8 April 2014

26.2


I recently published this piece for Mosaic magazine. It’s about what happened to me in the run-up to Brighton Marathon, as I tried to get to grips with my own limitations as a human being and a runner, and with the limitations of science to explain them. I want to say a little bit about what I was trying to do with this story and how that influenced the way I wrote it. In writing this story, little pieces of my life became tangled up in the process of my research and my writing. It’s not an overstatement to say that it has changed the way I think about running, about writing and about my life.


It was never my intention to write a straightforward explainer on the science behind marathon running. Yes, I wanted to try to understand what makes a good marathon runner. Yes, I wanted to explore what genetics and physiology and biomechanics and psychology can tell us about what’s going on in the body of someone who is training for a marathon - me. But it was always clear to me that there were going to be no easy answers and the more I looked into the research and the more I talked to experts, the more complex the picture became. I think, actually, people often forget that science doesn't have all the answers. Sometimes answers take years or decades to emerge and sometimes they’re not the answers we want to hear. I tried to bring a sense of this to my writing. It wasn't a piece that was saying: science is brilliant because it’s telling us this, and this. It was a piece that was saying: science is difficult and confusing and frustrating, but hey, so is life.

I also wanted to present the people involved in science in a different light to the one we often see them in. I wanted to show them not as names on a list of study authors but as real people with their own characters and opinions. I could be criticised for thinking too much about people and stories, and not enough about the science. But for me it wasn't about creating some false balance of expert viewpoints. In an area as complicated as this, you can never really speak to enough scientists or read enough papers – and I did read a lot of papers – to reach a reliable consensus. And anyway, what a boring read such a story would make for. What I tried to do was give the reader a sense of the complexities scientists are dealing with and how they feel about them. By interacting as one human to another, I wanted to make people relate, in their own ways, to the questions as I was asking of them.

Finally, I tried to be honest about my own difficulties and confusion and frustration in understanding the science, as well as about everything that was going on in my own life at the same time, as I prepared to run my marathon. In truth, I'm a little uncomfortable with how honest I ended up being, but anything else would have felt wrong. I wrote months of diary entries. If I visited a lab or talked to a scientist I would make sure I sat down that evening to collect my thoughts on the meeting. If there was something I wanted to remember about my run on any particular day, I would write that down too. As I progressed through my research and my training, these entries came more easily to me and I found I was writing for myself as much as the magazine. What is included in the final story is just a fraction of what exists. Some of it has changed very little in the editing process, so it’s as raw as when it happened to me. In other parts, I’ve had to cut chunks of text or insert explanations, but everything that’s there actually happened and I'm pleased with the more intimate, more honest story that this way of writing has led me to tell.

In some ways, this was the easiest story I’ve ever written. In others, it was the hardest. 7,000 words – the longest single piece I’ve ever written – fell onto the page in a matter of two or three days, but they were all the result of long conversations, long hours spent reading or just thinking, long runs and, although no blood was shed, real sweat and tears. It was an epic task. And at the same time I was going through a really hard time in my personal life. I didn't want to talk about that too much in the story, but the story itself was personal so it was impossible to ignore completely, and there was a sense in which writing about it helped.

Anyway, enough. I'm finishing with one diary entry I really wanted to include, but that didn't fit anywhere in the story. It’s just a personal anecdote about running and it’s exactly as I wrote it when it happened – no editing – but I like the way I contrasted all the drudge and the hardship of training for a marathon with the feelings of purpose and satisfaction. There’s absolutely no science in it, but reading it again today, it made me wonder whether maybe doing science can be a bit like this too.
“On New Year’s Day, having slept - to the disbelief of [Mr Hayley] - through our Spanish neighbour’s noisy party, I rise at 10am, still full of sherry trifle, and start rummaging through drawers, searching out running tights and top. There’s no hangover to appease. On account of the 14-week countdown to marathon day, I celebrated with a sip of cava and a single gin and tonic. However, there’s still a soaking to be had. 
As I pad gently to my warm-up spot behind our block of flats, rain is already finding its way into my barely broken-in trainers. At least three or four times on my 15k plod, they fill with water as I trip through a puddle. Usually on an easy-paced run like this, I’d stick to grass, but today Durdham Downs is so soggy that I'm forced to tread the pavements. Tarmac may be more tiring on my calves and thighs but at least it provides something more than sludge for my feet to push against.
At some point on the run, I notice that I can hardly feel my legs and yet, going by my watch, I appear to be striding along at a decent enough pace. I don’t battle or grind against the wind and rain. I just endure it. And keep on. Still, by the time I reach the familiar flat of Sefton Park Road, around 14k, the cold has seeped into my very bones and my pace is tempered by the weight of all the water my clothes are holding. In the last 500m, I pass a yellow-clad man whose only discernible features in the pouring rain are a balding head and a smile. He sees my plight and shouts “Happy New Year!”. Cheered infinitely by this small act of goodwill I quicken my pace just enough to make the last kilometre my fastest and return home to stretch and pack my trainers with newspaper. The steaming hot shower and chicken pie that follow are simple but sublime reward.”
Oh, and also, if you liked this post or the story itself, please direct your enthusiasm at Arthritis Research UK.


