Sunday, 26 January 2014

"Can't do" won't do

"She'll never be a rower as long as there's a hole in her backside." This charming sentiment came from a "coach" when I was 17, clearly underwhelmed by my aptitude for the sport. Around the same time, the Head of Chemistry at my sixth form college warned me, "I think you're in over your head", about my university application ambitions. A year later, I rowed for that university in a crew that overturned a 10-year losing streak. Perhaps I was in over my head but I was there and, thankfully, everything was as it should be under my shorts.

My mum jokes that the worst thing anyone can tell me is that I can't do something. Like telling somebody NOT TO TOUCH THE RED BUTTON, I set my mind about proving them wrong: pushing that button, setting the alarms off, regardless of the consequences. Surfer Layne Beachely said, "there are so many people out there who will tell you that you can't. What you've got to do is turn around and say, "watch me"." Until fairly recently, I thought this was all true.

If I had believed those two men in my teens, I would never have met my friend, Acer: a much-missed mate who passed away a year ago today. In the eulogy at his memorial, among the awe-inspiring list of his accomplishments, ran a theme of achievements that many people would have dismissed as impossible: a top first at Oxford, boat race victories, an Olympic medal, marathons and an ironman, repeatedly beating the doctors' prognoses with his indomitable spirit and determination. He was not a man who said "watch me" but a man who said "I can", and his intelligence, talent and dedication normally meant that he did. I'm proud to call Acer a friend, not just for what he achieved in his life, but also for the dignity, humility and wisdom that shone throughout.

For a long time I looked back at what those two men said and thought about how I'd stuck two fingers up to them, like a belligerent underdog at the end of their own Mighty Ducks montage; however, over time, I've started to think differently. I have never seen either of them again; I doubt they would remember what they said let alone who I was, even if I ran up to them pointing at my backside shouting, “Look! It’s still there!” I imagine they wouldn't have thought about the dangerous seeds of doubt that they planted, making me wonder if they were right; luckily for me, the small part of me that believed them was eclipsed by the enormous desire to do it anyway. They said what they said with no understanding of how much I wanted it and I doubt they'd have given another thought as to whether they were right or not. Fortunately, they underestimated more than just my ability.

When they said "can't", it didn't matter a jot if they watched me prove them wrong or not; it does matter a lot that their careless words could have created a very different outcome. Underestimation can be a dangerous game and it's better to avoid it at all costs. If I underestimate the young people I work with, sometimes they overwhelm me with expectations exceeded, but the consequences can be far worse if they believe me. Underestimate the January jogger, out wearing something resembling their pyjamas to run, thinking they'll never last the month, and you might be right; or, give them six months and they might be giving you a run for your money at the local 10K. Underestimate yourself and you run the risk of never finding out quite what you can do. “Never underestimate anyone” is a little reminder I offer myself on a pretty regular basis.

Among my plans for this year, I've entered three races that push me far out of my comfort zone: Connemara Ultra, The Bastion, and Snowdonia Marathon. There is a big fat "can't" looming under every one of the hills on the courses that, some might say, leave me in over my head with questions about the anatomy of my back passage. I don't care if they're watching though; I just have to make sure that the will to achieve my goals is greater than any part of me believing them.

In memory of Acer Nethercott (28 November 1977 – 26 January 2013)

Friday, 3 January 2014

Those health muffins

"Guess what's in them! Guess what's in them! You'll never guess what's in them!"

This fun guessing game was how these muffins were first presented to me as I walked in through the door from work.

"Those health muffins"

They contain a curious ingredient: butternut squash. Yep, that funny looking vegetable you pick up at the supermarket and snigger at. Don't deny it. We all do it. Amazingly, it adds a bit of sweetness and moisture to the mix; a dose of Vitamin A to help you see the potholes on those dark, winter runs; and plenty of dietary fibre to keep your colon moving like a marching band.

The original recipe is this one by Jamie Oliver; with a bit of trial and error, I've replaced the sugar with dried fruit. The spelt flour and milled seed mix gives a nice nutty taste but you could follow the original recipe with 300g of plain flour (or gluten free rice/potato flour). I didn't ice these like Mr Oliver suggests but I think a bit of peanut butter works well instead.

Cake won't make you thin (thank goodness for that) but occasionally it's nice to make something that gives back a bit more than it takes. Known in my household as "those health muffins", the recipe for these cakes took a bit of getting my head around at first: I believe in the principle that if the mix tastes good then the cake will too. In reality, this recipe's healthiness stems mostly from the fact that I have no interest whatsoever in eating this mixture in its ore form - when you make it, you'll see why.

The mixture doesn't rise much so you can afford to be generous when adding it to the tins. If you want to make 12 mega-muffins, you may want to try these tall muffin cases (made from 15cm squares of greaseproof paper shoved into the wells of a muffin tin, or available pre-made and much prettier from Waitrose, I think), unless you fancy cleaning a volcanic muffin eruption from the bottom of your oven. Failing that, I reckon the mix would stretch to 18-24 smaller cakes, baked for slightly less time. Once cooled, the muffins can be frozen, or they'll last a few days in an airtight container (less if you store them in your belly instead).
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