Running Tips for Beginners and enthusiastic old people alike!

Let me start by pointing out that in no way am I any kind of expert on running. So I’m not claiming that what I write about in this blog is any kind of guarantee of success. There is no way on Earth that reading this blog is going to make you some kind of Olympian! However, as someone who’s ran on and off – more on than off, but a little stop start now and again – for most of his 49 years, I can certainly say that I speak from experience.

Running is something I’ve always loved. It was something that I started at school and success at junior school sports days whetted my appetite. I discovered very early on that I was in possession of a good turn of pace and despite my size, was capable of beating more or less anyone I raced. For a while at least. A heart problem put pay to that and once I recovered I found that I wasn’t the ‘athlete’* I’d once been.

*The term athlete is being used with quite an amount of creative license here by the way. I was a quick kid but that was about the size of it!

With my childhood heart problem taken care of I started running again, albeit not as well as before. But I really wanted to raise money for the heart unit where I’d had my operation and so, to cut a long story short, I started running more regularly and more seriously. I started to do sponsored fun runs and from there graduated to doing the Great North Run, a half marathon, raising money as I went. After that, I just kept on running either for fun or more competitively for clubs. In my time I’ve completed a number of half marathons, but mostly just ran for fun. That said, that’s a lot of running! And in the last few years, following more heart problems, I’ve started running much more regularly. It’s amazing what a health scare can do for you! So you never know, there might just be a bit of common sense in the tips that I can offer! So here we go…

  1. Preparation, preparation, preparation! I can’t lie; there are far too many times that I go out having not prepared properly. If it’s an evening run I tend to make the excuse that I’ve been on my feet all day at work, so I’ll be fully warmed up anyway. But it’s never true and the proof is never more evident in those first couple of miles when I can’t get into my running or afterwards when everything seizes up! So, it’s a little bit of a case of doing what I say and not necessarily what I do here. Take time to warm up. Stretch thoroughly and perhaps even go as far as some running on the spot beforehand. Your body will thank you for it later! Stretching isn’t the only thing you can do though. I always make sure that I’ve had a blast on my inhaler – I’m asthmatic – as I don’t want to be too out of breath too soon. I’ve also started eating a handful of pine nuts and cashews before I head out, just in the hope of a bit of an energy burst. Pine nuts are good in terms of being heart healthy and contain things like iron and magnesium, which can boost energy. Don’t eat so many that you end up running with indigestion, but I always find they help me along the way. Cashew nuts contain healthy fats and again are heart healthy. I can’t claim to be an expert on all things dietary, but even if it’s as a placebo, I find that handfuls of things like this help me out.

The final thing that I make sure I do is to have a few jelly sweets in a pocket, ready for a quick sugar rush when I feel I might be flagging just a little bit too much. My personal choice are Mike and Ike’s, a nicely sugary coated import from America, available in B&Ms brilliant and strange American Confectionary section. Other jelly based confectionary, American or otherwise, is available. All over the place.

2. Clothing. Unless you’re into naked running, clothing is a vital part of your armour as a runner. Some would say it’s essential. From a personal point of view, having never tried naked running, I’d always go with clothing; no one repeat no one, needs to see me and my middle aged body charging down the road, in the nip as they say.

Silliness aside, good quality running gear is important. But there are levels here. I’m not someone who feels the need to splash ridiculous amounts of cash on what I’m sweating into, but I do want to feel comfortable and at least look the part without it being a case of ‘all the gear, no idea’.

The most important thing – in my humble opinion – is to get a good quality pair of trainers that you’re comfortable in. I used to run in Nike flats, but found that their very thin nature meant that they wore out relatively quickly. So eventually I went for a reasonably priced pair of New Balance 680 v6, which feature a nicely cushioned sole. Game changer! Suddenly I was running faster, going further and more importantly at my age, not suffering with aches and pains for days after. You could say that I’m a convert to cushioning. I’ve since bought a new pair of New Balance, but my 680s are hanging on in there and I’m out running in them regularly. I’ve found that some good quality running socks feel a lot better too.

In terms if what else I wear, I prefer 2in1 shorts, with an inner cycling short lining. I’m all for keeping those hamstrings warm! What I would also advise with running shorts is that you buy something with some kind of pocket. That way, anything light that you need to take can be stored away. My pockets always have a few jelly sweets and I find my door key handy for getting back into the house!

I’d also advise buying specialist running tops. I’m a t-shirt man myself. My build just doesn’t lend itself to vests and no one needs the sight of any more of my body! What I would say is that you should have something bright or even high viz, just for your own safety. It’s surprising how people many just don’t see you coming, so be as visible as possible, especially on more murky days or evenings. With this in mind, I was pleased when my wife bought me a couple of light up bands that I can wear around my upper arms in winter. If it gets too late and the light is cutting in, I just flick a switch and they light up, leaving me to focus on my running rather than whether or not I might get knocked over! They’re lightweight and comfortable too, which is ideal for people like me who hate running with anything annoying attached to me. You can see the kind of thing I mean below, although there are lots of variants on this particular accessory.

3. No excuses. Until the last 18 months or so I’ve always been brilliant at coming up with excuses as to why I shouldn’t go out for a run. And excuses as to why I should come in early from a run. Drizzle, too windy (weather, not me), a niggling and sometimes not real injury, not enough time, too close to lunch, not enough sleep, not in the right frame of mind, too windy (me this time), too sunny…I’ve gone through phases where anything I could tell myself would be enough to stay where I was and not head out for a run.

Don’t do it. Those endorphins won’t release themselves. However tired you think you feel, however bad your day at work was, get out for that run. Keep up the momentum. You’ll feel better for it. You’ll be pleased with yourself. You’ll have improved your fitness, just a little bit. But if you let that excuse keep you in then you’ll find another one the next time and even when you get back out again, you’ll excuse yourself some more, another time.

Once I stopped making excuses and just getting out there, I got fitter, stronger and faster. It’s taken me a long, long time, but nowadays the weather and the niggles don’t get in the way and I’m absolutely loving my running.

4. Plan a route (kind of). Personally, I don’t like to plan a very detailed route, but I like an idea of where I’m going, vaguely which set of streets I’ll be running along and more to the point, where I turn for home. I keep it vague for one reason: if I want to add a chunk of running in, I can and that means that I can feel good about myself once I get home. If I know that where I’m headed will take me say for 5km but I’m feeling good, then I might add a few extra streets in and before I know it I’ve covered an extra kilometre or two. And I can’t pretend that it doesn’t make me feel a whole lot better. Maybe it’s just a me thing, but I’d definitely recommend it. I suppose in a way it means I get to explore little bits of town, rather than just running another circuit of somewhere and I find my way a bit more interesting. Sometimes it’s good to keep my mind distracted from how my legs are doing and heading down a couple of new streets does just that!

5. Recovery. Over the last 18 months I’ve learnt that once I get back in after a run, my next hour or so is really important. I always used to make sure that I had a drink of water, but it was never anywhere near enough. And I’d never stretch.

Nowadays everything has changed. When I remember, I put a bottle of water into the freezer before I head out for my run. I’ll neck that as soon as I get in and then refill and drink slowly for a while. I might even refill again after that. I also make sure I eat a banana as soon as I get in. I might even have more cashews or pine nuts. If I have any pain I have a massage roller ball that I put in the freezer and then massage with when I get home and it works wonders! And I make sure I stretch again. This is usually done while lying or sitting down, touching my toes or painfully pulling my feet back behind my back. Before, I might well have just flopped down in a chair and watched television, then wondered why my muscles just stiffened up half an hour later. I’d wake up next morning and find it difficult to walk, such was the stiffness in my legs and back. And then lockdown happened.

During lockdown I read a lot of things about running and exercise. I also did online workouts and learnt the value of warming down and recovery from this. I can’t recommend it enough. The stretching helps to loosen and lengthen the muscles again and the fruit and snacking helps throw vitamins back into the body, which can only help. The water replaces fluid that you’ve lost while also refreshing you, obviously. It seems obvious now and why I totally ignored recovery for so many years is beyond me, but I would absolutely recommend that you take far better care of yourself after you’ve ran. You’ll feel so much better for it.

I hope these tips – some more obvious than others – will come in handy for you. Like I said before, I’m no expert, but I’ve found that these things have helped my running immeasurably. I’m faster and stronger, but more to the point, I enjoy my running much more than ever.

As usual, feel free to let me know what you think by leaving a comment. Oh, and happy running!

Poetry Blog: Sixth on the list (behind key workers and various degrees of old people.)

I had my first dose of the Covid vaccine last weekend and it’s safe to say that it felt like quite a momentous occasion. As someone regarded as being vulnerable to the virus, it was something I’d kind of looked forward to since news of a vaccine first broke. Not in the same way as I might look forward to some beer and cake, a new Grandaddy record or Christmas, but I was looking forward to it.

