Happy Here and Now!

I woke up this morning not wanting to let this year go.

How to contemplate the thought of a “Happy New Year” when the scars of this one are raw and painful.

However “happy” it has been at times, it’s the year in which my mum died and it’s hard to bear the thought of moving into the next one without her. To leave her behind in 2017, when collectively the world lurches, with party poppers and fireworks, into 2018.

I want to stop all the clocks. Make the hands still. More than that I want to turn back time. To run as hard and as fast as I can through the months, the weeks, days, hours, minutes and seconds.

In my review of 2017 I want to go back to the moment my mum was alive and do everything differently. EVERYTHING. I want to save her.

Many times this year I have wanted to not move on – to evaporate, dissolve, to simply not “be”. Mentally slumped on the forest floor willing a carpet of leaves to blow over me, cloaking me in the blackness of a forever sleep.

Thankfully, a chink of light has pierced the dark canopy each time, brought me out of my gloom into the sun. This light is the love of family and friends, the attention seeking antics of my dogs, the solace of running, the beauty of the outdoors, my writing and my photography, the kindness of strangers, the advice of professionals, and the patience of many.

2017 has been a year when many people close to me, around me and in our community have lost loved ones, when I know other people have struggled with finding the light, finding the “happy”.

When I woke up, the thought of getting to 2018 seemed like an insurmountable wall to climb, how could I get through the end of this day, let alone it being the end of the year.

Then out walking, looking up at the vast sky, I realised it already was 2018, is 2018, in parts of the eastern southern hemisphere.

That as the champagne waits to go on ice here, someone somewhere is clearing away the corks.

That time is just a label, happy new year an annual mythological utopia, and that all I wish for myself and for all those I care about and love, is happy here and now.

Some of my favourite chink of light moments…

 

 

 

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Reflecting that sh*t happens…

Life in recent years has at times felt as if large piles of manure have landed at my door.

My dad’s decline and death through vascular dementia, my long struggles with “depression” leading to me being diagnosed as having OCD and PTSD from childhood fears, my husband John’s stroke and his deteriorating health with diagnosis of early signs of dementia, and then the biggest pile of poo of all, the sudden, unexpected death of my mum.

These events, especially the traumatic way mum died, are things I can’t mentally let go of, seep away – they fill the recesses of my mind, never far below the surface, always festering, bubbling, suppurating.

I’ve been aware for some while, that the effect on my mental state is a sense of being overloaded, unable to cram more in. I’ve become more anxious, panicky, forgetful, absent-minded. Effectively there’s restricted room for more cr*p.

I thought about this, having earlier today stared down into a pile of poo in our garden.

The toilets had been backing up when flushed, water filling the shower tray and not draining properly, odd glugging noises coming from the basin.

A very nice man called Brad from Drainsolve came out to have a look and explained the problem: “It’s your septic tank love. It’s not draining away, not percolating like it should be.

“Come and have a look,” he said pointing at a thick brown sludge uncovered after digging into the inspection pit. “There’s a build up of too much solid waste for the water to soak through. If nothing’s done about it, you’ll have sewage flowing down the lane and backing up right into the house.”

Nice! I got the picture.

“What do you want to do?” I asked.

“I don’t want to be here,” he answered without pause.

Brutally honest, but fully understandable.

And it’s a sentiment I know well – carrying around a head that’s a full septic tank, where nothing flows through clearly, where my ability to resolve life’s issues sometimes feels backed up to the point of overflow – yes, sometimes I don’t want to be “here” either.

Brad left, assuring me this wasn’t the worst job he was dealing with, though possibly the second-worst, and promising to return soon with a digger.

I walked the dogs to the playing field and sat on a bench, feeling panicky and short of breath, the overflow valve on overtime.

Brad had a digger for the suppurating septic tank.

What kind of tool do you use for festering myriad mind?

I was pondering this question feeling lost in gloom and darkness as I walked on up the river.

The sky turned an amazing deep shade of blue as if to reflect my mood. And suddenly, a beautiful rainbow appeared, for a fleeting, but magical moment.

Rainbows remind me of dad and always make me happy.

