Sunday, 12 March 2017

Arabian Adventures! Part 1

Hello, I'm back! Hard to believe that I haven't written a blog post for nearly four years, because I really enjoy writing, and this means that I've not been doing something I love for all that time. A shame, I need to get into the habit of doing weekly blog posts again - looking back over some of my earlier posts, I always have something to say and blogging is a good way to capture what's going on in my world. I don't really mind if no one reads what I write, I like to write for the sake of writing and capturing stuff. 

As you can imagine, a lot's happened in the last four years. My mum died in September 2013 and in February 2014, I made the decision to re-train as a primary school teacher. The two events were inter-linked, well not so much my mum dying but the time I spent with her in the hospital during the last six months of her life was a direct influence on my career decision. There are so many blog posts to be written from that time but I'll have to do those later, my reason for returning to my blog is because we've recently returned from a family jaunt to Saudi Arabia and there's so much to write about that trip that it inspired me to fire up the blog again! Well actually, it was my niece Nadia who asked me to write about the trip and I thought, "What a great idea!" and committed to doing so.

This will be a long post (as my posts often are) so I suggest you make a cup of tea, grab some biscuits and settle down for the read. Also, an explanation of terms I'll use. In the paragraph above, I referred to my niece Nadia. She's actually the daughter of my first cousin. I'm not sure what you'd call her in the UK, maybe a first cousin twice removed or a second cousin once removed or something like that, it'd be a mouthful whatever it is. So, for the sake of ease, when I refer to my cousin's children, I'll refer to them as niece or nephew - they call me 'khala' which means aunt and it makes sense to us. However, I'm slightly alarmed by the fact that one of my nieces now has children so technically, in Pakistani eyes, I'm now a grandma or a great-aunt at least. That bit concerns me as it makes me feel quite old! 

Back to the main reason for this post, our Arabian adventures. By our, I mean me, my two sisters and my dad. We'd never planned to go on this adventure together, it wasn't on our bucket-list and we were all busy taking our separate holidays over the years. But for quite a few years, I'd been trying to find some way of getting into Saudi Arabia to visit my aunt, my mum's beloved older sister Mariam, who I'm also very close to. I last saw her in 2008 and I was getting increasingly desperate to see her, especially after my mum died. There were conversations I needed to have, questions I wanted to ask but most of all, I just wanted to spend time hanging out and chatting. But as a lone female trying to get into the Kingdom, it's practically impossible to get a visa, unless you're travelling with 'mahram'. This is a close male relative (actually defined as someone you couldn't marry as it would be incestuous - this does not include first cousins as in Islam they can marry - and some of my first cousins have), so in my case would be my dad, brother or even my 16-year old nephews! I wasn't planning on travelling with any of them so I kept going round in circles, trying to find a solution. But as they say, 'where there's a will, there's a way' and I asked my nephew Taha (my aunt's grandson and someone who'd grown up in Saudi) to look into possible ways for me to enter the country alone, maybe a business visa or something like that. 

Last June, Taha put me in contact with a London-based travel agent who might be able to help with Saudi visas. After a long conversation, I discovered that there was a way! As I'm over 45 (I know, hard to believe), I could join a 'ladies group' made up of two or more women and we would be allowed into the Kingdom without male chaperones. The agent said I could join a group that was already going but the problem with that was that, as a teacher, I'm strictly limited to travelling during school holidays and dates might not work. The only alternative was to make my own group. I've got two sisters, Rahila and Alia, so I asked them if they wanted to come with me. They both replied yes immediately and then we decided to take my dad too as it would be a bit mean to leave him behind when the three of us would be travelling to Saudi. The strand of family we'd be visiting on the trip we're very close to - my aunt has a daughter Bushra who lived with us for a couple of years in the mid-80s while she studied on a beauty therapy course. At the time she had two children, Sana and Taha, and we all spent many hours together back then. I'm sure this is the reason why we have such close bonds and ties now, that time living together and subsequent summer holidays in London when they'd come and stay, together with a third child Omar, who was born after the family left London and returned to Saudi. 

At around the same time that we decided we'd be visiting Saudi, Omar was fixing dates for his wedding. Originally he'd planned it for the end of February 2017 but we wouldn't be able to attend as we could only travel during February half term so he very kindly changed the dates of his wedding to when we'd be there. We now had a trip made up of quality time with family, a wedding and the final part - umrah - this is a mini pilgrimage to Mecca and something you're expected to do when you visit Saudi (even for a not-very-religious person like myself), especially as the visa we would be getting was an 'umrah' visa. I don't think tourist visas or visitors visas exist in the country yet... 

It was fun planning the trip with my sisters. We took on different roles - Alia booked the flights, I arranged the visas and Rahila picked up the visas and passports. My dad just had to turn up! The first thing we were going to do when we arrived was go for 'umrah' and my other cousin S1 had said she'd accompany us. I felt a little nervous as I'm not religious and I can find it a little uncomfortable being around mega-religious types and S1 is like that. The week before the trip found me consulting YouTube for videos on how to do the prayers as I'd never been taught properly as a child and had never felt the need to learn as an adult. It's amazing what you can learn from YouTube, with the help of a little cartoon character, I have now learnt the sequence for praying!

En-route to Jeddah - just before the plane took off. It was at this point that we realised that four out of five adults from our family were flying together and if anything happened to the plane (i.e. if we died), everything could potentially be left to my brother as me and my sisters don't have wills. We quickly wrote and sent email wills, acting as witnesses to each other, just in case anything happened to us! 

