On the Run


Glucose gel tastes sooo bad….

Wait a minute – did I just say ‘tastes?’  That’s a generous word for the sensation of substanceless sweetness dredging between your teeth.  Not even desperate sufferers of severe hypoglycaemia find it appetising.

But they are easy to carry and consume and therefore marketted not only to diabetics (which is how I first heard of them), but also to fell-runners. Hubby and I bought some for our run.

Gareth told us a story about his friend.  His friend set off on a fell-race, but took along a different sort of energy-gel to usual. Apparently some brands can cause near-immediate diarrhoea in sensitive people…… the friend never finished her race.

Yes, of course team Gareth and Naomi have researched and practised with the specific brand of energy-gel that they are using today.  But I haven’t even tried my backpack on yet, so the finer risks of energy-gels just didn’t seem important at the time. But now that it’s one-minute-to-race-time, I am worrying:  What if I get the shits?

It makes a change from what I’ve been worrying about for the last hour, which was: Will we arrive in time?

We persuaded Grandad to kiddy-sit, months ago.  He was reluctant at the time, and since then he has come down with man-flu. This morning, he arrived looking so dreadful that I nearly cancelled my run. One child immediately sat on top of him, demanding stories. The other started climbing up his legs.  We car-convoyed him to Dad’s Group in the hope he’d find some respite there.

So we arrived at Fairholmes carpark with less than seven minutes to spare.  We spent five of those minutes trying to find a parking space:  runners are surprisingly inconsiderate parkers.  I glared at them through the window: knarly outdoor types with suntans.  Crikey! – they looked ready for anything.

And now I am one of them.  Minus the knarles, the sun-tan and the ready-for-anythingness, obviously, but I do have a number safety-pinned to my front. At some inaudible signal, there is a smattering of applause and the crowd surges forward. Slowly.

I am surprised how slowly: it’s like being stuck in traffic.  A first I feel a shot of despair every time a runner squeezes past me, but then I watch them all getting stuck behind another pair of legs a few paces further on.  Luckily, runners’ grid-lock is more cheerful than commuters’ grid-lock: small-talk prevails. I chat a bit to Gareth and Naomi’s friend, Cat.

I am, I realise, hardly out of breath. Neither is a talkative bloke in front of me. He has exactly the same blend of South-Yorkshire / Derbyshire accent as my Dad, so I have developed a soft-spot.  He is experienced, aiming for four hours.  That’s faster than me.  I decide to stay behind him for the time being.

Up and up…. and suddenly, the view of the valley opens up beneath us.  Beautiful.  Once we’re on top, running along the ridge is sheer priviledge.

9edge2I have good footwork: I overtake people running downhill; most of them pass me on the following incline and I pass them again on the next descent.  Thus we leap-frog along the ridge’s undulations.  There are around ten of us; the crowds have vanished, either in front or behind.

I realise how much I like overtaking people; after High Neb on Stanage I start picking them off.  The two guys ahead look pretty fit, so I am surprised when I catch them easily.  I have just got past, when one of them says cheerily, ‘Hello!’

It’s hubby.  We run along togther for a while, but when the route flattens out around Burbage, the samey gait starts to jar my tibial band.  I stretch out my legs and speed up.

‘Flat’ really isn’t my gradient.  It’s boring, repetetive; its saving grace is the tourists, who make me feel good.  Three years ago, I walked home from Ladybower with baby ‘Toddler’ in a rucksack carrier and couldn’t help feeling a little tame next to the stream of runners who kept passing me.  At the time I didn’t know they were nine-egders, but the reluctant admiration was acute.

Now that I am one of the runners, the walkers make me feel good, especially the ones who clap and say ‘Well Done.’  Gareth’s parents are there; some walking mates of my Dad’s just happen to be on Curbar.  For every set, I feel a surge of enthusiasm and speed up a bit.

When nobody’s watching though, I am getting slower and slower, until I am alternating between a jog, a walk and a limp.  The scenery is becoming less impressive and I am seeing increasingly few runners.  At Longshaw Estate, which seems to go on forever, a posh woman’s voice calls out cheerily from the steps: ‘Only eight miles to go!’ and I try to look lively…..

Eight miles….?

…..they really drag.  I feel terribly lonely and a bit decrepit.  I don’t see anybody and am so demotivated that I almost reach a standstill.  Eventually people start to overtake me – I am just pleased to see some familiar faces.  Including the man with Dad’s voice. ‘I knew I’d peaked too early,’ I tell him, ‘when I lost you.’

