My last post was all a bit doom and gloom, wasn’t it? Not even any pictures. Sorry about that.
It spent a long time in the drafts folder, to be fair – a long time waiting for me to tie all the strands together, even though it did turn out to be like a loosely made pom pom: one weak central point and fluff scattered everywhere. But as I mentioned, it wasn’t easy to write. Time to look forward.
This one should be easier for both you and me – as I type I’m at the end of a week off from work with no particular agenda other than to rest, write and run. It came about after a gentle but firm reminder from HR to everyone who had ten or more days of annual leave: take it or lose it. As odd as it sounds taking holiday right after Christmas, the festive season isn’t exactly restful or relaxing and the first two weeks of January turned out not to be that busy, so it made perfect sense to take the time off. Andy’s already used his holiday days waiting for Thames Water to fix our sewer and we’ve neither the money nor the inclination to go abroad, so I treated myself to a staycation on my own. A whole week of wearing yoga pants and not talking to people.
The plan – because even on my day off there’s always a plan – was to use the mornings for running and the afternoons for writing and life admin; the longer game was to try and reset my routine altogether, hopefully making a few good habits that I could carry forward. Although a bit of rest (otherwise known as binge watching Fortitude on the sofa) would also be key, there wouldn’t be much point in getting used to a life of leisure only to suffer a massive culture shock on Monday. I didn’t just want to recuperate, I wanted a fresh start for a fresh new year.
So after moaning for eighteen solid months about never having time, what exactly have I been doing with my precious time off?
Obviously. Getting into a training pattern of any kind is often an exercise in creating a good habit more than it is about the training itself. In my experience, a good habit can help in two key ways: normalising an activity, making its absence more notable than its presence, removes the conscious decision whether or not to do something out of my comfort zone and the risk that I’ll avoid it; and establishing a routine provides a reassuring constant which strengthens my defence against anxiety and doubt. It’s not just helpful for those who suffer with anxiety though; a good habit is crucial for succeeding at any new challenge. When it’s a one off, or if it doesn’t have a place in your schedule, there’ll always be more reasons not to do a new activity than there will be to go for it. It’s sort of why I get so into streaks, I suppose. And, to me at least, there’s something very comforting about having milestones to look out for in my day.
This week’s target on my training plan is 42 miles, mostly at a general aerobic effort or recovery pace, meaning that my effort shouldn’t ever really exceed the ability to hold a conversation. I’m used to that being somewhere in the 8:30 – 9:30 minute mile bracket but my fitness and my health are so far below where they used to be I’m barely going faster than 10:00mm, even when I bust a gut. It’s a fairly depressing place to start, but the only way to improve it is to persevere. So I found a neat little way to fit the miles in without doing circles around my house all the time; driving Andy to work and following up with a run around Richmond Park, with the added bonus of parakeets to play with. It’s been slow, but utterly joyful.
Word of the day, biophilia, has often popped up in my discussions with trail runners about motivation: a hypothesis that being surrounded by nature and living systems can help reduce stress and promote well-being. Spending time in woodland and on open hills, soft ground underfoot and fresh air in my lungs, never fails to improve my state of mind. And another effect of going off-road is a drastic reduction in the perception of effort; I can tootle along the North Downs Way for hours and barely feel it. But when I haven’t got time to play tombola with the Southern trains timetable (“Will the 8:30 to Epsom Downs turn up? Roll the barrel and take your chances!”) there are still plenty of green spaces for me to explore in the city within reach of a tube or my bike: besides Richmond Park, Wimbledon, Tooting and Clapham Common are all regular haunts, as is the Vanguard Way.
Having done my run I’ve been getting back home mid morning full of pep, usually around the time I’d be getting into a meeting if I was at work and resigning myself to no achievements. That pep has been put to good use giving the house a bit of a spruce – cleaning is loads easier when you don’t leave it for weeks at a time – which means a much nicer space to work in. Having done that I’ve been trying to get in at least 20 or 30 minutes of yoga, again something I’ve neglected horribly. Once I’ve unfolded myself out of “corkscrew” and popped my joints back in place the rest of the morning is reserved for correspondence (that sounds more romantic and Jane Austen-y than “checking emails”) or any other odd errands.
There needs to be some rest in there, I am a lady of leisure after all. I got through both series of Fortitude in four days – now of course anxiety dreams are replaced by nightmares about rabid polar bears – while balancing lunch on my belly. It’s Friday as I write this, and time for a change of mood, so I’m watching Dinnerladies from the start. I don’t think it’s possible to overstate how brilliant Dinnerladies was. I don’t think it’s possible to overstate how brilliant Victoria Wood was. Victoria Wood taught me about humanity and about comedy, which are always the same thing, and had a massive influence on my sense of humour (when I have one). It seems appropriate to take inspiration from her when retraining myself to be human.
Then from three o’clock onwards I’ve been taking my laptop and a cup of coffee down to the summer house to write. I was lucky enough to get on the shortlist of Penguin’s WriteNow project, a scheme offering mentorship to unpublished authors from under-represented backgrounds, but my third of a novel with no discernible narrative written in a tense that made the editor wince didn’t make the final ten, surprisingly. However the WriteNow team gave us so much valuable support and advice that I’ve decided to finish the damn thing and try my luck the old fashioned way. I’m still not changing the tense though.
The novel is a folly for which the optimistically named “summer house” is a perfect setting. The summer house is really just a cabin at the bottom of the garden which seemed to have been used for storing catkins and spiderwebs when we first moved in, but we’ve since furnished it as a bedsit for when my brother stays and now it’s basically the biggest and nicest room in the house. My aim was to try and get around 1000 words down a day, and the cabin is just far enough away from the house that the wi-fi is useless without a booster, which is handy for avoiding distractions. With the help of a new carpet and insulation, an electric heater and a hand knitted draught excluder, it’s actually super cosy down there now. In fact it’s almost as well equipped as Roald Dahl’s hut – all I’m missing is the Thermos flask. I manage a couple of hours without fresh coffee then it’s suppertime.
As we do every January Andy and I have committed to cut down on stodge and make healthier suppers – not that we’re ready meal addicts, but anything requiring more imagination than a diced onion doesn’t get a look in on worknights. Since I’ve been home this week we’ve treated ourselves to square meals that have multiple vegetables and more than one colour in them, and again I find myself surprised (perhaps naively) at the effect proper food can have on mood. I know it’s pretty obvious, but it’s hard to be hangry when you’ve had your five a day. As with all these good habits, it tends to feed itself – you just have to get going in the first place. Or rather, you have to want to get it going. That, I think, is the biggest shift for me – after just one week of R&R I’ve started to care enough about my body to want to feed it decent things, not just to pay lip service to better living.
So I have to admit our HR department were on to something by insisting that people actually take their annual leave. This is usually where someone throws around the term “work-life balance” but as someone whose work patterns have traditionally been of the feast or famine model I’ve never been able to define what that means at all, let alone for me. Now I know what it doesn’t mean: pushing through fourteen months without a proper break, piling exhaustion upon sleep deficit, burning out and going mad. All feast and no famine. I could keep up that kind of pressure in my previous job because I knew there would be fallow months, but it’s taken me some time to adjust to this new, consistently busy schedule, one which requires me to take responsibility for my own health and rest even when we’re busy. It’s going to take time for me not to feel guilty about that.
Although I can’t keep up this lady of leisure act beyond Sunday it’s been just enough to taste what a properly structured life could look like. Work shouldn’t stop me from fitting in an hour of running and an hour of writing a day, or allow for the occasional lazy evening doing nothing of worth except rest – and to be fair it doesn’t, I do. In exposing myself to a routine I’d like to live by, in defining that for myself, I’ve given myself something to look forward to. I haven’t looked forward to anything for over a year now – I’ve been too tired to appreciate it or too afraid of making myself that vulnerable.
If you find yourself in this position, try to find time to take stock – OK you might not have a whole week going spare, but even one day or an hour every morning for a week is better than putting off your recovery over and over until it’s too late. It’s a bit like cleaning your house: if you do twenty minutes every day nothing gets too far out of hand. If you ignore it for months, you’re eventually going to have to call in the professionals.
I’m going to talk about mental health. It’s not an easy thing to talk about; partly because of the stigma, although that tide is on the way out. Mostly because, for many people, it can be hard to define. Good or bad, mental health is a vague, shapeless thing, often recognisable only in the negative spaces. I think you know when something’s wrong but do you know when something’s right? Do you know how to articulate what’s wrong?