It was done early on Saturday morning and I was in and out within about 20 minutes, including having to queue outside for around 10 minutes. Everything was well organised, the staff were friendly and helpful and it was a generally positive experience. Definitely something worth writing a poem about. And it would have been a bright and breezy, optimistic poem as well. But then the side effects hit on Saturday afternoon…

Anyway, here’s my poem about having the vaccine.

'Sixth on the list (behind key workers and various degrees of old people.)'

On a misty Spring morning the air fizzes with an optimism and good humour
that I can't remember feeling in a long while.
March gently attempts to wrestle February to one side 
and it's almost twelve months since the fear began.

Within minutes a smiling volunteer injects some fight into my
'at risk' body that signals hope, a way forward, a route home.
As I walk back, the town is waking up and as their day breaks
I feel I have a secret that I'd like to share with all.

I bury my bare hands deep inside the pockets of a jacket,
turn my collar to fight the chill and resist the urge to skip 
down the hill to my front door, safe in the knowledge that
I have at least half of the weapons needed for the rest of the fight.

The rest is a canyon sized unknown; I will suffer to feel good,
wait in the dark to feel better and then go through
it all again before I am able to even think about 
casting aside the unwanted cloud of our restrictions.

Over sixteen hours later, having grumbled my way through
discomfort, nausea, shivers, fatigue and pain, 
having shouted myself hoarse at a curse of Magpies, I will sit alone,
at the kitchen table, as the house sleeps around me.

I will try to find the words to make it all sound like a proper
opera, praying silently for sleep and the chance to shut down
the hell and then feel well again, but fail as all the while 
one inane thought gnaws away at my brain:

I didn't even get a sticker.

On the whole, I have to say that the whole vaccine thing was a positive experience. It wasn’t stressful at all, mainly because of the way it was organised and the staff, but my worries about the after effects would come true and then some!

For the first few hours, all I suffered with was a bit of a sore arm, but then gradually more and more went wrong. I was fatigued, felt sick, was dizzy, everywhere ached and I just felt incredibly rough, as mentioned in the poem. Strangely though, when it came to heading off to bed, I was wide awake and ended up back downstairs, where I proceeded to open a notebook and write this poem!

I managed some sleep that night, eventually, but didn’t really feel a great deal better on the Sunday. It doesn’t matter though. The fact that I’m safer now means the world and the fact that I may be able to see my family and friends again relatively soon, makes it all worth while.

As for the poem, it’s all quite straightforward, although there’s maybe a couple of lines in the sixth and seventh stanzas that are probably best explained. Despite feeling worse than I’ve felt for a long time, I was fully aware that my football team, Newcastle United were playing that evening, live on Sky Sports. There was no way that I was missing it, as long as I could keep my eyes open. Hence then the line about shouting myself hoarse at a curse of magpies, as if you don’t know, we play in black and white stripes and are known as the magpies. It’s safe to say that my croaky voice next morning had nothing at all to do with the vaccine. The other line that I wanted to explain was the bit about making it sound like a ‘proper opera’. That’s me laughing at myself as I wrote the poem. The opera reference, be it soap or the more theatrical version is me looking back and just wondering if I’ve made a bit of a big deal about it all! In my defence, it was particularly horrible though…

As always, I hope you enjoyed the poem and I’d be interested to hear any feedback you might have, so feel free to leave a comment.

Heart ops, Strava groups and 7am starts – how I fell in love with running again.

Looking back, I’ve been a runner most of my life. From scratch races around our estate and school sports days, cross countries and a brief dalliance with a running club I’ve always done it. And I’ve always loved it.

I was born with several heart problems. The main one was a hole in the heart, but there were a few other things that when combined, put my life at risk. As a child, up until the age of about 6 or 7 I spent a lot of time in hospitals and had open heart surgery at a young age when such a thing was very much still in its infancy. I was weak, scrawny and described by my surgeon as “a very poorly little boy”.

I got through, but for a long time I stayed as very much that same scrawny little boy. I don’t know whether my illness contributed, but I took a long time to really grow and always found myself playing catch up with kids of my own age. I was forever skinnier and until I was about 16 years old, I was shorter too. Where any kind of sport was concerned it didn’t bother me a bit. I was always doing some kind of actvity, and while I may not have been the best, I was prepared to put in the hard work in order to improve.

In terms of running, I had a bit of an advantage from quite an early age. I seemed to have decent pace in sprints and about enough stamina to hold my own at longer distances. But I was never quite good enough to make me really happy. I still really enjoyed running though. However, always being not quite good enough began to get to me in the end and I would suffer mentally while running, whether it was a race or I was just out on a training run. Nothing terrible, just a bit of what I saw as a weakness. I’d drift off, losing focus on what I was doing and begin to hear my own voice often telling me I’d done enough, or that I was far too tired and that I should just stop and walk. As time went on I began to just lose interest. In the end on one of the final times that I entered the Great North Run (a famous UK half marathon) I had a bit of a shocker! I had trained sporadically and ended up just putting faith in the fact that I’d done the race enough times before to be able to know what I was doing. It didn’t turn out that way.

To compound my lack of fitness, it was a really sunny day and I got sunstroke. By the time I’d finished I found talking difficult and was slurring my words. I’d arranged to meet my then girlfriend – and now wife – along with, I think my mam and dad, at a certain point away from what would be a crowded finish area once I’d finished. However, by the time I arrived I think they were considering sending out a search party! I vaguely remember asking a man on the baggage bus where our meeting point was but really not understanding his explanation, such was the state I was in. In the end, I gathered my thoughts somewhat and just staggered in the general direction of where I felt it was and finally found my welcoming party. After that, I remember being forced to drink a lot of water and then falling asleep on the back seat of the car, draped across my girlfriend’s lap. I genuinely don’t remember much at all about the actual run.

Needless to say, the whole experience put me off running for quite a while and it was a long time before I found the motivation to start running seriously again. However, to cut a long story short, I got motivated enough to do one final Great North Run (my 6th) in order to exorcise those particular demons, ran it in a decent time, proved a point to myself and then more or less gave up running for a number of years.

Until my mid to late 40s I didn’t really run again much at all. And then – as has been documented in a few previous blogs – heart problems struck again and I decided that I needed to get fit. As far as I was concerned I’d had a gentle brush with death and wasn’t prepared to sit around and allow my body to go to seed any longer. So I ran for my life.

Even then my running was relatively sporadic. I’ve always been particularly prone to niggling injuries and sadly it’s always been something that I’ve allowed to put me off. I think as I’ve got older I’ve got mentally weaker in terms of levels of determination and used small injuries, colds etc. as a good enough excuse to duck out of a run or two. But then something else happened that completely changed my outlook and fortunately allowed me to make my body a great deal fitter and stronger.

When Coronavirus struck, I ran. Simple as that. Being told that I was particularly vulnerable to the virus and then watching how dangerous it could be, made me think. I needed to be as fit and as strong as possible. I had to be prepared to fight. So I fought. And this time I fought properly.

By March of this year I was in lockdown and unable to work. I genuinely didn’t know what I’d do to get through the initial four weeks that I was going to be away from work. So when schools closed and Joe Wicks decided that he’d run a live family fitness class every morning of lockdown, I jumped on it.

Initially it was our whole family. But when my four weeks turned into 6 months, things got busier for the rest of the family. My kids were being schooled remotely (until my then Year 6 son went back to actual school) and my wife was working from home. This left me, pig-headedly doing a Joe Wicks workout every morning at 9am and without realising it for a while, getting much fitter and stronger into the bargain. Suddenly one morning while having a shave I noticed the appearance of actual muscles on my arms, across my shoulders and chest and thought, well this is a bit different!

After a few weeks I felt fitter than I had in years and so started getting into the habit of finishing a workout and then heading out for a run on at least a couple of occasions in a week. And what a difference a bit of strength makes! A couple of weeks later and I was beating personal bests every time that I went out. If I ran 3km on the Tuesday, then I’d run 3.5km on the Thursday, until I was regularly running a 5k after a couple of workouts per week. Just over a year ago, I started to do Park Run and after a couple recorded a 5km personal best of 28 minutes and 56 seconds. That was enough to give me an excuse to stop again! Now, after a few months of going out running, that personal best has been broken several times and now stands at 24.48. Who knew that being actually, properly fit could make such a difference!

Clearly, taking fitness seriously has really worked for me. As someone who’s thought of himself as a runner for years, I’ve now realised that this is actually the fittest I’ve been in probably 25 years and at the same time, the best I’ve been at running! Other commitments mean that I have to limit my running to twice a week, but I find myself getting quite giddy in the lead up to a run. I can’t wait to leave work on a Thursday so that I can get home, stretch and then go for a run with my son. I wouldn’t say I was obsessed, but it’s definitely a mild addiction.

Recently, because of new lockdown rules, grassroots sport was cancelled and I usually coach an Under 12s football team. Armed with the knowledge of what the last lockdown did to my team, I was quick to put in a plan. And armed with a new fitness regime, it was always going to involve running!

