I want to tell you a little bit about my mate Laura. I fancy some of you know her. In fact, I know that you know her. We’ve only been acquainted for just shy of three years but she’s already made a huge impression on me. Some accuse her of being a bit bland, a bit too blithely optimistic but – for me – her positivity and, especially, her absolute ordinariness are her hallmarks and make her the perfect partner in crime.
In the wake of the NHS’ well-deserved 70th birthday celebrations this weekend, I could, of course, choose to write about the privilege of a nationalised health provider which offers unparalleled care from cradle to grave or the power of a public service which is free at the point of use, irrespective of your income. Instead, I want to write about one of its funny little offshoots which, to me, seems to be less about health than about wellbeing and, well, being. The NHS’ Couch25K app is, among stiff competition, one of the most useful apps I have ever encountered and part of its enormous success lies with its inimitable host, the lovely – and, by some echelons of the internet, much-maligned – Laura.
The NHS has obviously done its research. They know that women feel encouraged by another female’s voice while men quite like being instructed by a woman (and, presumably, less threatened than they would by an absolute AMOG). Her hard-to-place accent also makes her feel instantly familiar, no matter where you are from. Not southern-posh enough to feel stuffy and not so stridently northern to make her sound like she should be jogging alongside you in a flat cap, whippet in tow, her gentle just-north-of-the-Midlands burr is friendly, buoyant and makes her words of encouragement feel genuine – a powerful tool in the Health Service’s arsenal of weapons to get the Great British public off their sofas and out into the great outdoors.
Even when I’m not convinced that I can do it, Laura is and her encouragement (“You can do it!”) gets me to the end of the podcast every time. She sometimes gets a bit of bad press. My sister-in-law looked me in the eye the first time I told her I was doing C25K and repeated some of Laura’s words to me verbatim: “Just be sure not to be too…bouncy”. Don’t be a dick, Laura – that’s why I’m wearing a sports bra. But, in general, she’s great and she and I have cemented a real kinship over the last three years.
Like all relationships, our friendship ebbs and flows. We first palled round together soon after I moved back to the UK. I was feeling pretty fat and unhealthy, especially after rediscovering ALL THE BREAD AND ALL THE CHEESE so, having heard positive things about the Couch25K app, I downloaded it and first encountered Laura. She was great and got me off the sofa and out into Greenwich Park. I’m not a natural runner. Always picked last for PE, you wouldn’t have wanted me on your team at Sports Day. Maybe dropping a shotput on my foot or lobbing a javelin into my leg but certainly not huffing and puffing around the athletics’ track and guaranteeing you 4th place* in proceedings. Unperturbed by my lack of sporting prowess, however, old Laura introduced herself (“Hello. I’m Laura.”) and, quite remarkably, got me out the house and moving (albeit only for sixty seconds at a time and at a pace only marginally slower than most people’s walk-to-the-station march). A few months later, we fell out – my fault, not hers – and were out of touch for a bit. But, as in any relationship, our paths would cross again.
The second time we hooked up was about eighteen months ago. I had just suffered a rather spectacular meltdown and been signed off work with stress and it is no exaggeration to say that she played a major part in my recovery process. Never mind your medication, sod your stupid online CBT counselling; the sense of achievement from the incremental gains made on the C25K course and the sights and sounds of the world beyond the confines of my basement flat were medicine enough and got me back in business quicker than I might have hoped. The soundtrack to all of this was, of course, Laura’s calm and quietly confident words of encouragement in my ears: “I know you can do this.”; “What a fantastic achievement.”; “Well done!” I logged my first, full 5K last summer and would not have managed that milestone without Laura’s help. I was so excited that I screenshot it and sent it to my mum. I’d have sent it to Laura too, except that, y’know, she’s not real. Nevertheless, she’s had a real impact and I owe her a huge debt of thanks.
Most recently, we’ve renewed our friendship during my brief period of unemployment. Having come back from five months travelling around SE Asia (and, this time, discovering ALL THE DELICIOUS FOOD AND DELICIOUSLY INEXPENSIVE LAGER) I have suddenly got a lot of time on my hands and a lot of lard on my arse, so Laura and I have headed out into the sunshine to try and do something about it. We know each other well enough now that we don’t have to go back to basics. I started her from Week 5 and she’s got me back to nonstop running, with no intervals. I’m even thinking of taking her on a parkrun soon. Having heard lots of good things about it from lots of different people, especially my other sister-in-law, I’ve signed up and got my registration number – we just need to go out and do it.
*(which we all know, in school terms, is last place)