Annus horribilis

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I’ve been quiet these last few months, I know. Well, I haven’t; in real life I’ve been complaining long and loud about what a shit year it’s been at anybody who dares approach me, but as far as this blog is concerned I’ve been following my nan’s instructions: if you can’t say anything nice don’t say anything at all.

She’s right, but it’s not totally responsible for me only to evangelise, and to quietly sweep the less PR friendly stories under the carpet. I would like to defend myself by pointing out that I’ve been too busy to write, but that’s not always been true. As with running, sometimes I’ll find the three available minutes in my day and make use of them, sometimes I just can’t be arsed.

Let’s be fair though, 2016 has been a bit balls. In future years there be quiz questions that ask in which year such and such tragic event happened and most people will guess 2016 because the odds are it’ll be right. Writing celebrity obits is now a full time job, (51% of) the country decided it would rather have no friends than friends it disagrees with, the USA is about to lose modern Jesus from the Oval Office and potentially replace him with a retarded tomato, and every country that isn’t at war with another one is at war with itself. My beloved Turkey finds itself now confronted with a blossoming dictatorship that fifteen years ago half the country voted for (Brexiteers, take note) as fragments of history are washed away in a tide of bullshit rhetoric. I know how it feels.

So if anything is more important than the future of Western politics, it’s my running. And you know what, that’s not been great news either. I recovered from injury just in time to hobble through the London Marathon, and I haven’t finished a race since. First there was the Jurassic Quarter – 46 miles along the Jurassic Coast – 21 miles of which I got through before pulling up with a shouty Achilles. I was signed up for Giants Head Marathon and the 50 Mile Challenge again and didn’t reach the start line of either thanks to the freelance job which ended all freelance jobs (I totted up the hours I ended up working on it, divided my fee by them, and discovered the cleaners got more than me pro rata). Suddenly, there’s a lot riding on my second attempt at the North Downs Way 100.

That bloody job gave me (besides a nervous breakdown and a heavily dented bank account) a chest infection which I’ve never quite shaken off, and an asthma inhaler for the first time in my life. I went two weeks without running at all but averaged 10 miles of walking a day, where I got 4 hours of sleep on a good night and 1 on a bad one, where there was no time for breaks, never mind proper food, and where I subsisted on varying flavours of crisps. Top that with trying to buy a house, and I didn’t even know for certain that I’d be running NDW100 until the week before. In fact, I write this on the train to Farnham on the day before the race, on the one week anniversary (weekiversary?) of my decision to run it. I should be bricking it about tomorrow, but I’m not. The way things have turned out, not being able to think about it plus enforced exhaustion training is probably the best preparation I could have had. Let’s hope so.

As I write this I’m also hoping for another bit of good news – that our dream house, the contracts for which are still bouncing back and forth between solicitors, will have a completion date next week. After viewing numerous rat holes with walls so damp they may as well have been made of cake, and four previous offers come to nothing, we knew as soon as we saw this one it was exactly how we’d pictured our family home. It was all so straightforward – the seller wanted a quick sale, we wanted to move there and then, the money was ready to go in brown paper bags. Then the curse of 2016 struck, and well, we’re still no closer. When we’re feeling at our lowest we’ll scroll through the estate agent’s photos and pause on the one of the garden, and Andy will say “Just think; the day we move in we can have coffee on the patio.” And that gets us through.

With all this going on, have I trained enough for an off road hundred miler? Arguably, no – I haven’t even run further than a marathon this year. It will be a mental battle compounded by the knowledge that I’m not in ideal shape, and every fibre of me will be wanting to quit. I’m not giving up on this race until I’ve completed it though, so if I want to avoid coming back next year there’s only one solution. Bloody finish it.

Cat is going with the mantra “think zebra” tomorrow. I’m holding on to coffee on the patio.

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Going to that London

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I remember planning for my first marathon – Edinburgh, 2013, with my mum, after missing out on the London ballot (of which more here). Lots of weight still to lose, lots of lists and logistics, lots still to learn about how to finish a marathon. Eventually you learn that nothing and nobody can teach you how to finish a marathon. You learn that what you really need to learn is how to listen to your own body.

When I crossed the line at Manchester last year in a little over 3:41 the first thing I thought was that I really hoped they didn’t change the Good For Age qualifying time for London, having just about squeezed in. I still didn’t quite believe I’d done it when I applied, still thought that something would change at the last minute or that I’d read my time wrong or they’d lose my application or something. I almost didn’t believe it even as I clutched the cheerful “Congratulations, you’re in!” magazine in my quivering hands. It didn’t really sink in until after my last marathon of 2015, when every time someone asked me what I was training for I had to amend my answer from “Oh nothing really, I’m always doing something or other,” to “London.” London with a full stop.