The last lockdown meant that the only contact I had with many of my players was via a parents WhatsApp group and all that I could really do was check how they were. It also meant that by the time they returned to football, months later, many of them were really out of shape. So this time I had a plan.

We’ve set a 5km challenge, meaning that we’re trying to get every kid in a squad of 14 to run at least 5km per week. This will hopefully keep them fit. We’ve formed a club on the Strava app, meaning that we can all check each other’s progress, the kids are getting respect from each other and there’s a good level of challenge as they can see each other’s efforts in the app. As a coach I can keep an eye on who’s doing what and it’s definitely going to help me to pick a team when we’re all back together as, apart from anything else, I’ll know who should have the fitness to last an hour of playing time! While there are some who’ve avoided it, the majority have taken up the challenge and I know that they’ll be in better shape than last time when we finally play again. The whole thing seems to have kept spirits up within the team too and it’s been brilliant to see each of them trying to improve on their efforts. It’s also been a brilliant way for me to test myself and set a good example to my team too. We’ve even got one or two of the mums and dads joining in too, so running has been a bit of a saviour over the last month or so!

Yes, of course I chose my longest run to screenshot!

So where am I at with my running currently then? Well, given everything in my life – and I’ll be honest, my age – I’ve made sure that I only go out and run twice a week. I run on a Thursday evening with my son, simply because that’s when he should have his football training. I also get up ridiculously early on a Sunday morning and go out for a long solo run, while there’s hardly anyone around.

Fitness-wise, this is great. I’ve been out on the last four Sundays and starting with a 5 miler, have progressed up to my latest effort of 8 miles. This is the furthest I’ve probably run in at least 10 years! I have to say, I love it. There’s nothing quite like running through a foggy Yorkshire town at 7am, knowing that it’s more or less just you for streets and streets around! I’m alone with my thoughts, watching day break (sometimes I even see the sun come up, but this is northern England, so it’s a rarity) and just completely relaxed. It hurts, I must admit, but it doesn’t really matter. As I’ve previously explained, I’m much fitter and stronger and so feel that I can recover fairly quickly, where before it might have taken me days of walking like I’d had a blunt object inserted somewhere unpleasant before I was back to feeling even remotely normal. Like I say, it’s amazing what being properly fit will do for you!

The start of a beautiful sunrise during one of my early morning runs.
But sadly, it’s not always as lovely!

If the pandemic allows I plan to run at least one race for charity in 2021, partly to raise money for a heart fund, but also in memory of a couple of friends who we’ve lost this year. It’s been a tough time and I’d really like to be able to give a little bit back. And now I have a way of doing that again.

It feels like a bit of a success story. I’ve rediscovered something that I really loved and feel that I’ve become much, much better at it too. And for a man of my advancing years it’s been a real boost. Given the context of things with a global pandemic, lockdowns, normality being taken away and the fact that we’re unable to see family and friends, I think we all need a bit of a boost. Perhaps, if you feel like having one too, you might go out for a little run and see how it feels? I’d definitely recommend it!

Poetry Blog – ‘No blue lights.’

Photo by Pranidchakan Boonrom on Pexels.com

So a little while ago, during lockdown, I got to thinking about a couple of years ago when I was poorly and got admitted to hospital. Fun times. It led to a couple of poems, the first of which – imaginatively entitled ‘Heart’ – I published on here a few weeks ago. At first I didn’t know what to do with the poems, given their personal nature. but as I’m not one for going back through notebooks and reading my own work, I decided to publish.
I thought I’d share because otherwise – as I said when I shared ‘Heart’ – it’s just words on a page for no one really and they’ve been sat in a notebook for months. This poem was actually the first one of the two.

No blue lights, no ceremony.
Instead, a last meal, rushed to send you on your way into the dark.
A numbness. A thought nagging at the back of your mind, like a job that needs to be done, but feels better ignored.

In the steady opening of a door time accelerates, yet thought slows down.
A world spins, but you watch wondering if you’re still part of it. And for how long?

A sharp scratch jolts you back, a reminder of a TV drama.
This is really happening. So you summon the banality of the everyday to make it go away.
Then a dark hint dropped by a friendly face and before you can utter a sound, formulate a thought, time moves on and you struggle to keep up.

Death is no longer a stranger. Death is the friend that everyone else hates, but no one tells you why.
Death is a temptation, but a step too far, a drug you will not take. An adventure that tempts you, talks to you before something unnamed barges in and stops you.

Dreams. Faces in the dark. One long nightmare.
The morning’s loneliness and thoughts that you’ll never see them again.
Until you do.
And you fight, kick like an Olympian down the back straight until you catch life. And them. Feel their tears, their warmth, their hearts still beating with yours.

Reading it back for the first time in a while, this feels like a really fast version of events. I don’t know why. There was certainly plenty of subject matter to tackle, so maybe subconsciously I wanted to reflect how quickly certain things seemed to happen. I’m not sure it was a deliberate intention though!

The story behind it is having to go to the Emergency department of the hospital when I was having heart palpitations. I drove myself in – I didn’t want any fuss – and fully expected to be given tablets and sent on my way. And maybe this is where the pace of the poem comes from. They were expecting me in A&E and unlike whenever I’ve been there before, I was seen almost immediately. People came into my cubicle in quick succession, each with a more serious expression on their faces! The ‘sharp scratch’ was a canula being inserted into my arm by a male nurse. It was something I’d heard of on TV, notably on things like Casualty, so I knew things were more serious than I first imagined when a canula got mentioned.

The friendly face was a kind looking young nurse. However, as kind looking as she was, I couldn’t help but notice her tine change when I explained that I’d been feeling this way for a few days and nearly didn’t come in at all. For the life of me, I can’t remember her exact words, but it definitely hinted that I was in a bit of a mess!

From that moment everything was a bit of a whirlwind. Doctors and nurses came and went and my wife popped in with an overnight bag, so I had to resume my act that it wasn’t all that serious. Not long after she’d gone I was told that I was headed for a ward, but wouldn’t be allowed to just walk up, so was helped into a wheelchair and taken by a porter. I’ve never felt so helpless in my adult life!

I was terrified that I was going to die. Doctors and nurses kept waking me up in the night when exhaustion and probably prescription drugs meant that all I wanted to do was sleep.

When I woke in the morning I felt massively lonely – as it says in the final stanza – and, although I’d had the fact that I’d be fine but needed an operation explained to me, started to think that I’d never recover.

I did recover though. I kicked ‘like an Olympian’, tried to eat the right things, exercised, rested when I needed to and cherished the people around me like never before.

Poetry Blog: Heart

Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

This is a very personal poem. I wrote a couple in March, at the very start of lockdown, when I had been sent away from work due to what they tell me are underlying health conditions. I’m asthmatic and so Coronavirus wasn’t ever going to be my friend. However, on top of this, a while back I was admitted to hospital with what turned out to be a problem with my heart. At the time I genuinely thought I was going to die and it became quite the experience! I didn’t die – I was given various different types of pills to calm things down and then a month or so later had an operation to correct the problem. I’m much stronger now, but the virus brought a lot of memories flooding back, as well as providing me with a genuine sense of fear that there was again another chance that I could die.

In amongst the memories came the sleepless nights and in amongst the sleepless nights came the creativity that led to the poem below and a couple of others. Anyway, here’s Heart.

For four days, I waited. Thought, as all men do, that this would pass. Eventually, fear brought a confession that led to here. And then more waiting, a false confidence painted on to everything I say and do because I cannot let her see my vulnerability, cannot let her see my fear. Strength is a necessary pretence. Yet with every new face, strength evaporates until I am wheeled like a casualty of war or, more likely a damaged antique, into a room where some will come to die.

I sign forms, answer relentless questions, give blood and am attached to a machine that makes me feel like it is doing my living for me. Something has to. Even false confidence gives way now and I sit, slumped, preparing for tears. The thought of death is probably as good a reason as any.

Then a voice from a darkened corner speaks. He’s been here before, a veteran and senses my terror, my weakness and flings out a hand to drag me back to shore and save me from the depths of a black and terrifying ocean. I listen mostly, adding an occasional cliche or just a noise until I sense that I have recovered the strength to be alone. Life has come full circle, I think.

And although I’m far too frightened to close my eyes, I give way to the darkness where the sounds emanating from machines punctuate the eerie, unwanted silence. It is all too much.

Eventually, I am woken by strangers with the best of intentions, giving me tablets, asking more questions, taking more blood and as dawn’s light pushes its way into my dreams, I realise I am still alive. Still here. Still scared, still bewildered, still alone. No longer disguised by darkness I paint on another mask of confidence. This is what men do.

Far too much later she returns. It has been a lifetime. I’m still here. Still hers. Eternally, but almost not at all.

What happened to me wasn’t all that serious. Not when put into context, anyway. I didn’t have a heart attack and as far as I’m aware, there was never any panic from the people that matter that I might not make it. There were, however, some serious conversations had and I was left in no doubt that I’d been very silly to leave things as I did. I worked with a heartbeat of 140+ for a few days. I can’t quite remember, but I think I coached my football team and ran a warm-up that weekend too. Even when a doctor told me I should go to the emergency department I somehow managed to weasel my way out of it and attend a meeting about our football club instead. My doctor called me in the middle of the meeting though and when blue lights were threatened, I took the hint.

