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I woke up at 4am this morning, and then again at 5am, and then again and 6. A typical Saturday start for me, which is often followed by a battle with myself to do something – anything – because it would be too easy to lie around and doze the day away. This morning, like most Saturday mornings since January, I got myself up and went for a run. Unlike all of the previous Saturday mornings, though, this morning I finally made the effort to get to Durham parkrun, something I’ve been meaning to do since I arrived in August, but had never quite managed.

Southern Boundaries Park, where Durham parkrunners meet every Saturday, is five miles from my house, and without transport this requires a taxi ride and thus commitment to the cause. And when I wake up on a Saturday, exhausted from the week behind me and overwhelmed by the expanse of empty weekend space ahead, commitment is the last thing I want. Plus, the idea of going alone makes me inexplicably anxious – the irony of having moved to the USA alone and set up a new life from scratch is very apparent here. Today was a bit different, though. I’ve been particularly stressed over the past week, and this morning I knew that if I didn’t get out there quickly I might easily fritter a weekend away feeling tired and sorry for myself. I had no motivation to go out on a local run, and since I was already feeling not-so-great, the stress of getting myself to the start line didn’t feel so huge. Fast-forward to 9am, and I’d had a great run, got myself some much-needed weekend endorphins, chatted to loads of friendly people, and taken part in a wonderfully uplifting community event. Oh, and I also ran my fastest (non-treadmill) 5km in over a year, coming in at 3rd lady and first in my category. Inevitably, I can’t wait to go back again.

But there is a bigger point to all of this. When I arrived in Durham I had recently fallen out with running and was quite committed to the idea of ‘quitting’. Clearly, this didn’t happen. But what did happen is that I reframed my relationship with running altogether, and over the past nine months it has gone from being a stone in my shoe to serving as a crutch to help me get through some of the toughest days of my time in North Carolina.

I signed up for the Asheville Marathon in January, not as a way to ‘get fit’ or achieve any fitness/life goal, but to serve as an endorphin-soaked protective shield against increasingly frequent periods of low mood. A rather extreme Ulysees contract, perhaps, but the marathon (and notably its $170 entry fee!) served as the running buddy waiting on the corner: I knew that committing to a marathon would push me to get out running every weekend (almost) without fail. Every weekend, I’d do something positive, get some fresh air, explore my new neighbourhood, nodding/smiling/waving to other people as I went. It worked. There wasn’t a single Saturday morning between January and March that I actually *felt* like running, but barring one really tough 20-miler in unexpectedly hot conditions, I enjoyed every single long run, and spent the rest of the day on a high.

I thought I’d stop running after the marathon, but if anything, it has shown me how great running can be when it isn’t tied too tightly to miles and speed. I go out and run until it stops feeling good, and then I go home. I stop to watch the early-morning bird life and admire exotic local plants. And I always feel brighter afterwards. Running has, essentially, helped me work through the hardest bits of being away, through the homesickness and loneliness and weekend time that, when I first arrived, I would just work through to avoid having to find ways to entertain myself. Importantly, running doesn’t give me a migraine, while seven-day working weeks certainly do.

My parkrun experience this morning was a zoomed-in version of all of those good things and more. I arrived into a community that I was already part of; my status as ‘runner’ (regardless of speed, age, experience, or anything else) made it easy to just start talking to people and become a new part of their local group. This is what I love the most about running. There were a few other Brits there, and we all swapped ‘why we’re in Durham’ stories (I was the only one not on holiday), cheered each other on (it’s an out-and-back three-loop course), and took photos afterwards. I got a lift home with a couple who didn’t even live in my direction – they drove 30 minutes out of their way to help me out.

I decided to ‘quit’ running last year because I was tired of the physical and mental aspects of it: the strain of pushing myself physically didn’t feel much like a hobby, the mental discipline I exerted on myself didn’t feel like a hobby, the language around running  – particularly on Twitter – didn’t make it sound like something I might want to do for fun. But being in Durham, running the half marathon and then the Asheville marathon and then even this morning’s parkrun, has given me a constant technicolour display of all the awesome things that exercise in all its forms can provide. I’ve taken my running back to its grassroots, and we’re getting on better than ever. Thanks to running I’ve found a trusty way to experience adventure and joy during some really difficult times. Now, when I feel low or too far from home, I take myself on a 20-minute run just to see if it helps. It doesn’t always, but more often than not it provides a serotonin boost (or something) enough to change my mindset and get me back on course for the day ahead.

