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Granny-Words-1

A couple of weeks ago my granny was killed in a traffic incident – she was 90 years old – and ever since I have been at the centre of what has felt like a  whirlwind.

I was her eldest grandson and despite falling out with her last May I was arguably her closet relative – hence why I was charged with organising her funeral and being executor of her estate. Neither task are things that I wanted and neither have filled with me with any real joy.

To give some context, my granny, Mrs Margaret Hilda Coates was a difficult  person whose passing was acknowledged more than mourned.

Still for the funeral I needed to find something positive because regardless of the feelings we have, nothing is ever black and white, it is very much about the shades of grey and for me my granny was the epitome of shades of grey.

Infact she was very, very grey.

The sad thing was that her wishes, upon her death, were that she should have no service at all – something that others did not want and as a mark of respect to them I felt the need to straddle different perspectives because the truth is that funerals are not about the dead they are about those who are left behind.

I found myself therefore with the need to tell a story and the story I choose to tell was of a woman who could have lived a good, fruitful life but choose to live in the shadows of her own shortcomings and how we could all learn from that.

My first draft was too dour, too angry and so I sat down and treated this as a presentation I was giving to a client that way I could find the things that made my granny human and I could connect with the part of me that remembered the good times – I found this incredibly challenging to write.

Below is a copy of what I wrote;

I stand in front of you all here and know that the thing we share is that we’ve all annoyed Margaret Coates at one time or another. I’d say if you didn’t ‘have words’ with her then you probably never met the real Margaret. 

My grandmother was an unusual lady in many ways but she was also incredibly traditional and conventional and when I think about her now I reflect on how how she found modern life bewildering and it makes me smile.

‘What is this social media?’ she would say
‘Why isn’t there football on TV anymore?
‘Why do you do your hair like that?’
‘Why do they use aspartame?’
‘Why don’t you ever get me female autobiographies?’

Margaret was an anachronism, out of place in a time she didn’t understand and wondering what it was all about. In the last decade especially, as my own life developed roots and hers meandered towards its twilight, we would spend time discussing the way life was – covering topics like politics, religion, media, sport and history. Our opinions were so far apart that it made good sport for us to goad one another and poke fun at the other. Even as her ability to debate and argue waned she hated to lose and worse than that she hated to be wrong, it’s a character trait we share.

I occasionally took my life into my own hands by taking her on holiday or by having her visit me when I lived in London. We would go on theatre trips, make artistic jaunts to the Lake District, we climbed the Liver Building towers together, travelled the Kentish countryside and rode high on the Falkirk Wheel, she would often tell me what was wrong with these adventures but then I would hear her wax lyrical about them to others later. I like to believe we always enjoyed our shared adventures but by the same token we were both incredibly grateful for their conclusion. I suppose, the truth is, when I look back, my memories of her are, like everyones, mixed.

When she asked why I would move to Scotland, I told her that I wanted to live the life fantastic, to live without regret and to live for now, not tomorrow. I told her, that very day, that we should all strive to live that fantastic life – that it’s never too late, that no matter where you are in your life you can have joy and meaning, but that you must strive for it.

I’m confident that she was desperate for that better, more complete life – even in her later years – but she could never see how to step out of her own shadow and so today I am saddened.

I am saddened not by her death – that is nature – I am saddened that she lived life with regret and couldn’t find a way to change the fate she brought upon herself.

She was the original enigma, wrapped in a puzzle and now she is gone, none of us will be able to solve the riddle she left us, ‘who was Margaret Coates?’

But puzzle solving is not the thing I would ask you all to do today I would instead ask you to find one good memory of her, as J M Barrie would have written, a happy thought and remember her in that moment and take that with you today.

Before I go I will share my happy memory with you. Yesterday I went up to Rivington Pike to run the Pike and Back half marathon, my running was something she did not approve of, however, I went up to this particular race because it was in close proximity to a restaurant called Smithills, a Dickensian themed restaurant that my grandparents would take us to on our birthdays. I loved the chicken soup there, it was thick and it had a swirl of cream in it – something that growing up seemed so exotic given we were really rather poor and treats of this nature really where just that – a treat. It was my birthday, I’d have been 8 or 9 and I said, ‘do you think I could have the chicken soup for starter and main?’ When the waitress came over granny explained what I wanted and I soon had my two delicious bowls of soup with its crusty bread and salty butter. I remember being very happy as I slurped away at the soup and my granny had made that happen for her eldest grandson. I look on it now, the act was so small but the effect was so memorable and that was very much the challenge of my granny she could be difficult but importantly she could be incredibly kind – I hope we all are remembering the kind.