On hearing that I’d been ignoring my thumping heart a nurse made some kind of remark that was along the lines of ‘it’s a good job you finally came in’ and that really shocked me. Later, my cardiologist took time to inform me that I would be monitored very carefully and that they were doing everything they could to stabilise things. Meanwhile, I became sure that I wouldn’t be going home.

So that’s what the first verse is referring to. I ignored things thinking that one morning I’d wake up and it would all be alright – very male! I didn’t dare tell my wife at first so I didn’t worry her and then as time went on, so she wouldn’t explode at me!

At hospital I expected to be prescribed some pills and sent on my way. When I wasn’t I was scared. The whole process was lightening quick – a nurse would visit and prod me or give an injection or a tablet, then a doctor, then another with questions and I was told I’d definitely be admitted. My wife came in with a bag for my stay and I had to appear my usual relaxed self. Hence, the line that ‘strength is a necessary pretence‘.

I wasn’t allowed to walk up to the ward. A porter was summoned and I was taken in a wheelchair and this is where the ‘casualty of war/damaged antique image comes from. It was after 11pm so the ward was dark – bizarelly I didn’t expect this – and after a lot of activity with various staff coming and going, I was left alone. I didn’t know what to do with myself, so I sat fighting tears.

The third stanza was the time on the ward that really helped me. The man in the bed opposite had been brought in a few days previously, having suffered his third heart attack. I didn’t want to talk, but on reflection as he ‘flings out a hand to pull me back to shore and save me from the depths of a black ocean.’ was a genuine moment of human kindness. He wasn’t wallowing in his own illness, just concentrating on cheering me up. He talked about how amazing the staff were and just the need to slow down – why I was here – and I was forced to listen. I can’t remember his name, but I know I’ll never forget his kindness.

The rest of the poem is just about the exhaustion that led me to sleep and the people that woke me up at certain intervals to make sure I took pills, drank and just knew where I was and what was happening.

The final thing that I feel I need to point out is the short final stanza. I think ‘Far too much later she returns’ probably sounds critical and impatient. It isn’t. It’s about my wife visiting the ward. I hope the poem isn’t looked at as remembering being ill. It’s also a love poem.

I was absolutely desperate to see her. This was partly for me and partly to let her know that I was alright. I must have woken up on the ward before 6am and so it felt like ‘a lifetime’ had passed when she arrived. Part of that covers just the sheer amount of thinking that I did and part, just very simply the amount of time it seemed to take.

I really hope you’ve enjoyed the poem. As I said, it’s a really personal piece of writing and the kind of thing that I both wanted to share while also wanting to keep private. Essentially though, if it’s left in a notebook, it’s just words on a page.

Let me know what you think.

Ten Things that Lockdown Exercise Has Taught Me

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It’s safe to say that 2020 has been a remarkable year so far. Sure, its story can be summed up neatly with just two chapter headings – COVID-19 and Lockdown – but really that’s what has made it so remarkable.

Courtesy of a global pandemic lots of us have been given a time to reflect and learn. To slow down. I’ve written about the positive side of lockdown before and, as such acknowledged the tragedy of the losses suffered around the globe. While we’ve been locked down, people have fallen victim to a silent killer, while others have put their own lives on the line in order to help. We’ve been living through life-changing times, that’s for sure.

For me, despite finding the threat of the virus quite terrifying and finding the isolation from work both heart-breaking and mind numbingly dull, lockdown has been a positive process. The fear I’ve felt has made me spend more time in touch with my family – I have rung my elderly parents every few days, a great improvement on my usual shameful record of keeping in touch. I’ve been in regular touch with my sister and I’ve been forced to spend more quality time with my immediate family and in turn thoroughly enjoyed it. Furthermore, I’ve written more, connected with friends, relaxed more and frankly, transformed my garden!

By far my favourite pastime in lockdown has been exercising. From the off I’d decided that if there was a likelihood of contracting the virus, I was going to be as fit and strong as possible in order to fight it. A combination of asthma and a heart problem left me vulnerable to COVID and having spent time in hospital in the recent past frightened that this was it, I wasn’t going to go and die from what some were describing as the flu! So I began to exercise.

I’ve learnt a lot about myself over these lockdown months. Exercise has changed me. Don’t get me wrong, I was fit enough to begin with, especially for a man of my vintage, but now, I’m very much Middleagefanclub 2.0!

Here are ten things I’ve learnt about myself via lockdown exercise.

