To Grandad, Love Jessie

Me and Grandad

I’ve struggled with words when it comes to my grandad. Finding the right ones. Hearing other people’s. It’s hard when someone’s not here anymore to just be, to show you who they are themselves. You find yourself attempting to summarise a person’s character in a few lines. Humans are so much bigger than words, and he certainly was.

At the same time, I’m terrified of forgetting things. I’m scared of moving away from the rawness of now, when the memories might not be as vivid and the details might become hazy.

I’ve had a document saved on my computer called ‘Grandad’ for six years. Since his first stroke. I remember being alone in my house that night, my parents having gone to the hospital, and all I could think to do was start typing things onto an empty page. It became a place to write down things that I might otherwise have forgotten – some of them tiny, everyday things that I just didn’t want to take for granted. Those are the things I know now I will miss most of all. The everyday. He lived next door to me for almost my whole life, so every day is what it was. And I know now that every day is how often I’ll miss him. 

What it comes down to is: he was the greatest. He was everything you would want a grandad to be, and he was that good at it all the time. 

When I was little, I remember being intimidated by him. I think of how he approached me, armed with a pair of scissors that would divest me of excess fringe as I sat whining on the kitchen stool, all the hair getting in my eyes as he cut it. Sometimes he’d go fishing and his catch would lie untouched on the kitchen counter, its eye following me around the room and my squeamish horror seeming only to delight him. On occasion, he would take his false teeth out as a grotesque party trick even as I used to protest.

As I grew older, my perspective changed, and the memories that have endured are limited to those I treasure. Grandad pointing out all of the houses he’d helped to build as we drove around certain patches of Bournemouth. Grandad slipping Cadbury Eclairs into my hand when my mum or my nan weren’t looking. Grandad seeming invincible after a horse bolted over the top of his old Volvo. Grandad dancing – classic ballroom dancing – at every family party. Grandad helping my mum redecorate every room in the house one by one, nothing ever being too much or too hard or too heavy. Grandad mowing our lawn unprompted, time and time again, or tending to his own front garden when I got home from work. Grandad building the rescue tortoise his own little tortoise house in the garden. Grandad always bringing things over to us: pickled onions, jams, the prawn cocktail starters, raspberries, misshapen cucumbers, my mum’s sweet peas. Grandad always asking how my other grandma, my dad’s mum, was. Grandad seeming so happy to see me every time I would swing the backdoor open, even though I always left the gate unlatched on my way out.

Even the things that terrified me as a kid became endearing. The fish and the teeth were his playful side on display. He’d love to wind me up and I’m every bit as easy to wind up as my mum. I hated to be teased, but I loved when he laughed. A mischievous, wheezy chuckle would burst out of him before my nan gave him a light smack or a sharp eye and an admonishing, “Ian!” And then he would only laugh more. 

After he had a stroke in 2013, we didn’t know how much it was going to affect him long-term. To begin with, he was terrible at names. He just couldn’t remember things very well. It was hard to watch him reaching around in his brain, struggling, and feeling embarrassed when he just couldn’t quite get there. My nan told me that immediately afterwards he’d kept saying my name; he kept saying “Jessie”. It seemed particularly odd as he’d always had a habit of calling me several names before my own. “Hello Wendy!” he’d say as I burst through the backdoor of his house. Before I could correct him, he’d know his mistake and say, “Emma-Catherine-Jessie.” And that was just my name sometimes. Some random assortment of cousins’ names that would always be punctuated with my own. Now it was worse, though. There are things that get lost before people are lost. 

That was when I started writing things down. I didn’t want anything more to get lost or forgotten. I wanted to remember the details of our relationship; I wanted to remember more than just the way he made me feel. If anything good came of the first stroke, it was that I knew to appreciate the time we had, to pay attention to moments with him like I hadn’t before. He got a lot better before his health declined again, but I noticed him more. I began to notice things like the way he said my mother’s name with a fondness that matched the way my dad says mine. And how, even as she argued for him to take it easy, he would always be sneakily trying to do odd jobs to help my mum out – all the handyman things that my dad, for all his virtues, is rather useless at. 

