Monday, 17 October 2016

Not bad for an old woman

Yesterday I completed the Cambridge Town&Gown 10k. And I managed to break my own personal best, putting in a time of 56:35, which I'm still very pleased with. I also finished 64th in my age category, out of 178, which is surprisingly respectable.

I set out more or less convinced that I wouldn't manage to do so, having woken sniffling and sneezing, with an upset stomach, and gazing out of the window at the lashing rain. It may be that the two paracetamol and the phenylephrine I took before the start helped to overcome the pain that usually kicks in. So now I'm running on performance enhancing drugs...

I'm not going to write a blow-by-blow account of this run, for a variety of reasons. Firstly, I've done that once, and I wouldn't want to bore everyone. Secondly I didn't really notice where I was or what I was doing, so it would be hard to describe it all to you. I'm pretty sure my oblivious state was not down to the performance enhancing drugs. I think it was two-fold. Firstly, I'm sufficiently familiar with the streets of Cambridge that I ran round without really looking at anything. Secondly, there were over 1300 people running, so until at least the 7km mark I spent most of my time trying to steer my way round and between people - trying not to run too close to a pair of heels in front, trying not to be drawn into running faster or slower than I wanted, trying not to get jostled by over-takers. After 7km, the crowd had thinned enough that all I was really concerned with was finishing.

I do have a few observations though...

  • Perhaps it was the rain, or perhaps it was a symptom of everything that Northerners claim about Southerners, but running round Rochdale was a lot more friendly than running round Cambridge. There were people out in the streets, cheering us on, children high-fiving us, friendly banter amongst the runners, marshals and spectators in Rochdale. In Cambridge there were wildly disinterested students, utterly perplexed tourists and a wide variety of normal people completely ignoring us. At least nobody tried to run us over in Cambridge, though there was a luxury coach helpfully parked in the middle of the route up Kings' Parade.
  • Water bottles may be irritating to carry once you've realised you didn't want one after all, but they're a lot easier to grab, hold, and drink from than a poxy little plastic cup, which mostly leads to water all over your hands, face and the floor. Given it was raining, this didn't make much difference.
  • Maybe it's a north-south thing again, or maybe it's a small-race vs big-race thing, but the Cambridge 10k had a lot more aggressively competitive, pushy runners in it. Given that the overall winner has run for Team GB, perhaps that's not a huge surprise.
And now on to my major topic. The goody bag. That's right. At the end of a race, you get a goody bag. Though this was only my second race, I've seen enough of BigBear's goody bags to know the form. There's a bag (!) containing a finisher's medal, a t-shirt, a bottle of water, a snack of some description and occasionally the odd other thing.

And thus it was:

A bag

A t-shirt

A medal

A random snack

No, I didn't take a picture of a bottle of water. You know what one looks like, don't you?

I'm eating these now. They're quite good.

I confess there was also a different cereal bar, with yoghurt and cranberries and other tasty stuff, but I ate it while waiting for BigBear and LittleBear to collect me, and I haven't treasured the wrapper just to photograph. It was definitely tasty though.

So there we are. A reasonable selection, and rather more snacks than BigBear usually gets. Except that wasn't all. Next out of the bag was the mystery item:

Why should I love my age?

What's this all about? Did I get a special bag only for forty-something year old women looking rather as though they don't love their age? It looked as though there was just one heap of bags, but I was a bit tired and bewildered after crossing the finishing line.

10km runners are the target market for Lancome?

This is getting more surprising. I really must have stumbled upon the table of bags for tired-looking women of a certain age mustn't I?

Youth Activating Concentrate?

Oh dear. It's not just gunk for women who've been told they have to look younger. It's anti-scientific, over-priced gunk for women who've been told they have to look younger. Seriously, did they give this to everyone, or were they singling out the particularly haggard women? Fewer than half the runners were female, and even fewer than that were in the demographic who are accustomed to being told they need to stop looking their age and start trying to look twenty (or more) years younger.