  1. I have abs, I want better abs and I finally understand the fuss about abs! That’s a lot of abs! I can’t help feeling enthusiastic about this though. I’ve spent my whole life learning to be comfortable with my slim build; perilously thin arms and pipe cleaner legs, not to mention my pot belly, developed over the last few years of my forties. And when my wife unearthed a picture of me in my twenties, emerging from a loch in Scotland a la a skinny, lanky Daniel Craig in just swimming shorts but sporting an actual six pack I realised that I’d been taking little or no care of my body for years. Now though, via a daily exercise workout with Joe Wicks on Youtube (70+ workouts and counting) and daily walks (sometimes more than one) I’ve found that, at the grand old age of 48, my body has changed. As well as the abs, I have muscles in my legs (visible ones), pecs (that’s a chest to the uninitiated) and discernable biceps! In short, I’ve learnt that with dedication and hard work my body is far, far stronger than ever before! Don’t get me wrong, I’m still slim, but I’m no longer a stick insect with a belly!
  2. I can exercise through the pain. I’ve always been injury prone. I think being tall and thin has made me fairly fragile, although I’ve never actually broken a bone, and so I’ve always picked up niggling muscle injuries quite easily. I’ve had a couple of serious ligament injuries to my knee and ankle along the way and they say that your body is never quite the same after that type of thing. So it was almost inevitable that when I began to exercise seriously, that something had to give. Needless to say that after a few weeks there was a ‘pop’ in my groin, followed by a bit of a tear in my thigh a week later and then about 5 weeks in my back went. However, I’ve never enjoyed exercising as much as I have during lockdown and so, I was determined to carry on. I was doing the #PEWithJoe workouts as provided every morning of lockdown by Joe Wicks and as such was just determined to carry on, such was my enthusiasm for being there and doing every workout, every morning. It’s meant applying a great deal of Voltarol to my back and mainlining Ibuprofen (other ailment treatments are available) but I’ve managed to just keep going. I’ve even found that whatever pain I’m in when I wake up, once I’m exercising and properly stretched it eases. I might not seem much, but after a lifetime of feeling like I should rest up because of injury, I’m now completely attuned to simply working through the pain.
  3. I have little shame and a lot less ago. For far too long in my life I’ve been too cool for school. When others have dived in and enjoyed themselves immensely, I’ve backed off for fear of losing face. Well, not any more…at least where exercise is concerned anyway. There’s still no chance of me doing dressing up, regardless of the charity or acting in any staff plays – work colleagues, Laura, Gemma, Emmas, et al take note! However, while exercising in lockdown I have found myself doing all sorts of ridiculous things in the name of fitness. I’ve walked like a duck to exercise my quads, done bunny hops, Pikachus and Joeys for cardio and frog jumps and bear crawls just because someone has told me it’ll do me good! And when Joe Wicks has told me to put my hands up like I’ve got bunny ears or to imagine I’m a kangaroo holding a joey in my pouch, I’ve done it and not worried a jot about who might be able to see. My neighbours and postman may well have seen a very different side to me at some point and I have to say that I don’t care!
  4. I still don’t like fancy dress. A man has limits! Friday is Fancy Dress day in my new exercise world and while thousands across the world have joined in, I haven’t budged. While Joe Wicks jumps around dressed as a panda or Spiderman, I’m keeping up my own good work in shorts and a t-shirt. I’m happy to run around the town I live with a face resembling a damp plum tomato, but there’s no chance that I’ll be dressing up like one. I even considered an alice band when my hair was particularly long, knowing full well that any number of friends could walk or drive past, but it’s a long stretch from that to running 5km dressed like a superhero! However evangelical I might get about exercise, there’s a very slim chance that I’ll ever resort to fancy dress. Fitness is important, but dignity more so!
  5. There’s no shame in running downhill! I’ve lived in my present home for over 20 years now and tried to go out running at times times during many of those years. However, where we live is quite hilly. Indeed at the end of my street there’s a main road up a big hill. For years I told myself that I always had to start my runs by heading up the hill. And for years I wondered why my first kilometre of those runs was invariably slow! I’d dread running up the hill, knowing that by the time I reached the top my legs would be like jelly and I’d only really be starting my run. That’s all changed during lockdown. I’ve taken to doing a workout and then heading out for a run a couple of times a week. But I decided to be fair to myself. Thus, on my first run, I ignored heading upwards and ran a little way down the hill, through a local park until I reached a nice flat stretch. It meant that by the time I’d reached my first climb I’d already ran a kilometre and was completely into my rhythm and feeling good. Lo and behold, it’s really helped! I’ve found that I’m steadily building up my distance and retaining some speed, while getting ever fitter and really enjoying my running. There really is no shame in running down the hill – even if it is for a few hundred yards. I only wish I hadn’t been so stubborn and learnt this twenty years ago!
  6. I really like order. In order to give a sense of variation to his workouts, Mr. Wicks has introduced a few gimmicks. The intention here is to add an element of chance or jeopardy if you like, to the workouts. Personally, I have all the jeopardy I need with the fact that my back might just ‘ping’ at any moment, but given that over 100,000 households are listening most days, I’m guessing any complaint would fall on deaf ears! So, rather than letting us know exactly what we’re going to be subjected to, he’s added in a sense of the unknown. The unknown has so far come in the form of a spinning wheel that contains the name of lots of exercises that we could do, two giant dice and also some over-sized playing cards that are used in a game of higher or lower. If I’m honest, I don’t mind the cards at all, simply because there’s always a visible list of the exercise options, so I sort of know what’s coming. There’s order. I despise the wheel. Hate it with a passion. It never seems to roll true and is forever landing on the same exercise, meaning that whatever part of my body is taking the strain will be a quivering wreck by the time the wheel has spun and landed on the same thing three times in succession. Without a doubt, I’m far, far happier when Joe just tells me what’s coming next!
  7. Daily family walks will inevitably be punctuated by arguments. On all but about five days since the start of lockdown, we’ve been out for a walk around our local area, as a family. We’ve walked for miles and miles, which to us adults seems like a thing of wonder. However, to our children, it’s the dullest thing ever. It’s guaranteed to sour at least one of their moods and, given that my children are very much of the opinion that we all need to hear what they’re feeling at any given time, their disapproval will be voiced. Cue arguments! I’ve often said that we provide a traveling soap opera for anyone within hearing distance when we’re out and about, but I daresay there are people in houses around where we live who have counted down the minutes until we pass again in the early evening. It seems to be a tailor-made opportunity for my children to have a good moan or offer an unwanted opinion. Me? I tend to just walk at the back, lips firmly shut, but even then there have been times when I can’t help but join in. Who knew a walk could be so eventful?
  8. I still prefer to exercise without a soundtrack. While I’ve experimented with running with my iPod on, I’ve never really found it adds anything to the way I feel. More than anything, I worry about not hearing traffic and crossing a road where I then get knocked over! While I’m out running I like my wits about me and I find I can concentrate and focus a great deal better without music in my ears. I wouldn’t say that there’s any kind of zen thing going on, but I find the silence helps me to think. And while I’m thinking – maybe weighing up a decision that’s got to be made – I’m not feeling the heaviness in my legs or the tightness in my chest. My thoughts don’t wander, so there’s no danger of worrying about anything asthma-related and more to the point, I’m no longer prone to the little voice in my head telling me I’ve gone far enough and should stop! I think even with music on I’d be telling myself just to get to the end of a particular song and then turn round and walk home! I’m definitely mentally stronger when it’s just me and the outdoors. I’ve found the same with working out. While using YouTube to exercise there are mornings where the instructor plays music and I’m never at my best when it’s being played. Just tell me what to do, let me watch the clock and I’ll be fine!
  9. I’ll get stuck in, whatever the weather. Just this morning, post-workout, I was out for the walk that serves as a warm down. It was fairly cold and the drizzle was relentless. But we were still out and about. And this has been the case throughout lockdown. While in the past I might not have gone out for a run because it was blowing a gale or raining, nowadays I don’t give it a second thought. Similarly, when it’s been very hot, I’ve made the effort to get out and run. It’s definitely the right approach and it’s definitely making me fitter, stronger, and healthier.
  10. I’m a terrible judge of people. I owe Joe Wicks an apology. For years he’s just been a bloke with silly hair and I mildly amusing voice. Then, when I joined in with his workouts I initially found myself judging him a bit more. Now, 15 weeks or so in, I’ve come to realise that he’s alright. He seems to have similar sense of humour to me – he’s a big fan of Alan Partridge – and like me he’s devoted to his family. I still can’t live his lack of taste in music, but I’ve learnt a valuable lesson. Just because you’re regularly clad in lycra, are unashamed about showing off your sculpted body and are vocal about your love of exercise and healthy eating, it doesn’t make you a bad person. Sorry Joe. And apologies to every runner or gym goer I’ve ever sneered at around where we live.

So there we go. Not only have I got fitter, but I’ve learnt a few things about myself. I’d love to know how others have filled their time during lockdown or maybe even what you feel you’ve learnt about yourself. Let me know in the comments.

The Brighter Side of Lockdown

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There can be no doubt whatsoever that Coronavirus has changed the way that we all live. It will, I imagine, change our lifestyles for a long time to come too. Here in the UK, we’ve been locked down, witnessed food (and toilet roll) shortages due to panic buying on a mass scale and queues to get into the supermarket, clapped in unison to show some kind of appreciation for the NHS and watched news bulletins in horror as the death toll rose from dozens to hundreds and into the thousands. We’ve also learnt a new world – furlough (And I refuse to believe you if you’re telling me you knew what it meant before this point in history)!

Lockdown has brought strain on families all over the planet and we’ve had to find new ways to ease our mental stress. Me? I’ve taken to sneaking off from the stress if need be. Sometimes I’ll simply retire to one of my kids’ bedrooms to read or quietly head outside into the garden to escape the arguments or the tension. Just don’t tell anyone! Stealth, that’s the key.

Away from missing family, friends, socialising, normality, pubs, restaurants, regular haircuts and all manner of other downsides, lockdown has had its plus points. There have been shards of light in amongst the dark of the chaos. So I thought I’d try for a bit of a list of some of the highlights of lockdown. The brighter side of the gloom, if you like.

First up in a list with no particular order, is a Twitter hashtag that has become something of a phenomenon. Let me do my best to explain. Tim Burgess is the legendary frontman with the British band The Charlatans. If you know of the band or have encountered Tim in any way, you’ll know that he’s simply a lovely chap and that The Charlatans are a fantastic band. Tim says he started the listening parties because he was struggling to write songs and since then it’s just grown and grown.

So what happens? Well, an album is chosen to be played and at a specified time, if you want to, you play it and listen along. Everyone listens together and if you want to comment on Twitter you just add the hashtag and post. The added bonus is that there will always be one of the artists responsible joining in and posting comments and anecdotes about the album as it plays. Genius really! A simple idea, but one that’s pretty much guaranteed to lift your spirits.

So far we’ve had artists from Blur and Oasis to Sleaford Mods, Orbital, The Hold Steady, Grandaddy, Glavegas and Aztec Camera. There’s always a diverse mix and on almost any night of the week you can find something that takes your interest. In terms of lockdown positives, it’s certainly up there with the best of them. I’ve ‘taken part’ in quite a few now and it’s a brilliant alternative to what have become lockdown staples such as sitting reading or just finding myself slumped in front of the TV again! It’s amazing what hearing an album in this context can do for your frame of mind and sharing your experiences or views on tracks is a brilliant way of listening. If you haven’t joined the movement, but fancy a go, go to http://www.timstwitterlisteningparty.com or follow @Tim_Burgess for updates to see if there’s anything that piques your interest!

I’ve wanted to listen to podcasts for some time now. However, a busy lifestyle combined with my luddite outlook on technology has left me extremely far behind. Now though, with added time on my hands and in the midst of the battle against boredom, I went and did a bit of reading in order to find out more about something that I’d actually discovered years ago. Turns out it’s been there, more or less at the click of a button, all this time!

So what have I been listening too? Well, being obsessed with football, I’ve been focusing there really. As a Newcastle fan it’s been interesting to tune into the ‘All With Smiling Faces’ podcast as well as The Athletic’s Newcastle focused effort, ‘Pod on The Tyne’. At the moment the club is in the process of hopefully being taken over by incredibly wealthy people and the boost to the local area as well as to the club itself have given the pod participants a lot to talk about. It’s intriguing also to listen for any insight anyone might be able to give on the aforementioned takeover.

I’ve also caught up with some of the very popular ‘That Peter Crouch Podcast’. As well as being something of a popular cult figure in Premier League history, Mr. Crouch is also a very funny man and his podcasts have been really entertaining, giving some light relief in these rather dark times. And then there’s the Match of The Day Top Ten podcasts, featuring Gary Lineker, Ian Wright and the greatest striker of them all, Alan Shearer.

My final podcast port of call so far has been Bob Mortimer’s brilliant ‘Athletico Mince’. What started off as a football podcast has now metamorphosed into something far more surreal. Listening to characters like the Alderman and Barry C Homeowner has definitely livened up my mornings and if you like a laugh, I’d definitely recommend it.