If you're going to do 'umrah' as soon as you arrive in the country, you have to make your intention at a certain point while still in the air, known as 'meeqaat'. This means being in the appropriate clothes you have to wear (ihraam). For me and my sisters it was okay as we just had to put an abaya over our clothes and make sure our heads/hair was covered and we could do that when we had a short stopover in Bahrain. For my dad, he had to get changed on the plane from Bahrain to Jeddah. Basically he had to take off all his clothes and then wrap two towels around him, one around his waist and the other draped over one shoulder. Rahila had to take him to the back of the plane to help him get ready. Poor guy, he normally wears a few layers and there he was half naked, wearing a couple of towels! My biggest concern was what if his towels fell off and he was left naked on the plane or at the airport! 

 Three sisters ready for 'umrah'.

My dad wearing his 'ihraam' at Jeddah airport. We had to wait about an hour as Alia's suitcase had gone to the wrong terminal. My dad was so cold without his layers we had to wrap all our coats around him.

Once we were picked up from the airport by Taha and his dad Rasheed, we went to their flat where we'd be staying - big family reunion. Oh the joy of seeing my aunt again! I don't think she could believe that we were actually there - she'd never ever dreamed that her little sister's three daughters would all come together to visit her and there we were. It was joyful seeing members of my mum's family as I hadn't seen anyone since she'd died but it didn't take long for the tears to start trickling...

After eating and sleeping, we woke in the evening and got ready to go for 'umrah'. What we ate before we went was very important and discussed carefully. "Nothing too spicy," said S1. I didn't understand the relevance of this and it had to be explained to me. Basically, when you go for umrah, you'll also say prayers at Mecca. Before you say any prayers, you have to do 'wuzu' - a ritual for washing and preparing yourself for prayer. There are various things that can 'break' your wuzu and you have to do it again before you pray. Included in the long list is farting. If you fart, your wuzu is broken and you have to do it again. That's why no spicy food! 

I think at this point I should discuss my feelings on religion. I'm not religious, never have been, and as much as various family members try and make me more religious, I don't think it's going to happen. Many reasons why, which are a blog post in themselves. I do believe that if you're very religious, no matter which religion, it's best to follow what you believe but not try and force others. What I don't have much time for is what I consider the nonsense. People taking things so far that you put religion ahead of harmony and good relations. People in my family are of varying degrees of religiousness - my cousin S1 and her younger sister S2 are both pretty religious and some of the things they say/think are frankly a bit bonkers. One thing I heard was that as my dad and Bushra's husband Rasheed are not 'mahram' to S1 and S2, and so they'd have to be wearing their hijab at all times (or maybe the niqab which covers the whole face, apart from the eyes), it was proposed that my dad and Rasheed stay in a small room in the flat for the duration for the week so that S1 and S2 could move freely without being covered up. To me this is ridiculous! S1 lived in our home for a number of years when she was a teenager and S2 will have visited us in London and stayed at our house - my dad is used to seeing them dressed respectably but not all covered up like ninjas! I'm glad this suggestion of my dad being put in a room didn't actually happen as I would have been pretty angry if anyone had tried to implement it!

I like going to visit places of worship, regardless of the religion. I find them calm, peaceful and spiritual. I am always respectful when I go to places of worship and behave in an appropriate manner. Going to Mecca for 'umrah' was never going to be any different to that. I took learning my prayers seriously and I studied what we'd have to do, beforehand. As part of the cleansing process before going, you have to remove all body hair - I even went and got a Hollywood even though I did question that - who's going to know? However, I did object to S2 telling me that the leggings I wore under my abaya weren't okay because a tiny bit of my ankles were showing and someone might see them! But my abaya comes down to the floor, in fact it drags on the floor so no one is going to see my ankles. And if they do, so what? This is the nonsense that I don't understand. S1 told me I couldn't take photos at Mecca, suggesting that I might start taking selfies. At this point I got annoyed but kept it reined in. These sorts of things spoil the experience for me...

By the time we got to Mecca, it was 1am and although there were other people doing umrah, it wasn't too busy. I felt quite excited seeing the Ka'ba for the first time - here's this place of worship that I've known about all my life, that Muslims from all around the world have visited for hundreds (maybe thousands) of years and perform the same rituals. That in itself it pretty incredible to me. People save all their lives to come and do this and there I was with my two sisters, about to embark on our first umrah. The first thing you do is 'Tawaaf' - you circle Ka'ba seven times in an anti-clockwise direction, raising your right hand as you go past the Black Stone. I said to my sisters that I wanted to get quite close to Ka'ba as it wasn't very busy and I wanted to experience it fully, so the first Tawaaf we did, we were very close to the Ka'ba. At one point, we saw lots of people touching the Ka'ba and I wanted to do that too. S1 said we couldn't do that as there were men there and they might touch you (accidently, not intentionally) and that wasn't okay. I went ahead up to the Ka'ba and put my hand on the black surface. It was fine, no one touched me but actually when we were doing the other Tawaafs, there was a lot of pushing and jostling, people seem to have left their manners outside of Mecca. So, you get unintentionally touched by men who aren't your 'mahram' when you circle the Ka'ba but no one says anything about that!

The next thing you do is walk between two mountains, Safa and Marwah, seven times. This is less strenuous than it sounds as it's all inside with air conditioning. At this point, I broke away from the others as I wanted a bit of quiet time to myself to experience everything. Plus, S1 kept telling off people who were taking photos and that was embarrassing... Once that was completed, the last thing you had to do was cut your hair. A lot of men shave their heads completely but we decided against my dad doing that (he'd also come and done umrah but in a wheelchair as it would be too much for him otherwise) so it was just a lock of hair cut off. And then you're done! 

