What’s this? I’m back in London, at the Hole in the Wall pub, near Waterloo Station, surrounded by work colleagues, warning me that something odd has happened to the boss in my absence. And next morning, at the wine shop, the aristocratic Charles greets me wearing a red velvet dress, high heels and a curly blonde wig. Part of a procession of brief inexplicable episodes. It was the one with the bottle-throwing folk singers chasing me through deserted Tube tunnels that finally woke me.
I was relieved to open my eyes and totter downstairs into the wintry Swiss sunlight. Truly relieved.
A weekend lie-in is fertile ground for dreams, but I rarely treat myself to one these days — and haven’t done so for years. This morning I had little choice. After three late nights, including a 5 a.m., I was woken this morning at 08:15 by the great Sweder, reminding me that he had to be on the train in 14 minutes, or he would miss his plane back to Blighty. The gruesome sight that must have met his bleary eyes on pushing my bedroom door open is not a thought to dwell on, for either of us.
We were on our way. Just 3 minutes separated my coma from my car. Another 9, and he was hauling his suitcase onto the 08:29. We even had a couple of luxuriously idle minutes on the platform to discuss my objections to the word “awesome”, and why the roots of that grievance lie in a sachet of ketchup located close to the Grand Canyon.
Based on the random fragments of data that could be retrieved from the weekend’s battered hard drive, we agreed it had been a memorable 2 or 3 days. Or rather, a series of brief inexplicable episodes.
As I traversed the station underpass, on my way back to the car, and to my bed, I kept a cautious eye open for bottle-throwing folk singers, and mused that we are often unsure where these edges meet.
Another Horgenberg snap — Bitte nicht füttern (Please do not feed)
The bad news is that my nutritional discipline melted, just like the cheese on Wednesday’s double portion of lasagne. For the first time in six weeks, my mornings have begun with overflowing bowls of muesli, bran, banana, nuts and dried fruit. Not exactly unhealthy, and I’m still resisting lactose, moistening the mix with a splash of soya milk and a spoonful or two of yoghurt-like…. quark… thing. But a bellyful of fibre isn’t the ideal starting handle. It sets a tone for the day. It’s an ultimatum; a note shoved across the counter — Gimme more of this carby stuff, or else...
The other bit of bad news, not unrelated, is a total lack of exercise — after Monday. What happened?
After finishing that jaunt, I felt good. But next morning, I could barely walk. My left hand big toe, as it were, was swollen, and too painful to put any pressure on. It stayed like this for three days, and the physical echoes are still faintly reverberating. Whatever it was, it worried me. I sought solace in the danish pastry. At work I was ravished by a wedge of chocolate cake, and took my revenge on any pre-diet remnants discovered clinging to life at the back of the fridge. Hard cheese.
The good news? The real devil has stayed away: no alcohol, and not the slightest temptation. And despite the sugar and carb attacks, I seem to have clung onto my weight loss gains, so to speak. Surprisingly, my daily average is 0.88 pounds lower than last week.
I’m rationalising it, as one does. Nothing wrong with a step-back week once in a while.
Week 6/60, and an accidental stumble on this straight and narrow path. I treat myself, if that’s the right phrase, to a sort of unhealthy meal.
Egliknusperli with rice and roasted peppers is not exactly deep-fried Mars Bars with maple syrup, but there is some deep fat frying in there somewhere. Egli is perch, from Lake Zurich. I knew that much. When we go for lunch down at the Marina, I feel obliged to eat the local residents, but I was too stupid to remember that knusperli means ‘crunchy’. So it’s battered fish, and yes, deep fried. And with glossy white rice. But those roasted peppers and green salad clawed back a small brownie point or two. Not that I care too much. It was freakin’ delicious.
This nutritional cataclysm hasn’t derailed the larger campaign. In 6 weeks, my weight has drifted down from 100.8 to 92.9 kilos, a drop of 7.9 kilos, or 17.4 pounds in old money. So I’m well ahead of my aim to lose an average of 1 kilo per week.
Exercise? 3 runs: Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. And 2 gym visits: Friday and Sunday.
If this all sounds too good to be true, it’s because it is. These runs of which I speak… I’m struggling with stamina. Maybe I’m overdoing the low carbs.
Some days later….
And that’s where I left it on Sunday night. It had been a great week, and included a long (for me) run, or mostly run, on Saturday morning up in Horgenberg that I should have mentioned:
I’d been to Horgenberg, the stretch of open country above Horgen, just 6 days earlier in the bleak mid-autumn snow. Now it was warm and bright like a summer’s day. At last, I think I’ve discovered my long run landscape. It’s been a puzzle: where to stretch the legs when the longer weekend obligations come around. This area of forest and rolling countryside, with its network of quiet riverside paths and leafy trails, is huge, extending all the way to Zurich — about 10 miles or so. But it also stretches in the other direction, away from the lake, for many miles — further than I would ever want to travel under my own cloud of steaming sweat. Just endless classic velevetty bright green Swiss countryside with its Heidi houses and Alpine views and clanging cattle. It could make a grown man cry, believe me.