As lockdown enters whatever week it might now be – I’ve lost count – I’ll be searching out more podcasts to listen to. I mean, having spent years thinking that they were beyond my technological know-how, this particular gift still has a lot to give!

Curiously, for a teacher, I’ve found that home-schooling has been a highlight of my time spent in isolation. It’s not all been plain-sailing, but I’ve really enjoyed the adventure so far. I’ve mainly worked with my son, as my high school age daughter has been getting lessons sent through remotely, and dipping my teaching toe into the primary world has been quite illuminating. Suddenly finding myself faced with the kind of grammar tasks that I haven’t had to tackle in years has been a bit of a re-education in itself. As well as my actual subject – English – I’ve been teaching him History and Geography as well as learning Spanish with him via the Duolingo app. How’s the Spanish going, you say? Muy bueno, pero tengo un blog para escribir. (Very good, but I have a blog to write!)

Without such variety to my day I’m not sure I’d have been half as happy during lockdown. The draw of the TV is still strong in our house and that’s before you even think about social media. But no doubt, without home-schooling, I’d have been slumped in an armchair for far too long each day and possibly piling on the pounds!

Another lockdown highlight is linked to home-schooling and is also something that I’ve blogged about previously. I’m back on to talking about The Bodycoach, Joe Wicks, I’m afraid! Since the closure of schools I’ve completed a Joe Wicks workout on every weekday. As I write, that’s 44 workouts on the trot! (Update – I completed my 50th on Friday). I’ve surprised myself by how much I’ve enjoyed it. Some days it hurts and then on other days, it feels relatively easy. But I enjoy every one of them and once it’s done I’m finding that I’m set for the rest of the day and in general, feeling pretty positive.

I’ve been introduced to a whole new world and a whole new language too. While I knew of the horror of burpees from my school days, exercises and labels like Spiderman lunges, duck walks, up down planks and bicycle crunches have all been a revelation to me. Every morning I tune into YouTube at 9am and throw myself into whatever workout Joe decides upon. As I do it I’m scanning his front room for the Spot The Difference competition and wracking my brain to come up with the answers in the quiz. In short, I’m having loads of fun.

We’re into our 10th week of #PEWithJoe now and, as I’ve stated before in blogs, I’m just as determined as ever to keep going and get extremely fit. In the recent past I’ve suffered with a heart problem and so, as well as the virus, I feel like I’m fighting just to enjoy a better quality of life. The fitter I am, the better.

I’m seeing my body change shape too. Having winced at photos of me from past beach holidays, sporting more of a beer gut than I allowed myself to admit to, it’s miraculous to see actual stomach muscles emerging. Especially for a man of my age! Even my legs are getting bigger, which as someone who’d accepted his pipe cleaners as being as good as they were ever going to get, well it’s amazing. PEWithJoe, and on a few occasions with his wife Rosie and young kids, has been a real game changer for me and it’s safe to see that this highlight of lockdown has left me fitter, stronger and happier.

As dull as it’s been at times, I can’t deny that lockdown has left me with a lot of time on my hands. Even factoring in the time spent doing actual work, I’ve still had time to do lots of great things. And the bonus has been how simple they’ve been.

Initially, we were blessed with great weather. And so, in a flurry of activity I found myself regularly out in the back garden wielding a paintbrush and a pot of fence paint. In no time at all, my fence panels were looking shiny and new and my sheds were painted beautifully. Then it was time to start on the garden furniture, which was all sanded down ready to paint within days. My biggest error was to then switch my attention to the garden as several weeks later the furniture is still patiently awaiting a wax and probably needs to be sanded and washed again as a result! I’ll say it again though, time is something I’ve got lots of.

Having time on my hands has proved dangerous as well though. Not only have I written some very silly poetry, but I’ve also finally been able to find time to film videos; one of me reading one of my poems and the other a parody video of a teacher character that I’d written stuff for a while ago. The response has been great, to be fair, but I’m almost ashamed – again, as a man of my age – to say I’m spent hours filing videos of myself essentially messing about! Good fun though! And even though views were relatively modest in number, it was nice to see people sharing the poetry video and commenting on the fact that they’d really enjoyed it. I mean, everybody likes an ego boost, right?

Another brilliant development in lockdown has been the amount of time I’ve found to just read. It sounds nothing special, but it’s been genuinely refreshing. Usually, with a busy work and family life to contend with reading is literally squeezed in to merely a few minutes of the day. It’s not uncommon for me to be grabbing the opportunity to read a couple of paragraphs at a time. And I’m a big reader, always have been. So it’s been painful to watch as my ‘to-read’ pile has increased to around 5 boxes worth of books. However, I’ve always loved the look of books and even the feel of them in my hands. As a kid, when the other kids were out socialising and just generally being popular if I wasn’t playing football, I could generally be found in our local library, unless I was in the nearby record store! It’s terrifically sad, I know!

The last 8 or 9 weeks have meant that in the time it usually takes me to read one book, I must have read around 4 or 5. And my pile of newspapers and magazines has reduced dramatically too. I can’t begin to express how much of a luxury it is to have a spare half hour to just lie on our bed and read a book! It’s certainly made to being largely confined to the house a great deal more tolerable!

There’s no doubt that during the times that we’re all currently living through it’s important to try and find the positives. I’m usually quite a cynical person and definitely not an advocate of the idea that we should all be out relaxing and taking time to smell the flowers or putting candles on while we have a rose petal filled bath. However, I’ve found that lockdown has at least allowed me to pause a bit and in a strange way, enjoy life away from the pressures of work and deadlines and a hectic schedule. In the midst of a global pandemic, maybe just staying alive is really quite enough.

How lockdown helped me contract the exercise bug.

It started, like many things do, with an idea that felt like a bit of a dream, especially given the chaos that was about to erupt. It turned out however, that one particular kind of chaos would be all of my own making. The chaos brought about by a gradual obsession with exercise. While avoiding the virus, I’ve caught the exercise bug.

Initially isolated and then days later placed in lockdown, I was intent on going for a run every few days. That was it; simple. Just the odd run to make myself feel a little bit better, gather my thoughts and cling on to my sanity. I hadn’t ran for a while – a combination of a busy schedule and the usual winter health issues taking their toll. Now, with possibly a huge amount of time on my hands I was going to exploit it and gradually get fit.

However, almost before the plan was hatched tendonitis in my achilles stopped me in my running tracks and so I resorted to walking. Easier on the body. On my first day of isolation, bored, determined to get exercise and feeling down about the fact that I couldn’t go to work, I walked for miles. My watch told me that by the end of the day I’d done just over 23,500 steps. My head told me I needed to calm down! The next day, a Thursday, I’d toned it down a bit and walked a little over 18,000, but this was still a ridiculous amount and I knew at the back of my mind that I wouldn’t be able to keep it up.

By the time Friday rolled around the Prime Minister was announcing that the country was going into lockdown and that schools would be closing. This would mean another change of plan. We were to be allowed out only for one exercise session per day and in my case that would have to be taken with the rest of my family. There would be no more walking around for hours. Instead, there would be a daily walk for an hour, close to home and spent in the midst of family bickering, most likely prompted by one of my children while almost certainly involving the other one and requiring one or both adults to referee. It seemed that the part of me that was going to get the most exercise would be my jaw and I could wave goodbye to any peace and quiet. This virus was going to test both my physical and metal health!

On the same day I made what could be a life-changing discovery. Perhaps ‘life-changing’ is a bit of an exaggeration, but it’s definitely changed things for me, so you know, go along with my positivity here! I’ve already blogged a bit about this and also written a poem inspired by it as well, but in terms of this blog, it needs another mention. Or a paragraph or two.

Joe Wicks, otherwise known as The Body Coach, announced to the nation that as part of the home schooling effort in the UK he’d be taking a PE class via YouTube every morning from 9am. After a little hesitation I jumped in. I was going to have to home school my son anyway and so, #PEWithJoeWicks would become the start to our day. I never imagined I’d get so involved!

Since that first Monday I’ve taken part in the workout every day. As I write I’ve done 30 workouts, taking the weekends to rest. I’ve tried hard to be as strict as possible with the workouts too. Each exercise is done in 30 second bursts and so I make sure that I’m doing everything with maximum effort and not slacking off for the last few seconds in order to get an extended break in between. It would be easy at my age to just motor through things at half pace, blaming wear and tear on the joints and claiming to be looking after myself, but given that this may well represent the most dynamic I’m going to get in any given day, I’ve been making sure that I put in a lot of effort.

The exercises range from easy things like jogging on the spot or throwing 30 seconds worth of imaginary punches right through to planking, squat jumps and old school favourites like burpees. There’s also an element of fun brought into it, because after all, this is meant to be a kids’ PE lesson. And obviously fun is where I come into my own. Ahem.

