Disability, anxiety & Gannin’ along the Scotswood Road…

The last couple of weeks have been, to say the least, stressful. It started with me dashing home from work after a hysterical call from my 16 year old son. He’d been the target of a local gang of young louts who don’t like disability or difference, and think an adult sized person who’s as easily frightened as a small child is hilarious. Luckily a neighbour had seen this, called the police, and stayed with my son til family arrived.

The fact that this had happened on the day that most of my Facebook feed was applauding the country’s recognition that disabled people have talent rankled. I think Lost Voice Guy is great, he’s a local comedian who I’d seen before he entered Britain’s Got Talent. But his win is not a show of how well respected disabled people are in this country.

Sadly my son’s experience is more typical of what people with disabilities face on a daily basis than Lee Ridley’s acceptance by the nation. And it didn’t stop on Monday. I don’t want to go into details, but it’s ongoing, immensely stressful, the last thing my family needed during both kids’ exams, and utterly heartbreaking. I will say that the police recognise hate crime when they see it and are taking it really seriously, and everyone I speak to is sympathetic and supportive, but the damage one gang of stupid kids can do is immense. Even when they inevitably get bored and move to a new target it will take a long time to restore my son’s confidence and rebuild the small measure of independence we’d worked so hard to build for him.

It’s got me rattled too, since defending my son the same gang is yelling abuse at me when I see them around the estate. It’s had me questioning including photos on this blog, recording my activities on strava, even walking to the local shops on my own. I feel constantly on the verge either of tears, or of losing my temper so badly I’m afraid of what I might do.

It’s amazing how quickly long held values disintegrate when your own family comes under attack. I didn’t like the level of surveillance we all face day to day, now I want cameras everywhere. I’m firmly opposed to violence against children, but I want to retaliate to these kids violence against my son. I didn’t believe locking kids away was a solution, but I want these kids off the streets.

But mostly I want my son to feel safe and happy, and I hate that I can’t make him safe or happy at the moment.

The Saturday before all this started my son did his first parkrun. For a young man with his additional needs just getting around 5k is a massive achievement. Doing it in the crowded environment of Newcastle parkrun, on an incredibly hot day, was fantastic. I’m trying to help him hold onto the pride he felt that day during the challenges he’s facing at the moment.

The Saturday after all this started was the Blaydon Race. This was a run I desperately wanted to take part in, and was overjoyed when I got a place…

As a small child on a visit to London my dad and grandad convinced me they’d told the palace we were coming, and that was why the guards played the Blaydon Races during the changing of the guard that day.

As a small child witnessing my brother getting stung by a bee I insisted to my mother that the bee had flown off “laughing, and humming the Blaydon Races.”

When he was younger the Blaydon Races was one of my son’s obsessive interests, leading to many visits to local museums and my mum’s puppy getting the name Geordie Ridley.

Image from Pinterest

The Blaydon Race is an athletic race, not a fun run, and despite the celebratory atmosphere it felt like a more serious event than any of the others I’ve done to date. This in itself made me feel closer to my grandfather, who won medals and trophies for running races in the 1930s, one of the many things I wish I’d talked to him about before he died when I was 13.

But I’d had a rubbish week and the stress was pushing me closer to an anxiety attack. I’d arranged to meet friends from running group to go to the starting point together, which got me through the initial “everyone here looks more like an athlete than me” worry.

My aim was to do the 5.7 miles in under an hour. The race started well for me, the first three miles went brilliantly. Then the sun came out, unexpectedly, and I started to struggle. I had to slow to a walk, and that was when the anxiety kicked in. “If you can’t run the whole way you shouldn’t be here, how are you going to cope with 13 and a bit miles if you can’t manage 5, you should just pull out now, you’re a fool to call yourself a runner…” And on, and on.

At one point at about 3.5 miles I was walking, struggling to breath, trying not to cry, unable to hear anything except anxiety lying to me.

“SALLY, YAY, COME ON!”

A shout from a friend on the other side of the road, with a grin and a wave, broke through, and I smiled back, took a few deep breaths and started running again.

Anxiety lies.

I am a runner because I lace up my trainers and run, even when it’s difficult.