Perhaps it’s time to start training seriously for this marathon lark then – you know, training plans, strength and conditioning workouts, speedwork and pacing, eating real food and cutting back on pints of Honeydew. All those articles in Runner’s World I usually skip over to get to the stories of iconic races and Tonks’ column might actually come in useful. My goal is to get under 3:30, taking around twelve minutes off last year’s time – a tall order, but an achievable one. After trying one off the shelf plan and finding that it isn’t pushing me anywhere near enough, I ask my clubmates at Clapham Chasers and discover – almost too late – that many recommend the high-mileage Pfitzinger and Douglas (or P&D) training plan. I like running a lot, so this seems like a no-brainer. I do a few sums and work out that I can just about fit in the 12-week version between now and 24th April, since I already average 40 miles a week. So I draw up my calendar for the next 12 weeks and get stuck in.

Then I compare it with my work calendar. Ah. Three broadcast events in six weeks. Yes, that will be tricky. I’m used to squeezing runs in around work, but with this new job the broadcast days will rarely be less than 18 hours on my feet, and I’ll be learning my job as I go. It’s stressful both on my body and my brain – not to mention my digestive system, eating rancid Pret sandwiches for breakfast lunch and dinner – but I know if I’m going to do this it’s going to hurt occasionally so I suck it up. I stubbornly persist with the speedwork and tempo sessions whenever I can fit them in; then one Thursday, after a particularly stressful day at work I get halfway round before suffering a panic attack and need help from Cat to get my breathing back under control. Cutting one session short is not the end of the world, but the planned hours of speedwork I’m failing to make are slowly stacking up. Perhaps the panic attack is brought on by more than just work.

I get the first half of the project out of the way and hit the ground as soon as I get back. This is mid February now, a couple of weeks away from the small matter of my third attempt at the Moonlight Challenge. I’m in with half a chance of getting first lady if only I can finish all 33 miles and remember my bloody torch this time. I’m going around Battersea Park one freezing evening, not quite hitting tempo pace but not exactly struggling, when I feel a sharp pain develop behind my right kneecap, then it seizes up completely. I try to lollop along in the hope that it will loosen up but the camber and anti-clockwise loop isn’t helping, and I miss the last lap of the session again. This feels bad. This feels worse than the normal run-weariness I can shake off by, well, running. This feels like An Injury. And An Injury means Rest. I am not good at Rest. My metabolism is not good at Rest. I have gained almost a stone in weight since Christmas, and it feels like an actual stone tethered to my feet.

I’m superhuman, so these little setbacks don’t affect me, obviously. No, wait. The other one. Just a bog standard dickhead human who’s too stubborn to recognise something going wrong. I give the knee a few token gestures towards helping it heal – which is to say, continue to run into work once a week at the same intensity, hitting the pavements only slightly less hard than normal, occasionally give it a bit of a rub – but I never get more than 5 miles before it blows up again. I barely run at all in the week prior to the Moonlight Challenge, and unsurprisingly it starts to get better. But a week is not enough. 20 miles into the race, boom.

If I had a coach they would probably ask me which of the 8 marathons or ultras I’m already signed up to this year is actually my A race, then do something sensible like advise which of the others to drop; almost certainly that drop-list would have included Moonlight. The problem is that all my races are A races to me, for one reason or another. I just really love running marathons and ultras. And in a completely unscientific spirit that really only serves to enable this obsession, I am convinced that I run best when I’ve run lots, in as varied and exciting a range of ways as I can. Moonlight is important because of the people who run it; London because it’s the road marathon I always wanted to do; NDW100 is obvious; Giants Head is a party; Jurassic Quarter is Cat’s birthday and a big club weekend; the list goes on. I’m reminded of when I was 9, and we were planning to move to Cyprus: my mum asked me which of my toys were my favourites because we couldn’t take everything. I came up with infallible reasoning for every single thing. I don’t buy shit I don’t like. EVERYTHING IS MY FAVOURITE.

So if I’m not willing to choose my favourite toy, I have to look after them all equally well. Moonlight was a wake up call, not least because my bum knee was pretty much the only thing that stood between me and the first female finisher. I can’t go for sub-3:30 but at least I can do myself proud, and it’s one of only two races Andy will attend so I’m buggered if I’m going to be a tourist – when he sees me pass I want him to see me running like I’m about to win it. I finally knuckle down to a program of gradually building up long slow miles again, supported by cross training on the bike (subtitled: if I don’t have to pay TfL to travel to work I’m winning twice), yoga and strength exercises, a serious effort to lose the winter weight. If I can’t be faster I may as well be stronger, lither, tougher. Is it lither, or more lithe? Whatever. I channelled Caballo Blanco – easy, light, smooth, fast.

On a whim, I signed up to the Wimbledon Half Marathon (not to be confused with the Wimbledon Common Half Marathon) at the beginning of April to test my roadworthiness. I had no idea what sort of time I was capable of (and as usual did absolutely no research on the course profile beforehand) but I figured I would start off at 8 minute miles and see how far I could go before I naturally slowed down. Despite the hills it was further than I thought; I ended up finishing in 1:47.53, not exactly a PB or the equivalent pace for a 3:30 marathon, but not a stretch either. The figures by themselves aren’t much of an indication of anything, but coming away from that feeling like I could run again with no pain was a boost.