I did sneak in some photos!


 Part 2 of the Arabian Adventures will be about Saudi weddings! Coming soon!

Monday, 29 April 2013

London Marathon 2013

On Marathon morning last Sunday, I woke up at 5am when the alarm rang. This surprised me as normally when I have to wake up early for something important, I wake up at least three or four times in the night to check I haven't overslept! At least it meant I'd slept well. 

Breakfast was my normal porridge with rice milk, honey, blueberries and seeds (pumpkin, sunflower and chia). I had a couple of slices of toast with butter and made a smoothie to take with me - mango, pineapple, banana and spinach with flax seed. Although I thought I'd been really organised, I still found myself doing last-minute things before I left the house. *note to self - have absolutely everything organised 2 days before a big race so there is nothing to do on the day or the day before...

I wanted to catch the 7.40 train from Peckham Rye to London Bridge and then I'd hop on one of the special train services to Blackheath. Stepped out of the house at 7.20, walked round to the bus stop only to find no buses. Well not for another 12 or so minutes which meant catching the train would be tight. Started walking the half mile to another bus stop where there'd be more buses. Things weren't going as smoothly as I would have liked and I could feel myself getting flustered. But a random passer-by wished me "good luck" when he saw my race number and bag and that was lovely. Plus it looked like we were going to be lucky with the weather so something else to make me smile.

Got to the station on time, hopped on the train to Blackheath and by 8.10, I was there. The place was already teeming with people heading towards the various start areas. You could feel the buzz and excitement in the air! I was having pre-race nerves of the loo kind. Or 
maybe I should say the poo kind. If you're going to be running for any length of time, you need to make sure you've been already as the movement of running acts like a powerful laxative. And when you need to go, you need to go quickly! I went into the cafe where I would be meeting others from Run Dem Crew. I was going to have a coffee but thought I'd check the loo situation before I ordered. No loos. Great! I wandered out in search. Luckily there were a couple of tardis toilets just across the road with a small queue of runners so I went and joined them. It took a while but finally I was in the tardis and just in time as my stomach had been making ominous rumblings when I'd been stood in the queue. I couldn't work out how to get out of the tardis though so a moment of panic pressing what I thought was the exit button but not being able to get out. Finally realised I'd been pressing the wrong button...

Back to the cafe and time to enjoy a nice coffee while I waited for the others. I had a missed call from my friend Eileen who was also running the Marathon. Gave her a call back. She'd just arrived in Greenwich and was as excited as a little kid on Christmas Day. Eileen's been a great source of inspiration to me, not just because of her endless enthusiasm and infectious excitement over running but also because when she ran her first marathon back in 2008, she finished in just under 5 hours. Now, she's completing in around 3.40 so that gives me a lot of hope that I too can become as fast as her. 

At 9 it was time to meet the others from Run Dem Crew. 3 of us were running (Leanne, Chippy and me) and the rest were there to give support and encouragement. This is one of the many things that I love about the Crew - the support, love and friendship given before, during and after a race. It's really special and means a lot to me. The first couple of races I ran (Brighton Half this year and last) I was on my own for the start and that can be lonely. While I loved the race itself, I felt envious of people who had running friends to run with. Now that I'm part of this wonderful crew, running is no longer a solitary thing. 

Once we were all assembled we headed up towards the start areas. Leanne and I peeled off to go to the Red start and the others went up to the Blue start with Chippy. By the time we got there we had about fifteen minutes to drop bags, make one final trip to the loo and head to the right pen. At both the Half  Marathons I've run this year, I've found myself in a slow moving toilet queue literally minutes before the race started. A stressful start to a race and something I didn't want to repeat again. I decided to take my chances and forget that final trip to the loo.

I headed to my pen and found the 9.46 minute mile pacers at the back. After chatting to my running/marathon coach Chris, we'd decided the best race strategy would be to run with these pacers, ideally until the end of the race. That would have me finishing in 4.15 hours. If I was tiring towards the end, I could drop back to the 10.18 pacer where I'd finish in 4.30. That was the game plan and one I should have been able to do as I'd run my fastest Half Marathon in 2.06. But it was already warm and my long-sleeved layer that I was going to wear for the first 10 minutes while I warmed up was removed before we'd even got started. I'm warm and we're standing still? After training through a horribly cold winter, this was a novel encounter.

As we stood around chatting, there was the sound of a whistle being blown. This was the signal to mark the start of the 30-second silence for Boston. The chattering stopped immediately and we observed the silence. The end was also marked by the whistle and a huge cheer erupted all through the pens. And then it was time for the race to start. We shuffled forwards slowly towards the start line. Normally I'm feeling nervous at this point but I felt quite calm. You're still faced with tackling the unknown but no point panicking now. If you haven't done enough training, you're only going to find out on the road...

Finally we were off! I'd decided to run with a pacer to stop me going off too fast at the start. Normally the first few miles of a race I'd run at 9 minute miles and slow down later. I was expecting to feel like I was holding myself back, really reining in the energy and speed. Instead I found I had to work hard to maintain the pace. Plus a lot of people ahead of us were running slower than as so there was a lot of slowing down, speeding up and trying to get round people. Slightly frustrating to overtake people who'd already decided to walk in the early stages of the race. Walking is absolutely fine but if that's what you plan to do, do the right thing and start in the right pen! I found it strange that I was finding the pace hard so early on, that was completely unexpected. I was expecting to frolic along like a spring lamb so I could only put it down to the strangely warm weather.