I am an athlete because I know my body, and I recognise when I’m pushing too hard and know when to take a break. That’s not failure, that’s strength.

I will do 13 and a bit miles, bits of it will be tough, but I absolutely will do it.

Crossing the finish line I felt like it had been a bad run, I’d had to walk too often, I really struggled with the heat and the few uphill sections.

But I’d achieved my target of under an hour.

When I looked at my heart rate I could see I’d needed to slow down, and looking at my pace I certainly hadn’t walked for longer I’d run.

Anxiety lies. It was a good run and I adapted as needed to the changing conditions. There was great support both from other runners and from spectators. Next year I’d like to do it again, in a more positive frame of mind, and with a more consistent pace, but for a first attempt this was a good run.

Since then I’ve run over 9 miles for the first time, completed my 30th parkrun, and kept running despite the stress. It helps.

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I’m trying to raise funds for two great charities that support my family, SWAN UK and Newcastle Carers. Any donations to help me reach my fundraising target would be greatly appreciated and put to good use. Sponsor me here.

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No offence, but…

Well I’m doing rubbish at keeping the blog up to date! Let’s just acknowledge it and move on rather than me launch into the reasons/excuses, shall we?

Since I last wrote I’ve run much more, managed to buy clothes from the ‘regular sized’ section of the store rather than the fat-shaming section, and even worn clothes that don’t have an X in the size!

And the TV series Britain’s Fat Fight featuring the Newcastle Can project has aired – for a few Wednesday nights my phone was buzzing as people spotted me in my blink and you’ll miss me screen appearances. I’m not sure how well it was received outside of Newcastle, but it’s really got people talking about their health and weight again here.

And that’s brilliant, mostly.

But I have had a handful of comments which, as I’m in a positive frame of mind at the moment, I’m choosing to file under “Not quite as supportive as they’d intended to be”, although next time the depression and anxiety kicks in they’ll probably be upgraded to “Things to worry about incessantly when I can’t sleep.” I imagine other new and/or obese runners will have heard similar, those comments where you wonder whether to take offence or not.

For example:

  • “10k. Will you be running it? Really? All the way?”
  • “Well it’s nice you got a place, but I think it’s a shame for the proper runners who miss out on places.”
  • “You’ve dropped another dress size? I suppose it goes to show that you can eat whatever you want and lose weight so long as you exercise.”
  • “The Great North Run’s a brilliant experience, even though you’ll have to walk, and don’t worry about being near the back.”
  • And so on…

My partner and I forgetting parkrun isn’t a race!

Recurring themes in these comments are:

Surprise. Starting with surprise that I can run at all, followed by surprise at how far I can run, then surprise at the speed I do it in. I’m not offended by that – I know I don’t look how most people image a runner – although I’m definitely far leaner than I was. The surprised people are usually then impressed and interested.

Failure to take me seriously. Comments implying I’m “not a proper runner”. Which of course begs the question “What am I doing that’s improper?” πŸ˜‚

I’m not offended by these comments either – it’s taken me a long time to get my head around the idea that I am a runner, even after several months running regularly and knowing the running community is made up of people of all shapes, sizes and speeds. If I struggle to believe it myself why would I be offended that other people think the same?

Ringing the PB bell the only time to date that I got sub 30.

Implying I’m not trying hard enough. The “eating whatever you like” comments. I’m not offended by this, in fact I think it’s mostly my own fault. I have made dramatic changes to what I eat, but I haven’t banged on about as it half as much as I have about the running. And there are photos of me running all over the place, no photos of me refusing snacks or chopping vegetables! But for the record I’m not eating whatever I want…

I didn’t want to go on “a diet”, because to me that implies prohibiting things and is a temporary change. If I prohibit things I’ll just crave them more. If I just revert to my old eating habits when I reach a healthy weight I’ll just pile the weight back on.

So I aimed to make small, incremental changes to how I eat that mounted up to a big positive difference – and I’ve succeeded, or just about. Stress eating is still a problem.

