PH balance.

It is often only once you are clear of an experience that you are able to recall it for what it was, as a whole, and with absolute joy. That is how I feel about backpacking around the Philippines with Clarissa. It was the best of times, and then, for a little tiny bit, it was the worst of times. Now we are back and everything is in order and it is the best of times again.

We flew overnight from Heathrow to Hong Kong and then on to Cebu airport. The Philippines is made up of over seven-thousand islands. We had two weeks. We would have to island hop at a rate of five hundred islands a day if we were going to do them all.
Q: How big does a bit of land have to be before it is an island?
A: It can still be smaller than a football pitch or an extra-large pizza.

Cebu City is nothing to write home about, except that is exactly what I am doing, so I guess I have to. In the way that The Beautiful South sing that it could be Rotterdam or anywhere, Liverpool or Rome, Cebu City could be anywhere, anywhere alone. It’s tall and it’s dirty and there are enough air-conditioned 7Eleven stores for all the backpacking white kids to get their toasted sandwiches and bottles of Hooch. We stayed in a hostel that seemed to be entirely populated by muscly guys in backwards caps and nip-slip inducing vests and their bleach-blonde, cup-of-tea-tanned girlfriends. They all talked the same way and had no idea about anything. It was quite nice to sit and listen to idiots. I hadn’t done so in hours.

We slept in bunk beds, using our towels as bedding and were up early the next morning to get down to the ferry port to try to make it to somewhere more interesting. Somehow we failed to get the ferry we wanted, to Dumaguete, and wound up waiting out the next one to Bohol by having breakfast in a local café. We swatted flies away and elected to sit at the table in front of the fan so we could attempt to survive in the humid new world we had found ourselves in. Brunch was an omelette and a delicious sparkling lemonade called Sparkle.

The ferry from Cebu to the Talagaban port on Bohol took under three hours. We took the cheap seats up on deck and somehow I managed to sleep, awaking to find my neck stiff and in need of WD40. We didn’t know anything about Bohol, having left our Lonely Planet in the company of an illustrated guide to the films of Wes Anderson and a signed copy of Simon Pegg’s Nerd Do Well. That was thousands of miles away on my bookshelf. We decided we would just follow the crowds.

When we got off the ferry, the taxi drivers kept asking us if we wanted a ride to Alona Beach. If that was where everyone else was going then we figured we might as well. We took a forty-minute trike ride across the beautiful island to the Tip Top hotel (that was the name of it, not the conditions in which we were treated) and we swam in their pool and wandered down to the beach in search of dinner as the sun set. I was mercilessly attacked by mosquitos as we sat with beers and vodka and pizza and pasta, hardly the veg and rice combo we were expecting of our trip. Afterwards we hit some of the bars along the beach and Clarissa took it upon herself to name all of the feral cats and homeless dogs we spotted. We were offered tattoos, massages, tequila and who knows what else. We decided to take up the offer to go on a tour around the island but when we got to the tourist office, drunk, they told us they were closed and we needed to come back in the morning. We booked another night at Tip Top and fell asleep despite the buzz of the air conditioner.

The next morning we joined all the other white people in Bohol on a mini bus tour. We thought we had just signed up to go to the Chocolate Hills but actually got a lot more for the £8 each that we paid.

The Chocolate Hills are worth the trip, a series of alien-looking mounds in the middle of nowhere. It’s a bit of a tourist trap but you have to expect extreme ends of the spectrum in the Philippines. We rode for two hours, with a brief stop to try and sell us tickets to see the biggest python in Bohol, before we got there. We trekked up two-hundred steps to parry away selfie sticks. It was hot and we were closer to the sun and arguably, to God.
Once you’ve got “the shot”, there’s not really an awful lot else to do, and the turnaround for viewing the Chocolate Hills is close to that of reheating a casserole.

Our next stop was a bamboo bridge. It looked cool but the tips of our flip flops got caught in the loose, woven reeds. Locals overtook us while casting the stink eye and I wondered if we were supposed to stand on the right like the escalators on the underground.

We took a river cruise with lunch. Our meals were limited by our decision to become vegetarian. There was a buffet, from which I was able to get some rice, noodles and fried vegetables. Everything else was dead animals. I also ate some watermelon, which may have just been a garnish. We were served iced tea while a pair of tiny Filipino girls who had taken both barrels of a shotgun loaded with make up to the face played covers of Ed Sheeran and The Carpenters through a blown speaker. The sun beat down on the green of the river and I watched a group of boys fishing off the bow. We pulled up alongside another barge where children danced and played ukuleles and their masters made international gestures for “give us your money now”.

Our next stop was a church or museum that we refused to go into in case we instantly burst in flames. It was worth taking the trip to see what was on offer. Bohol was cute but there were still a lot of other places we wanted to see. We didn’t want to get stuck in one place.

We booked a flight from Cebu to Puerto Princesa and arranged a car to pick us up at five in the morning so we could be at the port in time. We went back to the beach and tried to explain vegetarianism to a waitress before being served anchovies. We looked like fussy and preposterous idiots. We got a buzz from buy-one-get-one-free cocktails in a reggae bar.

The next morning we got up, got dressed and headed to the port. We slept on the ferry as terrible karaoke versions of even worse songs played loudly on the static-blessed TV above the seating area. We woke up in Cebu. It was eight in the morning and we didn’t have anywhere to go or anywhere we needed to be until our flight that afternoon. We decided to go and get breakfast in the mall and ended up stuck there all day.

