Yoga

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I have a memory of my Mum wearing flared trousers at the end of the 70s and telling me about yoga. It was a brilliant form of exercise, she said, that taught you real strength and flexibility. At the end of her practice she felt like she was melting into the floor. My Mum’s face and voice were so illuminated, animated and happy it made me want to do yoga, too.

I remember trying some poses from a yoga book I found lying around my childhood home one day. And reading about breathing, in through your nose and out through your mouth, slowly and deeply. I practised those things, and liked it, but self-teaching could only take a kid so far.

As a young adult I bought an Ashtanga yoga video and started practising at home. I lacked the confidence to go to a class, suffering from the mistaken notion yoga was for girls and not realising the terrific opportunity therein. But I enjoyed the video, and over that summer made good progress. As years went by, I tried some other DVDs, and occasionally went to classes. I even went on a disastrous yoga holiday, but that’s a story for another time. While I enjoyed the classes, there was nothing compelling or exciting enough to make me come back for more. 

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This changed when I rocked up this summer at the Yogarden in Bophut, Koh Samui, Thailand. It was rated as the number one thing to do in the area on TripAdvisor. I was glad to find an opportunity to stay fit and move my body in the Thai humidity so I signed up for a beginners’ class.

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Even the journey to the Yogarden was magical, like a treasure trail. The venue is set off the main road past Thai dwellings and a cookery school. I’d begun to doubt I was going the right way when I saw the sign. Turning in, I discovered a beautiful secret garden of a place. Taking my sandals off, I made my way up the steps into the cafe cum office cum hangout area. A brief introduction to Bonnie, the founder of Yogarden followed and then I was shown to the workout space in the open air but with a covered roof. You’re surrounded by nature and can hear birds, cicadas, cats and occasional humans as you work out. Each time I went in the mats were arranged differently- a refreshing touch.

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But my love affair at the Yogarden wasn’t some holiday romance, brought on by the sights, sounds and ambience. It was much more profound. It was the first time I truly connected with a yoga class, and over the two weeks I practised there I opened up physically and mentally through the practice.

I loved Anna Sugarman’s classes so much I made sure not to miss any day she was teaching. Anna brings a real sense of fun and play to her sessions. While there is a carefully thought-out sequence in each session, she wasn’t afraid to wing it and take us to unexpected places, sometimes with hilarious results. I was really surprised and challenged when she asked us to do headstands. Since I was seven I’d struggled to do these and had long told myself I just couldn’t do them. So when Anna supported me, helping me reposition my hands, then to take one leg up and rest it on my elbow, then the other, it was an act of great kindness that astonished me and changed my perceptions of my limitations. She told me confidently I’d be able to do it within a week.

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Anna makes excellent use of music, which she often introduces about a third of the way through the workout, to help deepen the mood, featuring artists from Bright Eyes to Pink Floyd to Guns’n’Roses, as well as more traditional ethereal fodder. She brings things back always to breath, driving each movement, really working to get the group breathing together, and artfully linking it to the rhythm of the music. At the end of one practice, I remember her asking us to breath in as one, and then to breathe out, our breaths intermingling with those of the biology of creatures around us creating a potent soup in the evening air. Focusing on the breath helps take your mind off discomfort when you’re holding a difficult position, and often by going internal, when you come back to the external you realise your body has adjusted and found better equilibrium by relaxing into the pose.

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I developed a lot of strength through the dynamism of Anna’s chaturangas, yoga push-ups engaging the entire core and upper body and demanding explosive power from the legs. I wasn’t previously familiar with the term, but Anna repeatedly moved in and out of Sanskrit and English so fluidly during the sessions that I picked up a lot of terminology. In the vinyasa flow sequences you move dynamically and powerfully through a series of poses. I’d be absolutely dripping in sweat, struggling to open my eyes at times as it was streaming down my forehead. The heat and humidity played a part, but my body was responding to extremely challenging exercise, and therefore growing. The more practised yogis around me hardly broke sweat, despite going deeper and further into their poses than me. It was very humbling for someone who is used to being one of the stronger athletes when I’m with Run Dem Crew to be one of the weaker ones here. I felt privileged to be able to see such artful technicians at work. One girl had such a fantastic combination of grace and strength it was a pleasure to watch, not that I had much time to.