Food changes I’ve made and (mostly) kept to:

  • No unhealthy snacks at work (except for a couple of really stressful weeks)
  • Healthy snacks ready and available – fruit in the bowl, chopped veg in the fridge, etc.
  • Have a drink rather than eating when first feeling like I need a snack.
  • Smaller portions
  • Fewer treats – e.g. one piece of cake a week, usually after parkrun (except for special occasions!)
  • No treats in the house – if I really want ice cream I have to go out and get it, if I really fancy a biscuit I have to bake them.
  • More cooking from scratch/less processed foods
  • More fruit and veg/less meat and dairy
  • More awareness of what’s in food – labels, protein/carbs/fats etc.
  • More awareness of when I need food – am I running later, will I be stuck at my desk for hours, etc.

All that mounts up to significant changes. Yes, I could restrict my calorie intake more, but I’m doing OK as I am, and the results show.

Im now far enough into my fitness journey not to wobble when someone says something thoughtless, so at the moment I’m not offended by any of those comments. And if I do start worrying about them in future I’m going to shift my focus, because the comments above are a tiny minority. Instead I’ll remind myself of the multitude of positive comments like…

  • “You’re doing so well.”
  • “Guess what I did? You inspired me. I’ve signed up to couch 25K.”
  • “You’re definitely getting faster.”
  • “Will you be doing *insert name of difficult race*?”
  • “See you at parkrun…”

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This year I’m dedicating all my running to two charities that have made a massive difference in my life. If you can spare a Β£ or two please sponsor me.

Going Further and Faster #iblamejulie

I’ve been quiet here for a while, caught in that loop of too much happening to write and the longer I leave it before writing the more there is to write about. I’m stepping out of that loop here and now.

In the past couple of weeks I’ve:

  1. Run further than I’d ever run before – 8.2 miles at a cracking pace.
  2. Run my fastest parkrun without meaning to – the plan was to go steady and gentle, but my steady and gentle is now faster than it was.
  3. Run my first 10k race – thrilled to bits with my finish time of 1.01.53.
  4. Discovered why people have rest days – PB parkrun Saturday, 10k Sunday and running group Monday was not a good plan!

My target this week is to get under 30 minutes at parkrun, and I think I can do it.

The #iblamejulie is in recognition of the difference the online Scream If You Want to go Faster course by Julie Creffield has made to me. I’m now 8 months into my running journey, so not sure I can still call myself a newbie, but I had been mystified by the maze of different advice out there on getting faster / stronger / fitter / lighter. By breaking it down into manageable chunks with a different theme each week, and making me record my progress Scream has guided me through the maze. The online community of participants have compared experiences and supported each other throughout. And definitely I’m running faster and stronger for being part of it.

I’m still struggling with stress eating and seeing my weight wobble around the same amount, so Julie’s focus on accepting what my body can do now, rather than always looking ahead to reaching a goal weight really appeals to me. My body is still obese, but it can do more than I ever believed possible, and I plan on celebrating that rather than beating myself up about not losing weight faster.

Julie isn’t the only one to blame for my improvement. I have lots of other amazing people supporting and encouraging me to push myself and improve and I’m grateful to each and every one of them. There’s my running group TeamCCRG, the women of the This Girl Parkruns North East Group, everyone in the parkrun for people affected by obesity group, not to mention all the individual runners, marshals, volunteers, and even passers by who spur me on with smiles and cheers. It’s amazing the difference a smile can make when you’re struggling! And of course there’s also my family, who are not only trained to put the kettle on as soon as I start stretching but are also joining in as well as encouraging me.

The impact all of this has had on my mental health is massive. My confidence has increased beyond measure. I’m no longer worried about people seeing me run (although as discussed here the jacket stays), I’m more likely to talk to people, to try things I haven’t done before, to keep going when it’s tough. Which isn’t to say the stress, anxiety and depression have gone completely. at the moment stress levels are high and I’m aware of keeping a tight lid on the anxiety to prevent it shooting up too, but I have a whole new set of coping mechanisms to draw on when they do appear.

In July last year when I started running I couldn’t make it to the first lamppost and thought 5k was an impossible goal. Now I’ve done 10k and more. 5k is the shortest distance I run in a week. I will run a half marathon in September. And honestly, if I can do it anyone can. Just start with tiny changes and who knows where you’ll end up.

