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I signed up to run the UT55 again this year because I wanted to go back and do a better job. I wanted to train harder; to turn up to the start fit and well-prepared, with hindsight from 2015 and a more recent recce of the route under my belt. When I signed up to this race, I was under the impression that my first attempt had somehow gone badly, and that I hadn’t yet earned the rights to call myself an ultra runner, not really. I wanted to  go back to that course and earn those rights.

Not one aspect of my training went properly to plan. I started too early and peaked too soon. I say peaked, but really there was no peaking – the long runs were the worst I’ve done for any long-distance race, and unlike last year, I never felt ready for marathon+ distances; every week I finished my long run with less confidence then when I started. I didn’t manage a single recce of the route despite numerous weekends in the Lakes. Various health issues got in the way of my training, and after a really difficult time on the marathon – planned as my final long run and a pre-ultra confidence booster – I had to reassess my intentions for the race. I considered dropping out and almost committed to it on a couple of occasions, but decided instead to enjoy what I could of the amazing route, knowing that Daniel would be around the course and ready to collect me should it be required.

The day before the race I was resigned to not finishing. I was sad that this wouldn’t be my time, but also had to acknowledge the fact that my health was the priority, and that I could come back another time when I was in better shape to put in the right sort of training [Note: I did train, and put in a lot of miles, but anaemia got in the way and my fitness didn’t seem to improve one bit]. We arrived at Ambleside that evening, and the place was absolutely heaving. I was feeling incredibly negative and the hoards of people and queues of cars only added to my bad mood. After checking in and getting some stuff together I headed out to get my racepack checked – without the mandatory kit, runners would be disqualified from the race. It was here, in the prerequisite stage of the UT55, that I found my first really positive focus. The lady who checked my bag is a familiar face on the Lakeland Trails scene, and we’ve often said hello on previous events. She asked how I was feeling and, rather than giving her my entire life story, I told her I was nervous (which I was, very much so). It turned out that she had been ill for six months, and despite desperately wanting to run the race, she wasn’t able to. She reminded me to be grateful of the fact I was there at all; at the very least, I was healthy enough to give it a good go, and I shouldn’t take that for granted. This was probably the most helpful thing that I could have heard at that moment – I promised her that I’d think of her at the top of Grizedale Hause. I didn’t tell her that I wasn’t sure I’d get that far.

Ultra day came, and the weather kept to its promise. The skies were dark and heavy, and the rain was already pouring when I first dared to peep out of the curtains that morning. MWIS promised us wind, hail, and a strike of lightening or two just to add to the challenge. My dad texted me from over halfway through his 110km run to let me know that it was cold; I packed an extra base layer and decided to set off in my rainproof – combining anaemia with hypothermia didn’t seem like a good idea, no matter how much I hate running in a coat. The start line was quite subdued, but Graham spoke some really helpful words as we gathered and I remembered that this wasn’t about running, it was about moving forwards. I also spotted an incredible dog (maybe a mix of husky and bear?), which the owner kindly allowed me to pet for a while. Anything to calm my nerves. We set off in the rain, and, for the first time in days, I actually felt ok.

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The Struggle to Kirkstone Pass

I had a race plan and I stuck to it. Keep moving. Run whenever possible (even the uphills if I feel able to). Walk fast when I can’t run. The second most important thing: EAT. The first most important thing: talk to people, receive and return positive energy wherever possible. I look back at the marathon and last year’s UT55, and on both occasions I wouldn’t have made it without the help of others. Acknowledging this was key to a good race.

I don’t need to go into too much detail about the various sections (check out last year’s post for more detail about the actual course), but what I do want to say is that I ran a very good race overall. Despite all of the things that got in the way, both in training and on the day itself, my race strategy – mainly my eating and my sharing of positive vibes – was absolutely on point. I really did run as much as I could, and it worked. Running felt so positive, so it helped me keep my spirits up, and converted more positive energy into movement. My body held up incredibly well, and I had hardly any aches and pains until the very last couple of miles, but even then it was minimal. As expected, I walked a substantial amount, but mainly this was walking in the form of ploughing forwards. Later in the race I had to remind myself to walk fast as it didn’t come naturally after hours on my feet, but again, it generated positive vibes. Constant forwards motion was very helpful – I spent no more than a minute or so at the two main check points where Daniel was waiting (enough time to refill bottles and food supplies and grab a quick kiss), and passed all of the others without stopping. My eating was carefully timed thanks to the help of baby food sachets. There’s a useless amount of calories in them, but they’re very easy to take on and keep in place – I had baby banana porridge at mile 3, which meant that my stomach wasn’t empty and acidy at mile 7, so it was much easier to take on solid food. I ate baby food tactically, filling in gaps where I didn’t actually need food, but keeping my stomach lined at all times ready for when I did. It worked wonders.

It was on the enjoyable ascent of Grizedale Hause that, for the first time since March, I allowed myself to believe that I might finish; only 12 miles in – it seemed like a risky thought to be entertaining so early on. The rain was pouring, and as we reached the top the winds were so strong I was almost knocked off my feet. There was also hail, and it hurt. As I passed Grizedale Tarn the winds subsided and the sun came out, there were no other runners in sight and everything was completely still and silent. I was truly lucky to be there, totally exhilarated, fit and able enough to trek/run 15 miles over such difficult terrain. I thought of the lady at the bag-check, as promised, and sent some positive energy her way.