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Anna often asked us to “find your edge”- a challenging place beyond ease and comfort, but not teetering over into pain- the equivalent of threshold pace in running. This was referred to particularly in her yin class, where poses were held for 3-7 minutes. The emphasis was on maintaining the pose, transcending discomfort, and deepening the pose as the muscles opened up. Anna explained that yin related to woman, darkness, the left side and the moon, compared to yang, which is characterised through fire, action and the power and dynamism that embody most of waking life. This class really appealed to me, but my favourite was “Vin and yin”, combining the vinyasa flow and then moving into the cool-down of the yin practice.

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I also took one very different class led by Kom, a hard taskmaster. I believe his father and grandfather are both yogis, but he hadn’t really practised seriously until he became very ill a number of years ago. He found wellness through his practice, and now teaches a very muscular and powerful class which took me to some very difficult places. I’m glad I did it, but decided not to go back for more until I’d got a better base to work from. He also gave a deeper, more powerful three-minute Thai massage at the end of the practice than all my other Thai massages combined.

Three years ago I had a hernia operation. I generally now feel strong in that area, having done core and strengthening work, but at points during these yoga classes, I was taken to the edge of where I felt that part of body could go. It was a little scary, but I listened to my body and didn’t push further when I felt tightness in that area. I told myself to trust the process and reflected that by moving this area gently into more challenging positions I would actually deepen the strength there and safeguard against future injury. I’m really grateful to Anna and Kom for helping me with that.

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The food at Yogarden is as good as I’ve eaten on the island. I particularly recommend the pomelo salad. It tastes a bit like grapefruit mixed with chillies and seeds and was one firecracker of a dish.

I strongly recommend yoga as a fantastic way of building core and full body strength. You will get toned, flexible and strong, but won’t develop huge muscles, and as such it’s ideal for runners like me, although anyone would benefit. It’s great for your mind, helping to develop reservoirs of calm and to extend the horizons of what you consider yourself capable of. I know most of my readers won’t have the opportunity in the near future to go to Yogarden, but if you ever do visit Koh Samui, I can’t recommend it highly enough. It was the absolute highlight of my time there.

In the meantime, you’ll have to seek out a good class where you live, like me. Having found one I really connected with, I feel better able to identify what yoga makes my heart sing, so I’m hopeful I’ll be able to maintain at least a weekly practice from now on.  Thank you, Yogarden.

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Lost your mojo?

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A lot of friends have mentioned lately they have lost their running mojo. To a certain extent, so have I. Whether this is due to the summer heat, the constant striving for PBs losing some of it’s lustre or simply boredom, there’s nothing wrong with taking a break.

I haven’t stopped running completely, but I’ve reduced my mileage and dropped the training plans. As a result, I’m still running and still enjoying it. The spark is still there, but I’ve allowed the embers to burn down low for a while before stoking the fire up again.

The first part of this year went really well for me. I won the FlatLine 10 in February and smashed my half-marathon PB in Berlin in March. But after 3 consecutive races not going to plan, culminating in a scorching Hackney Half, it felt right to listen to my body and take a break.

Besides, I knew I was going to Thailand for 3 weeks over the summer. I’m here now, and let me tell you, there won’t be a huge amount of running done in this heat! Out here, I’m all about the yoga, the Thai massages and the swimming. There’s an amazing place called Yogarden just a short walk from my hotel. I’m getting very zen.

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http://www.theyogardensamui.com

I’m planning to run Copenhagen half marathon in September, but there’s little point in starting a training plan in these conditions, so I’m just going to take that race easy. I’d only have 4 weeks to train for Copenhagen after Thailand, so it would be unrealistic to go for a fast time. It will be fun to explore a new city with NBRO and Run Dem Crew, and enjoying that will be my focus.

Although I’m not following a plan, it doesn’t mean I’ve completely abandoned striving to get better. When I was in London, I was enjoying the twisting and turning of the Run Dem Crew elite suicide pace runs. I’ve also particularly enjoyed Jason’s recent track programme of Yasso 800s. I’ve been able to push myself sufficiently hard within these two sessions for my competitive side to feel satisfied, and I’ve enjoyed not having success determined by something as all-encompassing as a goal race. The best thing about the Run Dem Crew runs is the camaraderie. As Charlie often says, running is the least important part of what we do.

