25 March 2012

The dark side of the sun

I squoosh you, stupid cheerful sun. 
If there's one thing that the grey, cold drizzle of winter in the UK does, it's that it makes you appreciate springtime.

As I write this, my little corner of southeastern England is basking in balmy(ish) spring temperatures, sunshine and blue sky. People are walking around with a new sense of relaxation and relief. It's not exactly sizzling temperatures, but I can smell barbecues. People are wearing sunglasses and venturing out a few layers lighter than they were a few short weeks ago. Flowers are blooming; trees are blossoming.

Spring comes with the promise of happiness and renewal – yes, all the clich├ęs are true. It just feels smiley. Even if the rest of the summer is a washout (it often is) and/or there's a hosepipe ban (there often is), it's just a wonderful, optimistic time of year.

And so it has that effect on me. But it also has a strangely opposite effect, too, come the weekend especially. It makes me feel a little melancholy; a little lonely. I know – admitting to loneliness is a bit of a taboo, and it makes people feel uncomfortable. And it's not that my life is empty or that I dislike solitude. Far from it, in fact – I have friends, work is busy and I enjoy and actively seek solitude quite often.

As one gets older, though, the nature of friendship changes. Friends pair off, and have children, and move away to areas with good schools or countless other reasons that go hand in hand with being a grown-up. So, just by the way things go, you see less of them. Weekends are for couple stuff. For family stuff. There are few people left who are free for carefree socialising at the weekends.

You can get away with being antisocial in the winter, when you just want to stay indoors in the warm, when nothing appeals less than the thought of a cold wind cutting through you as you wait on an icy platform for a train delayed by snow. But springtime brings with it an urge to crawl out from our caves and reacquaint ourselves with the world.

And I associate sunny warm weekends with good times – lazy, slightly sozzled days in sunbaked beer gardens; country walks; days slipping into night on the seafront.

To underscore those hazy, pleasant associations, my last relationship bloomed with the spring and flourished through the summer of 2010. I think back on our relationship, and it's not through rose-tinted glasses but through the glint of sunglasses. Beer gardens in the sun; walking on Brighton beach; one day we both declared 'perfect' which was nothing more than a long walk followed by collapsing on the grass of a common and talking until the sun went down late. It all seems blissful, carefree, and bathed in sunlight.

Don't get me wrong. Turns out he later cheated on me with his ex and got her pregnant before dumping me, so I don't want him back. What I do miss, though, is that warm haze of companionship tied up inextrictably with sunshine and long days. I can't unpick the weather from its happy memories. Nor would I want to, of course, but the lack of the opportunities to make new summertime memories with friends or a significant other causes the occasional pang.

In this weather, I feel I should be out doing something, and making the most of the weather, but I rapidly run out of ideas of things I'd enjoy for long on my own, so I sometimes end up doing nothing, then getting a bit annoyed about it all.

Not that I resent the weather itself of course. It still brings a smile to my face. The hope for renewal and the optimism still stir, even in this middle-aged, scarred old heart of mine. Who knows what a new summer will bring…besides a hosepipe ban?

Image: freedigitalphotos.net

18 March 2012

Running like the wind (or rather, a gentle breeze)

It's funny because it's true.
It started with the most unlikely of sources of inspiration. Most people who read The Guardian or watch Channel 4 will be familiar with Charlie Brooker. Charlie is a scathingly funny and acerbic wit who cuts through the absurdity of television and current affairs with a sarcastic sneer. His columns and television appearances are always a thing of joy. What Charlie isn't, though, is someone you would turn to for inspiration when you want to get fit.

Last November, Charlie wrote a column entitled I have been murdered and replaced with a suspicious facsimile. In running shoes. He writes:

For years, I thought I knew vaguely who I was, and the kind of things I liked. And one thing I'd definitely class myself as is "un-sporty". I've never had a gym membership and have always been profoundly suspicious of anyone who willingly does anything more physically demanding than wiping their arse. So imagine my shock, in recent weeks, to find myself running around a local park. Not once, not while being chased in a waking nightmare, but voluntarily and often.