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Back in August I was on the plane from the UK heading to North Carolina when I spotted a woman in an Asheville Marathon race t-shirt. I made a note to look into it when I arrived, just in case I changed my mind about never doing a marathon again. As it happened, the 2017 race coincided with my Dad’s birthday – a significant one, at that – and by January we’d signed up for the race and were planning a Great Smoky Mountains road trip, finishing in Asheville and, all being well, a little run around the Biltmore Estate.

I did what I’d consider to be the minimal amount of training for this race. I kept my weekly mileage low, trained over three months rather than the typical four, and didn’t even set myself a training plan. Having fallen out of love with running over the past year, I didn’t want to put any pressure on myself either mentally or physically. I didn’t even tell anyone – except my parents, my husband, and I guess also my four Strava followers – that I was planning to do a marathon. I thought of the long weekend runs as adventures aimed at exploring Durham, and did mid-week runs as and when I felt like it. As the weeks passed I steadily began to enjoy running again; with the pressure off, it became a pleasure to get out there in the sunshine and do something positive for myself. I had only two goals for the marathon: the first and most important was to enjoy it, the same way that I’d been able to enjoy the majority of my long Saturday runs. The second was to finish in under five hours, knowing that spending any longer than that on the course would probably mean that I hadn’t ticked the box for goal number one.

Fast-forward to March, we set off towards Tennessee in blazing sunshine. This is the first year that I’ve ever acquired clear tan lines by mid-February, and in fact I’d come to enjoy running in the heat (and by heat, I mean between 20 and 25C, with accompanying humidity – nothing too serious at this point). I felt ready-ish, and excited for the adventure ahead. As we were checking in to our hotel in the Smokies that evening, a weather warning came up showing heavy snow over the weekend, with 3-6 inches due to fall on Saturday night. It seemed inconceivable at that point; the next day I foolishly managed to get sunburn while hiking on the Appalachian Trail – the prospect of snow seemed very faint.

But indeed, we arrived in Asheville on the Saturday morning to extremely chilly weather, and by lunchtime the snow had begun. We settled in to our rather glorious hotel on the Biltmore Estate and tried to forget about the weather – I convinced myself that it was getting warmer and the threat of snow had surely passed. We tucked in to a concatenation of the few vegetarian options on the menu that night – bean burgers, potato wedges and asparagus – and I was a little nervous of the lack of simple pasta, and the fact that I’d been unable to resist the toasted croissant bun that came with my burger. Experimenting with new food during a pre-race meal is surely the first big no-no of marathon running. I was extremely nervous, and all intentions of a relaxed race felt impossible to summon. Despite the Egyptian cotton sheets and comfy bed, sleep failed me that night, too.

As promised, we woke that morning to a thick covering of snow. Luckily, though, the air temperature felt more bearable than the previous day, so I didn’t have to resort to wearing tights (which is good, since I didn’t bring any). The snow was still falling fast at the start line, and as we set off in the early morning light I wasn’t sure what to expect underfoot. It was a little slippy but the organizers had clearly gone to every effort to make the course safe. There weren’t as many runners as I expected, despite two races – the full marathon and the half – running together for the first 10 miles. But oh, it was magical. The estate is private, so it felt like a true winter wonderland, with untouched snow, no cars, and acres and acres of snow-covered woodland and rolling fields. It was a quiet first few miles, with many people stopping to take photos – you could see the delight on everyone’s faces: weather that had threatened to make this event horrendously uncomfortable had in fact made it truly special.