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I’m running this year to raise funds for two great charities, it would be great if you could sponsor me.

Will run for chocolate…

It’s been one of those weeks of extremes. Racing between appointments and commitments, eating too much to deal with the stress, bad running, checking myself every time I notice my thinking is verging on the over-anxious… But also good news, eating too much to celebrate, good running, congratulating myself when I stop myself over-thinking…

Tuesday saw a long meeting to review my sons EHCP, the document that gets him the additional support he needs. It was a positive meeting, the college he hopes to go seem able to provide what he needs to succeed, but emotionally exhausting. In early years he struggled as myself and his primary school fought to get him help, hearing school praise this confident young man who leads class discussions made me incredibly proud and shows that the right support makes a massive difference to kids with significant additional needs.

That evening I went for a short run, using this weeks Scream if you want to go faster techniques. I enjoyed it but recognised the need to pace myself better.

Wednesday was hectic, but most of note was my daughter getting an offer for her preferred university. Another moment of incredible pride. I decided to celebrate with her instead of going to the gym.

Thursday was supposed to be my long run, a stretched run commute, but I ended up limping to the bus stop with bad pain in my shin. Due to the stress I’m under at the moment my mood plummeted, but I noticed I was catastrophising and was able to turn it around.

I’d planned to run 7-8 miles 😦

Saturday was the Prudhoe Easter Egg 5k, with my partner and son. This is the race my son agreed to take part in when he heard there was chocolate!

It was a lovely sunny morning, fantastic to catch up with friends in a beautiful setting. We got there earlier than planned and were able to see the Junior Run start and finish. Those kids are amazing!

For the race itself I initially tried to stay with my son, who was run walking. As well as his learning disability he has severe dyspraxia, which makes a run of any length really difficult for him. He wanted to walk far more than I did, and shortly before the half way point we’d lost patience with each other and he sent me on ahead.

This is where my anxiety kicks in. I know 999 times out of 1000 he will be OK on his own, but the worry of that other time can paralyse me. Not just what might happen to him, but what will people say about the mother who left a disabled child alone? He wants to be more independent, he’s capable of more independence, but I’m terrified of what could go wrong.

So I’m constantly risk assessing, determining if it’s safe to let him do this himself. This time, I thought, he’s on a marked course with a lot of other people, there are friendly marshals, even the Easter Bunny who he can ask for help if he needs it. Although he forgot his phone the organisers have my mobile as his emergency contact. He’s safe.

We liked that the Easter Bunny was slightly more Monty Python and the Holy Grail than twee commercialism, and his chocolate treats were very welcome after those stairs! πŸ˜€

So I ran, and I deliberately pushed myself to try and make up time lost walking. Not a twinge from my leg, although I took it easier up the stairs and the uphill section just in case. When I was flagging I kept remembering this article I’d read on The Run Experience and concentrated on keeping my legs moving rhythmically with longer strides. It worked.

Not a bad pace considering…

It was a beautiful course, even the unpleasantly steep stairs were in a gorgeous setting, and a great mix of abilities joining in. The sun shone, marshals and spectators cheered, and even passing dog walkers and cyclists wished us well. I finished in a reasonable time considering the walking at the start, eight minutes ahead of my son, who’d done absolutely fine on his own – although those eight minutes felt very long to me. It was definitely a race I’d do again – and not just for the chocolate!

Photo by Janine Calkin for Prudhoe Easter Egg Run.

It was also my first outing for my deliberately not black or grey leggings, a sale bargain from Sturdy by Design. I’ve written recently about how I wanted to be invisible when I started running. As my health and strength increases so does my confidence, these days I’m happy to be seen.

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I’m fundraising this year for SWAN UK which supports families with children like my son who have undiagnosed genetic conditions, and for Newcastle Carers which helps me cope. To donate click here.

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Disclaimer – this is a personal blog, I make no money from it, and any brands I mention are purely because of my experience of them.

I wish I was half as confident as my sports bra thinks I am!

When I first started my move from sofa to regular exercise I hardly thought about the clothes I wore. As an obese woman exercising in public for the first time I wanted to disappear, for people not to notice me. Basically I was looking for Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak but moisture wicking. I settled for whatever fitted, mostly in greys and blacks.