At the 3-mile mark, I popped a couple of Clif shot blocks into my mouth. As soon as they'd gone down I wanted to throw up. Oh great, I'm feeling hot and bothered trying to run at a pace that should be ok for me and now I'm feeling sick too. The race wasn't going well and I wasn't enjoying things. Trying to stick with the pacer was becoming stressful. You were more focused on the man with a flag in his backpack than the crowds cheering you on. I stuck with him for another mile or so and then let him slip away. I slowed down a little, moved to the left of the runners and remembered the words of Charlie Dark, founder and leader of Run Dem Crew - smile, enjoy the race, high-5 some kids! The minute I started doing this, I found myself enjoying things. Phew, that was a relief - I didn't want to run over 20 miles hating every minute of it. 

At around Mile 5 I caught the Taiko drummers. This was special as I always loved hearing Taiko drums when I lived in Japan. As we ran into Greenwich the crowds got bigger and bigger, all clapping and cheering. By this point I was running round with a permanent grin on my face, waving at the TV cameras. Although I realised I was running behind a tall Womble and perhaps it was better to run in front of him for maximum photo/filming opportunities.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Inspire A Generation - Part 2

Part Two of my Olympics review. One thing I forgot to mention in the previous review was how I loved the Olympics finding it's way into my everyday routines. For the past two weeks my Saturday morning 5k run at Park Run in Brockwell Park has had an Olympic connection. The first week (morning after the Opening Ceremony), as I was stretching before the run, I spotted a woman dressed in the nurse's outfit from the Opening Ceremony. I walked over for a chat and to hear her experiences on taking part in the Ceremony - she was ecstatic, I don't think she'd been to bed but she'd turned up for the run in her costume and trainers and was invited to start at the front of the pack - a great photo opportunity! Last Saturday at Park Run as I stood stretching, waiting for the run to start, two guys came up to me and said "Is this a race?". I explained to them what Park Run was and how they could run, even though they hadn't registered. They were from Finland, over for the Olympics and we had a fun few minutes before the start of the run chatting about the Olympics. I asked them what they thought so far of London hosting and they were full of praises - great to hear! For the last couple of weeks, every time I've got on a bus or a train or a tube there's inevitably been one of the Olympic Games Makers on board too. The thousands of volunteers in their distinct purple and red uniforms have done an incredible job of welcoming people to the Games and I'm sure a large part of the success so far have been these happy, positive faces getting involved with the greatest show on earth!

Last weekend, there seemed to be a collective shift in consciousness. Millions had watched Team GB's outstanding performance on the Saturday and by the Sunday, people were taking to social media to demand Team GB athletes to be the role models for the nation (particularly the next generation), not the talentless twerps of reality TV and premier league football players. We've seen what true champions look like, we know that the medals have come as a result of their commitment, dedication, perseverance and sheer hard work - and these are the qualities needed for true success, regardless of your discipline. As a nation we've become obsessed with the minute details of the lives of Z-list celebs. You know something, this is not in the least bit inspiring or engaging, actually it's down-right depressing that people are so caught up in the lives of people where it seems to be one car crash after another. Who cares if Kerry Katona has a new man, or what Jordan is up to or if Chantelle and Alex are together or not? Why have we become so obsessed with how much cellulite someone has or what they look like with no make up on - as a nation we have become very dumbed down in the last decade or so and unfortunately reality TV has it's part to play. Talentless no-bodies can become famous but what exactly are they doing to inspire the next generation, how are they teaching kids what it takes to be a real success in the world? 

 As a nation we lap it all up, littering our language with phrases from TOWIE or Made In Chelsea or some other inane programme. The media are not to blame entirely, if we didn't have such an appetite for such drivel, it wouldn't be fed to us in such vast quantities. It'll be interesting to see the impact the Olympics has on the nation once it's all over. Will we go back to being who we were or will the incredible success of these games be the catalyst to immense changes to wash over the nation? I sincerely hope it's the latter. I love the Olympics motto "Inspire a Generation" because I know how important it is to inspire the next generation. Every one of us can do something to inspire the next generation and we should. I'm one of the lucky ones, I had some people speak some magic words to me when I was 18 - "You will achieve anything you set your mind to" (If you want to know the background to the story, you can find it elsewhere on this blog) and those words were the catalyst to so much. I've never forgotten how some people's belief in me shaped my life and there comes a point when you do what you can to pass that forwards. I don't know what that's going to look like for me but I know the desire to do something is burning strong so I will find a way...

These Olympics have done so much to portray a positive image of GB around the world. I wasn't sure what these Olympics would be like, never in a million years did I imagine that we'd pull it off so well. I'm going to be completely honest here, when we won the bid in 2005 I did think "oh god, that's going to be a joke, it's going to be horribly embarrassing and the whole world will be watching..." - and I'm one of life's more positive, optimistic people! You think about our joke politicians and our joke transport system and the usual mood of the country which is negative and whiney and lacking in belief. Yet the collective efforts of everyone involved in putting on these Olympics has created something so incredibly special, you feel so very proud to be British! Danny Boyle's Opening Ceremony was a masterpiece, brilliant, bonkers and so very British! He got it right by picking out all the things that make Britain great and creating his wonderful montage. 