For some people, the idea of being trapped inside a shopping centre for a full day is the stuff of dreams. I am not one of those people. We spent the first two hours sucking Wi-Fi up in the “Travel Centre”, a weird corridor with USB sockets and showers. We then sat in a supermarket café drinking watermelon-heavy tropical juice drinks full of pulp, sap and pips. The mall opened and people threw themselves under the up-rolling barriers like there was a 50% off sale on weird behaviour. We explored everywhere before realising we should have taken a bit longer about it. We searched for breakfast and ended up chewing mushrooms and eating garlic-coated spinach with noodles and iced tea.

We watched the Cebu chess competition and then booked tickets to see Guardians Of The Galaxy 2. That’s what you do when you’re in Asia right? Go to the cinema? The film was great. I only cried a bit.

Afterwards I needed to replenish vital liquids I had lost because of my stupid feelings so went to Starbucks, refuge of the white person travelling. Our barista was very excited that we were from England. I told her I was in Harry Potter and she gave us the Wi-Fi password. I went to the bathroom and two small boys mimed playing basketball which I think was a comment on my height. I felt like I was Gulliver on his travels. The people of the Philippines are very small.

We got a taxi to the airport and had to switch out layers of clothing to make sure our bags, which were small enough for carry on, were under the weight limit. 60% off my bag was taken up with snorkels. We didn’t need an awful lot else.

I was amazed at how quickly we were out of the terminal on the other side. We literally walked out the door. From there we took a trike to our hostel to change for dinner. The driver proudly told us that there was a new international airport opening that week.

We tried to book the underwater cave tour of Puerto Princesa, the only reason we were in town. We were told we would not be able to do so until the following day. We decided to go out for food and plot our next step. We got a trike back to the centre of town, which was a crossroads. There was a loud tiki bar and very little else. We ended up back at the restaurant next to our hostel, trying to explain that we didn’t eat meat, or fish. We were then offered crab. The plus side was that the beers were cheap.

We decided we would get out of Puerto Princesa, and head north to El Nido. We had been told it was full of tourists. What difference would we make? The difficulty was in getting there. It was about six hours away by road and we had no transport. We managed to book a minibus for the next morning. I should have realised that for the price there was no way it was a private hire. I think we paid 2,000 pesos (£30.00) for the privilege.

The following morning we were up, packed and ready before 9am. We had our complimentary breakfast of eggs and coffee before waiting for our lift. They were late. I sometimes forget that not everybody is as uptight about time keeping as I am.

Eventually we were all loaded into the van. We drove for fifteen minutes before stopping at some kind of human filling station where every other seat was given up to a butt. We sat there for half an hour, without the engine and the air conditioning running, while women in rags offered us bags of apples, waiting for our driver to be ready. We drove for a couple of hours, long enough for me to fall asleep. It was raining when I woke up. We pulled under a wooden awning. Water ran along gutters and splashed down heavily in designated areas. Motorcyclists pulled in to attempt to dry off. In the tradition of Asian people wearing t-shirts with random English phrases on them, one of the motorists had Damp on his shirt.

We continued on. Eventually the rain stopped. We dropped some people off. We picked up some more people. The average number in the car remained the same. We pushed rice paddies and farmland and headed up into  tight mountain passes before coming back down the other side and into El Nido.

The driver let us off and pointed roughly in the direction of our guesthouse. Either someone else’s luggage or the rain had soaked through Clarissa’s bag. As soon as we got to our room she had to unpack everything and hang it outside. There were crosses on the walls and psalms in wooden frames. The Wi-Fi password was JESUSCHRIST (All capital letters-no space). I waited to burst into flame.

We walked to town. There were beautiful bronzed people in vests and flip flops everywhere. Some were drunk. Some had accents. There were stalls and bars and a beach. We explored. We bought spring rolls and pasta and pizza from a restaurant on the beach. We had cocktails and beers and decided to get a trike out to the other beach to watch the sunset. We got a lift with a man who told us his name was Police. He looked like Rufio from Hook. He said we would wait for us. There were thousands of trikes everywhere. I doubted I would ever see him again.

We climbed down to the beach, had beers, swam in the sea and the sun went down. This was what travelling was supposed to be about. I felt more relaxed than before. When we got to the top again, Police/Rufio was waiting. We got a lift back to town and decided to get blind drunk.

We had every cocktail on the menu. We ended up at some hideous Ladies Night at a bar on the beach. I remember scowling at someone who told me to smile. I remember dancing like Vincent Vega in Jackrabbit Slims. I remember shouting in someone’s face about Bohol. The next thing I knew I was back in the guesthouse and my head was spinning and there was Jesus Christ on the wall and JESUSCHRIST in the Wi-Fi and I was being sick. Clarissa joined me. We yin-yanged over the bowl and she passed out on the floor. I went to bed and returned to be sick moments later, stepping over her unconscious body. I repeated this four or five times and then passed out. I woke up and threw up in the sheets. Clarissa was in bed. She told me to go to the bathroom. Women make a lot of sense.

The following morning the phone rang and broke my mind. When I picked up the receiver I was told that breakfast had been served. I put the phone down and passed out again. Half an hour later there was a knock at the door and our breakfasts had been put on the table outside, surrounded by Clarissa’s clothes that were still drying. We stumbled into the light and I slowly forked pancakes This was holidaying. We decided we should probably leave. We checked into another guesthouse up the road and took our hangovers to the beach.