 

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Heading up towards Grizedale Hause in the rain

 

While I’d made it up the hardest ascent with a spring in my step and a smile on my face (very different from last year), it was the descent that I was worried about. Descents are my weakest point by far, quickly transforming me from feeling positive and powerful up the hill to being a nervous wreck who’d happily take a cable car back down. The weather made this one all the more challenging – it was slippy and the noise of the wind was disorienting. I focussed on getting down steadily and promised myself that I’d push forwards quickly to Grasmere once I got to the road section, but all plans were soon scuppered when I found myself on my bum, screaming out in pain, worried (just for a moment) that I might have done some serious damage. I looked up and a group of helpful runners were surrounding me – they looked quite worried too. The lovely lady who I’d been chatting to helped me out and reassured me that I was ok, and so I set off on my way, feeling at best demoralised, at worst injured, and definitely as if I might not be able to carry on beyond Grasmere. Well, spoiler alert: I did carry on, but it hurt a lot. My right bum cheek was (and still is) very badly bruised, and it hurt to move, never mind to run. Daniel checked me over in a car park at Grasmere, by which point a swelling had started to appear – the jury was out on whether I was ok to carry on or not, but my back felt ok and I was determined to give it a go. Just as a disclaimer, I already had my sensible hat on at the start of the race and continued to wear it throughout; I absolutely don’t think it’s ok to run through injury if the running might make the injury worse, but in this case I didn’t think it would be exacerbated by continuing on the race.

So, back to my awesome race strategy, which had been scuppered slightly by the fact that it hurt to run, because running made my bum jiggle around. It did at least make for some good jokes, and a number of people shouted ‘How’s your bum?’ to me as we passed. One lady offered to firm my jiggle up with some rocktape, and a marshall suggested that I use a Buff as a bum-holding device. So here we return to the first most important thing: with or without the injury, as usual it was the other people around me who made this day what it was. I met so many amazing people, many of them tackling their very first ultramarathon, some of them seasoned to the graft, familiar with the challenge of long days out in the wilds. A number of people were also signed up for the Lakeland 50 four weeks later – I wish all of you well! We laughed and joked our way around, sharing low points and positive energy wherever necessary. For me, the hardest part of the day was a long section around mile 26 when I was completely on my own. I couldn’t see anyone ahead or anyone behind, and the yellow flags which marked the route were my only comfort and company. As mile 26 arrived I felt a surge of tiredness so strong that I wanted to lie down in the rocks and sleep. Fearful that my anaemia was hitting and would lead to heart failure and I’d die in the rain and mud on my own in the fells, I tried to sum up some positive energy. I came up with a single positive thought – how depressing. I decided instead to sing, but couldn’t even make it past the first few lines of my favourite Green Day songs. Clearly my thinking mind had shut down in order to conserve some precious energy; I commanded myself to ‘WALK FAST!’, and managed to catch up with two ladies ahead who I stuck with for some time. Positive energy restored; Operation: Complete Ultra was back on!

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As I mentioned, my body held up amazingly. As I ran in to the final checkpoint at mile 31, a number of people commented on how fresh and lively I looked. Bum pain aside, I felt fresh and lively – my body felt great, which made the bum pain a little more frustrating than it might have otherwise been. But no time to dwell on that. By this point the light was starting to fade, which provided simultaneous motivation to press on quickly and the ultimate in Lakeland running awesomeness. After 16 miles of painful movement (and 15 miles of comfortable movement before that), I finally managed to put the discomfort aside and focus on the last 5 miles. And with this, I was about as happy as it is possible to be: running, in my favourite place in the world, the dusk chorus just starting up, the most beautiful pale light all around, running through empty fields and past still tarns, knowing that in a couple of miles I would have completed the UT55 for the second time, against all of my expectations. I didn’t want it to end quite so soon – I desperately wanted to hold on to those last few miles for as long as I could, knowing that I wouldn’t be back running in the Lake District for a long time.

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Only four miles left!

With that, the sharp descent into Ambleside appeared and I crossed that finish line. Unlike so many of the finish lines that I’ve crossed over the past 12 months, this one brought the ultimate in joy and pride. I’ve typed and re-typed and re-typed a number of sentences to follow that one, but perhaps if you are a runner (or indeed any other sort of person) and you’re reading this then you’ll know what I mean without me having to explain. The fact is that I didn’t need to have another go at the UT55 because I didn’t go a good enough job the first time around – I was already an ultrarunner (if that’s really so important anyway) before I crossed the finish line. In fact, I was slower this time, by a good hour; I didn’t necessarily do a better job – those who care only for time on a watch might say I did a worse job the second time around. But it doesn’t feel like that – I genuinely feel that I excelled myself that day, in numerous awesome ways. Getting to the end and acknowledging that I’ve done something really, truly difficult, and that I actually enjoyed myself while doing it is the best outcome I could have hoped for. Other people might run further or faster, but what anyone else does is totally irrelevant: as the saying goes ‘it is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves’.

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And my bum? What was a small swelling at Grasmere ended up looking like I had a banana planted underneath my skin by the end of the race, and certainly horrified the sports massage therapist two days later. I won’t be posting a photo. I got checked over by my doctor on the return home, and aside from a bruised coccyx everything is in working order. Unfortunately, I now want to return to the UT55 when I get back from living in the USA to see if I can manage it without damaging myself on Grizedale Hause – the challenge awaits!

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I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to write about this race. Partly, I didn’t want to write an account that sounded in any way like a bad review, or anything too negative. Partly, the story is kind of personal, and I can’t write about this race without going into Personal Stuff in at least some detail. But I like to write these reports for my own records, and after reading a comment on the Lakeland Trails Facebook page this morning about someone else going through something similar to me, I thought it might be of use to someone if I were a little bit open about this stuff. So here goes.