Crew Track

In the past three weeks I’ve only clocked up 26 miles in total, compared to 20-30 per week, so it’s a big step down in terms of mileage. I started running again in the summer of 2012 and I don’t think I’ve ever done less than three runs a week since then unless I was injured.

The other thing I’ve been doing in my down time is building up my overall body strength, and in particular my core. I was doing bodyweight workouts and yoga in London. These are great as you don’t really need any equipment, and by deepening strength and flexibility you see benefits in running, will be less likely to get injured, and feel better and stronger in general life. This was prompted after doing an intense hour and a half EnergyLab core workout recently and realising I was a long way from where I wanted to be.

Out here in Thailand, I’m enjoying the very different challenges of running at an easy pace in intense heat. It’s great that I don’t have to do a long run or fit in 2/ 3 recovery runs. It’s just a case of pulling on my trainers, stepping out the door and going. I’ve made contact in the virtual world with some locally based runners and am hoping to run with them soon. The yoga and the Thai massages are helping my body rebalance, as well as building core strength. My body is recovering from the mileage and my joints and muscles are getting a break.

So, losing your running mojo doesn’t mean not exercising. It’s a chance to mix things up and let your body recover and grow. Don’t get down-  do other things- swim, cycle, stretch. Running will be there when you’re ready to come back to it. Listen to your body and mind and have a break. Even elite athletes have a month or so off each year. I’m looking forward to building back up to fitness towards the end of the summer, with a renewed appetite for the road, and deeper reserves of energy, strength and flexibility to draw upon.

In the meantime, I’ll keep enjoying the views from my hotel room…

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Shouts to Tilly for the track photo.

Hackney Half- A Celebration

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Today, in the scorching sun, we ran, cheered and celebrated Hackney, my friends and I, in a celebration of community by community and through community. Hackney took me into its arms when I needed a new start in life. Years later, so did Run Dem Crew. So it was fitting I should run the first mass-participation race in Hackney surrounded by the family I’ve chosen.

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Tales of heroism and sacrifice abound. Shameek ran 16 miles as he supported other runners that were struggling with the heat. Ash, Paul and Sarah supported Mac, one of our Youngers, as he struggled to come to terms with the challenge. This is what the crew is about.

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Charlie, not able to run, stood like a beacon draped in a Ghana flag, calling forth the names of each runner as we struggled up the hill into the Olympic park, giving us strength when we had none.

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Tilly passed out for ten minutes, but was determined to finish and was ably supported in that by Lucy. Bemi found the heat overwhelming, but was looked after by the crew. Rebecca struggled, but is feeling fine now. Darren updated his status saying he really didn’t think he would finish, but he did. Sadly, Chevy managed to injure himself while running to get a paramedic to help someone else- a sad consequence of his selflessness in organising Cheer Dem and mobilising the secret ninja crew. We wish you well, Chevy, and hope everyone who struggled today is feeling better now.

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When I first moved to Hackney, people refused to come and visit me, scared of Murder Mile and the perceived eastern wilds- their loss. I’ve lived all over the borough for 15 years and it’s been fantastic to see the rest of the world come round to my way of thinking. Hackney rocks: the green spaces, the pubs, and above all the people, the self-confident, warm-hearted, open-minded people of my adopted home. Having raced all over London, it was nice to finally have a big race happening on my doorstep. I’m sure the boost to local businesses from the visitors was very welcome.

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Today felt like a festival of running, as if Glastonbury had come to Hackney. I met members of the Copenhagen crew NBRO, and runners from other crews who had come to take part. It felt very special to have them here in my back garden. Bridge the Gap events have always seemed so exotic, cosmopolitan and urban- it was inspiring to remember our home is just as exciting to others.

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I want to mention Ian’s big PB. He’s quietly been getting on with things at Run Dem, always putting in the hard work on a Tuesday and at track, and it was really great to see him rewarded with a sub 1:30. Sorrell was taking things easy and came home as the 11th female. She and Maja are both doing Run to the Stones Ultra, so Maja ran a 30K warm-up before starting the race. Warwick finished in a massive PB, and crossed the finish line as the first Run Dem athlete hand in hand with Hugo, who had slowed down to help him achieve his goal.