I found myself in this position recently, having finally decided to talk to our company’s welfare counsellor. It took a while to build up the courage and make the appointment – what finally made the decision for me was the need to do something about my mental health not for me, but for the effect it is having on my partner and my friends. I can be as self-indulgent and -destructive as I please, but I have no right to take anyone else down with me. So she asked me what I wanted to talk about, and I said that I was struggling. I couldn’t think of another, less euphemistic way to describe it than that. Just that I was struggling, and I knew that the way I respond to things wasn’t normal, and I needed to do something about it.
I described being so stressed that I vacillated between insomnia and fatigue; actually, tiredness so profound it was paralysing. I described getting home from work one day and slumping to the floor in front of the sofa, unable to get up on to it to be more comfortable, unable to move at all, frozen there until Andy came home an hour later and helped me up. I described being in chronic pain quite a lot of the time for no specific reason and in no specific area, alleviated only by a good long run. I said that I suffered panic attacks. She stopped me there.
“What do you mean by panic attacks?”
As soon as I said it I realised it was a daft thing to say. I had grasped for a phrase to explain what I normally – again, euphemistically – call ‘episodes’, where terror grips my heart for no apparent reason and I burst into hysterics, hyperventilate, become numb, become paralysed, all at once. But of course it’s not panic and it isn’t an attack. I hate that phrase anyway – it infers that a panic attack is something that happens to you: a passive activity thrust upon you, an external influence. It isn’t, of course. It comes from within, it is created in my head and there is an unconscious decision to unleash it. It is, perhaps more appropriately, a stress response, and I am – to some extent – responsible for it.
If what I’ve described there is the tip of the dagger, then what comes next is the wound, which bleeds out if left unchecked. The emotional effort of an “episode” has a very physiological effect on me, quite similar to the effort of a marathon but without the endorphins. Or the sense of achievement. Or the permission to eat tons of cake. The most noticeable effect is that it wears me out, which is probably my body forcing me to rest by simply rendering me immobile for a day or two, but the flipside is that if I have to stay awake for any reason (you know, like gainful employment) I end up behaving like an overtired toddler at a New Year’s Eve party. Only now am I waking up naturally after less than ten hours of sleep; for the best part of 2017 I’ve been going to bed before half 8 (when I am able), and either being wrenched awake at half 7 the following morning feeling like the living dead, or staying awake until the small hours panicking about utter bollocks and seeing a liquid three hours of tearful, fearful sleep. I don’t think either of those make me a fun person to work with.
In fact I have a little sleep app which I set when I go to bed, which measures REM cycles and quality of sleep and on which I record notes relating to my day, such as whether I drank tea, coffee or alcohol, whether I worked out, whether it was a stressful day. Using that information it can tell me how those parameters affect my sleeping habits; it is not surprising that a stressful day generally correlates with poor quality sleep but working out and a solid 8 hours tends to give a higher score. It did, however, turn out to be a surprise one day when I noticed that for the first time since starting to use the app regularly I didn’t tick the box for “drank coffee”. I went one day without coffee. In over two years. Which makes the coffee parameter somewhat irrelevant and the whole enterprise less than scientific.
I say “less than scientific”: it’s just an iPhone app, a product designed to meet the current trend for simulated empiricism (among other things), so that people have the illusion of control over their lives because a fitness or lifestyle or health app is helping them track their every move. Scientifically speaking this kind of data analysis is at best valueless and irrelevant; or at least, it’s about as relevant as those Facebook quizzes that list your character attributes (they’re never really negative are they?) based on the third letter of your name or the date you were born. My point is that this very unscientific thing, this cynical tool of consumerist juzsh, has become a crutch in my daily life simply because I’m afraid of losing control, and this app makes me feel as though I have it. Copy and paste for MyFitnessPal.
Which brings me to what I believe is the contributing factor to these episodes: a fear of loss of control. My family, god love them, will tell you this is nothing new; I’ve been called a control freak many times before and not usually in the context of a compliment. The mistake I think they make – perhaps I should stop putting words in their mouths if I don’t want to be called a control freak – is that they think what I desire is control over everything, when in truth all I need is control over a fraction of myself. Control over everything? I’m not that ambitious. And I don’t like other people enough to care about controlling them. I just want to feel the tips of my own fingers.
Because that’s literally where every episode takes me. To the feeling that every molecule in my body becomes loose and starts to float away, that the bonds between them disintegrate and I become nothing. This is a waking nightmare I have suffered almost all my life, or at least since I was about ten years old; it’s also a recurring dream that plagues the few hours I do sleep at the height of my anxiety episodes. It can approach by degrees, perhaps at a professional or social occasion that I’m not entirely comfortable with, where I try to hold back the tide of anxiety for as long as possible and jump on a train home when I’m about to succumb; or it can hit me like a tsunami, where I’m coping one minute and the next I’m dissociating first from my surroundings, then from my peripheral senses, almost from my sense of self altogether: stranded. When I talk about losing control, I’m not talking about frustration that other people won’t bend to my will. I’m literally talking about losing the link between my physical body and my sense of self.
At one point or another this has manifested itself in the form of both claustrophobia and agoraphobia (it’s possible, look it up), as an eating disorder, as compulsions, and not at all. The common factor to all these self-prescribed treatments is the same thing: a misguided belief that activity X equals outcome Y, and I will regain control of all my molecules. But that fear of disintegration still tortures me. If I stand on a bridge I panic that my belongings will jump out of my pockets into the water, or that I’ll fall in even if I’m nowhere near the edge. If I drop something on the floor, I briefly imagine that it will fall into a black hole and be gone forever. If I stand still for long enough, I feel as though I will turn to dust.
This is what I wanted to tell the counsellor, and didn’t. I said a lot of things but I couldn’t articulate this. Six months on, and only now have I got the building blocks of the language I need to describe it to you – even then these words are to actual building blocks what Lego is to bricks and mortar.
It was far from a waste of time though – those two short sessions were enough to start the process of recovery, even if all they did was make me confront and find a way to define the immediate problem. We discussed the importance of running to my mental health, acknowledging that that one very simple treatment has never failed to alleviate my symptoms and working out how to make the most of it. I half expected her to tell me that actually there is no provable link between exercise and good mental health and that it’s all a placebo sold by Runner’s World – but then I thought, what does it matter if it is? As long as it works, and the worst side effects are boring your friends and never having clean hair, then I’ll take a placebo over losing hope that I’ll ever feel human again. It’s either that or knitting.
To anyone reading this who can relate to what I’ve written, or who recognises even a scrap of themselves in the chaotic fragments of my story, I say this: I know how lucky I am to have this resource available, and how stupid I am for not taking advantage of it sooner. Many people don’t have the luxury of a welfare counsellor at work or even know if they come on the NHS. If you have such a resource, use it. Not because a counsellor will fix you like a plaster on a papercut, but because they will start to teach you how to heal yourself. They might sow the seeds of recovery, or show you how to sow the seeds, or they might even start by explaining to you what seeds are.
If you don’t have access to a counsellor directly, be reassured that help is closer than you think. The Mind website is a great source of information on mental health, as are SANE and Rethink. And be reassured that mental ill-health is commoner than you think too, especially in this age of enlightenment. With the privilege of more and more instant access information comes the responsibility to evaluate it all, at an increasingly faster pace and with less and less tolerance for error. It’s like working on a factory assembly line, where the machine churns out parts at the same pace for years and years, and all the line workers have to do is put them together. Suddenly one day the machine doubles in speed and your boss docks your pay for every incorrect assembly. The effort of trying to keep up compounded by the fear of failure is a disaster waiting to happen, and yet we have to treat this situation as if it’s perfectly normal. Eventually, it is normal. But normal still isn’t the same as right.
If me and my molecules have been of any help to you then maybe it’s a step towards us all keeping up with the machine. And if they haven’t, then please know that you’ve been invaluable to me.
It’s my favourite event of the year. Well, no – Eurovision is my favourite of all events, but Druids is top as far as races go. It’s not even the running bit that makes it, although the Ridgeway trail traces my heart like my own veins; it’s the camping overnight in school halls, eating Anna’s mum’s homemade cake, drinking endless cups of instant coffee and sleeping on an army cot in the frozen depths of November that I can’t wait for. File it in the Venn diagram of “things that make me feel like a kid”/”things only trail runners do”/”happy things”.
