Chaffers

‘If you build it, they will come’

Field of Dreams
It was a rest day today and a welcome one too. My throat has become increasingly sore and I also found a swelling in my groin. Whilst experience and good sense tell me that it’s probably a lymph reacting to a compromised immune system and that I almost certainly have strep (Strep and Staph despite sounding like an 80s pop combo are the two main infections that have given me most grief both during and post treatment) it has still unnerved me. ¬†Instantly I have begun irrationally obsessing about weight loss (my weight which I watch assiduously was naturally a little down after a long, hot run yesterday), night sweats (which I’ve had since I hit early menopause several years ago) and fatigue (I’ve basically been a bit tired every day since I was thirteen), all symptoms of Non Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. It’s a common issue amongst cancer survivors, the fear of relapse and it’s my current favourite brainworm. I’ve been told that the longer my period of remission the better my prognosis would be if and when my cancer returned, today is six months exactly since I had my final chemo.


This morning in an attempt to clear my head and since it was my turn I took our border collie, Merlin to the country park that flanks the canal for his morning walk.


It was a heavenly mid morning, the grass was tall and the air was heavy with the scent of orange blossom and yarrow. Dozens of magpies dotted a field in the distance as we edged towards them through the wish laden dandelions and glowing buttercups.


Merlin found a stick and proceeded to lose it every 45 seconds causing me to go wading into the Masai like field dodging disgruntled bees and the occasional lump of fox crap whilst saying ‘for fucks sake’ under my breath a lot.


We ambled for a while, my mind had disposed of its more troublesome contents for the time being and I had eased into daydreaming about pursuing a career as a street dancer or happening upon a pile of treasure. As we crossed over into the next field I noticed that the grass was short and the field positively barren. On the right hand side I could see a clear path cutting a huge circle amidst the stubbly wilderness. As I walked over to it I felt the distinct contrast beneath my feet as they hit what felt like solid rock underfoot. And then I realised what I was walking on; I had found it, I was in Chaffers.


As a kid I had a mixed relationship with sport; netball and hockey were way too shouty, girls would screech at you if you didn’t do what you were supposed to and besides, the potential for facial injury and even worse – humiliation, was high. Swimming wasn’t my forte and despite a clutch of attempts to get to grips with the technique, to this day I can barely float. The only thing left on the sporting menu for a girl in the eighties was athletics and this did light my candles a little. I watched the Moscow Olympics in 1980 with my Dad, avidly following my gymnastics hero Nadia Comaneci but by the close of the games and the excitement of seeing Sebastian Coe, Steve Ovett and Daley Thompson I had lost my heart to track and field. Just before my 11th birthday the Olympic Games were held in true spectacle and glitz in Los Angeles, I was spellbound. For the duration of our two week camping holiday I remained glued to our black and white portable tv with a coat hanger aerial and sang The Star Spangled Banner every night at bedtime. I had fallen in love with an athlete, and he wasn’t just any old athlete, he was Carl Lewis.


My obsession with Lewis along with my irrational hatred of barefoot South African runner, Zola Budd intensified over the holidays and by my return to school, my final year in primary, I was ready to take on the world with my athletic prowess. And to be honest, I wasn’t that bad either! As a tall kid I was pretty quick on my feet and whilst I rarely made the top spot I would usually sneak in around third in sprinting races. As I entered secondary school a year later my enthusiasm was still high and remained so until my mid teens. I followed televised athletics avidly and was a massive fangirl of the new British hopefuls that had rocked up, a good looking, talented bunch of guys including Tom McKean, Colin Jackson, Kriss Akabusi and my own favourite, Roger Black. I was totally hooked, they inspired me to try a bit harder at Sports Day and I was picked for the athletics team. Now don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t sporty by any stretch but I was a pretty competitive kid in the classroom and so I naturally tried my hardest in athletics too.


