Couch to Five K: Gertie Grit and Getting Fit.

One fateful day in the vineyards at the end of January, I decided to prove to myself that I was fit. I was on a roll – after 31 days of abstinence, I had successfully put an end to my equivalent of the Pavlovian reflex, which involved salivating and grabbing a large wine glass and a bowl of peanuts as soon as I heard the cork pop on a bottle of rosé. I’d walked 145 km over the month. It would be a piece of cake. I checked that nobody was looking, and set off. The result was pathetic to say the least – 30 seconds later, I was hugging the nearest tree, consumed by burning lungs, nausea and a stitch as Mrs Playmo tutted and smelly dog looked on in bemusement. I was not fit. The image of myself puffing along out of breath behind a possible future grandchild on a trike (think Damien in “the Omen”) made my mind up. I had to get fit. And to do so, I needed grit.

Grit was the stuff that I brushed out of stinging grazes when I fell off my bike as a child, and also the stuff I needed to get back on the saddle and try again and again until I finally got to the end of the garden path without kissing the tarmac. Gertie Grit had disappeared off the radar as HMS MM entered the murky waters of middle age, and was found gagged and bound on a chair in a corner in the dark side of my mind. She had been taken hostage by my inner bitch, who took a swig of rosé, scratched her navel and informed me that I was far too old and set in my ways to change anything now. That was a red rag to a bull.

So  I downloaded the C25K programme from the NHS website – a nine week programme with three half-hour outings a week that gradually take you from short running and walking intervals to running for 30 minutes non-stop. This is done with the help of a cheerful young lady called Laura, who talks you through what initially feels like a 30-minute survival course for trainee GI’s, apparently impervious to the fact that you are inches from keeling over. Yet believe it or not, seven months later MM has gone from gasping for breath to gasping for a run. So for anyone who has downloaded the app and is tempted to give it a whirl, here is MM’s guide to C25K.

Gladys proudly showed the girls the gravity-defying plastic bra she had stolen from the NASA test lab. It would be ideal for running C25K. Picture from (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Gladys proudly showed the girls the gravity-defying plastic bra she had stolen from the NASA test lab. It would be ideal for running C25K. .
Picture from (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

  1. Get kitted out.

Running requires very little financial investment (that sinks your first excuse). Girls should acquire the appropriate female scaffolding to restrain the lesser spotted boobs, which already have a natural tendency to migrate southwards. Without control, you’ll either knock yourself out on your first run or they’ll stretch so far that you’ll be able to wrap them around your neck to keep your ears warm by Christmas. You’ll also need trainers – and forget the ones you’ve had in the cupboard since that aborted new year’s resolution you made back in 1984. Embrace new footwear technology – your body will thank you for it. As for the rest, a t-shirt and a pair of leggings will do fine.

  1. Be safe.

This does not mean kitting yourself out with a flick knife, or running with a baseball bat stuck under your knicker elastic. In the unlikely event of being attacked, the smell of a runner’s armpits after 4 kilometers is probably sufficient to put any assailant off. What ‘being safe’ means is simply doing what you expect your teenagers to do – tell someone where you are going, what time you are leaving, and when you will be back. You are more likely to go arse over tit into a hedge than you are to get abducted by aliens, but if you do have a problem then someone should know where you are.

MM tried out her skills at smashing an aggressor's teeth with a baseball bat, before establishing that it was too big to fit in the waistband of her shorts. Picture credit: Par Center for Jewish History, NYC [No restrictions ou Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

MM tried out her skills at smashing an aggressor’s teeth with a baseball bat, before establishing that it was too big to fit in the waistband of her shorts. Picture credit: Par Center for Jewish History, NYC [No restrictions ou Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

  1. Get an iPod, phone or MP3 player.

An absolute must, if only to follow the programme and avoid hearing yourself gasping for breath on the way around the run (I scared myself when my headphones fell out – it sounded like I was being chased by a rabid black bear). If you follow the C25K programme, the lovely Laura will chat all the way around and tell you when to run, when to walk, and congratulate you on your achievements. If you are anything like me, you will give up on her when you get bored with the dismal music (I’m sure that Laura didn’t choose it) and are fed up with her not inviting you around for a cuppa and a Hobnob after your run. There are plenty of alternative apps available that let you run the programme using your own music playlist, so go for it – Laura has so many fans that she won’t notice you’ve shelved her. Just one word of warning: for safety, make sure that the volume is low enough to hear cars coming up behind you. Not to mention other runners if you stop for a wee behind a hedge.