This race was almost a DNS (did not start) on countless occasions. On almost every long run I’d make it to the one mile mark and consider turning home and dropping out. I never did. My training runs were poor at best, but I did every single one, totting up some of the highest weekly mileage I’ve ever managed. Running became increasingly difficult, and when I went to see my doctor (also a marathon runner) who said I probably wasn’t over-training, I went for some tests to work out what was going on. Two days later I got my B12 anaemia diagnosis, and my first thought was that I’d finally have a real excuse to pull out of this race.

And I was looking for an excuse. In the paradoxical world of being human, I was pushing myself out on runs of up to 20 miles, when even walking around the corner to Sainsbury’s was becoming a problem. The long runs were a nightmareish story of grumbling anxiety peppered with full-on panic – I did one 16-miler without straying more than a mile from my front door, just looping around a nearby 3-mile circuit where I felt ‘safe’. To put it bluntly: panic attacks. Daily, sometime hourly, bursts of near-death experience. As I write this I’m wondering why I didn’t just give myself a break and pull out of the race.

The panic wasn’t enough to stop me, and neither was the anaemia. I found myself in Coniston on 4th June, overwhelmed by the brightness of the sun and the greenness of the trees. There was so many people, children everywhere, bright colours and shrieking from every angle I turned. There was no peace, my mind was raging with the explosion of newness around me. I really really tried to look forward to the space of the marathon the next day, but there was only dread, and under that, utter terror. After a night of almost no sleep, I found myself at the startline at 6:45am, where finally there was peace as runners assembled all with their own nerves and fears about the day (and the heat! it was already hot!) ahead. I cried into Daniel’s chest, totally resigned to feeling too fragile to run a marathon. We had agreed weeks before that I would pull out at the first nudge of anaemia-ish symptoms – I was going to start the race, that was all. A DNF (did not finish) seemed inevitable.

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And so we were off and I was crying as we set out, but soon enough it was ok. I focussed on my steps, upon setting a gentle pace that I could keep up for a while as my thoughts slowed into a comfortable rhythm. It was ok, I was ok. Not great, but ok. Not even two miles in and sweat was dropping from my face, but the heat wasn’t really an issue; if I could deal with my head I could deal with the heat no problem. At mile 8 there was a feed station and I noticed that one lady was dropping out. I could join her. A car will be coming, I could wait and get in that car and we can go back together. I carried on, reluctantly – mile 8 seemed too soon to drop out without an injury.

We got to the beautiful Tarn Hows section and I remembered walking here on the last day of our honeymoon. We talked about all of the things, it was warm and sunny, I was totally content. I tuned in to that day as hard as I could, remembering that feeling of joy and newness, tucked away in the Lake District far from all of the normal life stuff. I chatted to a few other runners here, pushing down the nausea and battling forwards. My Garmin beeped 10 miles and a small group of us cheered – 10 miles already! Around and around Tarn Hows and then up a track past some super marshalls to find James basking in the sun with his camera. I think I felt good by this point – certainly good enough to have a joke about suncream. It was hot, and not even 10am. It was getting really hot.

Coniston

Another feed station, almost 12 miles in and just before Grizedale forest. I had been looking forward to shade: there was no shade. The sun was blazing right above, and everyone kept stopping to walk, drink, moan quietly. I stopped to reapply suncream, afraid of heat stroke, alongside everything else. This was getting hard and I didn’t think I’d be able to finish. But all the time, as always, amazing runners sharing the dregs of cheer that they could muster up. Some familiar faces from previous races, a lot of new people to talk to. The next feed station was at 19 miles – Just another 10km and then I’ll see about pulling out. I looked forward to being shuttled back and sitting in the sun waiting for Daniel to finish his half marathon. Dreams of pulling out pushed me forwards, albeit incredibly slowly.

At mile 16 I saw a marshall. It had been a very long, lonely mile or so and I was at rock bottom. He told me I was halfway. But I’ve done 16 milesOh you know these events, 26 miles is just an estimate, he replied. I had done the run last year, I knew it was 26 miles, not 32. But my spirits dropped from low to rock-bottom. The next 3 miles are a blur in my mind. I was dying the entire time, seemingly encapsulated in panic, far from anyone or anything, with no shade from the sun. I was in one of the most beautiful landscapes I’d ever run in, and I couldn’t think coherently enough to enjoy it, only feeling surges of dread all over the place as I clambered over the rocks. It was here that I encountered The Guy Who Got Me Through, though it wasn’t until later that he really saved the day. We were both in a slump – he said he’d love to be sitting at home drinking a tea. I hadn’t even had a cup of tea that day (no wonder I didn’t feel good), and all I could think of was sugary tea from there on (note: I felt too ill to eat by this point, and was relying on coke from the feed stations to get some sugar in me).

This is a long account. It was a long day.

Every story needs a hero, and there are many many heroes in this one, but my first hero (and probably that of many other runners that day) was the ninja feed station at mile 19. It was here that I was supposed to drop out – I had actually decided that this would be the case – but instead I came across a little table and two friendly people handing out water and Kendal mint cake. They had done the race before, but had decided this year to hand out refreshments to runners instead, setting up outside a friend’s house where they could use a tap all day long (bearing in mind that the official feed stations were usually tap-less, so precious water had to be shipped to us – water really was at a premium that day). Here I got chatting to a small group of people and it turned out that we were all struggling with major issues. I WAS NOT ALONE. I told them that I had decided to drop out, but that their company might be enough to see me on a little further. We ran together for a while, and stuck together on and off for the remainder of the race.