The athletics meetings were held at Crosby Playing Fields, known locally as Chaffers. It was a traditional cinder track with all the proper markings and a real long jump pit. And that’s where my athletics career pretty much started and ended, after a lacklustre performance on the track I was left fielded to the long jump, the PE teacher told me that although I wasn’t fast enough to be a sprinter I was tall and so I might do as a long jumper. I didn’t, I was crap. In hindsight no one showed me how to do it properly or helped me to improve, I was left to sporting humiliation and suddenly my confidence and with it my motivation was gone.


But for the brief few times I ran on Chaffers track I felt like a real athlete and the buzz was incredible. I fantasised about getting a pair of spikes and setting off from proper starting blocks. It was an incredibly exciting experience that must have stayed with me, somewhere locked down deep in my soul for many years. And so I was a little sad today, walking the track that is now nothing more than a narrow footpath leading to nowhere. The long jump pit is still there too, a strange sand filled recess sitting in an overgrown field it looks alien and odd. So odd in fact that Merlin decided to take a crap in it then I had to climb in and scoop out a bagful of sandy shit. Chaffers demise had happened over a long period that I had missed when I was travelling the world, growing up, having a child and watching her grow up. It had grown old and been replaced by a new, synthetic track in a purpose built sports centre in nearby Litherland.

I wandered around the track for a while feeling wistful, thinking about my childhood and what I’d have thought of the grown up version of me. I doubt 13 year old me would have liked the look of what was coming for her if she’d have read the doctors notes.


But that’s just the thing, the doctors notes, the diagnosis, the illness, the treatments and whatever else the future holds for this body are just the tiniest fraction of the story. They’re a side note in what so far has been the most epic of blockbusters. My life thus far has been about so much more than cancer, it has been about madness and excitement and fun and romance. Yes of course I’ve know pain and desolation, I’ve also know grief and despair but I’ve also know massive joy, great happiness and deep, deep love.


The 13 year old me had no idea of what an amazing life she had rolling out before her and of the incredible adventures she would have with the most brilliant of people. And amidst it all, she would become an athlete, she would win medals. She would be a runner.


So I left the track with Merlin and wandered back through the fragrant fields with thoughts of the future. And I resolved to return, maybe to do a little speed work, something I keep meaning to try. Who knows, I might even buy a pair of spikes.

Night

I may live to regret saying this but I like night time running, there’s something very special about it. Of course there are drawbacks. There’s the safety aspect, although I’m a very particular demographic (tall, sweaty, out of tune bald chick in hi viz-it’s a specialist market) and whilst I don’t believe the world is populated with sex crazed psychopaths nevertheless it’s always a consideration. There’s also the practical aspect. Perfectly flat, well lit pavements pose a very real threat to a clumsy knob like me so dark, uneven paths are a veritable death trap. As well as all this it’s hard to get out there when you’ve had a long day at work, it’s cold outside and warm inside and all you really want to do is eat pie and be not quite drunk enough to warrant a hangover tomorrow. But there are massive, incredible attractions too and if you can run safely, ideally with a tough Geordie (other regions are available) bloke with a powerful head torch, then I highly recommend it. Running in the dark is an entirely unique experience and it can transform an overfamiliar route into an epic adventure. Tonight was no exception.


It was a cold, still night, the kind where a mist hangs in the blackness and coats your face with a chilly kiss. We decided to run our usual coastal 10 mile route, both of us had over indulged in chocolate and filth today so in order to remain beautiful we needed to settle accounts with our lardy arses. I knew from the start I was feeling good. Whilst my 10k pace at the weekend wasn’t blistering it was by no means gentle either so I was really enjoying winding it down a big notch. I always run more slowly in the dark, maybe it’s because I’m more cautious but I think it’s also because I find the whole thing more meditative and so I tend to relax. This time I’d pitched my outfit right too, some highly reflective compression tights, a compression base layer and one of my trusty gore jackets. I felt comfortable both in temperature and movement unlike the insane overdressing of the weekend. I know a run is going well when I stop playing the numbers game. Everyone has coping strategies for difficult runs and mine is chunking. It’s basically a way of creating mini goals within a run, a warm up, a work out, a cool down and a victory lap. So a segmented ten mile run would become 3/3/3/1, a half marathon might be 4/4/4/1 or similar. It’s good strategy as it not only distracts you but also forces you to focus on your form. When I ran my last London marathon I chunked it 8/8/8/2.2 and it helped me massively. It can turn an insurmountable distance into three manageable training runs and you can work brief breaks into them giving an even greater incentive. 