  1. Get support and be accountable to somebody.

If, like me, your family reacted to your announcement that you were taking up sport by falling off their chairs laughing, fear not. Sign up to the C25K community on Health Unlocked, a forum full of real people just like you who get beetroot red faces, sweat buckets, fall victim to self-doubt and know how to deal with the gremlins telling you that today’s run can wait until tomorrow. They will give you answers to the things you need to know and don’t dare to ask, like whether you should run in granny pants or G-strings or even go commando under your lycra. They will boot you out of that door with a grin on your face when you were determined you were never going to run again. If you could harness all the positivity generated by this forum, the planet would have a whole new source of energy. So sign up, and get to know people who are all on a quest for better health.

how_i_think_i_look-scaled1000

This is definitely right. But we all look the same, and nobody else really notices. You’re just another nutter wearing trainers. No idea who the pic belongs to but it’s all over cyber space.

  1. Believe.

Believe in yourself. Running is as much about mindset as it is about physical fitness. Cheer yourself on, and do so shamelessly. Don’t compare your achievements to anyone else’s, only to your own expectations. There will be bad runs. But however long it takes you to run that mile, it is still a mile. And however little or however slow you run, you are still running laps around the previous you, who is still sat glumly on the couch holding a glass of wine in one hand and pinching a roll of belly flab with the other.

  1. Forget self-consciousness, and embrace your bloody-mindedness.

Other people will see you, but don’t imagine that they are judging you – to passers-by, you’re just another nutter wearing trainers, and most offer a smile and a supporting comment and not the jeer or insult you were expecting. And the others? Who cares. You don’t know them, and you’ll probably never see them again.

If running isn’t sweaty and messy, you’re not doing it right. You will be bright red. You will scream insults at your iPod because you suspect that Laura has deliberately added thirty seconds to that minute she asked you to run. You will want to give up, but Gertie Grit won’t let you, because if you do, you’ll feel like a failure. Within very little time, you are going to yell at yourself, immune to the stares of OAP’s walking their dogs as you tell yourself you’re an effing wimp and you’re going to bloody well make it to that tree, end of story. And when you finish each run and tick another box, you are going to find yourself whooping, screeching, punching the air and dancing. And you won’t care who is watching. Because you’ve found your grit again. And that’s worth its weight in gold.

Vladimir and The Big Bad Wolf.

The Sochi Winter Games are well under way, and Mr Putin’s appearance as a bare-chested moral crusader wearing his underpants over his lycra ski-pants has backfired on him to a greater extent than anyone could have ever imagined. President Obama was far from being alone in declining his invitation to the party, and even President Hollande waived the opportunity to try on one of those gay, rainbow-coloured track suit tops.

The world is now scrutinizing the Sochi games, and Internet is full of fun yet lucid messages such as this one from the Canadian Institute for Diversity and Inclusion:

Some athletes sported rainbow-coloured accessories for the opening ceremony, and Google adopted the same colours for their home page, quoting the values of the Olympic Charter below it: “The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.”

Values that Mr Putin immediately transgressed with a cool “welcome” to any gay visitors, requesting them to “leave the children in peace” during their visit, and refrain from “homosexual and pedophile propaganda”.

When inviting high-profile international athletes to your winter sporting event, telling them not to touch your kids probably isn’t the best ice-breaker to kick off your party. I have serious doubts that any athletes came to the Winter Games with the plan of converting Russia’s youth to anything at all – be it brussels sprouts or homosexuality – after years of intensive training for a unique opportunity to prove their sporting skills. However, by conflating homosexuals and pedophiles, Mr Putin has shown his true colours: 50 shades of darkness.

It’s not the first or the last time that a politician has used stories about the bogeyman to gain the support of the population. Your desire to “protect” Russia’s children from the big bad wolf of permissive society may be touching for some, but there are a few things that you seem to have forgotten in your haste to prove to the rest of the world what a good moral guardian you are. These have a much more direct impact on Russian children than foreign athletes who you believe could simultaneously promote their sexuality and ski down the Sochi slopes. 

So instead of scaring your kids with gay monster stories, I’d suggest sorting out a few other more pressing issues that have been pointed out by UNICEF and the world Health Organisation, among others.

Like child pornography and prostitution. Whilst you are barking up the wrong tree, children in Russia (and particularly migrant populations) are being exploited in organised prostitution. Whilst you point an accusing finger at your visitors, you forget that you have no current legislation condemning the simple possession of child pornography in your own country. 