I ran it in 2015 and 2016, but had to hold off this year due to the fourth Centurion Grand Slam, the Wendover Woods 50, being only two weeks later. Honestly I’m not sure what upset me more: missing Druids or missing out on the suicide challenge of doing both, just for lols. Nonetheless, paranoid that the slightest intervention would scupper my chances of finishing the grand slam (spoiler alert) I opted to wrap myself in cotton wool, and just volunteer instead. Easy peasy.
The race covers almost the entire Ridgeway National Trail over three days: 29 miles on Friday, 27 on Saturday and 28 on Sunday. I couldn’t get the time off on Friday for the first leg from Ivinghoe Beacon to the school at Watlington so I missed out on the first night’s camping as well; on the other hand it had been a big week at work and a solid night’s sleep in my own damn bed was more of a novelty than camping, so I banked it. Car packed, I drove up to my first post at checkpoint two at the crack of dawn on Saturday, ready for action.
Being a production manager by trade, I had printed out every last scrap of information I could find, calculated how long it would take me to get to the checkpoint, gave myself a good margin of error and then set off slightly earlier than that. The instructions told me I was needed at the checkpoint an hour in advance of the runner expected to pass first, and that was half past nine, so there I was, at 08:27 (including a detour for a coffee and a loo stop so as not to seem too eager). And I waited.
And I waited.
I could be relatively certain that I was in the right place – I mean it’s probably the most memorable checkpoint in the whole three days – and my satnav wasn’t disagreeing. But the checkpoint chief, Edward, was nowhere to be seen. Tussling with the fear of posting a stupid question on the group Whatsapp I tried sending messages to both Edward and to Rich the volunteer coordinator, with no luck and no signal. By half past nine I was vacillating between panic that a hundred hungry runners were about to overwhelm me and certainty that it must be me that was wrong; after all, there were at least three other people that were meant to be there and still weren’t. Just as I was about to get my trail shoes on and start running backwards along the route, wondering if the checkpoint had moved, a car drove down the muddy lane to the water’s edge that obviously had nothing to do with fishermen or dog walking.
Out of Edward’s modest estate car a whole checkpoint unfolded – I mean this is Mary Poppin’s carpet bag territory. Two fold out tables, four barrels full of water, eight or nine boxes of food and supplies (including the all-important hand sanitiser), the timing kits, the ubiquitous XNRG feather banner and various other bits of signage. Joined by fellow volunteer Laura and her son we set up as quickly as possible and started doing the clock arithmetic for when we expected the first person to pass, proving once and for all that my calculations were way out. I offered to tick off race numbers and make sure all the runners checked their wristbands against the timer, thinking at least I couldn’t get that wrong.
As is customary for day 2 of the Druids, especially the second stretch along the Thames, it was soggy. I tried to wipe my phone screen on my trousers to dry it off enough to use, and all that happened was that my phone screen got a different kind of wet on it. My numbers sheet actually got soaked while we were setting up and had to be laid across the car’s heating vents to dry off before we even got started; by the time we were halfway through the field I was marking fat splodges on papier mache with a mashed felt tip, literally counting down the chart to get the right number. It was like playing bingo in wet clay.
Considering the job involved standing outside in the rain without shelter for a number of hours (including the bonus ones I awarded myself) the time passed surprisingly quickly. Having to concentrate on the path and catch the runners before they took off up the road was definitely harder than being the runner concentrating on the path, something I know from previous experience on that course. I’ve given up on enough of my own races to know how annoying it is to let yourself down, but the thought of letting down another runner was really nerve-wracking. Meanwhile, a lone fisherman who was surprised to find us pitched up on the bank before him settled in at the rivers edge with his wolf (he claimed it was a dog) and patiently waited for the fish that our neon coloured, mud-thumping, giggling and panting runners were presumably scaring away. We learned an awful lot about riverside politics between rowers and kayakers, longboaters and swimmers, like a live-action version of The Wind In The Willows.
The runners came through in various states of undress and humour; most notably a first time ultrarunner who came in wearing just one shoe, having lost the other in the mud (which wasn’t surprising as they turned out to be three sizes too small for him in the first place); the man who found a neat solution to our lack of sandwiches (two jaffa cakes with a slice of cheddar in the middle); and Marie-Claude, a lady who stumbled into the aid station in a bin bag and floods of tears, having optimistically followed the weather forecast and not the basic tenet of Druids which is that day two is always wet. Bless her, she was miserable. Her waterproofs were, helpfully, in her bag back at base. Her ankles were weighed down with a pair of hand knitted leg warmers, by now waterlogged and hefty with mud, and she was pining for her sturdy walking boots. She sobbed uncontrollably as we helped her into a chair and out of the leg warmers, and Edward managed to produce both hot water and a hot chocolate sachet from nowhere. It seemed like she was destined to pull out.
Those of you that know XNRG’s multi-day challenges probably know regular face Elaine, often patiently hiking each leg in twice the time of the frontrunners and always with a smile and good humour. We knew to look out for her as the last person expected through, making Marie-Claude the second from last according to the scraps of my sheet. After a last minute bit of foot dressing by Dr Laura and the lend of a waterproof jacket, it seemed that all that Marie was short of was the will to carry on – she was in perfectly good health otherwise. We managed to convince her that if she kept going she would eventually have company from Elaine, and since there were no cut-offs she had nothing but time. To her credit as soon as she was up on her feet she got straight on with it – a lesson in the power of appropriate kit and a bit of positive thinking. We all sympathised with her low moment, but we all know those moments pass much faster than the disappointment of a DNF. Not long afterward came Elaine, as smiling and beatific as ever. We had a bit of a chat with her as she loaded up on jaffa cakes and some of Laura’s homemade flapjacks, and off went the last of our intrepid explorers.
My next shift was back at the school manning the tea and cake stand. Yeah I know, what a hardship. Handing out tea and cake to people 56 miles in to the Ridgeway is a very gratifying job anyway – I mean, nobody’s exactly turning their nose up at free cake – but to ultra geeks like me it’s also a front row seat to the best show on earth, watching the likes of Edwina Sutton and Justin Montague do what they do best and barely break sweat in the process. And because I’m my mother’s daughter I had great fun buzzing around like a busybody and forcing tea into chilly hands.
And then the hard work began.
While Susie Chan and Rory Coleman delivered their after-supper presentations, we had to clear the canteen and set up for breakfast the following morning, as well as keep the hot drinks and cake flowing and the jerrycans full of water. I sort of knew, from previous experience, that the job would involve making sure these vital things were available as long as everyone was awake, but I hadn’t quite appreciated just how much 300 runners and walkers could get through – I don’t think I stopped moving until past 11pm, an hour after lights out. Straight into event mode, I fell into my cot bed feeling wonderfully weary and stared at the ceiling for five hours, too buzzed to sleep.
My alarm went off at half 5 just as I’d started to drift off, and by the time I got to the canteen the early risers on the first wave were already tucking in. The walkers were due to start at 7am but would need to be on the shuttle bus by half 6 in order to be taken to the restart point, on the exposed top of East Hendred Down. The well-oiled machine that is XNRG splits up the runners into groups according to their finishing times from day 2, which is crucial in making sure that there are enough seats on the shuttle buses to get everyone to the top – and naturally, everyone bargains to go in the middle group. Once again I saw the wider context of my selfish runner’s needs; if 5 percent of the field ask to be the “one change” to the grouping, they’d need to hire a whole extra bus to accommodate. Considering that I’ve always felt very well looked after at XNRG’s races, I saw firsthand how it’s not abundance of resources but Anna and Neil’s military precision that fulfils our every need; at the same time, it’s clear to see how quickly what profits they do turn could be swallowed up for the want of a bit of forward planning.
By the time we’d seen all three groups breakfasted and on the buses – not to mention their luggage – I was already jumping into the car for my next job: manning station 2 at Hinton Parva, this time under the guidance of checkpoint chief Wendi. Even more wobbly than the soggy ground we set up on on Saturday, this time the table was on a thirty degree slope and the Haribo were in even more danger of flying away than of being snaffled. Following the classic Druid’s schedule, day 3 was a clear, crisp day, dry and bright but absolutely fucking freezing. FREEZING. So, almost as good weather to be standing out in for hours as incessant rain.