This was the turning point for me. It took 19 miles (and who knows how many hours) of journeying forwards before my mind started to calm, but I got there. By this point the heat was seriously bad, and I was aware that it would be too much for many people, but miracuolously I felt ok. I had ample water and was soaked in suncream. I also have to mention here the lovely family of one runner, to whom I’d mentioned that I was getting some chafing from my backpack. She had given her family a description of me, and as I approached them they were holding out a tub of Vaseline, complete with kind words and well wishes. I wasn’t surprised – this level of kindness and camaraderie is what I’ve come to expect on Lakeland Trails events. If you’re reading, fellow runner, thank you – and well done on such a great run 🙂

The last six miles? Easy peasy compared to the first 20. I had blisters all over my feet, I was starving hungry, I had a grumbling headache and I hadn’t had a wee for more hours than is probably safe, but I felt as if I could do it for the first time since March. I ran along chatting to the same guy who I’d met earlier (now known as The Guy Who Got Me Through since we didn’t bother asking for names), whose company and really good conversation (how is it that you can be that tired and still really enjoy a conversation?) took me from enduring to enjoying my time out on the fells. He was one of a number of really awesome people who I met – always a theme at Lakeland Trails days out!  I actually felt kind of cheerful, and when we reached the final aid station (3 miles to go!) it was a veritable festival of joy. Here I bumped into Mark (sorry I called you Jeff – was a bit delirious by this point!) who was ploughing along like a running machine, and who offered me some great words of encouragement to see me through those last couple of miles. Up a bit, then meet the lakeshore and just a couple of miles of flat from there (oh and a wall to climb over).

I petered out in the last few hundred metres and ran in a sort of ‘creeping’ style over the finish line – not the strong finish that I usually like to go for. But who cares? Somehow I’d made it, battling on past the lowest of all lows to actually gain some real positivity from the run. Ask anyone who has ever run a marathon and they will tell you that the challenge is almost completely mental. Mostly, I agree with this. But somehow this run showed something different. I had no mental strength that day, none whatsoever. The thing that got me through that marathon was the strength of others. So, while I am free to think what I want of my own mental strength, which may or may not be available at any point, at least I know that there is a goldmine of strength to be found in other people. And I really hope that I can give back as much as I take – the runner who got treated to my ‘Last few miles rap’ at mile 24 (sorry) may have something to say about that one…

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*To the tune of So Solid’s 21 Seconds, but replacing the seconds with distance as you get closer to the end…

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I’ve been running for over 10 years now, and have learned a lot of lessons on the way. I think most runners generally agree that running is awesome, and can make a positive contribution to many aspects of non-running life: from overall fitness, ability to run for the bus, self-discipline, motivation at work, being part of a great community…the list is endless. But, as time has gone on and I have seen my life and myself change in various different ways, I’ve also come to realise that there are some aspects of running that aren’t all that positive. During a long run earlier this week, which involved running 2-mile loops of York’s very flat racecourse for 2 hours, I came up with a list of less-good lessons that running has taught me: a much shorter but essential counterpart to the long list of awesome things that running has brought to my life.

1. A marathon is not a diet plan
I learned this lesson the hard way with marathon number 1. I’d gained some weight during the first months of working in an office after my MA, and while signing up for a marathon had nothing to do with losing that weight, I had hoped that it might help along the way. It really didn’t; despite the hard training, my body required some serious nourishing in response, and I got to the start line a couple of kgs heavier than my pre-marathon state. This has been consistent across all of the marathons I’ve done: the amount of training puts my body into survival mode, and I tend to gain a little bit of weight over the course of the 4 training months. Rather than trying to fight this, I’ve come to respect it, and make full and proper use of rest days to allow my body the space that it needs to recover. While running helped me lose 6 stone when I first started out 10 years ago, it now seems to have the opposite effect: when I recently took a month or so off for injury in autumn I suddenly found that my jeans were a bit too loose. Our bodies are pretty amazing, eh?

2. No matter how hard you train, it doesn’t always pay off
I’ve always worked with the mantra that the more I put in, the more I’ll get out, but running appears to be the exception to this. I’ve never worked harder than I did for UT55, and I got to the start-line feeling as ready as I could be, but at only 12 miles in things started to go wrong. The same goes for two marathons where I’ve put in a solid amount of training in the hope of a PB, only to lose out by minutes or even seconds on race day. And, as I push towards the longer distances, my ability to get close to my PB in half marathons has waned significantly. This is the risk we take with running; with all the months of hard work, early mornings, sweaty speed sessions and long runs when we’d rather be in bed or drinking tea with someone lovely – it can all go wrong in an instant. A mis-judged breakfast choice, starting out too fast, going over on an ankle, leaving it too long for an energy gel – there are many reasons why we might miss out on a time we’d been chasing, a finish line or even a start line. Accomplishing a running dream hangs on so many tiny choices and moments of fate. I’m so glad that this isn’t the case in normal life!

3. Some people are effortlessly (annoyingly) good
I’m sure we’ve all been there. You invite a non-running friend to try running, and they’re better than you before they’ve even started. Or the person who shows up to a race totally unprepared but finishes way ahead of you, despite the fact that you’ve given so much of your life over to training in the previous months. This was the case on my first marathon. Oh, and my second. In fact, I don’t think my Dad has ever trained for a marathon, but he’s still managed to come way ahead of me in all but one marathon that we’ve run together. And, miraculously, with nothing more than a week of mountain biking in the Alps as ‘training’, he managed to chop 25 MINUTES off his marathon PB at Loch Ness in September. I kid you not. The only comfort to this is that I share his genes; I just might have to wait until my 50s like he did before I start getting speedy.

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First marathon success.

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Haweswater 2012: the year my Dad had sciatica so ran the whole HM a meter behind me, telling me to run faster.