The first 10 miles passed like a breeze. I was running very comfortably, and slightly ahead of the 4;45 pacers which filled me with confidence. At one point I even entertained the thought of an unexpected PB. At mile 10 the marathon course veered off as the half marathoners headed back to the finish, and from here the course was on rather muddy trails. Nothing too serious compared to what I’m used to, but more ‘trail-like’ than I had expected. It wasn’t long after this point that the slipping around led to some serious aching in my hips. The aching in my hips then led to some negative thoughts. I stopped to walk. I considered turning back and finishing the half marathon instead. I almost did turn back and do the half marathon instead. I ummed and ahhhhed. The 4;45 pacers passed me. The negativity continued. I looked at my watch: zero. I had forgotten to start it! The pacers were long gone, I had no idea of my time, I was in pain, the half marathon finish was just there. I was in a very bad place for a couple of miles, until I reached an aid station. I had some water and the marshall said something kind enough to make my eyes well up with tears. I ran on, feeling revived and saw a sign by the side of the trail: ‘don’t wake up tomorrow wondering what more you could have done today’. Not normally a sentiment I’d be on board with, but I figured that I’d rather pull out at mile 16 than give up on my intended goal before it was truly over, and so I ran on.

As is always the case with marathon running, the low didn’t last long. We were soon in open country again, and the miles were passing quicker than I could count them. I was having a Really Good Time. A field of beautiful black cows watched on as we ran past – I greeted them, full of joy. The same went for the pigs basking in mud a couple of miles down the road. The Smoky Mountains framed the horizon, the sky was turning brilliant blue, and I no longer had any regard for the time. It turns out that running a marathon without any concern for time is so much better than any momentary happiness that a PB brings. Five hours of joyful running in a beautiful landscape: who could ask for more?

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Happy face.

Shortly after I hit mile 20, I noticed that the finish line was only 100 meters or so away. It turned out that the last six miles were absolutely torturous, route-wise: an out-and-back, taking us three-ish miles away from the finish before we turned around to run back towards it again. At this point I passed my Dad, who looked about as awful as it is possible to look while still being alive. He was only 100 meters from the finish line, and I found out later that he was feeling very sick at that point. Pushing hard for 26.2 miles will do that to you, I guess. Shortly after this point I had what I think might be my biggest running achievement yet: I held a reasonably coherent conversation in French, 21 miles in to a marathon. We switched to English when I couldn’t remember the word for ‘uphill’ ( en montée, FYI), and spent the next mile or so laughing, joking, and wailing in despair. It really was torturous, but for me this is where the really amazing memories lie. As runners passed each other, they called out ‘Good job!’ to those heading in the other direction. Every single person smiled at me as we passed. One person shouted ‘Hey! Nice accent!’. It was a parade of the best that the USA has to offer: the friendliest, most encouraging, and most enthusiastic people around. It was infectious, and I could not stop smiling for a second.

I crossed the finish line with a huge grin, seemingly etched on my face for the previous 8 miles or so. With a time of 4;56 I’d achieved both of my goals, but really the sub-5 was only meaningful in that I was back in time for lunch and well ahead of the beer tent closing. This was my eighth marathon, but I don’t think I’ve experienced such an extreme level of joy and pride at finishing the distance before. The first thing I said to my Dad was ‘Oh wow, i’m so pleased with myself!’, and four days later the feeling remains. I smile when I remember the day. I think it felt so good because of the goal I’d set for myself: I proved to myself that marathon running can be about so much more than physical achievement and measurable goals. It can be about getting out there and having a good time, celebrating the goodness of people and sharing something amazing with other runners from all over the world. It also meant that I got to share something really great with my Dad, independent (for me, anyway) of the stresses of training and internal pressure.

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We were awarded with the most wonderful wooden medals and a can of locally-brewed beer, which I drank in the ladies’ loos while waiting in line for the shower. I met some awesome women there, too: awesome people are everywhere, as it happens. I then tucked in to a PBJ toastie and the most delicious chunk of Biltmore banana bread with a cup of real English ‘hot tea’ while waiting for my Dad to stretch off. All of it feels so potent and important. It was perhaps the most important day in my American experience so far: a day when I really got to see the best of what North Carolina has to offer, and I got to say out loud to people ‘You guys are amazing!’ (which I did, numerous times). This race will say with me for a very long time. One of the most enjoyable races I’ve done, in one of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen. If North Carolina lets me back one day I’m pretty sure I’ll be returning to the Biltmore Estate for this race.