Since Lucozade Sport is supplied on the course at London I thought I’d try running Wimbledon on that alone rather than carrying a fistful of gels (which didn’t entirely agree with me at Manchester last year anyway) and road tested my shoes and kit, all with success. The only failure, it turned out, was my ability to stay on my feet. At the end of the first lap I’m crossing the road via a traffic island, over one of the flattest bits of the course when suddenly I’m doing a Superman impression and gliding along the road on my front, and I have no idea why. Pride might come before a fall but a huge rush of adrenalin usually comes directly after it, so I picked myself and my bottle up almost in one movement and carried on before the pain kicked in. The runner behind me reassured me that if I’d stayed on the floor he’d have stopped my watch for me, which is basically the most charitable thing anyone’s ever said to me during a race. Next time round I looked for the trip wire, huge tree root or bear trap that must have been responsible for me going flying. Nothing there. Just the road markings. And as I went over them for the second time my toe brushed the edge and it clicked: I, a person who runs in hills and trails for fun, had tripped over paint.

 

As I’m sitting on the grass afterwards waiting for my massage, I inspect the wounds on my elbows, hips and knees. Pissing blood and covered in dirt; luckily the only thing that hurts is my pride. I’m a little concerned about the delayed effect of the impact on my poor patellas, although only time will tell for those poor buggers. But what struck me most of all was how quickly and thoroughly I shook off the fear of falling over. The fact is, it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as the tension gripping my whole body each time I’d been out for a run when I knew, deep down, that I wasn’t properly healed yet, that I was falling into a classic overtraining trap. And just like that, I felt as though I had begun to regain control of my body again.

OK, three weekends to go. Three weekends of balancing the desire to go straight back out and run ALL THE MILES with the memory of what it feels like not to be able to run even for a couple of days. It’s a pretty classic situation. As I read about other runners’ experiences with overuse injury a trend appears; those that listen to their body, give it a proper chance to recover, actually come back stronger. Whether that’s down to an increase in strength or some other physical improvement, heightened responses to the body’s signals that reduce the temptation to overtrain, a higher likelihood of practising effective conditioning work and “pre-hab”, or a consciousness of what happens if you don’t, is impossible to tell – you’d have to know their full medical background and training history. On top of which, there aren’t many people lining up to tell Runner’s World how running ruined their life. Still though, you get the idea.

Of course you can’t always tell someone how to avoid disaster; you have to let them experience it for themselves to be sure that the lesson really sticks, and hope they have a chance to recover. Have you ever tried to tell a kid not to jump off a wall because they’ll get hurt, only to find them them biting back tears a few minutes later because they found out the hard way that you were right? Sam Murphy‘s column on coming back from injury in May’s Runner’s World – worth a read if you’re in a similar position – references a quote by ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov: “The more injuries you get, the smarter you get”. Now that I know what it feels like not to be able to run I’m more attuned to the signals telling me I’m about to push it too far, that I’m playing chicken too close to the cliff edge.

Lesson learned – hopefully, just in time. I’ve finished the course, I’ve fudged the homework, I’ve scraped through the mocks and there’s no amount of cramming that will help now. The big test will come on the 24th April 2016.

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parkrun for Wandsworth – the inaugural Tooting Common parkrun

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It’s not a race or a competition, I know that. Even if it was I’m usually about five minutes behind the first finisher, so whatever competition there is I’m not involved in it. Still though, every time I line up at the start of a parkrun I get those familiar jitters, a brief wave of nausea, a cacophony of voices in my head demanding to know what the hell I think I’m doing. I don’t even get that nervous before ultras because I know I can stomp through and still finish, but 5K’s are bloody hard work all the way through. And then, almost as if it never happened, the nausea and the doubt passes and I’m off.

Today, I was jumping from foot to foot at the finish funnel an hour before the run was even due to start, and those jitters were twice as bad as they’ve ever been. Today though, I wasn’t actually going to run – it was my first time as a parkrun volunteer, the first official Tooting Common parkrun and first ever parkrun in the borough of Wandsworth. This day had been a long time coming for one reason and another, but thanks to the tireless campaigning of race director Andy Bullock, the indefatigable troop of volunteers, and valuable support from parkrun founder Paul Sinton-Hewitt and Tooting MP Sadiq Khan among others, Tooting Common parkrun was finally here.

There was also strong representation from the Clapham Chasers today among both the volunteers and the runners, and our very own Gemma Brierley and Clare Janew had been helping with the planning of the parkrun for well over a year. As the starting area gradually filled up and all the club shirts came out I flitted between excitement, nervousness, and bitter jealousy that I couldn’t run it myself. Still though, as a perennially selfish runner it’s about time I stepped up to do my bit – without volunteers, parkrun just doesn’t happen.