4. Running isn’t always good for you
I learned this the hard way when I discovered that what I thought had always been a way for me to manage my mental health had turned into a major source of anxiety in my life. Especially with everyone sharing their escapades on social media, it can become increasingly difficult to feel that you are ever doing ‘enough’ when it comes to running and fitness in general. You thought running four times a week was a lot, but everyone else appears to go out five times. And everyone else is doing dynamic yoga and HIIT and spinning, too. And barre, whatever that is. And while you’re relaxing on the sofa in the evenings, everyone else appears to be locked to a ‘turbo’ in their living rooms, burning endless calories even as they watch TV. And then they post a picture of their ‘breakfast’ (seriously, does anyone on Instagram eat more than 500 calories a day?) and it’s smaller than the afternoon snack that you ate yesterday before an evening meal that contained CARBS. Lots of them. I think this is a growing issue for a lot of people: getting outdoors and doing something energetic is great, but it isn’t a case of more = better. I dealt with this by unfollowing people on Instagram and Twitter as necessary, and also by writing about it on this blog. It’s a work in progress, but it has helped no end.

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Sometimes it’s more fun to just lie around.


5. 5km is a tough distance

Another lesson learned the hard way. I did my first ever 5km race two weeks ago, at my first ever ParkRun. I’ve never had any interest in this distance because I admit that I’m just not quick enough for it to be any fun. I’m much more excited to see how far I can go than how fast, hence 5km and 10km races tend not to be on my radar. But this year, I want to try pushing myself to get a bit faster. Nothing super speedy or impressive, but I do want to see my times improve over shorter distances again, even back to how they were a couple of years ago. So, I thought I’d give my local ParkRun a try. Only 5kms, how hard can it be? Whether I was naive or simply arrogant I do not know, but I set off at a comfortably speedy (for me) pace, rushing past lots of other runners and enjoying the opportunity to push myself hard from the start. About a mile in and I was feeling great, but not long after that the lack of breakfast and unfamiliar effort of running at that pace took its toll, and I wasn’t sure if I could get to the end without stopping to walk. Everything hurt, and I slowed to snail pace in the last mile, only hoping that I’d be able to make it to the end. I finished in 29 minutes, complete with lots of respect for all of those people who do a good job at running that distance. This Saturday I set off at a much steadier pace and shaved more than a minute off my time. Phew.

6. Enthusiasm is as important as talent
As I document over and over again on this blog, I love the Lakeland Trails events. I was lucky enough to win a season ticket to the Autumn series in a spot prize back at Cartmel in March, and so Autumn 2015 saw us take a number of trips up to the Lake District to take part in the four Autumn events. A couple of weeks ago my Dad texted me to ask if I’d seen the results from the Autumn series. I hadn’t, since being in the last quartile of every race I’d taken part in meant that I tried to avoid dwelling on how much slower I was than everyone else, but I took a look, just to be polite. What my Dad wanted me to see was that he’d come top in his category and eighth overall – very impressive. But when I looked at the ladies’ results I noticed that my name was also up there – a rather less impressive 20th in my category and 66th overall, but even so it felt fantastic to be so high up on the list. The fact is that it was my love for running in these races, and by no means my running skills, that got me there. And I’ll take that, no problemo.

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In my happy place

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We spent a few days in the Lake District at the beginning of September. We camped in Seatoller and took the opportunity to climb Scafell Pike on the Thursday, and then headed to Keswick for some B&B luxury the next day, in time for the Lakeland Trails event on the Saturday. Even before the start of the holiday I’d been experiencing some strange (and pretty nasty) aching in my ankle, and had barely done any running in the two weeks before the event. I climbed the mountain fully aware that it might put an end to my hopes of running that weekend, and when I was able to run I did so with full acknowledgement that I wasn’t doing myself any favours. My ankle was fine for the first few miles, but 9 miles of technical trails were just about enough to make walking painful the following day.

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Photo courtesy of James Kirby

I wasn’t surprised when my doctor told me that I’d need to stop running. What did surprise me was that I was totally ok with that. For the first time, I listened to the advice I was given knowing that I would pay it some heed and not push myself. Something about pushing myself has become old news around here – it no longer interests me, and not running turned out to be one of the most revealing (at times painfully revealing) experiences I’ve had in a while.

Not running allowed me to address all of my reasons for being afraid of not running, and in turn, allowed me to reassess all of the reasons why I run. I realised that running had become much more a part of my life than it should be; my weeks were planned around when I would run and what sort of running I wanted to do; there was a non-negotiable commitment to the plans I had made, and, well I guess I had become a bit boringThe idea of going three consecutive days without a run had become unthinkable – I ran on holiday, on days off, when I was more in need of pyjamas and pizza than exercise…every part of my life was tied to running in some way.

So, when I stopped, the first thing I noticed was relief. I was tired, and actually, I was a bit bored of running; a break was good news. The surprise here was that I didn’t frantically start rushing out to a spinning class or on daily bike rides instead: I upped my weekly swim to twice a week and, if the weather suited, went on a short bike ride at the weekend. I couldn’t really walk far (my Doc advised to avoid walking where possible), so I paid more attention to the unavoidable walks that I had to do, appreciating the time outdoors as much as I possibly could.

I also noticed that I didn’t become depressed. I had been convinced that my mental stability absolutely depended on running: nope, I was wrong. Of course, getting outside and moving is essential for good mental health, but so is coffee with friends, long morning lie-ins, quality husband time, an evening with a great book and furry cat cuddles. And, as the constant pressure on myself to get out running five times a week was no longer there, I felt in a much happier place then I’d been in a while. If anything, not running removed a huge burden from my life. Because running had become a burden; the thing I thought I did to keep myself happy was making me unhappy.

