Archive for the ‘USA’ Category

In August I moved to Durham, North Carolina, to work as a researcher at Duke University. It’s taken a while to settle and longer than expected to get into a decent running routine (in fact, five months in I’m still working on that) but running has been helpful in pushing me to get outside when all I wanted to do was sit on the sofa and feel homesick. More on that another time, perhaps.

When I signed up to Durham Half Marathon I was taking quite a gamble with myself. I’d hardly run since the UT55 – a few parkruns here and there, a birthday run into town for birthday pancakes – but I felt no interest in running for a long while (and it’s still not fully returned even now). When I moved over to NC it was too hot to do anything, never mind run, with temperatures sticking around 30-35C for the first couple of months. It was too hot, I was too tired, I was too homesick and sad to find any motivation. The city was new and everything felt too hard. Running was the last thing I wanted to do; I was sweaty enough just sitting quietly at home with a book. Over time I started getting out here and there for a 2-mile loop around a nearby trail, and I noticed that on days when I felt bad, after even a short run I felt much better. Little by little I gathered the evidence: even though it was uncomfortable, even though I never actually felt like doing it, when I got back from a run I felt noticeably less terrible. In fact, it made me feel pretty great.

So I signed up to the local half marathon, taking place only a mile away from my apartment on 10th December. The race description drew on the appeal of the ‘mild Durham winter’ while also promising me festivities along the course. The route didn’t look particularly inviting but I put my worries aside and dived in, knowing that I’d push myself to do the training once I was signed up to do the race.

And I did do the training, sticking to almost every run on my 12-week training plan. I ran three times a week with a long run at the weekend – a sensible amount for a half marathon, but for me this was less running than I’d normally put in, with pretty low weekly mileage (I think I did one 20-mile week in that time). Despite this, it was a constant uphill struggle and at every corner I looked for excuses to drop out of the race. The victory I felt after completing the first 7-mile run surprised me, but it also felt really good to recognize that distance as an achievement. Ramping up to high mileage for marathon and ultra running had led me to develop a distorted perspective on my own achievements. Health issues, a long break and eventually a fall-out from running set the clock back at zero, and perhaps this was what I really needed.

I never once actually wanted to get out for my weekend long run, but every week I came back beaming from ear to ear. I ran in blazing sunshine and unfamiliar autumn heat, I explored new areas of Durham and found a great route away from the road on the American Tobacco Trail, and I slowly but surely re-learned all the good things that running had to offer me. I finished my training with a 12-mile adventure covering almost all new local territory, and stopping off at the farmer’s market 10 miles in for a coffee and some blues in the sunshine. Running wasn’t only getting me outside, helping me feel positive and strong in this strange new life that I’ve taken on, but it also helped me forge a better relationship with Durham. I got home from that run feeling (perhaps for the first time) really positive about Durham.


Still, I was finding running hard, and motivation even harder. It wasn’t until the day before the race that I fully committed to taking part. I woke up at 5am on 10th December to the coldest Durham day I’d seen so far. The world was sparkling with frost and the air was sharp to the lungs. The race started at 7am in a local shopping mall carpark, and it took too much energy just trying to stay warm enough before the race – I huddled in with other runners, since I couldn’t carry anything extra without anyone supporting me. I had a Clif Bar tucked into my sports bra and was planning to take off my outer layer when I got running. We all stood at the start-line as a fellow runner sang the national anthem (in the US every single sporting event begins with the national anthem, even roller derby), and as soon as the singing was over we were heading off, sun rising above the mall and various elves, santas and even a Christmas tree rushing past me and into the first mile.

I took it steady because I really had to take it steady; I knew that even finishing the race, my first half marathon in 7 months, was going to be a challenge. But at the same time I had to rush ahead as best I could, because it was freezing! We turned out onto the open road and I got that surge of joy and excitement that I’ve missed so much in the months of not running – being there with so many other people, the joy of road closures just so I (and thousands of others) could go for a run early on a Saturday morning. The cheering and the music and the first mile of celebration was just wonderful. It reminded me of how much I love big road races – the sort where you can get lost in the crowds and forget where you are. As much as I love trail running, it can get lonely out there on the fells, and when you’re tired and lacking in company it’s generally hard to sum up a party atmosphere.

The route was nothing special, as expected. In fact, it was quite a lot worse than expected – a largely out-and-back course along the Ellerbe Creek Trail, until the final miles when we seemed to loop around every single block in Trinity Heights. It was a lot like trying to make up mileage at the end of a run; I had no sense of where I was going or where I’d been. But I enjoyed it all the same. By mile 10 I was feeling really out of it and unsure if I could continue for another 3 miles – I felt like I was running my slowest ever race, but I purposefully didn’t check my watch because I really didn’t care. I stopped to walk for the first time, retrieved my Clif Bar and spent a few minutes trying and failing to get my frozen fingers to open the wrapper. 10 miles in and I was still wrapped up, still frozen solid – the temperature was becoming quite challenging. I gave up on the Clif Bar but felt revived from the walking, and trotted out the last few miles with a real sense of achievement.

As I crossed the finish line in almost my slowest time ever (only 9 mins faster than my first ever half marathon), I felt 100% sure that I’d given everything I had to give. And what a great feeling! Of all the PBs I’ve ever achieved, all the longer distances and new milestones reached, getting to the end of this race was one of the best feelings of success I’ve ever had. And perhaps the best feeling of all was that it reminded me that I do still enjoy running, and that taking part in races is something I’ve done for fun (because I do find it fun). Perhaps pushing harder and faster can take away the enjoyment, and perhaps as a result the sense of achievement, of doing the race in the first place.


I worked out that Durham was quite probably my 20th half marathon; for the next 20, I plan to put sheer enjoyment as my main priority. It doesn’t really matter to me how fast or slow I run, so long as the training feels good and the race is enjoyable. So I’m now considering my next race, which may or may not be taking place in the coming weeks. We’ll see!


Read Full Post »