Against All Odds

I sat down to write my niece a letter this morning. It’s her first birthday next week. Some of you will know she was born 13 weeks early, weighing just 1lb 12oz/800g, and spent the first four months of her life in neonatal intensive care. Many of you sponsored me when I ran this year’s London Marathon for a premature baby charity. 

The letter will sit in a wallet with the marathon medal that’s hers to keep. She won’t read it for many many years but I wanted to tell her how her first months felt for those looking in, how remarkable her mummy, daddy and big sister and the medical professionals were, and how surprising it was to feel this huge overwhelming love for a person you aren’t even able to meet or hold for nearly five months. I wanted her to know how many people who are unlikely to ever meet her were rooting for her. How, a year on, barely a week passes without someone asking after her. 

Against All Odds is a well worn phrase. It’s banded around in everything from war reporting to charity storytelling, in health catastrophes and, at the moment, Olympic coverage. It’s a bit hackneyed but often it just works. My niece has Chronic Lung Disease, a common condition in premature babies who are born before their lungs are fully developed. Laura Trott was born prematurely with a collapsed lung and spent the first weeks of her life in an intensive care unit. She took up sport to build her lung strength. She is regularly seen retching at the end of a race. She is the most decorated British female Olympian of all time. I will choose my words carefully when I write about that; I don’t want my niece to be overwhelmed by expectations of greatness, but I also want her to know that serious health conditions may not be a barrier to her.

Generally speaking, I’m a sucker for the ‘Against All Odds’ stories during the Olympics. Of course I love watching the predictable showstoppers, but what I think makes the Olympics so special is the moments of human spirit shining through. Do I occasionally randomly watch the Derek Redmond clip from Barcelona just for the joy of having a little cry? Er, yes (sorry, not sorry). Do I think the refugee team is one of the most amazing things about this year’s Games? Yes. Did my heart surge and eyes leak as the London 2012 crowds roared for the whole 11 minutes and 23 seconds it took Paralympian Houssein Omar Hassan to complete the 1500m race? Fuck yes!

I was a volunteer at the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics. I signed up for it in 2005 during the Back the Bid campaign. I was obsessed with the Games coming to London. There are experiences in life that create a change in your attitude that’s permanent. That make you think ‘fuck it’. At the close of 2012 as friends and I watched the new year fireworks on the TV I turned to my best friend and said ‘am I the last person in the world you’d expect to run a marathon?’. ‘Yes,’ she replied, ‘but it’s you so you’re going to bloody do it aren’t you?’ Three weeks later I went for my first ever run. Fourteen months later I ran my first marathon. When I was feeling useless and tears were constant after my niece was born and I couldn’t do anything useful for her I signed up for my second one. I’ve raised nearly £11,000 now over the two marathons, all of which will go into research funded by the two charities I ran for. There is not one shred of doubt in my mind that it was volunteering at 2012 that inspired me to sign up for my first marathon. 

What I didn’t expect to happen as a result was how differently I would come to think about my body and how it looks. A bit fat? Yes, but I ran a marathon! Leg held together with two metal plates and 12 screws? Yes, but I ran a marathon. Years of thinking I was the not very attractive one? Yes, but how ridiculous! I’m amazing! That last bit is a bit tongue in cheek, but on the more serious body positivity thing, my sense of my own attractiveness and confidence in it has developed in almost direct proportion to my appreciation of what I can train my body to achieve.

What was even more of a surprise is that I have, in turn, inspired others. That is so weird to type! But two friends (and not even good friends – Facebook friends, neither of whom I’ve seen for years) emailed me to say that after following my stories on Facebook in 2014 they both started running. To date, they’ve both run two marathons. I’m not claiming to be an ‘Against All Odds’ candidate but I was definitely ‘really bloody unlikely’!! That these little seeds of ‘maybe I could do that’ are sown and flourish off the back of something as exciting and life affirming as volunteering and the collective joy of watching sport makes me so happy. That some of us look upon another, whether it’s an Olympian, Paralympian or someone you haven’t seen since university, and think ‘I’ll give it a go’ is amazing. One of my favourite things to come out of 2012 is a group of staff at the disability charity where I was working during that summer getting so excited after visiting the Paralympics they joined a running group for the learning disabled. On 4th September I’ll be cheering them on during a 10k in the Olympic Park!

I know the Olympics are horrendously tedious for some people and for them people like me are unbearable for those few weeks every four years. Some people just hate watching sport, others find the collective awe at best annoying and at worst soul-destroying, whether for personal or political reasons. But not everything can work for everyone and for these two weeks, and for two weeks next month during the Paralympics, I will happily soak up the ‘Against All Odds’ narrative. 

As for my niece? She’s still here, that’s what matters most. Who knows what she’ll do or become over the next few decades. She may never take up any sport in her life and that’s fine, but I’m happy she has a medal in her name. I hope one day she draws strength from knowing how many people put their hands in their pockets to donate in her name and that they provided me with moral support during such a difficult time.

Wicked Wednesday... a place to be wickedly sexy or sexily wicked

Marathon Woman

We’re nearly there! Hopefully by this time tomorrow I will be there. ‘There’ being the finish line of the London Marathon. If I’m not, then I definitely didn’t beat my last time, which was 88 seconds into the six hour family. If I knock 89 seconds off to get 5.59.59 I’ll be more than happy!