We all know that it is important to stay hydrated. My friend Emma shouted “hydrate or die” at me for a week while we were in the Sahara desert. I am going to blame the hangover for the fact we walked the length of the beach before settling down under some palm trees. I swam in the sea, snorkelled for a bit and then stretched out to tan up. The next thing I knew I was burnt. I was burnt and dizzy and still hungover and very thirsty. We hobbled back until we found a café to get some food. My legs started to change colour. My back did the same. It turns out that spending a long time floating face down in the water like a corpse does wonders for tanning. We eventually headed back to our guesthouse and I napped until the evening. I started to feel really ill, worse than the hangover. I still don’t know if it was the hangover or food poisoning or good old fashioned sunstroke but the next few days went by in a blur. I couldn’t get up or do anything. My stomach hurt and I lost my appetite and I got really pathetic and needed my mummy.

Clarissa had to tell me I was being pathetic a number of times before we were able to move past it. We decided we needed a change of scenery so checked into Double Gem, a place that was at least three times more expensive than anywhere else we stayed in the Philippines. For that price, a young man carried my bag to my room and there was a complimentary toothbrush. We relaxed in the pool and heard the most hilarious exchange.
A couple swam past us. I presume they were a couple but he was clearly gay. It’s difficult to tell. A lot of Filipino men seem to be gay. Kind of like the British. As if they wanted it to become a hilarious anecdote, he turned to her and said “How are you feeling? Still itchy?”
We looked at each other incredulously. She looked at him in horror. We have repeated it as a catchphrase every day since.

The next day, with my head clear and my bottom no longer a risk, we headed out on an island hopping tour. Not only did we have to pay over the odds for the trip because we were staying in a swanky pad, but we also had to pay a Riverboat Fee for pollution or something. Watch out for that. We were joined by a Filipino mother and daughter, a guy from the US and a young German couple, who may or may not have had a Fritzl-like relationship. I couldn’t possibly say.

We headed to another beach. There were palm trees. There were a lot of boats and therefore a lot of people. I tried snorkelling but was constantly worried about coming up only to be smashed in the head by a passing boat. It was like something out of a Hollyoaks episode. The next beach was teaming with people. Some couldn’t swim and kept their life jackets on, even when sat on the sand. All around of us, young locals tried to take selfies. A couple of them tried to sneakily take photos with us. It’s the most obvious thing in the world. I hadn’t experienced anything like it since Peru. Eventually we conceded and posed for these photos. We then wondered what they possibly did with them. What was the point of having photos of white people?

Somehow the crew were able to put together lunch for the seven of us using just whatever they had on the boat. Of this, we ate rice and mango. The fruit was so good that I couldn’t have wanted for anything else. I followed it up with cup after cup of Coke. Why does Coke taste so much better when you’re overseas? That’s rhetorical. It’s because they don’t have to abide by our silly laws on the contents of fizzy drinks.

Having filled our bellies they let us back on before we jetted off again. Five minutes later we pulled in beside a cliff, they lowered the ladder and we had to swim to the next bay as there were so many other boats. The cliff right-angled and we followed it in. There was a small opening in the rock face that people were crawling through. This was the Secret Lagoon. With scraped knees and banged heads we made our way inside. There were sheer walls all around us and a small bay where people safely paddled in water up to their knees. We queued to come back out again. It wasn’t all that secret and it wasn’t all that exciting.

We snorkelled with fish drawn to the boat by the leftovers that the crew threw over the side. Clarissa was overwhelmed by the numbers of fish. She has a thing about creatures that flap – butterflies and pigeons and the like. It turns out that the thought of the fish touching her was too much. She quickly got back on the boat.

We were dropped off at the north end of El Nido where there are great chasms and rocks to kayak in and around. I let Clarissa sit up front and steer. We only collided with one other boat before we worked out what to do. After that we were an Olympic-grade rowing team. We swapped over and she commented on how the skin on my back was falling from me like carved meat from an illuminated kebab van. My legs were peeling too.
Kayaking was great. By the end of it the pair of us had decided we would invest in one when we got home and take it out in the Estuary. People talk bollocks when they’re on holiday, don’t they…

We got back on the boat and stopped in another bay. We all went swimming, including the Fritzl girl and the two Filipino women. After a couple of minutes I heard one of them screaming and flailing. Without a thought for my own safety I swam over and held her up while the crew found their way over. I thought I had saved the day. It turned out that her legs had stopped working which is not a real malady. She was in a life vest as well. It really put some perspective on the ridiculous things I panic about.

We got back to our shore. There were crabs and starfish in the crystal clear water. We picked up our bags and headed onto the next place to stay. I felt a bit like a hermit crab, constantly crawling along in the sand with a pack on my bag, searching for somewhere shady, my tiny bug eyes and pincers scanning the immediate area.

We found a place right by town which meant we could go out for another dinner I couldn’t stomach before getting back in time for Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation and Minority Report. The trip was a real lesson in the works of Tom Cruise. He’s made some great films but there’s something deeply unnerving about him.

We took another internal flight, back to Cebu. We got a ride to Moalboal to spend the rest of our days in peace. The rest of our holiday I mean. We got a privately hired minibus with a cool driver called Benjie. He let us stop for snacks and sang along to the radio as we lazily dozed. He offered us a lift back in three days time, when we would be heading back to Cebu to fly home. It seemed like a good idea and we gave him a deposit which Clarissa said we would never see again.

We were in Moalboal for one reason, Kawasan Falls, the famed canyoneering site everyone heads to. We checked into yet another place and realised we didn’t have any food. The resort didn’t offer anything aside. We found a weird German/Filipino hybrid restaurant. Yes, that’s a thing. It was a hut with the feel of a German beer hall. They served schnitzel and bratwurst and pad Thai and chicken abodo. We had chips. The glamorous life of a vegetarian.

