Unless you’re living in a cave, or a foreign country, you’ll have noticed it was bonfire night on Saturday. I’ve mentioned before that bonfire night was my dad’s birthday so that seems like a good enough reason to write the post that I’ve been meaning to do since April, but never quite got round to.

Yesterday, I had a hospital appointment (related to August’s health drama rather than the recent one, it’s been one of those years). Since St Wilf’s is just around the corner from the hospital mum and I decided to pop in for coffee and take in the last bit of cash from the fundraising efforts of the last two years.

It was only meant to be a year, you see. The plan was that I’d spend 2015 on five completely out of character sporting challenges and raise some money for the hospice to mark the 20th anniversary of dad’s time there. And 2015 was brilliant. My friends and family got behind me in a way I’d never imagined, coming to the quiz night, buying cakes and books, swimming the channel, selling hand made  goodies, and cheering me on as I put myself through a range of River Ness 10kactually quite enjoyable feats. It started with the Poole 10k in June, which now feels a bit tame. At some point between the start of last year and now I became the sort of person that not only runs 10k races just for the fun of it, but is willing to travel the length of the UK to do one just because there’s a good medal at the end (as demonstrated in the picture – and if anyone’s interested, the River Ness 10k is brilliant. Down hill all the way).

After the 10k came something I never thought I’d do (you’ll notice a recurring theme here) – a half marathon. Now, admittedly, four laps of Seaford seafront was not the most picturesque setting (and I’m a big fan of Seaford seafront, just not maybe in the rain with wet feet when you’ve already run up and down it three times) but it was nice to do something close to home. Seaford HalfMy brother David, who it turns out is a bit of a sneaky bastard, turned up the day before and announced he was doing it too, having been telling me for weeks how terribly injured he was and that he hadn’t been able to run for ages. This was my big target for 2015, and being able to cross the finish line arm in arm with my brother was a special experience that I will never forget. Even if I did shout at him at the beginning of the third lap for running five yards ahead of me and he told me off for crying at the end.

The third challenge of the year was at the other end of the country – the Great Scottish Swim. I’d been signed up a few years ago for the Great North Swim but for various comedic reasons that probably deserve a blog post of their own never got to complete the swim. This time though, everything went to plan. I flew up from Bournemouth to Glasgow, got a bus into the city and then a train out to Dumbarton. Quite the adventure. My sister in law, niece and nephew met me at the hotel for the night and then the following morning I donned my Speedos (yes really. You try and wear board shorts under a swimming wetsuit) and we drove over to Loch Lomond.

Great SwimNow, I’m a strong swimmer. In my early twenties I spent a few years working as a lifeguard and a swimming teacher and the idea of swimming a mile without stopping doesn’t phase me. But this was so much tougher than I had anticipated. For one thing – it was COLD. The water temperature was only 12 degrees and as soon as you put your face in it, it took your breath away. While I knew the water quality would be completely different compared to pool swimming or even sea swimming, I hadn’t appreciated that I wouldn’t even be able to see my hand when my arm was at full extension. I’d wanted to enjoy this one, in the end it was about getting round and surviving. By the time I got to the end my legs were cramping up and my teeth were chattering, but I made it.

A week later, and still in Scotland, was the fourth event of the year – the ‘Beast Race’. A 10k obstacle race on the shores of Loch Ness. For this one I was part of a team of four – my brother David, sister in law Charlie, and their friend Julie. All three had been raising money for St Wilf’s despite not living anywhere near it, which was genuinely touching. Beast RaceOnce again, I was guilty of having underestimated the scale of the challenge. I knew I could comfortably run 10k, but I hadn’t factored in the additional demands of getting under/over/through the various obstacles. I also hadn’t eaten enough breakfast (note to self – two slices of toast doesn’t really cut it).  For me though this wasn’t about getting round as quickly as possible, this was about doing something that I had never seen myself doing (I don’t even like getting sandy feet on the beach, so crawling down a tunnel into a bog full of pig poo was something of a departure). We finished, together (despite Charlie nearly drowning after sliding into Loch Ness and seemingly forgetting how to breath), and were rewarded with technical t-shirts, a unique custom medal, and a dirty burger. Only fair to say Dave looks knackered in the picture – but he finished the strongest of all of us.

Great South RunAnd so on to the final event of 2015, the Great South Run. A 10 mile jog around historic Portsmouth. Kind of poetic for me, as my previous forays into running had seen my first ‘proper’ race as the GSR 5k, which happens the day before the main event on part of the same course. This event has a reputation for crap weather – it’s normally cold and windy. On this day however the sun shone, the weather was glorious, and I wore my terminator sunglasses all the way round. As I crossed the line I knew my year of fundraising was over. But there was still an open question in my mind…

On 22nd December mum and I popped in to St Wilf’s to drop off the next instalment of cash. As we sat in the coffee shop (great cheese scones, by the way, if you’re passing) waiting to meet Darren from the fundraising team, a nearby TV screen was scrolling through Powerpoint slides. One of the slides enticingly suggested that running the Brighton Marathon might be an excellent way to raise money.