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Die Wellness. The first time I heard this now commonplace word was probably some time in 2003, courtesy of my GCSE German textbook. Back then, ‘wellness’ had not seeped into and overtaken our health culture – at least, my world was free from its connotations – and instead it was a new word for my expanding German lexicon: easy to remember, difficult to translate, conjuring up images of Germans doing aerobics or Nordic Walking. My edition of the Duden gives a rough definition of die Wellness as ‘good, well, shipshape’, with a reference to ‘light physical exercise as a way to reach desired wellbeing’. There is no mention of avocados or headstands; my Duden gives me no reason to believe that wellness is now a strict and relentless regime that will somehow make me Good.

I don’t need to introduce the more recent understanding of Wellness (with a capital ‘W’) and the industry built around it. I should, however, point in the direction of Ruby Tandoh‘s brilliant analysis of this regime, which is definitely worth a read. No, wellness with a small ‘w’ has been on my mind a lot over the past weeks and months, as I have found myself, relatively speaking at least, not well. And, ironically, as I begin my return to better health, I am finding that many answers lie in avoiding what is preached by Wellness, and instead navigating feeling healthy by trying out new ways of living that are definitely not endorsed by any of our beloved Wellness ‘gurus’.

Now, just to be clear, there is nothing seriously wrong with me. I’m suffering a very sudden onset of B12 and Ferritin anaemia (only 6 weeks ago my iron levels were Popeye-esque), and have to have some extra tests to work out why this quick plunge in blood health might have occurred. But I’m female, semi-vegetarian and training for an ultra marathon: likely this is No Big Deal. One thing that is a big deal: the symptoms of anaemia, which generate tiredness that sleep can’t cure, inability to think straight or remember things, breathlessness and sudden need to sit down and have a rest. I have been able to return to a more functional physical state only a couple of weeks after being diagnosed thanks to relentless B12 injections and some small changes to my diet and lifestyle. And this is where wellness comes in.

This time last year I was in the process of becoming a ‘proper’ vegan, and had just about cut out dairy and egg from my diet. I was also consuming a very large amount of veg, easily managing 12-15 portions a day (hint: veg = fibre). I took a vitamin supplement, as advised by my doctor. I was also doing lots of running, and while I felt like I was doing all the ‘good’ things, I was feeling increasingly bad. I wrote about my vegan phase here, so I won’t repeat myself. I chose veganism for ethical issues, but it also coordinated handily with the sudden explosion of vegan cookbooks and recipes in newspapers: it seemed like a good thing to be doing. Moreover, everywhere I looked I was being told to ‘just eat more’ fruit and veg, and that red meat and sugar-laden supermarket bakes would inevitably lead to my early demise. I also read Scott Jurek’s Eat and Run at that time – there is no doubt that veganism worked for him as a runner, so why not me too? All in all, it seemed like a good fit.

(I appear to be having an anti-vegan rant, but as I’ve never tried to subsist on the meat-laden diet of the Hemsley sisters I can’t comment on that. I only know that spaghetti that is really just raw courgette makes me fart excessively, and the fact that the existence of spaghetti is demonised in some circles makes me very sad.)

So fast-forward a year and back to my health. As I mentioned, I am feeling better. The doctors’ advice is consistent: I need to eat more of the stuff that is deemed poison by many Wellness ‘experts’. This includes fruit juice, breakfast cereal, dried fruit, meat (trying to work up to red meat but am a bit scared), fish, eggs, dairy. I also need to rest more, and do what I can to feel good again. For me, this has included lying on the sofa listening to old REM albums, gardening, walking painfully slowly and shouting at my husband when he keeps speeding up, lots of bubble baths, cuddles with my cat, gin and tonic, time off work, time off from my running schedule, allowing myself to feel rubbish and have a good cry/moan about it, chocolate cake. And lots and lots of  really slow yoga (I love this amazing gentle morning sequence by Yoga with Adriene). This is how wellness currently looks, for me and my current situation.