Talking of Heidi, the author of that children’s classic, Johanna Spyri, was born and grew up here in Horgenberg, in the village of Hirzel, just 3 or 4 kilometres from the small lake. On Saturday I meandered over that way without quite reaching Hirzel. It’s easy to get distracted here and drift off onto some other Wanderweg - real or spiritual. I’ll be back.
On Monday of this week, the first day of Week 7/60, I arrived home from work, stripped off and launched my dwindling carcass into the rain and darkness for a modest 5 or 6 kilometres around the town. Arriving home, I felt as good as I have done in years.
And that is as good as it got, and where it all started to go wrong. The crunch has come.
(Note – This is a rough-and-ready video that needs editing and polishing. Just wanted to get something up to avoid delay.)
An exhilarating wintry plod today, through the densely wooded hinterland of Horgen, brings a fine end to Week 5/60. Covering nearly 13 kilometres this afternoon sounds impressive by my standards, but it did take 1 hour 45 minutes. The terrain was anything but fast however, and my time included a fair amount of snow-yomping and scrabbling through pathless forest, not to mention standing to gawp at the scenery (15 minutes according to the Garmin). Also, most of the second half was through the local woods, whose paths and steps and narrow bridges and tree roots are treacherous in ideal weather, never mind snow and slush.
But time didn’t matter. The Chi Running marathon training plan called for 70 minutes, divided into seven periods, each to concentrate on a particular posture focus. In reality, this was never going to happen in today’s conditions but I still tried to remember to keep the core tight, to run tall, to align my feet, to lean slightly, and to maintain a ‘straight column.’
The snow has come early this year. Swiss weather forecasts are reliable, but I’d not checked, so it was a shock to wake this morning to a whitened world. In October? This is a month later than last year and 2010, but I don’t mind too much. It makes daily life more interesting, and will put a smile on the faces of the many skiers and snowboarders at work.
I didn’t consider not running. The original plan was to do this route yesterday, but I stayed indoors instead, on a day of inexplicable gloom. The incessant rain and fog didn’t help, but there seemed to be something more that I couldn’t identify. Whatever the reason for this sudden, temporary despondency, I ended up pleased that it meant the run was deferred to include the snow.
I got out at about midday, after an unusual breakfast of pumpernickel toast spread with a homemade melange of avocado, spinach, basil, parsley, cress, garlic and olive oil (blended), and topped with a generous helping of smoked salmon. It was cold enough outside to wear a jacket, but not leggings. I need a minimum of razor-edged hailstones and an icy tempest to conceal my knees.
For the first time in the two years I’ve lived here, I headed upwards rather than down for a run. (I’ve walked up this way a few times, but not while in running mode.)
I’ve been getting concerned about the running routes available to me. Well, the area has many running opportunities, but in the immediate vicinity there are hills everywhere. Yes, I know these are character building, stamina building and leg building, but in this period of running rehabilitation it would be good to progress to the hills via some decent flat routes first. It’s only a 6 minute jog down the hill to the lake, but the lakeside path isn’t ideal for a longish run. You might assume there would be a good pedestrian path all the way round the 75 kilometre circumference, but there isn’t. Just a few short stretches here and there. I’m lucky to have any sort of path available, but it can be barely more than 5 or 6 kilometres. This will do a midweek job but nothing longer, unless I move from path to the road, which doesn’t appeal much.
So today I took the opposite direction, to re-explore the possibilities. Last year I used to walk up here from time to time, but I’ve never run it before. I was heading for our other lake, the Horgener Bergweiher (map) — though this one is rather smaller than the Zürisee. It’s a charming spot, high above the town, adjacent to some thick woods. Only just over a mile from my place, but that mile involves a steep 240 metre ascent. One day, I will run all the way up, but today I strode most of it, using it as a warm-up. Literally. It was minus 1 degree this morning, rising to a heady 2 Celsius by mid-afternoon.
By the time I got to the woods I was plodding carefully, not quite sure what was underfoot. The path around the small lake was almost clear, and reasonably flat, so I took advantage and managed three circuits without feeling too stressed.
The next 30 minutes or so were, however, stressful. Buoyed by my successful circumnavigation of the lake, I got a bit cocky, and plunged into the woods again, using a much smaller trail I knew existed, even though it was concealed beneath the untrodden snow. Before long, I was lost. There was no obvious route through the thickening forest but I hacked on regardless, eventually emerging to find a wire fence, with no clear path anywhere, and no sign of civilisation beyond a distant farmhouse. And given the near-universal ownership of shotguns in Switzerland, the jealousy with which privacy is treasured, and the pleasure that rural folk get from hunting plump sluggish wildlife, I couldn’t be certain just how civilised a welcome I would get if the farmer happened to glance through his window as I tottered across his land.
What to do? Should I retrace my steps, or slither on? I opted for the latter, inching my way down the hillside between the fence and the snow-laden trees. Every branch I brushed past seemed eager to dump its icy contents onto my head and down my back — inside my jacket. By the time I reached a gap in the fence, I’d become a human icicle, with just enough blood still circulating in my lower limbs to offer a small chance of survival.