How did an event that is all about using your body, celebrating your fitness and strength, and pushing your physical limits end up effectively taking sponsorship from a company who peddles the exact opposite? Who tries to convince women that being healthy, fit and strong is not enough, that what you need to do is look young. Never mind that twee "love your age" tag, what they really mean is "we think aging is an abomination that needs treating with expensive products". Sod that, I'm eating the crisps instead.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings

So here we are, back at swimming again. It's been a while since I've written about the stresses of swimming or eating, so it was about time wasn't it?

LittleBear is still having swimming lessons, and still loving it. He's turned into a proper little fish, and has even coped with multiple changes of teacher without batting an eyelid. Which is great. It does also mean his current teacher is completely oblivious to all our early trauma. Which is probably great.

Today, towards the end of the lesson, the new teacher decided to get the children doing a straddle jump into the pool, to keep their heads above water. They'd already swum across the pool underwater and dived to the bottom to collect a weight, so this was not exactly at the daunting end of what they'd been doing. But it was new. And LittleBear is not fond of new. As the first child attempted this new undertaking, LittleBear stood shaking his head slightly, hands clutched together, muttering, "I don't think I can do that...". As the second child jumped, LittleBear took a step backwards, away from the edge of the pool.

And then it was LittleBear's turn.

And not knowing any different, the teacher called him forward, told him what to do and simply expected him to do it. And he did. Not only did he do it, he did it beautifully, arms outstretched, legs astraddle, head remaining completely above water. He was delighted with himself.

Then it was time to climb out and get warm and dry again. LittleBear trotted over to me and said, "I feel... so.... so... so... excited with myself for doing something I've never done, I almost feel like crying!"

Which is possibly the most adorable, emotionally-literate, tear-wellingly gorgeous thing my precious boy has ever said. I'm not sure if I'm more proud of him for doing something he'd never done before, or for being so able to express his feelings on the subject.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

The perils of bad design

There's a really important element to good design. It's one that might seem obvious when I point it out, and yet seems to escape a surprising number of designers. That important element is understanding how your design will be used. That's right, for a design to work well, it needs to work well when it's used. Pretty simple huh? And yet so many everyday objects fall foul of this.

A couple of days ago, LittleBear and I opened up a pack of cards. We'd already been playing Gin Rummy and Patience with a real deck of cards, but LittleBear found a children's pack we'd acquired somewhere along the line, and wanted to play with those. They had jolly pictures for the court cards after all.

Inoffensive enough at first sight...

It was only when we opened them and I had a proper look that I was filled with utter rage. Rage at the idiocy that would allow these cards to be designed, produced and sold. I've turned into Mean Mummy and informed LittleBear that we are Not Allowed To Play With Them. I can tell you're thinking they must be pretty outrageous aren't you? You're wondering if they have something strangely pornographic or perhaps racist on them? Nope. They are simply not fit for purpose. They have been "designed" by someone who has seen a deck of cards, but has never actually played a single card game in their life. Let me show you...

All the cards. Can you spot a problem yet?
I'm expecting BrotherBear and GrannyBear, as fellow card-players, to have a reasonable shot at spotting the issue here. For those of you who didn't have quite such a mis-spent youth* as I did, I'll show you what happened when I dealt a hand of bridge and fanned it out in my hand.

What cards do I even have?
It might now be becoming clear what the problem is. For a start, all the numbers are written in black. Not black for spades and clubs and red for diamonds and hearts. No. Black for everything. But worse that that, is that there are no suit-indicators below the numbers, except on court cards. So with 13 cards, I can only say with certainty that I have the five of clubs, queen of spades and king of hearts. The others? Could be anything. This is what I had to do to be able to see my cards:

My hands are not big enough for this game
A particularly egregious offender is the Ace, where you need to expose the centre of the card to find out what suit it is. Seriously, who would do this to the Ace of Hearts?

Black writing and no suit-mark in the corner
And, for the record, here's what that same hand of cards would have looked like with a proper deck of cards:

Clear, succinct, unambiguous, compact

That is good design. That is design that understands how a hand of cards is held, how they are used, what the important features are. The children's pack? It's a travesty, bearing a vague resemblance to a deck of cards. It can't actually be used properly. And there's no excuse for it. The manufacturing costs of printing a bad design are no greater than printing a good design. This isn't a case of costs being cut at the expense of functionality. This is simply a case of bad design. And I won't have it in my house. Sorry LittleBear.