God it was fun though. Wendi, a stalwart of XNRG races, is like your friend’s hilarious mum who you sort of wish was your mum. We were messing around so much I only just got the signage and timing pad set up in time for the first runner through, and as the checkpoint is at the bottom of a long downward slope they were barrelling past us – I had to move up the hill to allow for reaction time, they were that fast. As was to be expected the field was more stretched out than yesterday, and by the time we got halfway through my toes (even in their two pairs of socks and thick boots) were already blocks of ice, and my writing basic caveman smudges through my heavy duty gloves.
There was an addition to the timing system this year: a tracker held by the runner at the back of the field which, in the absence of cutoffs, allowed us to see roughly how long we should stay open, avoiding the risk of closing up too early or hanging around for ages unnecessarily. It’s a fairly low tech system which relies on the last runner handing it to whomever they overtake; on the other hand, the tracker had been in the reliable hands of Elaine for days 1 and 2 so we weren’t too worried about losing it. In fact, we learned over the wireless (Whatsapp) that Elaine had company for the day: Marie-Claude, the girl who looked like she wasn’t going to drop out so much as drop dead the day before, had swapped her trail shoes for her hiking boots and every layer of clothing she had, and joined Elaine to enjoy the rest of the Ridgeway at a leisurely pace.
The third day had really started to take its toll on people, and there were at least three dropouts at our station – injured knees and swollen feet scattered around the trail like the aftermath of a battlefield. As I ticked off each race number, either as they passed or were reported on Whatsapp as a dropout from checkpoint one, my runner bingo card became a tally of the most weary, pained and battered people I’d ever seen. Eventually we were down to a group of four colleagues who were hiking together, who passed through smiling as benignly as if they were on a Sunday stroll – actually I almost mistook them for dogwalkers, they were so laid back – and shortly afterwards, the cheerful grins of Marie-Claude and Elaine. I’ve often commented on Elaine’s particular brand of good-natured, matronly stamina, but together they were giggling like schoolgirls who’d snuck away from double Physics. In fact, they were having so much fun that their pace had increased fairly drastically since the first leg – drastically enough that their second wind later turned out to be enough to overtake the Sunday strollers. That’s the final ingredient in a successful ultramarathon – a pinch of childish fun. Because how else do you forget about the lows?
Having seen them safely off we packed up, and I drove back to base to clock my final shift of the weekend: being the Mrs Overall of HQ once again. I feel like I might have been given a slightly charmed rota since all I seemed to do was chat to runners and serve them coffee; but I reflected later than perhaps my impression of volunteering at a race involved a lot more hardship than I thought it would. Don’t get me wrong, it was still ten times tougher than running the bloody thing – and if I’ve heard a single piece of advice about ultras I feel qualified to pass on it’s that you should always smile at the checkpoint volunteers – but it was worth it to appreciate just how much effort goes into this very very complex operation designed to give a small bunch of nutters a good time. And it’s the tip of the iceberg – I turned up on the day and followed a rota and did what I was told. My professional experience tells me that months of preparation and negotiation went into getting the race permit and selling the places, securing the stopover venues, working out and then booking the logistics, sorting out the food and drink supplies, assembling and organising the volunteer team, reorganising them when people pulled out at late notice – never mind the details.
Only when I started for home, very nearly suppertime and all I’d eaten was thieved Haribo and cake, did I start to dive off the crest of adrenalin I’d been surfing all weekend. My lack of fitness and training sent me into a downward spiral at the beginning of this year that became so bad I couldn’t even bear to look at my running club’s social media posts, I was in such a grimy well of self pity. The idea of volunteering to keep in touch when you can’t run always seemed like a good one on paper, but I just couldn’t bear watching other people do the things I wanted to be doing; like watching the ex that broke your heart in a shiny new relationship. Druids was the one event that I felt would be worse to miss altogether than to be involved with in some way, and I’m so glad I got stuck in. It might not have been an entirely altruistic gesture, offering to volunteer just to cheer myself up, but I hope at least it was a mutually beneficial act. Like sharing a smile at the aid station, a good deed – however selfish the motive – cannot help but spread goodwill.
Still though… my Pilgrim’s entry went in the very next day. I’m gonna earn my cake this time.
I am a great advert for not following one’s own advice.
After a miserable year of non-running, not enough running, running poorly, running out of time to run, I started 2017 with the intention of maintaining a mile a day run streak and completing the Centurion 50 mile Grand Slam – four fifty milers staged throughout the year on the South and North Downs, the Chiltern Hills and Wendover Woods – to give a shot in the arm of my athletic career. What could go wrong?
My times on each race grew progressively slower, my recovery less and less effective and my training became what can most politely be described as sparse. The motive behind the run streak was primarily to readjust my life priorities around a job that often needs responsive, erratic hours and little hope of setting a routine; if I’m maintaining a run streak then I have to find at least ten minutes a day to myself in order to keep it going, and that ten minutes of much needed headspace. The logic was sound, to me at least, to lean on my addictive nature: I’m more likely to prioritise the integrity of the streak than my physical health, career, relationship, mental health. That logic proved to be as effective as taking morphine for a broken leg and continuing to run. It resolves the short term obstacle as the expense of the long term solution.
I miss my daily run, desperately. It had become a single junk mile per day dragging myself around the pavement in my area for the sake of the streak, it was less than useful in athletic terms. Nevertheless, I saw that mile the way an ex-pat misses sugary treats from home – more value to the soul than to the body. If he could get a truckload of Swizzel-Matlows shipped to Outer Mongolia he’d eat the lot in one sitting but it wouldn’t stave off hunger in the long run. The pleasure of those homely treats would last as long as the treats themselves, then immediately be replaced by nausea, rotten teeth and malnutrition.
I even tried other means of improving my fitness; this time experimenting with a low-carb diet and low-HR training method (Maffetone) which, for the brief period I sustained it, sustained me very well. The problem was that my lifestyle doesn’t exactly make finding carb-free food easy, and my commitment to the program had even less integrity than Kelly-Anne Conway’s commitment to the truth. Once again I am made out a fraud, espousing a philosophy I cannot myself live by.
So two days after Chiltern Wonderland I decided to break the streak. I realised I was suffering classic overtraining symptoms – I realised it many months ago, but accepted it only when the CW50 nearly hobbled me. Good old fashioned rest would be my one last hope to get through the fourth and toughest of the fifty mile grand slam series; most likely I am the only person surprised to discover that it worked. Almost.
So, having made more of the runs I could do with three or four 5+ mile runs a week instead of seven 1 mile runs, I barely ran at all for the two weeks prior to the race. It coincided with a bout of flu and two big weeks at work, building up to the biggest broadcast of the year, so the timing actually worked out quite well for me. I wasn’t exactly resting, but at least I wasn’t stressing out about finding that elusive ten minute window for a run round the block. And besides, I did a lot more managery pointing at things than being on my feet doing actual work things – all in the name of athletic improvement you understand. The flu bit was more of a concern, but by the Friday I was back to being able to sleep lying down and breathing through my nose sometimes. Win.
For only the second time ever, Andy was roped in to crew. There was a logistical reason for this – I couldn’t get there in time by public transport, and if I drove there I’d be unlikely to be able to drive back – but his support turned out to be so much more than just chauffeur. The format of the race – five 10 mile loops returning to the same start/finish point – meant that he could base himself at one place, be on hand to bring me food or extra kit, give a quick systems check at the end of each lap and chivvy me along. And spend the intervening three hours listening to podcasts in the car.
We lined up for lap one in the first few blinks of daylight – it was still dark when I picked up my bib number – and received our race briefing. Unlike previous Centurion race briefings I’ve heard James Elson deliver, this one consisted of about three sentences: the route is marked to the nth degree, you’re gonna see everything five times so if you don’t you’ve gone wrong, and take it slow. The 10 mile loop would have a net descent profile in the first half and a net ascent in the second, helpfully broken up by a checkpoint at mile 5.5, but either way you look at it there’s a lot of ups and downs. I’d printed myself a course profile and timings for the aid stations for a 12hr, 13hr, 14hr and 15hr average pace with the hope that I’d be hovering around 13hr pace to begin with and have enough buffer by the end. The original intention had been for me to carry this so I’d know where the climbs would be, but I realised that a) I’d learn pretty quickly where those climbs where and b) that sort of information might be more useful in Andy’s hands, who would read it and be able to work out how my pace, than mine, who would look at it and think “huh, some numbers”. Instead, I set my Suunto going and loaded up the WW50 gpx to follow.