And this leads me to The Space. I would perhaps have been tempted to refer to this as The Gap previously – the idea that stopping running would leave a big gap in my life and I’d just sit feeling sad, getting fat and being bored (I am a bit ashamed to be typing these words, but I think it’s true of how I used to feel). But no, suddenly there was space. I got in touch with the friends I hadn’t contacted in a while, I went to my favourite coffee shop on empty afternoons and treated myself to some reading time, I stayed in my pyjamas until noon on Sundays, I bought myself some new things. I applied for (in one case successfully) some exciting jobs and took part (unsuccessfully) in a baking competition. I made bread for the first time in ages and stocked up on homemade jams and chutneys using veg from the garden and foraged blackberries. I made homemade ketchup – red and green! I visited my family for Sunday dinner and spent an afternoon at a rugby game in my home town. It’s not that I never did things things before, but before they always had to fit in to ‘a busy schedule’ of keeping up what I thought was my favourite hobby. It turns out that grassroots rugby and mushroom pie is really quite fun too. Life became fuller than it’s been in a long time, and at the same time there was more space to sit and breathe, slowly.

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The best loaf of bread I’ve ever made

Of course, there were moments when I desperately wanted to run. This is the best time of year to get out there, and the weather has been perfect for long Sunday runs. It was those moments when things were most difficult that I was able to find something new and exciting. This is where I was able to really question myself – am I a runner or not? Do I ever want to run again? For about three weeks I was convinced that I had to stop running altogether, and those moments were the only glimmers of what the future might hold as a runner, and not as a non-runner. On many an occasion I sat on the floor with my eyes closed, in a sort of meditation I suppose, and just listened to what my thoughts were telling me. This non-running existence is slower, unpressured; life is fuller, more peaceful; I am happier and more whole. It didn’t take long before it was obvious that this weird paradox where we run marathon after marathon as a way of justifying or finding worth in our actions and existence – well, it’s just another excess of modern life. To a certain extent running has become a consumer product, like a designer handbag, perhaps. We want more and more, because the getting, rather than the having, feels so good. It does feel good – there’s no denying it – but it also makes us feel bad, guilty, not good enough. And thus the cycle begins. I half-speak for myself, but I’m sure I’m not the only one.

Finally, eventually, I came to the place that I’d been looking for. I realised that the important part of my non-running journey had passed, and I was left with a sensible balance of wanting to get out running and not wanting to ever feel pressure ever again about doing or not doing something that I choose to do for fun. It took four weeks for the thought processes to gather in a happy place where I no longer felt fear about not being injured any more, or about starting running again (and having to make the decision about whether or not I would). Finally I was comfortable about starting again with a new ‘only when it feels good’ approach.

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Four weeks isn’t a long time – could you do it? It was one of the nicest four weeks I’ve spent in ages. Oh, and in answer to the inevitable question, I don’t own a set of scales, but my slightly-too-tight-to-wear jeans now fit nicely; I wonder if this is my body’s response to relaxing and being allowed to regulate itself without constantly fighting for energy? It was hard to accept that I was feeling this way about running, and I’m glad that I was forced into it with an injury because I never would have taken the time to stop otherwise. After the break (and still with an ankle that needs caring for) I was glad to start running again, but now my sole goal for a run is to feel good and shake off the day (I’m yet to manage a morning run – I’ve become too fond of lazy breakfasts with my husband). So far I’ve been paying attention constantly to how I feel when I’m out, and questioning my reasons for getting out there. Never again do I want to find my running schedule on auto-pilot, where a hobby turns into a burden and thus a drain on my quality of life.

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A year or so ago I wrote about living with OCD on my other blog. After years of hiding a massive part of myself away from pretty much everyone around me, it was a relief to confess the inner workings of my mind to friends and family, even if it had to be via an impersonal blog post. OCD is back in the public eye again this week with a Horizon documentary exploring some of the neuroscience behind this condition, and I can’t help but feeling more aware of my own experience of OCD now that I see people discussing it on social media. I didn’t watch the documentary myself, but was overjoyed to see so many positive and sympathetic comments from people on Twitter this morning.

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I have to add here that this condition is different for everyone – no one story is the same, and in my case at least, the story has a number of very different and sometimes entirely incoherent chapters. Even my own story at one point is not the same as my own story at a different point. OCD does not make sense; it’s tricky to deal with.

OCD means that most of my life is careful, spent avoiding things and situations, hiding away or trying to make day-to-day things easier. But there’s one really massive thing that contradicts all of this completely: you guessed it, running. Running somehow frees me from anxiety, and over the years I’ve found that it helps me move forwards, allowing me to rebel against some of the things that hold me back the most. Recently I’ve noticed myself doing things that I’d previously been unable to do: drink water from plastic cups at aid stations, use portaloos, high-five cheering kids as I run past. I did panic when I checked my number for the UT55 (553) to find that it added up to 13, and you’ll probably never find me grabbing a handful of jelly babies from a kindly spectator – but slowly I’m getting there.

There’s something about running that makes things possible; it’s a freedom that doesn’t exist in any other aspect of my life. I’ll gleefully run through a muddy field and return home covered in dirt, but when it comes to sitting on a friend’s sofa or flicking through a magazine in the dentist’s waiting room I’m often totally stumped. I’m sure that medical types would tell me that it’s the release of serotonin during running that temporarily releases me from the grasp of OCD (which is often treated with SSRIs), and while I’m sure that they know more than me about this stuff, I’d also argue that there’s something primal about running that strips us of all of the complicated cognitive stuff that comes with being a human.

Marathon running might be quite an extreme example, but I’ve found that the more I push myself to my limit, the more I am stripped to my most basic of needs: water, food, and eventually, rest. When I’m tired and dehydrated during a hot run, the promise of water from a plastic cup gets me through, regardless of the phantom fingerprints on the cup and bits of dirt and dust in the water that would usually leave me going thirsty. I don’t think twice about drinking water with bits of road in it during a marathon, but won’t touch the cups at conferences; the need to hydrate so that I can keep moving forwards is urgent enough to allow me to forget all of the ‘what ifs’ (not always, but increasingly often).