The feedback from around the world is something to be proud of, here's what a few people have had to say about the Games:

"It's beautiful here. The weather's great; the people are awesome; the venues are great; everywhere I've been has been packed. I think it's some of the best Games" - Teresa Edwards, Team USA Head of Delegation

"We had a report back from the Association of Summer Olympic International Federation, and they can be pretty tough at times - where they said this was probably the best games they had ever been to" - Mark Adams, International Olympic Committee

The crowds packing out the stadiums are largely British but they'll happily cheer on all the nations - although the loudest cheers are naturally for Team GB! These Olympics have ignited the true British spirit and it's up for all of us to carry this on for years to come!

Monday, 6 August 2012

Inspire a generation! Part 1

So that's the first week of the London Olympics over and what a week it's been! Many thoughts rushing through my head which is why I'm here, seeing if I can capture them and see where they lead to. The first thing I have to say is how incredibly warm and friendly everyone seems to have become over the past week - there is a real buzz in the city that you can embrace or ignore (it's up to you). It's as if we've been sprinkled with gold dust and rediscovered how much fun it is to grin as we get behind our nation's sporting heroes - and the sporting heroes from the 203 other nations taking part in the Olympics! I was at the Women's Marathon yesterday and while Team GB had two runners, we didn't think it'd be a repeat performance of Saturday night. But the route was crammed with cheerers and flag wavers and every runner got the same rapturous applause, with some of the loudest cheers saved for the runner at the end of the race. The Team GB girls did get a thunderous reception, everyone around me whooping and hollering and shouting at the tops of their voices. It was a sight to behold! 

I have loved how you take up your spot at the side of a race and then get chatting to the people around you - the people of London happily chatting to random strangers, this really is remarkable! Or maybe it's that I like talking to random strangers (weren't we warned against this when we were kids?) and suddenly with the Olympics upon us, it's okay to strike up conversation with anyone and people will engage. I got chatting to a couple of ladies who were sheltering from the rain behind me. They had their cameras with them and I had a great spot and no camera so I offered to make room for them so they could get some good shots. We discovered a mutual love of running and races and shared our experiences, the conversation then moved along to taking things you love and turning them into your work - and we're going to stay in touch via Facebook!

It's not just me who's doing this though - the Olympics seem to be giving people the chance to strike up conversations and communicate with the people around them, people they might never speak to otherwise. I ended up watching the Men's 100m Final in some dodgy looking pub in the Elephant and Castle, the sort of place that hasn't been spruced up and gentrified and is the meeting place for generations of locals. This wasn't planned - I'd driven to the Elephant that morning and left the car there as I headed in to watch the Marathon. As I headed back south after the race and an afternoon with friends experiencing sound and energy healing, I forgot I had the car and took the Hipster Express back to Forest Hill - and just before I got off the train, realised that the car was still at the Elephant. Detour back there and all the while trying to work out if I'd have enough time to drive back to East Dulwich before Mr Bolt hit our screens. Time was getting tight and I decided to stay put at the Elephant which is how I ended up in the dodgy looking pub. I sat at the bar, looking up at the screen and heard this gruff voice behind me say "Is this the 100m final love?" and turned to find one of the locals also staring up at the screen. We got chatting about the Olympics and the incredible run of gold medals the night before and he kept telling me how fantastic these games were - we both felt very proud to be Londoners!

Last Wednesday I took my 14-year old nephew Adil to see the cycling time trail road race as it came through Hampton. We'd been to the Olympic Park on the Tuesday to see the swimming and as we wandered round the park and made our way to the Aquatic Centre, he said to me "this is awesome, thank you for bringing me" - I knew we had to experience as much of the Olympics as possible (hence the time trial the next day) - even though it meant him having to get up early again! We got to Hampton early and followed the crowds to find a good spot where you would be able to see both the Women's and Men's races. Once in place, we discovered that the ladies to the right of us were streaming the rowing on their phone and so we got to see Team GB win their first gold amongst a crowd of people. As we all jumped and shouted in celebration, the people opposite us realised what had just happened and you could see the ripple of celebration pass through the crowds! We chatted to the cycling fan from Cambridge who had followed Bradley Wiggin's career for quite a few years and the girl over from Canada supporting both Team GB and Team Canada. The incredibly organised mother and daughter team shared the list of riders with us so we knew who was coming next (my level of organising consisted of knowing where the race was and what time it started so we relied heavily on the information carried by those around us). Once the race started, Adil found himself giving photo taking advice to the lady next to him - she ended up getting some great shots following his tips. And while we all clapped and cheered every rider in the Women's and Men's race, for most people there, it was all about Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins. As Chris Froome came through Kingston, you could hear a crescendo of cheering well before you could see the motorcycle outrider just in front of him. He was past us in a flash but the crowds were going crazy! 

We only had to wait a few minutes more before man of the moment Wiggo came blazing through. The roar of noise that greeted him was deafening but I hope that just helps the performance, not hinders! Cheering, clapping, whooping and hollering - I think Adil may even have cheered a bit. The day before in the Aquatic Centre he expressed his excitement by lightly stamping his feet, none of the screaming and shouting and over-excitement of his aunt next to him! The atmosphere was exhilarating but once the final rider was past, it was time to head back to Waterloo with the herd of people all going  in that same direction. We'd been stood a few kilometres away from the end of the race so as we weaved our way back through the crowds towards the station, the race finished a little distance away. We knew we'd won gold by the cheer erupting  from the house we walked past - it was a special moment! As we got into London and I rushed over east for rehearsals for the Paralympic Opening Ceremony, the tube driver announced that we'd won two gold medals that day - and I felt flushed with excitement that I'd seen one practically happening. 