They’re a reflection of how we’re feeling, in this case, that sh*t happens, but somewhere the sun’s rays are shining through the rain.

 

Great! Full! And Very Grateful!

Wow! What an incredible trip the 2017 New York Marathon was.

The pinnacle was meeting Kathrine Switzer my running heroine, and inspiration for the Women Can Marathon.

I was thrilled, honoured, “over the moon” to be able to run with Kathrine and some of her 261 Fearless team and be welcomed to a wonderful pre-marathon dinner with them.

Having kick-started the women’s running movement in 1967 by being the first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon, 50 years on, Kathrine is still inspiring and encouraging women to run through her 261 social running community.

She tirelessly promotes 261 through social media…

Their motto strikes a strong chord: Be Fearless. Be Free. Be Grateful.

Adidas are promoting 261 with their new campaign Fearless AF (which as I learnt means, as f***). The launch at the Adidas Flagship Store on Fifth Avenue certainly made a statement with Kathrine sitting alongside other women athletes and running celebrities, including the model Karlie Kloss.

Kathrine herself was utterly delightful, charming and interested to hear about this year’s Women Can Marathon and plans for next year, when more 261 Fearless runners from across the world will be joining us. It was great to meet some of them in New York and think about welcoming them to my home village of Tipton St John, in Devon.

Making the decision to travel so far on my own was tough. In 2011 New York was my 10th marathon, my husband John joined me for the trip and we had a fabulous time. Shortly after I returned, my dad was diagnosed with dementia, he died in 2015, my mum, who’d been in great health, died suddenly and unexpectedly in April this year, and John, having had two strokes in 2013, and now diagnosed with early signs of dementia himself was too unwell to accompany me.

So it was with a Fearless attitude that I signed up for 2017 just a few weeks ago.

I went with a sense of purpose and making the most of everything – visiting iconic landmarks, discovering hidden gems, walking the busy streets beneath the skyscrapers…

…buying pretzels and hot dogs from street vendors, fine dining, watching a beautiful sunrise, enjoying the night time clamour, taking in museum culture, watching a ball game – soaking up the city in every way and every second that I had. I think I ticked the “Be Free” box all right.

Sunday was marathon day. Myself and my lovely roommate Lea, who’s from Estonia, were never happier to get up at 4am, though clearly some preferred to sleep on.

The event is an awesome feat of planning and organisation – 50,000 plus runners, 12,000 volunteers and many thousands of the most supportive, vocal spectators a runner could wish for – creating an electric atmosphere that could not fail to impress.

My own running of the race was a thrill from start to finish. The first five miles I felt like I was floating on air, reaching halfway in a speedy time for me of 2:03, feeling strong, and managing a couple of 9 minute miles on the long pull out to the Bronx.

The hard work began heading back to Central Park and hilly mile 24, when fatigue and muscle cramp got the better of me, and fighting the inner voice of despair I slowed to a 15 minute walk. Somehow I came through it and squeezed out a 10.25 and a 10.04 for the last two miles through the park.

My Garmin NY data

I crossed the finish line 7 seconds ahead of my 2011 time, in 4:18:35 – cramp, exhaustion and emotion took over and in a bit of a daze I was whisked off to the medical tent, where two expert physios pummelled life back into my aching calf muscles. They really were incredible. Thanks guys!

Too tired for photos, the obligatory medal pic had to wait until I was back in the hotel and on return the following day when I couldn’t stop smiling.

Although I travelled on my own, I felt the support of friends and family from back home, and new friends I met on the trip, and that mum and dad were both with me.

As for the final part of the 261 motto – yes, it’s been Great. It’s been Full. And for the joy that is running and all it brings to my life, I am truly Grateful.

New York you rock!

A natural high

My life this year has been a real roller-coaster – from spectacular highs to plunging lows.

Throughout this particularly gut-wrenching 2017 ride, running has been the constant solid support, the firm track, beneath my often shaky, worn out shell, a means by which I’ve found a way to climb back from the depths.

It’s been there at every twist and turn, every head-spinning sensation, bringing me a sense of peace and calm, amid the chaotic turbulence, saving me when the whole switch-back packed experience nearly broke me.