Being the first event RD Andy had rostered extra people to help make sure everything went smoothly, so my first job was to help the volunteer coordinator, make sure all the marshals were signed in and given their instruction cards and hi-vis vests, and help manage the traffic on the narrow paths. One of the many conditions of allowing the parkrun to go ahead on a trial basis was that the run cannot block pathways or stop local residents using the common, which is easier said than done. I confess I got a bit distracted having hugs and taking selfies with clubmates and was probably as good as no use at all to volunteer coordinator Clare Turnbull. It’s the thought that counts though, right?

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Andy gave the pre-run (not race, run) introduction with a few minutes to go, followed by a few words from MP and avid runner Sadiq Khan. As the Labour candidate for the next London Mayor Sadiq had a race of his own to prepare for and couldn’t do the run itself, but nonetheless came to the lap crossover point outside the cafe to cheer people on and even hand out a few high fives. The course is pretty flat, starting on the footpath nearest to Dr Johnson Avenue and Hillbury Road junction, then taking in three loops around Bedford Hill, Garrad’s Road and Tooting Bec Road before turning back along the footpath towards the finish funnel. Typically for parkrun, all walks of life lined up at the start/finish point together – sprinters, walkers, buggies and doggies, first timers, club runners, even a Tooting and Mitcham FC fan. Here we go.

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With the parkrunners safely on their way, Clare and I had a few minutes to cheer people through at the cafe before we had to get back to the finish funnel for our most important job of the day; handing out finish tokens. They were bolted together in groups of 50 and Andy had warned us about how fiddly they were to handle, not made any easier by the fact that my hands were shaking with the cold, so I had to try not to think about an explosion of tokens landing all over the finish line and concentrate on having blocks of them ready to hand to Clare while she passed them to the finishers. I know it sounds like I’m making a fuss, but it really is harder than it sounds. In fact the first thing I did was drop the boxes of tokens in a muddy puddle while cheering people on. Smooth.

There was no official sweepstake on how many people we’d get, but each time I unbolted another block of 50 and we got closer to the 200 mark we wondered if we’d break it. It was actually a really fun job to do, watching the effort and determination on everyone’s faces and screaming every time we saw a sprint finish. I forgot to be jealous of the fact I wasn’t running. As we got towards the end of the pack the determination became more visible, the expressions grittier, the satisfaction of finishing ever stronger. If you want to see achievement face you will always find it at the end of a race.

Finally our last few runners came through and we got our final finishing number – exactly 200. Couldn’t have planned it if we’d tried. Tucked up in a corner table in the warm cafe, we sorted the tokens in number order ready for next time and found four missing; I don’t know if that’s bad or good but with so many first timers it was to be expected. Considering that it hadn’t been publicised 200 was an excellent turnout – I think it goes to show more than ever how much demand there is for a parkrun in Wandsworth borough. Even as the event was happening local runners were coming up to ask about it, saying they had been hoping one would happen and that they would have run it if they’d known – I suspect that the next block of tokens will be opened next week and probably the one after it as well. We shared the common this morning with walkers, lone runners, cyclists, football teams, a British Military Fitness group, not to mention the lido in the centre – south west London is home to a pretty sporty bunch of people on a Saturday morning. With the nearest parkruns all three miles or more from Tooting, I hope it’s proved just how much we need this event to continue.

Saturday lunchtimes are all about QPR, but Saturday mornings, you’ll know where to find me now…

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The Big Fat Run of the Year 2015

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I paused briefly on Barnes Bridge, halfway through a steady run on New Year’s Eve 2015, and looked east along the Thames on a bright, crisp and surprisingly mild day. The river was sparkling like a sapphire, mirroring the sky perfectly and leaving just a few treetops to pick out the horizon between them. I was halfway through my planned run for the day but very much at the end of a year-long streak challenge – a minimum of a mile a day, every day, for the whole of 2015. The iconic Thames Path had to be my final run of the year, no other option. All I had to do was bring it home.

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It’s not much of a streak compared with Ron Hill’s, but considering I’m not – nor am ever likely to be – a professional athlete it’s quite enough for me. Actually it was part of a double header challenge I set myself on a whim on New Year’s Eve 2014, desperate to avoid aspirational clichés in my New Year’s resolution and improve myself as a runner: I wanted to run at least a mile a day every calendar day, and run at least a marathon or ultramarathon every calendar month. No reason. Like the best things in life, there was no reason.

The challenge wouldn’t be in the running itself so much as in the balancing running with real life. Running a mile a day when I had 6am starts and 11pm finishes at work, or a football awayday, or a family do, or a cold, is the difference between dedication and failure. To be perfectly honest, upholding a streak became the easiest thing in the world for me because between the habit formed and the determination not to break it there was next to no possibility of failure. Upholding it and still having a partner, a job and friends to come back to; that was the tricky bit.