* According to letters written by my mother, the trouble with playing pontoon/vingt-et-un/blackjack with me aged 4 was that I had a tendency to win the bank and was then terribly slow at dealing the next hand. Aged 4. I almost feel I'm letting my family down in not having taught my son to gamble before the age of 5. Almost.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Art and science

My LittleBear is a very literal, very fact-based little boy. Stories are not his thing. "Fact books", ideally about dinosaurs, are where it's at. He flirts with other branches of science, but palaeontology is still his first love. And now he's started at school, and is having to adapt to the idea that, just perhaps, there may be other things to learn at school than just palaeontology. The good news is that he's absolutely loving it, and bounces home every day full of enthusiasm. And tucked into his bag every day are various pieces of "art" or writing that he has undertaken. And I'm continually tickled by his choice of subject matter.

Naturally, the overwhelming majority of pictures are dinosaurs. And of those, the overwhelming majority are pictures of Spinosaurus. For those who haven't been undertaking a rigorous indoctrination in late-Cretaceous carnivores, Spinosaurus is the largest carnivorous dinosaur ever to have existed*, and therefore holds top spot in LittleBear's heart. A typical depiction of a Spinosaurus has splendidly exaggerated teeth:

Spinosaurus with butterfly

LittleBear doesn't always draw dinosaurs, in fact one of the early pictures to come home seemed  somewhat underwhelming on first inspection...

Practicing circles?
... until, that is, LittleBear explained it to me. At which point I thought it was considerably more awesome than the Spinosaurus picture (which, being a doting mother, I already thought was pretty awesome). Starting from the left...

"That's the sun Mummy, and then Mercury is the little one, then Earth and Venus are the same size, then Mars and then Jupiter, which is the biggest, and Saturn has rings. Is it Uranus or Neptune next? It's Uranus and then Neptune. And then I've put Pluto there, because I think Pluto is still a planet, and they're wrong that it's not. And that's just the nose of the tenth planet there, that we don't know about properly yet."

And then, after a short pause, LittleBear exclaimed in some distress "Oh no! I missed out the asteroid belt!"

The solar system!

For those of you who are temporarily (or permanently) thinking that

(a) my son is some kind of freak or
(b) I am some kind of freak and
(c) I beat random science into him from an early age or
(d) I'm making all this up

He isn't; I might be; I didn't; and I'm not.

On the other hand, if you want to know how or why LittleBear knows this stuff, I do commend to you a CD of music by They Might Be Giants called "Here Comes Science". Not only are there lots of brilliant, child-friendly, relatively accurate songs about science, but they also come with a DVD with fantastic, funny animations. And by listening to and watching these so many times the whole family knows considerably more about such subjects as the composition of the sun, the order of the planets, evolution, states of matter and the circulation system of the human body than might be considered strictly normal or necessary.

And it is courtesy of this particular DVD that LittleBear took it upon himself to execute this next piece of art:

Yes, that's right, he made a sterling attempt at recreating an image of the double helix of DNA.

I think I'm looking forward to his first parents' evening in two weeks time. Though a little part of me is already cringing inside wondering what exactly the lovely Miss H thinks of him, and by extension his parents.

* According to some scientists, and only when considering total length. There's no arguing with LittleBear on the subject however.

Footnote: If you really want to explore the intersection of art and science, you should check out some of the stuff my friend Siân is doing.

Friday, 30 September 2016

Not like the other mothers

Through careful observation, I have concluded that I am Not Like The Other Mothers. And for once (it had to happen) I actually like the way I am, and don't see this difference as a bad thing.

My moment of revelation came a couple of days ago, outside school. It came when I found myself rolling around on the lawn of the Baptist Church, being tickled by an assorted gaggle of small children, only one of which was mine. I couldn't help but notice that I was the only mother thus engaged. The others were being all grown-up and sensible and standing on the path chatting to each other, occasionally casting a fond eye over their offspring.