It’s easy to see how Joe Wicks has made his fortune through exercise. Even when you take away the looks, the hair and the perfectly sculpted abs, there’s a lot left to admire. He’s enthusiasm personified for a start. Even when he’s telling you how sweaty and worn out he is he’ll be letting you know in the next breath how much he’s enjoying himself. And because he’s having fun, invariably we are too. It’s a relentless mantra – exercise is great, this is doing you good, stay positive! And if you’d told me before I’d tried it that I’d be smiling along with someone telling me this kind of thing and actually believing it as well, I’d have asked if you’d ever met me before. Exercise as fun wasn’t supposed to be my thing.

The actual exercises themselves are made fun too, although I’m never 100% convinced my legs are in agreement. When I’m doing kangaroo jumps while pretending to carry my imaginary joey or doing bunny hops with my hands on top of my head to represent my bunny ears, I must be enjoying it otherwise there’s no way in the world I’d bother with these extra details! My son Dylan, my regular exercise partner, certainly loves it as he’s often adding sound effects in as he goes! And we haven’t even got onto squats that lead into jumps where you shout out ‘Pikachu’ at its climax.

Like a lot of other people on lockdown I’ve stopped worrying about style and how I’m dressed. Nowadays, wearing jeans is classed as dressing up. I blame Joe Wicks as well. And while we’re on the subject I’ll be cutting my own hair soon as well, but I digress.

We do #PEWithJoe every morning at 9am. After that we continue our warm-down in the back garden with a little bit of football and by the time we finish that it’s usually around 10am. Then I’ll get changed. And this is where my style lockdown comes in. It just seems pointless changing out of shorts and some form of exercise top to get into jeans and maybe a t-shirt or a shirt. I know that I’ll be back out exercising or in the garden at some point during the day. And so, nowadays I just sling on a pair of tracksuit bottoms and a t-shirt, usually the type of thing that I wear for running. In other words, I’m almost permanently dressed in leisure wear these days. It’s bad enough that I’ve not worn a suit, a formal shirt or a tie in around a month due to not being in at work, but now, even a pair of jeans feels unnecessary. It seems like some form of exercise is always lurking just around the corner.

Our daily exercise isn’t just limited to a half hour workout in the morning though. Oh no, we’re going for gold in our house. Every day – and I mean every day – we subject ourselves to a three mile walk. Socially distant, of course, and just around the locality that we live in, but still it’s a daily three miles.

As a middle aged man three miles a day is quite the big ask. I’m 48 years old for goodness sakes! Less than 2 years ago I had heart surgery! But let’s trail ourselves around the local area for three miles per day. That’s over 20 miles a week!

To be fair, there are times when I love it. Everything feels good and it’s fantastic to be out in the fresh air. The weather has helped too. In our part of the U.K. we’ve been having wonderful weather – beautiful sunshine and clear blue skies – and so, to be out walking in it has been fantastic. But sadly, I’m getting no younger. For every night where I’m enjoying myself, there’s one where I am nothing short of knackered. We live in quite a hilly area and there are times, when stood at the bottom of an enormous hill, and my legs are like jelly before we’ve even moved. In my head I’m ranting – ‘Why the **** are we doing this?’ – but outwardly I’m smiling and insisting that everything’s fine and that I must have just overdone things earlier in the day. I’ve never failed to complete the distance, but I’ve lost count of the times where I’ve questioned my sanity! Still, at least I’m in good shape. Especially for a man of my now advancing years!

I know that the exercise bug has truly taken hold for another reason as well. Despite sticking strictly to lockdown conditions, I must admit that on several occasions recently I’ve considered getting up really early and sneaking out for a run. I stress that I haven’t done it, but it still feels like such a good idea. I imagine there’d be no one about, which in terms of running for me, is a really good thing. You see, I have a tendency to attract the attention of small dogs and on more than a few occasions have tumbled over them as they’ve jumped up at me. The last time saw me literally somersaulting through the air and left me battered and bruised, so avoiding that particular type of thing has real appeal. But as much as more exercise is a temptation, I know I’ll be avoiding it. Better to be slightly less fit than catch the virus because of my own stupidity. Or take a tumble while trying to avoid yappy dogs.

So lockdown, despite its very obvious drawbacks has had its benefits. I’ve become more obsessed than ever with keeping an eye on my steps via my watch and making sure I’m as active as possible, but boy am I fit! No doubt the eventual return to work will make the kind of exercise I’m doing regularly almost an impossibility, but for now I’m going to keep on acting like I’m preparing for some kind of middle-age Olympics!

 

My Lockdown Diary – Part 2

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Here in the UK we were put into a state of lockdown indefinitely on 23rd March. Now, some weeks later and firmly into April, it’s been a very strange time. For some, everything has changed, while sadly for others nothing seems to have changed at all.

For me personally it’s been a very curious time. I was initially sent away from work and put into self isolation on 17th March and so had some time to myself before the majority of the country was affected. Life at that point seemed to be going on as if there was no prospect of a pandemic. As I went out for a socially distant walk there was traffic everywhere (well, on the roads anyway) and people were not avoiding each other like they would be in the weeks to come. Having been isolated because of my vulnerability to the virus, I was keeping my distance from the off.

So how’s life looking a few of weeks on? Well, for the most part people are keeping their distance. But my part of the UK looks very different for all sorts of reasons.

With lockdown being enforced people seem to be following the daily exercise guidance like it’s an order. We certainly are. But it’s immediately noticeable, even if you just look out of the window, how many people are out and about walking, jogging, cycling and the like. In truth, it’s a lovely site. Couples out walking, families – together at last now that work constraints have been taken away – are running, cycling and just playing together. We live right next to playing fields and I’ve rarely seen them busier. And that’s not to say that we have hundreds of people congregating in any kind of dangerous way. The fields are huge and can easily accommodate a steady stream of people and leave them able to keep a responsible social distance. Despite the fearful whiff of death and illness, people have come out fighting and life is flourishing.

I’ve seen nothing particularly different in terms of exercise though and I’m very hopeful that within the next three weeks I might see someone on a penny farthing cruising down our road or maybe even a socially distant yoga or tai chi class on the playing fields next door.

The same praise can’t be levelled at what I’ve noticed on the roads, where a general lessening of traffic has led many to believe that they’re budding Lewis Hamiltons. And I don’t mean that they’re going out with braids in their hair and wearing shit clothes. For now it seems that the 30 mile an hour limit is a thing of the past. And I understand that in the real world there are few of us who actually stick to such a slow speed. Now though, young men – and it genuinely appears to be largely them – are hurtling around like they’re at Silverstone. Maybe it’s because of the boredom elsewhere, but I doubt it. It’s certainly a worrying development. Especially when you’re out for a walk these days, what with all the crossing over roads in order to avoid each other.

For some it seems that they’re flying around the place with no destination either. The far more empty roads have seemingly turned into the Nurburgring and people are out, ignoring the lines and hurtling round bends with little or no warning. The only thing missing seems to be their overalls. Certainly there are more than enough helmets. It appears to be a genuine deliberate choice – I can’t go out, so I’ll jump in the car and fly around like a complete idiot for a while. We’ve noticed a couple of cars just cruising around the place, revving engines and staring at people. Certainly, the amount of Vauxhall Corsas with over-sized exhausts on the road is very much out of proportion nowadays. Either Morley’s just a strange place or lads are incredibly bored and just not very creative. It could well be both. It’s certainly been a bizarre thing to observe though.

Another lockdown observation has to be the amount of online sales. I suppose it’s quite a sad thing really, given that most shops are closed and people are losing their jobs. It will most likely see the end of some shops altogether. But the amount of sales is incredible. And it might leave some people in a total conundrum. There are things I genuinely want, as well as stuff I’d like because they’re reduced in sales – trainers mainly. But then the idea of something being delivered has started to worry me. There’s a palpable sense of paranoia about these days. Understandably really. While you’re crossing the road when anybody comes within a hundred yards of you you’re not going to want to accept a parcel on the doorstep. I almost followed through recently when there was a knock on the door and was terrified going to answer it! It was Amazon and the bloke had left our parcel – something for the wife from work – on the doorstep and was already halfway down the drive. He simply stated our surname as a question and was off like a shot when I confirmed.

Wherever you look though, there’s an online sale. For someone who likes the idea of getting ‘stuff’ it’s ridiculously tempting. As a result of a Coronvirus programme and a wife with a propensity to worry over much, we’ve recently started to wash the shopping as it comes into the house and are quarantining the things that we don’t immediately need to use and the idea of handling a parcel, with literally no idea where it’s come from is terrifying. So maybe for now there’ll be no exploiting the online sales.

Something that’s started to worry me while continuing to appear ridiculous is television. What if it runs out? What if there are no more programmes because new shows have stopped being made? I totally get the availability of boxsets, downloads etc, but what happens when it’s new series time and it’s just not been made yet? One of our favourite shows is The Walking Dead and their recent season finale had to be suspended when post production work couldn’t be carried out in lockdown. So, we’re running out of telly! It’s not just a possibility; it’s actually happening!