Anyway, I know I’m having a decent trot when I don’t need to do this and tonight was just that. My Garmin firmly beneath my sleeve so I couldn’t see the pace or obsess about distance I was happy to just allow the miles to tick over. As we turned at the rifle range we laughed about some of the bonkers weather we’d ran in lately and how lucky we were to be out on such a still night. 

And we, as runners, are so blessed. 

I’ve mentioned before about how runners just seem more tuned into nature and their surroundings and this is true but why? I think it’s because we have opportunity. As we ran along the path tonight we could see very little because of the headlamp but the smell of ozone and sea salt was intense, it filled our lungs and made us feel a billion times more alive than we had in the sleepy sitting room we had abandoned. The tide was in, less than a few metres from us and we paced ourselves to the rhythmic melody of the waves. Marc who we had renamed ‘The Human Lighthouse’ switched off the lamp and the skyline suddenly illuminated with the luminous glow of the city and the countless dots of light across the lazily folding water. It was such a sight that stopped us in our tracks, it was honestly breathtaking. We stood for a while, not speaking, breathing in the shimmery mist and watching the water hit the shore in a foamy ribbon as the occasional ship slid across the horizon and disappeared into the icy night. 

I’m not sure how long we stayed there but I do know that very few people passed save the odd cyclist streaking down the pathway in a blur of led or the die hard dog walker with his steaming, panting companion. 

And this is what I mean about running, this is why it’s different than any other sport, this is why I bang on about it. Running presents you with experiences, it gifts you with opportunities to witness how truly spellbinding the world can be. In our day to day it’s easy to get to distracted by life, so lost in the melee that we miss the moments. Running hands us gobsmacking instances of utter wondrousness on a cracker, with chutney. And you don’t have to live in an exceptionally beautiful part of the world to find it, I’ve been blown away by the sunlight hitting an oil splat on a dock land pavement or a swan floating along a canal in one of the toughest, most urban parts of the city. Most runners I know can find a poetry in the place where they run. I think part of the reason is because it so keenly focuses the mind, giving you a sharper clarity of both thought and vision. It teaches us to see more, notice more and drink in the simple grace of our planet. Running allows us to see the world in HD. 

So we stood there quietly, appreciating the privilege of opportunity and gratefully acknowledging that despite some challenges in our lives we are also frequently blessed with moments of awe. We felt lucky, humbled and weirdly emotionally charged. Marc put his arms around me and as he did I felt a tear prick in the corner of my eyes followed immediately by a blazing whack to my left eyebrow as the headlamp made contact with my skull. It was then I received an important physics lesson. Dropping the f bomb loudly on a deserted beach causes it to echo tremendously thus resonating across the entire coastline with the intense volume of a tornado jet reaching sonic boom. Way to gift wrap a memory Lopez.

I can’t be held entirely responsible for the destruction of such a tender moment though? As I held my hands to my eye in profane and dizzy confusion Marc turned away from me for what I thought was one last, lingering glance at the ocean. What he was in fact doing was urinating, with gusto. The human lighthouse had become the human fire engine. There was nothing else to do, I sealed the deal with a particularly high pitched fart, we sniggered conspiratorially and then legged it. 

The final couple of miles of the run returned to the peaceful contemplation that they had been at the outset. The 100 iron men that span Crosby beach cut strong but lonely figures half submerged in the frosty depths, half staring out to the dark endless horizons before them. The miles ticked by and my legs moved without thought or design. There was a dull ache in my calves but the reassuring kind that you get with distance running and simply learn to live with. 

We talked over all sorts of stuff, both nonsense and importance. We had a brief exchange about whether soldiers wear hi viz and a longer, more solemn discussion about grieving the loss of a pet. The random nature of conversation was our minds way of emptying and relaxing, dumping it’s load onto the pathways to leave a blank page ready to be written with another day. 