It would be fair to observe that this was the low point of the afternoon.
Through the fence and across the hillside. There may have been a path here but it was impossible to tell. The snow was up to 12 inches deep here, with each step unpredictable. Would my foot find solid ground? Or would it vanish into a quagmire, taking the rest of me with it?
I won’t extend the suspense unnecessarily, as it will be clear that had I been consumed by such a carnivorous aperture, I wouldn’t be tapping out these words.
I made it, eventually reaching a clearer track that led me to a larger tarmac road. It took a while to recognise it as the very same road I had travelled just 7 days ago, in brilliant sunshine, and temperatures of up to 24 degrees. Funny old Wald.
The run was far from over. I could have taken the relatively short route back home along the main road, but that didn’t appeal. Instead, I headed into the woods again, though ‘my’ woods this time, the stretch that starts at the end of my road. Despite that, I couldn’t immediately find the path, as I had to trot through an unfamiliar housing estate first. But after a couple of dead ends and retracing of steps, I found a way in…
I love these woods. On the map, they cover just a small area of a few square kilometres, but on the ground they seem larger and more mysterious, concealing a complex network of paths and steps that never seem to stay in the same place two visits in a row.
The snow kept falling as I traversed the forest, but the paths were much clearer than earlier. The canopy above was bearing much of the burden, and anyway, these paths are popular with Sunday walkers, who had trodden away most of the stuff that had settled.
And then, after one or two wrong turnings, I found my usual path, and made my way home.
This was a great jaunt. As narrated, I can barely call it a run, but I was pleased with the clear flat stretches where I was able to fall into a rhythmic jog, and could feel the Chi principles becoming just that little bit more natural.
Interestingly, over the final flat section, I put on a burst of speed in the hope of shaking out a few reluctant calories. I must have fallen back into my old ways, landing on heels and pounding the ground; but I was suddenly aware of a tightening twinge in my left calf, and quickly reverted to a walk. The distant ache might have been a normal consequence of a 13 kilometre hilly plod, but I was taking no chances.
And finally home, for this tired little teddy bear.
So, Week 5/60:
4 runs (Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Sunday). One gym visit (Tuesday). 2 rest days (Friday, Saturday).
An average of 2.2 pounds lost (1 kg), which is my weekly target. Now about 13.5 pounds lighter than 5 weeks ago, or a bit ahead of schedule.
Idly tickling the iPad during a break at TEDxZurich this morning, I checked the Berlin Marathon website. Fans of big city marathons feel obliged to keep this one bookmarked — just in case.
Christ on a cracker! Entry for the September 2013 race opens today, at 12 noon. Only 60 Euros for the first 10,000 entrants. I tried to lose this information behind the complexity of the morning’s presentations. But no amount of futuristic urban planning and intravenous nanorobot chat could scrape the knowledge from my cranial walls.
This marathon gets more popular every year. Last year, it had sold out by the New Year.
Sigh. Ah, go on then. So at 12 noon I registered.
Glad I did. Within three hours, all 40,000 places had gone. Wow.
Week 5/60 begins well, with the scales registering a 12.8 lb loss over the 4 weeks.
There was a brief exchange on the forum today about how easy, or otherwise, it is to lose weight. For me, it is quite easy. I know the formula. But it helps that I live on my own most of the time. This allows me to obsess without reproach, temptation or guilt. And obsession (sometimes generously called ‘determination’ by others) is what it requires.
In other news… three days into what I am telling myself is a 24-week marathon training plan, I can report two early morning plods along the lake — around 5 km each. Monday and today, Wednesday, had der Wecker jangling at 6.30 a.m. 15 minutes later, I’m yawning and groaning my way down the stairs to the outside world.
Having a balcony is useful, even in this grey and clammy season. The GPS watch can locate a satellite in advance, and by popping out there to balance it on the balustrade (an accident waiting to happen), I can also snatch a few lungfuls of pure Swiss air and get a preview of the temperature.
The mornings are getting blacker and colder, though nowhere near cold enough to merit a jacket or leggings. I get down the hill to the lakeside by the shortest route I can find — and it’s odd how I keep discovering further short-cuts. Today it took barely 5 minutes, and I discovered an even shorter short-cut on the way back.
It must sound quite pleasant — going for a jog alongside Lake Zurich in the early morning — but frankly, it’s nothing special. Apart from having little visibility in the darkness and the patchy fog, the frequent double-decker commuter trains rumble past just a few metres from my shoulder. Summer is better, with the early sun illuminating the lake, while proper winter — and a little later in the day — is also good, with no fog and the snowy peaks decorating the background. The trains don’t go away, mind.
So anyway. Chi Running. I’m still wrestling with it, even though the training plan tries to coax the technique along gradually. On Monday my two focuses were “Align your feet and legs” and “Create your column”. Today we had “Level your pelvis” and “Lengthen the back of your neck”. The instruction is to alternate these modes, with a minute for each, over 35-45 minutes. So far I’ve made it to the end without any calf twinges. Pleased, though these are obviously very early days.