Images by Lydia Goldblatt, originally for Mosaic magazine.

2 April 2014

Most of what I know about writing...

"Most of what I know about writing I've learned through running every day. These are practical, physical lessons. How much can I push myself? How much rest is appropriate - and how much is too much? How far can I take something and still keep it decent and consistent? ... How much should I be aware of the world outside, and how much should I focus on my inner world? To what extent should I be confident in my abilities, and when should I start doubting myself?"

Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, p81-82

24 February 2014

The one-handed writer

I'm going to keep this short because it's going to take me twice as long as it usually would to type it. After a weekend of excruciating pain and two hospital visits, I'm now a writer in the frustrating position of having only one hand to type with. I haven't lost the other one, but, for the moment at least, it amounts to the same thing.

An X-ray revealed no fracture. A series of movement-based tests found no nerve damage. But putting on a soft woollen glove feels like torture and Mr Hayley is currently having to tie my hair up for me, help me get my jeans on and off, and cut up my food. I've been given codeine for the pain but I don't want to take it because side effects include drowsiness and confusion. The current thinking is that I have some sort of damage to a tendon in my hand brought on by too much typing.

The solution: don't do any typing. I don't think the doctor understood my occupation.

Otherwise, I've been told I have to use my arms more when I'm typing, rather than relying solely on my fingers to do the work... And to modify my working situation through solutions that I'm supposed to locate myself via Google. But mainly, do as little typing as possible. Not an option when you have tens of thousands of words in articles to submit in the next few weeks. And a 60,000 word book due later this year. OH, AND YOU HAVE TO LOOK UP HOME-TREATMENT SOLUTIONS FOR TYPING INJURIES ON THE INTERNET.

So my plan for now is to get back to the basics of writing - with a pen, using my right hand (thankfully, my "dominant" hand, as the doctor put it). This way I only have to type up an article (one-handed) once everything's researched, written and self-edited. If anyone has any more helpful suggestions, please do tell.

31 January 2014

Calling occupants...

My brilliant friend Claire did the illustrations for our book. She kindly gave me one of the original sketches as a present. It turned out very differently in the published book (I think the text was a problem for foreign translations) but I secretly prefer this one. Mainly because of the Klaatu connection...


And here's the music to go with it...

30 January 2014

How to Survive a Plague

Forget Dallas Buyers Club - and Matthew McConaughey's astonishing weight loss - for a minute. I haven't seen it yet. It's probably very good. But there's another Oscar-nominated film about HIV/AIDS that everyone should see. I saw it last night at (newly community-owned) Cube Microplex and I'm still thinking about it.

How to Survive a Plague (2012) may sound like a zombie movie, but it's actually an incredibly moving and important documentary about HIV/AIDS activists' tireless efforts during the 80s and 90s to obtain the drugs that would ultimately keep them alive.


The film is pieced together, and brilliantly edited, from footage of activist meetings and demos, and news coverage. I'm ashamed to say that before watching it, I didn't know anything about the influence that ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) and TAG (Treatment Action Group) had on the development of the HIV/AIDS treatments that are available today. I'm glad I now know a little more. It's the most stunning example of what citizens can achieve by taking the principles and processes of science into their own hands. Activists used every resource available to them to learn about the drug development process, and to make it better. They took their fight to politicians and pharmaceutical companies and forced them to give them what they needed.

I would encourage everyone to see this film. It's not a feel good film. In parts, it's very difficult to watch. In one demonstration, activists carry the ashes of their loved ones to the White House and cast them on the lawn. Many of the activists died before the drugs that could have saved them became available. But director David France creates a beautiful balance of light and dark, contrasting harrowing hospital and funeral scenes with footage of family birthdays and activists stretching a giant condom over the home of senator Jesse Helms. Most of all, though, it's a story that needs to be told. Watch Dallas Buyers Club but also watch this.