Goodbye granny.

It was funny that I found a highly symbolic half marathon (read about it here)to run the day before she died and it served as a very appropriate thing to do given it had links to my ‘positive thought’ about my granny and it really helped me focus on the funeral and how I wanted to go about it.

I added in some music but didn’t want to pick any old funeral music – I wanted to pick things that were relevant or appropriate. She was a fan of Tina Turner and given she thought very highly of herself I had considered, ‘The Best‘ but the GingaNinja vetoed this saying that some people might be offended.

So I settled on a bit of ‘Nimrod’, because she liked it, some Simon & Garfunkel with ‘The Sound of Silence’ because the GingaNinja wouldn’t let me have ‘I am a Rock’ (she said the lyrics were a little close to the knuckle) and I sent her out to a more modern track from Jason Mraz, ‘Living in the moment’ that was intended to lift the mood and reinforce my message about living your life to its fullest. I wasn’t left with instructions on what to do about her funeral if I decided to ignore her wishes and so I simply had to work out what it was I wanted to say about a woman that was not easy to define.

The problem was I also had the best part of 25 minutes to fill, even with the celebrant doing a decent job there wasn’t going to be enough material to stretch over the time and so I needed a poem. I read lots of poems from Wordsworth, Byron, Ted Hughes and many more. I listened endlessly to routines from Dave Allen and Billy Connolly that she loved but all of them were either not quite right or incredibly rude and not quite right.

So I started looking in places that you might not traditionally find funeral poems and I remembered my love of Dr Suess.

My grandmother was not a fan and upon hearing me perform ‘Green Eggs & Ham’ to my daughter a couple of times, she described the writing of Dr. Suess as gobbledegook. However, the following piece really did reinforce the theme of living the best life you can and so with all the linguistic skill I had I delivered to a room of four family, a celebrant and the funeral director the following wonderful tongue twister.

Congratulations!

Today is your day.You’re off to Great Places!You’re off and away!

You have brains in your head.You have feet in your shoes.You can steer yourself any direction you choose.You’re on your own. And you know what you know.And YOU are the gal who’ll decide where to go.

You’ll look up and down streets. Look ‘em over with care.About some you will say, “I don’t choose to go there.”With your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet, you’re too smart to go down any not-so-good street.

And you may not find anyyou’ll want to go down.In that case, of course,you’ll head straight out of town.

It’s opener therein the wide open air.

Out there things can happenand frequently doto people as brainyand footsy as you.

And then things start to happen,don’t worry. Don’t stew.Just go right along.You’ll start happening too.

OH! THE PLACES YOU’LL GO!

You’ll be on your way up!You’ll be seeing great sights!You’ll join the high flierswho soar to high heights.

You won’t lag behind, because you’ll have the speed.You’ll pass the whole gang and you’ll soon take the leadWherever you fly, you’ll be best of the best.Wherever you go, you will top all the rest.

Except when you don’t.Because, sometimes, you won’t.

I’m sorry to say sobut, sadly, it’s truethat Bang-upsand Hang-upscan happen to you.

You can get all hung upin a prickle-ly perch.And your gang will fly on.You’ll be left in a Lurch.

You’ll come down from the Lurchwith an unpleasant bump.And the chances are, then,that you’ll be in a Slump.

And when you’re in a Slump,you’re not in for much fun.Un-slumping yourselfis not easily done.

You’ll get mixed up, of course,as you already know.You’ll get mixed up with many strange birds as you go.So be sure when you step.

Step with care and great tactand remember that Life’s a Great Balancing Act.Just never foget to be dexterous and deft.And never mix up your right foot with your left.

And will you succeed?Yes! You will, indeed!(98 and 3/4 percent guaranteed.)

So…be your name Margaret or Bixby or Brayor Mordecai Ali Van Allen O’Shea,You’re off the Great Places!Today is your day!Your mountain is waiting.So…get on your way!