The training plan has another run scheduled tomorrow, but I might push it out to Friday. Partly because I prefer not to run two days in a row, and partly because I have a day off and an entry for TEDxZurich, which I’m stupidly excited about. These are hot tickets. I had to persuade the TED gods I merited an entry by providing some convincingly brainy answers to their intimidating questions. Y’know, trivial enquiries about how I would save the planet and preserve civilisation as we have come to know it. Can’t remember what response I was able to offer, but they bought it without too much probing and prodding, thankfully. Anyone with a bit of spare time on their hands and a computer, can follow the entire day on a live stream at the event website. Here are the speakers,
Oh yes, and when I got home this evening, I found four packages waiting for me. The updated Chi Running book (2009), the Chi Walking book, plus a metronome to help me get my stride rate right, and a microphone to help me talk about it in the long-awaited RunningCommentary podcast (Executive Producer, @marathondan.)
Just now and then, something major comes along. An FA Cup final ticket, a new computer, the amputation of a limb, a wife, that sort of thing. I have a feeling in my lower back that Chi Running might be the latest big thing.
Lower back? I’m leaving the sensation there rather than transferring to the more conventional gut because I already have a resident back ache from this morning’s practical introduction to the art, and I won’t get away with two corporeal twinges in one post. Anyway, saving energy by exploiting what’s already there is a fundamental principle of Chi Running. But first…
Week 4/60 comes to an end with more steady progress to report. Weight loss is still slightly ahead of target, at around 11.5 pounds in 4 weeks. The week has seen 3 gym visits and a couple of runs, or run-walks, including 9 kms on Sunday. Plus core and calf exercises, a spot of yoga, and a textbook eating regime. Yesterday’s textbook, Advanced Operative Dentistry, was particularly filling.
Below the surface, the urgent diet and exercise debates continue: do I stick with what seems to have become a high protein / low carb diet with added liberation from gluten/wheat, dairy products, coffee, and of course alcohol? Any need to change? Alcohol is non-negotiable, but should I be using my loaf a bit more? For the first time ever, I worry that I’m not getting enough fat in my diet.
And running / exercise: when do I stop making it up as I go along, and find a plan to follow? That question dogged me all last week, so I spent the weekend pondering the training approach question. Naturally, Hal Higdon was the first port of call. I also dropped by Ben Greenfield, whose podcasts I listen to with a fervour normally reserved for the great Dr Karl. But, rather sadly, Hal seems a bit dog-eared these days, and champion triathlete Ben is perhaps too far removed from the fat middle-aged plodder constituency. I turned to Jeff Galloway and his famous run-walk method. This man does speak plodder, or claims to, yet he is still doggedly advocating a 26 mile long run three weeks before the race, even for beginners. But then…
I’ve been peripherally aware of Chi Running for a few years. I don’t know when it was first devised, or when Danny Dreyer’s original book was published, but it seems to have been a forum staple on Runner’s World for a long time. I was never curious enough to read the correspondence, but I had an inkling it combined running style with ‘mindfulness’, and that there was possibly some polite ideological war with Pose Runners, but I got no further.
But suddenly I understand it, and suddenly I suspect it may be the missing link; the answer to my injury frustrations. As I read the book, I became increasingly certain that it was addressing me and my running. It was giving me the tools to break down that wall I hadn’t been able to get through, even if it’s much more passive than bashing down walls makes it sound.
So what is it?
There are long, medium and short answers to that question. The medium length one can be found by reading the book and perhaps attending a class. The long one needs that plus plenty of experience practising it. So let’s stick with the short description.
Essentially, Chi Running promotes greater running efficiency by advocating a better aligned posture and mid-foot landing. In addition it demands that the core is engaged and that the runner leans forward (from the ankles, not the waist), allowing gravity to pull the body forward, rather than asking the legs to actively drive you onwards. Steps are relatively small, with an ideal target rate of 180 per minute (compared with my previous standard 150-155). The upper body accounts for 50% of the effort, with the arms ordered to pump at the same rate as the legs, and to remain perfectly aligned and facing forward.
You have to be conscious of your running form at all times (particularly as a beginner). There are a number of ‘focuses’, each of which deals with one or more aspects of the technique. These focuses include posture, leaning, lower and upper body, and the concept of ‘gears’ which is how Chi Running allows you to change speed. As you run, you go through these focuses in turn, helping to ensure your ‘mindfulness’ is maintained
Readers below the age of 50 might just recall a mention of a chap called Paul on the Zurich Writing Workshop post who is the landlord of a blog called Fat to Fit Diaries. He wrote a pretty good summary of a Chi Running workshop he went to in the summer — good enough to get me off the hook, as it’s the very same class I went to last Saturday, with Fiona McLellan, Zurich’s Chi Running guru. You will find his post here. Worth reading.
Having to set the alarm for 6.30 on a Saturday was cruel, but what the hell — sleep is overrated anyway. The venue near Wipkingen, one of Zurich’s many handsome suburbs, was a curious place — a community centre in the middle of a small, well manicured park alongside the Limmat.