I think the thing that will make you love someone most is watching them love. My grandad was one of the most loving people I’ve ever known. He breathed a quiet kind of loving that exists more in gestures than in words (in fact, I can still feel his prickly moustache kisses on my cheeks). It extended to our whole family, rooted in his adoration for my nan – which was never more clear to me than in his final weeks – but branching outwards to the rest of us. It made all of us better; I swear, it makes all of us love each other more. 

He was an authentic, warm, stable force of love in my life from the first moments I can remember to those savoured final years. I don’t know whether I ever told him I loved him, but likewise I don’t know if he ever told me. I knew. I know he did too. 

For all the haircuts and fish eyes, for all the mischievous smiles and mowed lawns, and for every time you said my name. 

I love you. 

Thank you. 

I miss you so much already. 

(I hate that you had to go.)

Scotland: What We Did On Our Holiday

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Ah, Scotland! Land of haggis, neeps and tatties!

I’ve long wanted to venture north and cross the border, fight White Walkers and save my kingdom from the Long Night but alas, that’s quite a different north. Instead, we enjoyed miraculously sunny weather, a lot of walking up hills and minimal swordplay.

Here’s a few of the things we got up to while travelling around Edinburgh, the Trossachs and Glasgow, and that I whole-heartedly encourage you to try. If you dare.

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Masterpiece Mountain

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Let me tell you about one of my favourite days in Scotland.

We were in the middle of nowhere. Me, Emma, Hannah and Laura. Between two lochs. Up where the air was heavy with midges and no one took a speck of sunshine for granted.

The little castle we stayed in was decorated with bagpipes on the wall and floor-to-ceiling tartan wallpaper. The mugs featured special Scottish colloquialisms. There was a cupboard pretending to be a shop that was stocked near-exclusively with Tunnocks and Irn Bru. That’s how Scottish this Scotland was.

The sun had come out and it was our first full day of nice weather since leaving Edinburgh to travel northwest.

Behind the castle, a big Ben overlooked the grounds. It was our own mini mountain, ready to be climbed, and we were fresh off our Arthur’s Seat triumph, the world suddenly our oyster. We made up a backpack of cheese and ham sandwiches, apples and Tunnocks caramel wafers – then we set off.

It was a long old way up and I remember the girls getting caught up in the Lord of the Rings of it all, the greenery stretched out in front of us and lots of “Share the load, Mr Frodo”. We walked along singing Hamilton numbers like coach songs on a school trip. It got steeper and steeper as we climbed higher and higher; we had to use our hands at certain moments to scramble our way up, the path disappearing almost entirely at certain points on our little pilgrimage.

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Something to Tell You

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I haven’t updated this blog in forever but I’m back now and boy do I have something to tell you. (Three copies of it, in case you were wondering.)

If you follow me on any social media, you’ll have some idea of what I’m about to say so I’ll cut to the chase: I saw Haim, I met Haim, I love Haim.

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Freezing Cold Runnings

Uuuuuuuuugh, January training is the worst. I think I lost my sense of humour in the midst of its terribleness. Let’s review.

A break in routine is a predictable disaster for anyone lacking in natural athleticism. And what I lack in athleticism, I lack in spades and spades. With a break from formal training, I crumbled quicker than mama’s New Year’s Day pie. (Chicken and leek, and v. yum.)

There were no organised sessions for two whole weeks over the holiday season, but you know what there was plenty of? Food. I ate so much food, I started turning it down – an unprecedented call. On the Wednesday after Christmas, I reluctantly went out for my traditional Worst Run of the Year™ and dragged my unwilling feet around a solid six miles before seeking solace in more food, more food, all the food… because it was an awful run, the likes of which I have not experienced since, oh yeah, exactly this time last year.

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New Year’s Day quarter marathon, an error in judgment. 

The thing is, I know that I can’t be running the worst I’ve ever run straight off the back of a string of PBs. I know that rationally. But whenever the momentum shifts in the wrong direction, it’s hard to adjust to. It’s hard to hold onto motivation and fight the tide.