The following morning we had another breakfast of eggs and got a lift to the Falls. We were given helmets, life jackets and contracts to sign before being loaded onto the back of a motorbike and driven up into the mountains. I hadn’t been on the back of a motorbike since I was a kid. It filled me with a renewed sense that I needed to learn how to ride. Another promise to myself that would seem empty once I got home. We were dropped off and had to walk through the jungle and to the falls. I instantly forgot our guide’s name and called him mate for the rest of the day.

It was one of the best experiences we had. The scenery was beautiful, beams of light breaking through the canopy of trees overhead as you wonder about safety and exactly how far thirty-five foot is.
The key thing is learning how to fall with style. It took Clarissa taking a tumble on our second jump before our guide decided to teach us that you simply stepped off with one foot and then used the other to push you away from the edge. There’s a lovely GIF of the fall somewhere.

We returned to our new accommodation, next door to the original, battered and bruised and ready for food and sleep. We ate very well while we were in Moalboal, everywhere had something we could eat.

We took another boat tour out around the islands and saw the sardine runs and a sea turtle being hassled by locals. There’s something incredibly freeing about snorkelling and watching nature. I could have stayed below the waterline forever.

We spent our last day chilling by the pool and trying to remember exactly how we were supposed to function in the real world. It turned out that our driver got a better offer so sent someone in his place. Someone who turned up fifty minutes late. After sitting in traffic for two hours we arrived at Cebu airport to be told we had missed our flight. We then had to sleep in the airport hotel before booking onto the flight out the next day. We then missed the connecting flight out of Hong Kong. It took us fifty-five hours to get home. Those were the worst of times.

Like I said, with all of that nonsense out of the way I can appreciate how incredible the trip was and how lucky I am to enjoy a place that is yet to be completely ruined by people just like me.

#3 – Run a marathon.

There are some things that made it onto my list of thirty things to do before I was thirty that were pure filler. Up there I would include Play Cluedo and Make a Baked Alaska, both of which I managed to do in a single, very successful, evening. There are others that have genuinely been something I thought I wanted to do. You know how sometimes, when you’re drunk, you’ll start randomly getting off with someone, and then you’ll have a moment of clarity where you wonder what the hell you are doing and who this person even is and whether their parents are rich and elderly. Imagine that for twenty-six miles. Congratulations, you’ve just imagined running a marathon.

I have entered the ballot for the London Marathon every year for at least the last five years. I always said that if I got a place then I would commit to it with my everything, that I would dig deep. That I would quit drinking and drunkenly casual smoking and that I would eat nothing but spinach and pasta and kale milkshakes. In October 2016 I found out that I had a place in the London Marathon 2017. With six months before the event I did what any sane person would do, I buried the congratulations letter under the pile of stuff I inexplicably keep on top of my microwave and developed a hernia the size of a hamster.

I put the deal-breaker that I had to get in on the ballot for a reason. Any old shmuck can get in on a charity place, you just have to be willing to raise £3k+ for said charity. That’s an awful lot of pressure. Imagine having to run twenty-six miles while wondering whether your overdraft is going to stretch to cover little Timmy’s dialysis machine because you didn’t bother to host a charity curry night. That’s too much pressure. I’ll stick to regular old pressure, like a car tyre or an aneurysm.

Once I was over the hernia (which was in no way linked to my wanton love of casual sex) I started to actually train. I ran. I ran a lot. I ran at weekends with hangovers the size of Swansea. I ran in the mornings when the South Bank was a fucking Home Alone death trap of ice and bitter child stars. I ran for trains and for buses and from my responsibilities. I even joined a gym and considered getting a FitBit.

I was spending all week at work and every weekend at Hide & Shriek writing Delectably Dead. We would stay up late working and goofing around on ChatRoulette and then I would get up the next morning and run fifteen miles before working on our next project. It was pretty full on but I was still drinking and still casually drunkenly smoking. I grew tired of running in the gym because it felt like I was getting absolutely nowhere (ha!). I now haven’t stepped foot in that gym in three months. The Direct Debit continues to come out. I am shamed.

I had a countdown on my calendar at work. I injured my ankle and I bought a new pair of running shoes. I started to notice that my thighs were physically pained when pushed into a pair of skinny jeans. I was getting stronger. My self-control however was getting weaker. Three days before the marathon I discovered the two pint glasses at a Kasabian gig and was hungover for the next two days. Then, I discovered it was marathon race day and I had to get my ass to Blackheath.

It is a weird and wonderful thing to take part in the marathon. The first thing I feel I should comment on is how serious people take it. I was taking it very seriously. I ate pasta for breakfast, that’s how serious I was about this marathon. The other thing that people take very seriously is a strategic poo. The queues for the loos were horrific and everyone smelt like Deep Heat and Lucozade tablets. There was someone attempting to brighten the mood by talking loudly over a tannoy and playing Let Me Entertain You. I wanted him dead. I had tried to read up on marathon etiquette. The key things seemed to be:
Cover your entire body in Vaseline. You will die otherwise
Don’t you dare eat fruit or vegetables. You will die otherwise.
Blackheath is very cold at eight in the morning. Bring clothes.
Be prepared to throw those clothes away because when you run you get hot
Actually, forget the coat, wear a bin bag. You can rip out of it like a trashy lithe Hulk when you start jogging.
Don’t listen to music when you’re running. You will die otherwise.
Run with music because listening to people is awful.
Don’t talk to anyone.
Don’t take sweets from strangers.
Don’t drink water. It contains invisible eels that are poisonous.
Pain is just your toenails leaving your body.