We’ve needed to call Sky in order to re-arrange our package and the fact is you can’t call Sky. We want to re-negotiate (Oooh, my favourite call to make!) but we can’t because they haven’t got enough people working to actually deal with these calls. More proof, if it was needed, that telly could actually be endangered. And while it’s not the most pressing concern at this time, it’s still completely unexpected and a bit of a worry.

I’ve managed to spend quite a bit of my lockdown time in the garden. There’s plenty of room and a lot of jobs that needed doing, which is a good job given the amount of time we all have on our hands. One morning was spent painting the fence panels on one side of the garden. I roped my ten-year-old into this one, prompting lots of comments about “hard work” from a boy who so far in life has been fairly pampered.

Next up was turning over the soil in the flower beds; a job that literally never gets done because despite being fairly deep into middle age I’m still not a full convert to gardening. There are limits and things like digging go beyond my boundaries. But, needs must, so fork in hand – garden one, not tea one – I spent a good half an hour digging and turning the land over. I’m assured it’ll create better conditions for plants, but the bigger bonus was that I got to spend half and hour in the sun.

Since then I’ve trimmed shrubs, weeded heavily overgrown areas, regularly filled up the bird feeders, painted both sheds and cut the lawns a few times – which is a few times more than usual at this time of year. As my time at home continues so will my work in the garden. I love being out in the fresh air anyway, so being forced out there is kind of a bonus. Pots can be cleared out and cleaned up, the garden furniture will get oiled and the often neglected area around the side of our house which is home to the bins is in need of a real tidy up. So almost a summer’s worth of outdoor jobs to do, but lots of springtime to get it done!

The final thing that has been very noticeable during the last few weeks of lockdown has also been garden related. It’s a wonderful thing and I hope it’s going on in your lives too. There are noticeably more birds around. Very noticeably. We have a few birdfeeders on the tree at the back of our garden and traffic has very definitely increased. Sadly, we haven’t had our woodpecker back, but we’ve had goldfinches, robins, blue tits, great tits and long-tailed tits as well as the usual blackbirds, wood pigeons, collared doves, magpies and sparrows. There are also at least a couple that we just can’t identify and it’s genuinely a lot busier at the end of our garden. It can’t be a coincidence that things are a great deal quieter in the surrounding area and it’s certainly given me a bit of a lift when everything feels a little bit flat. It’s nothing dramatic, nothing life-changing, but the fact that I can sit and watch the birds getting bolder and bolder around our garden and feeling safe enough to be exploring the patio is definitely a good thing.

The other day, as I stood doing the dishes I watched as a robin approached. It flitted around the place getting gradually ever closer. Within seconds it was perched on a chair right underneath the window, just staring at me. A moment of complete peace among the chaos. Just what I needed.

So far lockdown has been a very strange time. We’re living in fear, definitely, but something has changed societally. Life is, in some ways, a lot calmer and people are adapting to suit their surroundings and situations. With at least three more weeks of this it’ll be interesting to see how things develop.

 

PE with Joe – how I found out that where there’s a Wicks, there’s a way.

It seems cynical to say, but this whole Coronavirus lockdown thing has allowed me to start getting fit. And when I say fit, I mean really fit. I was fit before…for a man in my middle years anyway, but now I’m beginning to feel like some kind of middle aged superhuman! OK, that might be me getting a little bit carried away, but I’m feeling good.

It started as a reaction to the virus. As someone who is classed as being vulnerable to it, I decided early on that in order to combat the risks I’d have to stay fit. So I wasn’t going to be sitting around watching films and reading books, which had been the kind of situation I’d dreamed of for years. No, I was going to maximise my daily government sanctioned exercise window and then do as much as I possibly could around the house to be as healthy as I could be. The fitter I was, the more strength I’d have to fight whatever was going to get thrown at me.

When UK schools closed down I was subsequently given a fantastic fitness opportunity. This was the point where, with the focus on home-schooling, lots of people starting volunteering services and sharing ideas. And this was when Joe Wicks stepped into my life and began to get me and my family fitter than we’d been in years!

I was aware of Mr. Wicks before this time and had decided that he simply wasn’t for me. I have to admit that this was based largely on his appearance. As a middle aged man with a little bit of a pot belly, I found myself feeling secretly jealous of this newcomer who looked like he’d been carved out of rock and dipped in hair. As well as this, I decided that his kind of fitness simply wasn’t my thing. As a footballer and runner I was more into simply pushing myself to the limits and ending up feeling physically sick than what I saw as glorified dancing.

But then, a few years ago now I tried yoga and loved it. And so, when Joe announced that at 9am every day of lockdown he’d be putting on a half hour PE class for the nation I thought we’d give it a go. It wasn’t quite as instant a decision as that. In fact at first I just thought, ‘no way’. But then, through a combination of chatting about it with my wife and considering the fact that it’d be a way of keeping the kids busy for a while, I thought that we could at least give it a go. Now, weeks later, I’ve not missed one day since it started!

The workouts have been a pleasant surprise. Apart from some ill-fitting lycra gear – which through football and running, I already had – and a yoga mat, there’s been no need for equipment. No weights, no resistance bands, and no other bits of stuff that I actually don’t know the name of. In hindsight, I don’t know what I was imagining! I do know that I can’t be a pleasant sight however. I’m a shade short of 6ft tall and built like a telegraph pole, so clingy gym gear isn’t exactly flattering. But Joe’s enthusiasm has been the perfect counter to my paranoia!

I didn’t realise that it’d be as difficult as I found it at first. After that first day I ached in places that were unexpected to say the least. Who knew that your bum could hurt so much just by doing aerobic type stuff? And given that I’d lifted no weights, how come my arms and shoulders felt so weak all of a sudden? Or weaker than normal; it’s all relative!

What I do know is that I’m thoroughly enjoying my appointment with Joe every day. It’s tough work and gets a sweat on, but it’s a tonne of fun too. As I said, it’s difficult but as time passes I’m finding that my body doesn’t hurt so much anymore. And whatever the aches and pains I’m there every day looking for more. There’s nothing too complicated and it all comes in bursts of 30 seconds before a short rest and time for a drink of water, then we’re ready to move on to the next exercise.

He has us doing things like squats and push ups fairly regularly. But there are also things like ‘Spiderman’ where we lunge to one side and fire out our imaginary webs before switching swiftly to the other side. My ten-year-old son loves doing this one and joins in doing the web sound effects with Joe. I’m also doing a sound effect; it’s called the wheeze. We also do ‘Climb The Mountain’ where you’re essentially in a plank position but running your knees up towards your chest. And then there’s ‘Bunny Hops’ where we…well, we hop like a bunny (ears included), as well as ‘Joeys’ which involve us jumping from side to side, kangaroo style protecting the baby in our pouch. I’d advise you not to try to imagine me doing these things by the way as I fear that even the imagined sight could burn your eyes. But I can tell you that it’s loads of fun and you can certainly feel the benefit.

The whole thing has allowed for a little bit of father son bonding too. Me and my son both do the class and as such, we’ve both not missed one yet. We spur each other on and it’s something that we now have in common; something else to talk about other than just football! That said, as soon as the workout is over we’re off outside for a game of football as a warm-down! Old habits die hard. It’s been nice to talk aches and pains with my son though and it feels like we’ve got a little bit more in common as a result.

The days are never the same. We do a range of different exercise or it might be a variation where we do ten exercises before a break followed by the same ten after. Other times, we do twenty different exercises over the course of the half hour. No two days are ever the same though, which is definitely a good thing and it keeps an old dog like me on my toes and stops me from using boredom as any kind of excuse for missing a day.

Introducing music was for me, a bit of a nightmare. For a start, let’s just say that Joe’s musical taste doesn’t have anything in common with mine. But then, apart from the sheer trauma of listening to Dua Lipa, I found it completely off-putting. I was finding that I couldn’t hear the 5 second countdown towards the end of each exercise and believe me, I needed to be able to hear that! The relief of knowing that I only had 5 seconds to go until having a short rest was palpable. Having Joe shouting over someone like George Ezra meant that I now had nothing to cling onto!  But he’s decided not to use music every day and as such this adds a different level of variation.

Next came Fancy Dress Friday, which needless to say is not my bag! I hate dressing up simply because a lack of confidence tells me that I look an even bigger idiot when I’m dressed as a superhero or say – and this actually happened – Freddie from Scooby Doo. Joe seemed to relish the exercise even more while dressed like Spiderman though and was leaping around like never before. Meanwhile my son came down in an England top claiming to be Wayne Rooney. Safe to say that Fancy Dress Friday probably won’t catch on in our house. It doesn’t mean that we can’t still enjoy the exercise though and again, Joe’s enthusiasm is actually a little bit infectious.

The upshot of it all is that I’m more or less sure that I’m a convert to this particular form of exercise. I’m already beginning to think about how I can make it part of my day when lockdown or isolation ends and work comes calling again. Thankfully it shouldn’t prove to be too tough with modern advances in technology like the ability to have YouTube on your telly. And hopefully, as was the original idea, it’ll help myself and others to fight this virus.

Keep exercising and stay safe everybody.