Thursday, 29 December 2011


This has been a hard entry to write.

It's been ticking away in the back of my mind for several weeks now. Come clean, confess, discuss, a voice has whispered.

The Christmas period meant taking time off from writing, but if I'm honest the break was less to do with the busyness of family activities -- the tending to clamouring hyped-up children that makes this holiday so particularly un-restful -- and more to do with the fact that each time I attempted to write this post I felt queasy.

My discomfort is unrelated to the amount of mincemeat and cheese I have consumed recently, as is my wincing approach to the kitchen these days. But the source is indeed located at the fridge, which hums carelessly as though unaware of my torment. There, pinned in place by an array of colourful magnetic letters, is my marathon training plan, which I abandoned three weeks ago.

Just looking at what I've written makes me feel sick again. If only a salty glass of digestive medicine, or a chalky teaspoon of pink antacid gloop could cure it.

Outside it is iron-grey and hard cold. The tail-end of the month, the last gasp of the year. There is a sense of judgement all around: newspapers, television and online media are full of lists of what was good and bad in the last 12 months, who and what have succeeded and failed; assessments with the benefit of hindsight confidently outlining past events with a view to foretelling the next. Amid their chatter I have judged myself and I have found myself wanting. I am a hypocrite and a dissembler. Since extolling the life-changing and life-affirming joys of running here I have stopped running.

I'm not quite sure what happened.

At first I was under the weather and eased off. Then I was just exhausted, so indulged in a short break. My trainer had prepared a six-day-a-week plan which I just couldn't keep up with, so we changed it. After that, it was a busy period at work for my husband, who notched up so many late nights in his office that for me to actually leave our home full of sleeping children was impossible.

Then there was that terrible, terrible treadmill session, when my legs felt like they did not belong to me and would not move to my will, and my throat and chest burned with the effort and still I missed every time target for every mile on my training plan for that day. Soaked in sweat and dismay I thought: this is no longer what's helping me to keep going. It has become another task, another project to juggle along with all the other demands on my time, and another yardstick by which to measure my failings.

We are good at this, we women. In particular, there is a certain kind of mother who does this. When the job is not quite demanding enough, or when circumstances dictate that it must be downgraded, or even halted altogether, when the kids occupy every moment and their accomplishments, needs and desires rotate further up the list of priorities and the food shop and the laundry and the constant tidying and the to-do lists teeter higher and ever higher, the thing that is yours and yours alone -- the whatever it is you do to make time for yourself amid the hubbub -- becomes the thing that you do to prove to yourself that you still matter. That you've still got it. It becomes the thing that offsets that seam of gnawing constant anxiety, that thread of worry present throughout all the other activities, that voice that says "Is this it? Can I do more? Did I fail yet?" Thus the joy and the accomplishment of it turn to ash.

So I have stepped off the treadmill. I have looked through the pages of my diary and counted along to April 22 and so long as I start running again in the week of January 1 I still have time to complete a 16-week marathon training plan. I am not running and all I can think about is running. My not-running guilt is particularly toxic because the running is so interwoven with my maternal responsibilities: the act of putting one foot in front of the other has come to represent progress for Grace too, and when I am not doing it I feel as though the process of supporting her has also ground to a halt. But. When I think of putting on my running kit, something rebels and says no, not yet, I'm not ready again yet. On two occasions I have managed to get out of the door and jog six miles, which felt like utter fakery. According to the schedule on my fridge, I have missed three sessions of stamina-building hill sprints (find the nearest one and run up it as fast as possible, 20 times),  three sessions of speed-building interval training (walk, jog, run, sprint, over and over again) and two of those stomach-churning Long Runs -- I have not completed 11 miles or 12 miles over the last two Saturdays and am struck with fear to contemplate the 13 miles that is assigned to the day after tomorrow.

And lo, my body has taken control of the situation. It has succumbed to a thick cold that makes my teeth and eye sockets ache, my nose stream constantly, and my legs want no more challenge than that of walking upstairs to bed, where I am writing this. I am shivering despite the fact that the heating is turned up high enough to make the bedroom radiator groan and clank with effort and beads of condensation trace their way down clouded window panes.

While I hide under the covers and wait to get better and to run again, one thing above all else gives me hope. Over the last week or two a steady stream of generous donations to my fundraising pot has shown me that my family and friends still have faith. Their message that I won't let them down gives me the courage to believe it myself.