And so this was the end of my granny.

I owe a huge debt of gratitude to John, Ann and Jane for their enormous support during a really weird time. And I’d like for it to be known that I understand the reasons why other people did not come, the obvious reason was COVID-19 but other people choose to stay away because of the feelings they had towards her or other very sensible reasons – like giving birth.

I wonder what she would think if she knew that I had gone against her wishes and that there were less than a handful of people to see her off. I’ll never know and maybe it is best that way. I suppose some might ask why I would put this on my blog – the answer to that is simple, I find the writing about it quite a cathartic experience and I can draw a line under it, move on and allow myself to learn the lessons of her life.

Right now though I’m simply glad this part of it is over. Adios Granny.

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There is a really weird sensation about rolling up the start line of a race and being the only person there, I suppose this would make me the both first and last finisher in the race I was runningbut the Pike and Back (Virtual) Half Marathon had much more meaning than just a run, this was a run that filled with history, emotion and of course mud.

I left my home in Scotland at about 7am with the aim to start running around lunchtime and hopefully avoid those who might be considering running the virtual race on the course at the original designated time – it’s about a four and half hour journey and I broke this up with a swift stop at a McDonalds for a ‘nourishing’ breakfast.

I was driving the little car as it was just me travelling and as the sun beat down on the car I thought it was going to be a scorcher for the run, something I had not counted on when I had been packing my kit (I was all waterproofs and survival blankets). I arrived bang on time despite a couple of little mis-steps in my directions.

The man in the car next me glared as I pulled up next to him he tossed his cigarette out of the car and wound his window up – presumably because he believved I had arrived to lick COVID 19 all over him which couldn’t be any further from the truth.

Anyway I had a Tesco pastry and a bit of chocolate milkshake to make sure I was fully energisted and then quickly got changed into my kit. I had vague memories of Moss Bank from my childhood, although I’m not from Bolton I do know the area quite well from visits as a child and Winter Hill is a well known landmark but I couldn’t remember ever being allowd to go up it (we were not a very active family). We also used to come here when I was child to a restaurant called Smithhills – it was a dickensian themed place and for our birthdays my grandparents would take us there as a treat. This event, virtual or not was loaded with memories for me and on the day before I led the funeral to my grandmother  this was rather a poignant thing I was doing (you could read about this in a separate blog post here).

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I set up the navigation on my Suunto and started to amble around aimlessly looking for the start (this did not bode well for following the route). Eventually after a few minutes of groping around the park I came to a small opening in the bushes which looked like the kind of place that a race might begin – Suunto agreed and so, after a couple of pictures, we set off.

Now lets be fair Suunto and the breadcrumb trail is at best, ‘not bad’ so as I ambled up the hill towards what I considered to be the route I figured quickly that I had made a mistake – what gave this away was that I found myself launching my poor, knackered body off a wall and onto the street below and then around a few narrow winding streets and then some steps where I finally picked up what was probably the route. There were clues that this might be the route, the first was the winding river and the trail in the distance, the second was that my watch finally looked like it was going in the right direction and thirdly two fellow virtual half marathiners came thundering past me.

Aha I thought I have found my way.

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Now I really hadn’t done that much research about the race or route, I’d left it to the rose tinted specs to assume that this would be something I’d like to do. I’d glanced at the elevation profile which looked like there were two small hills at about the mid-point of the route and the rest of it was pretty flat. It was only as I was about 600 metres in that I realised I had rather misjudged the situation and I had rather misjudged the route. Effectively the route was made actually made up of two tough climbs on a variety of surfaces and then in reverse it was made of a couple of hanrd going downhills and one really tough as old boots uphill that really sapped every last bit of energy you had!

The first three and bit kilometres of the route were mainly tarmac, quiet roads (or they should have been given the COVID-19 trouble), the elevation felt really tough. The toughness wasn’t just the route, this was very much a combination of a long drive from Scotland and a lack of training in recent weeks, my lack of training has been in part to COVID-19 but mainly due to the stress of work and my grandmother dying and having to do all the arrangements from this and now I was feeling it.