I think I might be hypoglycaemic.  I swallow my third energy gel of the race.  At least I haven’t had the shits.

Then, up the hill behind me comes Cat.  Cat!  I’m so chuffed to see a friend.  Suddenly, a surge of happiness and a surge of blood sugar appear to coincide. I run downhill directly in her wake.  Wheeeeeeee!  Gareth and Naomi are waiting at the finish.


(Pictures: http://blog.alistairpooler.co.uk/2013/09/the-edges-above-dovestone-reservoir.html and www.grough.co.uk).

Loosing It


Different people respond to stress in different ways.

I have known people shout and scream, over-eat, under-eat, drink heavily. Loose sleep, cry down the phone.  I have one friend, a top-of-her-game professional, who carries a bead everywhere soley for the purpose of fiddling with when wound up.

For some people, all interest in life appears to break down.  They might still walk through the motions;  perhaps they offend people, coming across as distant or rude. Or perhaps they cannot cannot even fake it and the mind simply fails to command the body to function. Even getting out of bed becomes impossible.

I cringe to remember the first time I encountered this. I was a teenager.  I was scathing.  I told the person to ‘book their ideas up’ (a phrase I’d borrowed from my Grannie) and criticised them for not ‘trying.’  Only after better aquaintance with sufferers from the disease we call depression, do I realise that being depressed is not a lifestyle choice.  Inconvenient as depression is for family, friends and work-colleagues, it is one thousand times worse for the sufferer.  Nobody wants to feel ‘like shit,’ let alone suicidal.  It might be ‘in the head,’ but depression is a genuine and collossal roadblock.

Furthermore, it is not even necessarily triggered by stress.  It can even happen to people who ‘should’ be perfectly happy. It can, as far as I understand it, happen to anyone.

dep8 dep1 dep7 dep2 dep6 dep3 dep5 dep4

But I am not a sufferer and depression is not my story to tell, except to give my support to sufferers and acknowledge that from where I am standing, it looks a much tougher diagnosis than Type 1 diabetes.

The main effect of stress on me is that I start to loose things. It’s as though blood Cortisol also repels small but vital objects.  Keys.  Wedding rings.  Glucometer.  Bank Cards.  The pen I was using just five seconds previously.  Bits of paper with vital numbers scribbled on them.  The first sign of stress and all of these things just sprout legs and scamper off.  Upping and scampering after them is in itself stressful: there is nothing more frustrating than being unable to find the one small item that you desperately need to enjoy the rest of your day.

Of course, the most useful thing you can say to me when I’ve lost something is: ‘Why the hell didn’t you put it away carefully in the first place, then you wouldn’t have lost it?

Closely followed by: If you had downloaded that app onto your phone when I told you to, you’d be able to go online right now and find out exactly where your phone is.

Let alone, ‘you really should have backed up that year’s worth of photos of Tiddler and Toddler, you know.

I can only thank the dice of the Gods that my partner rarely says this sort of thing.  Rather, he shows great compassion when I loose things:  in fact, the blood-cortisol-that-makes-inanimate-objects-sprout-legs gene is strong in him as well.  It makes for a kind, understanding household if a slightly chaotic one.

So, this week has been a double first for Toddler:  nursery and big-girl-pants.  Being Toddler’s parent has been exhausting.  When I got home on Tuesday evening to a plea of ‘You didn’t take my car-key to work with you by mistake this morning, did you?’ I knew we were in for a long night.  In fact, it turned out to be a very long week.

By Friday morning, our house was spotless.  The carpets had been hoovered, every toy-box emptied and sorted out (a small triumph to return a full complement of Tiddler’s building bricks back to the wooden trolly); every drawer had been rifled through; every surface cleaned.

We’d had a great time emptying the wardrobe. We’d found hubby’s oldest garment (‘My Auntie Irene gave me this t-shirt as a present when I was fourteen’), his formal shirt (‘Don’t look so surprised, dear.  You’ve seen it before.  I think I might have married you in it’) and his second-favourite shirt (‘If I send it to my Mum, do you reckon she’ll sew the spare button on for me?’)  We’d also found scores of bras in a collassal range of sizes, all of which I’ve worn in the last decade. Not to mention enough hats to equip two nine-edges challenge runners several times over.

In fact, we had quite a nice time and would have been extremely pleased with ourselves, had the car-keys not remained conspicuously absent.