Then there’s the human trafficking and child labour. In the child labour rankings, Russia sadly boasts the 69th place in a list of 197 countries exploiting children, and iconsidered to pose an “extreme risk” alongside China. According to the Maplecroft child labour index 2014, Russia is “lagging” in the battle against child labour and trafficking. The report describes the increasing presence of children working in shops, on construction sites and in agriculture, where they use dangerous machinery and harmful pesticides. 

Peter, Ivan and Sasha realize that they have c...

The arrival of international athletes at Sochi, told by uncle Vlad. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Russia’s rates of infant, child and maternal mortality are among the highest in Eastern Europe, and the country has the highest incidence of AIDS after mainland Africa. HIV transmission is mainly fuelled by the heterosexual community, meaning that more and more children are being born to HIV–infected mothers.

Living conditions and education could do with some investment, too – Unicef describe a “dramatic increase in the number of children living on the streets or in institutions”, and deplore declining investments in national education, lowering school enrollment rates and preschool availability, falling school completion rates, and less opportunities for poor children in rural areas to access education.

Last but not least, over 650,000 Russian children are registered orphans, yet an estimated  66-95% of all of these children are considered social orphans, meaning that one or more of their birth parents are still alive. If the State believes there is a problem, they simply take custody of the child. Many of those with serious handicaps spend their childhood in orphanages, then get put into adult asylums. New laws are in the pipeline to remove children from their gay parents, irrelevant of whether they are well-cared for or not, potentially sending more children into orphanages when they have absolutely no need to be there.

Will the real big bad wolf please stand up?

“There is no monopoly in common sense

On either side of the political fence.

We share the same biology,

Regardless of ideology.

Believe me when I say to you

I hope the Russians love their children too.”

Sting.

 

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15th April 1989: Never Forget.

Liverpool crest in flowers at the Hillsborough...

Liverpool crest in flowers at the Hillsborough memorial (Photo credit: Ben Sutherland)

24 years ago today, I attended my first ever football match at Hillsborough stadium. That afternoon, one of the worst disasters in the history of football killed 95 Liverpool fans and injured 766 more. The youngest victim was just ten years old. A 96th victim died four years later. Each and every one of these 96 names corresponds to the parent, the child, the sibling or the friend of an immeasurable number of people who lost their loved ones in horrifying circumstances. Their pain has been exacerbated by the appalling handling of the disaster, the slanderous media coverage and the terrible lies told to cover up the true responsibilities. I have not set foot in a football stadium since that day. I am aware that my account could cause distress, and I apologise. I am publishing this post today because the Hillsborough disaster and its victims should never, ever be forgotten.

I still wake up with my heart racing. Each time they are there, behind the fence. Within arm’s reach, yet inaccessible. The crying man, the unconscious boy, the sobbing girl. The overflowing emotions resurface every time – distress, frustration, anger, fear, sadness, incomprehension, revolt, empathy. It has been 24 years now, and they still return with vivid precision.

My boyfriend had been adamant: I couldn’t claim that I didn’t like football if I’d never seen a real match. That’s how I ended up at Hillsborough Stadium on the 15th April 1989. We unknowingly stepped off the bus into an afternoon that blew my world sky high. That day, at just twenty years old, I realised how tenuous our link with life can be. The experience painted a stark picture of how human nature can hold unexpected, generous sources of humanity and bravery as well as the utmost cruelty, cowardice and ignorance.

Standing inside the stadium, behind the goal and close to the exits, I was struck by the imposing height of the fence, designed with an overhang to made pitch invasions impossible. We were penned in with jostling, excited people of all ages and from all horizons, a few of whom were overtly fueled by alcohol and harboured an illogical hatred of the Liverpool team. But the majority of people were just happy to be there. In the crowd, I saw children waving their scarves above their heads. Many were in front, impatiently clinging to the fence after hours of waiting to have the best view.

The match began with a near goal, and the crowd screamed enthusiastically. But seconds later, the match was stopped as people inexplicably began climbing up the fence behind the goal at the opposite end of the pitch. “Pitch invasion”, my boyfriend grumbled, but I shook my head and pointed. A man had dropped to the ground like a dislocated puppet. He stood up, walked a little, fell again as policemen tried to push other people back over the fence.  People continued to climb the fence with difficulty, and some sat astride it and pulled others over. They tumbled onto the pitch. Some stood up, others remained motionless on the ground. They were not hooligans. The police started helping people over. Something was terribly wrong.