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Thank you to all the people who came out to support. Cheer Dem were immense, as were the people of Hackney, instinctively warming to the name on the shirts and appreciating what the crew stands for. Big shout to my non-running friends who gave up their time. I hope you enjoyed it as much as we did. I think that’s the first time I’ve had a sign brandished in my honour.

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So thanks for the memories Hackney and Run Dem Crew. This is a day that will live long in the mind.

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Props to Felix, Michael, Azra, Dougie, Maya, Melissa and Run Hackney for the amazing pics.

(Disclaimer: this post has been written on an endorphin high)

Arcade Fire

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If you get a chance to see Arcade Fire this summer, take it. UK readers can catch them at Glastonbury and Hyde Park. Their current tour offers a spectacle on a scale similar to U2’s Zoo TV tour of the early 90s.

The major theme of the current album and tour is mirroring. At Earls Court, in addition to the main stage, there was a B stage towards the back of the arena, and the show began with Mirror Man (see above) dancing on the B stage while the band set up behind a curtain on the main stage. This clever change of focus caused a sea of mobile phones held aloft to change direction to capture that shot for their owners’ Instagram feeds. Suddenly, the curtain fell on the main stage, phones faced front and Mirror Man was forgotten as the opening bars of Reflektor rang out.

Social media allows us to direct and edit the movie of our lives, making us the director of our Warholian 15 minutes of fame. I grew up with Madonna, the queen of media manipulation, and in this day and age many of us are now also adept in these arts. Sometimes, we risk missing the moment through our eagerness to capture it and receive the ego-boost that accompanies a volley of social media likes. Arcade Fire, like all bands, benefit from this hugely, but they are a band who have forged a career out of being unashamedly themselves. The band-members look like normal people, in contrast to the airbrushed wannabes of the next manufactured pop sensation. Ironically, One Direction were the other big show in London last night. Through songs like We Exist, individualism was celebrated and media-perpetuated notions of beauty were challenged during this show. Heady stuff for a rock concert, and many will have completely ignored this narrative in favour of simply enjoying the beltingly good rock songs played with fire and passion by an incredibly talented band of multi-instrumentalists.

My favourite perfomer in the band is Regine Chassagne. She is a real force of nature, and her passionate singing, musicianship and stage presence were a highlight of my experience. The woman I one day marry will possess passion, creativity and energy like Regine. A highlight was her performance of It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus), which took place on the B Stage, backed by a battalion of Thriller-esque dancing ghouls, as she and husband Win Butler serenaded each other in arcs of sound over the heads of the ecstatic audience.

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Arcade Fire are a post-modern band, able to pilfer hooks from 80s classics and build them into anthemic, swelling choruses. I’m so pleased Azra insisted we take a spot right up by the stage, as the kinetic energy of the band’s live performance could be directly and intensely felt so much better there. The energy as the band sang the word “Hey” in No Cars Go was sheer joy.

The closing song, Wake Up, was one of those magical moments of communion in the live arena, where everyone became part of one singing, swaying organism. It was stadium rock at it’s finest. Arcade Fire are a truly big band now, but there’s been no compromise over their artistic integrity, and they rewarded their fans last night with a spectacle as wonderful as their music.

This was a fitting way for Earls Court to bow out as a venue, as it is set to be redeveloped into so-called affordable homes. The sound was excellent and there must have been a huge backstage crew to facilitate such a great experience. Support acts Lorde and 2 Many DJs fulfilled their roles admirably, and the tickets were good value for money.

I leave you with the set list, and this image, courtesy of Azra, taken as the confetti canons exploded overhead during the finale. To see a band like this at the height of it’s powers is a rare opportunity. Catch them while you can.

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Set List:

    1. Reflektor
    2. Flashbulb Eyes
    3. Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)
    4. Rebellion (Lies)
    5. Joan Of Arc
    6. Month Of May
    7. We Exist
    8. The Suburbs
    9. The Suburbs (Continued)
    10. Ready To Start
    11. Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)
    12. Intervention
    13. No Cars Go
    14. Haiti
    15. Afterlife
    16. It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)
    17. Sprawl II (Moutains Beyond Mountains)
    18. Encore: Helter Skelter (Beatles cover)
    19. Normal Person
    20. London (Smiths cover)
    21. Here Comes The Night Time
    22. Wake Up

The Drowned Man

Something magical is happening in theatre-land. In twenty years as a theatre-goer, I’ve never experienced anything as moving, visceral and all-encompassing as The Drowned Man, the current show by immersive theatre company Punchdrunk. This is a paradigm shift in theatrical experience, and provides a benchmark and blueprint for a new era.