The first session back wasn’t too bad. But the following week, when we returned to the athletics track, the temperature seemed to plummet and the timed reps came back to hit us. In the face. With an anvil. I mean, a 1000m rep at the start and the end? Really? These are not the reps we are looking for. Mentally, it’s as tough a session as I can ever remember getting on the track. I can do 1000m reps (sometimes), but when the longest rep is at the end, it looms over you, casting a dark cloud over even the merciful 400 metres. They call it the scorpion. Sting in the tail.

A week later, we’re back to hills, which – and it should tell you everything you need to know when I say this – now seems like the soft option.

Do I want to spend my evening running up and down a hill, with each run a lamppost further? No, I do not. Ideally, I’d like to spend it eating a perfectly cooked hamburger in 7Bone before bingeing as many West Wing episodes as I can until I fall into a peaceful slumber. However, with Parliament Hill looming, I’m eager to do it. I know it’ll settle my nerves and I’ll feel good about myself afterwards.

Hills sessions never run the same risk of bitter disappointment. It’s just a matter of grimly getting your arse up that hill as many times as you can in either eight or 20 minutes, but I’m not dependently counting. With timed reps, every second means something. A second down can’t be soothed by the next two or three attempts being one or more seconds up. You’ll always be thinking, ‘That one shouldn’t have been down. Why was I off the pace?’ I obsess.

So, in their own unique way, hills sessions are more relaxed. Rather like a trip to the spa.

At least that’s what I was telling myself at work as I counted down the minutes until 5 o’clock. I eventually left work fired up and ready for the session, thinking only good can come of this night. I’ll climb every mountain and ford every stream. Bring it on. #YOLO. All that jazz.

Long story short, on the way to training, I realised I’d left all of my kit under my desk at work. It was 6.20pm. Ten minutes. Given the traffic, there was no time to go back and get it. I was with my dad who also moonlights as everyone’s coach, so I couldn’t just go home. Without a sports bra and trainers, no matter how many people offered to see if they had any extra kit, it wasn’t happening. No hills session for me.

If you’re wondering how I handled this, I would say… hmm, not well.

Much in the same pattern as my training, my parkrun times have only slipped since my Christmas Day run. 23:21 went to 24:11… and then 24:30. That’ll teach you to start thinking about sub-23s, girl. (Don’t get me wrong, these times are nothing to sniff at – but, inevitably, losing ground is a disappointing shift in momentum.)

It’s tough. It happens every year, with spectacular consistency. I’m endlessly frustrated at my impeccable pattern of peaking in December – you know, the one month that really contributes nothing to the championship calendar – and then utterly crashing out in the New Year.

At least January’s nearly over. Hopefully 2017 will warm up soon and so will I.

The only thing standing between me and Feb now is Parliament Hill. No biggie. Except… real biggie. I’ll see you on the other side. Yiiiiiikes.

Thoughts on Carrie

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I have a strange relationship with death. We are long-distance enemies. Hateful pen pals. Despite having never been to a funeral, I worry about it more than is rational. Not my own mortality, that is, but that of the people around me.

The unknown of the experience of losing someone has built it up into my greatest fear. It can keep me up at night for no reason at all.

I’m not great at making friends so the ones I do have are obliged to outlive me. I’ve decided that no one’s allowed to die now. Not anyone I love. I’ve had a small taste of that and I didn’t much take to it.

When I say a small taste, I mean someone I love did die, but it was someone I didn’t know personally. Or directly, in person, having met. I missed that opportunity only two weeks ago. Nevertheless, I felt I knew her personally.

It feels personal.

The books she wrote and the words she spoke were so open that it seems impossible that I could know such intimate details of her life and not truly know her. She was so open. Not open in that friendly, arms-outstretched way that some people can be, but open in a way that went deeper, and darker. Carrie didn’t shy away from things that could make you uncomfortable. She didn’t dilute herself to put you at ease. She was just joyfully, heartbreakingly Carrie all the time.

Her final book, for instance, was the publication of a 40-year-old diary. If it’s edited, those edits are limited. It follows the pattern that Wishful Drinking, Shockaholic and Postcards from the Edge have laid out before it: an equation of startling honesty and self-deprecating humour. No one will ever prove so persistently that light can be drawn from even the darkest places.