22 January 2014

The parkrun paper

I've always thought someone should write a scientific paper on parkrun. Ever since I attended my first parkrun event at Ashton Court. Now someone has.

parkrun paper in Journal of Public Health
parkrun, the community-managed 5k running event that's been spreading to parks all over the UK, is perfectly set up for a scientific study. You have your participants (runners), your intervention (running) and your data (oodles of it, all neatly saved on the parkrun website). The data bit is what makes it really useful, especially as it's all open access. Unlike on Garmin Connect or Strava, where the data is all locked away behind runners' individual privacy settings, anyone can look up my parkrun stats. Runners' 5k times are posted every Saturday after the event, so it's pretty straightforward to chart progress over the course of, say, a year.

My own observations at the two parkruns in Bristol have led me to wonder: are these events having a genuine impact on people's health and general well-being? Aside from any improvements in fitness, there are the social aspects, the psychological benefits of being outdoors, etc etc. Do these things amount to a better quality of life for all? Or is parkrun only benefiting middle class people who already do enough exercise anyway? Well, the authors of this new paper seem to have had a good stab at addressing some of these questions, although I think it's important not to overstate the results.

In essence, yes, there seem to be genuine health and fitness benefits associated with regular parkrun attendance - particularly for people who might have been a bit out of shape to begin with. (It's worth reading the paper, which is not too technical, if you want the finer details). The results are based on improvements in parkrun participants' 5k times and age-graded scores, combined with answers to some simple questions about the perceived impact of parkrun on their health. I did note, though, that the researchers used each runner's first parkrun as an indicator of their "before" fitness. I wonder whether this overstates the difference between "before" and "after" as I would imagine most people - especially if they have never run in anything resembling a race before - would not go flat out at their first attempt. parkrun happens every week so I'd suggest someone's first run is just about testing the water and finding out if they want to do it again.

Then there's the question about who benefits. The study group is not a random sample of parkrunners - they're people who opted in after reading email newsletters, Twitter alerts, and so on. Arguably not a representative sample, since we don't know whether certain runners are more likely to sign up for a scientific study. For instance, would people who have benefited more from parkrun be more likely to sign up because they are super-interested and keep on top of all their parkrun emails? Still, let's look at the data available. Okay, so women and older people are well-represented, which is great, because other surveys show these groups are less active. However, people of low socioeconomic status are under-represented. The authors suggest two reasons for this: either parkrun doesn't attract people of low socioeconomic status, or it hasn't spread far enough yet, geographically, to reach these groups. (Given that parkruns tend to be based in large areas of green space, there's reason suspect people living in inner city areas can't get to them as easily or don't want to bother.)

I'm absolutely sure parkrun has real benefits for some people and I think those at parkrun HQ have got to be applauded for the concept, especially the community-mindedness, which I love. On the other hand, it's a shame if, as the authors of this study suggest, parkrun is "contributing to increased health inequalities in some areas"... It's a free event. If anything, it should be a means to *addressing* health inequalities. Something to think about. Anyway, I'd certainly be interested to see more research on parkrun and public health, tapping into that wealth of data they have and thinking about some of these problems in more depth.

4 September 2013

Feeding and caring for freelancers

It must be hard living with a freelance writer.

Mr Hayley: I was thinking of making risotto for dinner. What do you reckon?

Me: Hmmm?

Mr Hayley: Can you just stop looking at that for a minute? I'm making a risotto. What do you want in it?

Me: Did you know humans can regenerate their fingers?

Mr Hayley: [silence]

Me (clicking on new link): Huh! No way!

Mr Hayley: Right, I'm making this risotto. Did you post those forms for our passports?

Me: What? Oh no, sorry, I still had that script to write about serotonin. Actually, that was really interesting because...

Mr Hayley: But we live opposite a postbox!

Me: Can you stop talking for a bit? I'm trying to finish this article.

1 hour later

Mr Hayley: Are you going to come and eat this risotto?

Me (above sound of furious typing): Yep, just a minute.

Mr Hayley: It's getting cooooold!

5 mins later

Me: Sorry, I just had to get that done while it was in my head. This looks good. Wow, I'm hungry.

Mr Hayley: Did you have lunch today?

Me: Er, did I? Um... Did you put any fresh basil in this?

Mr Hayley: No...

Me: What about cheese?

Mr Hayley: Well...

Me: What's in it then? Just rice and butternut squash and stock?

Mr Hayley: And garlic.

Me: Why didn't you ask me? You know I make the best risottos.

While this is a characterisation, it's a pretty accurate one. Dear me, I'm awful. Carers of freelancers need some sort of support society of their own.

