Alison Crowther-Smith

Archive for the ‘Running & cycling’ Category

Conversations With Lily: The Windsor Half Marathon

Friday, November 30th, 2018

5.50 am on the morning of the event.  Lily and I meet on the landing.

Me:  morning.



Later, dressed and in the kitchen.

Me:  porridge or banana or both?

Lily: *elaborate urging noise*

I make porridge which we both fail to finish.  While this is happening, Mark and Jack stand about, reviewing impenetrable gloom of pre-dawn, but are utterly silent and remain so for much of following 3 hours.

Despite elaborate packing and planning of previous day, we all fail to find our exact belongings and begin panicking or at least, I do.  Eventually, dogs, all dog paraphernalia, all our stuff, food, blankets, running accessories, knitting and water are assembled and hurled into car, except the dogs who are placed lovingly in sleeping crate, shrouded in blankets and allowed to go back to sleep.

After second comfort stop of journey, we all rally slightly as we take coffee on board and also It Is Light.  Sit in back of car with Lily.  Try to eat lovingly prepared cold sausages.  Find, sadly, that I am repulsed by what is probably my favourite food after cheese and tangerines.  And Tuck biscuits.  Force down 1.5 cold sausages and press others upon Lily who is reluctant.

Become aware of unpleasant and rising sensation of some emotion that I think at first may be excitement but quickly recognise as fear.

Lily:  it will be alright, won’t it?

Me: (with a ring of sincerity that indicates how wrong I was NOT to become famous actress who would, by now, be National Treasure and much sought after by film-makers) yes.  It will be amazing.

Lily:  what if we can’t do it?

Me:  (with further BAFTA-worthy polish) what nonsense.  We not only can do it, we have proved it.  We have often run over 10 miles, and once we did 12.

Lily: yeah, but that last mile…

Me:  (now assuming manner of Mary Poppins) that’s enough of that!  The last mile will be the best one.

Join endless queue of cars trying to get into Windsor Great Park.  Watch other runners, running to the venue. Feel utterly overwhelmed by certainty that if I had to run to the venue, I would be unable to participate in the actual event. Finally park the car and get out, get out the dogs, load them into the dog-pram and start trance-like walk to tented village in the distance.  World assumes dream-like quality in which I am both 100% certain that this is real, and at same time, convinced I am still in bed and this is all just a Terrible Nightmare.

Tents, feather-pennants, barriers and a disembodied voice yelling through PA system all beckon us.  Notice banks of portaloos. Note corresponding gigantic queues of people wishing to use these facilities.  Am instantly overcome by urgent need to wee.  Join a queue.  Observe, this being Windsor’s half, more Sweaty Betty leggings, tops and jackets than I have ever seen, including in a SB shop.


Lily:  where do we start?

Me:  I have no idea but I see the race numbers are colour-coded. Let’s ask!

We approach a couple who are limbering up in style of 1986 fitness video.  They are, however, far too cool, what with their purple gear, and in one case, luxuriant Mexican style moustache, to be bothered talking to us and they rudely just say:  oh, over there and wave hand in direction of Windsor Castle. Finally sort out non-existent system for starters and begin to join our crowd but am, once again overcome with need to wee, so we peel off and join another and much longer queue for the portaloos. Finally re-join crowded starting area.  Start sounds and we shuffle forwards for ages.  As the crowd slowly reaches more open spaces, jogging starts except for Very Important and Good Runners who have inexplicably been penned further back who now begin sprinting forward, dodging the rest of us and on several occasions almost shoving us over.  Curse as much as breath will allow which is not much as by now we are in The First Hill which is quite steep but mainly very long.

And so, we toiled round a long, hilly, hot and frankly boring course.  Why boring?  Well, it’s just a park isn’t it?  Hardly any people though the ones we saw, mostly Army Cadets, were lovely.

I picked up a calf injury in mile 10 and Lily’s foot was very sore most of the way.  But, we did it, and I am so very grateful to you for your support.

Mile 13.  We are making painful and messy progress to the finish line.  This part of the course is pretty impressive and also some of it is downhill.  We are still running though, and realise that we are both also half-laughing, half-crying.  Stumble over finish line and meet our people and dogs. Meet my niece, Phoebe whose mother was Judith and in whose name we ran.  Rest of day and evening is now almost a complete blur though I did eat an impressive carvery that evening.

Next day, Lily, Phoebe and I spent the whole day together and it was lovely made even lovelier by arrival at breakfast time of a DVD of one of my all-time favourite books, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day.  The sender is a dear soul and I love her.  Such a thoughtful thing to do.  The film captures the book beautifully.  And it was a fairy-tale ending to a frankly surreal weekend.

I will never run another half.  I am far too old.  I am still running though.  I want to thank you all properly for your support, be it donations to CRUK or your messages and love.  WE DID IT!




Somerset Woman Concludes Half Marathon Training And Still Has No Idea If She Can Complete Course!

Wednesday, September 26th, 2018

Snappy headline.  I missed my vocation as a sub-editor.

I am going to suggest that you chip in a few quid for a very good cause.  This is where you donate.  Below, is just one story of why.

