Appropriately enough my obsession with jelly babies started in early childhood; if my father elected me ‘Sweet Monitor’ at the start of the long annual car drive that heralded a family holiday to some coastal damp hell hole, this was the closest I could get to wielding power over my three older siblings and pretending I was dad’s favourite. In our family, ‘Sweet Monitor’ had delegated authority to offer gelatinous rewards if siblings agreed to play Eye Spy from Berkshire to Cornwall (red or black, naturally) but to also deal a withering penalty for cheating at pub cricket* (definitely green).
Dad in turn must have inherited his jelly baby love from his mother, for her star turn desert was a thick leathery trifle decorated with Mr Bassett’s finest. Unfortunately she always insisted on placing the jelly babies on top of the custard before it had cooled and the dish was inevitably served with deformed and weeping colourful blobs that would sadly never make it to adulthood.
In my teaching career I retained this confectionary obsession and, until a few years ago, always kept a jar of jelly babies in my office. I reviewed the practice after some Year 13 leavers emptied the jar on my desk, cut off the poor chaps’ heads and impaled an unlucky few on my notice board with a note from the ‘Jelly Baby Liberation Front’. They did at least have the grace to refill the jar with some Anne Summers ‘adult’ jelly babies. (Who knew?). All I’m saying Mr Bassett is that Anne Summers is far more generous on the jelly appendage front.
In my distracted state I haven’t been buying sweets lately, but I was reminded just how motivational jelly babies can be when I ran a half marathon last weekend. Bouncing back from the shock of both attending a fancy dress party last Saturday night and seeing a man in a Hannibal Lecter costume siphoning a fine chianti through his mask via a straw, I hit the road early next morning to see if I needed to demand a refund from my new running club membership or if I could actually claim a PB.
I knew things were going to be alright as soon as I went to collect my running number, for there besides the box of safety pins were some impressively huge tupperware containers crammed to the brim with jelly babies. Now I may not be built for speed – or running – but I do know from experienced DNA that the measure of an authentic organised run is the offer of jelly babies over any poncy athletic gel or muscle rub. I’m genetically trained for this kind of chewy reward.
Thirteen + miles in some unseasonally hot sunshine is an antidote to any Saturday night entertainment and I knew straight away that Mama J would need to dig deep. I also knew that, like those gelatinous little jelly men, I would need to stay as cool as possible unless I wanted to risk oozing onto the pavement like grandma’s apocryphal trifling treats. Pacing would be essential.
Thirteen + miles (the + is very important) give you plenty of time for contemplation. Plenty of time to ponder over the last few months and reflect on progress and retreat. Thirteen + miles provide plenty of headspace and demand that you try and stick to a game plan – set off too fast and you’ll never reach the + at the end.
In the hard yards of the run I found time to humour myself by actually acknowledging some progress – admittedly I had a sneaky weep in the starting pen to erase the memory of running the same race with my former husband last year, but I worked through this by biting the head off the green jelly baby offered to me by a concerned fellow runner who was limbering up besides me in a much more appropriate style.
As I began to hit my stride I was able to ponder on lessons learnt. I realise that I’m learning to use the energy of the people around me – or in this specific case the clapping spectators and their high-fiving children; I’m learning that while ultimately we all have to run alone, genuine people (often total strangers) do genuinely wish you well, and I’m learning that it’s good to set goals and to scare yourself trying to achieve them – as long as you break them down a mile at a time and don’t beat yourself up when you fail. Oh, and although I’m still very lonely, I’m learning that belonging to a club – in my case thankfully for this metaphor, a running club – it literally means that; you belong. Club membership allows access to expertise, encouragement and to challenge – and hopefully, an endless supply of roadside jelly babies.
I need to declare that I’m not a total running novice, even if my plumptious form belies the fact. I’ve run a few marathons before (she admits, disingenuously before jogging nimbly on), but on the first occasions my strategy was to safety pin 26+ jelly babies (the + is even more important during a marathon) around my waist and, at each mile marker, tear the poor sweet savagely from its anchor to fuel the next mile. The head games involved in choosing the colour of jelly baby literally saved me from hitting the wall, but there was something worryingly jellybalistic about it and on one hot race I unfortunately attracted a belt of wasps which had the added bonus of making me run faster but meant no-one would award me a medal at the finish line.
In later races I learned instead that it was better to choose the thought or memory of real people – not jelly babies – as your band of brothers, people that you would never want to let down and people that you could happily think about for one whole mile; inspirational people. This approach provided me with a girdle of support rather than a plague of insects and insured no jelly babies were harmed in the process. It’s no good getting older if you don’t get wiser and I’m starting to believe that perhaps I can pace myself to manage both.
After a leaky start, this race actually gave me a happy ending and I felt the return of that warm ‘Sweet Monitor’ glow from childhood. Not only was I offered a handful of jelly babies from the roadside during the last wilting mile + (resulting in a jelly sprint finish never performed by Mama J in public before) but I also earned a new PB, and, for the first time ever saw my running results published on a running club’s website and now own a club running vest as proof of membership.
It transpires that I was, in fact, the slowest club member running in the event, but reassuringly I’ve learned that the pleasure comes from the adjective ‘personal’ in the PB for that can surely be my only measure. Pleasure comes also from finding myself with a stash of red and black jelly babies to eat on the way home from the race, in the happy knowledge that as Sweet Monitor I have official – and vested – authority to do so.
*Pub Cricket = reading pub signs along the journey and scoring for arms or legs on the sign until being bowled out with ‘The Golden Anchor’ or ‘The Ship’. Cheating = arguing for 4 runs for ‘The Queen’s Head’