Saturday night and it was all about the athletics. I knew we were in with a chance for another two gold medals so to come away with three in the space of an hour was amazing! Jessica Ennis we salute you - what an incredible role model you are for young girls all around you, such an inspiration! I know the BBC are supposed to be impartial but when the BBC presenter said "Jessica Ennis we love you" I think he was captured the sentiment of the nation. And then it was all about Mo Farah in the 10,000 metres. But hang on, what's this happening? The Men's Long Jump final and a certain Greg Rutherford with his super unique starting style (loving the finger movements and the step back before he commences the sprint) looking like he's going to take another gold for Team GB. And he did it! Now, could it be a hat-trick for us? We watched that 10,000m race with bated breath, wondering if Mo Farah could out-run the African long distance runners. In the first few laps I wasn't sure, willing him to do it (along with millions of others) but wondering if he would. And then the bell to announce the final lap and what a tense time it was! We were all standing up, screaming at the TV "come on Mo, you can do it, keep going" and the giddying rise in excitement as he broke free to lead the race, closely followed by his friend and American training partner Galen Rupp. GB and USA take gold and silver and show the world that it is possible to break the dominance of the Africans in long distance running - what a moment, what a night! 

Straight after it was brilliant to see people take to social media to express what they'd just seen, history in the making! I think the world of social media where people have a running commentary on what they're watching on TV is a little strange but straight after the races, I was on Facebook. The comments and status updates were a delight, capturing the joy of so many I know. I loved the fact that some of the Olympic miserablists had been converted by the sheer excitement of what they'd seen, who would have wanted to miss out on such a moment? I would have loved to have been at the stadium but I think I may have spontaneously combusted with all the excitement so probably good to watch it at home. Others were inspired to take up some form of sport and it'll be fascinating to see what these Olympics do for the psyche of the nation. While our athletes were bringing us such immense joy, pride and excitement in the Olympic Park, over in Cardiff our overpaid arrogant footballers lost to South Korea on penalties. Oh dear oh dear, there is something topsy turvy in the world of sport....

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Brighton Half Marathon - 17 days to go....

12 miles - where the endorphins really kicked in!

I get it, I get what this running lark is all about now, I can see why people get a little addicted to it. Never thought I'd turn into a running junkie but it appears to have happened. I'm actually looking forward to the Brighton Half Marathon and already thinking of my first Marathon - now will it be London, Paris or New York?

I did the 12 mile run last Saturday. If I'm completely honest, I was a little apprehensive about it. Not because of the distance but because I suffered so much after the 11 mile run the week before. I was concerned about feeling like that again. Plus I had a blind date (of sorts) the next day and I really didn't want to find myself walking like someone who was about 97. Nor did I want to struggle to stay awake. Post 11 mile run, I could barely move. A combination of extremely stiff muscles and immense tiredness. On the Sunday I didn't wake until after midday - I thought I was being lazy but I think my body was actually taking cover from attack! In between 11 and 12 miles, my training trailed off. I didn't choose that, it just happened like. Which meant that after the 11 mile run on the Saturday, I didn't run again until Wednesday (and it was little 3 mile run). I actually felt better for having a rest. Still didn't stop me from feeling mildly apprehensive about doing the 12 mile run, especially as when the day came, I was awake from 4 in the morning. Not due to the run - I've been waking at this time a lot recently - last week it happened 4 times. I've given up trying to fight it or get back to sleep - there's too much adrenaline so I've started doing work at 5 in the morning, sat in bed with my laptop - weirdly I seem to concentrate best if I'm up with the birds!

My last couple of long runs I've done in Dulwich Park but I decided to go back to Peckham Rye as I much prefer running on that open space. As I can't count laps or keep track of distance on the Rye, I thought I'd keep running for as long as I could before I checked my gizmo (the name I've given to the gadget to measure distance, time etc). I started running and found myself enjoying it somewhat. I kept running and running, oblivious to the distance I'd done. Somewhere around the 7 mile mark, I noticed a change - I felt like I could just keep going on and on and on. My breathing was much deeper, as if I was using bits of my lungs I'd never accessed before (or certainly not while running). I actually felt high and stayed this way until about the 10 mile mark. It did feel quite amazing! A bit like when I felt as if golden champagne bubbles were cascading through my body once when I was on my 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat. I guess these are the endorphins people talk about....

I was so into the running that by the time I checked my gizmo, I was close to the 9 mile mark. How did that happen? My legs weren't hurting, my lungs weren't hurting, everything felt very different to the previous week, particularly at distance. The last 3 miles were great and I listened carefully to what my body was telling me it wanted. Some lucozade as soon as I'd finished and a soak in the bath. I decided that it was time for a little bit of pampering - I'm asking so much of my body with all this running that I do need to give it a bit of tlc. I put some of the Arbonne re-mineralising bath soak in the water and then used 3 different scrubs (face, body and feet) for additional pampering. I don't normally like baths, well I do but I end up getting too hot and having to stand up to cool down again but not this time. The hot water heated up my muscles and it was just what I wanted. I was anticipating the big tired feeling after this but you know what, it never came. In fact I felt positively energised!

Post-run I had a think about why this one had felt so good. Not running so much in the week made a big difference. I've been following my training plan religiously but perhaps wasn't giving my body the rest it needed. A couple of days without running does work wonders. I know I can run the distance (even if I don't do it before the big day) - now it's all about finding out the things that help make it a great experience! I started doing some yoga every morning, maybe about 10 minutes of sun salutations A and B. A great way to start the day and the extended stretching in my legs stopped the muscles from contracting as soon as I finished my long run. The yoga also helped to build upper arm strength which meant my arms didn't ache while I was running. I also made sure I had pasta and bread the night before, increasing my carb intake and this clearly helped with my energy levels. It's been interesting learning these things as I go along, seeing how a run goes and then making changes - there is something to be said for tracking your progress, no matter what you do!

