Sweaty and smells of fish – Nell McAndrew at Swindon Festival of Literature

5 May

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It’s not an admission you’d expect from the 16th Sexiest Woman In the World (FHM Magazine, 2003) but if you meet Nell McAndrew in the school playground, chances are she’ll be sweaty and smell slightly of mackerel.

The original Lara Croft, Tomb Raider – she was the face of the arcade game franchise three years before Angelina Jolie claimed the ponytail in the movie spin-off – and the fourth most popular contestant in the first series of I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, Nell was at Lydiard Park to talk about her new book, Nell McAndrew’s Guide to Running.

For those who wanted to spend an hour in her company, though, there was an initiation ceremony in the form of a ‘gentle’ 5k run through the Park. Gentle is a subjective word, of course, and the majority of the audience were lycra-clad fitties (men and women) from the weekly Swindon Parkrun, rather than computer game fanatics who had clung on to their copies of FHM far longer than is probably advisable *raises hand in acknowledgement*.

The star turn would have delighted both, however. Nell McAndrew the runner is passionate about her sport, while Nell McAndrew the model – “I’m trying to,” she says, stroking her laughter lines with her finger when host Matt Holland asks her if she still considers herself a model. “Mature model perhaps” – is still every bit as glamorous.

What surprises us all, I guess, is how down-to-earth she is, in that way that Yorkshire folk tend to be.

It didn’t bother her to stand up in front of a (admittedly equally) sweaty crowd straight after a five kilometre run. And she admitted to being more at ease with the festival audience than a TV one. “I get nervous in front of the cameras. This has been great,” she said.

Besides running, Nell’s other passion is children. She has two – a son, Devon, who is eight and a daughter, Anya, who has just turned two – and she kept running throughout pregnancy: in the case of her first baby until seven months.

She worries that children don’t get outside enough. “There should be more sport in schools,” she says. “There’s too much time spent sitting in the classroom when they could be outside. It gets you into the habit, then it’s not so scary when you are older.” Devon, she admits, is bribed to join her on runs with chocolate Digestives.

Nell says she started running as a coping mechanism – partly as a way with dealing with the stresses of motherhood. And once you’ve had a baby, she says, the thought of running a marathon does not seem so daunting.

At her own school she played netball and did athletics, but never seriously competitively, which is a pity, because her London Marathon personal best – a laudable 2hrs 54 mins – made her eligible for Elite runner status in future competitions. Had things been different, she might have been “athlete Nell McAndrew”.

She made the move from gym running machines to the pavements by joining the Thames Valley Harriers. “I was very nervous,” she admits, “but everyone was so friendly, and wanted to talk about running, and trainers, and kit.”

Her aim now is to prove you can get faster as you get older. “I’m 41,” she says. “By the time I’m 50 I want to have run a marathon in under two hours fifty. I’ve still got a lot of life left in me.”

The book, says Matt Holland, is a ‘rock and roll read’. Nell says she’s tried to make it accessible – something you can dip into whatever stage of running you’re at.

The event wraps up with some questions from the audience. She tells one runner that the key to a personal best is to crank up the mileage – up to 100 miles a week. As a busy mum, she fits in training by running to school with the buggy. And to stave off the urge to feast (it’s a thing, apparently, judging by the knowing mmm’s from the audience) she advises snacking on something healthy within the first half hour after finishing a run: dark chocolate, oat biscuits, tinned fish…

“I take a couple of tins of mackerel with me, and you’ll often find me in the corner of the school playground eating them. They’re cheap and full of protein, but they’re not good for your breath…”

Words by Peter Davison. Photos by Calyx Pictures.

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