The End

Every day and night for the last few weeks, death has been on my mind. It’s what I’ve thought about as I try to get to sleep, and it’s been present each morning: today, from 4am. I’m not particularly comfortable writing about this topic, but by 5.30 I figured I’d get up and try to make sense of my current state of mind.

I think it’s been creeping up on me ahead of my 50th birthday this coming October. I’m unable to bury my head in the sand, about anything really. I’m a doer. I always look to move forward via taking action. And so rather than push these unsurprisingly unwelcome thoughts and fears out of my mind, I’m trying to just sit with them, poke them a little if you will, in the hope that I’ll work through some of the noise. It’s not that I’m feeling morose the entire time, more that I’d like to reach a place close to acceptance so that I can park these thoughts. It’s not even about a fear of my own mortality. It has more to do with being left behind, and most definitely about leaving others behind.

I can’t remember how I discovered it, but I’ve been listening to the incredibly moving podcast You, Me and the Big C: all 31 episodes in the space of a couple of weeks. It’s been created by three women who met on social media as they sought support over their cancer diagnoses: Rachael Bland, Deborah James and Lauren Mahon talk bravely and honestly about living with cancer. Rachael sadly died in September and her husband Steve has taken up the baton. I like to walk and listen, and in the last two weeks I’ve mostly reached twenty thousand steps per day to their now-familiar voices. I’ve laughed. I’ve cried. I’ve made a pact with myself to try my very best to seize every day.

Then on Monday I saw 4 familiar faces in the international press, 3 of whom were murdered in the Sri Lanka Easter Sunday terrorist attack. A family who had shown the boys and me great kindness in the early weeks of our move overseas. A boy who was in my son’s class, who had come to his 8th birthday party the week before we repatriated a year later. It’s impossible to fathom, and I cannot stop thinking about the sole survivor: what he has already been through, and what is to come.

I’ve just started reading Wave, written by Sonali Deraniyagala who lost her two young sons, her husband and both her parents in the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami. Next on my list is With The End In Mind by Dr Kathryn Mannix, who worked in palliative care for over 30 years. Kathryn featured on this episode of the podcast and I’m hoping her positive perspective will enable me to move forward.

In the meantime I’m going to continue with the positive psychology mindset from The Art Of Being Brilliant. I had the good fortune of listening to one of the co-authors at an event recently and he really was Brilliant. Focussing on having a positive impact on the lives of others is a really helpful strategy. I’m enjoying Random Acts of Kindness at the moment. My current favourite is to place a pound in peculiar places for others to find. I often leave one atop a pack of nappies in the supermarket. It always makes me smile when I walk away. What I really want to figure out is this: how do you pay for a coffee for the stranger queuing behind you? Anyone know?

To do, or not to do: that is the question

I actively try to avoid wishing time away, especially in relation to my boys growing up. As my husband remarked some months ago, post-family-movie-time, what if this is as good as it gets? They’re such good company, mostly. They’ve never really fought, but instead forged a close bond from the very beginning: our family unit is strong and self-sufficient and wonderful.

But I cannot wait for 14th June to roll around, for this is the date when boy one will sit his final GCSE exam. I seem to seesaw between willing this period to be over, because of its effect on the harmony in our home, and wishing for more time, so that he has longer to prepare.

I am finding this particular stage rather tricky: one strong-willed, hormonal activist forcing a strong-willed, hormonal teenager to spend hours and hours doing something he really doesn’t want to do in order to get an outcome commensurate with his ability, thus paving the way for an options-filled future.

Obviously, the aim is for him to leave school in just over two short months, having earned the right to enjoy a long, relaxing summer safe in the knowledge that he gave it his best. (We’ve always put the emphasis on effort levels: how can you ask any more of them than their best? Which is all well and good if they agree with you on what their ‘best’ is).

His favourite subjects are maths and computer science. He enjoys physics, chemistry and biology. He quite likes Spanish. He’s lukewarm about history. He tolerates business studies. He detests English. In his favourite subjects he is self-motivated and increasingly self-taught, such is his enjoyment of the subject matter: going by his grades and tutor feedback, it’s working. This bodes well, these being the subjects he will study at A Level.