Just over two weeks to go. The focus has to be on fund raising now - my minimum target was £225 and I've reached that but the goal I've set for myself is £1000. And you know something, if I can get myself up to running a Half Marathon, I can certainly raise at least £1000 for Pass It On Africa!

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Brighton Half Marathon - 9 miles, 10 miles, 11 miles....

Brighton Half Marathon - 29 days to go!

Although this is supposed to function as my online running diary, sadly I haven't written for the last three weeks. I have run though so at least I'm doing the important things! 4 weeks away from race day and I promise I will write more regularly. Since my last post, my running has progressed from 9 miles to 10 miles to 11 - each has been quite different so let me tell you about it.

9 miles - where I hit Runner's Wall

The week after my 8-mile run, I was feeling very off-kilter. I put it down to a very close friend moving overseas and me being more upset than I thought I would be. Either that or I was channeling her stress (and she had been very stressed) after the move, hence feeling absolutely dreadful. It's usually me who does the "going off on adventures" and this was the first time that someone so close to me emigrated (to Paris). Well my friend Simone did move to the UAE a few years ago but I was living in Ibiza at the time so I wasn't so affected. I digress, I'm meant to be talking about running. So, in the days leading up to my 9-mile run, I wasn't really feeling it. Training had been going so well, I would look at my training schedule, see the distance I had to run and go and do it. Simple. Not with 9-miles. I was apprehensive in the days leading up to it. I felt tired and the last thing I wanted to really do was run. The 9-mile day came and I got up and ready somewhat reluctantly and off I went.

As this was the first Saturday in January, I noticed something - lots and lots of people out running (you should have seen how many were out and about on the 2nd January!). Good old new year's resolutions - let's see how many are still running by the end of January - apparently (according to Tony Robbins) - 50% of people have given up their resolutions by the 15th January - very poor! This meant that the place where I normally run, a place where there are hardly any people was suddenly quite busy. I realised I don't really like running in busy places (not quite sure how I'm going to cope doing the Half with all those other runners but I'm sure the excitement will take care of that). I started and it felt more difficult than normal. There used to be a point where the first twenty minutes of a run would be quite uncomfortable, it felt as if my legs and lungs needed that much time to realise what I was asking of them. More recently, I'd noticed it hadn't been such a struggle - until now. I kept running but the thought most prominent in my head was "when can I stop?". I got up to 6 miles and called it a day, feeling quite disappointed. It's the start of a new year, there's all the excitement of how this year's going to be - and then I find myself unable to do something which a week or two ago would have been possible.

As soon as I got home, I sent a text to James, Pass It On Africa charity manager and official running coach, in a slight panic. Our exchange went like this:

Me - Help! I think I've hit runner's wall. Or runner's block or whatever it's called. Meant to do a 9-mile run and only managed 6! What do I do (can you detect a slight sense of panic here?)

J - Don't panic it happens to us all and we can talk about it on Tuesday (he was coming up to London for meetings and a work morning with me)

Me - Ok. Anything I can do in the mean time? Should I try again tomorrow?

J - Yes don't worry about it, have the weekend off and we can go for a run and talk about it on Monday evening or Tuesday.

Me - Ok cool!

J - No worries, have a good weekend and don't worry. You have loads of time and you are going to be great, trust me.

Me - Thanks!

After this exchange I felt a little better and did as I was told, took the weekend off and went on a 4-mile run on the Tuesday with James. We ran the course that people will be running at the HEROES RUN in April - it was quite exciting to see what the space looks like, will be even more exciting to see it full of people dressed as superheroes, running for a great cause and having a fun day out!

10 miles - where the power of Facebook made all the difference!

The week after my initial 9 mile attempt I decided to do it again. I was a week behind in my training but I'd still have enough time to get up to half marathon distance - so long as I nailed 9 miles this time. I really psyched myself up for this one. I decided to run somewhere completely different (Dulwich Park) and to listen to completely new music, to change it up as much as I could. I also wanted to run in Dulwich Park as I can measure distance. I know that once round the main track is a mile and I had this new gadget that measures the distance you run - I needed to check it to make sure it was working properly.

The evening before the run, my status update on Facebook said "9 mile run tomorrow morning *I can do it, I can do it, I can do it!* I was amazed at the supportive response from people - it makes all the difference! This is a tactic I've used before when I started my interiors business - by publicly declaring what you intend to do, somehow you make it happen! Or maybe you know you don't want to let down the people who've shown support so you make yourself do it. Clever tactics - they work. When I woke the morning of the run, I knew I had to run the distance. There'd been more messages in the night so I woke to words of encouragement. I set off to Dulwich Park, feeling much more confident. The weather was perfect, cold, crisp and sunny - ideal running conditions for me. I did one lap of the park and checked my gadget - 1 mile exactly. I knew that was working properly, it was a case of running now. I settled into a comfortable pace, listening to classic house tracks on my iPod.