On the basis of the pacing chart Andy told me I was due in to base no sooner than half past ten, or two and a half hours in. Any earlier and I’d be in trouble with him; too much later and I’d be in trouble with myself. Having been up since half 5 to drive me here he was already struggling to stay awake; he waited to wave me off then retired to a McDonalds he’d spotted about five miles back for a dirty breakfast. Far be it from me, An Athlete, to be jealous of a Maccy D’s breakfast, but damn that was a hard thing to hear as I set off down the muddy, near-freezing path.
For the first lap I tried to pay close attention to the course, the twists and turns especially, knowing those to be the easiest thing to miss in the dark, and didn’t get to do as much chatting as I’d have liked. I actually knew a fair few people there: Cat Simpson from Fulham RC was tipped for the win and her and Louise Ayling had both been out on Wednesday night headtorch runs; Awesome Tracey was somewhere in the pack, a double double Grand Slammer I’d met during CW50; and my lucky charm Ilsuk Han popped up at the halfway checkpoint as a volunteer.
As far as relying on my watch went the theory was sound, the practicality less so. I’ve been dicking around with my Suunto settings trying to get my watch to last for a whole 50 mile race, after it had run out of battery before the end of the first three; normally it’s fine, but the nav function is a bit of a power vampire. There is however an option to make the battery life last longer by reducing the accuracy of the signal: by picking up my location every 10 seconds instead of every second I figured I’d still get an accurate enough measurement (this finish wasn’t exactly going to be measured in fractions of a second) and hopefully have it running long enough to be able to use the average pace setting. Yes, that sounds foolproof.
Louise, who’d volunteered the race the previous year and was well briefed, mentioned that we would see the checkpoint two miles before we actually reached it thanks to a neat little detour loop. That kind of route info is really useful to know, relative measurements which can’t be tricked rather than saying that such and such aid station is at mile x. You don’t know if that mile marking is measured from the start or measured by an interval from the previous one, if your watch is on the ball or if it’s missed a chunk of signal, or if the volunteers are just trying to be optimistic. So after a fun little trundle through the woods, a couple of sharp ups and a lot of long steep downs (fuck I love those) I turned a left to see the checkpoint directly ahead by a line of trees, and a pink arrow pointing right up a steep slope. Goody gumdrops.
Even after having run it multiple times, I’m still not sure now if that ascent is the first big one on the course or if it’s just the first one that makes you swear. Especially as you’ve seen the urn boiling away and the plates of cookies and cheese sandwiches laid out, waiting for you, and then you’re forced to leave them behind because no reason. The climb starts gentle, gets progressively steeper, reaches the top and then presents you with another sharp upward tick. Then you scoot down to the bottom again, about 20 minutes after you saw the checkpoint. And that’s about a mile. We were directed off to the right again for another hands on knees hike up to the Go Ape climbing attraction, back down through a carpet of gorgeously soft pine needles, and round and round the garden until the checkpoint finally appeared. I checked my watch. 4.5 miles, nearly 16mm pace and around an hour and ten minutes passed.
Worryingly, that’s lightly slower than I’d planned at this point even taking that one climb into account – I’ve only just got to the end of the “easy” half, and now I’ve got that and another mile to go, mostly uphill? This isn’t good. I mean I’ve taken it plenty easy and I’m still well within pace, but once I take exhaustion into account I’m going to go downhill fast. Wait, that’s the wrong phrase entirely. Uphill, slow. OK, don’t worry about that now. Already I was mentally comparing the image of the elevation profile with my experience and finding that it wasn’t as gruelling as I’d expected. Physically tough, certainly, but the sort of challenge I was really enjoying getting my teeth into. So I’d obviously got my calculations wrong – it was a 4.5 mile/5.5 mile split, not the other way around, and I’d need to pace the second half accordingly. Never mind, keep plugging on.
I knew that we would have at least three pretty monster hills towards the end of the second half, and sure enough I was back on my knees hiking up what seemed like a sheer cliff face. Not too bad underfoot now, but I suspected it would get a lot slippier before the day was out and it had been churned up a few times. Still the climb itself, though slow, was pretty satisfying. Next up came a really beastly climb, even steeper and slippier than the last, but again I paced myself through it (and tried not to look down) and within about ten minutes I was at the top. But the final one was the real killer. Short, sharp, nowhere near as vicious as the first two and it even had handrails. Sounds easy, right? Wrong. My legs were spent by this point. It was like death by a thousand papercuts. I’ve never used a handrail so vigorously nor been so convinced that it would pull out of the ground like a rotten weed in my hand.
When we reached the top I overheard another runner called Wendy, a friendly and cheerful voice who had for some reason chosen this to be her first ever fifty mile race, mention that we had just over a mile to go. I checked my watch. It still said 7.5 miles, and only two hours in. What’s going on? But sure enough, a few moments later we passed her support crew cheering on from the peak of the final climb and they confirmed that there was less than a mile to go. We passed through a gate and ran a perfectly flat gravel loop circumnavigating the field where the base and car park were situated, and just two hours and seventeen minutes later I was waving frantically at Andy, simultaneously surprised and pleased to see that he’d been optimistic enough to get to the tent early.
As usual, I’m not sure how I missed the obvious signs but my watch was way off. Showing just under eight and a half miles at the end of the lap, and therefore calculating the pace according to the time (which was correct) I’d been under the impression I still had another mile and a half to go and was behind my ideal pace. Instead, what happened was that I averaged 13.5 minute miles for the first lap – it also meant I wasn’t wrong about the position of the halfway checkpoint either, it was at 5.5. Another lesson in trusting your maths over your tech. I paused briefly to get an update on the frontrunners, three bites of Mars bar and a handful of cookies. Even with the time cushion there was no time to sit though, my bladder having finally kicked into gear, so I stopped for a loo break and switched off my obviously useless watch. From now on I’d rely on Andy and the only two timing points I needed to hit each lap.
I’d made a point of chatting with people when they happened to run at my pace but not trying to keep up with anyone for company – I know that I’m much faster than a lot of people on the downhills thanks to my devil-may-care style and quads of granite, but almost as slow going uphill as the wildlife. At least for the first couple of laps my pace would have to be exactly that – my pace – and the final lap or two would be trudgeville for most of the field anyway. However I did find myself falling in step with Tracey Watson, on aggregate at least; we were at the same pace on the flat but when we came to a downhill I passed her and when we went back uphill again she overtook me with ease. Tracey is a legend among Centurion runners already, as she was going for the 2017 double grand slam – that’s right, the final race of eight that year to complete both the 100 mile and 50 mile grand slam – but the more remarkable thing is that this was her second year of doing so. Let me explain: last year was only the first ever run of the Wendover Woods 50 and the first time there had been four races of both distances, and therefore only the first time one could even complete the double grand slam, if one was mad enough to try. Tracey was going for the finish today to become the only person to do this in two consecutive years, or to put it another way, at all. Needless to say, if she finished today her plan was to go for a triple double in 2018. She seemed like a person whose advice was worth listening to.
And her advice was usually “get a wriggle on”. In fact, towards the end of the race I found myself saying that exact phrase, imagining her beside me. I grilled her about the double grand slam and what her training looked like – a pretty consistent habit of 40 mile weeks – and about how to keep eating towards the end of a 100, which is basically to keep forcing food down until you can’t, then carry on anyway. The single most important piece of advice, though, especially from someone on race 16 in the most devilish streak in Britain, was never to take a finish for granted. I was surprised when I first heard her say this, but it really resonated with me when I reflected on our conversation later that night. Me with my relatively feeble experience of ultrarunning had very much been taking the finish for granted. It’s not just in the paltry training, or the lack of practice fuelling mid-run, or the flippancy with which I treat my health. I was running these races like the person who ran her first 50 two and a half years ago – someone in the right state of mind, well trained, healthy and about a stone lighter – not the person I am now. Just like my first two attempts at the NDW100 I hadn’t paid the respect it deserved whatsoever.
The other very key bit of advice she gave me – another bit of advice I didn’t reflect on until it was too late – was this: “This race is more like the first seventy-five miles of the North Downs Way than any other fifty.” How that echoes in my head now.