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The view from the top of the biggest hill on Keswick Half Marathon. Run and conquer!

But more often than not I’m running around the streets and trails of York, and am not about to keel over from thirst or exhaustion. Still, the moving forwards appears to work as a metaphor, as I run – almost literally – from the plague of worries that circle around my head. I remember during my very first months of running outside, a large fly flew right into my mouth. I stopped for a second and gagged a little bit, which was enough time for the sirens to go off (who wouldn’t be grossed out by that anyway?). I had no choice but to keep moving forwards, and as I did the sirens began to quieten a little, as if I was running away and leaving them all behind me. Running is an amazing way to calm down stresses and anxieties, so it makes sense to me that it would help to dampen the obsessive thoughts from OCD, too. When I recently took on a whole mouthful of dirt at the Lakeland Trails marathon, my immediate thought (after checking all of my teeth were in place) wasn’t panic about contamination – instead I was panicking that I wouldn’t be able to keep on running to the finish line. As I sat in the First Aid tent with my medal, my mind was on the glory of completing such an amazing race, and not on the fingers of the first aider that were searching my mouth for missing pieces.

In the end, for me the value of running is in the positivity that it perpetuates. Even when the world is too scary a place, running helps me out of the door and gets me back in search of the good feelings and empowerment that push all of the obsessive thoughts and strange habits to the side. When real life becomes difficult to deal with through stress or sadness or whatever, my OCD is the first thing to raise its ugly head; keeping positivity in check through running has been the best way to push the lid down on it, and running is the easiest and most reliable way to do that.

Of course, this experience applies only to me. I’m not saying that running is a cure for OCD – I would be the first to know if it was – but that the positive vibes that I find when I’m running have helped me no end. It gets the bad thoughts moving and replaces them with good ones. It pushes me to an edge where contamination is less important. And it somehow creates a space where I am safe to forget all of the things that I’ve decided are true – it gives me a world without all of those rules and routines, and I’m endlessly grateful for that.

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During my PhD I’ve been lucky enough to travel regularly, attending conferences and workshops in some rather exciting places. Anyone who attends a lot of conferences will know that no matter how exotic the location, it’s near impossible to stray very far from the conference venue when days begin at 8:30 and finish after dinner and drinks that evening. Unless you tie an extra day or two to the beginning/end of a conference, you can travel pretty far without seeing much other than a conference hall and a table of sandwiches.

It was during my first overseas conference in 2012 that I realised how great it would be to have my running gear along with me for the ride. I was in Stockholm for five days, but most of my time was taken up in the conference itself, so instead I got up early each day and walked the few miles across the city to the venue. I made an effort to take a different route each day, and one day I found a glorious path through a forest which led me right to the university: had I not made the effort to leave my hotel at 7am, there would be no opportunity to discover these things. Ever since, I’ve packed some lycra in my backpack (it takes up no space, after all) and worn my trainers for the journey (comfy, excellent when running for buses/trains, and no problems at airport security) – conference travel has been yet another excuse for some awesome running adventures.

Most recently, I enjoyed a little tour of Warwick University’s excellent campus. Not glamorous, but great for a little bit of headspace before a long day of networking, presenting and thinking. I’ve run along the beaches of San Sebastian at dawn when no one else was around, joined the masses of early-rising Swedes at midsummer on Södermalm, Stockholm, and explored woodland trails in Leipzig. Generally I don’t run far as usually there isn’t time, but when you’re in a new place no running route is boring, and a quick 5km is all you need to see something of a place. When staying for a few nights, I usually make the effort to get up as early as 5am on one morning (so long as it’s light outside) to get a decent long run in – at that time, you get to see a place so differently from in daylight when tourists are at their most enthusiastic.

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Wonky Stockholm, 5:30am at midsummer.

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Less-wonky Stockholm

Running has taken me to some awesome places, too. Last year I was lucky enough to get to a workshop on a Norwegian island in the Arctic Circle, and Daniel met me in Tromsø afterwards to run the Midnight Sun half marathon. This was an experience I’ll never forget; taking part in an overseas race has to be one of my top running highlights to-date, and I’m keen to do more and more as I continue to explore the world.

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Runners on the Midnight Sun Marathon in Tromsø

Equally, I’ve taken running to some awesome places, and used it to my advantage in times of need. Last week I was visiting family in Ontario, Canada, and made use of the early hours presented to me by jetlag to see the sun rise over Lake Ontario. It was an incredible experience: locusts and cicadas sung out but the rest of the world was so still and quiet. The vastness of Lake Ontario was exactly what I needed after weeks of busy thesis-writing, and it was warm enough (actually, it was boiling hot even at that time) to sit down and soak in the views for a while.

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Spot the CN Tower in the distance!

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I have a little Deuter 15L Speedlite which I use as my everyday backpack*, and doubles up perfectly as a running pack for easy runs. I always pop in some water, a map and my phone/camera, just like any proper tourist, before I head out on my exploration runs. And, importantly, I never hesitate to stop and enjoy the views, take photos, and soak in the awesomeness of wherever I might be!

*Unfortunately nobody has paid me to say this; I just genuinely love this backpack.

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While chatting to a friend recently, I referred to myself as ‘not a very good runner’. She was amazed; how was it possible that I could run marathons and not be a good runner? I tried to explain that being able to run marathons doesn’t make someone a good runner – to be a good runner you have to be fast, or at least getting faster. I am neither of these things, and happily so. She didn’t accept my put-downs: I’m flattered to think that she thinks I’m a good runner, at least.

