Category: running

Review: ‘Eat Sweat Play: How Sport Can Change Our Lives’ by Anna Kessel

Review: ‘Eat Sweat Play: How Sport Can Change Our Lives’ by Anna Kessel

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Sport’s for everyone . . . isn’t it?

Society has led us to believe that women and sport don’t mix. But why? What happens to the young girls who dare to climb trees and cartwheel across playgrounds?

In her exploration of major taboos, from sex to the gender pay gap, sports journalist Anna Kessel discovers how sport and exercise should play an integral role in every sphere of our modern lives.

Covering a fascinating range of women, from Sporty Spice to mums who box and breastfeed, Eat Sweat Play reveals how women are finally reclaiming sport, and by extension their own bodies, for themselves – and how you can too.

I’ve had a bit of a mixed relationship with sport over the years.  I wasn’t a super sporty child and I hated PE lessons at school.  Be it cross country running around a field in gym knickers in the freezing cold in winter or being forced to attempt high jump while 30 of your peers look on, there was nothing about it that inclined me towards engaging.  Fast forward a few years and I love to exercise.  I actually enjoy exercise, and that is something that 14 year old me would never have imagined saying. I imagine that anybody who ever tried to teach me a sport would imagine it even less. What’s unnerving is how accurately Kessel writes about women just like me, women who aren’t “just not sporty” but who aren’t engaged in fitness and activity in the right way early in life.

…if you fail a woman at any stage of her doing sport or do exercise, she’ll rarely have the confidence to go back and try again

Maybe sport is different for young people now but would it have killed the PE teachers of my youth to let us teenage girls know that sport isn’t all hand-eye coordination, public embarrassment or being the biggest, fastest or strongest? Lining up groups of young people and having others pick their favourites for teams is awful for most; lining up groups of young people for a bit of zumba is fun.  Teaching girls about calories and exercise is valuable of course but perhaps less valuable than engendering in women a love of being active, of not caring how you look and just having fun. I personally hate playing team sports and I hate anything competitive (the pressure!). I do, however, love running by myself, listening to music and feeling like I could do anything. I love challenging myself at progressively harder gym classes because they clear my head like nothing else. Like Kessel, I’m convinced now more than ever that PE lessons at school should be about helping everybody find something that they enjoy and giving them time to do it. She’s a wonderfully relatable writer and her chatty tone is perfect for this type of book because it stops it sounding preachy.

There were sections of Eat Sweat Play that were less relevant to me personally, dealing with sport during pregnancy and getting back into exercise when you have a young child for example, but even those were engaging and there were some really interesting points about what we’re taught to think about the female body that maybe I’ll revisit in the future when they are more relevant. If I have a gripe, it’s that the writing started to feel a little repetitive towards the end. There are so many examples of women who have braved events they were banned from just to prove that women could do what men could or women who are continuing to defy social conventions to fight for girls’ rights to just run and they’re fabulous to read about but in the end, they’re included to illustrate the same point.  It’s a point that I wholeheartedly agree with but the same one nonetheless.  I found that not trying to read it cover to cover helped.  It took me four months to read Eat Sweat Play but that way meant that I could really enjoy it.

Whenever I picked up Eat Sweat Play, it made me want to get out and do something active. It’s inspiring and I genuinely think that women who think they hate exercise could read this and be motivated to try something that they’ve always wanted to give a go but haven’t for whatever reason. I felt like such a wally the first time I went for a run out in public but having done it anyway and survived gives me confidence in myself that I carry into classes that I’ve never tried before, to just say to an instructor “I’ve never done this before” and trust them not to laugh me out of the room.  Kessel acknowledges that modern women are short of time or labouring under a feeling that they must always look presentable and isn’t at all patronising or trying to make you feel guilty if you don’t fancy exercise all of the time. She’s just trying to empower those who do want to give something a try, be that learning to run, box or just do a forward roll, and I love her for it.

It’s time for women the world over to reconnect with our bodies. To reclaim them from a life of obsessing about thigh gaps and bingo wings. To remember that our bodies are there to have fun with, to enjoy. And to make sure that we learn these lessons before it’s too late, before we are physically infirm and looking back over our lives wishing we’d tried wild swimming, or netball, or trampolining, wondering what it might have been like to body slam someone on a rugby pitch, or learn how to throw a real punch. What are we waiting for?

Overall:  The older I get, the more I find myself identifying as a feminist. Eat Sweat Play is such a timely book, released at a time when I do really feel as though there’s a shift in the way women see themselves. Kessel acknowledges that it’s ok to actually like make-up and wearing dresses and that doing that doesn’t make you any less of a feminist; it’s about choice. She has written a book that absolutely sums up how I feel about so many things and I adored it.