So, it’s me, that Somerset woman.  Having achieved the great age I am now (reaches hand through mists of time), I swore – and I do swear a lot – that I would never do another half. I say this as if I did one a week.  But no, I have done two and they were both, in their own very different ways, awful.  Birmingham was the last and I did this for Cancer Research UK.  It was awful because about six weeks before the race, something really rubbish and personal happened here and this overwhelming something really threatened to knock me off course.  In fact, it proved to be the opposite as I used the really rubbish thing to get me out of the door and running – I now think I was literally running away from the really rubbish thing.  I am now going to abbreviate that to RRT.

Anyway, I started making pacts with myself or with someone who also lives in my head.  I’d think:  OK, if I (you) can run 10 miles today, the RRT will be alright, I will manage it;  or, if I can run the first 6 miles without stopping, the RRT will go away.  Then I’d be literally afraid of not running 10 or not running 6 without stopping in case the RRT-thing managed to get me.  Like a monster. It worked!  I also did this thing where I’d start running and the RRT would be all over me, in my head, in my body, on my shoulders, like carrying a heavy, scary thing on your back.  So I’d say (not out loud, not that mad yet and also, no spare breath):  you’ve got ten minutes, RRT.  I will grant you ten minutes of this activity and then you ship out.  After ten, I’d imagine shrugging off a great big heavy coat, like the way coats your auntie had used to make you feel when you were five years old and playing dressing up in her spare room.  It also worked.  Maybe, dear reader, I should have pursued that career in therapy?  No?

In March this year, my lovely sister-in-law died from cancer.  I loved Judith.  She, like me, obvs, is an out-law in the family that is Mark’s family.  As a longer-established out-law, Judith made me feel welcome and she was kind.  I come from a very small family and Mark’s family seemed too big to me.  But if Judith was there, it was fine.  I sound like I was about 10 years old.  But I was in my mid-20s.  I really looked up to her.  I don’t think she ever knew that and I wish I had told her.  She left the family that is Mark’s family a few years ago and to all intents and purposes, her ties with them all, other than those that lived on via her children then all grown-ups, also ceased.  She was no longer one of them.  But she was still one of mine.  So we remained in touch. Distance, time, life – and then illness for Judith in the last few years – often kept us apart but we were in touch.  She came here and we had a lovely time.  I think I loved her more than ever in those difficult times which she faced with slightly baffled stoicism.

The thing is, Judith’s cancer was one of the cancers that is, in universe terms, about 10 minutes away from a cure or a therapy regime that is as good as.  Sadly, in human cancer terms, that’s years.  But not that many years.  Judith’s sister Joan who I also love for her kindness and her strength, is a very clever woman.  She does all sorts of eye-wateringly hard things to do with medical research.  As a job, not just like me where I read about things on the leaflets in the packets of pills or on Goggle.  Joan is a mega-scientist.  In a University and everything.  At Judith’s funeral (more of a party) Joan gave an incredible talk about how close we are to that therapy that would have saved or prolonged Judith’s life.  It is just round the corner. We could catch it up, if we ran now, just for 500 meters, we’d be upon it.  I imagine it as a chase – in police dramas such as Vera (new obsession alert) where Joe chases The Prime Suspect and you think – oh no! he’s not going to catch them!  But he does!  We can be Joe!  We are so very close, I can almost touch it.

I know, being highly rational as you know, that my running the Windsor Half Marathon is not going to save a life and nor will it bring Judith back to us.  But, if we raise money and give it to CRUK, we will be closing in on that evil predator that is cancer.  So, and this is of course the point, please donate.  If you do, leave us a message and I will read them to Lily as we attempt this (her first, my last) half marathon.  And you will be with us, every step of the way.  I need you with me.  I am scared.  I am five years older and things hurt a lot more.  The training has been very hard too, with the hottest summer for many years.

We started strong with a training regime planned and a cool spring/early summer.  By mid-June I was back up to 8 miles.  Then the heat wave arrived and it went on and on.  I tried running very early but it was still boiling.  I tried the gym a few times but frankly, running on a tread mill makes knitting brioche seem attractive.  I ran some days just up and down own stretch of lane with deep shade on one side.  I picked up a hip injury (might just be age) and Lily has some weird stuff going on with her feet – they go numb and then they come back to life.  But in the last few weeks it’s been cooler and we have built to 12 miles, with several 10 and 11 milers in there and lots of 3 – 6 mile short runs.  We have also reached the stage where we can go non-stop running for 8 miles.  Then I really have to stop and stretch.

Can we do it?  You decide.

Judith died on the last day I saw her.  I cannot really describe that day.  But it was amazing because I almost went the next day.  Something – and I am not a person who usually goes in for this sort of thing, but something – told me to go that Tuesday.  Jack, who is the kindest, sweetest person, said as it was his day off, he would drive me as I wasn’t to drive my ancient Punto for 300+ miles.  We packed food.  What else can you do?  We drove, with Jack playing a special play-list, though the dull, murky late winter.  Where Judith lives, the rural east midlands, it is rolling and open and there are miles of Roman roads.

The house was almost deserted.  It’s a huge and beautiful home.  Judith was upstairs but since my last visit she was no longer conscious. My nephew was with her.  Now, if I say that this was a good day, please do not think me callous or unfeeling.  We all knew Judith was close to death and that despite her courage and all that her amazing family had done, cancer was winning this one. But to make food for the continuing to live, to see Jack and my nephew together – almost strangers then but friends now – and to sit with Judith in those hours was a privilege.