Who knew how many of those ‘fake pounds for the shopping trollies’ you can accumulate in just three years?  How many odd baby socks can be found in the cracks and crevaces of a house, where the only set of car keys is not?

On the third day, Toddler said suddenly, ‘I know where it is.  It’s in your blue rucksack, Mummy.’  Who knew that we had so many objects in our house that could potentially be interpreted as a ‘blue rucksack’ by a three year old?  All of them seemed to have many pockets, none of which contained any car-keys.  This is regrettable, because I became prematurely excited when she first uttered the line and had already planned a blogpost about why one should always listen to one’s children.

Neither of us got any running done all week, but hubby acquired an excellent understanding of the local bus routes and is just a little fitter than he otherwise would have been.  He also became adept at entering and exitting the car through the sunroof that he had mercifully left open.  This way, he retreived vital items such as the buggy, baby-sling and shoes.

The lost keys had a massive impact on Toddler.  The first week of nursery involved walking to and from the bus-station, passing multiple blackberry bushes at which Toddler would normally be allowed to stop and feast.  Walking past blackberry bushes is difficult for Toddler and her habitual response to inner conflict is to tip her head back and yowl.  I have never been so aware of the importance of teaching her to recognise stress and deal with it appropriately.  I sometimes think, when she is bouncing on the bed at night instead of sleeping and I am welling up to shout, that I am not the best role model.

Anyway, I am proud to report that the car-key ordeal, at least, is now over.  The damn things have been found: in the pocket of some trousers in the washing-basket.  Nobody can remember wearing those trousers.

‘Thank Goodness for that,’ I say.  ‘Now.  We’d better get ready for this run.  Because it’s tomorrow.’

So we put the kids to bed and start to get ready for our run.  But we’re tired: it’s been a long week.  And it turns out that neither of us can remember where we’ve put our running shorts.


The Wisdom of Doctor Cresswell


Close your eyes and picture a table.

Any table will do; perhaps a long, imposing one with a shiny wooden top, mostly used for glaring down at board meetings.  Or maybe lightweight plastic with a hole in the middle, in the pretence of being sturdy enough to take a beer umbrella.  The table isn’t important, but what is important is that you see it clearly; the texture of its surface.  The number and style of its legs.  Whether or not there are initials carved on the underside, or rings left by hastily-poured mugs of coffee.

Now.  Onto the table goes a chopping-board.  It doesn’t have to be a posh one:  any white rectangle of wipeable plastic will be sufficient.  And on top of the chopping-board, somewhat off-centre, is a lemon.

Take a close look at that lemon. Enjoy the colour. The shape. Pick it up; weigh it in your hand. Go on. Wrap your fingers around it. Test its firmness. Feel the slightly cold smoothness and the little waxy pimples on its surface.

Now replace the lemon on the chopping-board on the table and take a knife, a good sharp one. In a single movement, I want you to chop that lemon in two. Decisively. In whichever plane seems most appropriate. Expose some of its glistening fruit and smell the sharpness in the air.

One last thing now: pick one part up. Study it for a moment and then, without thinking too hard about it, open your mouth and plunge your front teeth into its flesh.

I saw that! Yes, I saw. Your mouth puckered there: from the sourness, I presume.  No matter.  We’ll come back to that lemon later on.


If you ever go along Curbar Edge in Derbyshire (where incidentally, we Nine Edges Challengees will be running in just under fortnight’s time), you might notice a little plaque in memory of a dead person, on a gate. I am a reader of such plaques; they provide inguiging glimpses of humanity. I have been invited to stop for fish and chips with the ghost of Mary who loved Whitby. I have gazed over Rivelyn from a bench put there for Nigel, just a few years older than me on 07-11-01 when he was killed in the World Trade Centre, New York. Lower down the valley, a man whose name adorns a useful signpost is credited with sharing his love of walking with others. And when I first side-stepped to look at this one – the one on Curbar Edge – my eyes saw the central letters first:  The Doc. This invoked recognition immediately: there was a teacher at school we used to call ‘The Doc’…..

She was a Doctor of Botany: one of my favourites. A quote by Roald Dahl describing Matilda’s favourite teacher seems appropraite: Miss Honey possessed that rare gift for being adored by every small child under her care.

We weren’t small children, though: we were A-level biology students. We loved Doc Cresswell because she seemed to love us: she called us ‘Horrid Little Sprogs,’ but apparently with the highest affection.  She managed to tell us unpatronizingly that we could do well in our exams if we worked hard. She believed in us.  I was in the second year of my vet course when the news spread that she had died of cancer.