Trying to chivvy him up to study English, on the other hand, is grueling. The set texts are tedious, the technical aspect of the language, tiresome. There is a ridiculous amount of information to learn by rote (and not just for this particular subject). It feels like a test of memory capacity and recall, when surely the whole point is being able to understand, analyse, compare, contrast, communicate. I can’t help but think that the new curriculum and, whilst we’re at it, the new grading system, are a bit bonkers.

There is so much pressure on the Y11s, and school are keen to impress upon us that they also need a reasonable amount of downtime, doing the things they enjoy. Absolutely. As with much of parenting, it’s not easy to strike the right balance: too relaxed, too anxious, too confident, too nervous, peaking too soon, leaving things too late, not studying enough, burning out.

I want to take away the stress. I want his life to be easy and calm and fun. I want him back. But I also don’t. Because that’s not how life works. All that good stuff is interspersed with hard work and pain and disappointment. Just as it should be. So, as much as I want peace and harmony restored (as soon as possible please) I also accept that a vital part of my job as a parent is to help my children develop skills they would rather not need: in this case, choosing long term goals over short term discomfort, building a strong work ethic, and accepting a need to ‘lean in’.

I’ve tried to impress upon him the power of acceptance. More often than not, the struggle is in the indecision rather than the actual action. Make the decision as quickly as possible, be absolutely fine with that decision, and move on to getting the shit done. Don’t waste precious time, energy and psychic weight entering into a protracted internal debate about whether to do, or not to do, especially when you already know what is required to achieve your desired outcome.

In an episode of the incomparable Life Coach School podcast, Brooke Castillo describes this as ‘hearing your own no and deciding not to suffer’. This can be applied to all manner of things: exercise, eating, alcohol, spending money, ending a relationship. And yes, revision.

I’m having to practice acceptance too. There’s no getting away from the fact that life is a bit stressful at the moment, but as that familiar parenting adage goes, ‘this too shall pass’: just as apt now as when they were teething, or not sleeping through the night. I know that as a family we have a solid foundation, and that peace and tranquility will return. Until we go through it all again in two years’ time with boy two, just as boy one is finishing his A Levels.

Runs, sons and burger buns

With less resistance than I anticipated, given the notable lack of enthusiasm when I first raised the idea, the four of us set off to Kempton Park racecourse to take part in a 5k inflatable obstacle course race.

James and our eldest son, Ollie (16), much prefer pumping iron to running. But because I’ve signed up to at least one event per month this year, on account of turning fifty in October, they put their fears of catabolism to one side and agreed to join me.

I’ve never even been to a racecourse before, let alone run around one whilst intermittently tackling fifteen enormous inflatables: mountains to climb, spiders’ webs to navigate, tubes to crawl through and swinging balls to dodge: great fun. One particular slide with a steep, stepped descent had us juddering down on our backsides like John going uphill in the Grand Tour Mongolian special (27 seconds in). (Incidentally, if I did ever get Clarkson’s job I think I’d have to pick and choose which episodes to take part in: I’d definitely give that one a miss, although the scenery was beyond breathtaking).

Anyway, we decided ahead of time that we’d have a McDonalds on the way home, because, balance. And protein. I was careful how I pitched this because I don’t think of food in terms of a reward for exercising, and it’s certainly not a message I want to relay to the boys. But our wave set off at 1pm and none of us had eaten since breakfast so, being an hour from home, it seemed like a good refuelling option.

Here we are at the start. I think I’ve invented a new bodybuilding pose. I was going for ‘front double biceps’, but hadn’t quite got into position in time.

Tomorrow will see me in the garage gym for leg day (box squats, Bulgarian split squats, Romanian deadlifts, weighted planks). Closely followed by birthday lunch at Zizzi for Tom who will, astonishingly, be turning 14. I was buying his cake in Waitrose earlier and bumped into a friend who said “I’ve just been reading your blog”. Thank you, Abi.

