Lou’s Big Weekend, part 2: the Bath Half

I’ve already talked about the first part of my weekend (the launch of the Bath LitFest and the UKYA Extravaganza) in this post. But the second part needed a post to itself, because this is the big one. This is The One Where Lou Runs A Half Marathon.

I’m not sure I’ve ever been as nervous as I was in the starting pen. I got chatting to a couple of people around me, some of whom had done this before and some of whom hadn’t – and then, suddenly, forty minutes had gone by and they were counting down to the start.

And that was it. There was no going back.

Photo: Caroline Ambrose

Photo: Caroline Ambrose

I’m in that photo somewhere, having come from all the way at the back, round the corner to the right. And we’ve not even got past the start gantry yet…

The sound is the thing I’ll probably remember the longest. The first mile is a downhill straight, and as far as you can see, there’s nothing but people running. But the sound. Thousands and thousands of feet, all hitting the ground slightly out of step. Imagine standing under a tin roof in the middle of a rubber hailstorm and you’ll probably not quite get it, but close enough. It was utterly, utterly overwhelming.

Still.

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Mile 1. Off we go.

Mile 2. Right. Bed in. Pace. Feet. Don’t fall over. Four soldiers are running in their uniform, carrying a stretcher with a dummy on it for Help For Heroes. They get a huge cheer.

Mile 3. Ooh. This is actually happening. Huh.

Midway between Miles 3 & 4,  we get lapped by the front runner. Everyone cheers as he goes by. He’s already gone.

Mile 4. I wish I was dead. Maybe I am dead. Maybe this is hell. Maybe this is what hell is. This, forever.

Mile 5. The Lucozade station isn’t far. I didn’t train with Lucozade. It’ll make me feel sick, especially after using one of my energy gels and shoving a handful of Jelly Babies from a cheering station down my throat. I’m not taking a Lucozade.

Mile 6. I have drunk an entire bottle of Lucozade. I feel sick. And have so much sugar zipping round my system that I’m probably not far off seeing double. I’m also beginning to seriously doubt I can do this.

Just at the point I’m about to cry, I spot the 10k checkpoint. It’s a big archway straddling the first lap lane with a clock. Astonishingly, I seem to have reached it at the time I’d expected I would (give or take). I’m not the slowest person on the road. I’m faster than I assumed I was – I’d had visions of being the very, very last person out there. And I remember that just after 6 miles is the point I had always, always found the mythical “wall” when I was training. Maybe I can do this after all.

I get overtaken by a guy in a massive rhino costume.

Mile 7. I actually manage to have a conversation, running uphill into Queen Square, with a woman wearing cat ears. I still wish I was dead, but I’m over halfway. This is practically the home straight.

Mile 8. I am not going to cry. I am not going to cry. I am not going to cry.

Mile 9. All the kids on the route hold out their hands for runners to high-five. It helps. A lot. I run up to one of the guys at a cheering station who has a bowl of jelly babies. “JELLY BABY ME!” He laughs and pats my shoulder as I grab a handful on the way past. One of them is liquorice flavour. I feel this a cruel and unusual punishment. No wonder he was laughing. DAMN HIM. I also give up on trying to run without music. It’s rubbish. And boring. I switch on my iPod (only using one earphone, because on a lapped road race, it’s essential to be able to hear marshals). The first song that comes on is Frank Turner’s The Road.

This is not only a song I love, it’s hugely appropriate. It’s a sign. I’m NOT GOING TO DIE. I might even – shockingly – manage this. I spend so much of the next few minutes mouthing along to it that I don’t even realise that’s another mile down.

Mile 10. I can definitely do this. Really. Where’s that bloody Lucozade station? Sugar me up. I don’t care if I have to jitter my way back, I’m finishing.

Mile 11. Everyone slows to a walk. Including me. Nobody wants to walk across the finish line, and there’s still 2 miles-and-change to go. People on the pavement cheer – and nobody cheers harder than they do for the pair in hi-vis vests who go past, each holding on to one end of a short rope. The vest of the runner on the left reads: “Guide Runner”. The vest of the runner on the right reads: “Blind runner”. Everybody applauds.