Fiona was waiting for me in an empty art studio. I was expecting just the two of us but we were joined by one of her workmates. Martina, from Austria, who revealed that she runs twice a year, when she takes part in a couple of races — 5K and 10K. She couldn’t really understand training, she explained, and had no enthusiasm for running without the excitement of a race. She was hoping that learning more about the Chi method might encourage her to get out there. She could probably be a cracking runner if she put her mind to it. Unlike some of the attendees, she has youth and agility on her side. It would be unfair to name names, but some of her classmates were carrying a 25 year / 30 pound (13.8 kg) penalty — a fact all too clearly illustrated by the X-rated video taken at the end of the 4-hour session.
Fiona, an effervescent Scot, was also great company, and an accomplished trainer. She knows her stuff, and I urge all runners in Switzerland, and indeed right across mainland Europe, to throw their money at her. This was the best 80 CHF I’ve spent in a long time.
On Sunday, the final day of Week 4/60, I thought I’d try out some of these ideas on an afternoon plod in the woods at the end of my road. Our stretch of Wald is very pretty, with dozens of precipitous paths and steps and mini-waterfalls. It’s a delight, but not, it turns out, well suited to novice Chi Running, so I continued out the far end and kept going, with my planned 30 minutes extended to about 9 kilometres (so quite a lot more than 30 minutes in my current enforced run-walk state). Finally, I came across a long, fairly straight stretch of road where I was able to give full expression to my new lean and mean running mindset.
As a new Chi Runner, remembering the focuses simultaneously isn’t easy. Impossible, in fact, hence the incremental method advocated in the marathon book. This is the path I will follow. The book is well-written, and dense with detail and explanation and illustration. It’s a big reasons for deciding to throw in my lot with it. From the start, it was plain this is a long-held, rigorously considered methodology, and not some flavour-of-the-month money-spinner.
So where is this all heading? I mentioned the Paris Marathon on April 7 last time. Then I told myself this was too soon, and perhaps Stockholm on June 1st would be more realistic. Or even Berlin in September….
Amid this indecision, I found the Chi Running marathon book, and saw that it details a 24 week marathon training plan. On Sunday, when I got back from my first tentative Chi run, I checked my spreadsheet and noticed that it was exactly 24 weeks until the Paris Marathon. So who knows?
As chic as Switzerland can be, the lack of Timothy Taylor’s Landlord is a critical design fault. I was reminded of this during my six-day London fun package which, apart from the funeral, the Guardian weekend writing workshop thing, some hospital visits and a two-day work conference, included a few nights in the pub to renew acquaintance with friends human and friends liquid.
I even had a good excuse for my trips to the local Hatch End hostelry. They had Wi-Fi, while my permanently offline elderly father has never felt the broadband urge. It was where the previous, rather forlorn, entry was created — so blame the beer.
The funeral was the usual mixture of gloom and euphoria. But it’s gone, and there’s nothing more to say about it now, or anything else from that weekend. Tim Taylor’s or not, it’s a relief to be back in Die Schweiz.
Autumn is here, which isn’t Switzerland’s most flattering season. It starts and ends beautifully, first clinging to summer, then trying to repel winter. But the bit in the middle can be dreary. Around Lake Zurich, it means weeks of thick clammy fog, hovering above us like a threatening blanket in the hands of a giant abductor. Looking down through my sitting room window now, the Meilen ferry is as visible as ever. On the other side of the lake, I see a stretch of that delicate sprawl of towns that starts in Zurich and reaches all the way up to Rapperswil, 25 miles away at the far end. But all this exists in a narrow horizontal band. The top half of the picture is dense grey mist, and will be for a while yet.
I have a strong urge to enter the Paris Marathon. Note this isn’t quite the same as expressing a strong urge to run it, or train for it. Fortunately there’s still a week to go before registration opens, so I have an enforced cooling off period.
It’s more than three years since I struggled round Boston, and another three separated Boston from Zurich in 2006. The benefit of this recent patchy history is marathon amnesia, a necessary condition for taking on the 26.2 mile serpent.
Can I do it? [Shrugs] Hard to say. The appetite for the challenge is strong enough. And I have the orthotics, the core-strength regime, and the decision to take an extended break from alcohol, sugar and processed food. All of those things are within my control. The question mark hangs over the troublesome calves. I can reduce the risk of them exploding again, but I can’t eliminate that risk entirely.
Right now I’m in poor condition, though much better than I was three weeks ago. I had quite an active, healthy summer from the end of June. No running to speak of, but plenty of gym cardio, stretching and sensible eating.
But September was a write-off. It would be easy to make excuses, but the only semi-reasonable one is the death of my sister. And even that one might be reprehensible exploitation. In any case, the dip started three weeks earlier when I couldn’t resist a couple of work parties and other social invitations. This wasn’t just a slippery slope but a full-on black run. It’s astonishing how quickly all gains can be lost, and the tendency seems to accelerate with age.
On the plane back to Switzerland I started planning my Point-to-Pinnacle campaign for 2013 with the help of a spreadsheet and plenty of self-delusion. The spreadsheet told me there were precisely 60 weeks until that abominable race up the mountain.