It’s also brought its own challenges, nausea-inducing anxiety, physical and mental pain to overcome.

2017 is the year that started with me being heavily involved in organising the first Women Can Marathon, a tribute to the incredible Kathrine Switzer and her trail-blazing 1967 Boston Marathon run.

We reached giddy heights, gaining the support of Olympian Jo Pavey, attracting 400 entries, generating massive enthusiasm and support, and many moments of euphoria in planning this major community event.

mumSix weeks away from the race taking place, my lovely mum died suddenly and unexpectedly, in what were traumatic circumstances. It was a devastating descent to some of the most wretched rock-bottom moments I’ve ever felt.

With the marathon so well received, I was elevated again to a strange elation, gripped within an overwhelming terror and desperate wish for everything to level out. The relentless ride to stop. Allow me in my sadness to just be still.

But this stomach-churning course had more loops to spin me through – my husband John was diagnosed with early signs of dementia and my own mental state became so fragile I felt at times I wanted to bail out completely.

Running – the simple act of one foot in front of the other – in fresh air, glorious scenery, below blue skies, under clouds of grey, with friends, with my dog Freddie, on my own, running is what kept me going.

Here and now moments of serenity. Lacing up my trainers and getting out the door, remained the constant levelling factor, literally the terra firma beneath my crazy spinning world. It brought me back to myself.

Taking part in the City to Sea Marathon, from Exeter to Torquay on Sunday, re-affirmed just how much running has helped me. It’s a devil of a route, the last six miles being a geographic version of a roller-coaster, packing in 2,000 feet of ascents. This year it was on slippery, muddy terrain, in wet, windy conditions. I loved every minute.

Thanks to Mary Hart, Brian Tilley and Matthew Clarke for these photos – and for standing in the rain all day, along with the many wonderful marshals, a great event!

In continuing to find solace and purpose in pounding the miles I’ve set myself a fundraising challenge Any Mile is Better  for dementia, involving 10 half-marathons in four weeks.

And, having seen a Facebook post in recent days that my heroine Kathrine Switzer is doing the double and taking on the New York Marathon, I thought what better way to ride out my own roller-coaster year. NYC here I come…!

You can’t replicate any of that at a man-made amusement park. Running is a natural high.

Life Awareness Week

I feel caught in a perfect storm of life’s difficult-to-deal-with-moments.

Every seven days it seems there’s a new awareness week for something.

This weekend marks the end of Dying Matters Week and Mental Health Awareness Week and begins the start of Dementia Awareness Week – three topics on which I have a current speciality.

Get me on Mastermind this instant and I’d answer every question. That’s how “aware” I am!

Having lost my wonderful mum less than four weeks ago in sudden, unexpected and traumatic circumstances – yes I’m going through the numbness, the “it can’t be true” questioning, the guilt of feeling in some way to blame, responsible, at fault for not doing more to prevent it, mum having died at my home, in my care.

The knowledge that professional help was sought on several occasions and that paramedics were there when mum died, because I called them, does little to stop me going over the course of events and trying to change them.

I feel physically ill, my body is doing strange things – even down to drastic bleeding from my gums a few days later. I go into physical spasms of grief, screaming aloud in my sleep, sobbing in a supermarket car park. This is not about wiping the tears away with a tissue.

I’ve been totally lost for words, unable to string a coherent reply to a question. Bad dreams, nightmares, getting up in the middle of the night, forgetfulness, I can tick those boxes, that’s if I remember and focus hard enough.

And the flashbacks and intrusive thinking, that’s all part of it.

That side of it, I was pretty accomplished at already. For 25 years I’ve suffered from bouts of depression, including at times self-harming because of the mental agony I’ve felt. My recurring anxiety, spiralling, hamster-wheeling doubt was diagnosed as OCD four years ago, with childhood traumas recognised as being part of the root cause, leading to 20 weeks of intensive therapy.

It helped me a lot, in learning how to deal with it, but it never totally goes away, so yes, I’d say I have a pretty solid awareness of mental health issues.