Pictured edition published by Pan Macmillan in July 2017

Date finished: 15 March 2018

Source: Bought

Read with: Running Like a Girl by Alexandra Heminsley


Review: ‘Running Away’ by Robert Andrew Powell

Rating:  2 out of 5 stars
When journalist Robert Andrew Powell finished his first marathon, he cried, cradled in his father’s arms. Long distance runners understand where those tears come from, even if there are others who will never understand what drives someone to run 26.2 consecutive miles in a grueling mental and physical test. Powell’s emotional reaction to completing the race wasn’t just about the run, though. It was also about the joy and relief of coming back up after hitting rock bottom. Running Away is the story of how one decision can alter the course of a life. Knocked down by a painful divorce and inspired by his father, Powell decided to change his mindset and circumstances. He moved to Boulder and began running in earnest for the first time in his life. Over the 26.2 chapters that follow, Powell grapples with his past relationships, gaining insight and hard-won discipline that give him hope for the future.
There are many books languishing on my “to be reviewed” pile that I should be writing about but I’m letting Running Away muscle in both because if I wait until its proper turn, it’ll be a long time after I’ve run the Great North Run and won’t be nearly as relevant and because I have some grumbles that I’d like to air. 
The general reason I don’t read memoirs is that there are few people whose lives I am genuinely interested in.  I like watching films as much as the next person but I have little to no interest in the lives of the actors in them.  The people whose lives I am interested in are usually significant figures whose autobiographies are so long, I just can’t contemplate reading them until I have a long stretch of time off (like, retirement long).  The Long Walk to Freedom, that includes you.  The point being: I don’t usually read memoirs/autobiographies and Running Away has only served to reinforce the reasons why.
It’s difficult to say why I so disliked Running Away without being insulting to the author, which I suppose is an inherent difficulty in writing review of memoirs (and another reason to steer clear of them in the future!).  I’ll try and stick to the facts.  Robert Powell cheated on his wife with her friend, left and subsequently divorced said wife, lost a not particularly lucrative job in journalism, cashed in on his 401(k) (which seems to be the equivalent of what we’d refer to as a pension in the UK?) and, rather than trying to find a new job or pursue something that he enjoys, moves to Boulder, Colorado (which is apparently popular with runners) to pursue a hobby that he doesn’t like just because his father was good at it.
I could have got over the fact that I have nothing in common with a cheating middle-aged man lacking in both ambition and direction if the book had focussed on running in the way that the title and cover implied that it might.  If you’ve looked at the cover and read the blurb and, like me, have thought, “Hey – I like running and I like to read other runners’ stories, I’ll pick this up”, think again.  Much as it might like to be, Running Away is not really about running.  There are some snippets about running and about famous runners and various races across America but it’s told by a man that doesn’t actually like running.  Which is an odd tone because I imagine that the target audience are people that do like running.  I wanted to be inspired and buoyed up through my final month of training, not reminded of how sometimes running makes your legs/back/everything hurt and that leaving the house super early to squeeze in runs even on a Saturday isn’t always the best.
I’m sorry (really) but I completely lack the capacity to feel any kind of sympathy for someone who cheats, squanders a college (university) education that he was privileged enough to have, seemingly can’t be bothered to even apply for a job but feels entitled to moan about being single, living in slightly unpleasant sounding accommodation and not having any money.  I also can’t get behind someone who (sorry again!) comes across as quite selfish.  Without that sympathy (or even empathy, really), I struggled.  When Powell arrives in Boulder, he doesn’t know anybody but is taken in by a wonderful sounding running club full of people who really are passionate about the sport.  Not only do these people welcome him into their group sessions, one man commits himself to training Powell and spends what sounds like hours trying to encourage Powell, providing support when he was at a low point and generally trying to share his love of running so that another man can reach his goal.  All for little to no thanks because Powell has taken up a hobby he doesn’t like and drags his heels about it when given half a chance.  This is becoming a rant, isn’t it?  Bottom line is: if other people give up even an hour of their free time to support you in achieving something, gratitude is in order. If people do that over a long period of time, serious gratitude is in order.  Don’t throw it in their faces by lounging around and moaning about the thing they’re trying to support you in doing.  And especially don’t then write about how much you hated the time that they spent trying to do you a favour.
The problem with my moaning is that it isn’t so much about Running Away as a book but Powell.  Putting aside the fact that I skim read large sections of the book to avoid becoming even more irate about cheating/lethargy/negativity, the writing was ok.  There were times when I found the tenses to be a bit confused and the writing to be a bit repetitive but otherwise it was ok.  Definitely not strong enough to carry the lacklustre tone, though, so still worthy of reasonable complaint.  I think some strong editing would be improve things no end.
So the writing was just acceptable, the author has made some dubious decisions and I imagine is difficult to get behind for a lot of people and the book isn’t particularly inspirational and it isn’t half as hopeful as the blurb would imply, largely because of the general hatred of running that seeps out.  I finished it only because I wanted to see whether the author achieved their goal but did I enjoy it?  In case it isn’t already clear by now: no.  No, I did not.
Overall:  No prizes for guessing that I don’t recommend Running Away.  If you run and hate it but really are committed to still doing it and want someone whose unhappiness you can share, maybe this is the book for you.  If you run and like it?  Skip it.  Trust me when I say that it’ll only make you grumpy.
Date finished: 04 August 2014
Format: eBook
Source:  Bought
Genre: Autobiography/Memoir; Running
Pictured edition published: by New Harvest in April 2014

Review: ‘Running Like a Girl’ by Alexandra Heminsley

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Alexandra had high hopes: the arse of an athlete, the waist of a supermodel, the speed of a gazelle. Defeated by gyms and bored of yoga, she decided to run. 