28 August 2013

The Big Questions

Questions. Questions, questions, questions. We ask ourselves questions all day long. Where did I put my car keys? (The same place I always put them, except I haven't looked hard enough.) When am I going to do the washing? (Tomorrow. Always tomorrow.) Shall I go to the Vietnamese supermarket and pick up all the ingredients for this delicious-looking noodle recipe? (No. I'm too hungry. I'll just make the same boring pasta dish I've already made twice in the last week.) When am I going to stop messing about on this blog and start preparing for the interview I've got to do in an hour? (Argh!)

You probably have more important questions on your mind. Scientists definitely do. Here are some of them, on the cover of the book (BOOK!) that I recently wrote with Mun Keat Looi and Colin Stuart:

I know what you're thinking. "Wow, Hayley has very manly hands." They're Mun Keat's.
Yay! Book!

I'm excited (and terrified) because it's the first book project I've worked on where I haven't been "just" editing or one of about 50 other authors. This is actually written by us - the three of us. And it was a total blast. I think I must have had some of the most existential conversations anyone has ever had over Skype while writing this book. There were a lot of in-jokes about robot butlers. And one particularly memorable back and forth about a bestiality reference... see chapter six.

Anyway, you can buy it "in all good book shops" from 12th September - or pre-order on Amazon now. Thanks to everyone at Carlton and at Watson, Little, for their help. And to Claire for the wonderfully playful illustrations. Worth buying just for those. I mean, you should buy it anyway. But the illustrations are *really* good.

11 June 2013

The preserve of professionals?

On citizen science, Muki Haklay writes:
"...by definition, citizen science can only exist in a world in which science is socially constructed as the preserve of professional scientists in academic institutions and industry because, otherwise, any person who is involved in a scientific project would simply be considered a contributor and, potentially, a scientist. ...[U]ntil the late 19th century, science was mainly developed by people who had additional sources of employment that allowed them to spend time on data collection and analysis. Famously, Charles Darwin joined the Beagle voyage, not as a professional naturalist but as a companion to Captain FitzRoy. Thus, in that era, almost all science was citizen science albeit mostly by affluent gentlemen and gentlewomen scientists."
It's an interesting point. What other elements of our society and culture do we consider the preserve of professionals? Am I a citizen athlete, citizen chef or citizen seamstress?

2 May 2013

Trust and citizen science

As communicators of science, we often talk about "trust" in scientists. Would the average member of "the public" trust a scientist to tell the truth - any more they would, say, a journalist, or a politician? The Ipsos MORI Trust Poll gives us an answer to this question. 83% would trust a scientist to tell the truth. Wow, trust in scientists is second only to doctors and teachers! Journalists (21%) and politicians (18%), meanwhile, languish at the bottom of the list.

(For the record, I think the idea of trusting someone to tell you the truth is a weird concept. The truth about what? Their expenses? Where all the bourbon biscuits went?)

Anyway, I've been doing some research on citizen science for a report I'm writing and have noticed a lot of references to trust cropping up. While the average member of the public supposedly places a lot of "trust" in scientists (I wonder if those who actually know any scientists score lower or higher...), it doesn't seem to work the other way. Scientists don't have much faith in members of the public. Or at least... even if they would trust them to own up to eating all the biscuits, they wouldn't trust them to do anything resembling scientific research.

Citizen science projects - like the Great Chicken Coop Stakeout or the South African Bird Atlas Project - use volunteers, sometimes on a mass scale, to carry out scientific surveys and monitoring. From what I've read, some scientists are skeptical about the quality of data emerging from these type of projects. This mistrust extends to policymakers, who are reluctant to use the data on the presumption that it is somehow faulty or unreliable.

Here's a post by John Gollan, a research fellow at the University of Technology, Sydney in which he explains that far from being of poor quality, data collected by citizen scientists is of similar quality to data collected by scientists and on occasion better.

The comments section provides food for thought. From Les McNamara:
"It is odd that a society can train volunteers to reliably perform first aid, fight fires and provide care to needy and vulnerable people, but that same society can't trust volunteers to count birds. Scientific snobbery?"

Clearly all scientists do not hold the same view - Les is a researcher himself. But why mistrust data collected by volunteers, who after all are just PEOPLE. Like scientists, remember? We are all PEOPLE with the same foibles. In general, volunteers taking part in citizen science projects are not being asked to follow complex scientific protocols, so why should they be expected to make mistakes? If a project is well-designed in the first place (most are designed by scientists themselves) and the volunteers are properly briefed, the risk of bias should be the same as for any ol' science project. Here's Gollan:

"It should not be a case of blaming the citizens. The scientist behind such programs should have checks in place – citizen science project or otherwise!"