As the media reported on news of her ill health on the 23rd, the phrasing – “massive heart attack” – felt so coarse. The word “massive” seemed the worst of it. It was as though those news sources sought to minimise hope amongst a group taught to hope against all odds. I couldn’t help myself.

A quote of hers kept in my mind:

 “You know the bad thing about being a survivor… You keep having to get yourself into difficult situations in order to show off your gift.”

Show off that gift just one more time for us, I kept thinking.

If anyone was going to survive 2016, surely it would be Carrie. Indomitable Carrie. She’d bounce back and joke about being described as “stable”, because that’s how she was. She drew light from even the darkest places. She’d probably write a book about it with a Star Wars pun for a title, and spend her recovery on Twitter, liking tweets that feature weird pictures of herself, Mark and Harrison while privately DMing fans words of comfort.

On Christmas Day, I unwrapped The Princess Diarist. I was given cards with Leia’s image emblazoned on them (“Tis the season to be rebels!”), and even a Han and Leia mouse mat that my mum had sweetly made up on Vistaprint. There was a lot of Carrie, in the most bittersweet of ways. She’s all over the gifts my best friends are yet to unwrap. With our shared love for our princess and our general, we’d made it through this shitty year together.

Perhaps it’s weird I got all the way to December before feeling like this.

Death has been everywhere this year, death and bad things. So many famous people died, it’s a small miracle that I, the perpetual fangirl, didn’t already feel buried in this strange and illegitimate grief. I felt sad every time, naturally, but also detached – by necessity. Sad things are happening at an ever more alarming rate but we hide out from those things, we separate ourselves, we try to keep our heads up and push on.

I’ve had my heart broken a few times and a few ways in 2016 but through it all, I took comfort in my newfound world of Star Wars. Now, to end the year on this new heartbreak feels especially cruel given that Carrie and her galaxy far, far away had been a comfort for most of it.

I miss her. I miss her all the time. I miss her in moments that she’d never have been in anyway. Isn’t that bizarre?

How strange an experience it is to lose a personal hero.

Perfect Present Pressure

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38 tabs open. Wishlists and wishlists and wishlists. Every Black Friday deal scoured and every RRP scorned. ‘Tis the season. Time to find the perfect gift for every man, woman and child in the land. And, blimey, are some of you hard to buy for.

My compulsion to get The Perfect Gift™ for everyone is exhausting. And it’s not your fault. You’re great. I know you’d pretend to like it even if I were to get you a gift voucher for Build-A-Bear.

It’s me. I’m doing this to myself.

Every year, without fail, I’ll waltz into a department store to pick up something specific and I’ll be overwhelmed by a flood of aggressive marketing: was/nows and 3 for 2s and cashbacks and WHAT DID I EVEN COME IN HERE FOR?!

I’ll be suckered into every deal going if I’ve got a person in mind for it. I’m weak. And once I’ve bought one Perfect Gift™, that’s it! That’s the game. Over. Because I couldn’t possibly get something this perfect for Emma and not somehow materialise a gift equally fitting for Hannah and Laura and Claire.

So, the search then begins to match whatever probably-quite-high bar I’ve started with. A combination of rush purchases and over-thought buys will be laid out across my bedroom floor, with an internal monologue debating the virtues of each potential gift matched up with each person. There’ll be switches. There’ll be notes-to-self highlighting notable gift gaps, or perhaps those ideas that are feeling a little below par because, actually, does Laura even like [insert giant generic franchise here] anymore? And, naturally, there’ll also be a formal present pile analysis to manage relative generosity from person to person, because every loved one must feel precisely the same amount of joy this festive season.

This dramatic escalation of retail chaos typically occurs by mid-November, by the way, leading to an overly-prepped and ultimately disappointing Black Friday weekend where I attempt to fill in all of those aforementioned gift gaps – or close the deal on pre-made purchasing decisions. You add 30 items to your wishlist for easy deal-watching and you’d think at least one of them would be reduced at some point, right? Wrong.