I was mesmerised by the man. He stood up again, and began walking down the pitch, impervious to everything around him. Shakily putting one foot in front of the other, head held high, he crossed the turf towards us. He arrived in front of us and fell to his knees. His trousers were soaked with urine and tears were pouring down his face.

It was as if a glass dome had been lowered over the stadium, cutting us off from the reassuring normality of our everyday life. We only understood later that having made fans wait much too long outside the stadium, the police opened an exit gate to release the consequent crowd pressure, resulting in supporters being swept down a tunnel by the sheer force of the crowd into two spectator pens that were already full. Metal barriers were crushed to the ground by the sheer force of the crowd and men, women and children were crushed against that high, unyielding fence.

It was no longer a question of rivalry between teams. People who had come to watch a football match were now working together to save lives. I saw a human chain slowly form, dangling from the upper circle. Then another. And another. Complete strangers were working together to pluck survivors out of the bedlam below them.

Long before the extra police and ambulances arrived on the scene, football supporters placed along both sides of the pitch tore down the advertising hoardings and used them as makeshift stretchers. They hastily laid injured fans in front of us on the other side of the fence before returning into the milling mass of people, running the length of the pitch again and again. Their instinct to save lives gave me faith in human nature. All of these people are real heroes who disappeared back into the anonymity of everyday life, having played crucially important roles in the lives of so many people.

Others made me deeply ashamed of the human race, like the drunken man beside me. I threw myself at him, fists flaying, as he waved his beer can in the air, leering and spitting “Die!” at a child lying motionless and alone on the pitch less than three feet away from us on the other side of the fence. I will never know if the little boy survived. Becoming a mother has increased this need. So my memory brings him back. I see him again and again in my dreams. I awaken as I beat my fists into thin air – into that miserable, evil  excuse for a human being who was alive, safe behind a fence to insult an unconscious child. The injustice of the situation was unbearable.

The photographers sickened me. Impervious to human plight, they were taking close-ups of those suffocating against the wire fence. The camera lens appeared to be a filter between them and the appalling, urgent reality of the situation. At what point does a person lose touch with humanity to the extent that he chooses to photograph suffocating children rather than attempt to save them? I am still angry today to know that certain tabloids published those photographs, making money out of suffering and giving the sales of their “newspapers” priority over the respect of the dead and their bereaved families. We were shortly to see that they could sink even lower still, with front page headlines accusing fans of picking the victims’ pockets, of attacking policemen trying to save lives and of arriving at the stadium drunk and ticketless. Just how far can the moral values of journalism sink in a bid to make money?

When we were finally allowed outside we stopped beside a young woman who was sobbing on a step. Her boyfriend had been taken to hospital. Hugging her was the only thing we could do at a moment when we all wanted to turn the clock back in time. A hug was a mere drop in the ocean of help that the situation required – we felt inadequate, frustrated and useless. The only sound in the bus on the return home was that of grown adults weeping.

The images of that day are engraved in my memory, along with the fury of being trapped behind that fence. How I hate that fence: just a few millimetres of regularly soldered blue metal that made me powerless to bring any form of help. Permeable to my sight and feelings, the distress and pain just a few feet away on the other side had flowed through it and engulfed me. Yet it was impossible to cross, leaving us and many others as unwilling and horrified spectators who could do nothing to ease the pain on the other side.

On the 12th of September last year, the results of the Hillsborough enquiry were published, and the British government apologised to the families of the 96 people who died in the biggest football tragedy in British history. The apology will never be enough for those who not only lost their loved ones, but discovered the appalling cover-ups for the lack of organisation and inadequate reactions for emergency services, and learned that more lives could have been saved. A horrific conclusion for people who had already suffered too much.

Twenty-four years later, I wonder how many people will stop today and spare a minute to think of the 96 people who lost their lives, the survivors, and the families whose lives have been put on hold ever since they lost their loved ones. Please be one of them.

Link to Liverpool FC site page

In at the deep end.

I don’t call my son Bigfoot for nothing: his size 46 feet could easily qualify as flippers. He was spotted as potential competition material last year by the pool trainers, and I’ve been taxiing his Lordship and his collection of swimming paraphernalia back and forth to the local pool for training sessions three times per week ever since.

His two hours of training three times a week first appeared to be very good value, unbeatable at 130 euros for the year. However, I quickly discovered the hidden costs: the pool is 20 minutes’ drive from home, so I hang around whilst he trains to save on two return journeys.