Just start

A friend has asked me how to go about starting to run, so I thought I’d jot down what worked, and continues to work (because let’s face it, it’s a bit of a love/hate thing, running) for me:

  1.  Just start. Fine, do some research, ask for advice, create a plan (the C25K app is supposed to be very good)…but then just get moving!
  2. Accept that, as with all things, progress a) is very rarely linear and b) takes time. Don’t expect to hit your target in the first week: maybe start with 500 metres. Do this as many times as you need to before increasing to 750 metres, then 1k and so on. You don’t need a fancy watch to measure your distance. If needs be, run from lamppost A to lamppost D, and then to lamppost E then F then G.
  3. Whenever my running feels faster or ‘easier’ (if it ever does, because we just push harder don’t we?) it’s generally been due to adding in strength training and/or HIIT sessions (see 5, below).
  4. Every Sunday night, get your eyes on your calendar and look at the week ahead. Diarise your running/exercise like you would anything else (remember to include rest days. See 6, below).
  5. Instead of x number of sessions per week, I prefer to aim for 20 sessions per month (running, weight training, HIIT). This approach provides in-built flexibility which in turn takes the pressure off, especially if you have a tendency towards perfectionism. If I’ve got a particularly long run planned, or a heavy legs day, or work is full-on, or I’m not feeling great I’ll maybe take 3 or 4 rest days (perhaps one before and three after) leading to fewer sessions that week, but I still have the opportunity to hit my goal for the month. It’s a very liberating approach.
  6. Rest days are vital for physical recovery and motivation maintenance. Schedule them in. It’s fine to shift your exercise week around if something unplanned crops up (work, illness, poorly kids etc), but be sure not to skip rest days, even if you don’t feel you need them.
  7. Organise some top tunes into a playlist or two, and find that one song that gets your blood pumping and your energy soaring: include it in all your playlists, more than once. For me it’s Eminem’s Lose Yourself. It has featured on pretty much all of my runs, and he seems to know when I need him most, eg the final straight of the Southampton half marathon in 2017: he got my head up, my pace up and helped me sprint finish over the line.
  8. Run your way. I sporadically, half-heartedly join organised runs with my local community group. But it never lasts. It’s no reflection on them: they’re a very supportive, friendly bunch. But ultimately I’m a solo runner: I enjoy getting lost in my thoughts, or lost in lyrics, or even just lost (adds to the drama and excitement). Running and chatting isn’t really my thing (for a start I never used to be physically able to run AND talk. Now I can quite easily, but prefer not to. I do run with my 13-year-old son, and I’ve found that bone-conducting headphones offer a perfect balance between listening to music and not ignoring my boy (who also wears headphones).
  9. Get yourself a Sir Ranulph Fiennes. Someone who inspires the pants off you, who you can bring to mind when you’re struggling. Sir Ranulph:
    • Ran 7 marathons. In 7 days. On 7 different continents (anyone for jet lag?). Including one in Singapore (where we lived for a year: so hot + so humid = just, how?) Aged 63. Four months after a heart attack. And a double heart bypass. His last of the seven was in New York. He completed it in 5h 25m.
    • Ran “the toughest footrace on earth”, the Marathon de Sables, Aged 71. One hundred and fifty nine miles. Over 6 days. In the desert. With temperatures over 50C. Whilst carrying a backpack containing his kit.
    • Climbed the north face of the Eiger. Aged 63. And Everest. Aged 65.
    • So yeah, when I’m struggling with my 10k, I think about SRF and I quite literally jog on*.
  10. Once you find your feet, mix things up. Hill sprints, Fartlek intervals, runs for pace, low heart rate runs, runs by the sea, Park Run, run in every country you visit, run home from work, run to the pub, run for charity…oh, and ENJOY!

*Despite an hour of faffing about, trying to unbullet this line, and force it to sit under point 9, and a further half an hour live chatting to support, it seems this is not possible. So, as much as it pains me to hit publish as is, that’s what I’m going to do. I am a recovering perfectionist after all, so perhaps it’s a blessing in disguise (again, the growth is in the struggle…). The patient support chap said he’ll pass my feedback onto the developers.