He goes on to explain how, with the help of an app for his smartphone, he's started to take up running. And enjoying it. Hating himself for enjoying it, because it goes against type, but enjoying it.

I'd been feeling unhealthy and unfit, but unwilling to part yet again with cash for a gym membership I'd use enthusiastically for a month or two before dropping away (and still paying for membership). Something in Brooker's piece chimed with me. If someone like him could take up running and enjoy it, why not give it a go?

I mentioned this to a friend a week or so later. She's a force of nature, and in the face of her enthusiasm I had no choice but to download the app that Brooker had used (Get Running). A few days later, I donned my ancient trainers, a pair of sweatpants and a fleece, and headed out.

And so it began...
Running 1 minute at a time - easy, right? Not so much. I came home from that run feeling like my lungs had been ripped from my chest and scraped raw with a cheese grater before being shoved back in upside-down. I looked ahead to that final run – 30 minutes of running without stopping – and the goal may as well have been "fly to the moon" for how realistic it seemed.

But a funny thing happened. My stubborn streak kicked in. Goddammit, I wasn't going to stop. And so I started working my way through the programme.

There were good days. There were also bad days. Days when it felt like I was running through treacle. Days when the wind was blowing horizontal rain and sleet into my face. Days when the temperature dropped below zero and I worried my extremities would fall off. But my stubborn streak carried me through. I started so I was determined to finish.

I got stuck on some runs. I hit plateaus. My smoking habit, which snaked back into my life after I'd stopped last summer, didn't help. My creaking knees didn't help. Each week a new muscle group would protest at the unaccustomed exercise.

The genius of the Couch to 5k programme, though, is that not only do you start slowly and build up (thus reducing the risk of injury), you can really measure how you're progressing. Each new goal rose up in front of me, a daunting new Everest of running 5 minutes straight, then 8 minutes, then 20 minutes. And even if it took a while, I'd conquer each mountain. The fleece and sweats were replaced with running leggings and a proper running top. The ancient trainers were replaced with a pair of overengineered, garish, bouncy pair of "running shoes". Instead of feeling embarrassed when I crossed the path of another runner, gradually I began to exchange comradely smiles and nods.

Towards the end of the programme, my smoke-damaged lungs cried for mercy and I managed to give up the weed again. I'd stopped before and found it utter hell; this time was much easier. Alarmingly so. And I think it's because my lungs immediately began to reward me on the runs with deeper breaths and less suffering.

The new year came. I knew I wouldn't meet my original goal of running 30 minutes by my January birthday (based on the 9 week duration of the programme) because of the repeated weeks, but I carried on, with a new year resolution of completing a sponsored 5k run.

I signed up for the British Heart Foundation Regent's Park Jog and I was spurred on through the cold winter mornings to carry on running by the support and sponsorship friends and family gave me.

Oh happy day!
On the day finally came that I never quite believed would happen but stubbornly refused to give up on: the final run in Get Running. Thirty minutes of running. Thirty minutes.  It took longer than 9 weeks to get there, but by God, I did it. Stubborness pays.

On March 11th I arrived at Regent's Park, excited but nervous, and, alongside the friend who'd originally pushed me into downloading the app, I ran. I ran for about 40 minutes, and I ran 5 kilometres. I had my doubts at times if I'd make it, especially when I got to the 4th kilometre, but once again my stubborn streak – and the knowledge that I had sponsors who'd donated money to me in good faith and support – pushed me to the finish line, bursting with pride. OK, my time was nothing remarkable but at the advanced age of 40mumblecough"something" I'd done something I'd never thought I was capable of doing.

With my unsporty nature, my creaking knees and torn cartilage, my 20-a-day habit…it never occurred to me that I would ever take up running. It never occurred to me that I would want to, let alone that I could. My astonishment couldn't be any greater than Brooker's. And now, god help me, I've downloaded an app called "Bridge to 10k". I don't even know who I am anymore.

Thanks Charlie.

P.S. My page to collect donations on behalf of The British Foundation for the 5k jog is open until 11th June 2012. Please contact me if you would like the address.

P.P.S. The "What I feel like when I run" image is a meme I've seen all over the internet so can't credit the source. If you know the source, give me a shout.