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The road seemed never ending and I did for a moment wonder if this was a trail half marathon but then glinting in the distance I saw the outline of a gate and a route on to the rolling trails around Winter Hill and Rivington Pike. I crossed the gate and bade the cyclists a good morning as I passed by them and then continued onward and most importantly upward. At this point we had moved from the tarmac to hard packed and stoney trail. I bimbled along, stopping only to allow past me, faster moving traffic and to take pictures of the truly spectacular surroundings. In the distance I now had clear sight of the Winter Hill transmission mast and realised that I despite having been here many times before I had probably only ever seen this at a distance.

I pressed on across the rocks, the mud and the water, the route had now gone from a bit of a slog to being genuinely fun and I was finally enjoying the route – especially as the sun was shining but also lovely and cool, a perfect running day. My feet for the first time that day felt free to unleash a little bit of pace inspite of the uphill – this is why I run I thought. I found myself feeling rather jaunty depsite the situation we all find ourselves in and I could simply revel in the reason I was here – to pay a small tribute to my departed (but much unloved) granny.

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I skipped down the stony path and alongside the transmittor and marvelled at the scale of the structure that had once (and may well still) send out things like the signal for Granada Television, I felt like a young boy in the back seat of grandfathers car as a ran beside the mast, the only thing missing was the twinkling red lights that adorn it as the lights go down.

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I assumed that Rivington Pike could not be that far from the mast and in the distance I could see a small structure which I asssumed was the destination and turnaround point. I therefore joined a narrow piece of tarmac and wended my way downwards and started arching away from the small structure, that was not Rivington Pike – oh dear. In the distance I could see a flurry of people around what looked like a small fortification or castle – that was Rivington Pike and I was what looked like several miles away from it. Thankfully this was now downhill but my knees don’t much like tarmac and they were feeling the stress of the pounding they were taking and although my Lone Peak 4.0 are well built they aren’t suited for sustained running on tarmac.

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I ran down and down, and down and down and then weirdly what felt like more down and down, yet, and this was the strange thing – Rivington Pike was up – totally in opposition to my descent.

However, eventually my downward spiral stopped and I returned to hard packed trails – here it felt very busy, lots of people travelling up to the Rivington Pike and dusty hard packed trails gave the illusion that everybody had a dry and dusty cough. It was rather interesting to watch as people covered up their faces as they walked past you or as I ran past them. I mean yes I was breathing more heavily than most of the people there but then I was exerting more pressure on my poor old body. I was mostly being sensible and passing people at a distance but one couple, who were wearing face masks, moved away from me at 90 degrees and zipped up their heavy duty winter jackets to fully cover their mouth – which I felt was a little excessive given that I was never closer than about 20ft away.

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Anyway I hurled myself on to the final climb of Rivington Pike and chatted (at a safe social distance) to a local cyclist, both of us wondering why the hell we were here. I waved at him as I left him behind and continued my climb to the top which was awash with people. I stopped long enough to take a couple of pictures and then made a swift sprint down the front of the Pike knowing that an absolute shit of a hill was waiting for me.

I’ll be perfectly honest, not a lot of running was done back up the hill, my legs were absolutely cream crackered and all I wanted was to be back at the car and maybe stop at the ice cream van who was awaiting customers in the park. I was also very keen to relieve my bladder of its contents but given the throngs of people that were festooned around the route and the lack of any cover meant that I really had to tie a knot in it and hold on. It was here that I noted I had probably made a routing error on the way out and added several hundred metres to my journey as my beloved Suunto insisted that I head across the wet boggy trail. Of course this was music to my ears – get off the tarmac, get back in touch with nature and as cold mud sprayed up the back of me and my feet found themselves submerged I thought, ‘bliss’. I came across a father and son who were clearly not geared for this kind of trail and looking rather unhappy at the prospect of having to continue through this but they managed a cheery smile as I ran by them.

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Soon though I was back on the path and facing the Winter Hill mast, I waved goodbye to it as I turned away from it and pushed on as fast as I could knowing that it was mostly downhill all the way home. However, as I’ve indicated the route was hard going and even in a downhill situation if you’re undertrained and exhausted then it is ging to be hard. But with the wind on my back and surprising cheeriness in my heart I ran happily off the hill and back to road which seemed so long ago now.

