided along the route. No matter though. The spectacle was enough, the magic of a mass of people caught up in a game of make-believe. I’d seen pictures of the Diver and Little Girl from years before and wished I’d been able to see it then. This time around, I was determined that we’d catch it – and now having discovered that this is the last outing of the Giants, I’m so glad that we did. It’s yet another example of an extra-curricular activity that the kids will remember for the rest of their lives, whereas it’s unlikely they’d remember what they did in school that day. We were all captivated as the huge puppets moved, walked, and danced along the streets, while red frockcoat-wearing Lilliputians dangled from ropes, climbed alarmingly tall frameworks, pulled, hauled and best of all hurled themselves from moving trucks to make the giants move, all to the music blasting out of speakers and the cheers of the crowd.

Having worked in theatre, I’m well-versed in criticism, in development during which an idea is thrashed about and re-worked to the point where it no longer resembles itself, of too many voices demanding that the piece needs to be more this, less that, must say a different message… and yet I’ve known that often the audience doesn’t make the same demands. Or at least the audience – if it were composed of ordinary people rather than the theatre in-crowd – isn’t necessarily making the same demands as those within the industry claiming to speak on their behalf. That sometimes people want to be heard, want to see their lives reflected back to them in a way that gives them grace and dignity, and above all, hope. Most people are happy with a simple story told well rather than a piece that defies convention or experiments with form and style. With what we saw of the giants this time around, I couldn’t pick up on any notion of a story that was unfolding in front of me. It didn’t matter though. What we watched was a celebration, a spectacle. Hundreds of people had poured countless hours of effort into planning, building, rehearsing, and now performing- from the frock-coated Lilliputians tasked with operating the giant puppets, to the volunteers walking alongside them to maintain a safety cordon, to the transport workers ensuring that people could travel there and back as swiftly as possible, to the guys sweeping up the litter afterwards – all ultimately tasked with a single aim; to bring delight. I could infer any meaning I wanted about Liverpool’s Dream, from the history of migration from the city, people travelling to the New World chasing their dreams of a better life, to the tragic history of slavery and a city built on the backs of the exploited. Perhaps it sounds crass to say it didn’t matter. What mattered was bringing people together to watch it, to share in a communal experience of childlike wonder, of awe, of joy.

I imagine that there’s people I’ve worked with previously who would turn their noses up at the naivety of the whole thing, who would claim it had nothing to offer artistically, that it was mere spectacle. I think perhaps they don’t understand the meaning of the word spectacle – like watching a grand fireworks display which may not have anything to say about white working class reaction to Brexit, but which fills you with a delicious joy for the wonders of human existence. This is something we need more of, these moments of connection, of awe, of delight. Of hope, rather than yet another young woman brutally murdered in yet another crime drama, or witless reality show, or on-point, right-on stylistically innovative but depressing as fuck piece of new writing. Under Tory cuts, arts budgets have been slashed nationwide – it’s hard to justify spending on the arts when there’s no money for meals on wheels or road maintenance. Yet Royal de Luxe have been instrumental in regenerating the city of Nantes, their home base, not only culturally but economically. Liverpool is one of the few cities that insists on investing in the arts, the number of visitors last weekend proving that it makes economic sense. The Golden Age of cinema occurred alongside the Great Depression. Art Saves, as the T-shirt has it; financially, emotionally, intellectually and also spiritually. When you run out of hope, there’s nothing left to live for. I had reached that point last week. And although the weekend was tiring due to the long hours of standing, waiting and walking, it left me feeling renewed and refreshed in a way that I haven’t felt for years. The Giants ultimately brought me the gift I most needed; hope.