I put a deal on the table that I never thought I would accept, but incredibly, I fell for it. (Yess!!) The agreement I’ve negotiated with myself includes a total embargo on alcohol until the race date in November 2013. A remarkable concession. I now have to wait nervously to see if I’m a man of my word. I have my doubts, but shucks, I’m too trusting sometimes. I’ll give myself just one final chance.
Despite the September blip, this is a continuation of the resolve expressed a few months ago. I’m convinced that real change is afoot. It reminds me of the time I finally stopped smoking after 25 years of addiction. I’d tried, and failed, to stop several times. Then one day I knew this was it. I was in my late thirties, and knew I had got too old and wise to be behaving like this. An intelligent person should not hit 40 as a smoker. And that was that. No more cigarettes.
(Aside: Er, well, apart from that most remarkable of days in Almeria in, I think, 2006, when the great SP, Sweder and I spent 12 hours boozing in Molly’s. An hour or two into the session, someone suggested we buy some Old Holborn rolling tobacco. All agreed that this was a fine plan, and so we spent the next 10 hours or so manfully puffing on roll-ups and becoming unspeakably drunk. Antonio arrived about 6 hours later, horrified by the debauched scene that greeted him. I sometimes wonder if he has flashbacks. I’m glad I don’t. I wouldn’t want to know.)
Here I am in my mid-50s, and bang in the middle of heart-attack territory — at least with the lifestyle I’m trying to leave behind. It’s my call.
I gave some thought to the September slip, and knew that not having well-defined goals was making temptation easier. Hence the thought of a spring marathon. Paris ticks most of the boxes.
Obesity and a chronic lack of fitness has its advantages when trying to make a comeback. Yes, you read that right. It means I have a number of options for improvement. Even through my regular race period (2002 to 2009) I was overweight and out of condition. A 60 minute 10K was always a struggle, as was a five hour marathon. Now suppose I had always been lean and fairly fit, and had decided to go back to running aged 55. There wouldn’t be many options beyond getting training miles into the legs again, and I would have to accept that my record was very unlikely to improve, however hard I worked.
But if you’ve always been a panting porker like me, even at the, er, peak of your running career, then you have some huge, bloated targets to blast away at. Even at my fittest, I was never below 200 pounds (90 kg). Despite being a few years older, I have to believe that if I could get down to my apparently healthy weight — about 20 pounds or 9 kg below that previous best mark — I would have every chance of matching or even beating my previous performances.
And that’s what I’ll do — get rid of the useless ballast once and for all. My only chance is to eliminate booze completely, and all the unhealthy snacking and inactivity that inevitably accompanies it. Naturally, carrying less weight will also reduce impact on my joints and calves.
Here’s where I am:
I was already 2 days into the first of the 60 weeks when the initial plan was hatched, so I would regard Week 1/60 as preparation. The very first day of that week was my sister’s funeral, followed by an early evening filled with pleasant conference Rioja and delicious but atrociously calorific hot spicy snacks. Arriving back at the hotel, already forming a plan to strike out booze, I felt moved to sit in the bar and order one solitary final pint of Stella. I was unable to finish it. A good symbolic note on which to begin an extended break from alcohol.
The rest of Week 1 was healthy enough. No alcohol, but no exercise either — beyond chopping vegetables. I concentrated on the edible end of the campaign, keeping processed food to a minimum. My only slip came on the Sunday night when, digging around for petrified vegetation in the freezer, I spotted a small rhubarb tart and half a large tub of caramel ice cream. I knew these items would continue to haunt me. The only way of permanently eliminating the temptation was to eat them. So I ate them, though at least I tried hard not to enjoy the experience — instead focusing on the heroic side of the task. Sadly, this final act of gluttony was indescribably pleasurable. What a way to go.
Interesting to note the effect of the spontaneous dessert on my figure(s). I’d begun the first week, and the campaign, with the nice round figure of 222.2 pounds. This had drifted down to 219 by the following Sunday morning. But that late-night sugary splurge drove it back up a couple of notches, and it took me until Thursday to get below 219 again.
Week 2/60 continued the good work (sans ice cream). Much time was spent researching approaches to diet and nutrition. In the process, I picked up a book I’d bought a couple of years ago — Patrick Holford’s 9 Day Liver Detox. I had been through it once before, and remembered its benefits. Decision made. The nine days would ‘officially’ start as recommended, on a Saturday, but I spent the intervening days following the recipes and principles, so in effect it’s been more of a 12 or 13 day detox.
One of things I like about Holford’s suggested regime is that it’s not too ascetic. It’s not about fasting. It’s not all water and fennel tea and handfuls of raw watercress and sweaty sleepless nights, shivering, naked, on a plastic mattress. The food is plentiful, though there are rules to be observed. These include no wheat or milk products, and no caffeine or alcohol. It majors on the well-known ‘superfoods’, lots of seeds and nuts, and green vegetables. Another thing I like about the 9-day regime is that it’s a 9-day regime. Long enough to make a difference, but not so long that you lose interest. I recommend it.