I’m woefully aware the scope of this show is so vast I can’t possibly do it justice, so I intend to write an introduction for those who haven’t seen it, and to share some aspects of the show I’ve found most thrilling. I’ll try to avoid spoilers but there are a few moments I must mention.

The play is set in LA in 1962, on the set of the fictional Temple Studios. Audience members have been invited to witness filming of the final scenes of the studio’s next big picture- The Drowned Man. You explore the film studios, but also the seedy world outside the studio gates, where hopefuls flock dreaming of stardom. Inspiration for the show comes from Georg Buchner’s Woyzeck, Nathanael West’s The Day Of The Locust and the work of David Lynch, among others.

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This immersive promenade performance takes place over four floors of a disused Royal Mail sorting office in Paddington, London. This space has been beautifully transformed with a set encompassing film studios, a Masonic temple, desert, trailers, motel rooms and snow. Attention to detail in the set is beautiful. My friend Melissa spent the entirety of her first visit examining it in detail, leafing through diary pages, looking at photographs, so absorbed that the acting completely passed her by. The crunch of wood-chip underfoot as you explore the woods, the sensation of running through sand, are just two tactile experiences you are likely to encounter. Smell is used evocatively as well, particularly in the Doctor’s quarters.

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Over three hours, thirty-two actors are in role and on-stage concurrently, moving around the different locations. Their stories are on loops of approximately one hour in length, and after each hour the characters seamlessly re-set and their stories are re-told. Audience members are free to move wherever they like, and to choose which stories they want to follow, resulting in a beautifully fragmented experience. I have seen the show five times and one of the highlights is meeting with friends after the show to share experiences. Every time, people describe scenes and locations I have yet to unearth. You’d need to see the show at least 16 times to fully follow all 32 characters’ stories. As well as following characters, it is possible to follow objects. The mind boggles.

On arrival at the venue, you will be asked to check your bag. I recommend ditching coats and layers, as you will be moving around the cavernous building for the next three hours. Audience members are given white masks. You are required to wear this at all times during the performance, unless directed to remove it by a performer. You can wear glasses under the masks, but I recommend contacts. You are not allowed to talk while wearing the mask, and are encouraged to split up from friends and go it alone. I find the masks to be wonderfully freeing. The anonymity of wearing one emboldens audience members to open drawers, leaf through papers and otherwise invade the privacy of the characters, but the convention of not being allowed to talk constantly anchors you in a passive, somewhat voyeuristic role.

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One of the most magical aspects of this show is the potential for one-on-ones. A one-on-one is a performance shared between a performer and one audience member. At certain points in the narrative, some characters will select an audience member to share in such a moment. If you’re the nervous type, you can decline. Personally, I have found these moments to be among the most exciting and memorable in my experience of any show. Usually, the actor will take the audience member into a private room and lock the door. The actor then removes the audience member’s mask- quite a vulnerable moment the first time- and from there on you can speak and interact fully: how much you do is up to you. The character imparts further knowledge of their predicament, motives or ambitions. Some will offer an alcoholic drink- you don’t have to take it. The excitement of sharing what has been revealed in these moments with friends in the bar after a performance is hard to match.

The most profound one-on-one experience I have had was actually just a moment and was in full view of the audience. One particular character, played by the actress Laure Bachelot, had returned home overwhelmed with guilt over her infidelity the night before. For just a moment, she looked right at me, her eyes boring through the eye-holes in my mask, and we connected. Her eyes spilling with tears, she mistook me for her husband, said she was sorry and enveloped me in an embrace. As I held her, her whole body wracked with sobs, moving mine. It was a profoundly touching, elemental moment- she may have been acting, but those tears on my chest, that emotion making her body shake in my arms, was all too real. It was my natural instinct to try to comfort her, but moments later the illusion broke, as she realised I wasn’t her husband, and withdrew. I have never experienced moments like this in a theatre setting before and they make this show so special.

