Friday, 6 March 2015

103. The fledgling Night Owls

I told my son I was going for a long walk. Training for the marathon.

"You're going to run the marathon?" he asked, incredulous.

No, not running, walking a marathon. Remember? I rashly signed up to do the Moonwalk in a few months' time. Twenty-six miles (or thirteen, if you'd rather do a half-marathon) throughout the night, wearing a fancy bra.

What's so difficult about walking a marathon, my son wanted to know. Why bother training? People go for long walks all the time. Off they set, hiking all day, mile after mile without so much as a warm-up stretch. 

"All you have to do is start, and then you just keep going," he said.

Put like that, it seemed a doddle. I felt a flicker of confidence. Of course! Just start and keep going! 

I could do with a bit of confidence, because although I have walked the occasional six or seven miles recently, there have also been days when I more or less collapsed after an hour. My confidence was not helped when a fat envelope landed on the mat which contained highly alarming instructions from the Moonwalk organisers. What shoes to buy. How often to stretch. (Every day, or better still, several times a day.) How often to train, and how long. (Often, and long.) How to do Power Walking. (Use your arms! Aim for a speed of four miles per hour!)


What am I letting myself in for? And why?

Well, why does anyone ever take on a fundraising challenge? It's not just to raise money for breast cancer charities, is it.

I signed up because walking a marathon seemed like the highest possible mountain to climb - and if you can do that, you can do anything. Right?

If I can walk a marathon, I am BETTER. I will have proved myself, to myself, to the world.

I listened to a radio interview with Danish actress Sophie Grabol (from "The Killing") recently. It used to puzzle her why people always wanted to climb mountains and run marathons after having cancer. Then she realised that the year following her own breast cancer treatments, she threw herself into work. That was her marathon.

"I had a year when I felt I didn't know whether I was dead or alive," she said. "It's a way of grabbing life, to test what you are actually capable of doing. But also I think there's this element of proving to other people, to the world, that I am allowed to be here. You see, I climbed this mountain, don't shut me out. Which is ridiculous and not rational, because I also discovered that people are very kind when you need help. To me, the big challenge was actually to receive it."

Oh, I can relate to that. It's not just the way I have picked up work again, churning out research papers and flying off to Switzerland as if I have to make up for that lost year and then some more - just to prove that I am entitled to be here, still, despite that long absence.

Don't write me off. Stop treating me like an invalid.

That marathon, less than four months after the end of those horrible cancer treatments, may be as mad as going back to work the day after my last dose of radiotherapy, booking flights to Switzerland and Holland (I'm in Holland now, my first time back since my mother's funeral) - it may be as mad, but it is also as necessary.

It is now clear that by May, I will definitely be able to walk 13 miles. So that's not good enough. Only when I can manage what many healthy people would find challenging - only then will I feel that my Cancer Year is behind me.

CANCER was not over at the final dose of radiotherapy. In my mind it will be over four months later, when I cross the finishing line of that Moonwalk.

About a dozen Night Owls have now joined the team of Moonwalkers.

A veritable Parliament of Owls, made up of family and friends, some with a daughter or a husband. They signed up as rashly as I did: Oh, go on then, why not! Perhaps they felt that finally, here was something they could do to support me? (Although a cheer from the roadside, or across cyberspace, or just a bit of sponsorship money, would have done just as nicely.)

It probably seemed a good idea at the time, but now several Night Owls are getting cold wings. They, too, have found that fat envelope on their doormats.

"I notice that neither of us are talking about the half marathon now," said one Night Owl who signed up despite being utterly unsure that she could manage a half marathon, let alone a full one.

Quietly, some of the Night Owls tried to tiptoe away. This isn't just my challenge: it has rapidly become their challenge, too.

"I'm too old!" one of them said. "And actually, I can't see myself wearing a fancy bra in public." 

"I hadn't quite realised how time consuming all this training would be," said another. "Oh, and perhaps I am too fat."

"I'm not even sure I can walk at all," said a third, who had just been to see her doctor about the pain in her feet.

But you know what? I love the team all the better for being made up of wobbly and self-doubting fledgling owls. 

It makes me realise yet again that having cancer is just one of life's many challenges. It makes me feel grateful, even, that I have an excellent prospect of putting the whole sorry saga behind me. I get all the sympathy (and I probably collect most of the sponsorship money) but the others have their own mountain to climb - and they don't get quite such a clear view from the top. They may well be climbing for the rest of their lives.

They need as much encouragement as I do.

My team of Night Owls includes people facing years and years of living with rheumatoid arthritis, insulin-dependent diabetes, fracture-inducing osteoporosis. Someone recovering from a hernia. Friends getting their heads around ageing, loss, expanding body shapes. Perhaps most difficult of all: people living with episodes of crippling depression.

And that's just the stuff I know about. Let's be honest, don't we all have our own hills and mountains to climb, often quietly and unknown to others?

So I've called them back and cheered them on, my Night Owls who wanted to slip away in the night. We all understand that for some of us, just making it to the start line is an achievement. It doesn't matter if some of us can only make it halfway down the road or halfway through the marathon: as far as I am concerned, that is enough.

As in real life, we have our eyes on our own personal ever-shifting finishing line, wherever that may be.

(I've lined up a friend with a car who is willing to pick the bodies of collapsed Night Owls off the nighttime pavements. I hope I can say this out loud without getting a red card from the organisers... I know they read this blog. Their press office seems rather interested in my story and has already telephoned me twice about it.)

Feel free to sponsor us. You can click on this link to our fundraising page.

We are raising funds as a team, so it doesn't matter which person you support. You will spur us all on. You can also choose to sponsor the team as a whole. Not all of us are able to raise as much money individually. Some Night Owls were reluctant to join, as they weren't sure they could raise the required £100 per walker: their friends are on very low incomes, or on benefits, or (by virtue of being monks) have no money at all. In my view, it doesn't matter.

Support comes in many forms and sponsorship money is only one of them. But for those of you who feel able to give in that way, let me tell you: I have felt surprisingly supported every time an email landed in my inbox telling me that we've got another sponsor. It's like an act of faith in me and it encourages me to keep up the walking. Thank you, thank you.

Now, back to the training plan.

I am happy to report that my son's advice worked better than the training advice in the Moonwalk booklet.

Whenever I found myself flagging that afternoon, it was best to stop thinking about the number of miles. Empty your mind of goals. Instead, I heard his voice in my head.

Mum, you just keep walking.

It was as easy as that. When  I finally got home and checked my step counter, it said 20 kilometres: 12 miles. Just about half a marathon. It's a week ago, and I have just about recovered from it.

I am spending a few days with my sisters in Holland right now. This afternoon, we went for a short but lovely walk in the woods.

But the best bit came this evening. My sisters had found the perfect bottle of wine to give courage to a fledgling Night Owl.



  1. A fellow Night Owl7 March 2015 at 00:22

    I just laughed so much! I woke up this morning thinking I can't possibly walk this marathon and why was I silly enough to think I might, and I shall feel a failure if I only manage half.......... so I shall take your son's advice. Actually, that's the way I approached walking to Santiago. 200kms and two mountain ranges, with a friend with cerebral palsy on my arm, and no training at all. Of course I was fifteen years younger...... but still!

    1. Hurray! The real failure will be not to try at all. And when the going gets tough, we shall think of the friend with cerebral palsy who crossed the mountains to Santiago.