March hares

To complete our March 50k virtual running challenge we opted for a change of scene. Rather than running around the residential streets of our ‘hood, we parked outside Winchester and ran the beautiful, well-trodden, reasonably flat path into the city centre and back: 7k in total: we needed eight to reach our target distance, but I figured I’d cross that bridge near the end of the route.

We set off at a gentle pace winding our way alongside the River Itchen, out past St Catherine’s Hill, through the Cathedral grounds and onto the High Street (this introduced an element of slalom as we dodged the dilly-dallying shoppers browsing the market stalls). Then past King Alfred’s statue and through the park alongside the river to re-join the outward route. It was getting to be quite hard work for Tom whose legs started to feel tired. It was a beautifully mild spring day, and 40 minutes of running had us both and hot and bothered. By the time we passed St Catherine’s for the second time, just as I was considering how to tell Tom about our 1k shortfall and the subsequent need, as we were tantalisingly close to the car, to double back for half a km then rerun the same half a km, he asked through laboured breathing “so when we get to the car that’s 8k?”.

He took it well and I gave him the option of running that final kilometre the next day (31st) instead but no, he chose to grit his teeth and push on. When I know he’s at the edge of his running comfort zone I always give him a choice about whether to carry on, whilst also reassuring him that I absolutely know he can. I also make it clear that I would never ask him to do more than I thought he was capable of: I think it’s really important for him to feel he has some control, and it’s empowering for him to choose to keep going. If I can tell he’s really had enough we’ll stop and pat ourselves on the back.

Once he realised we had a little more to do, at about 7.5k he said he’d like to run 8.4k, to beat his previous longest distance of 8.3k. I don’t generally lie to my children, but I knew he had a little more fuel in the tank and having a touch of OCD I decided that 9k would be a fabulous goal. I didn’t tell him this because I could tell he was digging deep and just wanted it to be over. On the first half of our extra km I’d sneaked a peek of a track off to the right: a long straight, with a slight downhill slope and some white gates in the far distance. I figured it would make a perfect end to our run with a visual “finish line”, and take us to 9k. As we approached this path on the way back to the car I said “right,  I reckon if we run down there to those white gates in the distance we’ll have reached our 50km March goal, but if you want we can just run back to the car, which would also do it”. The determination and resilience he’s been unwittingly building since we started running six weeks ago paid off. Without so much as a wince he said “let’s do it”. During the last few hundred yards we picked up the pace and then as my Garmin buzzed the end of that split, just after the gates, I turned to Tom, who still thought we were doing 8.4k, and said “you’ve just run 9k”. A sweaty, breath-catching hug followed as smiling passers-by moved to the edge of the path to give our wobbly bodies some space.

Those last couple of kilometres were tough and I know that Tom gave his all. Recently as a family we had watched a motivational speech by Arnold Schwarzenegger, my husband’s bodybuilding hero. In it, Arnie talks about Muhammad Ali’s famous sit ups quote . I used that quote to coach Tom through the last third of our run, telling him that this is the bit that will grow his resilience, his fitness, his mental game, his ‘I can’ attitude. I told him that six weeks ago a 3k was tough, but it now feels like a warm up. A month ago a 5k was as challenging as this 9k, but he wouldn’t think twice about whether he can just go out and run 5k now. I couldn’t be more proud of him: 13 years old and making the transition from being pretty sedentary to a determined and dedicated runner. Incidentally, that last split was our fastest, by twenty seconds.

Now, I used to be a proponent of the “no pain no gain/go hard or go home” mindset, but not any more. Doing what you can on any given day is good enough. However, you can’t get away from the fact that it’s largely in the struggle where the real growth happens.

“I don’t count my sit-ups. I only start counting when it starts hurting. When I feel pain, that’s when I start counting, because that’s when it really counts.”

Muhammad Ali

Runs with son

February was so grim. Tom (13) was hating school and every morning was a gut-wrenching battle. Given my strong bias for action I had to do something. Keeping him at home wasn’t an option so instead I signed him up to the 7k virtual run I was doing. I figured that exercise/endorphins are a game changer for me when life isn’t all unicorns and rainbows, so I thought it was worth a try for him too. We did a few short jaunts and then the 7k, which he found really tough: we had to stop a few times, but we got it done.