…..back on Curbar Edge, I suddenly put two and two together, let my eyes slide over the rest of the plaque and saw that it was indeed for Her. There was her name: Jill Cresswell. There was the name of my school.

We should have a brain-break there. A brain-break is where you stand up for a few seconds and turn about; mutter something to the person next to you; do a couple of star-jumps if you wish. Doc Cresswell’s brain-breaks were famous; she understood that you couldn’t do high-intensity listening or reading for an hour at a stretch and she never expected us to.

Doc Cresswell said that success comes in cans. As though you could buy it at the supermarket. I can hear her now: ‘Success comes in cans.  I CAN do it.  I CAN…..’

The Doc was one of the few teachers who encouraged my profoundly irritating habit of doodling in the margins, so I used to draw ‘success’ cans stacked up like cans of baked beans.  ‘I CAN do it,’ I used to mutter to myself, half-parodying The Doc but meaning it too.  I have done many times since.


“There’s a point, isn’t there, when you do your first proper long run and you think, ‘Actually, I probably CAN do this,’ ” says Naomi.

We are sitting in their dining room, comparing training notes. Naomi looks set to beat the rest of us: she is aiming to complete the Nine Edges Challenge in three and a half hours. Gareth has recently had a Tibial Band relapse but has purchased something called a ‘Pat Band,’ a velcro strap that apparently works wonders when wrapped around his upper thigh. It incurrs, says Gareth, a great advantage: ‘I feel morally obliged to tell you about it.’  (Perhaps I’ll get one. If it doesn’t improve my running performance, I can use it to keep one of my own horrid little sprogs in its chair at meal-times).

I am the weakest of our group, because I have been working too hard instead of training. When the others complain about their legs getting tired at greater distances, I pretend it’s because I am a mighty long-distance walker that I don’t share this problem, but in all likelihood it’s because I haven’t covered anything approaching the actual twenty-one miles yet.

The paragraph at the beginning of this, about lemons, was based on one of The Doc’s school assemblies. She said that if an imaginary lemon could bring such a taste to our mouths; if we felt it so sharply that we all puckered our lips, then we should consider the effect of imagining, picturing, believing positive things about ourselves, our revision and performances.

I took her advice then and I got the results I wanted in my exams. I am taking her advice again now. My plan for a week on Saturday is to start running and to keep running, right around the course.  It doesn’t matter how slowly: I am going to succeed. And I don’t expect it to make a massive difference to my overall time if I pause briefly by a certain gate on Curbar, to think a quick ‘Thankyou’ to The Doc.


Diary entry of a Working Mum

platformI have been looking forward to Saturday morning all week.

There is a game I sometimes catch us playing, where both parents of the screaming child pretend to be asleep and wait to see if the other one gets up.

I find that it is over faster (ergo far more welfare-friendly for Tiddler)  if I kick hubby vey hard.  But there was never going to be any kicking this Saturday.  No cries for milk from Tiddler were going to pierce my dawn.  No: Toddler, Tiddler and Daddy were away for the week.  Camping in Ludlow (why choose Ludlow?) with some friends.  I was going to lie in before catching a lunch-time train to join them.

Did I mention that I had been looking forward to this all week?  To not having to go to work?  To sleeping through six and seven O’clock without Toddler turning up at my bedside, demanding to go ‘in the tent’ (by which she means, ‘under the duvet’).

‘Toddler, I’m asleep.’

‘No you’re not, Mummy.  Don’t you want to play tents with me?’

‘Not now Toddler.  I’m sleeping.  Hubby!  Could you and Toddler play ‘tents’ in the lounge, please?

(Short pause here while Hubby extracts Toddler from the bedroom; she argues for a moment but I am not listening.  I am drifting back to guilt-tinged snoozeville.  So naughty but so, so nice……)

This Saturday I wasn’t going to feel guilty about my lie-in.  I had been looking forward to this prospect all week.  Tiddler wouldn’t try to climb into bed with me part-way-through because Daddy and Toddler had briefly forgotten to include him in their game of ‘tents’.  Tiddler can’t talk yet; once it becomes clear that he still can’t quite mantle up by himself, he just stretches his arms out towards me and screams.  It’s not ignorable.  I unstick my eyes and pull him into bed with me, wearily.

‘Cuddles, Tiddler.’  Happy cooing.