For some time, later that day, I sat alone with Judith.  She had been moved from her own bed into a special hospital bed and all round this, were cushions and duvets, lest she fall.  But the bed had sides and anyway, she was very still.  Asleep.  I sat in a little armchair.  Can you guess what I did?  Of course you can guess, for you would have been knitting too.  I was knitting a Moebius.  Moebius knitting is my go-to for travel and waiting.  I was working out a new pattern as it happened so there was a lot of counting forwards and back.  Sometimes I spoke to Judith.

Toby and Jack came upstairs and they sat with us.  Toby sat in Judith’s wheelchair, a new addition for me.  Jack lay on Judith’s double bed.  And there, with Judith asleep, we talked.  The house was warm and even though the blind was partly down, it was clearly darkening as this late winter day started to close.  In that hour, there was crying.  We held each other and we did cry.  Then we stopped and we chatted about holidays we had, days we remembered, and we laughed.

When it was time to go, we went with Toby for the eleventy-fifth cup of tea of that day.  I didn’t want to leave but we had to.  It’s almost 200 miles each way so it was time.  I went back up to kiss Judith and say goodbye as I knew I would not see her again.  I told her I loved her.  And I still do.

As soon as we got home, some hours later, Joan told me that Judith had died, just an hour or so after we left.

Her funeral was simply amazing, just like her.  Judith was a quiet person, but never, ever boring.  I think I could have spent many weeks with Jude and never tired of her.  She also had a gift of accepting silence – it never felt awkward.  Her vibrancy, wit, intelligence and warmth were all reflected in that celebration.  My niece, the oldest of Judith’s three children wrote an incredibly touching poem and asked me to read it.  Now, if you know me, you will know that rather like one of the Mitfords (I can’t remember which one – Debo?) who cried because she felt sorry for matchsticks, I am a howler.  I bawl at almost anything.  Once a crier, always a crier.  So, how to get through the poem without a catastrophic breakdown?  Practice, practice, practice – and don’t look at anyone you know or anyone who is also crying. And I did it.

Joan’s speech was inspirational and because of that, here we are, Lily and I.  On the verge of race day, with a chaotic and surreal summer behind us and 13 unknown miles ahead.  Please help us and please help CRUK to catch up with cancer.  It’s too late for my lovely Judith but it’s not too late for lots of others.

I love you.  Thank you.





Dear Diary + Conversations with Lily

Thursday, September 20th, 2018

(Some of this was drafted a while ago).

Bank Holiday Monday:  this is the last day when I will live in the house without one or both of my children also living here. The last time I will peg out and fetch in washing for Lily*. The last time I will sit in the kitchen, in the early evening, knowing that Lily will be coming home. Home. To eat, sleep – live. Have long since abandoned futile and exhausting pretence that I am fine about this. The last weekly menu that includes Lily and Jack has been drafted and most of the meals I predicted have gone. Absolutely fed up of this self-generated ‘last time’ nonsense and yet am also apparently entirely unable to stop myself from doing it.  Overwhelming sadness is only marginally moderated by uplifting realisation that at the very worst, it will soon stop as they will finally have gone.

Reflect that ‘it could be worse’ and agree with annoying inner-self and many acquaintances, that yes, of course it is patently obvious that it could be worse.  Yes, Lily could be moving to New York (or insert distant location of choice). Am almost as sick of hearing this as I am of hearing my own inner monologue about woe-is-me. Next person to tell me how much worse it could be is in danger of seeing usually well-concealed version of self (and here, I sadly reflect that this is possibly the real self) who is liable to become ill-tempered and snappy upon receiving such probably well-meant but nevertheless platitudinous missives.

Fug of misery, deepened by length of time that ‘the move’ has been looming over me is further intensified by realisation that I have planned an unappealing supper for this last evening – a meal of left-overs supplemented by not always welcome spinach and chard from the allotment garden. Ponder if ‘last supper’ mentality is really appropriate and decide that it is not and thus, the fish-pie/cauliflower-cheese/spinach combo is fine.

*this proved to be incorrect as I still appear to be in charge of Lily’s running gear washes.

Tuesday:  wake with a refreshing sense that this is the first day in which ‘the move’ will no longer have the chance to loom as it will be history.  This uplifts me for at least half an hour. Am in danger of moping through yet another week, so embark on exhilarating programme of making myself do things I hate.  List includes such items as sorting out accounts, cleaning out wardrobe, defrosting ancient freezer, and weeding.  Therefore and entirely predictably, I make a list of these things and then shove list under pile of newspapers and knit while watching Netflix.

Wander round house, tidying up a bit. As hoarders go, I know I am not the worst.  For example, my stairs and hallways are not fire hazards, I do not keep ‘useful bits of string’ in the house (though I do in the car-port on the potting table), and I am often found in the act of housework which I detest and so see as form of divine (or maybe satanic) punishment.  But as ever, I wish my house looked more like the houses of some of my friends with no clutter and (I imagine) immaculate drawers.  I mainly hoard books.  It could be worse.