When I arrived back to the gate it felt like I had really achieved something and I gently ran down the road, attemptin not to punish my old nears any more than I needed to. I was so close now and in the distance I could see the park where all of this had started. Down, down, down I went – bit like a first date that has gone too well – and as I arrived back to the point I met the earlier virtual runners I felt a tremendous sense of relief. Yes I’d been slow but I’d had good reason not to rush this one – I had time and I wanted time to be able to reflect on everything that is currently going on both personally and globally. I crossed the finish line to the sound of silence, or rather the sound of nature and actually rather enjoyed it.

I’d completed the Pike and Back Half Marathon and I was pleased to have done it.

Distance: Half Marathon
Type: Virtual (due to COVID-19)
Ascent: Bloody Hell
Date: March 2020
Location: Bolton
Terrain: Very mixed
Tough Rating: 3/5

Conclusions
I would traditionally write a full breakdown of the event but that is impossible given the nature of this one in its virtual format. What I will say is that full credit goes to the team of Time2Run Events for allowing runners to complete the event virtually – they could simply have said ‘cancelled’ but as many Race Directors have done they have looked for alternatives and we should be grateful for that.

The route was really tough, the elevation was challenging, the mixed terrain meant that shoe choice was a nightmare and if you really weren’t prepared for this then you were going to have your arse handed to you and mine was handed to me gift wrapped.

Had I not been attending my grannies funeral, and referencing the race in the eulogy I had written for the following day, then I probably wouldn’t have come down for the race I would have transferred my entry to next year, done the training and actually run much better but there was something special about this, about doing it alone, abour forcing myself to push on. I’m an ultra runner really and the half marathon distance is my least favourite race length so to come here and really enjoy myself is really quite wonderful.

There was also something joyous about finishing the ‘race’ first and last – that’ll make me laugh for the rest of my days and I feel like this is a medal I have really earned. I will looking forward to receiving the medal knowing that whenever I look at it with all the others at the top of my staircase that it will bring back a smorgasbord of feelings and that is the sign of a great thing.

The one thing I did notice was how friendly people were in comparison to the Scottish races I run, up here almost all the runners, hikers, walkers, etc have time to smile or have a laugh and a joke with you but despite smiling and saying hello to everyone I went past there was something of a lack of response. Now some of it I’ll put down to COVID-19 but I was rather surprised that the north of England, famed for its friendliness, was a little less than I’ve gotten used to in Scotland. That said, those people that did wave back or say hello or smile back at me were warm and wonderful, I was just surprised by how many people simply didn’t bother.

If you’ve never run this race before then can I urge you to look up Time2Run Events and sign up to this most wonderful of race – even if like me you have to travel down from Scotland to do it, I will certainly be considering entering again for next year.

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It seems I am destined never to run an ultra with some sort of fuckwit incident kicking me in the gonads and dancing a tango across my chest. You’d think it was just a series of excuses to make up for my lacklustre performances but sadly that’s not the case.

What’s gone wrong now?

My grandmother has managed to wind up in hospital with at least a broken ankle and possibly other bits (more tests to follow) and so tonight I’m going to try and do all my prep for the SDW50, then tomorrow I’m going to try and do three days work in one, while also taking a work laptop with me on my travels. This will be at the same time as seeing the physio to try and fix my own knackered hips and early Thursday morning I’m going to head to Liverpool, pick up my grandmothers things for her two week stay in hospital, then Friday morning I’m back to sunny Kent to try and get a few hours sleep before the arrival of another shitty performance at an ultra.

There are stories around the shit that is being mentioned above but at the heart of it this is being one shitty week and it’s only frelling Tuesday.

We hear a lot about broken society, we hear a lot about obesity, a fattening culture, a lazy culture, we hear about a disenchanted youth and a disinterested electorate and then I saw a tweet from @jedirider asking how many ultra runners have been called mental for the kind of distances we run. And this got me thinking – who is the more mental, the one who pushes themselves or the one who asks why you would push yourself?

So I’m asking myself ‘am I mental’ or is there something else that is going on? I wonder why this seemed to grate on my nerves and and the answer was to do with my opinion that as a society not enough of us push the boundaries of our limits.

