Tri and Error

Today, at Richmond Park parkrun, despite the hills and fighting a strong headwind up those hills, I did a new personal best of 26:52.

After parkrun and coffee, I took my camera and went for a three-hour 13.6k ‘photo walk‘ in Richmond Park. The camellias are out in the Isabella Plantation. The photos here are from this walk, which besides being an opportunity to photograph these beautiful blooms and blossoms, I saw as further steps towards training body and mind to keep moving, albeit a little slowly on this occasion, for endurance-standard lengths of time.

When I began this journey, roughly 18 months to one year ago, my average parkrun time was in the mid-30s. I did run at least one at more than 40 minutes. My immediate ambition with parkrun is to run below 25:00. My main aim is to compete as an age-group triathlete, up to doing a full Ironman. Or two or three.

I’ve decided to start writing about this journey in the hope of helping and inspiring others. I used to be a somewhat sedentary mum and step-grandmum who was addicted to chocolates and croissants, a woman with a long-term career in journalism, much of that sat happily behind desks in offices with sustaining supplies of cakes and biscuits always to hand.

That I have now, in my sixties, been able to embrace swim-bike-run, might I hope help, maybe even inspire, others. In my life I’ve made and come through many mistakes. I still make mistakes, hence the the blog title, ‘Tri and Error’. But I truly believe that the decision to take up this newly active lifestyle is a good one.

To those who perhaps say – or at least think – I am a little crazy to be starting out on this, at this time of life, well maybe that is the case. But one of the many great things about being older is that you start not to care if some people think you are crazy.

Still, if you had told me back at the start of 2019 that I would be doing this, I would have said both you and I were crazy indeed. So how did it come about?

A few months before the Covid pandemic began, my husband Alan and I went to see a friend on stage in a show in the West End of London. I began to feel strangely unwell on the way back on the tube. Full stomach pains set in at home. A paramedic came out, diagnosed colic and went away. It got a lot worse – became total agony in fact. So we called 999. They refused to send an ambulance because the diagnosis of colic was by now in the system. Luckily there was an Uber nearby, and as a surgeon told me later, it was probably for the best because there was a strong chance I would not have survived the wait for an actual ambulance.

By the time I got to West Middlesex Hospital, I could no longer stand up, was close to losing consciousness and my heart had almost stopped.

I was placed immediately in intensive care and remained in hospital for nearly a month. I was flat on my back, kept alive through various tubes and other devices. A nurse, a true angel like we all know so many are, sat with me, held my hand and talked through hours and hours of agony and despair. I had severe acute gallstone pancreatitis.

Excess alcohol consumption can contribute to pancreatitis but I have not had an alcoholic drink since May 16, 1985. In my case, I believe the illness was partly bad luck but also, perhaps, partly a consequence of my addiction to unhealthy food.

When a gallstone got stuck in my bile duct, my pancreas, fed up with all the sugar and fat surrounding it, just sort of gave up and exploded as it was forced to start digesting itself. Or that’s what it felt like. The pain was indescribable. It was out of the blue, I had no idea this was coming down the line, had experienced no prior symptoms that I was aware of. And it almost killed me.

Soon after arriving in hospital, slipping in and out of consciousness, I ‘fell’ into a place that was pain free. It was like being in the outer pastures of paradise, a meadow suffused by the most numinous light. I was on a flower-strewn path and ahead of me, I could see the famous ‘light’ that people speak of who have had near-death experiences. I was never in the ‘tunnel’ that so many have described. It was more this path through that flower-filled meadow, leading to this extraordinary light. I began to walk towards the light. Then a ‘message’ came to me: ‘You have a choice. You can stay here. Or you can go back.’

I would have liked to stay. I was tired, fed up with the pain. There was nothing scary about it, even though I knew this was the end of my life that I was contemplating. But then I thought of my husband and our son, and realised I did not want to leave them bereft. So I chose to ‘go back’. Many people do not have that choice. I was so lucky.

On the ward, my body swelled up like a balloon as it struggled to keep going. It was two weeks before the staff could start feeding me, even intravenously, and then longer before being able to eat again. I will never, ever forget that first bowl of porridge. Weeks later, I would go back to the hospital just to eat in the canteen. The food there felt just so salvific.

Luckily the gallstone passed of its own accord, because I was not strong enough at that point to survive an operation to remove it or any of its little fellows sitting there also, just waiting to cause further havoc. Six months later, fully into the pandemic by now, I had my gall bladder removed. It took me weeks to be able to walk without a stick after leaving hospital. The road to recovery was long and not at all paradaisical. It took most of lockdown for me to start feeling properly better, physically and mentally.

Every day, now, I wake up and feel incredibly grateful just to be alive. This experience changed me in a fundamental way. I try to make the most of every single second left in this life. I have not been able to give up completely the chocolate and the croissants. But now, they are consumed in moderation, not excess.

This is my opening, an opening that came close to being my closure. The decision to embrace a sporting life can be seen in the context of the memory of that critical illness.

It was what happened next, however, that set me on the road, hopefully not to oblivion this time, but to endurance multi-sport.

Rather ambitiously, in my mind, I call it ‘Couch to Kona’.

It did have something to do do with a new friend, Serge Lourie, pictured below, centre, who today celebrated his 400th parkrun at Richmond Park. A prominent local LibDem politician, he was for years leader of Richmond Council. Serge – and Philip and Tom, also pictured – exemplify the phenomenon of slightly older people embracing the active lifestyle. This was us, earlier today, at Pembroke Lodge in Richmond Park, where we go regularly to discuss our personal bests, or personal worsts, depending on how we are feeling that day!

I’ll save more details of how these guys have helped for later posts.

I hope to use this new blog as a journalling exercise, but also to explore some aspects of the past and the lessons I’ve learned over the years. Today is my brother Owen’s birthday. He took his own life when he was just 23. So today, I am writing in particular in memory of him.

The other day, I asked ChatGPT to tell me what it knew about me. It came up with a few paragraphs, mostly accurate but also partly false. I corrected it and it apologised. But it also said: ‘Almost nothing is known about Ruth Gledhill’s personal life.’

I just feel I’ve got stuff to say about ‘life’, that even though my entire professional life has been as a writer and editor, I have never had the courage to open up about. It doesn’t need to be about self-promotion, especially if I can be honest about faults and failings. Having been given this renewed chance to live life, I think it is time to share. I just hope people like reading it and that I can be of some use and help others in ways that might become clear as time goes on, as well as have some fun along the way. Ride On!

Ruth is walking 200k during Lent to help Cafod fight global poverty. Donate here.


Published by Placement

Journalist, photographer, mum.

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