Dementia, is one of my identified trigger points – the scary demon in my basement. It’s something I’ve been terrified of since a child, when my lovely grandmother’s increasingly eccentric behaviour was put down to being “senile” with very few people at that time bothering to try to understand.

Thankfully, dementia awareness has increased massively since those dark days and there’s been a shift in public consciousness, research and care.

I learnt lots more first hand about this cruel disease, when my dad was diagnosed in 2011 at the age of 70 with vascular dementia, dying just over three years later. It was a journey of mixed emotions, challenges, despair, anger, grief, but also laughter, compassion, enlightenment, and love.

This Dementia Awareness Week remains hugely relevant and important to me – my dear husband John having recently been referred by his GP to the local memory clinic. The appointment is in a few weeks’ time, 20 years to the day that we got married. Happy Anniversary Darling!

It will also be a few days after the biggest event of my life, a women only marathon, which I’ve taken a lead role in organising and aim to take part in.

It’s called Women Can.

I love the positive affirmation of that simple straightforward statement.

The medals arrived yesterday, 450 of them glistening in a box. They made me think about all those women out there, going through their own journey of awareness, issues affecting their lives, but still signing up to our event and taking part, because through running, endurance running in particular, pitting yourself against that challenge, you learn that women can, men can, we all can.

It’s about getting through the tough times yourself and helping others through them also.

About being life aware.

Thanks to all the special people who are life aware, who have been, and are continuing, to be there for me.

*Special thanks to Sue, a counsellor with the bereavement charity Cruse, for her recent clarity and insight and her recommendation to visit the website of the charity Sudden Death – awareness definitely helps! For information about mental health issues go to Mind. For information about dementia research go to BRACE.

A Woman Who Could

When I conceived of the idea of the Women Can Marathon less than 12 months ago, it felt a daring, ambitious plan, not unlike running a marathon itself.

Family and friends are hugely important in helping runners get through the arduous training, comfort after the physical hard slog of putting in all those miles.

Chief of my support camp in this regard was my mum – always positive, ready to help, offer words of advice, encouragement, thrilled at every little step forward, sympathetic if the training schedule went a little awry, getting me back on track, heading towards that end goal.

Just seven days ago it felt like I’d reached the last 10km on the course – much hard physical effort behind me, a burst of energy required to push on the final six miles.

With a “head coach” like mum, I felt ready for the final part of this challenge, a drive on to the finish, mum shouting the loudest cheers and encouragement.

She fell ill last Sunday, and it was like I’d been knocked off course, stumbled. But mum remained steadfast, still behind me all the way. Despite being unwell – her main thought not her own poor health, but me completing my challenge.

“Don’t worry about me, go for it,” was essentially her message.

I pressed on as best I could, confident of her recovery, a bounce back to become main cheerleader before I reached the finish line. She was fighting my corner even from her sick bed.

You can hit a wall in a marathon and edge painfully over it, but when an earthquake erupts on the course and the road ahead explodes in front of you leaving a cataclysmic gap, then it’s impossible to keep going.

To use a military analogy, no plan can survive contact with the enemy.

Mum’s illness turned out not to be the “wall” but the earthquake. The enemy not a sniper, but an army.

She collapsed and died on Wednesday night.

I have been buried in the rubble, the fall out ever since, my marathon progress halted, no head coach to pull me out.

My own personal race support team – the rest of my family around me – we’ve all taken a massive direct hit and are reeling from it, shell-shocked.

With the dust slightly settling, I can dimly make out that the course is intact. Other members of the marathon organising team are out there working hard to clear the debris, help me forward, keep things on track.

I want to lie on the ground and abandon any personal attempt on my part to try and reach the finish line. Bail out, be written down as DNF, Did Not Finish.

But the words of all the best coaches don’t leave you. Death cannot remove the influence and guidance that coach played in your life, even when they are gone.

mum

The last picture of mum, taken two weeks before she died and on the second anniversary of dad’s death.

So I’ll pick myself up. I’ll press on, however, hard these last few miles are. I’ll give every bit of my energy to reach that finish line.

 

The rest of the marathon organising team I know will try and make it as easy as they can, do their best for this incredible, inspirational event. My family will rally and help each other get through.