I only made some of these up.

I was really nervous about running the marathon. I knew I hadn’t done anywhere near the distance in training. The most I had clocked up in a single sesh was fifteen miles. I know that’s a lot but it still left eleven glorious miles of undiscovered torture ahead of me. I was once told that running longer than ten miles is just causing damage to your body. That’s sixteen lovely miles of damage per marathon.

I started and there was this incredible roar from the crowd. I ripped through the binbag like a T-Rex on acid and realised  I had nothing to be nervous about. It was just running. I knew how to do running. I had been running for years. Running is easy. It’s paying bills and toeing the line that’s difficult. I put my music on. I had put together a brilliant playlist called I Just Started Running. It was Biffy Clyro and Black Keys exclusively. I was sure that I could listen to Biffy Clyro and Black Keys exclusively for four hours. They had been my go to bands when training. I could do this. I could bloody run the marathon.

After a couple of miles I realised how incredibly dull that bit of London is. The crowds were small and a bit boring looking. I did like high-fiving the kids who reached over the barriers with their tiny outstretched hands. I stopped for a bottle of water. I had been denying myself a proper drink because I didn’t want to get too much liquid in me. This would make me heavy and need to wee all the time. Also, don’t people die from drinking too much water? Is that a thing? I feel like it’s something people on Ecstasy do. Now that sounds like a VICE article – I Ran The Marathon On Pills.
I finished a bottle of water and picked up another at the next station. Then I really needed a wee.

There are toilets every two miles. That’s a lot of toilets I guess. It isn’t when you’re bursting and running and have to keep up your pace and trying to calculate how fast you need to run before the next marker to make up the weeing time. It’s a long way when you’re trying to calculate how long a wee really takes including untucking and retucking. I got to the toilets and they were all in use. I relieved myself against a fence. A million other men ran up and did the same.

At six miles we got to the Cutty Sark. Here there were huge crowds and I looked at every little face trying to recognise someone I knew but they were all smiling strangers. I had made the bold decision not to put my name on my shirt. I’m sure it’s fun at first but considering the state I was in by the end it would have really fucked me off for some condescending twat swigging a pint of London Pride to be going “come on Paul”. He can hypothetically fuck right off. The crowds thinned and then I did another wee, this time against a wall. I soon discovered that my Strava app, which I was using to map the distance I covered, was about two hundred metres short of the actual distance per mile. By eight miles it was making me want to cut my ears off.

I have never had an issue with my nipples when running. I know it’s a common complaint for runners and it was a subject of considerable mirth for my little brother to tell me to mind my nipples but it’s just never bothered me. At thirteen miles, the Vaseline I had smeared all over my body was sweating loose and my nipples were full of the joyous pain of rubbing. I cursed my brother, sure it was all his fault, and carried on.

Then, a miracle in the form of St John’s Ambulance. They were stood at the side of the path with their hands outstretched in latex gloves. Their hands were piled with Vaseline. We could help ourselves. I whipped up a glob and rubbed my sweet little nips down with a ferocity that really gave the crowd something to think about. I did not give a fuck.

At thirteen miles I ran across Tower Bridge and I was so full of joy and pith that I got my phone out and took a sweaty picture of myself. I was sure I could do this. I felt fantastic. There were so many people and so much noise and I was full of life and joy and bottles of Buxton water.
Around the bend I picked up some energy gels and realised that I don’t like energy gels. One revelation followed the other.

There was a “shower” just along Shadwell, where you could run through a series of spray machines that had been set up. The cold water took my breath away and I wasn’t sure if the moisture bouncing down my body was sweat or shower spray as I continued on my way towards greatness (and a stitch).

It was at around this point that people started to offer out sweets. Some of them had convenience store-sized tubs which they would dangle temptingly over the barriers for us to pick at as we ran past. I discovered that hoovering up pick ‘n’ mix at around six miles an hour is harder than it sounds. Other people had dishes and plates of sweets. Some people had wrapped up little packages of jelly beans and jelly babies in foil or paper so you could pick at them as you ran around. It was very much like what I imagine picking up heroin to be like. It was only as I finished my third scoop of confectionery that I remembered that I was vegetarian and that a lot of it probably contained beef gelatin. I’m sorry Paul McCartney. I’m sorry Morrissey!

Running in itself started to get tougher. I realised I was in a realm beyond the unknown. At mile sixteen I figured I was going to be able to do another ten miles with only a little bit of pain. I was starting to ache and the ankle I had injured while training was in good company as everything else in and around my body pulsed with the effort of what I was doing. I was on my third Biffy Clyro album. The sweet sound of Simon Neil’s voice was making me want to vomit. Everything was making me want to vomit. It didn’t matter how many bottles of water I had, how many Lucozade gels I sucked on or how many fresh dabs of Vaseline I was able to load up onto my tits, I was struggling.

I realised something had gone terribly wrong when I turned a corner onto Canary Wharf and started to cry. The only reason anyone has good cause to cry at the sight of Canary Wharf is if they work there. I knew I was being irrational but I couldn’t help it. I felt like I needed someone to slap me in the face, hard. I needed a good old Dynasty open hand to the chops. My running was still automatic but it must have looked like I was a clockwork dinosaur on the last couple of ticks.