I guess that running is yet another of the many ways in which we measure ourselves in life, and as such is one of the many ways in which we compare ourselves to others. I think that I’m not a good runner because most people are faster than me. But then again, plenty of those people have never run a marathon, so how does that fit into this equation? After completing a race, no matter what distance, the first thing anyone asks is ‘what time did you get?’ It’s the default, probably because those people want to know how they stack up against that time, or perhaps because they don’t know what else to ask about a race. But it’s boring, nonetheless; it turns running into a competition, and unless you’re at the front, running is only ever a competition within yourself.

I started competing with myself during my training for my first marathon, back in 2012. I put in some effort – hill sessions, intervals, etc. – and got results when I raced. I set PBs in both my half marathon and 10km distances that year, and for the next 12 months or so, every race that I ran I would get faster. This lasted for about a year, slowly chipping first seconds and then minutes off my times. It felt good – it was awesome to cross that finish line knowing that I’d given my all, and I finally started to feel proud of my running. I still wasn’t a good runner, but I felt that one day, I might be.

I don’t know what happened after that. I got  more into marathon running and stopped doing so many halfs; I got busy with other things and running became more of a way to relax and less of something to really try at. Whatever happened, I got slower, I stopped trying, and my half marathon times crept up again, comfortably above the 2-hour mark that I’d fought against for so long. And guess what? I didn’t care one bit. I was still having fun, loving every race that I took part in and particularly enjoying running them alongside my husband (who likes to take races easy!); my life is so full of pushing hard and trying to constantly be better that I never miss this aspect of running. I could be a faster runner if I really tried, but it turns out that I’m perfectly happy being a slower runner.

I don’t want to suggest that there’s anything wrong with chasing times and constantly trying to better oneself through running. That’s not the case, and I have so much admiration for anyone who can get those super-speedy times, whether without trying or with loads of hard graft. But I think there’s a need to stop putting so much onus on speed and time, as if these are the only important measures to live (or run) by: what about enjoyment – when was the last time anyone asked how much you enjoyed a race? It’s always my first (and often only) question, following on from the necessary congratulations that anyone who runs any distance at any speed deserves. Scott Jurek, one of the world’s greatest runners and a current personal hero of mine, sits at the finish line after he’s completed a race and cheers in every single runner, his view being that every person crossing that finish line has done the same task, gone through the same highs and lows, the same preparations and personal sacrifices.

For me, and I’m sure for many others, running is simply not about speed. Nor is it about self-improvement in any shape or form. In fact, it’s the one area of my life where I am free to just ‘be’, independent of any expectation from myself or others. To go out and lose myself completely, breath and feet working in time with one another, thoughts drifting or standing still or fighting one another or just simply non-existent: that is what I run for. Fitness doesn’t really come into it, it’s just a nice by-product; I guess I would be fitter if it did, but the fact that this doesn’t even bother me speaks for itself. I’m glad it’s worked out this way, and that running is simply my way of meditating and being alone with myself. It’s fulfilling (just as getting a PB in a race is fulfilling), but it means that running always gives, and that I can always take from it – failure (or at least not achieving what I set out to achieve) never comes into it.

Windermere 2013 was the only time that I sensed loss, rather than the ultimate of gains, after a race. I had trained so hard for that marathon, and two years later I’m pretty certain that’s the fittest I’ve ever been. I got my still-standing half marathon PB at Keswick two weeks earlier (seriously, how did I manage to get my PB at Keswick? I’m still impressed by this achievement!), and had been aiming for sub 4:30 at Windermere. Anyway, I had a brutal time in the marathon, and plagued with stomach cramps and the strangest inability to focus my mind for a single moment, I came in at 4:31. It was a PB (at that time, I finally made it below 4:30 at York last year), but still it was a failure, simply because I hadn’t achieved the goal that I set out to achieve. After all that effort and all that agony, I wasn’t able to celebrate. That was the moment that I stopped caring about time-based achievements in running, and I’ve been a happier and more chilled out runner ever since.

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A PB, but not sub-4:30, at Windermere 2013.

Why, in this crazy and paradoxical world, does anyone run? We all have our own stories and motivations, and with that come our own goals and hopes. When we set out, we might be running from something or we might be running towards it. What is true on one run or in one race isn’t necessarily true for the next. There’s no need to define ourselves specifically, and certainly we shouldn’t limit ourselves to being slow or bad or ‘only’ anything; the awesome thing about running is that it makes clear how capable we are as humans. Equally, it can show us how incapable we can be at times, too. But health and fitness are unstable, and at any point that we have both of these – whether we’re achieving a sub-3:30 marathon or jogging around the block once a week – we are ultimately blessed. If we can enjoy running on top of all of that, well, what else matters, really?

All too often, when working in my local running shop, customers would berate themselves for not achieving what they had set out to achieve. Or worse, for not achieving a time that they thought would make them worthy of something, I’m not sure what. But these achievements are too often defined by others – the abilities and stories of other people, which have nothing to do with our own. So why even bother measure ourselves against anything other than the single moment that we’re in? To me, the only question that really matters during a run is am I having fun? Everything else is so time-locked, depending on so many factors (many of which are out of my control) that it’s impossible to let it count for anything at all.

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Running happy at Kielder marathon 2014.

It’s true that I might not be a good runner to many people’s standards. I know that my 10km personal best would be a pretty poor effort for a lot of runners out there. But other people’s standards are not what I live (or run) by. In fact, when I consider my own standards, and what I want to be as a runner (or anything else) I’m pretty much as good as it is possible to be: enthusiastic, adventurous and committed. Having fun on a run is always my main goal these days, and while it always feels good to achieve faster times and longer distances, these two factors are just statistics. Needless to say, there are currently enough statistics in my life already.

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