We all have our own version of wellness and what makes us well. Often it involves tablets or injections, or perhaps a strange sachet to pour into your morning glass of evil fruit juice. We’d be forgiven for thinking that there is such a thing as a one-size-fits-all Wellness, with expensive food and cult lifestyle choices as the main bringer of physical and emotional well-being. Matcha tea, dynamic yoga (with lots of ‘inversions’ of course) and avocados might work for some people, but for most of us a bit of balance is enough, occasionally supplemented with a trip to the pharmacy when things go awry. The fact that there are now wellness ‘events’ where attendees pay to be told how to live ‘healthily’ in one very specific and perhaps damaging way is both mind-boggling and sickening. This whole thing is just one big lie. I know, because I tried at least some of it (I’ve never managed a headstand, I must confess) and it made me unwell. Now, in order to undo this Wellness-induced unwellness I am enjoying bowlfuls of sugar-laden cornflakes with a side of supermarket-bought orange juice and a sachet of something pharmaceutical. I might even go for some red meat at some point. This is my wellness. It won’t sell millions of recipe books and I won’t be writing a newspaper column any time soon, but if it leads me to feeling fully-functional again then I couldn’t care less. And if we can return our understanding of wellness to those smiling Nordic walkers enjoying some gentle exercise before a bit of tea and cake, then we’ll all be a lot better off.

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There appears to be a lot of talk about run-streaks on social media these days, from running every day for a month to some of the crazier attempts at getting out there every day for a year (check out Shell’s blog for some inspiration). I’d never really been interested, as I believe that rest days should be rest days, and any day with even one mile of running in it doesn’t constitute my definition of a rest day. But I have heard some really positive feedback about run-streaks on Twitter, and when approached sensibly, it clearly can work well.

As December drew closer I started to hear talk of Advent Running: running at least three miles every day from 1st to 25th December. Since I’m no fan of advent calendar-style countdowns, I was quite attracted to this running-based alternative. And, to be perfectly honest, with the beginning of December came the end of two major challenges in my life: my PhD viva and the end of the Autumn term’s teaching. The perfectionist in me was instantly drawn to a way to fill in the ‘challenge gap’. I was intrigued to know whether I could take on this new running challenge, and keen for some form of distraction from the blank space of December that lay ahead. So I quietly decided to give it a go.

It was all going well until 4th December. That’s right – I hardly made it out four days on the trot without having to push myself hard. I rarely run for more than three days in a row, so this was clearly the first hurdle for me. The 4th December also happened to be the day after my PhD viva (one of the biggest challenges of my life), and an especially challenging day of teaching. The weather was bad, and I had excruciating stomach ache. I made it 1 mile down the road before I was convinced that I was going to be sick, so half a mile later I walked home as fast as I could and curled up on the sofa in pain and exhaustion. Not a good start to the first week!

After that, it was mostly a slog. My legs were tired and I felt noticeably more sluggish than normal (!); I gave up on any attempt at intervals and instead just pushed myself to get through my daily three miles as painlessly as possible. Weekly mileage was high, as I was doing 3-4 miles five days a week, and two long runs of 6 and 10ish miles on top of that. But none of the miles were doing much for me other than making me more tired. There were some enjoyable days, but by day 12 I wasn’t sure I’d make it through the 25 days.

On 12th December we headed up to Northumberland for a week of disconnecting and rest. Here I got a couple of really enjoyable runs in the bag: some trail running, some beach running and one very muddy run which did not go to plan. One of the best runs of the year was had during this week, when I headed southwards down the St Oswald’s national trail to Alnmouth, getting in 3 hours of incredible coastal scenes. It was hard and conditions underfoot were pretty awful at times, but the views were spectacular. I highly recommend this trail to anyone who loves some off-road running. Daniel met me in Alnmouth with some wet wipes and a recovery shake, and we celebrated a brilliant holiday with a big bowl of soup and a chunk of fruit cake at a local café.

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I felt that things were going well by this stage, but then it all fell apart. Who knows what hit me – exhaustion, probably, but at the time I thought I had contracted either some strange virus or was developing appendicitis. I missed a day, but only because I actually couldn’t move due to extreme stomach pains. The next day I felt better and tried out a tentative three miles, but the day after that I was back in my comatose state, swigging from a Gaviscon bottle and trying to work out who to leave all of my belongings to. Then we were back on – short runs at first, and then I dared a few extra miles.

I made it to Christmas Day, finishing with a sluggish but festive 4-miler in the pouring rain with Daniel. 101.5 miles in 25 days, including 2 days missed due to uncomfortable proximity with death. Some good runs, but mainly runs that I didn’t want to get out for, didn’t enjoy and didn’t get anything from.

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The most tired of all the legs.