Monday, 19 December 2011

The lessons of a decade

These are the things I didn't know ten years ago:

that when I packed that little white suit and took it to the hospital, I really would be coming home with a baby girl in it

that my arms would know your size and weight from the moment you were given to me, as though I had always been waiting for you

that running my cheek across yours and inhaling your smell would be pleasure close to bliss

that you would still let me do this now

that you would always be so hard to wake up

except when you woke me first

that your eyes would be green and then brown and then topaz

that your eyelashes and nose would be exactly your father's and so too your expression of delighted mischief on learning another spectacularly bad joke

that I would be ready to fight tigers for you

but that balloons and hand-dryers would terrify you above all else

that I would come to know by heart the lyrics to many, many Disney songs and belt them out without shame

and that sometimes they would make me cry

and that sometimes sentimental adverts would make me cry

and that any books involving small girls in peril would make me cry

and that still I would underestimate how often the love of you would make me cry

that you would teach me how to draw the perfect mermaid

that you would teach me not to care when people look

that you would teach me infinite patience

and that you would teach me when it was time to start a riot

that I would always be a bit lonely when you weren't around

that being your mother would break my heart, several times over

and that being your mother would be the greatest achievement of my life

Happy Birthday darling Grace. Here's to the next ten years. xxxxxxxx

Monday, 12 December 2011

The art of tomfoolery

Grace is sitting at the dinner table with a scarf wrapped around her head. In front of her is a plate of my finest fish pie, untouched.

Opposite her and down at my side, Betty sits ramrod straight, holding herself tensely in anticipation. Her face, barely peeping over the tabletop, shines with merriment;  a tiny giggle, a bubble of glee, escapes from the back of her throat.

My girls are playing.

With a sudden flourish, Grace whips the material away from her face, revealing crazy eyebrows, crossed eyes and lolling tongue. On seeing this Betty gives a great shout -- delighted affirmation --  and collapses drunkenly against her seat, so overwhelmed by laughter that she can barely catch her breath.

At this point I intervene to ask if they will both please eat their food now, before it goes cold. Grace complies. Betty straightens up and reaches for her fork, but her eyes never leave Grace's face. With a stagey sigh, Grace flicks a strand of hair away from her shoulder and eats, but her eyes slide away with a deliberate skittishness that prompts another joyous gurgle from Betty, still watching eagerly for her next move.

Grace spears a piece of broccoli and goggles comically at it. It is all it takes for Betty to explode again into gales that leave her so weak she sags against me, hiccuping, afterwards.

"Come on now, enough," I say, a bit more firmly, and start spooning food into Betty, who is still prone and snickering softly beside me. Grace protests: "What? I didn't do anything!" but then breaks into a wide smile.

In the brief stillness, we all get on with the business of eating. Candles flicker on the table, the fire crackles in the sitting room behind us. Our reflections are ghostly dim in the subdued light, in the kitchen windows, splattered with rain from the storm outside. Across from me my husband catches my eye and smiles as he lifts his glass to drink.

My girls are playing and it brings me such pleasure that I hardly care, really, how much they eat, or whether they finish the meal at all. Hostilities have ceased. Grace has discovered that she can make Betty laugh. She has discovered how to watch her, to read her mood and coax those lovely noises of baby joy from her. Betty has discovered a clown, a tumbling jester behind her sister's often stern countenance. Suddenly the possibilities for revels seem limitless.

Once Betty's hiccups have abated, we move on to cake. Grace tells me a story as she eats, sketching out a scene between two of her latest imaginary characters. But as she talks, she draws everyone in: twinkling at Betty and her stepfather beside her, drawing gestures in the air and turning to us all to see what we think. She is holding court but she is entirely aware of all of us and taking her cues from our reactions. She smiles at Betty and sees her excitement as the little girl grins up at her, icing smeared across her chin. She smiles at me, and sees my enjoyment of her story warring with concern that she finish her meal.

As soon as they have cleared their plates and I have acknowledged their request to get down, Betty slips off her chair and trots -- pat, pat, pat in her slippers -- around to Grace's side.

"C'mon CeeCee," she says, and holds out her hand. Grace takes it and together they scurry into the sitting room. Just as they disappear from view I catch Grace executing a perfect pantomine pratfall onto the sofa, collapsing with an "Urgh!" that provokes an explosive guffaw from Betty.

So little, and yet so, so much. It is nothing. It is everything.