Mile 12. We’re all starting to run again. There are people everywhere, cheering. I’m starting to overtake runners around me who are flagging or who are saving their energy for a big finish. I fall into step just behind a woman running for Water Aid, dressed as a tap. “GO ON, TAP! RUN FASTER! GET IT? RUN FASTER?” I wonder how many times she’s heard that already.

Runners who have already finished are starting to appear in the crowds, wrapped in foil blankets. They wave and shout. People are already yelling “Well done!” at the runners.

The last half mile is hard. Not because I’m tired – I am, but I know I’ll finish. It’s hard because I’m tired and tearful and people keep shouting “You’re nearly there!” at the runners. They are amazing. The back of my leg starts feeling tight, so I slow to a walk for a minute. Two guys standing on the pavement yell at me to keep going, that I’m so close to the end. I am. I’m nearly there.

A cycle marshal directs the runners around an ambulance. It’s the only casualty I’ve seen, but there have been others.

The tap has vanished into the distance.

I tell my feet that they’re going to run and there’s nothing they can do about it.

Mile 13. There it is. I can crawl it from here. I run round the corner into Great Pulteney Street, and I am absolutely convinced they’ve moved the gantry. I’m sure it was much, much nearer the top of the street when I went under it at the start. What’s it doing all the way down there? I can’t decide whether I’m going to be sick or cry. Or both. Simultaneously.

And then… there it is. I’m over the mats and under the gantry and now I’m definitely going to cry.

But I don’t. Somehow. Instead, I join the slightly dazed shuffle through the runners’ village to collect medals, blankets, finishers’ shirts and get the timing chips removed from shoes. And find my family.

My cheeks feel gritty. It’s salt from my sweat, all dried on my skin. I feel weirdly proud. (I think I may be on the verge of hysteria.)

I have never needed a shower so badly.

But I just ran a half marathon… and I wasn’t last. I was – in fact – 10,517th, with a chip time of 2h37 and a gun time of 2h43. And I’m OK with that. Because I made it.

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Lou’s Big Weekend: part 1

That was a weekend. It’s Tuesday, and I’m still not quite sure I’ve got over it yet. I’m not sure I’ll ever be over it, if I’m honest.

It began on Friday evening, with the launch of this year’s Bath Literature Festival – its 20th anniversary, which is quite something.

BathLitFest launch

I love the LitFest – partly because of the variety of events (and I usually go to a load: it’s 8 this year, including the now sold-out “How to Win a Novel Award” panel, featuring my agent Juliet Mushens and friend – and founder of the Bath Novel Award – Caroline Ambrose) and partly because for a week, an already bookish city like Bath fills with books, talk about books, posters for books and people who love books.

Saturday was a trip to Birmingham to join in with the UKYA Extravaganza. Held on the top floor of the High Street Waterstones, it was a lively, warm, welcoming event full of chatter and (obviously) more books. Writers and bloggers and readers all wandered around talking and eating cake. Lots of cake.

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It also meant I got to meet people I’ve only spoken to online so far – which I think was probably true for most of us there. The wonderful thing about #UKYA as I’ve found it (being a relative newcomer to YA) is the sense of community online… but when you get to meet people in person, it’s even better.

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Robin Stevens, whose books you must buy IMMEDIATELY.

I left with a book list the length of my arm, as well as a couple of books I’d managed to buy before the shop sold out of stock – as it did in many cases. I particularly enjoyed being able to exchange book recommendations, too: the best thing about reading a book is being to share your love for it.

Anna McKerrow in conversation. Just out of shot: her incredible bag.

Anna McKerrow in conversation. Just out of shot: her incredible bag.

As well as general mingling, there was also a chance to ask the authors questions in very quick panel sessions. These took a bit of juggling round to fit into the space and time, but what we got in the end was relaxed and fun – completely in line with the spirit of the afternoon.

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I had a tremendous time, and I hope we’ll see many more events like this.

And then it was Sunday. And that, I’ll talk about in Part 2

On running after Aaron Eckhart

In one week’s time (one week, what in dear god was I thinking?!) I’ll be – hopefully – finishing my first proper half marathon, the Bath Half. Or the Bathalf, as it also seems to be called, and which just makes my eyes hurt.