Lap two was a lot tougher than lap one; proportionally much more tough than it should have been I mean. Perhaps it was the ground underfoot, which was frozen solid when we first passed but already churned up like butter; perhaps it was the fact that halfway through the lap the lead man, a Kenyan runner who had never seen frost before who was running his first ever 50 miler, effortlessly lapped me halfway through his third; perhaps it was the mental effort you find yourself making not to think of the phrase “not even halfway”. Actually none of those are true: certainly the Kenyan runner was one of the most graceful and beautiful sights I’ve ever seen, and it’s hard not to be inspired by someone so skilled at what they do. I quite liked the ground getting softer, even though I managed to turn the same ankle three times on one lap. I suppose the second lap was the first time it felt real.
Lap two took a more reasonable 2:44 including my loo stop at the start. When I passed through base after twenty miles I found that Andy had bagged me a chair – I’m not sure if that’s in the rules – and gratefully took a cup of coffee which I’d texted ahead for, and a couple of cheese sandwiches. For a man not fond of running, discomfort or being away from wifi for more then ten minutes, Andy turned out to be bloody marvellous at crewing. He talked me through the pacing times I needed for the next lap, checked my responses, made sure I’d eaten and drunk and sent me back out without a moment’s faff. It made me up my game. I’m so flippant about these things usually, chatting and having fun and not really paying attention, that being reminded of his own investment in the event embarrassed me a little. Definitely no more messing around after this – if he can hang around for fifteen hours I need to make his time worth it. Off I went again.
When people have asked my why I do ultras, I’ve given a range of answers usually designed to deflect the question because the real answer is none of your business. There is one answer which approaches truth however, and it’s that I believe that to achieve something you don’t just do it once and put it to bed, you normalise it. The Grand Slam this year was to prove to myself (and a little bit, to Andy) that fifty miles was a distance I could break the back of and still have enough to spare – in doing so I’d prove that I can try the hundred mile distance again. If I can make 50 miles normal, 100 doesn’t sound so far fetched, right? What I missed was that, with a challenge of this magnitude, being unfazed by it is different than not taking it seriously. I realised that all this time I’d been scraping through my coursework hoping to get a pass on the exam, instead of getting my head down and studying like my life depended on it. And this race, of all four, was really not the one to busk.
I caught up with Tracey again for a bit on lap three, and noticed that in the previous lap the two ‘halves’ had been pretty much the same time despite the first half being a mile longer, due to the elevation. Good to know – so I could judge my times accordingly. Andy had told me I should be leaving for lap four at around 4pm, so however much earlier than that I got in would go towards getting some food down me. Already food had totally lost its taste for me and I was actively forcing myself to get anything down, but for the first time I wasn’t worried. That morning I’d briefed Andy that a tired and hypoglycaemic Jaz, afraid of the waves of nausea brought on by the thought of food, would trick him and lie about having eaten before and that he would need to force feed me. I know this from past experience, and what’s weirder is that I know I’m doing it but the imperative to avoid throwing up overrules all logic. That said, I wasn’t going to spend another four hours of racing without food or water wondering why I couldn’t move. Andy needed to see me doing OK, but he also needed to make sure I stayed on track.
The first half of lap three passed in an hour and a half, so my times were getting slower but at least it was gradually and consistently. I got a final hug from Ilsuk since he was about to finish his shift, and forced down some Maryland cookies and water as I started the hike up out of the checkpoint. Tracey had pointed out that there were some segments in the second half which had names on Strava, and they were actually signposted on the course – every time I passed them I meant to get photos and every time I forgot. That first climb turned out to be called The Snake, and I’ll let you guess the reason why. Shortly after that we came across Gnarking Around – “It’s a cross between narked and fucking around,” said Tracey – and the final climb with the handrail had a similarly witty name, but I kept forgetting it so simply thought of it as Handrail to Heaven.
Wendy and I passed each other a few times, usually with me catching her on the downhills and her catching me on the ups. I had been prepared for the third lap to be the toughest mentally, but I discovered that the more familiar I became with the course the stronger I felt about it. I looked forward to the known obstacles rather than dreading them – it’s the piddling about on the forgettable flats that make me think I’m going to die in purgatory. Having pushed through the marathon mark my legs found their rhythm and I went into autopilot. I even became (whisper it) quietly optimistic. In fact, on more than one occasion my enthusiastic barrelling down even the more technical and slippery descents earned me a “Well done!” from other runners on my lap who thought I was lapping them; runners who were later confused to find me wombling up the next ascent at slightly less than the pace of an elderly sloth. But I knew my strengths and I knew how to play to them.
The only issue at this point was that my new Altra Timps (bought for their cushioning) weren’t helping. That was weird, especially for Altras; I have little wide-toed narrow-heeled duck feet from a childhood spent barefoot and usually have to go up a size just to fit width-wise, so when I discovered Altra’s toe-shaped toe-boxes and zero-drop I said I’d never look back. The clown shoe Lone Peaks had been doing just fine for me until now, but in my panic I decided I needed something with a chunkier base to help me along on this race. For some reason however Altra decided to shape the Timps like a bloody Jimmy Choo stiletto, all pointy at the front, so they’d started to bash my toes on the downhills. Even wearing them for a few training runs I’d started to notice a pinch, but hoped that was just them wearing in and decided to start with them anyway. Enough of this vanity. I warned Andy I’d be switching to the trusty Lone Peaks for lap four.
The other thing I thought I might need, but really hoped I wouldn’t, was my asthma inhaler. I’d never suffered anything like it until last year when I had to go to A&E with problems breathing during a particularly nasty freelance job and had to be put on Salbutamol to manage it. It was a good few months until my breathing returned to normal, and ever since then the slightest hint of cold has gone straight to my chest and I’ve had to dust the bloody thing off again. I’d managed to avoid the summer cold season, but lo and behold the week before the race I got hit with a respiratory ton of bricks and I’d been relying on the inhaler to the point of almost emptying it. I secretly brought it with me, not telling Andy it was in the bag until I was about to start in case he used it as an excuse to dissuade me from racing. The first couple of laps hadn’t been a problem at all, but as the air got colder and my unfit uphill panting got more pronounced, I knew I’d need to keep it handy.
The pace was, naturally, starting to slow a little by this point, and I got into base when I was supposed to instead of way ahead of the mark. Including the previous pitstop, which again counted in this lap timing, I took 2:53 to complete it – just nine minutes longer than last time. Eating was not exactly easy but I was still managing, and the cup of coffee came up trumps again. Andy bullied me into three cheese and Dorito sandwiches but I had to barter to be allowed to leave with one in my hand, since swallowing all three in one wasn’t happening and I might as well be moving while I eat. Apart from the eating bit, I felt great. I really felt in control. I was almost actively enjoying the race. I got into the checkpoint at five minutes to four, and left it just before ten past – probably too long for a pitstop but I had the time in hand and Andy was wary of my food-avoiding tricks. I got my start-of-lap kiss and my pep talk, switched on the now essential headlamp, and wandered off with a sandwich in my hand like a lost kid on a school trip. And without the inhaler.
As soon as I set off I realised I needed both the inhaler and the loo, but it was just too late for me to turn back to base. Luckily there were public toilets at the cafe about a mile along the course which were still open and I gave myself that mile to hike and eat and catch my breath. The sandwich was going down pretty slowly though; nothing wrong with the food itself, just that my jaw had forgotten how to work. OK, not a tragedy. I took plenty of slugs of water with each mouthful, knowing how easy it is to dehydrate even on a freezing day in late November. As I passed the Gruffalo the second lady passed me; I knew from reports that Cat Simpson was in first place but I had only seen her at the end of my second lap, which coincided with the end of her third, and had somehow missed her lapping me again. It’s just another of the things I like about lap racing, that you see the frontrunners sometimes multiple times and feel the rush of wind as they glide effortlessly past you.
My second loo break (a first for me, I think) seemed to help settle my stomach and reassured me that I wasn’t dehydrating, so I let my legs take over for the downhill first half. By this time we were in the dark, and a pretty profound one at that, since we were often under the cover of trees, so I took extra care with my steps and directions. I was still feeling OK, if a little disappointed that my stomach was already turning, but nowhere near short of calories yet. The first three and a half miles passed without comment and I started trudging up the ascent that would take me up to Go Ape and back down to the checkpoint. It was slow going, but I was still within time.