It was a run of no consequence and yet of real significance. We had encountered nothing unusual yet experienced something dramatically wonderful. 

It was an extraordinarily ordinary adventure and that’s why I like running in the night time.

VLM1

Sunday April 21st 2013

The first time I stood at the start line for London Marathon I was proud. It was just a week after the Boston Marathon bombings and every runner wore a black ribbon on their shirt. A minute silence was held and the atmosphere through Greenwich Park was static intensity, I have never experienced anything like it. Standing there on a blindingly sunny Sunday morning with shaking legs and hopeful heart listening to only birdsong amongst thirty odd thousand runners was indelibly profound. And there was a sense of defiance in the air, a feeling that we would not be felled by terrorism, stilted by violence, quietened by oppression. We would run together.

I think in hindsight that set the tone for the whole run as it was an epic triumph for the pair of us. Never had we felt so humbled by the unwavering, sometimes deafening support from the also defiantly deep crowds that lined the streets of London that day. It had been a bad winter and most of our training had been done in the worst conditions, we were rarely out of gloves and hats and regularly had to wear snowchains on our running shoes. It had toughened us though and given us a feeling of badass invincibility, we could take on anything after that. The day itself was the first that the temperatures had risen to double figures in a long while and the sun shone on us as if it were also standing with us all as brothers in arms. 

I have never heard my name shouted so loudly without alcohol and a breakage of some sort being involved before, it was earth shattering. Every corner, every stretch I ran there would be a roar as my shining, hairless scalp glistened in the brightness and my limbs heavily creosoted in copious fake tan for the occasion glowed against my green Macmillan vest. Marc got more than his fair share of screeches and roars too, one girl who shouted out ‘you look far too good to have run that far Marc’ doesn’t realise how close she came to getting a Kirkby kiss that day had I not been delirious with adoration. Marc at this point was experiencing a quite different type of runners high. He had rather prematurely consumed one of his Lucozade Elite gels and promptly and without warning become bizarrely and hopelessly addicted to them. As we passed gel stations he grabbed them by the handful ordering me to do the same, he would then rip open two of them at a time with his teeth and demonically slurp them down shouting incoherently in my face about how good they were. I looked with horror at this green beast before me, off his face on caffeine and sugar with pale orange goo dribbling off his chin as he started riding an imaginary horse and swinging a lasso while Rhinestone Cowboy played loudly from a nearby pub. At one point he stepped on a Lucozade bottle and the entire thing exploded across the road to his manic hilarity, he was so far gone his veins were running liquid energy.

That’s not to say I didn’t have my own moments of madness, mass hysteria can do funny things to you. Around the point where we passed Cutty Sark I could hear an old familiar tune playing in the distance, the crowd at this juncture of the course is famously large and vocal. 

Buoyed up by the roars and the music I took it upon myself to pick up the pace a little, well at least that’s how it felt. What actually happened was that I started sprinting at full tilt through the ten to eleven minute mile runners (which was ambitiously pacy for me at the time) with Marc desperately trying to catch me. He started shouting my name as I notched up an eight minute mile, eventually he caught me and madly asked me what the hell I thought I was doing. I stopped dead, hands on hips and looked him straight in the eye and berated him loudly with these words ‘FOR CHRISTS SAKE MARC, IT WAS WHAM!!!’

George and Andrew have got a lot to answer for.


It didn’t stop there though, at mile 21 I gave the now almost psychotic Marc a jolt into sobriety. We were running along the embankment having emerged from the inexplicably titled ‘Tunnel of Yes’, a short underpass designed to uplift runners at the most difficult stretch blaring upbeat music and featuring flashing motivational slogans. It will however forever be known to us as the ‘Tunnel of Piss’ owing to the fact that if you give any blokes a large, darkened area they will automatically want to urinate in it. As we came out of the wee stinking dungeon of positivity I realised I still had 5 miles left to run. This in itself wasn’t an horrific thought except that I had quickly converted it into time and that meant nearly an hour more running. No way. No way. No fucking way. There was no physical possibility after running for 21 miles could I continue for another mile. It was then that I decided I was having a heart attack. 