Now, let me talk to you about me and marathons. They’ve always fascinated me. Every single year since I don’t know when I’ve watched the coverage of London on the BBC and told myself that one year, I’d do that. Bear in mind that until 2015, I had never run further than 3 miles, and even that very very slowly and only very few times. But here I was now, in the habit of running, knowing that I was capable of anything as long as I put the effort in on training. Also, on both the Seaford half and the Great South Run I’d been wearing a branded Brighton Marathon t-shirt that I’d been given by my buddy Patrick. To be honest, while I loved the shirt, I felt like a bit of a fraud wearing it. It was time for me to prove myself worthy. The challenge was on.

So (after exchanging various emails and filling the forms in) I had a place in the 2016 Brighton Marathon running for St Wilf’s. Training started in January, in the rain, in Poole. I was following a training plan I’d downloaded from somewhere and had created a whole new iCloud calendar with all the required runs in it. At the same time though, I was starting a new job. For the first month of the training plan everything went well, I managed to fit my training runs in around my new work schedule (which involved quite a lot of European travel) and could feel my fitness improving. Then in early February I got what we now believe to have been my first bout of pneumonia (not that I knew it at the time). This took me out of training for three weeks. When I got back to training, my travel plans took me mainly to cold countries where there was snow on the ground and where running outside definitely wasn’t advisable (I did ask the locals, who suggested I go and buy some special snow running spikes, but I figured airport security probably wouldn’t like those in my hand luggage). At this point I was just trying to do as much as I could. I managed to stick with the weekend long runs, but once we got up to about 18 miles the mid week conditioning runs that I’d been skipping started to catch up with me. I was comfortable running to 15 or 16 miles, then I was walk/running to finish the distance.

My last long training run before I started the taper was due to be 22 miles, and I was in Seaford, on familiar territory. I set out though on a route I’ve never run before (the off road path from Bishopstone, through Norton over to Denton), found it waterlogged and very poor terrain, and wasted a massive amount of energy. By the time I got to Newhaven lifeboat station I’d done 13 miles, it was chucking it down with rain, and I knew I wasn’t going to make it to 22. I ran home, gutted. My last training run was five or six miles shorter than it should have been, but having finished the Cranleigh 21 miler the weekend before I knew I could make it that far, and then I’d just have to dig deep for the last five miles.

As the big day dawned the sun was shining and I was more excited than nervous. We decided to get the train over to Brighton (but I wouldn’t recommend it – park and ride in future, people) and I got in a last minute wee after queuing for the obligatory hour. I was in the slowest start group, and hung about at the start line to get a high five from Zoe Ball (which got me through at least the first 10k) which meant I was right at the back of the pack. I like that though, I’m not quick, but I’m not the slowest one out there either, so I was gradually picking people off and moving up through the group.

The first six miles, it’s fair to say, are easy. There’s lots of support in the town, lots to look at, and it’s not hard to stay focused on things that are happening outside of your own body. It doesn’t start to get hard until you’re on the coast road running out towards Roedean school, and by the time I’d finished that section and was coming down towards the pier again (at about half way) I was just thinking I might have a little rest and walk for a bit. Then the crowds kicked in.

There were people EVERYWHERE. It seemed like they were three or four deep. At that point the faster runners would have been finishing in about the same location and the noise was incredible. I felt amazing. Mid way pointThen I heard someone call my name – it was my friend Triona, who had inspired me a few years earlier when she took up running and finished the marathon herself. Hearing the crowd support (and I’d had my name printed on my running vest, so lots of people were calling my name) and seeing a familiar face gave me a boost of energy far greater than the gels I’d been sucking for the last hour. I knew my mum and my girlfriend were only a few miles away now so I lifted my head, sucked in the atmosphere, and just kept going.

If Hove nearly killed me, it was Shoreham power station that finished me off.

The outward loop in Hove was lovely. A residential street full of families in their front gardens handing out jelly babies and playing ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’. I felt great, I was smiling, dancing, and high fiving. I knew I’d already run further than I’d ever run before and I was feeling confident. Somewhere between miles 18 and 19 though, it got quiet. I lost my mental strength, and I did something which I knew it would be very difficult to come back from. I stopped running, and started walking.

At some point in the future I’ll run a marathon again (me and London have unfinished business). When that happens I’ll know how to deal with the mental low that I hit somewhere in Hove in April. Just switch it off. Don’t listen. I’d had a mantra I my head which I’d written on my arm which I’d been repeating over and over again ‘I am fit enough, I am strong enough, I am prepared enough, I can do this’. When my legs were screaming at me to stop I could use this to drown it out and just keep going. But I let it go.

