Every Sunday morning, bright and early, I try to get out for a run. It is a great way to sweat out any residual alcohol, and also to gauge just how much fun took place in the neighbourhood the night before. Empty pizza boxes and champagne bottles? Lots of fun. Discarded hair weaves? Not so much.
I moan about running every now and again but really, I love it. I am a plodder, slow but steady. I love running in the summer when the heavens open and I turn my face up to catch the rain drops in my mouth, and I love running in the winter when my hands tingle in my gloves and my arse gets so cold it goes completely numb. I love watching the symmetry of my feet as I run.
More than anything, I bloody love watching the Olympics. All that running and jumping, stretching and striving. I have followed the Olympics since 1980 when Lindsey McDonald, a member of the running club I belonged to as a youngster, competed in Moscow. I fantasised about following in her very fast footsteps and standing on the podium with my medal, the national anthem playing as the Union Jack fluttered above my head.
The truth is, I was a bit shit at sprinting, and long distance running bored me. But running continued to punctuate my life as the years went by.
Richmond, London. Spring, 2004.
The river path to Richmond is a favourite run of mine. Go very early in the morning and you will see swans elegantly breaching the mist that delicately clings to the water. It is like stepping into a Turner painting. One such morning I stopped to stretch, sat on a bench and burst into tears. It had been a shitter of a year. A man walked past, laughing, and said “Never mind, darling, it might never happen!” Instead of wailing “But it already has! And you can fuck off”, I whimpered pathetically and sobbed even more. Five minutes later, a bit bored and needing to blow my nose, I’d had enough of feeling sorry for myself. “Right”, I thought. “Fuck this. I’m going to take a year off and go to South America.” And so I did.
Manaus, Brazil. 6 July, 2005.
I was in a posh hotel, a treat after four days sailing down the Amazon from Iquitos, Peru. I was still swaying, in desperate need of a shower and food that didn’t involve river fish and beans. The boat had been very overcrowded, over 200 passengers in hammocks, with just two toilets (actually they were not that bad, I have seen worse on the motorways in France). I turned on the television and there was London, my London. Crowds had gathered in Trafalgar Square to hear if the city would be awarded the 2012 Olympic Games. When the news came, I jumped up and down, tears streaming down my cheeks. The following morning, I woke to the horror of the bombings, and I cried again.
Buenos Aries. October, 2005.
When walking around this beautiful city, it was not uncommon for the occasional jogger to skim my arse with his hand whilst whizzing past at speed. My response was generally a mixture of outrage and gratitude. I was also a little jealous; carrying running gear in my tiny rucksack was just not possible, and I missed it. I had to find other ways to keep fit, and so here are tips to keep in trim whilst doing absolutely no exercise on a journey around South America. You’re welcome.
* To maintain taut abdominal muscles, take a taxi from any major airport in Brazil. The speed of the cab and the reckless driving will ensure that all major stomach muscles will remain tight for the duration of the journey. This is also beneficial for wrist flexibility as you grip the seat in sheer terror. Neck muscles may also be exercised as you brace for impact when a horse bolts in front of the cab (Salvador only). Additional methods to aid neck flexibility include nodding furiously in agreement during a conversation with a shop assistant as you realise you have not got a clue what they are saying, and swivelling the head from side to side in a slightly maniacal manner as you try to cross a road without being killed.
* For calf muscles, a leisurely stroll around Ipanema in Rio will aid flexibility and ensure a finely turned ankle as you navigate an assault course of strategically placed dog shit. This also boosts overall coordination, as you simultaneously maintain a close watch on the men on the beach in their teeny-weenies.
* Upper arm muscles benefit enormously from any number of activities, from the regular frenzied assaults on small and crafty insects in hostel dormitories, to holding a heavy rucksack above your head whilst trying to secure it safely on top of a bus, to raising your hands repeatedly to cover your ears to prevent having to listen to Dire Straits in the hostel bar for the fifth time.
* Cardiovascular exercise is assured when staying in dodgy hostels. You will jump up and down and wave your arms briskly in an attempt to keep warm under a freezing cold shower. The muscles around the heart will be strengthened as you become more and more agitated because the hostel owner promised you a hot shower and you have not had one in three weeks.
* Long distance buses of an inferior quality are a perfect substitute for bottom-clenching exercises. You will move from cheek to cheek regularly to ensure your bottom stays awake during the journey even if the driver doesn’t.
* Keep your brain active with a range of mind-gym exercises, such as trying to remember which currency you should be using and what the exchange rate is when you cross the border at 3am; working out how much your laundry will come to if each pair of knickers costs 50 centavos and a shirt is 2 reais; and deciphering your hotel bill at the end of the week whilst trying to work out how you could possibly have been charged for using the shower cap.
* Facial muscles will have a full work-out as you grimace in pain following a particularly strenuous trek. Laughing uncontrollably at the 18-year-old girls from Luton wearing full make-up on the same trek will have similar benefits to aid facial flexibility.
Beijing. August, 2008.
Beijing, the final days of the 2008 Olympics. I had to rely on texts from home for news of GB medals, as the television channels in my hotel were broadcasting only the disciplines in which Chinese athletes featured. It was a huge thrill to be there. A tour of the Olympic village to see the facilities and meet the athletes made me yearn to be part of the Olympic gang. All the stories are true, apparently; the minute the Games end, it is a massive shagathon. (On an utterly unrelated note, the last time I visited Beijing I was presented with a dish of sea slug at an official banquet. It was black and spiky, with a rubbery texture. It looked like a massive dildo. I couldn’t decide whether to eat it or use it.)
London. September, 2008.
Having been rejected through the ballot five times, I was finally allocated a place to run the London Marathon. Then, unlike now, I worked very long hours, often seven days a week, and travelled regularly around the UK and overseas. On reflection, it was the best time to train for a marathon because I discovered that the following is true: if you want something done, give it to a busy person.
Over the following months, I found myself training in the most unlikely of places: the British Ambassador’s residence in Washington DC; a hotel gym in Santiago that was so hot I almost sweated out a kidney; Basra in Iraq, where I marvelled at the sheer stamina of men and women running in oppressive heat and dust; a hotel gym in Rome where I threw up after eating too much pasta; the ExCel centre in London the night before the 2009 G20 leaders meeting. I even managed a quick run round St James’s Park while the G20 leaders in Downing Street were on their first course, dashing back to work before desert was served.
London. April 26, 2009.
What a day. I ran the whole way with my sister-in-law. Every time she took a sweetie offered by spectators, I would shout “sweet jesus no, it’s rohypnol!” As we crossed the finishing line together, I finally – over twenty years later – got the medal I had dreamt of. It was one of the best days of my life.
Washington, DC. July 2012.
The London 2012 Olympics will be the best day in many people’s lives. It will be magnificent. Will you watch it too?