Week 2 also saw me starting to consider my exercise options. The ultimate nominal aim of this whole campaign is to get up that mountain in Hobart next year, so I have to learn to run again. And that’s how I’m seeing it, rather than a continuation of something I did before. Two marathons in six years, with the last one 3.5 years ago, does not allow me to call myself a runner. I’ve not run a proper race — one I’ve actually finished uncrippled — for three whole years (Brighton 10K, November 2009). Much has changed since then. The persistent calf injury needs to be factored into everything, so I need to find a different way back..
What is that different way? No quick and easy answer to that, but stretching and working on muscle strength, particularly the core, glutes and legs, must continue to be key ingredients. I say “continue” because I have done a fair amount of this tedious work over the last few months, but I need to make it much more routine. I’m also looking at yoga and/or pilates, or something similar, as well as the more pedestrian gym and dumb bell workouts.
No exercise plan has been established yet, but I’m working on it. There isn’t any great hurry. My priority is weight loss, with some gentle activity running alongside. Through Week 2 I was stretching and doing a bit of indoor exercise, but on the Saturday I finally did something physical outdoors. I engaged in an activity I will doggedly call running. That’s how it’s labelled in my spreadsheet at least. 3.05 miles, which took me, er, 43 minutes, or a mile pace of… 14 minutes. [Blush.] Yep, that’s where I am. The first half was comfortable enough, but coming back up the hill proved too much, and I ended up in a sweaty stroll. But it’s a start. (Appropriate track du jour — Melvin Bragg’s ever-superb In Our Time podcast. This episode? The Black Death.)
I finished Week 2 on 217 pounds, 5.2 less than when I started.
Today’s the final day of my 9 day detox, and the end of Week 3/60. Verdict? Feeling very much more fit and alive than I did three weeks ago. Exercise this week has included another two 5 km runs and three gym visits, plus another go at the 200 sit-ups and 200 squats programs. All six days of the first week successfully completed. Only another five weeks to go.
This morning’s weigh-in had me at 213.4 pounds, or 8.8 shed in 3 weeks. I’m happy enough with that. Another stone to melt off to get below the magical 200 mark. It’s what happens beyond that that really matters. The start of a weight loss campaign is always easy as there’s so much blubber to aim at. Things will start to settle down from now on, though the intention is to continue to burn off a steady two pounds, or one kilo, per week. If I manage that, I would reach my 180-pound target by the final weekend of January. Which is Almeria Half Marathon weekend. But of course, I won’t be going this time…
And Paris? The official status is “Wait and see”, but this hasn’t stopped me entering the suggested long runs from Hal Higdon’s marathon training plan in my spreadsheet — just in case, like. Running my eye down the list, I see he recommends running the first half marathon distance… when? Ah, here we are: hmm, the final weekend of January. Which, er, again is Almeria Half Marathon weekend. But as I said, I won’t be going this time…
*Note: “My witness is the empty sky” is a great line from Kerouac I was reminded of this evening. Has a kind of running flavour that I like.
Hell is other people and their fridges. Me and mine included, I’m sure.
I am subdued. Welcome to damp suburban London. Much as I love the city of my birth, I will never feel affection for these featureless outer stretches, where the nineteen fifties never quite escaped.
Being carless isn’t helping. In the last two days I’ve trailed around Harrow and environs on the bus and overground train. Wretched. Not had to wait long, and the Oystercard system is good. But there is something so down-at-heel about the London experience now. Everyone seems to be on the edge of suicide. The same sensation struck me in New York a few months ago, when we took the A Train through the city from the airport. Maybe folks are soured by the recession? Or were things always this bad?
My sister’s funeral is on Monday. Today I walked with her twin up to the local station. We were followed in by local celebrity resident Barry Cryer. As we sat on a bench on the northbound platform, the diminutive raconteur started up the stairs leading over the tracks to the London-bound side.
Several minutes later, he had still not appeared on the downward flight of steps opposite, and the terrible thought struck me that he might be planning to leap to his death as the Watford train came in. A tragedy, as we had already swiped our cards. Would we have to pay again on the replacement bus?
A secondary thought was that he might have succumbed to the effort of climbing the first flight, and be squirming in agony in the final throes of a cardiac arrest, halfway across the bridge. Urgent questions appeared: how much would the Daily Telegraph pay for the story? Or was Cryer more of a Guardian man? In that moment of panic, I couldn’t be sure, but I knew I had to act quickly before someone else claimed the prize. Fumbling for my camera, I hurried up the stairs in pursuit of celebrity. With luck I might even capture his dying words on my phone’s voice recorder. As Britain’s foremost generators of one-liners, his final utterance would surely become a fixture in anthologies to come. And the nation was depending on me to capture it.
But tragically, he wasn’t dead or dying, but merely staring disconsolately at the distant London skyline. Maybe he was being summoned to Broadcasting House to deliver yet another eulogy to some newly expired king of comedy, and seeking inspiration. Or was he morosely considering something that I have wondered on his behalf: when all the old-timers except him are gone, who will be left to deliver his own eulogy?