I stopped running at twenty-one miles. I knew I was going to finish. I knew I had to finish but it didn’t mean that I was going to run the whole thing. I was in serious trouble. Everything hurt. I couldn’t get up the energy to start running again. I was pretty sure that the end was coming. I took a moment to remember that I had failed to write my emergency contact details on the reverse of my race number. If I went down then they weren’t going to find anything on me that would help identify who I was and what I needed (answers: Paul Schiernecker, not to run anymore). I was only able to start running again when I heard my actual name being called from the crowd. I looked up and my friends Adam and Tom were there. They grabbed at me and ushered me along and I started up again and realised it had been a mistake to stop. Along the side of the road were pale looking bodies in shorts and foil. They had blown up. They weren’t going to make it. I was. It was just a matter of grit.

Further down the same stretch I saw Clarissa. We quickly hugged and it was only afterwards that she was able to tell me how awful I looked. I had lost any kind of dignity. I just needed to make it to the end. The crowds were growing and there were people everywhere. I couldn’t show any sign of weakness. They preyed on that.

The final three miles were the best of the marathon. Not because I found some kind of inner strength but because I knew it was nearly over. I was running from Tower Hill to Westminster and I knew the area well enough to find it cool that the roads were shut off from the usual traffic and that there were so many people lining the banks. Music boomed at me through the tunnel and I tried not to look at the Walkabout by Temple. Someone had a full twelve-inch pizza balanced on the railings as I ran past them. I hated them, the selfish little cunt. I hated every single person in London. I hated myself and I hated the Queen and I wanted to give up my body and be reincarnated as a discarded Lucozade gel. Why would anybody ever do this to themselves? Why is this even a thing? What kind of monster decided that it had to be 26.2 miles and not just a nice round 26. Some sick and twisted son of a bitch that’s for sure.

By the time I hit 26 miles, and Strava was telling me that I was at twenty-five I was ready to kill and I was ready to die. I had been broken down and rebuilt so many times that I wasn’t entirely sure of who I was. It was a great feeling. I just had to keep putting one foot in front of the other. I ran past Liz’s gaff and then realised that I was at the finish line and that I had just run a marathon.

I hobbled along the return stretch beside St James’s Park and tried to work out where I could collapse and die. I collected a medal and for some reason they took note of what shoes I was wearing. I posed for a photo where I looked like a skeleton wearing a Paul mask and then I got my bag and struggled through the park and fell down beside a tree. I had another cry. Running  a marathon is tough and emotional, like an Adele album.

I stayed down as though getting up again would involve more punishment, like getting knocked on your fanny in a boxing match. I waited for someone to come and get me. I winced and sobbed when I stretched out. I started to get cold. I texted my mummy. Clarissa came to meet me and we slowly made our way to get food. I decided that I was vegetarian again.

Along the way people congratulated me and kids wanted to high five me and it was the nicest version of London I have ever been a part of. I felt excited and tired and giddy and sick and sleepy and hungry and ready to drop all at the same time. I was all of the fucking seven dwarves. Nothing compares to it. Nothing can beat it. I still didn’t know why I had done it. I didn’t know why anyone would ever do it.

The train home was so full that I took to the First Class carriage just so I could stretch out. As it was a Sunday the train stopped at every possible station and it was over an hour before I was hobbling back through town and up the two flights of stairs to my flat. When I bought the flat I never considered the fact I would one day take part in a marathon and then have to get home. I struggled inside and didn’t leave for two days.

There are many things I could say about running a marathon. I could tell you never to do it. I could tell you that I decided straight after that I had now done a marathon and didn’t need to ever take part in one again. Or I could tell you that it really irked me that it took me four hours and sixteen minutes to complete it. It irked me so much in fact that when the applications for the ballot for the London Marathon 2018 opened I entered again. Pain fades. Glory doesn’t.

Note: Despite how tough this whole experience was for me, I will always remember 2017 as the year I struggle my way through the marathon of Thirteen Reasons Why. What a terrible pile of dross. It took me three times as long to finish that as it did the London Marathon and I didn’t even get a medal at the end of it. Clay is a whining little piss baby, and I say that as someone who just spent three thousand words complaining about running.

A picture speaks 860 words. 

It takes me back. It takes me back seven months and reminds me of what we went through. The first thing anyone else seems to notice is my smile. I hate my smile.
I see the bus.
That was the bus that was supposed to collect us at the end of the trek and take us out of the desert after trekking 100km together. That was the bus that broke down.
When we got to it, we thought we were done. We thought we had finished. We still had a couple of kilometres to go but we waited for the laggers to catch up and everyone went through together. We cheered as we crossed that invisible finish line. Then we somehow had beers and we sat on the dunes and took photos and messed around. There were two buses. There had to be for the one hundred of us. I remember the smug face of the guy in the doorway of the first bus who wouldn’t let me on because he said it was full. I was forced to wait with my friend Adam and the rest of his stupid team.

We realised the bus was still stuck two kilometres back and it made sense for us to go to it. Once the sun had set there wasn’t an awful lot left for us to do. Once the beers were finished, there was nothing left for us to do. The temperature started to drop. It got below freezing at night, well below.
We got onto the bus and tried to stay warm. We were taken off so they could try and tow it out. It didn’t work. We sat on the sand and lost more of our body heat. We were ordered back onto the bus. We tried singing and playing games. Nobody had any food. Nobody had any water. We waited for four hours before the original bus returned for us. We were lucky. We laughed it off anyway.

Then I notice my top. My merino wool base layer. Essential, we were told, to insulate us and to self-clean. I wore it for five days straight. It became a second skin. The smell would probably make your eyes water. I only had one because the combo of top and trousers was £100.00 and I figured I wouldn’t be going back to Mongolia anytime soon. I was right.