As Marc was emerging from his 2 hour Lucozade bad trip he started getting his second wind, no doubt fuelled by the gargantuan quantities of glucose and caffeine raging around his system. As he wide eyed, smilingly started quoting inspirational phrases lifted from Nike adverts at me I calmly advised him I was in cardiac arrest. That sharply wiped the grin off the bastard sugar junky. My feet had become wet with blood where my toenails had stripped away a few weeks before, during chemo I kept falling prey to the same skin infection and my nails on both my fingers and toes had become casualties. I usually strapped them up but today I couldn’t and the pain was becoming unbearable. It was no good, the agony had sent my heart into shock and I had suffered a massive coronary. After a few minutes of manic chaos and panic, stopping and wiggling my toes for a minute and taking a drink I reassessed the extent of the damage. I decided that I wasn’t arresting and was in fact being a bit of a pussy. The next few miles were punctuated with walk breaks taking in the overwhelming love and encouragement from the simply unbelievable people of London. I have never felt so proud to be not just British but a citizen of the world as I did that day. How despite the very real threat of terrorism in the nations capital the public had not only braved a massive event but actually come out in force. They turned up in their thousands with their unstoppable devotion to lift the spirits of the runners. And lift us they did, higher than 26.2 miles could ever bring us down. 

Fuelled by the charged atmosphere we resolved to run down Birdcage Walk and onto The Mall, it was there I had stood a year previously considering if this would ever be possible. I had dreams of turning at the Victoria statue and seeing the palace in its full glory so we were determined to hit that ground running. Turning at Big Ben and down onto Birdcage Walk we were overtaken with emotion and both began to cry pretty openly, it was a release as much as anything, an acknowledgment of all it had taken us to get here. We were excited to turn onto the mall and run towards Cleo and my mum who we knew would be waiting in the grandstands. The trouble was that Birdcage Walk is much longer than it seems on the telly and after running half of it at a much more rockety pace than you really should you find yourself pretty screwed over. I began to stagger and veer pretty wildly. As we turned the corner I began to hallucinate, my eyes were fixed upon a tiger running perpendicular across the runners while a group of black suited policemen threw themselves at him and wrestled him to the ground. Only it wasn’t a hallucination, it was real. Well it wasn’t a real tiger but a bloke dressed as one who’d decided to jump the barriers and make a break for the finish line. And that’s how we missed Buckingham Palace.


Still we hobbled down the flag lined mall, to yet more screams. I was blindly scanning the grandstands until I suddenly saw them, my mum and Cleo in Macmillan t shirts waving madly. I frantically staggered towards them, mum with a look of dire concern on her face said ‘you don’t look very well at all’ at which burst out crying. I hugged Cleo in a fireball of emotion, I couldn’t find any words but in her inimitable style Cleo managed to save the day with this little pearl..

‘Mum, my foot is a bit sore’

Seriously. How she’s still breathing is largely due to my fear of incarceration. 

We laughed hysterically, hugged them again and set off on our final lap.

Feet now on fire we saw the sign above our heads…385 YARDS TO GO!!!!

Awesome!!!

Now what the actual fuck is a yard???

We had trained in miles, sometimes kilometres but never yards. It may as well have said 

385 QUICHES TO GO!!!

It probably would have made more sense.

In my lunatic state I became convinced that a yard was the same distance as my arm so spent the final victory strides of my marathon with my right arm stretched in front of me staring wildly at it while I tried to work out how many of them I had left to run.   We crossed the line hand in hand and our hearts exploded. 

We stood at the other side of the finish line wrapped up in each other for what was probably an inconvenient amount of time until we heard the shout of someone from the gantry behind us. It was a photographer perched high above the finish line calling us for a photo. We turned towards him and raised our hands as he snapped us. The hand signal we made?

Victory.