I am aware, however, that I am touchy about how clean and comfortable my house is.  Firmly tell self that this is silly and also make resolution to calmly tell people who may (even inadvertently – or whatever) criticise things, to fuck off, but to do so without loss of temper if possible as this is not nice for me  (I do not care much about impact on them). Post-Script Note:  this resolve instantly breached as very next week, a very slight acquaintance comes to house for coffee and without so much as a rueful smile, informs me that the coffee is not nice, and orders another but this time hot,  and explains how I can resolve other coffee problems.  And I do.  I do not say:  fuck off.  I do not lose my head.  I just comply but inwardly fume and suppress powerful desire to swear piratically. Think that I need more practice but I do make mental note to never repeat experience of having very slight acquaintance over.

Second, to tell people who say things that they think are funny and who, in doing so attempt to make others feel that somehow they ought to ‘get’ the ‘joke’ and not be offended, that it is not funny. In fact, believe that they use this as cloak of invisibility for nasty comments they want to get across.  These people are often the same cheerful folk who call a spade a spade, speak their minds and talk as they find.  In other words, they are incredibly rude but may not be taken to task as they ought because they at once say:  I speak as I find!  Decide to do the same to them.  This may test some relationships to point of breaking.  Do not care.  I do not ‘speak as I find’ as a rule.  Do you?  Wouldn’t it be awful if we all told the unvarnished truth as we see it? Thus, I know I will never do it unless loss of control has been achieved.

(Some weeks into the period of my life now known as AC – anno childrenia). Lily and I are training for a half-marathon at the end of September.

Saturday – long-run day:  Lily arrives before dawn has cracked. I am stumbling about in kitchen, dodging dogs and cat, fumbling with door locks. Lily erupts from and also into gloom and I can tell at once that, like me, she is absolutely furious. Hurls herself into chair and sobs:  why?? why are we DOING THIS?

Me:  I have no bloody idea anymore. (Note:  we are doing it to raise money for Cancer Research UK and in memory of my beloved Sister in Law, Judith, who died earlier this year.  But as Lily knows this at least as well as me, as it was her idea, I do not bother with explanation).

Lily:  I can’t face it.

Me:  nor can I.  Let’s not go.

Lily, new resolve clearly entering her soul:  No! we MUST go! (now declaiming in manner of warrior-leader attempting rally of troops).  Onward!

Me:  onward.  Into the night.  It’s still chuffing dark.  Let’s have a cuppa.

Lily:  OK.

Lily:  have you eaten?

Me:  no but I am thinking of eating a banana. (I hate bananas but my sports physio has prescribed one a day so I now buy tiniest possible bananas and sometimes eat one).

Lily:  yuk.  But OK I’ll have one too.

I investigate fruit bowl and find one rather old looking banana and some newer, less disgusting ones.  I take both examples into the kitchen and suggest we both eat half of each.  We do so, gagging due to early hour and also rank taste and texture of bananas.

Lily:  hmmm, that old banana wasn’t too bad.  Just shows that you should never judge a banana by its skin.

Me:  but that is really the only way to judge a banana, isn’t it?  Surely that’s the definitive banana test?

Lily:  don’t call me Shirley.

And thus, buoyed up by this sort of high-quality bant, we emerge into the slowly receding gloom and reluctantly begin our 12 mile furtive shuffle.  This we complete, with a lot of extended silences as I find running makes it hard to breathe and talk, thus meaning, according to all training material I have ever read, that I am doing it wrong.  The run is, however, enlivened by my periodic Michael Jackson impressions.  These are prompted by my running in white cotton gloves.  Am doing this because my hands are in sorry state and I can keep them hydrated and medicated by wearing the gloves.  But is, I find, irresistible to break into such iconic songs as Billie Jean, The Man in the Mirror, and especially Thriller, whilst waving one white-gloved hand in Lily’s face.  On down-hill sections only, obvs, due to shortage of breath at all other times.  She loved it.

Later, much later, after we messily complete the 12 miler – our last long run until the race – and have showered, eaten a lot of non-banana foods, and are lying on the bed in Lily and Jack’s lovely new house…

Lily:  we are doing OK aren’t we?

Me:  yeah.  I mean that was absolutely awful and frankly right now I’d give all the target money to NOT do it, but I think we will manage it.

Lily:  no, I mean THIS.


Lily:  THIS!! Me, not living at home anymore? We doing OK, right?

Me (thinking:  is that true?):  yes. We are.  It’s fine.  We are managing it well.

And I reflect that it is true, after all.  I would prefer to live in a huge house (with separate kitchens, due to my slovenly nature, obvs) with both my children and their partners.  But that’s not real life – and in fact, this is good.  I miss them.  But it’s fine and I have a feeling it will emerge from fine to not bad and then maybe onto actually really good in the coming months.  For one thing, I can go to their houses for dinner, refuse to eat spinach and ask for more wine!






Spring Sportive: competitive queuing and me being grumpy

Thursday, April 13th, 2017

Last weekend, I rode in the New Forest Sportive.  This is road bike event. I have done this event several times and I really like it.  This time was the first time in about three years though, partly because I got a bit bored of it, partly because I got very bored with training for them, and also because the venues they use have got worse over the years.  This year, encouraged by a friend who had just taken up road cycling, I entered the moderate length race – 66 miles.  That’s too far for me, really.