Her first attempt did not end well. Six years later, she has run five marathons in two continents. But, as her dad says, you run with your head as much as with your legs. So, while this is a book about running, it’s not just about running. You could say it’s about ambition (yes, getting out of bed on a rainy Sunday morning counts), relationships (including talking to the intimidating staff in the trainer shop), as well as your body (your boobs don’t have to wobble when you run). But it’s also about realising that you can do more than you ever thought possible. 

Very funny, very honest, and very emotional, whether you’re in serious training or thinking about running for the bus, this is a book for anyone who after wine and crisps for supper a few too many times thinks they might…just might…like to run like a girl.


“Lacing up and leaving the house is the hardest moment of any run. You never regret it once you are en route”

If you spend longer than half an hour in my company these days, the odds are excellent that I will mention running at some point. I’m also likely to mention that I’m loving it and that I whole-heartedly believe that exercise is the only way I’m avoiding becoming all balled up with stress as a result of the 10 hour plus days I usually work..  The thing I probably won’t tell you (even though I really should) is that Running Like A Girl is in no small part responsible for getting me back to pounding the pavement with such enthusiasm.  Thank goodness Ellie Lit Nerd recommended it!

On the face of it, Running Like a Girl is “just” a running memoir; a book full of tales of the trials and tribulations faced by one woman as she starts out running, completes her first marathon and battles down a few more milestone runs.  Two things make it different.  The first is that Alexandra Heminsley isn’t a professional runner recycling inspirational but slightly unrealistic material about how there’s a runner inside all of us and we just need to focus on a goal and write down a plan and blah blah blah; she started out running as an adult with no experience and recounts what she’s been through in a self-deprecating (and very funny) manner.  When I read it, I was still bearing the vestiges of an injury and I was dying to put my trainers back on and get running.

One of the things I love the most about Running Like a Girl is that it neither makes light of running nor makes it seem like something only “real” athletes can do.  Running is completely accessible and can feel liberating; a good run on a bright day (with a light breeze, ideally) makes me feel proud and healthy and on top of the world.  For every one of those runs, though, there are probably two hard ones where I’m tired or haven’t drunk enough water or it’s raining in my face or it’s super hot and I’m sweating all over the place (the latter being less frequent in Yorkshire but still…) and keeping running is hard.  I love that Heminsley admits that running isn’t always a glorious activity that has us all bounding around happily with neat hair and pleasantly rosy cheeks and that not everybody is a natural runner (if there even is such a thing) but that, regardless of how much of a hot mess we might look while we’re mid-run, it’s totally worth it.  Because even with the stories of the falling off toe nails and the inconvenient calls of nature, Running Like a Girl makes running sound like the best thing you could ever do with your spare time.   

It’s perfect reading for anybody that is either starting out running, wants to start out running, is getting back into running or has even just lost the love a little bit.  There’s just so much to identify with if that’s the angle you’re reading from – like the nerves of the early runs and the utter certainty that people are looking at you and noticing how much of a plonker you look .  Every question you never wanted to ask but are the things that you really want to know.  I, for example, have quite long hair that will not sit neatly in a bun or a plait while I run and will whip me in the face with unnecessary vigour if it’s in a ponytail – enter Alexandra Heminsley and the plait that has a bobble at the top and bottom.  Genius.

Amongst the humour of the early chapters are more intense ones of Heminsley’s marathon experiences.  The chapter about her first marathon actually made me cry.  I couldn’t even really tell you why except that it so perfectly evoked the harrowing experience that I felt completely involved.  It’s funny, it’s completely charming and has chapters like the one covering the “myths” about running that I’ll dip back into again and again, I expect.  I hear a lot of things like, “Oh I don’t run because it’s bad for your knees/shins/hips/other random joint or bone”.  I don’t know the science (although I do need to bone up (haha) on it so that I can start to refute these comments properly) but I do know that I’ve been lucky enough not to suffer an injury while running that was attributable to the actual act of running (I do have a teeny scar on my right hip from where I clipped an iPod mini onto my leggings during a half marathon that somehow managed to get stuck to my skin and was pulled off over-enthusiastically in a post-race haze but that was really down to my own stupidity and running can’t be blamed…).  It’s good to know that I haven’t been deluding myself and engaging in an activity that is trying to kill me.

So it’s fun to read, it’s inspiring and it’s practical.  What more could you possibly want?!

Overall:  What I’m saying (obviously) is that if you’ve ever even half-fancied running, I honestly can’t recommend Running Like a Girl enough.  Heck, read it even if you despise running with every fibre of your being but want to achieve something that requires commitment and hard work and that others might be sceptical about but that you believe that you can do.  Read it and get the kick up the bum you never knew you needed.

Please don’t blame me when you’ve read it all in one go and signed up for a marathon, though.

Date finished: 30 March 2014
Format: Paperback
Source: Bought
Genre: Non-fiction; sports
Pictured edition published: by Windmill Books in January 2014