A very, very long time ago, I took part in the Moonwalk in central London. That was also a half marathon, but walked, in aid of breast cancer charities. Around the streets of London. At night. Wearing decorated bras. I tell you, you haven’t lived until you’ve trotted through Trafalgar Square at 2am wearing running gear, a race number and a bra with feathers on it. I will never forget the group of drunk Spanish students who asked a passing tramp whether they were seeing things.

All in all, that was probably about a decade ago. I am significantly creakier now. I am significantly lazier now, too.

This also requires at least a token nod to that most foreign of concepts: running.

The training process has been… enlightening.

trainers 2

The first few “runs” (we’ll call them that, shall we? Just because I don’t know what the hell else to call them. Upright crawling?) were horrible. Genuinely horrible. Everything hurt, all the time. I got such hideous blisters at the backs of my heels that when I took my socks off afterwards, they were stained red.

September. October. November. Twice a week. In the cold, in the rain. With the shin splints. Almost falling in the canal I was running alongside – repeatedly. Getting chased by a swan (note: this will make you run faster).

December. Fully expecting to down tools and not go anywhere near my trainers until after New Year… and then suddenly finding myself plodding along the riverbank on the day before Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, dodging iced-over puddles and feeling like there must be frost forming on the inside of my lungs. Resolving to buy a pair of running gloves immediately. Slowing to look at stands of frozen white weeds and river reeds glittering in the early morning sun.

January. Suddenly realising that my head would give out before my body. 5k – unthinkable just a month or two ago – suddenly became the shortest run I was happy with. 10k was no longer a mythical beast.

February. Running out of road. Having to make not just one lap of my usual run, but two in order to get to 11 miles. Covering 11 miles and not crying (much).

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And before I know it, it’s a week away – and here I am with what I’m told is “a congested Achilles tendon”. I didn’t even know that was a thing. Sinuses get congested. The road down to Bath from the M4 when there’s a match on at the Rec. Tube station platforms.

Stretches and a foam roller, and wondering where the last five months have gone.

It’s hurt. It’s been cold. It’s been frustrating. I’m terrified I’ll break, or I’ll fade or I’ll somehow fail.

I’m not a runner. Not even close. I’m hoping to make it round the course with a mix of jogging, lumbering, walking, crawling, limping and weeping. I’m not chasing a personal best.

My good friend Kim Curran sent me this yesterday, presumably to focus my mind.

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And it did focus my mind, very intently.

Then I realised I was meant to be thinking about running, which was somewhat disappointing. Still.

What will I be chasing in a week’s time?

I’ll be chasing a choice I made: to change, to do something that scared me. Not to sit in my house. To be open. To fill life with things. Big things, small things.

I’ll be chasing five months of rain and blisters and shards of sunshine on a canal; of frost shining on leaves. Conkers and leaves falling and smoke from the chimneys of houseboats I’ve run past. Sweat and shin splints and the feeling of stepping into a hot shower after it all.

I’ll be chasing the perfect moment when it doesn’t hurt, and when my head clears and I find a rhythm – however short that moment is. Because I realised that in a lot of ways, running (or trying to run, at least) is a lot like living. Both of them will knacker your knees, sooner or later.

I’ll be chasing the knowledge that I’m also raising money for Kids Company, whose centres in London and Bristol do amazing, worthwhile work. Should you be in a generous mood and want to chip in with sponsorship as some of my lovely, lovely friends have already done, you’ll find my sponsorship page here.

And yes, I’ll probably be chasing the imaginary back of Aaron Eckhart around the next corner. Because I may be closer to becoming a runner now than I was five months ago, but underneath the passing acquaintance with stretches and compression leggings and carbohydrate gels, I’m just as shallow as ever.

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Just a bit sweatier.

UKYA Extravaganza

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I’m delighted to be part of the UKYA Extravaganza event taking place from 2pm on Saturday 28th February at Birmingham High Street Waterstones.

It’s going to be a hugely fun afternoon full of readings and general hanging out, talking about everything good in YA. I think one of the reasons I’m so excited about it is that I’m a relative newbie to the UKYA community (as a writer, at least) but the welcome I’ve found there has been absolutely wonderful. And it does have a real community feel to it – writers and readers and reviewers all together, talking about the books they love. There’s a huge amount of passion there, and every time I get involved in a conversation about this stuff, I come out of it with a huge stack of recommendations to read.

The event is ticketed – and, as far as I know, has already sold out. If you’ve got your ticket, then I’ll see you there: come and say hi!