 

Would I do it again? Definitely not. Whatever anyone else is capable of doing, run-streaks are not for me. It took the joy out of running, and left me with a constantly burning anxiety about when I’d get out, or how on earth I’d get out when I just didn’t feel like it. Life can be incredibly demanding, and the added pressure of turning a hobby into another commitment doesn’t seem very sensible to me. What I need more of is days of saying no, switching off and allowing myself to not do, not go, not push. I feel annoyed at myself for pushing so hard over a period of time when I really needed space from challenge and commitment: instead of being mindful during that difficult time, I pushed how I felt to the side and ploughed on regardless. I suspect that, for many people and not just myself, learning to stop is more of a challenge than pushing to go.

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I’ve spent many a holiday in the Lake District, but until November last year I had yet to experience the delights of Ullswater. Driving along the lakeside road in the rain, grey Novemberishness lit up with stunning autumn colours, I quite quickly fell in love with the place and was adamant that we’d be returning. Fast forward a few months later and the Lakeland Trails Dirty Double weekend seemed like the obvious choice for another trip up to Glenridding, so I booked myself on both events – Hellvelyn 15km and Ullswater 14km challenges, on Saturday and Sunday respectively – and treated Daniel to the Hellvellyn challenge as a birthday present.

When we ran Hellvelyn last year, the weather was pretty awful. Both the start and the finish of the race were accompanied by torrential downpours, but we were lucky to have a dry-ish run for the race itself (not including my temporary disappearance into a rather deep bog!). So, when we saw the awful forecast for this year’s Dirty Double weekender I wasn’t too worried: I’d done it before – and done a pretty good job, too – so I could definitely do it again. Having started to build my training back up after injury I was feeling pretty fit and relatively confident, and was looking forward to getting in some good hills after weeks of flat running in York!

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The start of the Hellvelyn challenge was just brilliant – the atmosphere seems to get even better when a group of trail runners are presented with adverse weather and mounds of mud to run in! I caught up with a few familiar Lakeland Trailers and enjoyed some of my homemade energy balls to get me up those first few killer hills, and then we were off! Ambling over muddy and uneven ground, glad to be out running with such a friendly bunch once again, and looking forward to what I knew was a brilliant route ahead accompanied by my funny husband. The last time I was running through Glenridding I was in the first half of the UT55 and already beginning to falter; this time I had only 15km to run, and could look forward to a delicious lunch and a hot drink in an hour or so. We ran up and up and up, and just as I was about to take my first walking break I spotted my Dad and his friend, both of whom would be setting of on the race in an hour’s time – I kept on running until we were out of their sight, and then gave myself a break!

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It’s such a stunning landscape, and the heavy rain had filled the waterfalls to bursting. We stopped to take photos and I commented on the fact that I hadn’t stopped smiling since we got to the start line. Then, tracks gave way to a rocky narrow footpath; pretty treacherous after all the rain, so we slowed to a walk for a while. Once the danger of a sheer drop to a muddy death had passed we were running again, but – woooosh – I was over in the mud, glad of a husband to pull me back up so I didn’t have to get my hands covered! After this point the weather started to set in pretty badly. I wasn’t cold, but the wind and rain were exhausting, as were the footpaths which had turned to streams and waterfalls underfoot. It was hard-going with the wind in our faces, blowing rain and snot all over the place. The terrain seemed to be trickier than I remembered, and I couldn’t focus with the noise of wind and rain in my ears; actually, I felt pretty disorientated.

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Photo courtesy of James Kirby

We were still a good 4km from the finish when the first runner in the race overtook us – normally this doesn’t happen until the very last km, so I was quite disheartened. I knew we were going slowly, but until then I hadn’t realised how slowly. I kept having to stop to walk, stop for snacks, stop to rearrange my layers or have a drink. Finally we got to the final track which I knew would take us down into Patterdale, but then running even on this easy surface felt way too hard. For the first time in a long time I got to the end of a race with nothing left in me – I could hardly string a sentence together, my lips were blue, and I felt dizzy and in desperate need of warmth. It had taken us 15 minutes longer to run 8.7 miles than it usually takes to run 13 – very demoralising indeed! We made our way to Fellbites cafe, where we had a wash and tucked into pots of tea and cheesy toast with soup. It took a hot chocolate for pudding before I started to feel human again!