Tiddler doesn’t really like cuddles though.  Not unless he’s ill.  And he isn’t ill very often.  Within about three minutes the novelty has worn off and he is sitting firmly on my head, exploring my mouth and eye-sockets with his fingers.  I try to ignore him, but I tire of the situation before he does, so I gently expel him onto the bedroom carpet.  It feels as cruel as putting the cat out of the window, but Tiddler is a surprisingly tolerant chappie.  He toddles back to find his Dad.

But not this Saturday.  I had been looking forward to this Saturday all week.  This Saturday, I was going to sleep through.  Eight O’clock would go by without Daddy coming through looking drained, ‘I’m absolutely knackered.  If you play with them for a bit, can I have twenty minutes’ nap?’

I do my best and biggest sigh, but hubby’s eyes are still hopeful and I realise that I’ve had all the priviledges that my working life is going to buy me.  I wake up.  There is no milk left for coffee (‘Tiddler was very hungry last night,’ says hubby) and when i open a packet of breakfast biscuits, there immediately appear two sticky upturned hands.  Little beggars.  I given them half a biscuit each.

I hope they sell breakfast biscuits in Ludlow.  Why go to Ludlow, anyway?  What is there to do there?  I asked hubby before he went, but he didn’t really know.  There might be some good castles, he said.

I’ve known what I was going to do on Saturday all week long: I was going to listen to some Saturday morning Radio, and it wasn’t going to be Radio 2.  It’s not that I don’t enjoy ‘dancing, Mummy!  Dancing’ on Saturday mornings to Radio 2, but surely what every working person really wants is to put their feet up and listen to Radio 4s Inheritance Tracks or From our own Correspondant after an absurdly long lie-in?

Anyway; I am at the station.  The pillars are painted burgandy.  They are about the right width for playing ‘peek-a-boo!’ around, or maybe leaping out and surprising some pigeons.  I do think it’s sad that nobody is chasing the pigeons: they’re wobbling up and down, pumping their little necks in and out for all they are worth.  Such a waste.

I have treated myself to a luxoriously thick weekend Guardian. I have already skim-read all the articles I wanted to read and the train is still over half an hour away.  That’s how I read newspapers nowadays:  quickly, before somebody wants their nappy changed. Normally, I do so thinking that it would be nice to read it slowly; digest every word.  Turns out, I’m not in a word-digesting mood.

I look around the station in outrage that there isn’t anything else to do.  I buy a chocolate bar and an overpriced coffee to dip it in.  And what’s this? – the coffee has milk in!  What a novel idea.  Of course, the same thing happens with the breakfast as with the newspaper:  it has gone before I notice.  When I have finished, my top is still spotless; where are the mini-chocolate finger-prints?  I blink and look round.  I have been working very hard this week:  I am very, very tired.  The station clock says seven-something in the morning.

Yes, I know.  I had been looking forward to this morning’s lie-in all week.  But when it arrived, I just wanted to be camping with the kids.  So I Zombied down to the station, changed at Stockport and am hoping that the Ludlow train is going to show up soon.




Film buffs will probably despair, but I love Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.

I love the metaphor of a shoal of salmon ‘turning.’  A vast shoal of fish move downstream together, racing towards some unspecified destination.  But suddenly, one salmon changes its mind and flips; starts swimming in the other direction, against the tide of the others.  Then another quite fancies the opposite direction, too.  And another.  And another.  Until the whole shoal has turned around and is heading back upstream.

I love that sequence.  It might represent the journey made by Ewan Macgregor’s character, but it can be applied to so many other things.

Attitudes towards homosexuality, for example.  Only a century ago homosexuality was illegal and nearly everybody you asked called it ‘wrong’.

Attitudes to women; a century ago, female doctors were virtually unheard of.

Have women, or the physcial act of gay sex changed very much since then?  No they have not.  But our attitudes have.  Now we are swimming upstream.

Of course, the situation for homosexuals in Russia might be another kettle of fish (or another shoal of salmon).  And after this, the metaphor breaks down because human social changes are not so easy as the shoal’s directional ones. The very first people to leap out of the water and land the other way with a splash, probably failed to make it; were knocked back downstream by the sheer numbers of other fish; or swam sideways for a bit and then sank.  The turning has taken generations and not everyone is swimming in the right direction yet.  Some unlucky salmon still find themselves being forced downstream by others who refuse to flip.

It happens to me all the time.  There are lots of examples of me wanting to swim in one particular direction, but of society’s flow making it difficult.

