Monday, 23 August 2010

The Good Shoes

I received a very special gift for my birthday this year. A meaningful one. It was a material gift, yes, but it was what the gift stood for, and where it came from, that meant so much.

I'm hardly going to bore you by discussing my finances, but I will just say that I don't have any disposable income these days. Since going freelance I'm working my butt off to get the rent paid, and that's about it. I've also been hunting for a day job but as yet have not been successful. So when my papa sent me a crisp note in my birthday card, I knew I would treat myself to something.

Unfortunately, I could only get one thing on that big mental shopping list in my head. I mentioned this on Twitter, as a completely throwaway, meaningless comment. I mentioned the shoes I really wanted, but which I would have to forgo in lieu of a new bag. (I'd wanted a new bag for a long time, but then I also don't own many decent pairs of shoes... heck, even the investment of my birthday money required careful consideration!)

Then I got a message from someone on Twitter. Someone I have a great deal of respect for, but whom I had never met in real life. The message I received completely took me by surprise.

This person offered to buy me the shoes.

Naturally my first question was, "But why would you want to do that?"

Their response? They knew about my struggle with the job hunt. They saw my determined optimism. They knew "how much little pick-me-ups can mean and what they can do for morale."

The genuine kindness of this gesture took me aback. I mean, we live in a world of "each for themself". How can someone be this generous?

I wanted to do something in return. Give them something. But they were having none of it. They insisted that the warmth of having done something good for someone else was payment enough. That they were once on the receiving end of a good deed and were now delighted to be able to pass it on.

I have to respect that. It's not hard to be generous but it actually takes a lot of guts. And if it makes that person feel good, then even better. So (partly still in shock) I accepted the offer of the birthday shoes.

Sure enough, the shoes arrived a couple of day later. Despite my stupidly big feet, they fit like a glove. I absolutely love them, but all the more for the kindness that had brought them to me in the first place.

I am not going to name the person who sent them to me, because I don't want them to feel uncomfortable about their generosity going public (plus they might start getting inundated with requests for shoes....). However, I hope they read this, and understand that they have inspired me. I will take the steps in these shoes to make someone else smile.

And you know what? It's not hard to find opportunities to make someone's day. I now keep thinking about all the countless things one can do, and that list really is endless. I intend to pass on the kindness, and I also hope this would be passed on again, until everyone's days are a little brighter.

The great thing about good deeds is that they are contagious. If we all did one little good deed every day, imagine how far they would spread!

So for my birthday this year I was given the gift of shoes, but also the gift of inspiration. A reminder that even the smallest good deeds can mean so much. I won't forget it. Especially when I wear my new favourite shoes.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Runner, Interrupted

When people travel abroad, and change their existential status from "locals" to "tourists", several other fundamental traits change with them. For instance, the ability to dress conspicuously.
In a city at home, people will wear normal clothes, carry a handbag or wallet, and on a rainy day take with them an umbrella or jacket. In a city abroad, the logic of dressing normally is forgotten, and strutting around in rubber shoes, plastic ponchos and carrying a money-belt is all the rage. I do not get this. Umbrellas pack up small. There is no need to walk around like an drowned, crumpled ghost who needs directions. Also, you CAN get comfortable walking shoes which are not fluorescent and made of rubber. They're called trainers.
As for the money-belt... well, lifting your shirt every time you want to buy a sandwich is hardly the epitome of security. The money-belt is the travelling equivalent of a burgler carrying a sack with a dollar sign on it.
Some subtlety, please.

More concerningly, when people travel abroad they immediately lack spacial awareness. You know - the ability to walk amongst other people without bumping into them. This goes out the window the moment somebody steps onto foreign soil, and leads to a constant lemming-esque pinball effect of people in ponchos. I don't feel I am being unfair when I say that tourists will walk in every direction except the one they are facing, and that there is always an appalled look thrown at anyone who tries to pass through a group of tourists who have lined themselves across the entire breadth of the footpath. (Oh, and note to tourists: when taking a photo of someone which requires standing on opposite sides of a busy pedestrian route, please just take the photo. Don't take a second, or a third...) Awareness, please!

However, I have been a traveller for much of my life, and I am willing to be forgiving - heck, even patient - when it comes to dealing with tourists in my (now) home town. It is easy to become cantankerous and unsympathetic, especially in a city like London, where locals operate on warp speed, and exist in their own bubble. Yet no matter how patient one is, the fact is it can be very difficult for tourists and locals to co-exist in the same space. After all, there are (apparently) over 70,000 tourists in London every day.
The source of my personal chagrin, though, is that the majority seem to congregate on my running route.

It wasn't long ago that I was convinced I'd never be a runner. Running was against my religion. I was allergic to running. If I ran, I would immediately die. But I am also someone who likes to discover my limits (and not just of my patience, eh tourists?) so I started to go for the odd jog. It was the best way to exercise for free, and once I got going it was actually OK. I could actually do it. Running didn't cause instant death. Sometimes (sometimes) I even enjoyed my little bursts of running mania. It felt free and liberating to move quickly on my own two feet, the wind in my hair and music in my ears.