That’s all very well and good, but the wait becomes expensive when the only available activity is to trail around the only other place that is open and has lighting: the nearby shopping mall. After cracking for overpriced imported ginger nuts, chutney and golden syrup once too often, I decided that it was time to bite the bullet and brave the hazardous waters of exercise in the hope of investing less to achieve more.

swimming pool

swimming pool (Photo credit: freefotouk)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now that my cholesterol level is acceptable and I’ve cleaned up my nutritional act, it would be good to get the remaining carcass back into training and tone it up a bit. Regular readers may however remember that I am about as compatible with exercise as King Kong is with needlepoint embroidery. But in the current context of European crisis, there was a strong argument for reducing spending and increasing health. Could I reverse the trend and be slimmer than my bank account?

So on Friday I reluctantly towed my swimming gear to the pool for the sixth time in three weeks, and endeavoured to avoid swallowing the entire pool as I choked my way up and down it. Two muscley, streamlined poseidons strutted out of the changing rooms, whirled their arms around like windmills then slapped their upper arms in a strange pre-swim ritual before adjusting their googles and their surgically-applied Speedo trunks. Once they were certain that all female eyes within a 10km radius were riveted on them, they plummeted into the pool without a splash and effortlessly cut their way through the water like hot knives through butter, their triceps, biceps and other perfectly honed youth-ceps glistening as they torpedoed through 20 lengths of the pool in the same time I took to swim four.

My chin unhinged and dropped open, letting the chlorine flood in. A woman laughed as she saw me choking, and chuckled “Don’t worry, they’re just pretending they know how to swim!” over her shoulder as she swam past.

As I finished my tenth length of the pool, my low self-esteem was dragging me towards the bottom like a dragnet full of tuna. I was a 2CV who had been overtaken by a Ferrari on the motorway. A tug rather than a Queen Mary of the aquatic world. Hanging on to the side, I gasped like a grounded herring, drowning in self-pity as I tried to massage a cramp in my left calf….and then I saw Bigfoot ploughing his way down the other side of the pool, encouraged by a coach. His back arched out of the turquoise water, his head bobbed rhythmically in and out of the spray, and his arms churned in synchro as he swam the butterfly. His determination to succeed came over loud and clear on my mummy radar. Despite the pain in my leg, I felt the warmth of maternal pride spreading through me and decided to clean my act up.

My smug, self-congratulatory moment was interrupted by the conversation of two young women behind me, who were ruthlessly demolishing the reputation of an unknown victim. “He’s just not motivated, ya know?” complained one of them in a nasal whine.  “Yeah, like your little Buddha’s gonna lose that pot belly of his without making an effort”, replied the nasty sidekick with a voice as smooth as a grater.  “He just hangs on to the end of the pool and says he’s tired. What a wimp”. I turned around, and was greeted by the vision of two tatooed, bikini-clad wonders, hair neatly pinned up on their heads. There was so much waterproof mascara on those eyelashes that I was surprised they hadn’t got tangled up whilst they talked. I secretly hoped that neither of them would spit in the water before I got out of the pool: they were so full of venom, they’d cause serious burns to anyone who swam too close.

They pushed off (in both senses of the term) and paddled delicately towards the deep end, their necks craned high out of the water like submarine telescopes to keep their hair dry. Their victim was a young man who was hanging onto the pool steps, staring sadly at the nearby lifeguard’s perfect physique. He sighed as he saw his torturers approaching.

A boy in a children's swimming pool.

A boy in a children’s swimming pool. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is where doting Dad and his wailing offspring made things fun. As I already explained in “Beach Babes”, there are parents who never realise that their kids are growing up and bubblewrap them against the assaults of real life for years on end.  At the other end of the scale, you have the parents who think their kids are capable of passing their driving test, getting into University then starting a business at the age of four. This guy was one of them. He marched down to the deep end with his tot in tow. A gaudy gold chain snaked through the thick, dark undergrowth sprouting all over his torso, and the smell of his cheap aftershave left people gasping for breath in his wake. This was the ultimate local silverback. He shoved his quivering offspring onto the platform just above the venomous pool princesses, and snapped “Off ya go!” His skinny, shivering child wavered, and looked back at his Dad, who yelled “Come on kid, give it some gumption! Look, Daddy’ll show you how”.

Without waiting, he grabbed the kid’s hand and threw himself into the pool. The impact was worthy of a meteorite hitting the Pacific, and the pool princesses’ hair was drenched in the ensuing nuclear mushroom of spray. His child broke surface beside them, hair plastered over his eyes, and screamed hysterically in their faces. The sad boyfriend’s face split into a huge grin.  In the end, I quite enjoy going to the pool. Roll on tomorrow, I can’t wait!