Take fashion.  The other day I was in specsavers, hoping to purchase my preferred dark-rims-at-the-top, no-rim-at-the-bottom style frames.  But the salesgirl said they were out of fashion: nobody’s wearing them now.  And didn’t I think that they made me look a little bit – well – mature?

I could have punched her.  But instead I took her guidance and ordered some bold coloured-rims-all-the-way-round glasses. Sad.

And what about shell-suits? I got one for my ninth birthday; they were popular then.  Colourful, casual, comfortable and cool they were, but mention them now and folk will tell you that they’re impractical, gaudy and ill-advised, not to mention a fire hazard.  Dammit.


There are bigger things, too: like caring for the environment. I currently sit in traffic twice a day in my little car.  The cars in front and behind me also contain a single person each, looking hacked off and chugging fossil fuels into the environment.

We all ‘know’ about pollution; ‘know’ that there is too much traffic to make it sensible. But work times vary massively; we are all time-pressured; car-sharing would be ‘hastle’, waiting for busses is cold and the nice places to live are a long way from our workplace. So everyone drives.

Well, nearly everyone.  Meet my friend Jo.  Jo is a medical student, working stints in Hospitals all over South Yorkshire. Jo always leaves her car at home and gets to work on her bike, sometimes using trains.  This must be at great personal inconvenience; some nights she works late; often it rains. It must add hours to her day and seems fiendishly impractical.  But ‘it’s all about the carbon footprint,’ says Jo.

Cycling has had activists for years; perhaps their cries for better cycle lanes and more vigilant drivers will eventually be heard. The easier cycling gets, the more people will join in.  But I don’t think we’ll all be riding bikes tomorrow.

Shopping in supermarkets.  I hate it. I hate the extra sugar they put into bread. I hate packaging (did the toilet brush I bought today really need to be wrapped in cellophane?  Or in a box?)  I hate knowing that there is palm oil in a lot of the products that I buy.  Knowing what goes on on the inside of most chicken farms.  Buying milk at three pints for a pound:  how’s a dairy farmer supposed to make any profit from that?  Is it any wonder that seventy per cent of the national dairy herd are lame?

And yet I am in a hurry trying to live my life, so to the supermarket I go.  Blogging about it might get it off my chest a bit, but welfare campaigner Professor John Webster (an animal welfare researcher) raises a good point:

It’s not what we think or say that matters.  It’s what we do.

If I’m honest, it’s easier to say what I don’t do: I don’t always make my own decisions in life. But could you picture it? A shell-suit-wearing Liz: cycling to work; only eating things that she knew had had nice lives and only wearing things made by workers who had had nice lives. Dressing her son in as many pink frills as her daughter.  Already this is what I would consider to be unfeasable (especially the vast amount of ‘nice lives’ research) and I would look like a nutcase. I like to fit into society:  I compromise my ideals, like many others.

I am not one of the radical flipping salmon.  I am not even a sideways salmon like Jo, who is following her beliefs, choosing her own direction through the water, not caring that it puts her at a time disadvantage because many other students on her course drive cars. No, I am the sort who swims with the shoal a lot. But I just wanted to say:

To early uphill salmon in every one of life’s rivers, I salute you.



Our Welfare

As a vet, I am often called upon to give my opinion about an animal’s welfare.  But what constitutes ‘Good Welfare?’

This is a big question, and one of the big answers is known as the ‘Five Freedoms':

freedomsThe Five Freedoms are a cumbersome mix of positives and negatives (one ‘freedom to’ versus four ‘freedom froms’) and are open to subjective interpretation.  But they can be applied to assess welfare across all the species.  Just for fun, I’m going to assess the welfare of Western, Middle-Class Humans.

Freedom from hunger, thirst and malnutrition….. includes freedom from overfeeding.  Imagine that a dog is offered unlimited food, keeps eating and becomes so morbidly obese that its heart and joints can no longer support it.  That dog’s owners can be prosecuted.  Yet we are many of us in the dog’s position ourselves, in that unsuitable food is pushed our way that we wouldn’t otherwise seek. Food manufacturers slip unnecessary sugar into readymeals.  We say ‘thankyou’ with chcocolates and ‘happy birthday’ with cake.  If we buy a newspaper from WH Smiths, we are offered a cut price Galaxy Bar. Unsurprisingly, illnesses linked to poor diet are becoming increasingly common in our society.


