Ten Years On – The Great London Experiment

View East headed over the Thames to the Southbank Summer 2012

I should qualify this post by saying its not strictly about running. It should possibly be classified as a Ludicrous Pastime – because that’s what my trip to London was supposed to be. Not a fully committed life choice. Which of course it now is, the Summer Fling that turned into the Real Thing.

While booking flights for a holiday later this Spring, I noticed an old passport stamp, 23 Jan 2003, JHB International. Exit Stamp. One Year Return booked. I remember that gave us 365 days to decide if we wanted to extend the adventure. I was almost certain I’d work in a few pubs, pick a few strawberries, hit Glastonbury, the Edinburgh Fringe, maybe a few jaunts over to Europe and be straight back on a plane to beloved Jozi in 2004. I would not be a statistic. I would not be contributing to the much maligned Brain Drain. I was ‘just going to over a bit of a look’.

And why not? I had my Honours Degree licked, the luxury of an Irish passport and enough blind naivety to think it wouldn’t really phase me. That I’d enjoy Over There, but it would leave me interested but unchanged. I’d return a bit more well versed in having ‘done’ Europe, maybe have a few cool vintage finds from Camden, and of course wax lyrical about all the amazing gigs I had been to, of bands no-one had heard of back home.

Ten years on, I have not worked in a pub, picked a single solitary strawberry or hit Glastonbury. But I have managed Edinburgh, bought loads of dodgy clobber from Camden (to my shame) and am lucky enough to have seen more gigs in more weird and wonderful venues that I can remember (really, I can’t actually remember a good few of them). I have packed my bag countless times ventured on long weekends to Barcelona, Prague, Croatia, Marbella, Palma, Tunisia, a festival in Belgium, NYE in Amsterdam, a late spring trip to New York. I even fulfilled a life long dream of smoking a proper cigar in Cuba, drinking mint tea in Turkey, seeing the midnight sun in Sweden, late night swimming in Portugal, and a million other wonderful experiences my EU passport has allowed me to have. Of course, the best picture postcard moment? Getting married in St Lucia to my very own born and bred Londoner.

Mr and Mrs –  June 13th 2012 St Lucia 

Inevitably Over There became Over Here. I now say ‘yeah’ rather than ‘ya’, I know the tube backwards, and can also find my way round on most buses (having spent a lot of time in South London and having a long standing hate hate relationship with the Northern Line). I own (five) proper winter coats, get over excited when it hits 18 degrees in the summer and can hold a very dull, but fairly effectual conversation with anyone about the weather and the inability of our public transport system to cope with it.

Arriving at the tender age of 21, I have done the vast majority of my growing up here too, its been a hugely steep learning curve. The inevitable failing miserably at managing finances, relationships, and cooking. But surviving the hugely entertaining minefield that is house sharing, figuring out WHERE I actually wanted to live at all, (I have lived in NW3, E14, SW15, SW11, SW9, SW2, and finally settled in W10 with The Londoner), and once decided, who would man up and take out the bins. The first five years were a whirlwind of moving house, going out, staying up until stupid o’clock, figuring out what I actually wanted to DO, and by meeting the most magnificent people along the way, WHO I wanted to do it with.

The Girls. All as mad as they are magnificent (Notting Hill Carnival 2011)

Having figured out some of the basics, the last five years have been far less crazy, but not necessarily any easier.  London offers so much, its hard not to want more, from everyone and yourself. Anything you want to do, its available. Change your mind? Here’s a thousand other options. Want to stand out? You and a million others. I’ve had to learn to challenge myself, and push past my own expectations to see what I’m made of. Running has been a huge part of this. Something I thought I would never do, I now love. To the point where I have invested inordinate amounts of time, money and effort to get back on track and running post injury, and have been slowly, painfully learning to correct my form.

I am pleased to say I have finished my six week coaching session, my form has dramatically improved, and I just smashed 20 minutes flat out on the treadmill at a rocking pace. As a result, ten years on, I’m fitter than I was when I arrived and over ten pounds lighter (whoop! The running eating plan has meant I have shed a stone in about 12 weeks). Even with the roller-coaster ride of bitter disappointments and ecstatic highs, I feel a 100% more optimistic now then I did back then, stepping off that plane ten years ago with all the arrogance of a 21 year old grad student. And I was a royal pain in the arse know-it-all back then, so that’s saying something.

Amateur Month

Ah January. Everyone is bleak, skint, and exhausted from the excesses of the festive season. Invariably the weather reflects the general mood by being damp, cold and unpredictable. Which means that these very same people, while cutting back on booze, sugar and general fun have turned their attentions to GETTING FIT/LOSING WEIGHT. But having not quite acquired a taste for exercise of the outdoor variety, they hit the gyms. In force and en masse, taking up space in the change rooms, slots in the spinning classes and mats on the gym floor.

Don’t get me wrong, I was one of these newbies, everyone has to start somewhere. I fell off the treadmill, dropped weights on my feet, nearly flew head first over the handlebars in spin and of course, got ALL the steps wrong in Body Attack –  to the point where the instructor told me to ‘just concentrate on the feet dear, don’t worry about the arms yet’. I even wore grey (Don’t – it shows up all your sweat patches – everywhere!)

But year in and year out I am always astonished at the lack of common sense people have, and equally the sheer lack of willingness to learn. There must be an assumption that you gain fitness through osmosis and it starts working as soon as you walk through the door, and this somehow makes you deaf / impervious to the instructor’s suggestions, or the instructions on the equipment.

I have many mad, bad examples of this, but my current favourite has to be the newbies who turn up at spin, in major kit – clip ons, the lot – and then proceed to freewheel for 45 minutes while bouncing up and down so rapidly on the seat I’m surprised the seat doesn’t cave in. They totally ignore the instructor when he suggests increasing the resistance to stop the bounce, which would also make you sweat a bit and save your nether regions (win win). His very good advice was met with sniping comments, and eye rolling. Actual eye rolling.

Why people fork out £50+ a month to turn up in full gear, barely break a sweat and ignore the professional advice readily available, is beyond me and just a sheer waste of hard earned cash. Ask the stupid questions. Fall of the treadmill, you only really need to do this once, you’ll learn pretty quickly. Set your bike up wrong, make a tit of yourself in Combat, but just give it a go, you’ll get over it!

Thankfully the invasion only lasts about 3 weeks, usually subsiding around January pay day, when the impulse joiners swap the gyms for the pub again, and I get a bit more elbow room in classes. In the meantime I’m investing in more winter running gear to avoid the madness. Hooray for empty streets, crisp air and sleet!* Plus I get to have Stella for company, no eye rolling from her, she only gets bitchy when she’s after a stick and I get to tell her off when she’s behaving badly. Too bad we can’t leash the newbies.
* okay, not the sleet