The Memory Jar

I’ll keep this brief, because I imagine that by now you have seen enough “end of year” posts to last you until… well, next year. But I can’t let the end of a year slide past without mention (and let’s gloss over how I’ve basically let the last two months go without comment, shall we?).

It’s been an interesting year, both for good and for less-good. I learned some things: some have made my life better, some… let’s just say I wish learning them hadn’t been as painful as it was. But you can’t ask for joy without accepting a little sadness, and that was what I really hoped for this year. I dreamed of bonfires and magic and stars and joy – and by and large, that’s what I found.

jar of happy memories

On New Year’s Day, I sat this jam jar on the windowsill in our kitchen. It was empty, except for a bright green post-it note inside explaining that this was the “Good Things Jar”, reminding me to write the things that made me happy over the year on slips of paper and drop them in, to be read on New Year’s Eve. Looking at it now, I’m not sure I could fit many more in. I remember some of them anyway – the big things that you don’t forget – but the rest are a question, waiting to be answered tonight when I unfold the pieces of paper.

What would a “Bad Things” jar have looked like, I wonder? Would it have been as full? Maybe. Maybe not. The point is, I don’t care. Happiness can come from the smallest places as well as the bigger ones. We find joy where we look for it – and that’s what I wanted to do. To look. To notice. Not to simply pass it by. And as the year dies, to remember.

When I get up tomorrow morning, there will be a jam jar sitting on the kitchen windowsill. Empty of paper, but full of promise. Because that’s what New Year is all about.

I usually end each year with a song (not mine, don’t panic), and I thought I had this year’s one all picked out. I did, in fact, right until I sat down at my computer to type… and then it changed. Because suddenly, I can’t think of any better way to wind up the year than with this.

So may your New Year be full of hope, and may everything that follows be all that you could ever dream. And when New Year’s Eve rolls around again, may your jam jars be overflowing.

On Hugging Books

Last night, I went to a church. Not to church, you understand, but to a church: the beautiful Christ Church perched on the side of a hill in Bath (which is, by the way, a church with a fascinating history if you’re ever in the area). It’s also where one of Bath’s amazing bookshops, Toppings, hosts some of its regular events. I’ve been to a couple now, and they’re never less than inspiring.

But last night… last night was a bit special. Special enough to brave the dark and the downpours. Last night was THE BONE CLOCKS event.

I am late to the David Mitchell party. I have friends who have read every one of his books the week they’ve come out. I have friends who’ve read and reread them and can track characters from one to another. I have friends who have written essays on his form and style. And I… hadn’t read a single one of his books.

And then I read THE BONE CLOCKS, mostly because I was interested.

And then I finished it, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

I won’t talk about the book itself here, because there are already enough places on the internet – and, even better, in the real world – where you can find people far more qualified than I am talking about it.

What I want to talk about is the hugging of books.

Christ Church is a working church, filled with pews rather than chairs, which means there’s a fair amount of good-natured shuffling and clambering past strangers to find a seat, trying not to knock over their glasses of wine (because this is Bath and we believe in doing books properly) and apologising profusely for having feet (because, again, this is Bath). By the time I got there, it was already fairly busy: lots of the audience had Toppings bags with their new books in; some were flipping through new books or reading old books… and some were hugging them. Holding them closely to them, cradling them. These books were important in some way. Talismanic. Precious.

I found a seat and settled down, flipping through my slightly less-than pristine copy I’d brought along… and it was only once things got underway that I realised I was doing the same. I was hugging this book to me. I have no idea why, but there I was – book pressed to me like I was afraid someone was going to snatch it and run away.

Later, in the signing queue, people were doing the same. They spoke in hushed tones of “my first David Mitchell”; they remembered how old they were when they read that first book, what was happening in their lives. They talked about how those early books had changed with them, every time they returned to them (and many had, more than once). These books were more than just books. They were maps, well-thumbed. Maps back to who these readers used to be. Maps to who they thought or hoped they would become. Maps of themselves.

I’m an old cynic, and I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite like it before. But then, I’ve never read anything quite like that book before.