Since I started running I’ve gradually built up a small supply of specialist running kit. I have a limited budget so have to prioritise and seek out bargains. It didn’t take me long to realise that the slapdash, inconsistent attitudes to clothing sizes and availability of plus sizes are as prevalent in sports gear as they are on the high street. Even after losing a lot of weight my size, approximately an 18, ranges from just not stocked at all through XL to XXXL in running kit. And this really affects how I feel about exercising.

Let me share two stories with you to illustrate:

1. The tale of the reflective jacket.

Once nights started drawing in I realised I needed something reflective to keep me safe on my run commutes and dry in the rain. I spotted a jacket online that I loved. It was out of my usual price range so I had to save up.

Eventually I was able to order it. At this stage I wasn’t fully aware of the variations in sizes between brands, but I ordered it in the biggest size available. When it arrived it was great, lightweight, perfectly designed for running in, reflective, a bit unusual… It made me feel like I was a proper runner, if that makes sense.

Then I tried it on. It didn’t even meet across my chest and could only just get around my shoulders. I was gutted. I felt big and clumsy and stupid for expecting that I could have anything nice.

I’m not going to name and shame the brand that didn’t fit me, because it could have been almost any brand. Even the brands that go up to my size only do so on a small selection of their range. I investigated and couldn’t find a single brand that does women’s reflective rainproof jackets that would fit me. 18 is not exceptionally large. I know many runners my size or larger.

I imagine a discussion among the buyers, designers and decision makers at the running brands…

“What about plus sizes?”

“We don’t need to bother about them. Fair weather runners, they’ll stay indoors in the winter. They’re not going to be serious enough about running to pay our prices and invest in decent kit. We only sell to proper runners.”

It makes me, as a plus size runner, feel excluded and overlooked. I run in all weathers, but when it’s dark I’m in danger and when it rains I get wet, because no one thinks women like me deserve decent kit.

If this had happened earlier in my fitness journey I might have given up, but I was already in the habit of running by then. I had goals and things to prove. I have supportive communities of other runners around me and I’m too stubborn to stop!

Today’s parkrun was cold and wet. I was able to borrow a men’s waterproof and get a PB despite the conditions. And I guess I could buy myself a men’s jacket. But why should I? I could buy a plain jacket with a couple of reflective details, but I really wanted a jazzier one! Why can’t I have a decent, fitted, reflective running jacket designed for my shape?

2. The tale of the sports bra.

After consulting with many other runners I heard many good things about Shock Absorber sports bras, and was able to bag a bargain in the January sales. This was a challenge to the invisible black and grey palette that I, as a plus size woman, am used to. To call its orange and green bright is to miss the perfect opportunity to use the word garish. It is ultra supportive, although challenging to get into! But that’s not why I’m telling this story.

My Shock Absorber bra is reflective! Despite being a large size, and I checked and they do go much larger, no one at that brand has considered that plus size women might not be comfortable in public in just a bra. Imagine another conversation between buyers, designers and decision makers…

“What about plus sizes?”

“What about them? We make a quality product with features to safeguard the runners who wear it. Why wouldn’t we include those same features for larger women? They have just as much right to be safe, and to remove layers if they’re hot as anyone else. The reflective details stay.”

My Shock Absorber bra assumes that I am confident enough to wear what’s best to run in, rather than what covers me up the most. I wish I was that confident.

I’ve been running several months now, and I still tie my jacket around my waist because I feel uncomfortable running in public in leggings. Even when it’s below freezing. Although I own a few “proper” running tops I’m likely to revert to oversized cotton Ts once the weather’s warmer, because I’d rather people see the sweaty patches from the effort I’m putting in than the shape of my body.

Society generally makes people my size feel bad about their shape. We’re vilified for “letting ourselves go” but when we try to get more active we’re unable to get the kit we need to stick to it. When you’ve faced that for years it’s hard to get over it. I’m in the ridiculous situation where my bra is the most reflective item of running kit I own!

The first sports manufacturer to recognise the number of plus size runners out there and offer them a full range of kit is going to make a fortune. I wish more of them thought like the people at Shock Absorber!