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I am lucky enough to have spent a day training session on the set. One of the early practical activities was to develop the ability to switch from a very wide-focus to a very narrow one. It’s this changing of focus from panoramic, when performers are playing to audience members surrounding them, to personal, in the one-one-ones, that gives the show it’s magical feel. Even if it’s just a meaningful look, for moments in this play there is no-one else in the room but you and the performer you are following.

Conor Doyle, who led the workshop, explained the paradigm shift for the actors as follows: In a normal production, character A seduces, intimidates or comforts character B. In a Punchdrunk show character A seduces, intimidates or comforts the audience. This is where the wide vision and the narrow vision really comes into play. Much of the time, character A is performing their action wide-screen, for everyone present. At other times, we as audience members get to feel the full intensity of their acting in private moments such as the one described above.

The dancing in this show is just incredible, as the live-action shot below demonstrates. It’s quite something to be on set with the performers, feeling the swish of air as they spin past you- this is akin to feeling the air vibrate in an Opera Up Close performance. I particularly love one sequence which takes place on and around a classic car. The soundtrack is also wonderful. Music is used to create mood, to build tension and to cue scenes. It evokes a certain faded glamour, from Chet Baker to the Shangri-Las. David Lynch is a clear influence, but the soundtrack from the movie Perfume is used particularly powerfully. There’s an excellent Spotify playlist that has been set up containing most of the music used in the show.

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There is so much to discuss, theorise about and analyse in this play, and an excellent Facebook group has been set up by fans. Check it out here should you wish to unlock some of the show’s secrets…

https://www.facebook.com/groups/thedrownedman/

In 1994 I saw a show called Street of Crocodiles by Theatre de Complicite. It blew my mind, and in that moment I saw the beautiful potential of theatrical experience. It has taken twenty years, but I can safely say that The Drowned Man has had a similar impact on me. It’s a bit like the dawning of a new era in theatre, akin to The Beatles arriving on the music scene. I’ve seen excellent immersive theatre productions before, for example Reverence, by Goat and Monkey, but this is on another level because of the passion and intensity of the performers and your proximity to them.

I have watched a handful of theatre productions more than once. I have seen some plays many times in different productions. But until The Drowned Man there was never a need to see a show repeatedly, because each time the experience is fresh, revealing new secrets. I urge you to see it. Tickets are not cheap, but you get your money’s worth in terms of quality and quantity of acting and the fantastic set. Some have felt frustrated by the lack of a clear narrative, but I see that as a strength which rewards repeat visits. Whatever you think, I guarantee a memorable evening. The show closes on July 6th, so act quickly.

Tickets are available here:

http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/the-drowned-man-a-hollywood-fable

The show contains some nudity and is deemed suitable for over 16s.

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Abuse on the Run

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I’m sick and tired of people who shout, heckle and randomly abuse runners.

In the space of a week I’ve had two different men shout personal abuse directly at me as I sped past them. Both times, I found it very difficult to just laugh it off. What disconnect is there in people’s heads that makes them think it is acceptable to loudly pass derogatory comments on those trying to better themselves? Does the fact I’m moving in the opposite direction make them think there’s no chance of me responding? To quote Shakespeare, “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” The fact is I came very close to stopping in my tracks and having it out with the abusers these last two times.

Every week when I run with my crew general banter is thrown at the group as we run. Much of it can be laughed off, but it doesn’t make it acceptable. I find myself getting angry when comments are made about women’s physical appearance by bystanders on these runs. Are we right to run on, or should we be stopping and challenging these people?

Most human beings have some degree of body image issues. I’m not immune to these and having people criticise the way I look upsets me. There was a time when I used to run in tracksuit bottoms in hot weather, because I was self-conscious about my slim frame. Being slim does not make you immune to the slings and arrows of criticism, but it can make you a target. Since this latest barrage of abuse my self esteem and confidence have been knocked and I find myself thinking twice about what I wear when I go for a run.

It is wrong that I have to pluck up the courage to wear what is most comfortable.

It is wrong that I brace myself for further abuse and spend some of my run in a tense state.

I would never shout at anyone as you never know how they are feeling beneath the surface. I’m resilient enough to keep going, and am helped by being part of a great running community, but I’m sure others must be put off running for good. I’m certain women suffer more abuse than men, and salute everyone who continues to do what they love in spite of this idiotic behaviour.