Dulwich Park isn't my perfect choice as a place to run. I find it a little claustrophobic, you're constantly dodging runners, people and dogs. Lots of dogs, usually getting in the way. I decided not to pay attention to the things I don't like about running there in case it put me off. Head down, I ran and listened to House. I thought about all the people who'd left Facebook messages for me and felt that I was doing this run for them. I started off counting laps so I'd have an idea of distance. By 4 miles, I was so distracted by the music I was listening to, I forgot to count laps, just enjoying tunes that I love but hadn't heard in a while. Some of these songs are really inspiring, they make you keep going just when you start to flag a little. I've always believed in the power of music - here I was seeing it in action when running. If a song came on that was one of my favourites or had particularly inspiring lyrics (usually inspiring you to go higher, reach further etc), I literally did pick the pace up and feel amazing for it. I was so lost in music that I forgot to count laps. I decided to check my gadget at the point where I thought I'd done 5 miles - only to discover that I was at 7 miles. I was feeling good, I'd run further than I thought and I was only 2 miles away from 9 miles. And when things are going this well, what do you do? You run an extra mile of course and make it up to 10 miles.

So that's what I did, ran 10 miles. I felt very pleased - this was the distance I was meant to run according to my original plan, the one that didn't factor in hitting runner's wall at 9 miles. I felt good, in fact I felt positively ecstatic, especially as I'd got back on track with my training plan. When I announced to my proud parents that I'd just run 10 miles, my dad decided that he'd like to take up running too! Ace - he's 83 years old and wants to start running at this stage in life. It was a good feeling telling people that I'd done it! Using Facebook was great. I had two friends want to sponsor me, one offered to be a running partner and the other wanted to know how he could get involved with fundraising for Pass It On Africa. Fantastic! A few hours after the run, I did feel incredibly tired and had to take an afternoon nap for a couple of hours but apart from that, I generally felt really good!

11 miles - where I realised I need to stretch more

With training back on schedule, I did an 11 mile run today. Generally it went well. I had no idea how many people are in Dulwich Park on a Saturday running around or doing British Military Fitness classes - perfect people to promote our HEROES RUN to. I can see that I'll probably be spending a lot of time over the next two months dressed as my Cat Woman alter-ego promoting our race all across London!

After last week's success using Facebook for support and encouragement, I toyed with doing it again but decided this time just to get out there and run. It went well. There were times early on when I needed to give myself a pep talk but there comes a point where you think "I've run 6 miles, if I stop now the next time I go to do this distance, I've got to start all over again, these 6 miles count for nothing...". That realisation makes you keep going. As soon as I was over the halfway mark, I counted down how many laps I needed to do. There was also a fun run going on in the park for the second part of my run. Even though I was running in the opposite direction to their runners, every time I went past their tent and supporters, I took all their whoops and hollering for myself - I'm sure they didn't mind! The last couple of miles I really felt it in my legs. I kept going but as soon as I'd done 11 miles and stopped, I could feel my muscles contract and get really tight. The usual stretching I do didn't make that much of a difference and I longed to soak my legs in a hot bath. My muscles felt really tight all day, I walked stiffly and it made me realise that I need to get back to doing ashtanga yoga at least twice a week, just so my muscles can get a good stretch and stop them contracting in this way.

Enormous tiredness hit me again a couple of hours after the run. I know that between now and the race I have to pay close attention to what I'm eating. I'm not eating enough carbs (or the right carbs) or protein or drinking enough water so that has to change. I'm so close to the distance I need to run, I'm not panicking about the race ahead of me. This is good, it means I can focus on things like my diet and also the fundraising side of things. I'd set up my online fundraising page at the end of December but it was only this week that I filled it out properly, with my story, and made a point of promoting it as much as possible. I've found the traditional sponsorship form a really effective way of raising money - if you put a form in front of someone and ask "will you sponsor me?" - generally the answer is yes. I even had someone sponsor me £50 the other day which I was very excited about, a few more donations like that would be amazing! I also did an interview yesterday for a Sussex-based publication, talking about my half marathon story. I talked about my intention to raise £1000 for the charity - a little more incentive, now that it's going to be declared publicly, pushes you on to make sure you achieve it!

Something else I discovered this week - I really enjoying running in the evening after a day spent in front of the computer. I was meant to do a run on Wednesday morning before I went to work. Just as I was about to set out, I got a work call which I had to take. Once that was finished, running time had gone and I had to go straight to work. When this happens, it can be tempting to forget that run particularly as I knew that I wouldn't be able to run in the day. When I finished work at 6, I was feeling fairly knackered - normal for me if I've spent the day in front of a computer screen. However I decided not to miss my run, as soon as I got in I changed and went straight out again. As it was dark, I'd have to make do with running round the local Dulwich roads. I set off on a 4 mile run and found that I really enjoyed running at that time of the evening. Fewer people around (mainly other runners), easy to zone out into your own little world and I came back feeling positively energised!

Music I've been running to - I'd been of running to the same music over and over so I decided to change that last week. Since then I've been running to The Specials (ska is good to run to) and lots of early House classics. Some songs on my playlist have been:

That's The Way Love Is - Ten City
Where Love Lives - Alison Limerick
Promised Land - Joe Smooth
Tears - Frankie Knuckles
Follow Me - Aly-Us
Let Me Love You For Tonight - Kariya
Reachin' - Phase Two
You've Got The Love - The Source Featuring Candi Staton
Lift Every Voice - Mass Order
Someday - Ce Ce Rogers
Optimistic - Sounds of Blackness
The Masterplan - Diana Brown and Barrie K Sharpe
Got To Have Your Love - Mantronix
All This Love That I'm Giving - Gwen McCrae
Let No Man Put Asunder - First Choice
We Lift Our Hands In The Sanctuary - DJ Oji and Una
Believe - Soldiers of Twilight