There was never any question of me not finishing, I knew I could make it, but at that point I was mixing running and walking, and mainly walking. Once I got on to that horrendous loop up round the power station my legs had given in. The electrolyte drink I’d been carrying was now so diluted it was basically just water and cramp was starting. I walked that whole loop. I passed three people passed out (they had medical help with them, I didn’t just step over their lifeless bodies) and one young guy with his head in his hands. It was hot, There was no support there. It was the closest I have been to hell. Well not really, but it was pretty shit. If you ever support anyone running that marathon, whatever they tell you, make sure there’s some support for them in that section. It’s tough.

Somewhere along the seafront when I knew I was on the home straight somebody offered me a sausage from their barbecue. For some ridiculous reason (probably British manners) I took it. I took one bite, then realised how foolish that was, and chucked it in the next bin. People of Brighton – offering sausages to delirious people who’ve just run/walked/crawled 23 miles is not wise. Stick to Jelly Babies.

At 25 miles something weird happened, which is difficult to talk about. At 25 miles, when my feet were killing me and my legs had nothing left, I heard a voice say ‘come on then, let’s go for a run’, and I started running. As clear as my computer is in front of me now, Dad was by my side. I was in the last mile of a marathon. People were calling my name and cheering me on. And Dad was running next to me. I had a little cry at that point. I’m not trying to be overly dramatic, or to make it more emotional than it needs to be. It’s just how it was. We ran the last mile together.

Home straightAs I got to the very last section, even though there were lots of people watching, the crowd was really quiet. They were all waiting for their own runners to come through. I remember reading somewhere about not being afraid to egg the crowd on a bit to help you get over, so I pumped my arms a bit and got them cheering. Well screw it. How often does an overweight IT consultant get to cross a finish line with hundreds of people cheering? I crossed the line in just over five hours and thirty minutes and collected my medal, then walked another half a mile to get out of the finish area and the bag reclaim to go and find my family.

I have never been prouder of anything in my life.

This started out being about raising some money. It finished with me doing something that I never thought I would be capable of, and which changed the way I thought about myself. Every so often in life we have to push ourselves out of our comfort zones, get out there and find out what we’re really capable of. Three months later, I finished my first triathlon, and a week after that, I finally got to do the Great North Swim. The sense that ‘anything is possible’ has infiltrated every part of my life, and it’s all the better for it.

So yesterday, when we dropped the last bit of cash at St Wilf’s, we finished my ‘year’ of fundraising, at least for now. It’s time I stopped asking my friends for money every time I put my trainers on.

By my calculations, the final total which we raised (and it is we, rather than I, because this was very much a team effort) was a completely unexpected £2641.60.

Thank you, all of you, for your time, your support, and your generosity. It has been one of the most enjoyable and rewarding experiences of my life, and I’m grateful to you all for being a part of it.

The final thank you is to St Wilfrid’s. Again. For being there for us when we needed you, and for being there now and in the future, for those who are lucky enough to find you. There isn’t a vocabulary to describe what you do, the closest that I can get is that you bring light where there is darkness, literally and metaphorically, through love, care, and cheese scones. Thank you.





Here’s why

At the start of this year I set myself the challenge of raising £1000 for St Wilfrid’s Hospice, through a series of sporting challenges and fundraising events. The response from you all has been amazing.  At my most ambitious, I didn’t imagine that we’d raise nearly £400 at the quiz night, or that people would be so willing to put their hands in their pockets just to see me get my running shoes on, get muddy, or take a dip in Loch Lomond. And it’s not just the financial support that’s been so moving. Mum rallied her friends to make a mountain of cake to sell at the quiz night. And rallied them again to buy most of it back. My sister in law Charlie deliberately took a dip in Loch Ness (at one point I thought she might actually die – but she made it). My brother David ran a half marathon with me against the advice of various medical professionals. Mum’s friend Anne swam the channel (in a pool, if it had involved coating herself in lard and heading out of Dover I would very much have been on the support boat). I always knew we’d hit the total, because my friends and family are lovely lovely people, but I didn’t think we’d smash it.

I say this a bit sheepishly, because I’ve kept it to myself, but we beat my fundraising target six months in. Just before my brother Dave and I slogged up and down Seaford seafront in the rain for thirteen and a bit miles, we tipped over the thousand pound mark.  When I went to visit St Wilf’s the day after that very wet seafront run I handed over an ice cream tub full of cash, slightly wondering how I’d keep up the motivation for the rest of the year.

But here’s the thing.

I knew, as soon as we walked through the doors, that the work they are doing now is just as important as it ever was. More so maybe, because now they have the facilities to match the calibre of everyone who works or volunteers there.

I had intended to punctuate this year with little personal stories. Some seasonal prompts – not just about that final year 20 years ago, but the years leading up to it as well. I started several. But I never finished one, and I never published them. The fact is, while I wanted you to know what a difference St Wilf’s made for our family, I didn’t want to make you all feel sad.

But it’s nearly all over now. The nights are drawing in again, and there’s only one planned event to go. And if I don’t tell you what happened between 1991 and 1995 then I’m letting down everyone who was involved.

So here, for the first time, is our story.


The first indication we got that all was not well was when Dad crashed the Volvo. It was a Y reg, off-white estate. His pride and joy. And it was a write off.