Freedom from Discomfort…. may be the easiest.  We can open windows if we feel hot, or we can change our clothes.  We can wriggle if our bums get numb, or we can find a comfortable seat.  Work environments might be problematic but the law will intervene when this is severe.
Yet some people choose to go out wearing stilhettoes; others pluck their eyebows or have tattoos.  Come to think of it, there are hundreds of tiny examples of our cultural values winning over this welfare requirement; some involve less comfort than others.


Freedom from pain, injury and disease…. Good old NHS.  They put a lot of money and effort into keeping me fit to work.  But I do worry for old people in Britain.  Obviously we can’t just put terminal or unhappy geriatric cases to sleep (as is sometimes done for animals), so we need to properly look after our old and terminally ill.

And at the younger end of society, some teenaged girls are undergoing Female Genital Mutilation.  Yes; even in the year 2014.


Freedom to display natural behaviour…. For example, dairy cows need to lie around chewing the cud with their friends.  It is also natrual behaviour for a cow to breastfeed her young, but the dairy industry works on the basis that she doesn’t (we take the milk instead and the calf later becomes veal). This separation of Mummy and Baby leads to a breach of freedom from distress…..  In order to reduce this, researchers have discovered that separating calf and cow about six hours after the birth (as opposed to immediately or at twenty hours, for example) is the least stressful approach for both parties.

But enough of cows’ natural behaviour: what is ours?  Our bodies have evolved upright skeletons for striding around and haven’t had much time to evolve any differently since the invention of the motor-car.  So I conclude that exercise is our natural behaviour.  Yet our motivation for exercise is often low.  It rarely comes into our daily lives and is hard to fit into a working week.
We have also evolved language: an important natural behaviour is conversation.  More people live alone than ever before.  Does onscreen communication meet their need?

Freedom from fear and distress……. To put this in perspective, I have not been displaced by bombing in Gaza. My baby calf hasn’t just been taken away. Some idiot isn’t walking a predator through my home without a lead.
But work is stressful; I, like many others, have chosen a stressful job. I wasn’t putting my own welfare first when I did that. And not all stressors are selected.  We in our society have to think about tax bills, mortgages, relations with the neighbours, car maintainance, house maintainance, education….  And of course, sometimes we fail to cope.


Here is Donald Bloom’s definition of animal welfare:

The state of an animal relating to its ability to cope with its environment

I don’t know who Donald Bloom is, but for me, this defines our welfare better than the Big Five.  If one can cope with the small discomfort of a stilhetto, then it should not be a welfare issue.  But surely the rise of Type 2 diabetes is a reflection of our being unable to cope with modern diets and exercise patterns?  The rise of mental illness a sign that our brains are being overstimulated, perhaps?

If we were animals, our owners would be being criticised already for the way they keep us.  But we are humans, so we need to realise the need to collectively look after ourselves and each other.

(Running) For the Love


Sir Chris Hoy is one strong man.

This is not about cycling.  Nor is it about weeping at medal ceremonies, although I have always admired him for being ‘man enough’ to do so and actually, I used to weep along too.

No.  This is about the recent documentary (How to Win Gold, BBC) in which Sir Chris interviewed Andy Murray about the strain on Centre Court.

Murray, face darker and more intense than a brooding thundercloud, smouldered blankly before the camera like the perfect Hollywood psychopath.  And Hoy was asking him about his feelings!  I had to look away; my second favourite cyclist was clearly about to get thumped!

But Andy started talking willingly about his emotions.  Apparently, he found the Wimbledon publicity overwhelming (there were a lot of people watching, suddenly…)

And Lennox Lewis talked, too – over a game of chess that Hoy (very sensibly, if you ask me) lost by miles.  Apparently a good game of chess is useful for keeping you in the right frame of mind to compete.  It also illustrates the mind games involved in boxing.

But Sir Chris’s most startling interviewee was Graeme Obree, who calmly pointed out that if one happened to be an astronaut by profession, then one would have to accept some likelihood of a technical failure resulting in one’s death.  What was the difference, Obree asked, between that and the risk of a cyclist risking pushing himself so hard that his heart failed?  It was just a risk he had accepted.

Madness.  I couldn’t relate to that at all.  Perhaps Sir Chris could, although he doesn’t look insane.  I doubt that my uber-competitive friend Gareth would ever push himself so hard that he risked a coronary.