My training was not ideal. I don’t like riding in cold, windy and wet weather and default to a run or the gym.  It’s been a while since I rode over 60 miles and although this course is fairly mild, it does have some testing bits, one quite hard climb – and it’s a long way, so you have to keep pedalling for several hours.  Or at least I do.  Because I had no training run that was over 50 miles and I needed to drag out a 66 miler preferably without getting all knackered and messy, I worked on the basis of it taking us about 5 hours.  You have to stop, eat, drink, have a wee, get your sorry arse off the knife-like saddle, un-knot your knotted shoulders, triceps and biceps etc.  I also do much better in the mornings so I calculated a 9.00 am departure thus getting back to the venue at about 2.00, maybe 2.30 pm.

And it was a new venue so I thought it might be better and more cheerful than the last place which looked like a set for filming a 1970s gritty UK police drama – think abandoned banger-racing murder scene. Or the one before that, which was very pretty but terribly prone to flooding/trapping cars on the mud-plains if it rained.  And it rained.

This new venue is really attractive, with a pile of stately home, park-lands and sweeping drives.  Not that you get anywhere near the stately home.  But, the little tracks and limited pathways cause the venue to clog up completely when you add in (estimated)  2 or 2.5k cyclists and their cars.  So, we left home at 6.15 am, arrived at the venue at 8.05 am, as instructed (Do Not Arrive Before 8!).  Then we queued to park for about 20 minutes, then we trailed all over the field to the porta-loos (vile, no paper at all, all day), then seeing how far the registration area was, we decided to ready the bikes and take them with us to register which we don’t usually.  This all took another 30 minutes or so, which is pretty standard for a big event.  I would have been happy to start the ride before 9, which is what I had planned.

However, there was now a massive queue for the starting line.  Groups of cyclists are released across the start in order to have an orderly and safe exit from the venue.  It is usual to have a little wait.  But this was well over an hour of slowly shuffling up the paths, making agonisingly slow progress towards the gate.  Luckily it was sunny and warm.  So you know, pretty good natured.

Behind us in the queue was a couple who struck up a conversation with a lone-cyclist just beside them.  Maybe it was being forced to listen to this for AN HOUR that made me a bit ragey.  What I don’t know about Rex and Sonia’s cycling, kids, holidays, breakfast choices, pet-names for each other/the kids, really isn’t worth knowing.

In summary, Rex and Sonia live in another bit of Hampshire with Maximilian (or Max-Bunny as his mummy calls him) and Frederick (yep.  Freddie-Bunny).  These probably adorable boys are old enough to be left at home and fend for themselves, so I am just guessing that they are early to mid-teens with Max-Bunny being the youngest, as he was up and about, ready to answer his mother’s ‘phone call, which went roughly like this:

Sonia (to Rex and Random Lone Cyclist/the entire queue):  I’m going to give Max a call.  This is ridiculous, we’ve been in this queue for ages and we will be here for an hour longer so we will be very late.  I need to let them know.

Rex:  it’s too early.

Sonia:  mmm, maybe you’re right.

A pause of possibly 2 minutes.

Sonia (on her mobile ‘phone):  Oh! hello Max-Bunny!  It’s mummy!  … yes I thought you might be up … yes I thought Freddie-Bunny would still be asleep! (adorable laughter, like gently babbling brooks) … anyway, look darling, it’s taking for EVAH to get off on this race so we will be at least an hour later back than I said … I don’t know exactly… What? No! goodness me, it certainly had better NOT take us 4 or 5 hours to get round!  I jolly well hope we can do better than that…(darling rippling laughter, like gently blowing breezes).

(Mark and I exchange bitter glances.  I know he is willing me, with all his might, not to turn round and kick off.  I heed his silent plea and stare fixedly at the almost see-through lycra clad, straining arse of the cyclist in front of me)…

(Sonia resumes)…have you had brekkers? … Oh! Darling! I am sorry I am not there to make your muffins! … yes … blah, blah, some more stuff about muffins and alternative breakfast options, the dog and Granny…(rings off).

Sonia (pointlessly, as we all got the gist):  relays all the above to Rex and Random Lone Cyclist.

In the meantime I text Lily and say:  such a long sodding queue, will be ages, probs an hour or so later than planned, FML x

Random Lone Cyclist:  so…have you done a Sportive before?

Sonia:  No!  and it looks like we won’t be doing another one if this is anything to go by! (girlish tinkling giggle, like trilling larks).

Random Lone Cyclist (despite me willing him to shut up and stop feeding her):  what distance are you doing?

Sonia:  the 66 miles.  Didn’t want to go for the longer one just yet.  Actually, this is really a warm up event for us – part of our training.

RLC (like he had read the script, bless him, personally I’d have walked off, forfeited my place in the now half-mile long queue and joined the back of it):  Oh?

(Mark actually smacked his own forehead with his fist at this point).

Sonia:  yes!  We are cycling in the Italian Dolomites next month, and (heavy sarcasm)  I hear it’s a *BIT* *HILLY*! (low, adorable and self-depreciating laugh like someone gently riffling a pack of cards).


Sonia:  yes!  And I only dragged my old road bike out last month!  it’s been ages since we did any serious cycling, isn’t it (Rex)?


(At this point I have to summon all my inconsiderable will power not to turn round and look at her ‘old road bike’ which I am sure is a £4k full carbon limited edition brand spanking new bike, probably red…but I will never know as for once, will power prevailed).

Sonia:  But it’s all going very well so we thought we’d try this one as it looks rather easy and not too long…though this delay is a nuisance, we will just have to cycle much faster, won’t we (Rex)?