Monday, 5 December 2011

What have I got myself into?

So. Marathon training.

The clue's in the name.

When I decided to run the London Marathon I didn't give much thought to the process of preparation. Sure, I thought it would be pretty hard: you don't just get out of bed one day and run 26 miles without some kind of limbering-up process. (Well, you can, and people do; but they're usually the ones on a stretcher or on the ground somewhere around mile twelve.)

Way back in June I asked my friend Kate -- who has run the marathon in a time that makes grown men blanch -- what the training involved and just how tough it would be. She laughed and said: "You just run. And run. Then you keep running. And you eat lots of bananas."

So I started running. Somewhere in the early months -- back in summer, those lovely days of sunlight that I took so much for granted -- I realised that getting a marathon place wasn't as straightforward as I had expected. Naively, I had imagined some kind of scenario in which I would step forward proudly, perhaps slightly bashfully ("No, really, don't clap") and giving a gracious nod, announce my participation, upon which grateful organisers would deferentially usher me in, perhaps shaking my hand and patting my back.

In reality I had to put my name into a ballot, pay a fee  -- refundable, but only if I was too much of a miser to donate it to charity -- and hope to beat the odds to be one of the lucky ones. Everyone I told regaled me with tales of people who had applied for years with no success.

I then realised (it's all in the research, folks: aren't you glad I've done yours for you?) that if I wanted to run the marathon for the National Autistic Society, I needed to apply to them separately. So again I stepped up, filled in the form, and waited to hear trumpets. Thank you very much, they told me, we'll be making our decision in a couple of months and we'll get back to you.

So I ran the Royal Parks half-marathon to feel like I was doing something while I waited: to get strong for Grace, to tell people what her life is like, to run away the stress, to secure that place on the NAS marathon team and to prepare for the biggest physical challenge of my life.

And here it is.

What they don't tell you is that marathon training is basically running in the dark. (Unless you don't work and can fit it in during the day, in which case you have it easy my friend: go and look for running sympathy elsewhere.)

There are several options around running in the dark. You can run in the dark in the morning, before work, when the streets are cold and silent. You can run in the dark in the evening, once work is over and the kids are fed and bathed and put to bed, when the streets are cold and silent and every window you pass frames an imagined scene of cosiness and languor. You can also pretend you're not running in the dark -- there are a couple of options here. You can run on a treadmill with the light on, forcing wakeful cheer as you grind away on the spot in the spare room and outside the streets are cold and silent apart from slightly hysterical marathon runners who are at least breathing fresh air and watching passing scenery rather than that unloved armchair and the clothes rack. Or you can run outside with your eyes shut. This one doesn't work.

The exception to running in the dark is the weekend, when you get to stride out under brighter skies (or grey skies, or rainy skies, or windy ones.) This is bliss, not least because running in daylight means parks and woods are safe again and you can pace to the sound of leaves crunching or birds singing: even in inclement weather the drip of rain on trees and grass is infinitely preferable to the dreary patter of it on pavements. The downside of this is that it's your Long Run (this is the only run that other runners want to know about: "How far did you go for your Long Run?" "Long Run this weekend? How did it go?") So after a while running in daylight seems like less of a gift when it means you have to keep going for 10, 11, 12 miles. In the New Year these runs will reach 18, 19, 20 and I will have to set aside three hours or more and take a packed lunch.

But here's the thing. It's very, very hard, and it's daunting, and quite often these days I have a feeling in my stomach close to fear or panic when I consider what I've got myself into (six million television viewers in the UK alone are enough to give you stage fright, even if you are going to be running alongside 34,999 other people.) But then I will go out for a training run, and out of nowhere, magic happens.

It might be that I remember the money I raise will go towards giving worried parents advice via the Autism Helpline, or pay for a friend to regularly meet someone who has autism, or give practical support to someone with autism who is looking for work.

It might be that while I'm slogging along painfully I remember that Grace often feels the same way as she struggles to get to grips with school work, or understand the social cues of her friends, and that she doesn't get a day off, or the option to stay at home and eat chocolate on the sofa.

Or it might just be the huge adrenaline rush that kicks in sometimes and makes me laugh aloud with joy as I sprint and remember that the last anti-depressant I took was six months ago.

So yes, marathon running is excruciating, and monotonous and humbling.

But it's also the best thing that's ever happened to me. So if you'll excuse me, I've got to go and eat some bananas.