Let me start by telling you about my grandmother. My granny is 85 years of age, she’s from a generation that survived, from a generation that ‘got on with things’. She comes from a time and place where traditional stereotypes are still okay and whenever I speak to her and tell her I’ve just completed a race she tells me ‘you run too much’. This is a woman that has never done a days exercise in her life, she would say she’s been active – she isn’t. She’s from a time that thinks that cleaning the crockery counts as calorie burning. She finds exercise for pleasure abhorrent and rather than congratulate me, her grandson, on successes she berates me. She’s the kind of person that thinks because I didn’t become a doctor I wasted my life – she doesn’t consider that my work as a designer has in some projects helped save lives, communicated important messages or simply played pivotal roles in ensuring success. I pushed myself to become a designer, I forced my way through university at a time when it was not the norm in my family. I struggled to get to the place I needed to be in order to achieve – but I did do it. And despite my grandmothers assertions that I draw pictures for living I’ve actually been a reasonably successful, occasionally well profiled designer but she doesn’t see the value – I’m not a doctor or a lawyer.

She thinks I’m mental, bordering on a failure.

My answer to her suggestion is that what is ‘mental’ is on a Friday or Saturday night I could go out and drink myself so stupid that I’d think Hollyoaks was worth watching and then spend the rest of the weekend recovering from my own inability to handle my beer. Not only is it an incredibly time consuming and expensive past time but it also runs counter to my desires to be a better runner. So does the not drinking in favour of running make me mental? I don’t think so, in fact I think it makes me more sensible. The point though is lost on her and I can understand why, it just wasn’t her thing, but aspiring to better things shouldn’t be a concept beyond anyone – regardless of age or whatever the excuse. And to my career choices my answer has been that I’ve worked and profited for my entire career – even during some of the slumps I’ve always managed to work my way through it. She was wrong about and I find that culturally there is too much of this negative attitude. I should point out I do actually love my granny!

And so to our broken society and why runners aren’t mental.

I grew up reading Batman and Superman comics, I grew up dreaming that I could be a hero, make a difference, challenge perception, lead by example. I grew up knowing that I should reach as high as it was possible to imagine and then imagine further. So when I finished my first marathon I knew I could go further, longer and harder. I knew that I could imagine further and that instinct to achieve, to push myself, to see barriers and say ‘fuck you’ was very much intact.

So when someone says you’re mental that shouldn’t hurt because you can be smug in the knowledge that you are simply fulfilling your promise, striving to go beyond and never give up. You’ll fail sometimes but I’d rather fail than never try.

Maybe our society is broken because we don’t chase dreams as vigorously as we perhaps once did, or perhaps more accurately, not enough of us do. Perhaps it’s also that our dreams have been softened to account for a celebrity and technology based culture where we need instant gratification.

Rather ironically on the subject of instant gratification I look through my twitter feed and there I see so many ‘insane’ people. I see people who have started virtual running challenges because they couldn’t find a race in January, I see people who’ve started micro bakeries to make beautiful crumbles, I see people who challenge the MdS and come back conquerors, I see asthmatics challenging marathons, I see people running 10 marathons in 10 days or 26 marathons in a year, I see people battle back from injuries to startle themselves. These are the types of people who should be making up the future and in these people and those like them I am confident that the world will always dream, we will always dream of going further and I don’t just mean running, I mean in all aspects of society. I don’t just push myself in running but in all aspects of life and maybe I am an extremist but I’m an extremist with a streak of common sense, ain’t that a contradiction.

I once heard Stephen Fry say that he treasures curiosity, the need to be curious. What are we without that drive to find, discover, uncover, eek out. How very true Stephen and it’s something I’ve always promoted – curiosity. So, in ultra running I am curious about how far I can go, how far my body will take me and what would I do to earn that medal. With UltraBaby arriving later this year I am keen that this sense of curiosity, wonder and imagination are at the cornerstone of their childhood, I would hate for them to settle for a life less ordinary and if I achieve nothing else as a parent, runner and dreamer if I can ensure they are curious then I’ll be happy.

As a side note to all my ranting… I’m very conscious that we all have pressures that surround us, for some people it’s financial, for others family, work, health or whatever – but within each of our own individual bubbles shouldn’t we be looking to make the best of what we have and then make the push to do it better or more complete? Pushing yourself doesn’t mean you have to be doing big things, just trying is enough.

I wonder if a society en masse could learn a thing or three from people with a mental attitude, because bonkers or not – they’re awesome. Just a thought.

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