I was ten at the time, and not quite in my final year at primary school. Naturally, I wasn’t included in any of the grown-up conversations that must have been going on around the time. I don’t know why he crashed, or how it happened, I don’t know if there was any suggestion that he might have been at fault, or been unwell, I just remember that that incident was the first in a chain of events that changed things in our family for ever.

The second event in that chain was the death of my maternal grandfather. His death, suddenly and unexpectedly at the relatively young age of 63, was my first experience of death. I remember being summoned to the living room by dad, who sat on the settee next to mum and told me and my brothers that we had ‘lost granddad in the night’. At ten years old, my first thought was that somebody should be looking for him.

Strangely, the loss of my grandfathers bookended the illness and eventual death of my dad – my paternal granddad died the day after my dad’s funeral. I adored them both. Mum’s dad was a big guy with a big heart who left a big hole in the family which we still feel. Granddad Elliott was a quiet man of few words but whose love for his family was obvious and constant.

But my emotional response to the later event was very different from my emotional response to the first. Maybe that’s just the difference between a ten year old and a fifteen year old. 

Weeks after the first funeral, at Easter in 1991, we went for a walk. Mum’s sister, my uncle and two cousins were visiting for the long weekend and it was the thing our family did in such situations. Go for a long walk – usually somewhere windy.  There was nothing unusual about it. Except that dad couldn’t walk in a straight line. He was leaning heavily to one side. And he didn’t seem to notice that there was a problem.

The kids got sent outside when the doctor arrived. Up until that point I didn’t really know doctors did house calls, especially on a Sunday. Shortly afterwards he was in hospital in Haywards Heath, and I learned to spell ‘neurological’.

Nobody used the word cancer, at least not to me. I heard the words ‘brain tumour’, but my main concern was working out if it was spelled like ‘tuna’ or not. I was worried, but not excessively so. He’d been in hospital before and come home just the same as he was when he went in, and I was confident this would be no different.

When I went to see him in intensive care after his operation, he was still the same old dad. Tired, with a corker of a black eye and a big scar shaped like a question mark on the side of his head, but still there. We visited a few times while he recovered and I became rather partial to the chicken soup that you could get out of the hot drinks machine for 20p.

Eventually he came home and life went on. He went back to work – although he wasn’t allowed to drive, meaning mum took on caravan towing duties on the annual holiday, something he never seemed entirely comfortable with.

It wasn’t until the tumour recurred for the first time, two years later, when I was twelve and in my first year at secondary school, and Jurassic Park was out at the cinema, that I began to realise things were changing for ever. Not just because the chicken soup at Hurstwood Park hospital now tasted of coffee (prompting a rapid switch of allegiance to Nice ‘n Spicy Nik-Naks from the vending machine). I mean, he was physically there, but he wasn’t the same person any more. He was short tempered and distant, and two lots of pretty hardcore brain surgery had changed his personality. I think that’s when I started grieving to be honest. The day mum and I were driving away from Hurstwood Park hospital in Haywards Heath, and she told me that we had to accept that the dad we knew was probably gone. I cried that day.

But he pulled through, again, and came home. And we tried to adjust.

It wasn’t easy.

At times it felt like living with a stranger. Our relationship was difficult. I desperately wanted to be close to him, like we’d been close before. But he seemed to get annoyed by a lot of what I did. Eventually, I’m sad to say, I more or less stopped trying.

By 1995 he’d been medically retired from work. There’d been a big party at a pub in Brighton, and I’d got most of the day off school to go to it. He got a framed certificate for his 33 years of service and his colleagues gave him a collage of photos, and that was it. I don’t think he liked being retired. I don’t think he felt ready. There was only so much servicing of the Volvo (by now a H reg 440) that he could fill his days with.

However hard I try, I can’t remember how we knew he was ill again. The memories of that year have all sort of blurred into one homogenous lump. There are snapshots, but I’m not entirely confident of the order. I can remember though that in March I was watching the Brookside omnibus in David’s bedroom (which I’d adopted as my own as he was more or less living at his girlfriend’s) when mum came up for a chat. She’d been up to the Royal Marsden that day with Dad, and Dad’s brother Peter, and wanted to talk to me about something.  As the body of Trevor Jordache was discovered under Sinbad’s patio on the screen of the small portable TV, she told me that he was ill again, that there was nothing they could do, and that they thought he’d die that year.

I asked her when. She said they didn’t know. I asked her if he’d still be there for Christmas. She said probably not. I asked about my birthday at the beginning of December. She said probably not. I asked about his birthday on bonfire night. She said probably not. That they didn’t know. That we had to wait and see.

It didn’t sink in straight away. As far as I remember she went back downstairs and I carried on watching Brookside. The next day was a Friday, and I went to school as usual. At registration, my tutor (who’d been chatting to mum at parents’ evening on the Wednesday) asked how dad’s appointment yesterday had gone. Then it hit me. I would’ve gone home – but there wasn’t anybody at home, so my brother Andrew came and picked me up and took me to work with him. I sat at his desk in an open plan office and did a day’s unpaid work for BT.

