A Tale of Two T-shirts

Two T-shirts brought home to me this week just how much my life has changed in the last seven years. If not quite revolution, certainly revelation.

During May 2011 I took what was intended to be a three-month sabbatical from my 25 year career as a journalist. For various reasons I never returned.

I loved my job from the early beginnings on a busy local weekly, nine years writing for our daily regional newspaper, and learning a whole new set of skills reporting on BBC local radio for 12 happy years.

I covered every news item on my patch from sitting through parish council meetings to quizzing two Prime Ministers, from breaking emergencies to long thoroughly researched exclusives, from tragic deaths and sadness to comedic light-hearted hilarity, from telling the plight of homeless people in refuges to interviewing members of the nobility in castles.

It was a wonderful, rich, varied job that brought many privileges and insights. But I always had a sense that I was telling someone else’s story.

It was hard at first to carve out a new identity, to not have the comfort blanket of a big organisation, colleagues to share ideas with, no firm agenda to follow. Difficult to find something, which through my own efforts, I could directly connect with others.

Through running and writing – two of my passions in life, I’ve been fortunate to create original experiences that I know many have enjoyed – they are the Women Can Marathon and Relay and a children’s book about marine plastic pollution Tuamor the Turtle.

It was the T-shirts that made me smile and feel proud – I saw a woman in a sports shop on Monday wearing her 2017 Women Can finisher shirt and yesterday as I was doing a Tuamor reading, a passer-by who saw my shirt assumed I’d bought it after enjoying the book, and was very excited to learn I was the author.

Two T-shirts with a tale as originally told by me, but now taking on a life of their own.

*Women Can 2018 is on Sunday 27th May, enter/or sign up for marshalling through the website www.womencan.co.uk. A thousand copies of Tuamor the Turtle have been sold in three years. The book is being used in schools as part of National Curriculum Key Stage 2 work and part of the proceeds go to support the Marine Conservation Society.

 

 

 

 

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My beautiful mother

I started this blog five years ago. Mum was always one of the first to read it and post a message of encouragement…so it seems fitting today to pay tribute to my beautiful mother.

These are my favourite pictures of her – when she was 16 and the last photo of her, taken two weeks before she died, as she was walking, with my sister and I, on the second anniversary of dad’s death.

It’s a year today since we lost her.

Her passing at a healthy, lively, active, happy 76 was sudden and unexpected – a total shock to her family and friends, the health professionals who assessed her in A&E twice, on a GP home visit, by phone, and I’m sure to mum herself.

As the person who spent most time with her during those four days, and was looking after her when she died, it was an earthquake in my life, with tremors that still continue.

Few deaths come without pain or sorrow, for those who are lost and those who loved them. I’ve reflected on both for mum, many times, in many ways. I thank the people who have listened and understood. You all know who you are.

With the heartache comes the joy of remembering, celebrating, realising how fortunate you are to be able to recall many happy memories, how lucky to have so closely known someone who brought much laughter and kindness into your life and of others.

Richard, the counsellor from Cruse, who’s helped me immensely in recent weeks to come more to terms with mum’s loss, suggested I record a quality about her each day for 40 days – in summary she brought her own spark and beauty to everything she did.

I take comfort in feeling mum’s influence and her presence still. I know for instance that she’d be wanting me now to get outdoors, walk the dogs, enjoy the sunshine…enough sitting here reflecting.

She kept a book of cuttings and verses she’d transcribed. This is one by Joyce Grenfell that she’d copied several times…

If I should go before the rest of you,

Break not a flower, nor inscribe a stone,

Nor, when I’m gone, speak in a Sunday voice,

But be the usual selves that I have known.

Weep if you must,

Parting is hell.

But life goes on,

So…sing as well!

The birds are out there singing, it’s a beautiful day. I’m going to spend it walking with my sister at Babbacombe Downs, a place with many happy memories, including mum and dad’s 50th wedding anniversary, September 2012…and, where they’ll be with us today.

I nearly overlooked to say that Mum’s book she used to write in, is titled on the cover: “Be the Reason Someone Smiles Today”. For me, she is.

Mum Dad Oddicombe Beach 1-9-12

The Naked Elf

20171217_133331I intended to write this post two months ago, but the clock has kept marching on.

The nub of the story was that I exposed myself to a total stranger when sat on a toilet seat, dressed as an elf, or more correctly at that point, a naked elf.

I’m starting with that belated tale, because it’s scary how time flies. Three months today is the second Women Can Marathon and Relay, an event I’m once again heavily involved in and committed to.

Three months! Where have the previous six gone?!

These last few days I planned to spend working on the event, but fate dealt a new twist and instead I’ve been in and out of hospital, visiting my husband John, after he collapsed with what’s been diagnosed as a chest infection and low sodium levels, causing physical weakness and delirium.

Time can become suspended when a loved one is ill. It’s striking and painful to me that my mum became poorly during the end-planning for last year’s marathon. She was fighting sickness in my spare bedroom as I juggled emails and meetings. She died within four days and six weeks before the event.

Her death was sudden and unexpected, but for the last ten months I’ve been beating myself over the head about all the things I should have, could have, done differently.

It was only a few weeks ago, having started counselling with the wonderful Cruse Bereavement Charity, that I felt able to let go of some of the crushing, panic-attack inducing guilt.

It released a giddy, creative phase, in which I wrote a 6,000 word story on holiday about plastic pollution, as a follow-up to my 2015 children’s book, Tuamor the Turtle.

The books and the marathon, along with my own running training, are all vying for my time.

But with John being unwell, I’m determined to be there as and when he needs me.

So far that’s involved me wheel-chairing him around lots of hospital corridors for scans and tests, kindly-allowed brief puffs on his pipe and for dinner in the hospital restaurant when his meal was overlooked on the busy ward.

In between times I’ve been sitting on his hospital bed sending or replying to the odd email, but feeling oddly removed from life’s demands, with a kind of whatever will be, will be, attitude.

Which brings me back to where this belated blog post started. I was changing out of a sodden-wet elf fancy dress costume, having run a Christmas marathon in the rain, when a burly man opened the toilet door. A naked elf on the loo, still in pink cheek make-up but little else – I’ve never seen anyone close a door as fast!

I suffer recurring dreams about being caught short on the loo – that sense of exposure, a nightmare scenario in my subconscious. Instead, it was hilarious.

And it’s helped me learn to take life as it comes – keep smiling and laugh if possible, even  when I’m found making a naked elf of myself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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…

 

 

 

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.