By Cyber Monday, reduced or not, the last wave of buying has to begin if I want to be truly assured that all of those internet orders will arrive in time. Accordingly, the biggest annual assault on my bank balance then takes place during those twilight hours of an all too manic Monday.

But that’s okay.

It’s okay because, other than one slightly dubious call for a brother unwilling to drop a single hint, I think – I think – I’ve nailed it.

Spikes

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It’s serious now. Spikes mean I’m a cross-country kid. After all those years of dodging cross-country at school with cat-like agility, I find myself slogging it out along muddied paths and over steep hills on my precious weekends off. ‘Why?’ is a question I often ask myself. Answer pending.

Even the dude selling me my spikes didn’t look too sure of the idea. There’s apparently a very low demand for size six and a half cross-country spikes, correlating with the very low proportion of people looking to run around muddy fields as fully independent adults, I guess. Always was one for bucking the trends. In the end, I had to settle for the sole pair of 6.5s they were selling, like ‘em or not.

Now that I’ve got my own pair, it seems my excuse for avoiding the more hardcore cross-country races is looking ever more flimsy.

It’s high time, though; I’m six races deep. It’s happening. I borrowed a pair from the club’s communal spike bank for my last race and they looked like they’d been chewed by a dog. A dog wanting to protect its owner from making the terrible mistake of running a cross-country race, probably. Good call, my fur-coated friend. This dog, who may or may not be entirely fictional, has far better judgment than me, clearly.

I’ve got to the point where I’ve decided it’s best just to let the mud and the hills and the wind and the rain in at this point. I’ve accepted my fate. My soggy, puffed out, lying-on-the-ground-in-a-melodramatic-heap fate. And it’s sort of… thrilling.

We have a team now and everything.

Getting ladies’ cross-country teams together is always a bit of a challenge for a small running club but, with a few fresh members up to the challenge as well as my ragged self, we’ve been storming it all season long – in both the cross-country leagues we’re in. We only need three finishers to qualify; so far, we’ve had nine different ladies join the team along the way.

It feels like a team, too. There’s a lovely mix of personalities, ages and abilities. Plus, there’s our fun new tradition of me herding everyone together for a cheesy post-race team photo – usually immediately followed by the inadvertent tradition of suggesting we take said cheesy photo before the race next time. (It’ll never happen.)

Now, armed with spikes, I feel like I’ve reached that final stage of commitment. I’m on the team for good now. For better or worse, for muddier and for drier, in sickness and in health and forsaking all Saturdays, etc. etc.

As we went over to the till to pay for these fancy new spikes you’ve now heard so much about, my dad – cross country expert that he is – added one final comment.

“You’ll need to pick up some 9mm, 12mm and 15mm spikes too.”

9mm, sure.

12mm, okay.

But 15mm spikes? What kind of mad, crazy race demands 15mm spikes?! I mean, honestly! What race do you think I’m—oh, oh no. Oh, no, no, no, no…

*dramatic voice over* Parliament Hill is coming. 

My Royal Parks Half

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I DID IT. Properly, actually ran 13.1 miles.

Dreamy conditions, peak physical fitness and a full Kennedy entourage came together for one fine day. On top of all that, the race route was heaven: six miles of cinematic city landmarks before what was effectively a seven-mile park run around Hyde Park.

Despite a long, anxious week of build-up involving endless injury paranoia, on the start line I felt very… ready.

We started out roaming the fanciest of all the city streets, heading past Buckingham Palace, Horse Guards Parade, Churchill War Rooms, Admiralty Arch, Trafalgar Square, etc., etc. It’s an endless string of iconic landmarks to captivate you every step of the way. I would still be admiring one as the next began to appear. It was so. much. fun. I kept bounding cheerfully past people – partly trying to make up for the minutes lost in a portaloo queue at mile one, but bounding nevertheless. It was the best feeling in the world. I would compare it to the feeling I imagine Westlife were singing about in Flying Without Wings.