Over the next few months, we were in limbo. Waiting for something to happen. Dad’s health got steadily worse – until we got to the point where he didn’t really get out of bed.  His moods got worse. I’d dread going home from school because I didn’t want to walk into an argument. I’m not proud to say it, but part of me resented this grumpy stranger who had moved into our house.

As we rolled slowly towards the summer, things came to a bit of a head. We were all exhausted, mum especially, and needed a break.

And that’s when St Wilfrid’s came into our lives.

I didn’t know at the time, but I’ve been told since, that the first time he went into the hospice he wasn’t really expected to come out. Even at, by then, the ripe old age of 14, I didn’t really know what hospices where. I’d never heard of them. I didn’t have any expectations. 20 years on kids probably just use Google to find out whatever they want to know. I didn’t like to ask.

When he arrived he was confused – he didn’t really understand why he was there, and he kept commenting that they hadn’t ‘done anything’ to him yet. He thought it was a hospital and he was expecting treatment. But it was a nice place to be. He had a clean, bright, room to himself. Everyone was lovely. He rallied. And he came home.

If we’d been left to get on with it again, the whole of that year would’ve been horrendous. But now, we had back up. St Wilf’s also offered something called a ‘day hospice’. Three times a week, a volunteer would turn up outside our house at about half nine and pick dad up. He’d be driven to the hospice in Mill Gap Road in Eastbourne and spend the day being entertained, intellectually stimulated, having a manicure, whatever, and then be driven home at about three. It gave him something to think about outside of the walls of our house, and although he didn’t always seem to want to go, he seemed so much better for it. By this time he was walking with a stick (after much persuasion) – and the hospice arranged for him to see an Occupational Therapist who helped him feel steadier on his feet. Actually I don’t think he took much notice of her, but she tried.

In September 1995 mum and dad celebrated their silver wedding anniversary with a massive family party. I can’t look at the photos of it any more. There’s one in particular, of mum and dad together, where there’s so much going on in mum’s face that I find it really upsetting. Happiness, sadness, exhaustion, uncertainty. It’s all there.

Strangely, by this point, my relationship with dad had improved a bit. He seemed mellower now. He’d talk about Eddie Calvert and try and get me to play pieces on the trumpet that I’d never heard of (and that were, to be honest, still a bit out of my reach even after three years of lessons). Mum and Peter had made the decision not to tell him the full detail of his diagnosis – but he knew. I know he did, because one day, when it was just the two of us at home, and we were talking, he told me he was sorry. And he started crying. Almost inconsolably. I didn’t know what to say, or do – so I just put my arms around him and told him it was ok. Again, and again, and again. We never talked about it after that, and I never told anyone what had happened. But, at 14, it was the moment I stopped being a child.

Against the odds, and with the support of St Wilf’s behind us all, he made it to my 15th birthday. Just days afterwards he was admitted to the ward at the hospice, and gradually drifted away. He died on the 22nd of December 1995.

I’m not one for flowery metaphors. There’s a slightly cloying tendency to refer to people who do jobs like nursing as ‘angels’. Well, they’re not angels. They’re ordinary people who do extraordinary things. They came into our lives at a time when the foundation of our family was crumbling, and they gave us the love, the care, the confidence, the resilience, the rest, and the endless cups of tea, that we needed to keep going.

On Sunday, I take on the final sporting challenge of the year – the 10 mile Great South Run. And even though you’ve already all been so generous, I’m asking you, nicely, please, to think about donating again.

They’re absolutely worth every penny.

Five things I’ve learned about running since I started doing it

In October last year I went on holiday to Turkey with my brother and his family. One day at breakfast my sister-in-law Charlie took great joy in mocking the t-shirt I’d worn to bed – a ‘finisher’ t-shirt from the Great South 5k in 2013.

Now, I was really proud of this t-shirt. I’d never been a runner, and to finish a timed event that justified not only a t-shirt bud a medal as well had felt like quite an achievement. I’d actually completed the event the previous year fuelled by the Olympic spirit, and both times had promised myself that it was a start point to more running exploits, not a goal in itself. But then the evenings would get darker and colder, and I’d find more ways to talk myself out of popping out for a quick trot round the block.

But earlier in 2014, Charlie, who I had never previously seen embrace any sort of regular physical exercise, had completed not one, but two 10k races. One of them involving a dip in Loch Ness and some kind of activity in a bog. You have to know Charlie to understand how out of character this was. She usually requires no small amount of persuasion (not to say peer pressure and, on the part of her children, downright bullying) to get her into a heated swimming pool on holiday. As was only right and proper, I conceded the bragging rights – which she still holds to this day, and isn’t afraid of using – and resolved to reclaim them in 2015.

And so, shortly after returning from Turkey last October, I dug out the old couch to 5k programme for the third time and set myself the target of finishing a 10k at some point before the end of this year. The last 8 or so months have been a learning curve, and here are five things I thought I knew when I started out.