I’ve done some daft things to keep this streak going to be honest. Oddly enough, for someone who normally gets every seasonal bug going at least twice, I’ve only succumbed to a cold once and still ran through it – it was horrible like I can’t even describe, impossible to breathe and I damn near lost my balance and toppled over like a house of cards, but I managed it. That was at the beginning of December, and it was only then that I realised it was the first proper illness I’d had all year. I’d finally found the tipping point between bolstering my immune system with consistent exercise and hounding it to the point of extinction. All day benders for QPR awaydays and the Eurovision song contest were the closest I came to death and even they couldn’t defeat the streak. Also, it turns out running is to hangovers what St George is to large fire breathing reptiles. You’re welcome.

I’d decided in advance of the North Downs Way 100 that that would count as my having run during each calendar day, as I would cross midnight between the two days and certainly be running more than a mile during both (unless some sort of course record and miracle were on the cards). In the event, I DNF’d the race at around 66 miles. At half past eleven on the Saturday. Still in the same calendar day as when I’d started. Probably the slowest mile of my life was that Sunday morning after dropping the hire car back, shuffling stiffly along Tooting High Street and being overtaken by OAPs, mobility scooters and wildlife.

Then there was the day I very nearly didn’t manage it because of time pressures. Part of my new job is organising filming for trailers and marketing material, and a particularly high profile evening shoot in an art gallery at late notice meant a full day of running back and forth to pull everything together. At five o’clock I was following the designer around the fashion retailers of Long Acre, having missed both breakfast and lunch, and I still had not run. At six o’clock I was in Boots buying toiletries for a Hollywood actor (surreal is not the word), and at a quarter to eight I was sprinting around the gallery trying to find the cabs full of cast who had pulled up at the wrong entrance. As big as the gallery was, it would not count. I covered about eight miles on foot that day, but I still had not done my official mile. Finally, as I drove the van full of kit back to base at twenty to midnight, and then to its parking spot, I decided to do the only thing I could. In jeans, t-shirt and running shoes, I ran back to my office on the Southbank via a few little detours to make up the distance. With literally minutes to go, the streak remained intact. Andy did not find this as funny as I did and you are only the second person I’ve told about it. Actually, running in normal clothes was surprisingly liberating. The next time you think you’d go for a run but are put off by the faff of getting changed, or you can’t because your favourite sports bra is still in the wash, I’m here to tell you that’s a false economy. Just get out there in your jeans and bugger the kit.

Work may have been tough to juggle but injuries – touch wood, touch all the wood – were not a problem for me. I’m not going to claim it was the highest quality 365 days of running I’ve ever done and I’ve pretty much redefined the term “junk miles”; on the other hand, I’ve been careful to go as easy as possible on post-race days and to mix up the distance and pace as much as possible – 7 minute miles and 12 minute miles, 1 mile shuffles and 50 milers are all in there. And I’m a strong believer in the power of recovery runs; I’ve still never come back from a run feeling worse than when I went out, and I definitely bounce back from marathons faster than I ever used to. Well, maybe not bounce back; maybe more like lollop. I tend to use my holiday days on the races themselves and get straight back to work on the Monday, rather than give myself the extra rest, put it that way. As long as I can have a powernap on the train in I’m pretty much set.

So what happens now? I’m going to purposely break the streak, rather than try to continue it – let’s be clear, this is both absolutely the right thing to do lest it take over my life, and absolutely not my idea. I would happily keep it up for fifty years or die trying, but I appreciate that to my loved ones it doesn’t exactly read as much of an epitaph. And I can’t deny there have been days where I wish I didn’t have to do the run, although as I say I’ve never come back from one wishing I hadn’t. It’s made me appreciate the joy of running for running’s sake; it’s also left me panicking so much about the prospect of a single day not running after only one year as to provide clear proof (if proof were needed) that mine is not a personality that needs encouragement towards excess.

I think now that it’s time for me to concentrate on the quality of the running, as much as the quantity. The one mile runs were becoming such a drag – I’d barely have warmed up before loosening the laces on my shoes again. I’ve learned to listen to my body more; the flipside is, now I know that it’s telling me to give it a bit of a break, that the niggles that used to pop up and go away when they were told again aren’t being fobbed off so easily. Next year’s challenge is not so quantifiable or discrete; I simply want to be able to take the lessons I learned this year and put them to good use. Rest, focused training, more enjoyment and appreciation, a few more marathons towards my 100 Club goal, bag a few PBs. And this year I’m going to finish that fucking NDW100 on my hands and knees if I have to.

The long and the short of it is, if I can run a mile a day for a year, so can you. Happy New Year all you shufflers, striders, chasers, midpackers, sprinters, plodders and Sunday morning joggers. Love your run and love yourself.

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Enough waffle; here are the stats.