I hit six miles feeling fresh. That was at the entrance to Hyde Park, where a lot of the charities based their support, making that milestone particularly packed with people. There were so many people cheering for so many runners, and I was part of it!!!! Overwhelmed to the max, basically. Then I turned a corner to see my own support team: Dad, Mum, Callum. I flashed a little smile with an ‘I’m KILLING this!’ level of confidence that was both uncharacteristic and magnificent because I absolutely, totally was. (Why do I never feel that fresh at six miles when I’m running six miles is my question?!)

The whole way round, there was an inspiring mix of calls of my name and funny messages – from “May the course be with you” (my #1), to “Tiramisu if you do it under 2!” and “You go, Glen Coco!” I kept wanting to stop and thank people for their support, except also never ever stop. Reading all of those signs, even if they were for specific people, kept me distracted for most of the way. It made you aware of why so many were doing it. Every crazy costume or heartfelt dedication on the back of a t-shirt was a reminder of how meaningful this challenge was for so many. And I got to be part of the fundraising side of the race for once. It was profoundly inspiring to experience.

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Home straight, aka the longest 800m has ever felt.

I reached the finish line in 2:03:05. This may seem odd to non-runners but, proud as I am of my finish time, it was when I saw my splits that I felt really chuffed with myself. I only went and got negative splits! Negative splits on my first half! Every single 5km of the race was quicker than the one before – and only marginally. Taking out the portaloo debacle that must have added about four or five minutes to my first 5km, all of the splits are pretty even. I bloomin’ NAILED that pacing lark.

Apart from anything, pacing it well meant I pretty much loved it from start to finish. At 10 miles the legs started hurting and the miles started to stretch out, but you rationalise the pain at that point; you’ve run 10. I knew at that point that I was going to finish, no question.

And finish I did.

Thank you to everyone who sponsored me, trained alongside me and put up with me talking about it non-stop for about two months. It was a joy I’ll never forget. And the team I was part of raised a total of £1,425 (£1,661.75 including gift aid) for Together For Short Lives.

Job well done I’d say.

My Half Mad Half Marathon

It’s Wednesday, a day to rest and recuperate from the endless mileage and stopwatches, and I don’t really know what to do with myself. Dare I say it, a night off from running has left me with itchy feet.

Don’t get me wrong, my legs are tired; they’re hanging limply from my hips like I’m a lame marionette, but I’m quite used to that. They usually figure out what do within the first mile. Left, right, left, right – the usual. At this point, they’re so used to running, I seem to have developed autopilot mode. It’s the basic walking stuff that tends to be where the trouble lies.

Somehow, though, on my journey of athletic discovery, I’ve gone from “OH, PLEASE GOD MAKE IT STOP” to finding the permanent ache of every muscle in my body oddly satisfying. And it’s never been as satisfying as it is right now. Fresh from a lengthy winter-to-spring plateau, I’ve been given renewed motivation and focus.

Aimg_3509 few weeks ago, on an uncharacteristic whim, I signed myself up to run the Royal Parks Half Marathon in aid of Together For Short Lives.

The cause is an incredible one: the UK’s biggest charity providing palliative care to children and young adults with life-shortening or life-threatening conditions – of which there are 49,000 in the UK. Together For Short Lives is there to help these children and their families as they are faced with unimaginably difficult illnesses.

Given that through the training I do with my running club I get to see what a difference health and fitness makes to young people’s lives, it strikes me as a particularly important cause. I’m reminded of what a privilege it is to have the freedom to go out and hit the pavements, or run around a 400-metre track for an hour. Not everyone’s pain is temporary. Not everyone’s struggle finishes on a high.

On a personal level, I’d been in need of a challenge, something to inspire and motivate me to really start pushing myself again. Immediately, once I’d signed up, it started to make a difference. I’ve been running quicker, going further, pushing harder and even eating better.

I’m hoping that soon I might be able to keep up with the entirety of Coach Dad’s Big, Tough Track Sessions, perhaps take on some cross-country kickassery and continue knocking my Parkrun PBs down a peg. For now, though, the priority is getting around 13.1 miles – preferably in a tidy two hours (yikes!) and to raise the all-important £1,200 target for Together For Short Lives.

If you’re able to spare a little cash to make all of those pavement pounding hours worth my while, please support my race and donate here.

Right. Well, I better go and do some core strength exercises. No time for rest!