Sonia:  oh my goodness! We won’t get back here until about 1.00 if we don’t get away by 10.30, will we?  I certainly hope it won’t take us five hours! Something will have gone very wrong, if we take five hours, won’t it (Rex)?


RLC:  I reckon it’ll take me about four and a half.

(I warm to RLC though still wish he’d stop talking to Sonia).

Sonia:  yes, well, we’re just going to pedal that much faster, to make up for this terrible delay, aren’t we, (Rex)?


With the sun now beating down and it being very hot, me having donned three layers of wool-based jerseys, I have to ask Mark to balance my bike so I can take the top layer off which is quite big and has a wide hood.  I then can’t get this jacket in my little ruck-sack which is of course full of Tupperware containers housing nuts, cheese and mini cocktail sausages.  Because I don’t want to expose this food to Sonia’s gaze, I decide not to un-pack/re-pack the bag and instead, tie the top layer round my middle.

Finally, we get to the bit where we are being readied to cycle and I try to clip onto my bike, but I struggle as my shoe cleats, which need to clip into the receiving cleat on the pedals, are full of crap and mud and gravel from the sodding parkland and mud paths.  So there is an ungainly struggle between me and my bike as I wrestle my feet into place, and then realise that I can’t unclip them easily as they are kind of stuck, on account of the mud and grit. Finally, I get clipped on and we mount and cycle – only I can’t get my bum on the knife-like saddle because the effing hood of my blasted jersey is round my saddle. I have two further attempts to haul myself onto the bike and get seated before veering off to the grass verge in order to tear off my waist-adorning jersey and generally have a much-needed low-key swearing session.

And Sonia pelts past me, head down, bent on the Yellow Jersey of The New Forest, while her frankly adorable warbling laughter bathes my burning ears…

It took us over five hours. I imagine Sonia was at home stirring the risotto long before I hauled my sorry behind over the finish line. It was lovely, mainly.

I’ve decided not to do any more sodding Sportives.







Mind over matter

Tuesday, October 22nd, 2013

Last weekend I ran a half marathon.  The BUPA Birmingham Great run.  I did it for a friend who is poorly, and we were raising money for Cancer Research UK.

The picture was taken about half a mile in.  That is why I am smiling.  By the end, I was still smiling, but there was no waving.  Nor could I get my own race chip off my shoe or tie my laces…

The thing about running is that although I really do love it, I am getting marginally slower as each year passes.  So my confidence is not high.  I have never been a fast runner, in fact I’m not that fast at anything, but what I lack in speed I make up for in endurance.  So therefore long, slow runs do suit me.  It’s just that 13.1 miles is a very long way, or if you look at it from a slow runner’s view point, it’s a long time to be out running.

So, after I did a half marathon three years ago in Burnham-on-Sea, I decided not to do one ever again.  In fact, I did that half in a relatively fast time for me – 2 hours 15 minutes.  I was 20 minutes slower in Birmingham last Sunday, partly because it’s hilly and Burnham is totally flat. I didn’t want to train again, to sacrifice other activities such as cycling or gym classes because it ends up being all about the running race.  I also felt no desire whatsoever to run that far again.  I like running 6 miles, or even 10.  But the extra 3 make half marathons really painful.

However, a friend wanted me to run it.  I agreed because it meant a lot to us both and I didn’t want to do it alone.

We trained, me in Somerset, her in Birmingham.  We compared notes, we raised some cash, we worked at it.  At times we both got sick and injured, work, holidays and life in general had to be slightly shifted to accomodate the training.  Then 6 days before race day, my friend sprained her ankle.  There was clearly no way she was going to be able to run even part of the race.  And I really panicked.  There are 20,000 runners at this event.  It’s the second biggest HM in the UK after the Great North Run.  And the more I panicked, the more certain I felt that I couldn’t do it alone.

It’s not the running alone that worries me, I am used to that, in fact I prefer it really.  It’s the crowds and the logistics.  Panicking is, however, highly over-rated; in the end, I just had to do it and here’s the thing I expect you knew I was going to say:  it was fine!

I was slow, I was steady, I didn’t care about my time, I just wanted to finish without being ill, injured or exhausted.

And I am so glad I did it.  The city, where we lived for many years and where Florence was born, is amazing.  It’s people are amazing, warm, funny, generous and kind.  There was not one part of the 13 miles without some supporters cheering and encouraging all the runners.  Kids stood by the roads, holding out tins of sweets and chocolates for runners to take.  Local folks set out trays of squash and water in plastic cups.  Many houses set up little front garden parties, tables and chairs, BBQs and a few beers, as they cheered our names.  Pubs let runners dive in for loo-stops, and shops were open, playing music.

There were steel-bands, gospel choirs, jazz bands, drummers and radio stations all along the route.  And the route is fantastic.  You run through the Queensways, the tunnels, and the 4 lane highways of Brum, all closed to traffic for the day.  Round the Bull Ring, to Digbeth, off down the Pershore Road, all through Bourneville, back to Cadbury’s World, into Harborne and Edgbaston via the cricket ground and Cannon Hill Park – and finally, all the way down Broad Street to the finish.  Every corner had a crowd, even at the furthest reaches of the course.  Every flyover featured gangs of people urging you to keep going.