Monthly total miles:

January                184.3
February             201.0
March                  162.2
April                     175.4
May                      184.4
June                      153.9
July                       158.7
August                 194.0
September         138.8
October               131.3
November          208.9
December           154.0
TOTAL                2046.9

Average mileage             170.6
Highest mileage              November (including only 100 mile+ week)
Lowest mileage               October

Official Marathons completed (not counting DNFs and marathon+ distance training runs):

January – Pilgrim Challenge (66 miles over 2 days)
February – Moonlight Challenge (26.2 miles)
March – Larmer Tree Marathon
April – Brighton Marathon & Manchester Marathon (PB)
May – Richmond Park Marathon
June – Giants Head Marathon
July – 50 Mile Challenge (closer to 53)
August – Vanguard Way Marathon
September – New Forest Marathon
October – Yorkshire Marathon
November – Druids Challenge (84 miles over 3 days)
December – Mince Pi Challenge (28 miles)

Runaway bridezilla

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Oh no. I’ve become what I always insisted I would never be. I’ve become a bridezilla.

I can’t stop talking about it; even when I try to change the subject, inevitably the discussion swerves back in that direction. It’s all about the outfit, the logistics, what we’re going to eat, what music to play, making sure everyone turns up on time and hoping someone will get a few decent photos. Everything has to go perfectly since I’m not planning to do it more than once – although, you never know. I’m already boring everyone stiff talking about it, and the event’s not until August.

There’s no wedding involved though, I hate weddings. No, I’m talking about a 100 mile race.

If you know me, you know my Evernote lists. Those things run my life; my main job to-do lists, my freelance job to-do lists, blog notes, race prep lists, holiday plans, they all go straight into little lists with pleasingly tickable tickboxes next to them. The list for the North Downs Way 100 gets a tweak every couple of days or so, and even when there isn’t anything to tweak I just gaze at it adoringly, as if looking at it is going to bring me closer to August. Like a bride-to-be poring over a mood board, magazines full of dresses and table settings, invitation samples and menus. Seriously, how do I still have friends?

Some of those patient, long-suffering friends actually have significant life events of their own to talk about, would you believe. You know, actual weddings, babies, mortgages and the like. And there’s me, able to tell you the date of any major trail or ultra race off the top of my head but completely stumped when to comes to my friend’s child’s birthday.

“It’s July, right? Or June? A summer month.”

“It was February, Jaz. You missed it.”

So I was a little reticent to follow Cat’s advice and put up a post asking for race pacers on the Chasers Facebook page; it’s a bit look-at-me, I thought, not to mention presumptuous to hope that anyone would give up their time to pace me. And by giving up their time, I don’t mean spending a sunny Sunday afternoon trolling around in the countryside. I can only have pacers after the 50 mile mark, which will take around 12 hours for me to reach, which means any potential support crew having to make their way to Nowheresville, Kent around suppertime and stick with me through the wee hours while I dribble on, sleep deprived and crotchety and demanding entertainment like a toddler on a sugar comedown.

Of course, I’d reckoned without the completely awesome and slightly barmy Chasers trail club. While I was toing and froing about whether or not to ask for help, they were already looking up crew access points and learning Queen songs to sing to keep my spirits up. A hundred miles is a pretty long way to run, and they understood that I would need help even if I was too proud or too nervous to ask for it, just like any friend would do. In retrospect, it’s a bit daft of me to worry about geeking out over a run with a load of running geeks. Not to mention the fact that the whole reason we know each other is our mutual interest in running really fucking long distances. 

I suppose the mistake I’d made was worrying about why my non-running friends would care about my running activities, any more than I care about what flowers are going in someone’s bridal bouquet or what consistency the crap their toddler did this morning was or how much fun they had at some hipster bar last night. Facebook has made every moment so public, everyone’s life is like a glossy magazine advert now. Yeah, sure it’s irritating to scroll through a news feed full of “LOOK HOW EXCITING MY LIFE IS!” but even though I try to keep my fanfaring to a minimum I’m as guilty of it as anyone. And yet, it’s not like anyone’s ever told me to shove my medal photos up my arse, not that I’d blame them if they did.

Because that’s what being a friend is all about, isn’t it? It doesn’t mean expecting them to care as much about your shit as you do; it’s about celebrating anything that is important in each other’s lives. What that thing is, whether it’s a significant event or an everyday moment, it’s not been posted to show off, or because people think you want to know about it; it’s been posted because they want to share their happiness with you, regardless of the source of that happiness. And it’s a privilege to know someone who wants to share their happiness with you, whether it’s “Look how many shots I drank!” or “Look how many miles I ran!”. Or, occasionally, both. 

So, yeah, I’m a bridezilla. I’ll try to keep my squee moments within the confines of decency, or at the very least, restrict my running geekery to my running geek friends, but every now and again you might see a photo of an outfit or an update about a cake tasting session. Humour me, mute my posts if you need to. Accept my apologies in advance. It’ll all be over in August. And then I’ll try to be a less shit friend. 