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The next morning, the owners of our B&B couldn’t believe that I was planning to run again – they kept reminding me that there was 100% chance of rain. Clearly they hadn’t met many trail runners before! I set out in full waterproofs, initially reluctant to run, but increasing in excitement as I saw the other people, just as crazy as I was, walking to the start in all manner of waterproof gear. In the tent I bumped into a UT55 buddy, who had to deliver the bad news: the Ullswater steamers couldn’t steam because of high winds, so the race was being re-routed, to start two hours later at midday. I ummmed and aaahhhed for a while: I had to be home in time to prepare a lecture for the next day, and the 10am start had been appealing for that reason in particular. I didn’t want to miss out, but at the same time I didn’t want to put myself in a bad position for the next day, and equally I didn’t want to wait around getting cold for two hours since we’d already checked out of the B&B. Tail between my legs, I collected my tshirt (what a fraud!), and instead decided to take myself out for a little jog around Glenridding – I was already in my running togs after all. I bumped into a marshal, and when I explained what I was doing he gave me some brilliant insider tips on trails in the vicinity. I ended up getting in a fantastic 7 miles along muddy trails, with a few notable hills to satisfy my love for the Lakes. I met up with a couple of other non-racers and we jogged along for a while, comparing notes from the previous day, and as I headed back into Glenridding people cheered and marshals stopped traffic: friendly runners, friendly marshals and friendly onlookers, as well as plenty of mud and hills – it wasn’t so different from a Lakeland Trails event after all!

We grabbed some lunch and yet another hot chocolate, and some of the faster finishers from the 12:00 race started coming in to the cafe as we ate. Everyone had clearly had an amazing time, and the bad weather and change of plans had only brought out the best spirits in everyone. I was sad to have missed out but equally relieved to be heading back early – the weather, true to form the entire weekend, made the drive back especially challenging; even our car had to deal with muddy terrain and knee-deep floods as it chugged its way back to Yorkshire!

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Embracing Breathlessness

The thing that really holds me back when running is getting out of breath. I can happily run for miles and miles at a steady pace, but challenged with a quick 5km run and I inevitably feel utterly incapable as a runner. I’ve never run a 5km race (I’ve never even tried a ParkRun!), and even 10km is too short a distance for me to feel like I really belong in that race; I just can’t find the necessary spark inside to push myself into the discomfort of running fast.

Paradoxically, I make intervals and hill sessions part of every training schedule that I undertake, and even more strangely I find that these are the runs that leave me feeling the most capable and all-around brilliant. I track my progress in every session, and can see myself getting faster every week as I overcome the fear and embrace the discomfort. On Wednesday I headed out for a hill session – 15 reps of my most local hill was the target – but I felt so sluggish and tired from 10 miles the previous day that I could hardly move forwards, nevermind pushing myself to run up and down a hill 15 times. So I promised myself that I’d just do three reps, and if I wasn’t feeling any better, I’d head home. It worked: as the air ripped from my lungs at the top of the hill, bent double I looked out over the view feeling amazing, and continued with a further 14 reps before heading back, full of energy and glee at my efforts.

But getting out of breath just doesn’t sit comfortably with my general running, especially longer distances; perhaps if I could get over this fear I’d achieve times that I can’t even dream of at the moment. And that’s what it is – fear. There’s something about giving your body over to faster running that is terrifying, and indeed my body has demonstrated this lack of control on a couple of rather green-gilled occasions. But it’s not just a physical fear; I’m convinced that a lot of what is holding me back from pushing a bit (or a lot) harder more regularly is a resurgence of past negativity. I’ve been running for over 10 years now, and have enjoyed it pretty much from the start, but still for the majority of my life I’ve been unfit, and as a result have seen exercise as the enemy. For far too long I hated being even slightly breathless, and got out of breath doing relatively normal things such as walking up stairs; running for a bus was such a nightmare that I always turned up to my stop unnecessarily early. I remember running for a train once, tickets in my mouth and bags in either hand, flailing all over the place and knowing that I simply couldn’t continue running (I missed the train). I passed a group of boys who all laughed at my efforts; the spectacle of my breathlessness wasn’t only physically uncomfortable, it was emotionally horrid, too.