I was given a handful of dusty jelly babies at mile 12, which comes after a mile long hill from mile 11 – and I tried to eat some of them.  But I realised that my throat was closed, too tight to really chew and swallow.  I was *sort of* crying, that’s why.  I didn’t really realise that I was crying and it wasn’t full-on sobbing or even proper tears ‘cos that would have been too exhausting, but when I tried to force a jelly baby down I realised that my throat had tightened due to the sheer emotion of knowing I was going to finish it after all – and the amazing spirit of the people I ran with, and ran past.

Someone I don’t know – a man – shouted:  ‘Come on Alison, you can do this last mile, RUN, Alison!’  Your names are printed on your number, pinned to your top.  The local people just yelled our names and said:  you can do it, it will soon be over!  Amazing.

At mile 11, when you hit the second series of hills, I was aware of a very mature and absolutely tiny lady running steadily along in front of me.  This turned out to be Margaret Ann.  That is what it said on her number.  She was about 4 feet 10 inches in her trainers, fully kitted up, snow-white hair, with a slightly hunched, very economical running style.  She was a little old-lady running machine, never faltered, never walked, she just kept on running.  She started running at 70 and is 80 next week.

Cue more throat-tightening on my part.

She was only about 20 minutes behind me at the finish.  We saw her afterwards, trying to find MacDonald’s where she was meeting her family.

I want to be like Margaret Ann.


Ghost Bikes

Saturday, April 27th, 2013

Ghost Bike in Berlin

Ghost bikes are cycles, painted or sprayed white, and then chained at the site of a place where a cyclist has been killed whilst riding.  This is almost always because s/he was hit by a vehicle.

Sometimes the bikes are fully functional but often they are stripped-down, to deter theft.

Local authorities often remove the bikes after a few weeks.  In one such incidence, local residents reacted by chaining twenty-two new ghost bikes to all the lamp-posts in that street.

I recently saw a ghost bike, for the first time other than on-line.  It was chained to a road sign which we passed on our way to take part in a huge cycling Sportive in the New Forest earlier this month.

This cycling event is the New Forest UK Cycling/Wiggle Spring Sportive.  About 2,000 riders take part over two days.  The event has been the subject of some local controversy with a small but vocal minority of local residents objecting to the event, presumably on the grounds of its size and the impact this number of cyclists has on the roads in the Forest.

We’ve been riding this and other Sportives for three years now.   It is true that the cyclists in the event – and the same number again, probably, who are not in the event but just out riding for the day, do have an impact on the ‘flow’ of traffic.  Passing a group of riders – and the cyclists all leave in timed batches of about 20 at a time to avoid mass congestion – may delay a motorist for a minute or two, maybe a little longer.  That’s it.  There is no other impact.

We were due to ride on the Sunday.  On the Saturday, we were in the Forest area anyway as we usually stay for two or three nights in a local B&B. It rained.  All day, very hard.  The show-ground which was the HQ for the event was flooded, the tents were flooded, the fields were mud-baths, cars were being towed off the grass.  Our event, for the next day was, wisely in my view, postponed so we are going back in June to do it then.

Riders on the Saturday had a rough time of it, what with the torrential rain and the road conditions that this created.  Most had a hassle-free ride aside from that, though a few reported that the signage for the event had, here and there, been removed or tampered with. (NB: if you are cycling objector and you did tamper with the signs, this is surely very counter-productive.  At best all you can achieve is further ‘disruption’ as a few cyclists will be momentarily lost, but most have some form of sat-nav or at least a soggy map up the leg of their shorts).  There were a few banner-holding protesters, out-numbered by a few local bobbies.  Slightly further down the menacing spectrum, one group reported tacks being strewn in the road.  And right up there in the Attempted Murder camp, one group were directly driven at by two vehicles, forcing some of the cyclists off the road.

I am sure the heroes who finished the ride in such awful weather felt epic afterwards.  And as I said, I think the protesters are a very small minority – and I can see that it might be a bit irritating to have to carefully pass several groups of cyclists.  Let me assure you, that as cyclist, a walker, a runner and a driver, I know how it feels to use roads in many different ways.  When I’m cycling, I really want the vehicles behind me to pass me safely and get on their way, which is why we never cycle side by side if there are cars, and always stop or slow down to let them pass as soon as possible if the road is narrow.

But just one moment of deliberate hate, with the intent to kill a cyclist, in that event earlier this month, could so easily have led to a ghost bike being placed there, in the New Forest.

Behind every ghost bike is a dead rider and a family and a host of friends and colleagues.

There are quite a lot of sites on the Internet devoted to images and stories about ghost bikes.  Here is a link to one in New York that tells a little bit about some of the riders whose memories are kept alive with a lone white cycle.

What I think about when I’m running

Tuesday, February 5th, 2013

(The title of this post is a shameless paraphrase.  It is also a warning to you, regular reader, that the knitting phase of blogging appears to be over).

We all knew that the outpouring of knitting posts would dry up eventually, didn’t we?  Have you missed my ramblings on subjects un-knitty?  Have you been wondering what I’ve had for dinner, what I have read, what I have listened to, what I have been doing, how many recycling melt-downs I have had, which caves I have dived into?

The answers are:

1) mainly roast dinners; plus scampi.  Not together.  How weird are you?  I love roast dinners and could eat them every day.  In winter, maybe not in summer.