1. There are no fat runners
It’s fair to say you don’t see many larger people out running. That’s not to say everyone’s built like a twiglet, I quite often pass fellow heavyweights, and we give each other that sympathetic, knowing nod. But the regulars you see are all pretty trim. I used to think that was because all the fat people stayed at home on the sofa. I now believe it’s because it’s very difficult to stay porky when you’re running four times a week. I don’t weigh myself, but I can tell from the fact that a pair of shorts I bought in 2009 now fits me for the first time ever (actually they’re a bit too big) that I’m lighter than I was when I started. Believe me, that was not the goal. I haven’t really changed what I eat and can still consume the weight of my own head in maltesers without pausing for breath. But I’m also covering about 30km over the course of an average week and that seems to be having an effect.

2. Cross training is for masochists
On one of my previous dalliances with running (see ‘Olympic Spirit’) a work colleague lent me a book that contained a range of training programmes for every distance up to marathon. I ambitiously photocopied all of them and would occasionally glance at them before returning to week three of the ‘just get me to run non-stop for half an hour without dying’ section. I noticed that every single one of these programmes gave slots over to ‘cross training’, and I didn’t really get it. How did people possibly have the energy on a non-running day to think about doing anything other than binge watching Netflix for three hours? But more recently, my body has got used to (and, whisper it, started to enjoy) going out four times a week, and I’ve had a little dabble with proper cross training. It’s amazing. Half an hour on the mountain bike on one day, a mile in the pool on another, and a yoga session on the third – my joints feel less sore, my muscles are looser and when I do get out for a run again there’s a noticeable benefit. Who’d have thought?

3. People who run on Christmas Day have something missing in their lives
A controversial one, possibly, but I used to sit at Christmas dinner with the family and look out at the road outside my mum’s house at the occasional jogger going past (usually in the dark and resplendent in neon clothing) and think – what are you doing? Is your life so empty that on Christmas Day you feel the need to go out for a run? Last year, Christmas Day fell on a Thursday, which at the time was one of my running days. I hadn’t skipped a session for any reason since October, my brother David was visiting from Scotland and had his running shoes with him, and I knew that Christmas dinner would be much more enjoyable after a run. I became one of those people. And I’d do it again.

4. Running is boring
Running in the gym, on a treadmill, is boring. Staring into space, trying to avoid eye contact with the person on the rowing machine at the other end of the room, big digital numbers taunting you with how much further you need to go to run off the chicken korma you had last night. Running outside is anything but. I’ve got favourite routes, of course, tried and tested that I know will take a certain amount of time that I can fit into my schedule. But the best days are when you head out of the house not really knowing where you’ll end up.

5. Some people just aren’t runners
I used to say ‘I’m not a natural runner’, and I still believe that’s true. Charlie completed her 10ks with virtually no training, her attitude to it summarised as ‘you just keep going’. For me, every mile is hard earned. Sure, I’m fit enough now to go out for two and a half hours and just see where my feet take me, but I’ve earned that freedom through sweat and slog. I may never be a natural runner. But I am now a runner.

On January 1st 2015, rather earlier than I had anticipated when I set myself the challenge for the year, I ran 10k.

I had to review my targets slightly.

This year, as part of my year of fundraising, I’m aiming to complete three running events in aid of St Wilfrid’s Hospice:

  • Poole 10k (Poole Park, 7 June)
  • South Coast Half Marathon (Seaford seafront, 5 July)
  • Great South Run (the full 10 miles this time – Southsea, 25 October)

If you’d like to sponsor me, you can do so on my Givey page (it’s like JustGiving, but unlike JustGiving they don’t take a cut of your donation) or in person when I next see you. If you’re in the Seaford area on the morning of Sunday 5 July, it would be great to see you on the seafront where my family will be accepting donations. I need all the help I can get!

I did say I’d start at the end…

Today is Tuesday December 30th, and I’m sitting on a bench in Seaford cemetery, where my dad is buried.

(Yes, this is a post about a cemetery. I’m not going to apologise for it, because it felt right at the time. It’s a bit deep, but not quite as depressing as you might think. That said, if today’s not a good day, maybe skip it and come back later.)

I don’t like cemeteries. That probably goes without saying. I’m pretty sure than no sane and reasoned individual would consider them a good place for a day out. Seaford cemetery, even if it wasn’t a cemetery, wouldn’t be a great place to spend an hour on a December afternoon. It’s a series of grass squares on a relatively exposed (and therefore somewhat bleak) hillside. It’s bordered on one side by an industrial estate and on the other by housing. It’s a stone’s throw from the local council rubbish tip. You might think that would be undesirable, but I like to think dad would see its proximity to the dump as an unexpected bonus.

This used to be somewhere I would come to cry. I thought that was what you did at graves. You brought flowers and a jay cloth, did a bit of tidying up, wiped bird poo off the headstone and then sniffed a bit. For the most part we were a stiff upper lip sort of a family. You didn’t really acknowledge that life was a bit shit, you kept calm and carried on (and sought counselling for it later in secret – that’s another story for another time). But this was somewhere it was acceptable to show emotion, and I did so readily.