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Disclaimer – this is a personal blog, I make no money from it, and any brands I mention are purely because of my experience of them.

Disclaimer part 2. The picture of the bra is copyright of Shock Absorber, and used to prevent me having to even consider taking a photo of me in the one I own!

More hills – Night run at Gibside.

Saturday night was my chance to find out if my hill practice had worked. My first night run and my first official run over 5k combined in one of the hilliest places I’ve ever run.

To add to the hill training I’d varied my run commute on Thursday to include more hills, a tactic I pondered the wisdom of as I struggled to keep my shoes on my feet through thick mud and icy winds. The view was good though.

I didn’t fancy doing a 5k run in the morning and a 6k in the evening, so I volunteered at parkrun as tail walker. This involves being at the back of the field of runners and walkers, providing encouragement and support, and finishing last. I was so scared of being last when I started out, now I’m volunteering for it! It was my slowest ever parkrun, but also one of my best as I got the opportunity to get to know other runners and hear what brought them there, rather than focus on myself and my pace.

The night run itself was a fantastic experience, and something I’ll be looking to do again. I arrived early, with son and partner who’d been cajoled into being my support team! Gibside has a pub in the evenings and offers pizza from their bread ovens, so they were content to wait while I ran!

As we enjoyed a cuppa we watched more and more people arrive for the night run. It’s actually 2 runs, a 2k and a 6k, so all ages and abilities amassed in the cafe, keeping out of the cold. It was good to see a lot of familiar faces from running group and parkruns.

It had been sleeting and raining all day, so the briefing warned of mud at various points. Then we were off!

The crowds spread out quite quickly, and at points during the route you could see the lights from other runners spread out across the dark landscape ahead. When it’s dark you can’t see the hills coming!

As expected I had to walk at the steepest bits, but only once for more than 30 seconds. I got settled into the rhythm of running, and resisted the urge to go too fast downhill.

Gibside is a familiar and much loved place for me, but in the darkness I completely lost my bearings. I was very grateful for the volunteer marshals – without them I’d have definitely got lost and probably not have laughed as much.

“Come on, keep moving. If you must walk then at least walk sprightly!” (Night run marshal)

I was pleased with my time, less than 10 minutes over my Gibside parkrun time, for 1 extra k and in the dark! And when I got back to my family they had pizza and a hot cup of tea waiting for me. I call that a good Saturday night πŸ™‚

The difference the dark makes…

Apart from running group, which I only started earlier this month, I pretty much exclusively run in the daylight. I work part time so my run commute is generally finishing as darkness falls, even in winter, and my evenings are generally too full of family to fit in running.

Tonight I decided to run home from work even though I wasn’t finishing until much later in the evening than usual. I had to miss running group and felt I should make up the miles. I could have got up early and done it, but, you know … mornings!

So it was dark by I left work in my reflective gear, and I was instantly struck by how different everything seemed. Shops were shuttered and the streets were quiet, but the pubs were noisy. Back alleys I think nothing of running down in daylight seemed sinister and uninviting.

Image from Pinterest, quote by Terry Pratchett.

My first half mile was the fastest I’ve ever run, just because I wanted to put some distance between me and the drunken rowdiness of the pubs. I knew full well it wasn’t a pace I could sustain, and forced myself to slow to a more manageable rate.

I had areas where I usually weave through pedestrians and cyclists all to myself in the dark. Rather than appreciating the space I felt stressed, anxiety creeping in as the familiar became unfamiliar. I started at every unexpected noise, jumped at shadows.

After a couple of miles, on a stretch I have covered with running group in the dark, I felt less anxious and was able to settle into a steady pace punctuated only by pauses for traffic lights and iPod problems. I kept to the main roads though, telling myself this was an attempt to increase my distance and not me being scared of being alone in the dark!

Not creepy at all!

It was a good run, I felt I could see an improvement just since last week. My stamina is definitely getting back to where it was before the chest infection. By mile 3 I felt like I could keep going for ages, and I didn’t slow to a walk all the way home. However it was a lesson that I need to mix things up, get out of my familiar routine to challenge myself. It’s perfectly possible to run safely in the dark, especially as I live in a well lit city. I will be doing it again.