And that’s what mum would want, because she was a woman who could, also fearless and strong to the last.

*This is the first post I’ve written that mum won’t be here to read. She read every single blog I’ve written from the start and was always the very first to “like” it, write some comment of encouragement. Mum I miss you already SO much. But I know you would say: “Come on, pull yourself together. You’ll be fine.” RIP my lovely, beautiful mother. X

 

Run, because We Can

Running has been high on my list of priorities lately – to the point that the obsessive compulsive tag is quite apt.

I’ve done pretty well in my challenge for the mental health charity Mind, to Run Every Day in January, notching up 26 out of 31 days, or an 84% success rate.

Ironically, one of the things that’s diverted me from the physical act of running, is in organising a running event.

womencan-logo_master-2The Women Can Marathon is an idea I had in the summer of last year, when I realised that a landmark milestone in women’s endurance running combined with the same year that outdoor sport took off in my home village.

1967 was the year that Kathrine Switzer defied the men-only rules in the Boston Marathon, to be the first woman to officially cross the finish line, despite a race official trying to rip off her bib. (Photo credit: Boston Herald).

MARATHON

This was at a time when women were believed incapable of racing that distance. The resulting publicity, and Kathrine’s own campaigning, opened up a future for women’s running, inconceivable at the time.

In my village the same year a farmer’s riverside meadow was bought by local people to become the well-used, much-loved Tipton St John Playing Field, the heart of outdoor recreation in our community and starting point of our popular Otter Rail and River Run 10km.

field-gen

The scenery around here is stunning and I’d often pondered a longer distance course taking in the spectacular nearby Jurassic coastline, a World Heritage Site.

peak-hill-looking-down-to-sidmouth-smaller

Walking my dogs alongside the river one day. Lightbulb moment!

Why don’t we organise a marathon from the playing field to mark this joint 50th anniversary?

Even brighter lightbulb moment!

Why not make it women only to give it a unique and special context, celebrating how far women’s endurance running has come in 50 years, whilst acknowledging that many women are still unable to access sport for a variety of reasons?

And so for the past few months, I’ve been part of small team beavering away to make the Women Can Marathon a reality.

jo-pavey-3The event is taking off beyond wildest dreams.

In November we received the endorsement of 5-times Olympian Jo Pavey.

Jo has pledged to be there if other commitments allow.

 

We also received a wonderfully warm-hearted personal video message from Kathrine Switzer herself.

In the last few days Women Can has been named as the first UK partner for her 261 Fearless organisation, which empowers women’s running around the globe.

When I told my husband John of my idea back in May last year, he paused, in supping his Sunday lunchtime pint of beer, and said: “I reckon you’ll only get about half a dozen people interested in that. But give it a try if you want.”

Yesterday our 200th runner signed up. This month our website hit a record high of nearly 5,500 visits.

gemma-langford-2We have women coming from across the country and around the world. We have women coming from the village, able to walk to the start from their doorstep.

We have women coming who’ve never run a marathon. We have women coming who’ve run dozens. We have women who are challenged by illness or disability. We have women who are trained athletes.

We have women taking part as paired and team relays and also women who are Nordic walking the 26.2 mile distance.

And we have men too, dozens of them pledging help and support in advance, and to act as marshals on the day – our runners may be women, but our event is about being inclusive.

We have businesses on board – our main sponsor, a telecommunications firm IP Office Ltd, our local gym network LED Leisure, and a host of others.

Dartington Crystal, which also celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, is making bespoke trophies. The energy bar people Luna sent two cases of 500 bars for our goody bags.

cakeWithin the local community excitement is building. People are pitching in to offer accommodation, provide transport, bake cakes, make the tea – pulling together at every level to make this happen.

The goodwill and enthusiasm is incredible.

Shortly we will announce our international charity partner, something we hope will further raise awareness and interest.

Marathons with a big profile are normally the big city events.

This is sport at grassroots level, where it happens in the heart of a community.

We may be small, but we’re equally passionate.

This is the Women Can Marathon from Tipton St John reaching out to the wider world – because by running this event together, perhaps one day all Women Can.

tipton-sign-small