The scampi is an actual addiction of mine.  I simply adore it.  Shop bought, frozen, breaded scampi.  Preferably the sort they call ‘giant’ or ‘large’ so there is a better scampi-to-breadcrumb ratio.  I sometimes have it – or used to – so often that a kind of scampi-sickness would descend upon me and I’d be forced to avoid the scampi isle for a few weeks.  But it always comes back, the call of the scampi, the lure of it’s squidgy sweet prawniness and the crunchy – not too crunchy – coat of breadcrumbs.  A dash of lemon juice, some mayo to dip into. I don’t want chips, I definitely don’t want peas – I just want scampi.  I want some now.

2) I have read Hawthorn and Child by Keith Ridgway:

Recommended to me by the bookish Karina Westermann whose designs are lovely and whose book choices I urge you to follow too.

Loved it. Could easily have devoured it in maybe 3 goes but was forced by lack of time and some self-will to nibble it rather than gorge.  It is a book quite unlike any I have read, with a duo of police officers – the Hawthorn and Child of the title – opening the novel and threading through it thereafter.  It’s more like a series of linked short stories and since I love short stories even more than whole books, this was perfect.  Like buffets which are my favorite meals.  Oh.  Wait.  No that’s wrong;  roast dinner is my favourite.  And scampi.  Well, buffets are among my favorites.

This book is a buffet –  stories sharing the tressel-table and gingham table-cloth of a book.  It’s graphic and adult.  In a proper, grown-up way, yes there is sex, gay sex and love.  It’s not shocking and it’s not coy.  It’s the sort of book that makes your (my) tummy tighten and tumble.  I was aware of a sense of mild to moderate peril just behind my right shoulder throughout the entire reading of it.  This was partly the edgy stories and partly the tingle of such powerful yet spare and clever writing.  Because aside from the compelling way he spins the stories, the way he writes is reward enough in itself.

Oh, by the way there are no speech marks. Do not let this put you off, instead, let it make the spoken words feel more natural.

I have read some other things lately but this is the one I wanted to tell you about because I want you to read it too.  I am unselfish this way, please, read it.  It almost makes me wish the ill-fated book club was still going (it is, kind of, but without me and that’s another story which I will save for later) so that I could recommend it – but then, I just know, that club being the club it is, that Hawthorn and Child would be carelessly and hideously dismissed with a shrug and upturned palms.  Because there is no conventional plot device or route-map.  I agree, once again, with Karina who has been known to say she couldn’t be in a book club – and I think I can’t either, much though I’d love to talk about this and other books I love, as you do with someone who also loves (or at least understands) the same books.  It’s not about agreeing or scoring – but it is about respecting writing and reading, two great arts, the latter often sadly underrated.

3)  I have finally finished listening to Ulysses by James Joyce.  This was an Audible download and it was a gift download so being a careful person I decided to choose a download that is eye watering expensive (or a credit, but my credits are usually fully allocated in my Wish List), and that I just know I’d never, ever actually read.  It is, of course, a great classic.  My, but it’s a book of so many parts – and I am no scholar so I cannot even begin to tell you how clever and yes, at times, how impenetrable I found it.  I adopted a policy of listening to it in sections, allocating time to it and having breaks.  Having breaks doesn’t matter in the least.  It’s just there, waiting for you as you drift back.

I found that sometimes I was very comfortable with the ‘story’.  Life, food, love, art, sex, death, music, class and religion – a clashing muddle, a dash through just one day in Dublin.  At times like these I felt really proud of my ears and brain, acting like a pair of old friends and together, passing understanding to me.

At other times I was drifting.  This was pleasant, even beautiful, for the writing is breathtaking.  I was drifting but a little lost.

And sometimes I was utterly, hopelessly lost, so lost I had to look things up on the Internet to try and see what the feck was going on, and even then, I was still left reeling, with that feeling you (I) get when you (I) look at maps or I try to negotiate my way to B from C when I usually go to B from A.  In these times, what I generally do is go back to A and then make my way to B, leaving C out of it altogether.  You can’t do that with this book.

However, I was and still am, awash with this book, which I now know I’d never read with my eyes because I just wouldn’t be able to cope, but to listen to it again – yes, that I will be doing.

I listened to it a lot while running.  The running has been in a good phase which leads me to 4).  In 4), I have been running more.  I have entered a half marathon in Birmingham in October.  My first and last HM was 2 years ago and I hated it so much I felt I might just give up running.  However, I have entered this one for several good reasons, or so it seemed and now I have got used to the idea, I am glad.  I can run 10 or 11 miles sometimes.  Usually I run 5 or 6.  Sometimes I only run 3.  But when I ran 10 or 11 recently, it was me and James Joyce.  The mind-bending wonder of his words, or sometimes the sheer beauty of what he tells me made the miles seem fewer or at least quicker – and they weren’t quicker, in fact I have lost pace this last 6 months, I’m not sure why.  Age, maybe.

5) No recycling melt-downs lately, since I have partially opted out of the recycling dictatorship that is Somerset Waste and set up my own independent state.  I burn food waste that I cannot compost on my open dining room fire.  I throw things away that I *think* the recycling police may whimsically reject, there being no discernable policy.  It’s good.  Opting out is the new recycling.

6) Sadly, no caves of late.  Maybe that will come back if the weather warms up.

All of the above and more, are what I think about when I run.