How exactly did I come to be desecrating the coiffured grounds of the church lawns with such silliness? Well, LittleBear started by asking me to chase him and tickle him. How could I refuse? How can anyone refuse to play a game of tickle-chase with a four-year old moppet? And then obviously, it was his turn to chase and tickle me. Which was only fair. And naturally, being somewhat taller than LittleBear, it was only reasonable that I allow him to pull me to the ground for better tickle-access. And what could be more irresistable when an adult is lying on the ground being tickled that all available children join in the tickling?

And so there I was, rolling around on the grass, with an assortment of children I'd never met tickling me. In full view of the whole village.

I couldn't help but ponder how it was that I was the only parent to whom this happened, and I concluded that the divergence occurred at the point where I was asked to chase and tickle LittleBear. I have a sneaking suspicion that the acquiescence to this request, which I view as entirely normal, is in fact one of those things Normal People Don't Do. I fear Normal People might have a sense of dignity, or some other such nonsense.

Other mothers don't seem to take their shoes and socks off and paddle in streams.

Other mothers don't seem to climb the climbing frame.

Other mothers don't seem to roll around on the ground being tickled.

Other mothers don't seem to play hide-and-seek in the graveyard.

Other mothers don't seem to leap from boulder to boulder at the recreation ground in high heels.

And you know what? I'm fine with that. I'm not other mothers. And other mothers aren't me. So I'm going to keep hopping from rock to rock, rolling on the church lawn and being silly with LittleBear for as long as he'll let me. And if I get funny looks from the other mothers? They probably weren't going to be my friends anyway.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Mile by mile

Well, I did it. I ran 10km in less than an hour. Only 30 seconds less than an hour, but it was still what I set out to do. And I also finished ahead of my 72 year-old father-in-law, so avoided complete humiliation. In fact, in the "Female veterans between 40 and 45" category, I came 10th. And no, there weren't only ten people fitting that description. There were 22. In fact out of a total of 303 finishers, I was 148th. So all told, mid-table mediocrity. But that wasn't really the point. The point was surprisingly well summarised in a trite Facebook meme I saw that said something along the lines of:

"I don't run to be better than other people. I run to be better than I used to be."

Unfortunately, I missed the mark slightly even by those standards, since the previous weekend I'd run marginally faster than that in training, but that's probably not the point either.

Meanwhile, here's my take on the 6.22 miles that I ran...

Mile 1

As foretold in the Writings of Husband, the race started off too fast. Combined with the Wisdom of GrandadBear, which stated there would be a jumbled melee of bodies weaving round each other getting over the starting line. Both these things came to pass. And despite the Meanderthals on the starting line, I ran the first mile too fast. Not massively too fast, but not the easy start I'd intended*.

Mile 2

Oh dear. A hill. Who put that there, and why? My home town has a certain hill-deficit, so all my training has been on the flat. This was perhaps An Error. The hill's not too vicious - about a third of a mile of steady ascent through the back streets of Rochdale, gaining a massive 70 feet. It's rather reminiscent of "Call the Midwife" with terraced houses opening straight onto the streets, grubby children running up and down, mothers in doorways with babes propped on hips. All friendly, with many waves, cheers and high fives at the lumbering, sweating bodies dragging themselves up the hill.

Round the corner and thunder down hill, only to find it then kicks back up again. Arse. The second mile finishes just as we begin to level off again. A disastrous time for that mile. My dreams of a sub-hour time are evaporating.

Mile 3

A levelish, easyish patch here, and I'm in amongst a group of people all running a fairly steady pace. This seems OK. We get to the water station, and I cruise through, not having been needing any water when training, even in much higher temperatures. Then I have a last minute panic - what if today's the day I need water? So I grab a bottle from the last person in the water line and keep going. Only now I've got a bloody bottle to carry, which is rather annoying, since I don't want a drink, there are no bins, and I'm far too British to litter.