Has anyone out there had direct experience of challenging these abusers? Because that’s what I want to do, on behalf of all those who can’t just pull on summer clothes without a second thought. I want the abusers to learn how harmful their comments can be, to care, to reflect and to change. Unlikely, I know, but if we do nothing, it will continue. By running on these people are emboldened and more likely to repeat the behaviour again. However, there’s a concern it’ll end up in a physical confrontation, which wouldn’t solve anything.

So let me know your thoughts. Because enough is enough.

Cheer Dem Crew

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If you do not run then you must cheer. Such is the mantra at Run Dem Crew, a London family of creative heads who run marathons led by their mentor and crew-founder Charlie Dark. Last Sunday I spent the day cheering on runners in the Brighton Marathon, and with the Virgin London Marathon about to drop this weekend, I wanted to try to capture what Cheer Dem Crew is about for those who might be new to it.

Sunday April 6th was the date of the Brighton Marathon. It had been in my diary for some time, as several friends in Run Dem Crew were running it, raising money for good causes including the Teenage Cancer Trust. Paul Bains and Claire McGonegle had gone to great trouble to take care of the logistics of getting over 20 of us to and from Brighton, choosing the best spots to cheer from, and booking a pub for drinks and food afterwards.

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I was up before 7.00 and met the crew at St Pancras Station at 8.15. Paul had organised group-save tickets, so we paid just £5 each to travel to Brighton and back. It was good to see familiar faces and to meet some new ones. Two of the crew had hardly slept after big nights out, but you would never have known it from the enthusiasm they showed all day. The train journey was full of jokes, interspersed with checking the progress of our runners in Brighton and Paris on the race apps. Danny Wood was smashing it, coming through the first 10K in 41 minutes. All our runners looked strong, and we were eager to catch up with them in person.

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Once we reached Brighton, we had a fair walk to the first cheer spot. I was excited to be back in town as I lived there for 3 years while at the University of Sussex. As the seafront swung into view we could see the runners streaming past. Paul had identified a good cheer spot that the runners would pass at Mile 14 and then again at Mile 18, where things often start to get difficult. We’d brought with us four large Run Dem banners, and were quick to get them set up. Glancing at the app, we realised we’d missed Danny Wood through Mile 14, so some of use positioned ourselves on the other side of the road to make sure we caught him at Mile 18. We’d just gotten settled when suddenly Emily Ackner came through Mile 14 looking incredibly strong. At this point, Cheer Dem erupted in the first of many explosions of noise, high-fives, whoops and cheers. Emily’s face lit up and it was hugs and gunfinger celebrations all the way before she sped off. Next was Nathaniel, just a couple of minutes behind, and from then on in it was non-stop shouting and cheering. At Run Dem, we don’t just cheer our own runners. Anyone on the course gets a healthy dose of crewlove. To add to the voices, we had whistles, a cow-bell and high-fives.

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Soon Danny came powering through at Mile 18, looking like an absolute don, completely in control. Once Emily Ledbrooke and Deborah had come through Mile 14, all of the crew switched to the other side of the road to catch our runners at Mile 18. We stayed there till every crew-member had come through, as at Run Dem, no one is ever left behind.

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Our final cheer spot was just a short walk away on the seafront at Mile 24. At this point, many runners were reduced to walking, and cheering can really make a difference. One member of the crew was almost overcome with emotion when they passed through, and Paul Bains ran a little of the way with them to make sure they were ok. Some of the cheer crew were already beginning to lose their voices, but we continued shouting and cheering for all our worth. As Deborah from the crew approached, Jason and I decided to tunnel up on the course for her. This is a Tuesday night crew tradition: when we reach the mid-point of our runs, the first group to finish forms a human tunnel for the next group to run through, and so on, creating a tunnel of noise and good vibes. The course wasn’t too crowded at this point, so we hastily got one together for Debs to run through. This may be the first time this has ever happened during a race, and I hope we can continue it when the course isn’t too congested this Sunday at VLM. Finally, after almost three hours solid cheering, our work was done. We assembled for the traditional crew photo and headed off to get food at the North Laine pub.