We then signed up for another virtual run: 50k in March. We’ve done 2ks, 3ks, 4ks, 5ks and a 7k. We’ve run in the dark and in the rain and early on a weekend morning. We’ve run with snotty noses and headaches and whilst feeling crap. We got behind due to an enforced 6-day break because he was poorly. We’ve mostly run together, and sometimes with a local running club. One day he went off to do a 3k on his own (I had an extra 15k in the bag) and he ended up doing 8.3k. Just like that. No stopping. We’ve done 42k and we have two days left to crack out our final eight, which we’re going to do in one go.

Entering a virtual challenge forced us to drag each other out during March when we wouldn’t have otherwise bothered. And what a difference it has made. He’s now perfectly happy going off to school (new friendships have helped), and is of course fitter and faster. And most importantly he has his oh-so-special spark back.

Running helps build resilience and it’s so accessible. All you need is a pair of trainers and off you go. It’s much like life: put one foot in front of the other and keep going. And the other benefits shouldn’t be underestimated because fresh air, sunlight, Vitamin D and being in nature are generally always going to make you feel better. We’ll certainly carry on running together and in a few short weeks it will have become a habit.

I didn’t really think about our March challenge improving my running, but it has. This morning I did a 3k for speed and managed a sub five-minute 1k, which I’ve never done before. The credit for that has to go to Tom and his willingness to put his trust in me, and see our commitment through to completion 💙

Jeremy jobs and Mo the motivator

When I woke up this morning the thought of starting a blog was just about the furthest thing from my mind: in fact I’d go as far as to say that I’ve never considered writing a blog. Why would I?

But then, after I posted on Facebook about my son and our running challenge there followed a nudge from my lovely professional writer friend to suggest I start blogging (closely followed by other friends).

And just like that a seed was planted and “why would I?” was swiftly superseded by “why wouldn’t I?”. Having a strong bias for action, here I am, less than six hours later with a:

  • WordPress account
  • domain name
  • new Twitter handle (@effperfect)
  • Google sheet, mapping out ideas
  • first post written
  • moderate dose of imposter syndrome

But seriously, why not? When I was in my early teens I wanted to be a journalist (and a PE teacher  and, briefly, a social worker). If I could do any job in the world it would be Jeremy Vine’s: those who know me know I’m a bit of a superfan: the people he gets to meet, the stories he hears and has the privilege of re-telling, the breadth of discussions, the sensitivity, intelligence and wit he has crafted over the course of his career. Second choice: Jeremy Clarkson’s. I’m not so much a superfan of the man himself, but what a job description: travel, adventure, mates, cars, driving, tomfoolery. What’s not to love?

During my recent foray into adult education (Foundation Degree in Business, 2016) tutors’ assignment feedback often included a few lines about the quality of my writing (in a good way). My day job is in marketing, for a startup: again, the written word features strongly.

Then there’s the draw of starting over with something, learning new skills, developing my writing, getting to grips with the backend of blogging, all helping to keep the old grey matter ticking over.

And finally, I actually enjoy writing. For my personality type it can be a frustrating process of back and forth, getting hung up for forever and a day on the suitability of a single word, ruminating and refining until I wonder if the three -versions-ago draft was actually better. But ultimately writing feels like a tonic for my inner perfectionist. At some point, as with much of life, one just needs to hit the button and move on to the next thing. “Poo or get off the pot” as my husband likes to say. So in that respect, should nobody ever read my words, for me they’re still a cathartic antidote to the self-abuse that is perfectionism.

When I consider all this alongside my 8+ year mission to develop my mental, physical and emotional health, I think I do have something worth sharing, and I suppose that’s what my friends were telling me. And if one middle-aged (or any aged – I’m not fussy) person reads my ramblings and connects with them in some way, well, that would be a very satisfying bonus.

Anyway, I’m going to give it a try.

Because I do love to get shit done.

And if you don’t try, you don’t know.