In my early twenties I went through a stage of not really knowing what it was there for. Although I would sometimes talk to dad while I was there, there were places where that conversation came more naturally and felt more appropriate. In the garden at home, out walking on the South Downs, or anywhere there were caravans, steam trains, or steam engines. His grave became a focus for grief, rather than memory, and once I had got to the stage of wanting to move on it didn’t feel right to spend time there. Equally though, it didn’t feel right to stay away.

At some point, and – at least initially – not consciously, I got into the habit of an annual visit. The cemetery is about a 30 minute walk from my mum’s house, and if you know where to go you can do most of it on country lanes and farm tracks. The annual ritual, usually performed in December, was to walk up to the cemetery, stand at dad’s grave for a bit, then go for a walk round and check on some of the other familiar names in there. Relatives of friends, or other people on the periphery of my life. I’d imagine other people walk round such places in the towns where they grew up and can find other family members, however distant. That’s not the case for me, my family are somewhat nomadic, and I’m not sure if the ‘other people’s graves’ thing is a subconscious substitute, or just morbid curiosity.

In any case, over time the ritual changed how I felt about remembrance and memorial. During the couple of hours I was walking to or from this bleak hillside I could immerse myself in the memories – good and bad, and it was these walks that helped me process a lot of what had happened. I didn’t allow myself to dwell on it at other times, but on those trips I could indulge any morose tendencies I had been harbouring. On one of those trips I came to the crucial realisation that by the time dad died, I had already grieved for him, alleviating years of guilt that I had felt about my emotional response (or relative lack thereof) in the aftermath of his death.

I still perform the ritual. Not quite annually, but when I can. This cemetery now for me is a place where I confront my own mortality, rather than mourn that of other people. As I walk past headstones I find myself imagining the lives of those they commemorate. Lives cut short, or long and hopefully happy lives that end the way that, perhaps, we all aspire to.

I don’t want to be buried. Assuming when the time comes I am fortunate enough to have people around who want to remember me, I don’t want that act to be confined to a single place where the only socially acceptable emotion is one of sadness. I want people to remember me in the places we were happy together, in the activities I enjoyed, or with the people I was close to. If something must be done with my earthly remains after I have gone on to whatever the next awfully big adventure is, I would like them to be spread across as many of my favourite places as those left behind can manage.

If I’m lucky, that moment is a long way in the future, and I’ll have time to not only leave them a list, but make sure it’s inconveniently lengthy.

A very fine place to start

There’s a long-running joke in our family of which I am unavoidably, inarguably, and unrelentingly, the butt.

Actually there are several, including one involving yoghurt that’s been going for over 30 years, but they’re not relevant to this particular story so I’ll save them for another day.

It all stems from one Sunday afternoon in mid-1997, when we were sat round the dinner table at my mum’s house having just polished off a roast dinner. Both my older brothers (at that point in their mid-twenties) were there, which probably explains why this particular anecdote has stuck around like an unwelcome relative on Boxing Day. The scene unfolded something like this:

Older brother no. 2: Have you heard about that film that’s coming out at Christmas, Titanic?

Me: Yes, I’m looking forward to seeing it. It sounds like it’ll be good.

Older brother no. 2: Me too.

Me: I wonder what it’s about.

Cue both older brothers wetting themselves laughing, and mum doing that smirking thing that means she knows she shouldn’t laugh really, because they are after all taking the piss out of me, but she is powerless to resist at least a snigger in response to such a dimwitted statement.

Let’s be clear – despite what my brothers may tell you, I am not now, and never have been, one of those idiots who supposedly didn’t realise that the 1997 blockbuster was based on a true story.  The point I was making, if any of them had stopped laughing long enough to listen (either at the time or since), was that everyone already knows the ending to that story. How does James Cameron persuade enough people to part with enough cash to recoup an estimated $200million budget when even primary school age children can summarise the plot in five words – big boat, hits iceberg, sinks.

I feel his pain.

Last week I wrote a post that sort of spoiled the ending to my own story.

I love a good plot twist. Jeffrey Archer books always have them (at least until you’ve read enough of them to realise they’re all the same). I loved the ending of The Sixth Sense so much that I spent quite a lot of time trying to buy a T-shirt with the phrase ‘I see dead people’. If you don’t get that, as my 13 year old niece would say, you need to get yourself a ‘moviecation’.

My story doesn’t really have a plot twist. I could invent one, but that would kind of defeat the object. And probably upset some people. Either way, it’s not an option.

So since James Cameron managed to tell a story to which everyone knew the ending – to the tune of over $2billion and counting – I have been looking to his example. Admittedly, he had the assistance of Kate Winslet in the buff and a virtually pre-pubescent Leonardo DiCaprio, but he also had to contend with the warblings of Celine Dion and Billy ‘the wardrobe has more facial expressions than I do’ Zane (honestly – Google him, it’s disturbing).