Soon we're on to the canal towpath, which has the advantage of being flat (hooray!) but the disadvantage of being muddy, narrow and slow. No real chance to overtake the bumblers in front and suddenly it turns out my third mile is completed in a poor time. I realise that the group who are running a fairly steady pace are going a bit slower than I want to run. Time to shape up and set my own pace.

Mile 4

Some bewildering back and forth on a couple of roads, executing u-turns at each end. Clearly parts of the route put in to make up the exact distance, but irritating to run. Not helped by the muppets who've decided to ignore the cones, barriers and "Road Closed" signs, and not only drive along the roads we're running on, but do so while playing a constant string of obnoxious tones on their car horns. Sadly the race marshals are not armed and dangerous so aside for some brisk "tutting" not much happens. A good time for the fourth mile, and the comfort of knowing I'm on the homeward leg now. The water bottle is becoming increasingly annoying, though I've taken a few swigs, just to pretend to myself that it was worth grabbing.

Mile 5

Back up and down the hilly bit now. The good news is that the third of a mile that I laboured up in mile 2 is all downhill now. The bad news is that the short sharp stretch I "thundered" down is now an up. But I'm damned if I'm going to let it beat me, so I lean in to it, grit my teeth and drive on. And I overtake people all the way up, don't drop my pace and feel better about that 0.1mile than about most of the rest of the race. For a moment I felt a surge of pride as I overtook a much younger, much slimmer, much fitter woman in running club gear... and then realised she was pausing to use her asthma inhaler. There's a limit to how smug anyone can feel at overtaking someone having an asthma attack.

Why are there no bins for this sodding bottle?

Mile 6 (and a little bit)

We reconvene with the half marathon route and are confronted with a sign marking the 12 mile point. The very thought makes me want to whimper. But I've got three good miles under my belt, along with two poor ones, so if I can keep it up for the last mile, I might still break the hour mark. But it's hurting now. The heavy pounding of the hills has got me in the hips, so much so that I'm barely feeling the shin splints any more.

There's an idiot running almost alongside me, except he's not, he's sprinting for twenty paces, then walking for ten, then repeating. Which means he's passing me, dropping back, passing me, dropping back, and driving me bloody insane. And then the race marshal steps off the pavement and right in front of me. As if the half-wits in cars on closed roads weren't bad enough, now the marshals are out to get me too.

I glance down at my watch... 0.3 miles to go... and I might just make it. Then I realise that's the same distance as from the pub to home, and I usually put my foot down and go flat out when I'm running the final stretch from pub to home**. So I give one last push, extend my stride, relax my shoulders and just go for it. As close to a "sprint" as I can manage after 6 miles. Round the corner, over the bridge and into the finishing straight in front of the Town Hall. BigBear is sitting by the cenotaph, but he doesn't spot me, and I don't want to waste energy with a wave. I'm in a clear patch as I head for the finish line, so the announcer has a chance to check my number and call my name out with a "well done" as I cross the line. 59 minutes and 30 seconds.

And because no analysis is complete without a graph, here's the profile of the run, with a few comments of my own:

 The Aftermath

I feel both relieved and disappointed. My breathing and heart-rate recover surprisingly quickly and I'm left with the feeling that I could have pushed myself harder, could have got a better time, could have, should have... Except my legs are wrecked. More wrecked than from any other run. It's the hills I think. Parts of me hurt that haven't hurt in training. I'm glad I did it. Glad I broke the hour barrier. But I wish I'd done better. Not to "beat" anyone else, but because I think there's better in me. So do you know what I've done?

I've signed up for a flat 10k in my home town in three weeks time. It was the only answer.

* For those wondering how I'm so confident about my times, distances and paces, I'm now the proud owner of BigBear's cast-off GPS running watch. It knows where I am and it knows what I'm doing. Which is kind of worrying.

** No, I don't train by running home from the pub, it just happens to be a landmark on the way back to the house from most of my routes. Honest.

Footnote: updated to remove some of the slightly fruitier language about people driving on the closed roads.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Highs and lows of starting school

Obviously, every "Mummy blogger" on the planet has written a post about starting school, about the pride and the sense of loss, about the fears and the hopes, and since I'm never one to shy away from a bandwagon, here's my version of all the cliches...