So then, inspired by the awesome blogger, and former anti-running ambassador BangsandaBun, I signed up to run the Royal Parks half marathon this October. This meant, of course, that I would now have to get really serious with my running. My schedule requires me to run for anything from 25 to 55 minutes, five days a week. For sixteen weeks. Clearly I was insane to sign up to something like this, but I'm doing it for charity, (and a charity for people who are physically disabled at that, so if I ever whine about my legs hurting I will obviously be struck down by lightning).

The best route for running in my area is along the river, in a circuit which crosses bridges and takes in City Hall, the Tower of London... all the beautiful sights and fresh riverside air. (As fresh as it gets in the city of London). There are no parks nearby, and running into the busy city is a nightmare. The riverside provides a tranquil space to run. It's also perfect in its flexibility of distance - if the run needs to be longer, I further my route for a few extra bridges. Simple. It is almost the perfect runner's route. Almost.


Oh tourists, I don't hold it against you that you want to congregate outside the major attractions of London. I don't. I wish you well, and I wish you the greatest day of your life taking all those photos of Traitor's Gate. But please, please, can you just look where you're going? It's not a big thing, just try to turn your heads in the direction you're walking. Take a quick glance before you suddenly change direction. And please don't give me an angry, shocked look when I am forced to pipe, "Excuse me!" if your family is taking up THE WHOLE FOOTPATH.

All the stopping, starting, dodging and weaving not only destroys any sense of rhythm & flow and makes the run that much more difficult, but I've come close to injuring my knees trying to twist and duck (yes, even duck) to avoid colliding with a directionless tourist. So, sadly, a while ago I gave up on the riverside route, and found another one through the uneven, cobbled backstreets of Wapping, stopping at every corner and driveway to check for cars. It's ok, and it's better than running into the city centre, but it's not ideal.

Needless to say I was ECSTATIC to hear talk of a runner's lane on the south bank. Cancer Research UK were launching "the world’s first urban running lane, an obstruction-free space for runners in the Capital." The lanes would be in place only for today as a pilot scheme, aiming "to give inner-city dwellers the chance to run uninterrupted by pedestrians and cars, just like a cycle lane. If the lane is successful the charity will look to roll it out nationally."

So this afternoon I went to test them out. There were two lanes, outlined clearly in smooth white lines, right in the middle of the Queen's walk, from the HMS Belfast to Tower Bridge. It looked very promising indeed.
However, I immediately noticed one problem.


Despite the lanes being described as "obstruction free", the tourists were dawdling all over these lanes like nobody's business. Which, ok, is fair enough - one can hardly expect everyone to clear the road at all times. The frustrating thing was that when runners came flying down the lanes, almost none of these people moved. They continued to stand around in a state of incomprehension.
Nevertheless, I pushed through the crowds and tripped over strollers, finally getting my groove on along the track, smiling as other runners passed me in the other direction in the second lane. This felt pretty nice!

Unfortunately it wasn't long before I saw a couple ambling towards me, side by side, one in each lane, dragging luggage behind them. Clearly, somewhere along the line, they had got the impression that these were special lanes for people with wheelie-suitcases. As I ran towards them, I gave them my best "Um, you might want to make some space there," look but they simply stared at me blankly. So I had to lurch around them.

The lanes were shorter than I would've liked - only 1km all up - but this was just the pilot scheme after all. Once they ended I continued through the throng of people to the next bridge, turned around, and ran back the way I had come in order to give the lanes one last go. Coming back was more successful. There seemed to be a few more runners on the track this time, and while there were still a few incognizant people strolling up and down like it was their own personal red carpet, most of them quickly moved out of the way. (Perhaps my violently urgent expression scared them off.) I only had to dodge one man, who didn't seem at all perturbed by the speeding people running straight for him and didn't budge an inch. (No awareness! None!)

Overall, though, this was the best run I had ever had along the south bank. It was also the first time I had run continuously along the Queen's Walk riverside path without stopping. In fact, I got such a good rhythm going, I ran faster than usual, and even OVERTOOK ANOTHER RUNNER. A MALE runner. A FIT male runner.
This was real progress, and I loved it.

Olympic and world gold medallist, Christine Ohuruogu tries out the world’s first urban running lane, an obstruction-free space for runners in the Capital

I would love to see London bring in more running paths within the city. Given how many runners there are here it would benefit a lot of people. I know some will think this is a case of runners being demanding elitists, but that's not true. People run for different reasons: for better health, for better fitness, for stress-relief, for a personal goal, or for a charity event - and in my case, all of the above. It is not only difficult to train if you are dodging people and continually stopping, but it's hard on the body. Having a space where one can run without people getting in the way, or without getting in the way of others would be an improvement for everyone.

I say bring on the running lanes! Space for everyone!
Maybe then it will be easier for tourists and locals to co-exist after all.


NB: If anyone wishes to sponsor me in the Royal Parks half marathon, in aid of Scope, please visit this link!.