The eating strategy had become cheese sandwiches at checkpoints and cookies while I walked, keeping a pile stuffed into my pocket. By now I was also sipping at my bottle of Tailwind as the cookies became more and more difficult to chew, and topping up my water bottle at both stops, meaning that I knew I’d have to finish it between stops. It seemed to be working, at least until halfway through that lap. On the climb out of the halfway checkpoint though I started to feel what I can only describe as seasick. Even taking the limited light from my torch into account, the line of the trail in front of me was definitely moving. No time to worry about that though; I’d slowed up quite a lot on this lap already and was slightly over the hour and a half for the first half that I’d hoped to maintain. I pushed on to the Boulevard of Broken Dreams, a long slow descent that leads to the foot of the Snake, trying to keep my balance and not trip over any Gruffalos.
The Snake climb was, surprisingly, a relief from the wobbly horizon – probably because it gave me something to fix on. It was still hard work but a quick systems check told me that my feet were fine – loads better for the change of shoes – my energy levels were fine, even though I was taking a good twenty minutes to chew on a cookie, and my head was still in the game. But my inner ear, that wasn’t at all. The issues with balance were causing motion sickness which meant I had to walk the flats to stop my head spinning, and obviously that meant eating was a struggle. Where had this come from?
When I started to scramble up Gnarking Around for the fourth time, an ascent so steep that if you’re five foot three or less you can be on your hands and knees and still upright, the motion sickness had got much worse. I tried going up backwards which sort of worked for a bit, but in the dark I didn’t trust myself not to stick my ankle in a tree root and go arse backwards straight to the bottom. So, back to the front. The pool of light from my torch had a wobbly halo around it which wasn’t helping, and I even experimented with going without it. Nope. That course in the dark is not a place for experimentation. The end of that lap was a serious struggle. When I reached the gate after the Handrail to Heaven I started lolloping along in what I presumably thought was a sprint, but was must have looked like a drunk donkey missing a leg.
Even so, I was back at base at a quarter past 7, really only three hours and five minutes after leaving. I had a good margin for the final lap – not quite the four hours I was hoping for, but I hadn’t slowed as much as I’d thought. I couldn’t afford to stop for long but I could at least take a few minutes to try to sort my head out. As soon as I passed the timing mat I fell into Andy’s arms, almost knocking over the cup of coffee he held out to me, and told him we had a problem. Straight into business mode he got me into a chair – one he told me I wasn’t allowed to spend long in – and got down to a systems check.
“Andy, I can’t see properly. Everything’s wobbly.”
He did a Knowing face.
“No, it’s not lack of calories. I’m perfectly lucid. I just can’t keep my balance.”
After having to collect me from failed ultra attempts in the middle of nowhere twice before, I was desperate for Andy not to see me in a state. And I wasn’t really in a state, or at least not in the sort of state we’d feared I would be in. This was a totally different situation. He seemed to get it straightaway and to his credit, instead of trying to persuade me to drop out as I thought he would, he ran through the stats and the time I had and started coaxing me back to my feet via a bowl of minestrone soup. The soup was lovely but I could barely focus on getting the spoon to my mouth, and by the time I’d succeeded at that a few times my body temperature dropped dramatically. I needed to get moving.
We walked the few steps out of the tent and towards the stile for lap 5, and immediately I was floored again. I’ve had vertigo before, and this felt like a really monster version of that. Actually, I’ve always had a tough time judging depths and height – it’s why I can afford to be so daredevil on the downhills I think. I can’t work out what’s underneath my feet so I let my feet work it out, and touch wood they’ve never been wrong. This time though they didn’t have a chance. My inner ear wasn’t having any of it. Andy got me back into a chair next to a gorgeous ball of wool which later turned out to be a Labradoodle named Molly and we mooned over her while pretending that I wasn’t about to pull out.
But I knew I couldn’t go on. I wanted that Grand Slam dinnerplate medal so desperately, I’d have walked over hot coals for it; but this wasn’t something I felt I could push through, especially not if I wasn’t going to see anyone for another hour and a half or more. There wasn’t any problem with fatigue or pain or energy or any of those things. I felt awful for Andy who had given up his day to wait in a freezing field for me, who was willing me on, but I couldn’t risk trying to run when every step made me feel like the wrong end of a bottle of Jager. I handed my number in.
The truth was that there are no excuses; I simply wasn’t equal to this race. And I wasn’t angry about it. I hadn’t really trained enough, in hindsight I probably wasn’t fully recovered from the flu, and I wasn’t willing to risk my safety for my pride. It’s a shame that I couldn’t finish it and that I had to forfeit the Grand Slam in the process, but that’s really all it was in the end: a shame. Not a crushing disappointment, not a deep, self-pitying malaise. What I felt, as we drove home that night, was pride. Pride in our little team, which went further towards getting me to the end than I could alone. Pride in Andy for putting aside his misgivings to give me the best possible support, even pushing me to get the finish when I knew he wanted to take me home and be done with it all. Pride in all those who managed to make that final lap, against the odds. Pride in the tireless and incredibly kind Centurion volunteers who make this pro job look like a walk in the park. This little sport of ours is esoteric to say the best, but the people it attracts are all, in a word, superb – something even Andy was able to appreciate. I was proud of the ultrarunning community, even if I couldn’t be part of it this time.
And what’s more, I loved EVERYTHING about this race. I LOVED IT. The format, the people, the hills – yes, the hills – the weather was perfect, the time of year is ideal, the distance is still my favourite and the scenery and terrain was just unspeakably beautiful. I would do this race a hundred times and even if I never finished it I’d still be happy. It’s brutal, but it’s so worth the pain. I’m resisting the temptation to sign up for any more races until I’ve thought long and hard about what I can realistically do next year – but this and Druids (somehow, even though they’re a fortnight apart) are top of the list so far.
My vertigo/disorientation/seasickness/whatever you want to call it didn’t fully lift until Wednesday of that week – the drive home was made that much more exciting by my pointing out hallucinations like bends in the road that didn’t exist, phantom lorries driving towards us and a person walking along the central reservation without hi-viz. I feel like my preparation for these races has been like a game of whack-a-mole: just as I sort one problem another one pops up and I’m back to square one. Another way of looking at that is, I suppose, experience. I might not have made it this time but I feel that much more equipped to work out where I went wrong and do something about it. But most of all I finally feel like I’m moving in the right direction.
I’ve just got a long way to go yet.
It’s been a while since we last caught up. Happily, this time, I’ve actually managed to finish a few races – unlike during my radio silence around this time last year. Unhappily, the reason for my radio silence this time is a little less trivial than a couple of DNFs.
Could I say that life “got in the way”? I mean, I could, but it would be a little disingenuous to life to suggest that my responsibilities are to running above all else; a little beyond my efforts to prioritise running over the everyday, at least. This time, Life earned itself a capital L: family pulled rank. So, apart from a feeble cursory mile a day to maintain my run streak (an exercise which has barely anything to do with actual running these days), my run diary has had very little to show for itself.
Meanwhile I’ve hit something of a plateau, both in running terms and in life terms. I don’t get excited about anything any more, I just feel a bit numb. Not anymore, at the moment; it can’t last, I have to remember that. So I plan things to look forward to – we’re getting married in 9 months for Christ’s sake – because I want to feel the thrill of anticipation again. Plans can be made, but I no longer believe that they will really come to pass; I convince myself something will pop up and take precedence. So I’m not afraid of anything, either. I’m not afraid of failing to meet expectations because I have none. I just don’t care about anything enough to worry about being disappointed.
If Life hadn’t pulled rank on my race calendar I would still have passed August without a race – it was a conscious decision to “rest” and also there just weren’t enough weekends, as there often aren’t. March through July saw two fifty milers, two 50ks, and a trail marathon in 30 degrees of heat. I dragged myself through those, barely, and decided that I wanted to finish the third of the Centurion fifties feeling like I actually had enough in the tank for the fourth and final race. See, now I look back on it I realise that’s an ambitious race calendar for someone who is actually fit, never mind for a training regime that consists of “I might as well be running to the tube since the buses are so unreliable”. That’s two solid junk miles right there. More than once, I’ve done it in Toms espadrilles and holding my Kanken bag over my back to stop it from bouncing. It is transport, not training.