Run-life balance

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Christmas is not traditionally a fun time for me. It’s not just blistering misanthropy on my part – it is that a bit, but not wholly – and I’m not miserly or lonely. Even a perfectly normal happy-go-lucky sort of soul will one day hear that Wizzard song crackling over the tannoy in Marks and Spencer as a middle aged woman vaults them to get to the last pair of suede gloves and will go all Michael Douglas Falling Down, but it’s not the forced cheeriness or the Bacchanalian orgy of consumerism either. It just so happens to be the time of year most of my family members have died and so has become an advent of anniversaries.

On the odd year when things aren’t quite so morbid Andy and I are doing the annual merry-go-round of Christmastime visits. At the moment that’s Bromley, Sydenham, Basingstoke, Salisbury, Newport, and Wakefield. Without a car. Last year we juggled this around a surprise visit from my Turkish family, insisting that they didn’t want to ruin our plans while dancing around them like Dumbo in a Royal Doulton outlet store. My heart nearly gave out.

And as regular readers of my rants/articles will know (hi, both) my diary is fundamentally based around the QPR fixture list and the whim of Sky executives tearing merrily through the schedule, moving games for TV slots just before it’s too late to get decently priced train tickets. So, finding time to squeeze in a run is a logistical minefield.

During 2014, something clicked for me. Running went from being a means to an end to an end in itself. First I ran to lose weight, then I ran to get fitter, then I ran to train for races, and now I run to be free. So as my relationship with running changed, my motivation for going out for a run changed too. When I was persuading myself to go for a run using rewards – or punishments – it was easier to justify missing one, because the purpose of the activity was the receipt of the reward and not the activity itself. And with irregular working hours, football fixtures, social events and a lawless set of relatives there were always plenty of reasons to miss a run.

Now though it’s become a sort of sanctuary for me; my corner of the library, my allotment, my toolshed. It’s an hour – or two, or three – where I can ignore my phone, dodge zombies, switch on my audiobook and escape. I get downtime at home of course, but it’s usually when I do laundry, reply to emails, make phonecalls, finish off project work. Only when I run does my time belong entirely to me.

I’ve found ways of making time work for me: running home from work, running at lunchtimes, getting up at the crack of dawn for parkrun and trail club, two regular weekly social runs. The key has been to set myself a routine – this way the unusual thing and the usual thing have switched places, so I’m making a decision not to go for a run rather than finding the impetus to get out. It turns out that breaking a streak is much harder than dragging myself out into the cold ever used to be. Funnily enough, the trickiest thing has been finding time to actually race. And Christmas has certainly not helped with that.

So with this reasoning in mind (and inspired by the amazing Marathon Man Rob Young) I’ve set myself a new challenge for 2015: to run at least 1 mile every day of the year. Andy is dubious; not about my commitment or stubbornness, but about the logistics. What happens when something comes up that we can’t avoid? What about away days at the football, when we usually leave London at the crack of dawn and get back home again long after dark? What about when I’m not feeling well? He’s not wrong, and it will be difficult, but then that’s the point of a challenge.

My own questions aren’t logistical ones; I’ll wear running shoes all day every day if I have to, and I’ll get up at 6am for away days rather than 6.30am, and unless I’m at death’s door ten minutes of jogging won’t kill me. My questions are harder to respond to: will I risk injury; will I totally screw up my work-life balance and become a selfish runner; and most of all, will this kill my love for running? I set the challenge because it’s something I’ve never even come close to doing before, and it means I guarantee myself 10 minutes of me time a day. Plus, I’ve always found the concept of sustaining a streak to be hugely satisfying, good for keeping my mind from unravelling and for practising discipline and focus. But if my motivation becomes sustaining a running streak rather than running itself, I could end up jeopardising my run-life balance altogether. I think we both knew that’s what Andy was really alluding to when he asked about logistics.

So the real challenge will be, can I keep up my streak without losing out on something more important?

I’m going to try it anyway, and I’m also racking up the marathons wherever they fit in. I’m not afraid of failing the challenge as long as I’ve given it my best effort, and as long as I don’t cross the line between commitment and obsession. I just want to see how far I can go.

Watch this space.

How to prepare for a marathon

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If there’s a textbook definition of how not to train for a marathon, then I’ve got a well-worn hardback copy with margins full of notes. Thanks to a combination of two jobs, the QPR fixture list, family and friends who don’t remember what I look like any more and a troll brain keeping me awake at night by listing all the things I haven’t done yet, finding time to train not just sufficiently but smartly is a perennial challenge. Generally speaking, I transition swiftly from “Fuck it, I’ll just enter and worry about it later” flippancy through the “I’ve got ages yet, I’m sure I’ll be fine” phase to the “JESUS TAKE THE WHEEL” climax of marathon preparation, and end up at the starting line relying on adrenalin and stubbornness to carry me through.