On reflection, despite the missed Telegraph payday I’m glad he’s still with us — or was at mid-day today at least. At his age, being alive at noon does not carry a very long guarantee.
The overground train arrived, and I noted that the old British Rail rolling stock has finally been replaced. The clacketty-clack of my youth is gone, replaced by the food-processor howl of the modern plastic London Underground. I was reminded of the same journey taken one Wednesday evening in 1969. Or rather, the return leg, from Watford Junction to Euston. QPR had won 1-0 at Vicarage Road, and I recall us hanging off the luggage racks, jubilantly crashing our feet against the splintering walls of the carriage (still divided into small compartments in those days), in time to the raucous singing. “Bang-bang-banger-bang, banger-bang-bang…RANGERS!!”
Watford. What for? A desperate shit hole. I thought that even before I left the UK, so you can imagine how it appears now. Switzerland seemed a long way off just then. Metaphors involving aging, slovenly wives and glamorous mistresses are all too easy. Safer for me if you fill in the blanks. But take my word for it, this stretch of high street around Watford Junction Station is a bloody dismal walk, and made even more so by our destination — the chapel of rest (The Family Concern, Concerned About Families).
It was hard not to think of her lifelong Beatles obsession as we gazed at the bit she’d left behind. Dead people like to make it very clear that they are somewhere else. Otherwise engaged. It’s a very extraordinary experience, and to undergo it with her surviving twin sister added something further.
God knows what river of thought was rushing through her head.
I said: “Would it be awful to take a picture of her?” Later on, I imagined sending the snap to Smirnoff’s Marketing Department:
Dear Sir, My late sister was a tremendous fan of your products. I thought you might like to use this picture in a future advertising campaign.
But of course, that would not be fair. Like raging against a kitchen shop because one of their knives had been used to murder someone. It wasn’t vodka that killed Susan, it was Susan that killed Susan.
I’m glad I went to see her. My first instinct, when asked, was to refuse, but I knew it had to be done. The week since her death has been all about logistics, and shamefully little about emotion. I thought I remembered so little about her. But today, curiously, seeing her husk in that coffin, I could suddenly recall so much more from our childhood.
Another bus, another train, another bus, another drab and dreadful suburb. Welcome to Harrow & Wealdstone. Here is a social club, outside which a boisterous crowd of lads in their twenties are necking Carlsberg and smoking and chortling. They wear ill-fitting dark suits. All have black ties. Someone else’s funeral; someone else’s life.
Over the road, the mosque is shaking out the faithful from Friday prayers. Not a scimitar in sight, and barely a frown.
At the printers, We collect the order of service cards, then cross the road to wait for the next bus with another bunch of people staring at their shoes in silence.
The seedy bustle of the hospital gives it the air of a patched-up 1970s shopping centre. From over here, you can enjoy a Costa cappuccino and watch the merry sea of anxious faces bobbing past, and flowing round the obstacles of white-faced old people being trundled from one humiliation to the next.
The corridor walls are decorated with posters proclaiming the hospital’s ‘corporate objectives’ for this year: To increase satisfaction and engagement, to improve patient outcomes and reduce inequalities, to deliver Foundation Trust status by achieving the agreed milestones…… Christ. No wonder everyone here is ill.
My father’s incarceration was supposed to have ended two weeks ago, but he has had his sentence extended for bad behaviour. In time-honoured family fashion, he refuses to do what he’s told. We show him his daughter’s funeral service booklet, and he starts to cry.
Outside, it starts to rain as we wait for another fucking bus.
This evening I called my other sister to discuss the arrangements for Monday. The car has broken down. “So we may have to travel by bus”. Gah!
And she reminds me we need to put together a eulogy for the funeral service. Sigh. Where’s Barry Cryer when you need him?
It was a yoghurt of two halves. The first began full of hope, but petered out. The lower reaches of the pot remain uneaten, and the doctors are shaking their heads.
Perhaps strawberry isn’t one of her favourite flavours. Or wasn’t. Maybe her bags really are packed this time, and she doesn’t have time to waste. Who knows? Not me, not the medical staff. We’ve asked them enough times, and are getting exasperated by their incompetence in the star-gazing department. This does not match our benign prejudices about weary-eyed people in white coats. A reporter at the scene quotes one of them as saying: “It could be weeks rather than days, and weeks rather than months.”
My comatose sister “stopped responding to medication” a fortnight ago, so they gave up administering it. The drip keeping her hydrated was removed four days later, and attempts to feed her were suspended. For another week she ingested nothing but hospital-scented oxygen. Bored visitors came and went. I suppose they prodded her gently and delivered monologues and wondered about the other patients and ate most of the grapes. I was packing my bags and clarifying with HR what a dying sister was worth on the compassionate leave matrix. More than an uncle it seems, but trailing a long way behind a spouse. And it has to be death, or all bets are off.
Then a couple of days ago we had the yoghurt bombshell.
Two mouthfuls of water are also reported missing. I wondered then, and am still wondering, whether the glass is now half full or half empty.