For the past six months or so, I'd been relatively sanguine about LittleBear starting school. He was so obviously ready to start learning more and discovering more, and having more opportunities. And then it started to get closer, and more real and more immediate, and instead of the hopes and opportunities all I could see was the little, fragile, sensitive, solitary child who struggles with new experiences and who I was about to dump in the ultimate new experience. And every fibre of my being screamed not to let go of my baby, despite knowing full well that this was a normal, healthy, necessary step in his path through life.

And so we got to his starting days. Blessedly, only half-days to begin with. And that first half day I felt sick with anxiety, terrified that my LittleBear would be overwhelmed and daunted. That he would be bewildered and upset. That he would hate it and beg not to go back. After all, we'd had four years of nursery, regularly punctuated by sobbing fits of "I don't want to go to nursery" and a limpet clinging to me as I tried to leave him there.

But no. School was brilliant. School was fun. School was exciting.

And then we moved on to slightly longer at school each day. And still he was happy.

And then he came home from school in alternative pants and trousers having had an "accident". This is my little boy who hasn't had any kind of accident in nearly two years. My little boy who went from nappies to dry in a week. But... he's also my little boy who always needs reminding to go to the loo as he fidgets, squirms, wriggles and insists he doesn't need a wee. And it sent me into a flat spin. He didn't seem even remotely bothered, and could barely remember what had happened, or where, or when. It was a complete irrelevance in his day, certainly compared to the sausages, mash and chocolate cake he'd had for lunch. But I was instantly and completely convinced that it was a Harbinger of Doom. A Sign. A Terrible Portent. It was irrevocable evidence that he was unhappy, unsure of himself and Everything Was Going Wrong. Because I never over-react to anything. Not me.

So then I spent the whole weekend intermittently weeping gently about my baby, about whether he was going to be OK, about whether we were entering a terrible regression into wetting himself, about whether he was actually afraid or confused or unhappy and I wouldn't be able to help.

And then Monday rolled around, and not only was it the first full day of school, but it was also the first day to involve half an hour at the "breakfast club" before school to give both BigBear and I the chance to get to work on time. And we both felt like complete heels leaving our little scrap there, looking small and lost and confused.

I wept on the way to work, missing my constant companion, missing his little voice piping up from the back seat asking for stories, missing the silliness and the happiness we used to share in the car. I'd had four years in which I'd always had LittleBear with me on the way to work. There had been plenty of times I'd been desperate for some peace and quiet, when I'd longed to just listen to the radio and not have to pretend to be a particularly ill-informed bunny rabbit, when I'd wished to be able to stop telling endless dinosaur stories, but after three days of peace and quiet, I missed my boy. Couldn't we just wind back the clock and I could have him with me again? I felt bereft. Alone. Lost.

Meanwhile... LittleBear had a lovely day. Breakfast club was apparently splendid, and the drawing he produced (of a dinosaur) was so incredibly awesome that the lady there took a photocopy of it to keep for herself*. And lunch was fishfingers and chips, and he got to play on the trikes at play-time and he couldn't remember anything else.

And though I miss my time in the car with my adorable boy, I've discovered that I have something better. I collect him from school at 3pm and we have nearly three whole hours to play together before dinner. None of the frantic rush that work days used to involve - sprinting through the door, dropping bags left, right and centre and hastily trying to throw together dinner in six and a quarter minutes. I no longer have a whole Monday and Friday at home with him, but I do get a great big chunk of time every day.

So while I haven't exactly stopped worrying about my baby's wellbeing and happiness (after all, he told me today "I prefer playing on my own at school, because then other people can't annoy me") I am going to relish the fact that I get time to play every day. I'm going to be grateful that I'm lucky enough to have a job that will allow me to collect him from school every day and sweep him up in a cuddle (for as long as he will allow such an indignity). And I'm going to try to stop imagining the worst. Because I'm sure you've all noticed how good I am at that.

* This is LittleBear's interpretation of the event. I'm not entirely sure what actually happened.