Next it’s my Action Challenger neckerchief. A Schiernecker-chief if you will. I was given that scarf when I trekked my way up the Inca trail to Machu Picchu exactly two years before. I was so sick on that trip but I learnt a lot about my inner strength, what I was capable of. I refused to give up. I refused to drop it. I’m far too stubborn and it’s not often enough that it’s a good thing.

Then I see my Ray Bans. Actual Ray Bans. I had a pair before that I picked up in Argentina. Those were Roy Bons. I bought the actual Ray Bans in the great spending spree of April 2016, shortly before Adam and I went to Thailand and found exactly the same thing for 200 baht (£4.00). I don’t really go in for the whole brand thing but Ray Bans are cool. They’re cool like Jack Daniels is cool.

It’s only after that I am able to see my face. The beard that had grown out through our days in the desert. The weird way my hair sat when it was full of smoke, sand, grit and grease. The strange dent between my eyes, either through concentration or Resting Bitch Face. The crow’s feet that appear now when I smile. The hook of heritage in the shape of my nose. The tiny shadow of a puncture mark in the lobe of my left ear from when I let my brother go at it with a sterilised safety pin and a champagne cork. The dimples and for a rare change, what looks like a jawline. The teeth. The smile. The memories.

Seven months after we flew out to Mongolia, I look at this picture and I forget about all the stuff that bothered me. The things I left behind that I worried about. The trials and tribulations that we all faced along the way. What it reminds me of is that I am the sum of my experiences. I have no recollection of this photo being taken but it looks far too staged to be candid. I would love to go back there, to that moment, to be with the friends I knew and the friends I had made. To taste some more questionable meat in noodles and brine. To listen to the sound of the wind whipping up the tarp as I tried to get to sleep each night, clenching the opening of my sleeping bag together to keep whatever heat I could inside. To drink more straight vodka in a week than I probably had in the rest of my life. To walk every day with a pack on my back. To not want for anything else. To just go. This picture speaks exactly 860 words.

Photo by Alun Thomas.

#7 – Fire a gun.

‘What’s Gunny doing here Jeremy?”

My ears are still ringing. On Friday, the show I co-wrote, Delectably Dead, had its first trip outside of its home county. We headed to Guildford where we performed for eighty people at G Live. Despite how many times I shouted at it, my Sat Nav kept pronouncing it “live”, as in, to still be amongst the living or Liv Tyler.

The key difference with this show was that I was actually going to be “treading the boards”. In previous incarnations I had only ever been part of the ensemble as a zombie. Last night I got to play Nathan Dimble, a character I only realised during the show spends around two and a half hours onstage. Where’s the gun? Where’s the smoking gun?
It’s here, here in the story. It’s no secret that DD has loud noises. One of those loud noises is gunfire, from blank firing weapons, including the two I got to pop off to save the audience from the hoards of the undead that tried to get at my beautiful man-flesh. I have always wanted to fire a gun. There’s something carnal yet Hollywood about it. I think of Danny Butterman’s “ever fired your gun in the air and yelled, ‘Aaaaaaah?'”.

Guns tend to get a bad reputation. It’s probably because of their ability to end lives and all that. I don’t give a damn about my bad reputation. Last night was awesome.
They key thing with guns is safety. We have to keep them under lock and key, they’re assigned a marshal to safeguard them and are also covered in our public liability insurance. After being trained in handling and operating the weapons I got dressed up in my costume and was ready for the show.

I don’t want to say too much about the show itself because a lot of the magic is in the mystery. In fact I feel bad that you know there are guns in it. How else are we supposed to protect ourselves against the infected?
I had an amazing time with a brilliant team of cast and crew and the audience seemed to enjoy themselves.

I would also like to take this opportunity to express how fucking hard acting is. It is one of the most consuming and exhausting processes and I was playing a character somewhere between myself and Karen from Mean Girls so god knows how Helen Mirren or Danny Dyer feel after a day on set. I have so much respect for anyone who has the discipline and ambition for that, who strives for it. Especially if they’re one of our cast members. Thank you guys.

I’m not brave.

Firemen are brave.
Malala Yousafzai is brave.
Lightning McQueen is brave.
I probably shouldn’t compare them. Only one of them managed to purposely lose the Piston Cup championship and still put Radiator Springs back on the map.

Last week I published a blog post about my mental health. It was pretty personal. It dealt with some dark shit. It featured a picture which included my nipples.  That’s not brave to me.

The thing about mental health, and no, I don’t want to be someone who is solely known for speaking out about their psychological well-being, is that it is the same as physical health. It’s intrinsically linked. It’s all in the same body. In my case, it’s all me.

When someone has an accident, and breaks their leg, they aren’t brave. It’s just something that happens. They talk about it and people sign their cast and in time they get better and it’s something of an anecdote. They might feel twinges of pain in the same area. They may even break it again as there’s a pronounced weakness there, but there’s nothing brave in them telling others that they have broken their leg.

It’s okay to ask me about my injuries. I’m open to conversations about it. Others might not be so it’s always best to tread lightly and gauge the reaction.

That aside, I am so grateful to everyone who took the time to read my post last week. The comments and messages I got as a result were incredibly overwhelming. The more I can do to encourage others to talk about mental health then the better I am doing as a writer on the subject. The private messages I received from friends who I didn’t know were going through hard times were incredibly touching and I remain completely available to anyone who wants to talk anything through.

You are not alone in this and I am not going anywhere.

Thank you again for your displays of affection,. My little blog didn’t know what had hit it.

Sad face and silk sheets. 