At the start of the event, Toppings announced that they have made David Mitchell their author of the year. By the end of the event, I could see why: not just from the reading (which, coming as it did from my favourite part of the book, I was already primed to enjoy) or from the searingly honest Q&A afterwards; not even from the time getting my copy signed (which was, in itself, a joy)… but from the number of people hugging their books.

(Probably) The Greatest Halloween Signing Ever…

Yes, it’s not quite Halloween, but what’s a couple of days between friends?

Come along to the Great Halloween Signing in the Forbidden Planet Megastore in London tomorrow (Saturday 25th October) and hang out with Actual Proper British Horror Writers (and me. Who will be basking in the reflected glory and trying really hard not to grin like a loon.)

We’ll be signing between 1pm and 2pm, and afterwards there’s a BFS Open Evening taking place in the nearby Bloomsbury Tavern.

I’m there as a contributor to ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE! ENDGAME, the third of the ZA! series of mosaic novels.

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If you’ve not come across the series – or any other mosaic novels before – think of it as a cross between an anthology of short stories and a novel in dossier form, with each contributor taking one aspect of it. (One of my favourites is the zombie-related app store, complete with developer comments.) My “story” is the diary of a teenager caught up in the zombie outbreak – the catch being that she wasn’t one of the lucky ones. So if you’ve ever wanted to know what goes through a teenage zombie’s mind…

 

Start losing sleep…

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If you’re in the UK, have a Kindle and 85p to spare, you can now get hold of the ebook of SLEEPLESS!

Come and meet Izzy and her friends: Grey, Tigs, Juliet, Dom, Mia and Noah – all about to sit some seriously scary exams. If they fail them, their lives are over.

At least, that’s what they think…

The paperback will follow (along with the rest of the Red Eye series) in January – but as it’s October and the nights are getting darker, why not get into the Halloween spirit a little early?

To celebrate, I’ve also unlocked a secret Pinterest board I put together while I was writing the book to give you an idea of what the world of SLEEPLESS looks like.

Enjoy – and whatever you do? Don’t go to sleep…

Diouz a reoh, e kavoh

I said I’d be back, didn’t I? And threatened to tell you all about this staircase:

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I’m a (wo)man of my word.

It’s in an old house in a place called Locronan in Brittany, and it’s where I set my contribution to the new URBAN MYTHIC 2 anthology from Alchemy Press. The idea was for each story in there – while obviously being different – to update an existing myth or legend and bring it into the 21st Century.

Being a macabre sort (well, I do write horror too, y’know) I’ve always been fascinated by the Breton legend of the Ankou. While there’s plenty of psychopomp figures in myth – and more than a few skeletal grim reapers – the cult of the Ankou is peculiar to Brittany.

I’ve already talked a little about the legend and the idea behind the story here – where you’ll also see an ancient picture of me, taken in the basement vaults of our old house in Brighton. It’s “moody” because it’s about three degrees and I have water dripping down the back of my neck… – but what appeals to me about the Ankou is his impermanence. He changes with the year, and there’s something very human about that as well as something transformative. It’s the kind of idea that gets under my skin and sticks.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the region, but I still did a fair amount of reading around by way of research (any excuse), both of collected legends and collected folktales and responses to them.

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(Just out of shot, my well-chewed Breton-French and French-English dictionaries. And a really big pile of headache pills…)

As soon as I knew I wanted to write about the Ankou, I wanted the story to happen in Locronan. It’s a very small town perched high up on a hill, and it’s very deliberately kept as traditional as possible – particularly the town square. As a result, it feels like – tourists aside – you’ve fallen through some kind of wormhole into a recent past that won’t ever quite rest, but hangs around the corners of the square smoking and being disreputable. It’s the perfect setting for a story which is all about the past and how it creeps through into the present.

In particular, I’ve always loved the house in this photo – now a bookshop dedicated to Breton and Celtic mythology, but like most of the houses in Locronan, it may well have once belonged to a weaver (the production of textiles, and sailcloth in particular, made Locronan an important place back in the day).

Somewhat fittingly for a story about the unreliability of memory, I seem to remember that once there was a loom on the ground floor… but I can’t be sure. When I went back this summer, if there ever had been a loom, it’s long gone.

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Either way, that’s where the story came from: a story about memory and family and death and life… and the Ankou, who warns us all that we weave our own reckoning: “according to your work, your reward”.

And, as it’s me, and there’s always a song the story sounds a little like this…