Pippa Messenger

Interview by Sarah Woods in London

My name’s Pippa Messenger, I’m a runner for Herne Hill Harriers… I run a mixture of distances. At the moment, I’m focussing on half marathon distances, but I’m not a fast runner – I just like running a lot. I started running back in Edinburgh when I lived there and then didn’t join a club until I moved to London and that was only a year and a half ago, so I haven’t been a member of the club for very long. It’s really nice, just getting to know new people…

When I was in Edinburgh I ran a little bit, I did my first half marathon when I was there, training as well. And … I’ve been asthmatic since I was two, as far as I can remember, well, all my life I guess. But I was diagnosed when I was two, I grew up in Watford, so not that far away from London but I grew out of my asthma, went to university in Edinburgh, still did sport, still did my running and then I came to London and tried to run around the local park Wandsworth Common, and I could barely get round without having an asthma attack, and it got so back that I was really struggling to run any distance further than 5kms, and I had to take my inhaler every time I was running, if not more than once.

It all came to a peak in the Christmas after we first moved to London. I got a chest infection. I’m prone to chest infections because of the asthma, but I just couldn’t shift it at all, and then went to the doctors and they put me on stronger inhalers, that helped, then all of a sudden I went from running 5km in 28 minutes to running 5km in 25 minutes. All of a sudden, I could run 10km without taking my inhaler, and it improved significantly. Since then, my asthma had got to a level where I was running okay but I would still need to take my inhaler several times a week, so they’ve put me on strong steroids so now I have to take those four times a day and I have to carry a card around with me (for medical information). This is all simply because of air quality as far as I can tell, because there’s no difference other than the move from Edinburgh to London.

My asthma got significantly worse in London. You don’t see the air quality, you don’t necessarily know it’s bad just by looking – it’s not like smog. We get warnings when there’s particular spikes in air quality asthmatics shouldn’t do exercise outside and, for a runner, that’s just rubbish… They don’t even really understand what’s causing what at the minute. I don’t even know what part of the pollution affects me worse, but obviously some of it does somehow.

I’m staying in London simply because of the job situation at the moment. If we could move out of London easily without the commute issue …, we would do it at the drop of a hat. But the job situation is such that, the jobs suitable for my husband and I at the moment are in London so that isn’t great…

When you get the alerts of high pollution that does put you off [running] a little bit and I do think about going on alternative routes wherever I can, when I go on my long runs I try to take in the parks, (a.) because its more enjoyable but (b.) because you don’t get so many cars as well so that does help. It makes you think about what you’re doing more. It doesn’t necessarily change what you do but it makes you think about it more.

I guess part of my issue is that I’ve had [asthma] my entire life so, for me, it’s about managing it. My husband is not asthmatic but he talks about when the pollution is high about it affecting him, so he worries a lot about me going out on runs…) I know when it’s bad, and I’m an adult, and – as an adult – I know how to cope with it, but when I get an asthma attack it’s not what people traditionally think of as an asthma attack, in that they have to get hospitalised or whatever because they can’t breathe. My asthma attacks are different in that when I get them I can’t breathe very well, but I know how to manage it, get it to a level where it’s okay. Growing up with asthma, you do deal with it. It’s part of your life.

I work next to London Bridge and they’ve completely shut off Tooley Street on one half so it’s much, much reduced in terms of traffic anyway, and you’ve got bike lanes and things like that and it’s much better, and my office is next to the river so there’s a bit of space for breathing. So actually, I don’t think I’ve had to take my inhaler when I’m at work, [or] if I’ve gone for a run at lunch time, you don’t have to do it quite as much then. But at the same time it’s quite near Borough High Street which leads down to Clapham which is quite a thoroughfare, so if you get stuck behind one of the buses, it’s just like [coughs]… I think, if you can get cars away from the places most people walk in, it’s going to immediately improve a localised area. But then you have knock-on effects possibly on other areas that they wouldn’t otherwise have gone to so it’s kind of which is better.

I think we need to reduce our reliance on cars full stop, especially in London where you can get everywhere without using a car. I’ve seen a lot of the green buses so I know they are making movements towards removing petrol and diesel. And I think that there’s always going to be people who don’t want to switch because of the money. Changing a car is quite expensive as it is – it doesn’t matter whether it’s going to be diesel to petrol or petrol to electric. And that’s going to be the main issue: people aren’t going to be willing to change their cars quickly enough without incentives.

If you stop people using them through regulation that’s going to massively help, but I think incentivisation will only go so far. It won’t get rid of all of them, but regulation is more likely to get that effect. Incentivisation would slowly create the same thing but it wouldn’t happen quick enough for what we need to happen. I think the technology will catch up and it will become cheaper and it will get there, but it won’t happen that quickly if we don’t make it happen. Regulation has been shown to be the quickest driver of innovation.

So, removing diesel would be the first step, then remove petrol. Do it one step at a time. You can’t do everything all at once. Based on our politics at the moment, I don’t think it could ever happen all at once. It just wouldn’t happen at all. Maybe if there was a major incident, it would, but you don’t want that to happen in the first place, do you? I work in the flood risk industry, so you don’t see any changes until a flood happens and then you get money pumped in and then something changes. I think that’s the same with most environmental causes in the UK: nothing happens, then there’s a massive incident to put the pressure on. I’m surprised actually, with all the media coverage on the air pollution in London, that it hasn’t already happened. It’s just like there’s been lots of people shouting about it and no one’s listening.

It would be absolutely amazing if you could run uninhibited by traffic. There are loads of green spaces in London, so I managed to do a long run on Sunday where I have to go through four parks and it was absolutely brilliant, but you have to cross major arteries to get through them. Part and parcel of living in a big city I guess, so I had to cross a major route through Brixton, and a major route through Ladywell, but I managed to go most of the way through the parks, so that was lovely. You get to see the green part of London. I don’t think that people expect that you can have as many parks so close. [In fact,]I live in a triangle – I think it’s got an official name but I can’t remember what it’s called – between Clapham Common, Wandsworth Common and Tooting Common. All within two kilometres of my house, so I’ve got little pockets for running around the park but at the same time, as a runner, you don’t necessarily want to stick to the same routes again and again and again. They’re not as big as you might want, they’re good, you get a lot of recreational use – but you’re limited to pockets rather than having corridors. [They] are really pretty and lovely but they end, and then you have to go back into traffic…

My husband definitely feels it and he says he comes back after a run snotting black. Lovely! And then one of my other friends, she’s pregnant now so she’s not running as much but she always used to say that she just couldn’t catch her breath when the pollution was high. She just struggled. And that would be at 7pm in the evening after rush hour and we’re in Tooting we’re not in the main hub of the city either, and we can feel it. It’s not great. I think a lot of people also say that when they go for races outside London, breathing is so much easier…