This photo is a year old today. I only know that because a part of me knew I would get better and therefore kept note of the date. I don’t know if you can tell but this is me at a real low. The lowest I had felt in a very long time. I got so ill that I had to go and stay at my dad’s, in the spare room. I was 29 years old and I felt like I had ruined absolutely everything. The days were dark. I couldn’t see a way out. I wanted to die.

Most people won’t know about this. They know I suffer from depression and anxiety because I try to make it known but it is often hard for people to understand just how consuming, overwhelming and encompassing it can be. I am very much a victim of wearing the painted on smile. That’s why I talk about it. Talking makes it better. A problem shared is a problem solved and all that jazz.

It was only thanks to the incredible people in my life that I was able to get through those dark days. I had panic attacks at work. I spent my weekends and evenings in bed. I struggled to do anything but I knew I had to. I was a functioning depressive. I got through the days but I was not living, not by a long shot.
I didn’t feel comfortable in my own home. Nobody else felt comfortable with me being in my own home.

I was fortunate that my dad had a spare room. He knew that at some point, in his own words, “one of his boys would need it”. He still refers to it as Paul’s Room. When I had an operation in November, I ended up there again.

I packed the things I would need and I stayed at my dad’s while everyone did their absolute best to pull me through, when a lot of the time, I was loathed to try and do it myself. I owe those people my life.

So, what’s the point?
Why am I telling you this?
It’s because it is important.
Suicide is the number one killer of men between 25 – 40.
For far too long, we have been made to bottle up our feelings, to stiff-upper-lip our way through difficult situations and it’s toxic and it has to stop. That’s why I am sharing.
So what can you do?
You can do what the people around me did.
They asked what they could do.

A friend at work took me aside and told me that she didn’t personally understand what I was going through but that if I felt comfortable explaining it to her, then she was happy to listen, and maybe, it would help. That olive branch got me through another day.

A lot of the time, I didn’t have the answer. People were there for me when I needed them and even when I pushed them away, I knew it was at my request and that they would be ready and waiting when I was able to talk. It’s a hard thing to get your head around, for all concerned.
Just listen to people.

There are some things that help when you feel that low, even when you think they aren’t going to:
· Get outside
· Eat
· Drink plenty of water
· Watch old films
· Stare out to sea
· Tell people you love them
· Create something
· Destroy something
· Pet a dog
· Read “Reasons To Stay Alive” by Matt Haig

While on the subject, Reasons To Stay Alive became an incredible source of strength for me. So much so that when I felt better and one of my friends was feeling low, we met for lunch and I gave him my copy. For over an hour we talked about the misunderstandings that come from friends and family when your mental health is bad and what we could do to combat it. We have a project in the pipeline as a result.

There are so many people around you who are in a very similar head space, even if your twisted melon wants to make you feel like you are completely on your own.
Fuck it, talk to me if you can’t find anyone else. I’m all ears.

So, here we are. A year on from the sad face and the silk sheets. What’s happened since?
Well, I took a trip to Asia to forget about everything.
I shaved my head.
I came back and realised I was still me and I was going to have to deal with that.
I lost weight from depression.
I threw away or gave away a lot of possessions.
I got a few more tattoos.
I lost my dignity in a strip club in Krakow.
My anti-depressants flattened any sensation so I switched to others which made my hair fall out.
I gained weight from anti-depressants.
I tried being vegan.
I took up meditation.
I tried being gay.
I joined a gym.
I became an uncle.
I bought a freezer.
I remembered what it was to love myself.
I got my creativity back.
I’ve managed to get a lot of the flying monkeys off my back and day-to-day, I feel pretty good.

That’s why I am able to look at that picture, and know that I am well and truly on the other side of the lens.

#27 – Play Cluedo.

 Was it Mr Pink? In the observatory? With a draft excluder?
We’ve all played Cluedo before, or have we? That’s a lot of questions to open with, isn’t it?
Until very recently, I had not played Cluedo. That was why it was on my list of 30 things to do before I turned 30.
How did I get some Cluedo all up in here? Well, for that we have to head back to a long time ago, about a year ago, when my mum bought me a Cluedo set which sat, wrapped in plastic, in my wardrobe until this week.
I had friends over. We ate pizza. I made mulled wine. It was a total hoot. As it turned out, we had the maximum number of players possible for Cluedo. Six. That’s how cute and popular I am. Six friends!
I feel like I have always been aware of Cluedo. It’s like The Godfather. I knew all of the Godfather before I ever watched it. I found the actual viewing somewhat disappointing as a result. I hoped the same wouldn’t be said of Cluedo.
The rules of Cluedo are complex in their complexity. There are cards for each of the rooms , each of the weapons and each of the characters. One of each is put in an envelope and the rest are handed out to the players. For all you know, you could be the killer. I was. #Spoilers.

The aim of the game is to work out what happened and where and by whom. When there are six of you, it can get a bit involved because everyone has some kind of sick strategy. It feels like it goes on for ages before you get to do anything and your poor little part is being dragged all over the shop. In that way it’s very much like an inefficient handjob.

I watched the finesse with which my friends played and probably learnt more about the situation from their reaction than I did from actually taking any turns. It’s basically a game of elimination. Then you head into your mind palace and try to fathom out how exactly you would kill someone with a candlestick. I suppose the obvious choice is blunt force trauma it could also be fun to down the throat or up the anus of your intended victim until they choked.

It took three of us making a dive for the centre to make our allegations before we were able to conclude that I was in fact the murderer. If I had known from the off then I would have done whatever I could to put the other players off, or I would have booked a flight to the Philippines. Either way, they never would have caught me.