What follows over the first few weeks of January therefore, until the story picks up fully in February and March, is henceforth to be known as the ‘Lewis Abernathy period’. Lewis Abernathy is this guy:

LewisAbernathyPicHis job in the film is to state the obvious right at the beginning. To confirm the bits we already know, while adding a few details we probably didn’t, so we can get on with what the film is really all about – Kate’s battle with kleptomania and Leonardo’s kinky drawings. He removes any uncertainty, or suspicions we might have had that there will be a plot twist of epic proportions, and allows us to focus on the important bits.

All of which is a slightly long winded way of saying I’m going to start this story at the end. The first few posts you’ll see will be me filling in a few gaps, bringing you right up to date with what happened immediately after 22nd December 1995, and a few things that happened in the following couple of decades.

There will also be something about how you can get your hands on some coconut centred Quality Street, since that seemed to capture people’s imaginations (and a worrying number of you apparently like them).

Public service announcement

Three more sleeps. The shopping’s done, wrapped and ready to be loaded into the car tomorrow night when I head home to Mum’s place for Christmas. I’ve had three turkey dinners already this month and am looking forward to a fourth on Thursday – them’s the rules. Everyone at work is ‘winding down’ (leaving early, spending more time chatting than working and filling their faces with tins of chocolate brought in by well meaning heads of department trying to buy their way into our affections).

I love this time of year. To be honest, Christmas Day itself, with all its pressures and protocols, is usually a bit much.  Everyone’s trying a bit too hard. You can’t possibly keep everyone happy but you feel like you ought to, and the end result invariably is that everyone over a certain age is a bit awkward and uncomfortable and kind of wants it to be over.

The lead up though, now that’s different. A lot of it for me starts with lights. Lights in the street, in houses, in shops. Twinkling ones. Multi-coloured ones. Ones shaped like Father Christmas. The ones in that video that does the rounds every year that are shaped like willies. (They’re not real by the way, it’s a spoof. But it’s funny). All of them. Then there’s the band jobs. Standing in the street or outside a supermarket playing the same tunes you play every year. Some people hate it. I love it. Because it only takes one small child jumping excitedly up and down to Jingle Bells, or a big scary looking bloke putting a fiver in the tin during O Little Town of Bethlehem, or an elderly couple knowing all the words to Rudolph (including the rude ones), and it’s Christmas. Even that bit of Gavin and Stacey where Smithy sings Band Aid down the phone to Gavin brings a bit of a happy festive tear to my eye.

And Boxing Day – ever the underdog – is the very best day of the year. There’s still plenty of good food around and it’s perfectly acceptable to spend the day in your PJs polishing off the old selection box if that’s what takes your fancy.

I think you’ll have gathered by now that I’m a fan of Christmas.

So, sorry to put a bit of a downer on things, but there’s something I need to tell you.

Today marks 19 years to the day that my dad died.

I was only just 15 at the time – so you don’t have to be Carol Vorderman to work out that on the seesaw of life the adult me is now firmly rooted to the floor, looking up at a child I barely recognise as myself and a man who was gone before I really got to know him.

There are a lot of good memories. And there are others too. They’re not bad memories exactly. I’m not sure memories can be bad. They’re just there. And sometimes, bringing them to mind makes the bottom fall out of my stomach.  If I let them, they can ruin a day. Dwelling on this particular day isn’t good for me at all. 

We don’t tend to do anniversaries. At least not collectively. Bonfire night this year marked what would have been his seventieth birthday. But we’re all spread out across the country these days so all we managed was a Facebook message, a phone call, and a little private drink and a smile. 

But by virtue of the fact that this is the 19th anniversary of that Friday night in 1995 that marked the last time I heard Oasis’ Don’t Look Back in Anger without a lump in my throat, next year will be 20 years.

And I’ve decided to celebrate it.

Next year, all year, I’m going to be fundraising for St Wilfrid’s Hospice.

I’m not going to lie to you, you’ll probably get sick of hearing me talk about it. You will almost certainly tire of me asking you for money. You might even grow bored of me asking for your help.

But here’s the thing:

That won’t stop me.

There are trendier charities. There are bigger charities, and smaller ones. There are charities that get less exposure, and charities that get considerably more. There are charities that come up with catchy internet trends that have half the world chucking buckets of cold water on each other, or that inexplicably raise several million just because a few people took pictures of themselves without makeup on. But there is not a charity in the world, let alone in East Sussex, that has had a bigger impact on my life and my family than this one.

Over the course of next year, as well as occasionally asking you to put your hand in your pocket for one reason or another, I want to try and share with you what this charity means to me and my family. I hope you’ll stick with it, get involved, and understand.

I’ll let you know more of my plans in the New Year. In the mean time, I wish you all a peace filled and restful festive season and hope that every home has someone who’ll eat the coconut centred Quality Street. If you do, let me know, I’ll post mine to you.

Happy Christmas.