I could identify with Andy Murray though.  I am also easily distracted from my sport by other people, even though they are not actually watching me or gossiping in the newspapers.  I am distracted by the electronic American woman on my phone who tells me how fast I am running (she always maintains that it is slower than it actually is).  I am distracted by people with dogs (dogwalkers sterotypically dislike joggers).  I am distracted by heckling groups of teenagers.  I am distracted by people walking (are they noticing how slow I am?).

The most distracting people however, are other runners. I am distracted by good looking male runners (obviously); by beautiful woman joggers (how come they look so beautiful, when I just look like me with a red face?)  I am distracted by slow joggers (are they really slower than me, or have they already done thirty miles?) and of course, by the fast ones. (There is a skinny old guy with really, really long legs who passes me sometimes.  He comes up behind me, overtakes and disappears over the horizon all in about three strides.  Damn him).

But most of all, I am distracted by Gareth and Naomi.  Gareth might be injured, but they are still ahead by miles.  They have a training plan!  They have been practising sections of the route!  What’s more, they haven’t spent any time at all working 12-hour days over the other side of Manchester this summer – and even if they had, they’d probably still have found time to train.  They’re the most conscientious people I know; they deserve to do well, where as I don’t.  On one hand, it is only their involvement and my fear of Gareth’s famous ridicule that has kept me running so far.  On the other hand, I am soon to have to buy them a meal (they are set to beat us by at least two hours).  Damn them!  Damn them!  Damn them!

When I went for a run last weekend, all this Damning was making my head hurt.  Well, it was either that or the bitter shandy I’d been unable to resist about two hours previously, having spent the greater part of the day not drinking any water and lounging around under a blistering sun.  At any rate, I now found that I ‘couldn’t run,’ although I knew that Gareth and Naomi would have somehow made themselves.  I limped home feeling cross and scanned i-player for a programme to watch…..which is when I found Sir Chris’s documentary.

For those who didn’t see it (they’ve taken it down now, I’m afraid), Hoy’s story of addressing his own psychological needs began with him getting distracted by the opposition.  He spoke of watching another competitor start off strongly and suddenly worrying about whether to change his own race – to start in a different gear from usual, for instance….

But thanks to sports psychology, by the end of his career, Sir Chris was ignoring his fellow finalists.  He had his race, his game-plan, in his head.  He was simply going to be blinkered to the performances of others and focus on being the very best that he could be.  His best turned out to be very good indeed.

Of course, he’d worked on his performance for years.  Perfecting every aspect from his first few pedal-strokes to his diet.  There was a lot of talk about ‘marginal gains’ to improve his overall time; of clawing back a few nanoseconds by taking his own matress to the games rather than using a hotel one; of putting on heated trousers between the warm-up and the race. I don’t think ‘marginal gains’ is anything for me to worry about, given the much-less-marginal things that I will never alter for my running performance (Vets’ hours. Family time. Half a bitter shandy on sleepy July afternoons.  Sleep…).

But the other bit – about ignoring the opposition and using the mental energy I waste on damning them to do something about my own performance – could be very relevant.  I have chosen to misinterpret this lesson to cover the whole business of competing – of looking at the time, of comparing my milage to theirs, of listening to that stupid woman on my phone.  The more of this I have done, the more reluctant I have been to go out for a run.  Rather than seeing my own poor runs as a challenge to overcome, I have been taking them as comfirmation of my own rubishness.  The belief that I should be competitive has been dragging me down; my attitude has been too toxic of late to get me round a twenty-mile run.

So the very next day, I got home from work, stuck some sweets in my pockets and ran out of the door without even glancing at the clock.  I have no idea how far I ran how quickly, but it was great.  I stopped to stroke a staffordshire bull terrier.  I watched a heron in the river.  I saw a kestrel do a shit mid-hover.  I called ‘Good Evening’ to everyone I met and followed some paths just to see where they went.

I remembered my long-distance walking days.  Back then, I don’t think I cared how fast i was going, or how many miles I was going to walk, or how much weight I was going to loose.  I’d just set out, get a little bit fitter every day and by the end of each walk, I used to enjoy my identity as the blonde English waif with an enormously heavy backpack, powering past the proud, fit Frenchmen who carried all the best lightweight gear.  Sure, this made me feel smug but I’d never have gone walking for that.  I used to walk because I loved walking.

And that night, I found that I loved running, too.  My knee did not complain once.  I looked down over the glorious Rivelyn Valley and I felt remarkably free.  It’s sad that I’ll never win a medal, or get so much as a fell-race named after me.  But you know, Sir Chris has a whole velodrome named after him – and he still got turned away from it last week, when he forgot to take his ID.