I’ve written before about being a slow runner and I’ve written about the legacy of school sport. Running is not about speed for me and sport is not about competing, even with myself (I only thought about looking at my split times from my marathon in 2014 four days ago!). For me, sport is about enjoying moving my body through fresh air or water, the feeling of fitness, and relishing the unique headspace that comes from time spent alone exercising. And it’s often about the money!

Tomorrow I will be running for a charity that funds research into premature birth, stillbirth and miscarriage. Last summer my niece was born three months early weighing just 1lb 12oz (800g). She’s eight months old now and her latest trick is pulling out her oxygen tubes and using them as a teething toy! Since I started training, some 24,000 babies in the UK have been born early, over 900 have been stillborn, and 1 in 4 pregnancies have ended in miscarriage. Which makes me pretty proud that my fundraising total is just shy of £3000 and that many more hours of research will be paid for. It’s also pretty overwhelming that a couple of hundred pounds of that has come from people in this community, most of whom I haven’t met in real life or have known just a year or so. THANK YOU! Trust me, the generosity and goodwill gets you out to train in the cold wet winter and it makes the hard bits on the big day easier to cope with.

My fundraising page is in my real name so I’m not linking to it here, but if you want to donate, drop me a message on Twitter at @exposing40 or in the comments below and I’ll send the link. Xxx

PS. I’m laughing in the photo because my partner in crime for the photo had just quipped, ‘put some effort into it, then!’ Cheeky sod! 😉

 

Sinful Sunday

What a Lovely Pair…

FullSizeRenderI wrote earlier in the week about the Canvas Café in East London, which is based around the concept of body positivity and happiness. There’s a canvas sofa on which you are invited to write a sentence about your body. I spotted this. No, not ‘my nobs to big’ (I only spotted that as I was about to hit publish!), but ‘I like my body more since I started running.’

Oh yes. That. A hundred times over. What started as a fundraising endeavour in memory of friends and family lost to pancreatic cancer, and a bit of a ballsy ‘I’m going to do this because nobody really thinks I can’, actually ended up being something which caused a pretty fundamental shift in how I feel about myself and also what I know I can achieve if I put my mind to it. I have significantly more respect for the mechanics of my body now but I also always feel really gorgeous when I run, which is really bloody daft because I’ve seen the race day photos and caught my reflection in shop windows! And who knew how horny running makes you? Coming back from a run is pretty much the only time I’d be quite happy to have a bloke at home.

I retired my first ever pair of running shoes a couple of weeks ago. They had more than 500 miles in them and had carried me through a marathon and a half marathon. They’d pounded pavements in England, Wales, Nigeria, Indonesia, Turkey, Poland, and Germany. I’ll miss them. The new ones have a hard act to follow, but they are beautiful – I am a little bit in love with them already…

Running shoes

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This Woman Can

A quick follow up and back story to yesterday’s Sinful Sunday post, which was hastily snapped and bashed out in 10 minutes between showering and diving into the wine and cheese!

I was looking at my running app on the way home from yesterday’s race. On 2nd March 2013 I ran 0.93 miles and it took me 15 minutes! Four months later I ran the London 10k and got my first medal. Ten months after that I ran the London Marathon. I am sure yesterday’s medal – my third – will not be my last.

But, I am still really bloody slow. Faster than a 15 minute mile for sure, but still slow enough to be in the last few hundred crossing the line of an 11,000 strong race. Do I care? Yes, I care enough to want to get better because I know I can, but I don’t care enough to stop doing it.

You wouldn’t look at me and see athlete. I am 5′ 10″ and a solid 13 – 13.5 stone. When the BBC had its athlete generator thing on its homepage during the Olympics my height, build and weight put me closest to a member of the Jamaican women’s shot put team. A lithe Paula Radcliffe I am not! But I still ran the same 26.2 miles through London that she previously had, because I decided I wanted to and so I did.

This is something else I’ve noticed about getting older. Exercise is no longer about making ourselves look a certain way, it’s about making ourselves feel a certain way. It’s  about challenging ourselves, putting in the work and experiencing the joy of achievement. We no longer spend silly money on expensive gym membership only to wear our lack of attendance as a badge of honour indicating how busy our social life is.

As life diversifies and responsibilities encroach, exercise gives us time with our friends, not away from them. Even better than that, it gives us valuable time alone with the most worrisome decision being which playlist or TED talk to load and whether to go left or right at the next junction. More and more of my friends are taking up sport that takes place outdoors too – running, military fitness, netball, rowing, long distance walking, open water swimming. Fresh air and taking on the British weather – double win!

And I love that we are all doing this. No matter our weight, ability, family or career responsibilities we are quietly making time to look after our physical and mental wellbeing. Because, like I said, for most of us these days that’s what exercise is about – not how it makes you look but how it makes you feel. Because a healthy, glowing, happy person is one you want to be and be around a whole lot more than one who’s slaving in the gym to get into a dress.

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The title of this blog is in total homage to the This Girl Can campaign, which I absolutely bloody love!