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Props to Claire for organising an excellent post-run venue and meal. As each runner from the crew arrived, they were treated to a hero’s welcome, to the surprise of the other punters. The endorphins were flowing as freely as the ale while we shared photos taken on the course and hugged and congratulated our friends. A good non-running friend of mine who lives in Brighton came to join us for lunch, and she was so inspired by what she saw that she has bought a pair of trainers and signed up to do Parkrun this weekend.

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The journey back was full of weary fun. I really enjoyed getting to know some of the newer crew-members better, and eventually we rumbled back into St Pancras and Jason and I got the bus back to N16 together. Getting off the bus outside my home, I went into a shop and bought a Mars bar. When I opened the Mars bar I found out I’d won another Mars bar, which just about sums up an awesome day.

Supporting other people running marathons is one of the most rewarding things you can do. You get back what you put in tenfold. Words can’t express the transformation in a runner who has been broken and is walking, locked in their own internal mental struggle, when they hear you shouting their name. I lost count of the number of times on Sunday these lost, troubled souls looked up, made eye contact and were transformed by the strength of human warmth directed towards them from the crew. In today’s modern, fractured society, the sense of goodwill that is shared on a marathon course is increasingly rare and precious. Many people running marathons are doing so in memory of loved ones who have died and it’s all too easy to become caught up in the burden of feeling you are letting someone living or dead down if you’re struggling to complete your race. But that’s why the marathon is such an inspirational distance. It takes you beyond the limit of human endurance and then asks “What have you got?” Cheer Dem Crew is as much about making sure that no runner has to go through their struggle alone as it is about celebrating the triumphs of those smashing their way to PBs.

Big ups to all the crew who held it down in Brighton, Paris, Manchester and elsewhere on Sunday. Big ups to Cheer Dem for having our runners’ backs. Here, in the words of those who ran the races, is what it means to the runners:

“Having never experienced a Run Dem Race before, I’m beyond words and can’t wait to repay the cheer dem vibes next weekend. Thanks to everyone who cheered/hi 5ed and everything in between. Buzzing.” (Danny Wood, who finished in a PB of 3:20:00)

“The support at 24 miles was next level. Thank you SO much guys. I was really struggling to run at that point and from then I just got faster. Huge thanks to Paul Bains for your lovely words and excellent organisational skills!! You’re all the best.” (Michelle Allen)

“You guys were awesome, so grateful to see so many supportive smiling faces. Thank you cheerdem and bring on London!!” (Emily Ledbrooke)

“Total inability to get to sleep, still buzzing and can’t get over you guys’ efforts with all the support. So grateful, thank you. Next weekend’s gonna be immense.” (Emily Ackner who finished in a PB of 3:47:44)

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All of which brings me to the plans for this weekend. Cheer Dem Crew will be based at Mile 21 of the London Marathon course, cheering on Mo Farah in his bid to win the race, all of the crew, and every single runner that comes through. We base ourselves at Mile 21 because that is traditionally where runners hit the wall. There will be over a hundred of us bringing phenomenal vibes to that section of the course and I can’t wait. Check out mile21.co.uk to see what went down last year, and to follow remotely on the day if you can’t make it personally, as the feed will be updated in real-time.

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To get involved, come to housekeeping at Run Dem Crew tonight, or email Mile 21 mastermind Chevy at chevyrayrough@gmail.com

There will be a sign-making, fund-raising session taking place at Shutterbug in Shoreditch from noon this Saturday, so come down if you can to help prepare banners and personalised signs for our runners. Later on the Saturday Night Ninja Crew will be putting the signs up on the route pre-race. This has to be done late enough in the day that they won’t be taken down again.

Then on race day Cheer Dem Crew will convene at Docklands Tyres and Exhausts, 767 Commercial Road, E14 7HG. It’s just before Mile 21. Come early and be prepared to lose your voice, shed some tears and feel goosebumps as the adrenaline takes you on a rollercoaster of emotions almost intense as running the race itself.

Virgin London Marathon this week is gonna be insane, jubilant, emotional. It will be the ultimate manifestation of #crewlove in 2014. If you’re running, as Charlie says, you’ve done the hard work in training, so the race is going to be a celebration. For those not running, this is a great chance to give back a small portion of what we get from being in the crew. Bring it on.

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Photo credits: Ash Narod, Cara Conquest and Mark Fleming