Turning breathlessness from a negative to a positive is taking some doing. Embracing the feeling of being out of control and at the very outer edges of my physical capacity is surprisingly easy in the moment, but getting to that moment is the real struggle for me and my running. When I get to the top of the hill, with burning quads and lungs and absolutely no control over my spluttering self, I am on top of the world, and every time I decide that I’m going to push myself to get uncomfortable more often. It doesn’t happen. As with any fear, I guess that facing it more often, and in different contexts, is my only option if I want to overcome it. Running for a bus is no longer an issue for me now, so I guess I need to find new barriers to tackle and new boundaries to cross. And I suppose that, really, that’s what running is all about.

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Bloomin’ heck. This is getting hard already, and I’m only three weeks in.

It hasn’t been the best of weeks, running wise (or otherwise, actually). Nine miles on Tuesday – including four miles of horrendous 6 min: 2 min intervals – left my already dodgy ankle feeling even worse. Even after a rest day on Wednesday I wasn’t totally confident that I’d make my long run on Friday if I didn’t take another day off, so I missed Thursday’s hill session, opting instead for a healing glass of red wine in a pub garden. Two complete rest days in a row feels incredibly naughty when the word ‘ultra’ is constantly echoing in the back of your mind.

As it happens, this turned out to be the best choice I could have made, as on Friday I ran probably the most enjoyable 18 mile training run I’ve ever done. This was helped along by my favourite running weather (misty rain) and a packet of miniature Creme Eggs in celebration of Good Friday, which packed in such a whopping energy boost that I really have to question whether these should really be marketed as a general purpose treat or something stronger. After a really slow start (the great thing about ultra training: it’s ok to run really slowly while also eating biscuits), I picked up the pace quite substantially in the final 10km, and couldn’t quite believe the amount of energy that I found – I even managed a sprint finish!

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This leads me to question whether I should take my rest day on the day before my Friday LSR, rather than on the Wednesday. I might try to pack in a Mon-Tue-Wed flush with a rest day on Thursday, and maybe I’ll keep feeling as bright and energetic for my LSRs as I did yesterday (unlikely). As advised by the lovely folk on #UKrunchat hour, I also took the decision this week to do a marathon before the UT55. The Lakeland Trails Coniston marathon takes place three weeks before the big one, so I’ve signed up and booked a bed at the local youth hostel, and will be making my way up the the Lakes for yet another weekend in early summer. This gives me a ‘smaller’ goal to aim for with my training, and if it goes ok it will no doubt boost my confidence for the ultra a couple of weeks later.

On the topic of confidence, this is where I’ve really faltered this week. I made the mistake of looking at some ‘recommended’ ultra training plans, which left me doubting my ability to even get to the start line of UT55 – perhaps ultra running isn’t for me after all? Not only do I not have the time to be running ‘only about 74 miles a week’ (at my normal pace that’d be more than 10 hours a week of running!), but I also don’t have quite as much commitment as back-to-back marathons would require: I’m simply not interested in pushing myself that hard. 55km will be a big challenge, but I don’t feel the need to empty my life of everything that isn’t running in order to complete it. In my crisis I went through all the typical stages: doubt, fear, anger, chocolate muffin consumption, frantic research and sensible reasoning, and came to the conclusion that, hey, this is my running career and I’m not in it to imitate or be ‘as good as’ anyone else. So I’ll stick to my running schedule and enjoy my own challenge, using the experience I’ve gained from running 5 marathons (2 of them within 7 days) to direct me. And, as the awesome Bangs and a Bun said recently, “my [ultra]marathon, my journey, my way“. Yes.

The self-doubt continued when I embarked on a 12-miler with my hubby this morning. I had no energy left after yesterday, and I was tired, and perhaps also a little bored of running after my 18-mile epic. Six miles in we stopped at York Hospital for a loo stop and some more Creme Eggs, and I was pretty sure that I couldn’t do another 6 miles; my lungs hurt and my feet were burning and I was so hungry and irritable. But those Creme Eggs really do have magical powers because we made it in once piece, totting me up to 30 miles in 2 days and 42 miles this week. So we had lunch out as a treat: I am good for nothing for the next 48 hours, but once again I’m excited for this new challenge.

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