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I can’t make excuses for my lifestyle: it’s my choice to watch QPR in all corners of the country, it’s my choice to drink lots of gin to make up for them losing, and sheer necessity to hold down two jobs to pay for this habit. I’m not giving up on either QPR or running though, so I have to regain control of the situation somehow.

How do I do this? The same way any rational person does. Lists.

After the Edinburgh Marathon last year mum and I listed everything we’d do on our next marathon, and thanks to the wonders of technology (specifically, my iPad mini and Evernote) that list – as does a new one for each event – goes everywhere with me. Whenever I do a race or try out a new tactic in training, I make note of what I discover – what are the best kinds of food on the run, what picks me up at the end of a race, which vest is most comfortable to spend ten hours in. Although the term “diary” gives me Judy Blume nightmares, I suppose that’s what my lists have, in effect, become – my training diaries. I review and refine them, have little ticks beside them so I can check off items as they go into my race bag, even separate them into sections for before, during and after the race. And I always keep the old ones so I can look back at successful (or not to successful) strategies.

Sadly mum had to drop out of the races we’d planned to do together this year through injury, but she’ll always be my support crew and I learn as much from her experiences as I do from my own. When she said she wished she’d had a tuna sandwich at the end of Edinburgh – very specifically that – I laughed, until it made me realise what I had been craving but been unable to articulate; that is to say, salt and protein. I couldn’t stomach tuna, but a sausage roll or a ham sandwich would have gone down a treat. When I left her all my ibuprofen and Vaseline for Brighton thinking she could give me some at the last cheer point to save me carrying it, it took me until mile 20 to realise that a) I needed it immediately, not at mile 25 and b) I had a perfect ibuprofen and Vaseline shaped pouch around my waist all along, and I’m an idiot. On the list.

Obviously the contents of everyone’s list will be different – what’s good for the goose sometimes gives the gander a dicky tummy – but I like to think that there are a few key questions you can ask yourself during race preparation to point you in the right direction.

What do you need before the race?
What do you need during the race?
What do you need after the race?
And how much of that can you get rid of?

That’s right. Whatever you think you need, you probably only really need half of at most, especially if you’ve got an overnight bag and public transport – not happy bedfellows – to think about on top of everything else. What’s more, most races these days are well stocked with water, snacks and energy supplements, so although you should never run a race assuming you can rely solely on checkpoint provisions you don’t need to carry enough water to cross the Sahara. This is one situation where my pervading fear of other people (zombies) actually puts me at an advantage. Like doomsday preppers, I always try to pack my raceday bag like I have to make a sudden getaway. Andy is such a lucky man.

As I write this I’m in a hotel room in Istanbul, preparing for the marathon on the 16th November. Packing for the whole weekend was a three week operation of written and re-written lists, bits and pieces stowed away in the suitcase for safe keeping, changing my mind between using new minimalist kit and tried and tested favourites. I’ve broken my usual holiday packing rule and taken two options of most items with me, just so I can leave the decision until the last possible moment. 22 hours out, this is what my race looks like:

Before:
Nutrigrain bars (breakfast)
Joggers and running jacket over race kit
(15 mins yoga warm up)

During:
Running bra
Istanbul Marathon shirt
Running shorts
Marathon socks 
Peaked Buff
New pink running shoes
Garmin 
Pacing band
Handheld with Shot Bloks in pouch
iPod shuffle and earphones 
Race number (on shorts)

In bag/for after:
Directions to start
Recovery drink and bottle
Nutrigrain bar
Silver foil blanket 
Joggers and running jacket again
Raceday pouch – safety pins, hair grips and hairbands, Imodium and ibuprofen, antibacterial gel, Vaseline, lip balm, tissues
Flipflops
QPR shirt

In recent races and long runs I’ve worn my trusty ultra belt and that’s been fine, because I’ve either been running ultras or trail races, so I’ve needed plenty of space to carry energy bars (well, cake). This time though, it’s my old nemesis: the city marathon. What’s more, it’s a potentially flat and fast one, and the first time since April I’ll be able to find out for sure how fast I can finish, so I want to be as light as possible. The weather forecast promises perfect running conditions. And Andy has challenged me to break 4 hours. Eep.

So as usual, I’ve prepared for it by throwing everything I know about race prep out of the window. Three days in Istanbul prior to race day may turn out to be a mistake, because Turkish food and wine is fucking amazing, and I’m wearing a top I’ve never tried before and a handheld bottle I’ve never raced with before. This is where I fall back on my raceday list, the psychological anchor in my anxiety storm.

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I could probably halve this list again if I needed to, but sometimes it’s the little comforts at the end that get you through the last few miles, and my QPR shirt and flipflops are two I can’t really do without. Some items are a practical necessity, some a requirement of the rules; some are purely because you know they’ll make you feel better. And at this stage, the truly valuable preparation has been happening for the last six months, not the last three weeks. Now it’s time for me to stop obsessing over which t-shirt to wear and get on with it.

So how do you prepare for a marathon? If anyone cracks it, do let me know…