Should I keep finding challenges in the hope of regaining that spark, flinging muck at the wall until it sticks? Or should I hold back, take aim? Deciding to run the Farnham Pilgrim Half Marathon on a day’s notice was to aim what spinning round to take a blind shot in action movies is; and weirdly, just like in action movies, it only bloody worked. Knowing I’d done no long runs, knowing I’d barely even managed to run off road a week before the Chiltern Wonderland 50, I decided I either needed to stop running altogether (i.e. break my run streak) and hope that rest would give my legs half a chance of lasting the distance, or I needed to fire things up a bit, go for broke. So I posted a message with the Chasers to find out if anyone was doing a social trail run on the North Downs, and the answer came back that yes, twelve of them were, and also picking up a medal for it. The idea of running the full marathon was just a little too far-fetched, even for an emotional nihilist, so I plumped for the half and got back to the pub in time for lunch. I ran with my club, as part of my club; I was the slowest, as usual; I danced around the course like a loon, and I had a fucking good time.
It’s a beautiful course, a circular route around the Farnham end of the NDW taking in bridlepaths and connecting trails, scooting around ponds and through golf courses (as one often does in Surrey), and generally pissballing about in the woods. And very runnable too – between the need to shake my legs out and the need to get back to the pub I pushed myself fairly hard, finishing in a not-unrespectable 2:08, and I can’t say I really busted a lung either. There’s definitely no speed in my legs, which I know because trying to get them to turn over was like flipping tyres, but my heartrate never felt too taxed. It was just enough to fire me up for the CW50 in six days’ time. Definitely the right call not to go for the full, although every time I saw a 100 Marathon Club shirt FOMO gripped me like a fever.
The following week I kept up my daily run streak with the minimum mile a day, as I had been pretty much doing for weeks. The difference, I noted, was that where that mile usually ran between 9:30 and 10 minutes, sluggish and rhythmless, the miles in the week after Farnham suddenly threw up a couple of 8:15s and felt more joyful, more like a workout than I had had for a while. It helped being back on office hours rather than event hours too, so those runs occasionally happened at lunchtime instead of at the end of a strenuous working day on legs worn to a stump. Had the gamble paid off?
Come race morning, although there was still a dull ache gnawing at my muscles, there was something even more dangerous – a flicker of anticipation. I was more nervous at the start of this race than I think I’ve been for any other race ever, for the most part because finishing it meant keeping my hopes for the grand slam alive and that comes above all else this year, but I think partly because – for the first time in a long while – I actually cared about the result. The thirteen hour final cutoff limit (proportionally split across the checkpoints) would be hovering over me all day, but I would be focusing instead on two other times: eleven and twelve hour timings which I had worked out and written on my checkpoint plan. One would be a measure that I’m doing well (and more importantly, perhaps too well) and the other would be the more realistic boundary. If I’m too far ahead of the first one I know I’m beasting myself; if I slip behind the second I’ll have no hope when my legs finally give in and I have to hike. Those numbers would guide me through the day like a virtual pacer.
I ended up on the same train as King of Centurion Ilsuk Han, who is usually either running or volunteering their races but rarely misses them, and a gaggle of other runners who all seemed to know the route from Goring Station to the race HQ in the village hall. Ilsuk also helpfully pointed out that the train I (and most other competitors) had planned to get home wouldn’t actually be running, thanks to some last minute engineering works at Reading; someone mentioned two rail replacement buses to Maidenhead and I zoned right out. I didn’t have the energy to worry about how I was going to hobble home after folding my cramped legs into a bus seat for three hours; I just had to think about getting back to Goring in the first place.
Nonetheless Ilsuk represented, as he always does, a good omen. We met on my first attempt at the North Downs 100 and later discovered that we had friends in common through Fulham RC, and it seems that every time I run an ultra these days he’s there. He’s such a warm, friendly and knowledgeable man I can never help but be comforted to see him. He buzzed around the village hall introducing first timers to regular faces, gathering lone runners wandering around aimlessly and making sure everyone had a friend at the start line; and he does this every time. A real unsung hero of the ultrarunning community, he is a true representative of the spirit of our sport, not to mention a shit hot runner in his own right. Even so, he privately admitted that he was just as anxious as the rest of us, and when we lined up at the start he didn’t go off with the frontrunners, choosing instead to stay with the midpackers and the newbies. Whether that was an act of kindness or just his way of dealing with nerves I don’t know, but I for one started the race with excitement just outweighing fear, and set the tone for the rest of the run.
The route takes in one long loop around the Thames Path, the Chiltern Hills, the Ridgeway and explores the unmatchable countryside of Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and Berkshire. The Ridgeway is definitely up there for my favourite ever trail route and the added treat of the Thames made this race a big star on my calendar. The first ten miles to checkpoint one at Tokers Green flew by, partly because of the stunning views but also thanks to a runner named James I got chatting to, only to discover that we’d run much of this area together once already on the Druids Challenge two years ago (a race I’m gutted not to be running this year). Feeling much less leg-heavy than I have been recently we went hell for leather on every single downhill, of which there were plenty thanks to the undulating but runnable elevation. I could easily have passed on the snack table, but I knew that I needed to lay the foundations now for sustainable energy levels later, and crammed my pockets with chocolate chip cookies.
Downhills we were bossing together, but James was obviously fitter than me on the uphills and eventually he pulled away; it wasn’t worth overstretching myself to keep up with him at this stage with forty miles still to go, so I just pootled along at the steady pace I’d been maintaining so far. Predictably, I was way ahead of my eleven hour pace already – in fact we passed the checkpoint in 1:49, ranked 138 and 139 out of what would end up as 187 official finishers. In fact, if I’d sustained that pace I’d have been on for just over a nine hour finish – yeah, no. If I didn’t take the decision to dial back now my body would do it for me later, in much more dramatic fashion.
Before long I was caught up my a chap called Steve and we began running together. I don’t remember exactly what I said now, but I do remember hearing him chatting away to another runner behind me and as usual bigmouth struck again; I couldn’t resist butting into their conversation. It set the tone for the next forty miles – we spent the whole rest of the race together talking about everything under the sun. Steve was an ex-squaddie, ex-paratrooper, self-made businessman with a penchant for bloody silly races, and between Tokers Green and Bix he recounted the tale of his four attempts at the Lakeland 100: two successful, two not, considering a fifth go to settle the score once and for all. I’m telling you, that man knows the Lakeland 100 yard by yard, so if anyone’s planning to run it you need to look him up. As one would expect from a military man, his meticulous preparation included a week spent in the Lakes recceing every inch of the route in daylight and dusk. I really didn’t need the iPod.
We left Bix aid station together by which point I’d actually gained two places and he, having paced the first section somewhat more conservatively than me, was up nearly twenty. We were coming up against much more meaty hills than we had done so far, and even had to pause the conversation for power-hiking every now and again. But the course was just so stunning. For totally different reasons, I still can’t quite decide between this and the South Downs Way for a favourite so far – certainly the SDW50 was a better experience and the fastest finish so far, but if you want fairytale woodland and runnable rolling terrain I think Wessex might just edge out Sussex. Ask me again in a week.
Having got through a potted history of our running careers, the conversation turned to politics, economics, history, sociology, the EU referendum result (obviously) – and two people with more diametrically opposing views you would be hard pushed to find. The fascinating thing for me was that, although our positions were poles apart, our values tended to align. We spoke as two people who felt equally let down by the parties they supported, who sought the same reassurances from two different approaches, who feared the same threats and chose different weapons to combat them. It sounds like a mad thing to say but as much as I was enjoying the run I really enjoyed our discussion – we had, I like to think, a good honest respectful debate, a sharing of perspectives, a chance to find commonality, and ultimately the biggest thing we had in common was a love for endurance tests and the courage to be humbled. I rather think that if the referendum had been debated over the trails there would have been a lot less mudslinging. There you go, that’s my future campaign slogan: Less mudslinging, more mud.
Having put the thorny issue of politics to bed we reached the Ibstone School aid station just before twenty six miles and spent a few minutes to refresh and reload. I was already struggling to get calories in but I force fed myself cookies and cola, and I had been steadily working on a bottle of Tailwind all day as well. All the aid stations so far offered Tailwind as well so I knew when I finished my bottle I’d be able to refill, and would more than likely be relying on it for the end of the race. Slightly stiffer than before, and having lost a handful of places, we carried on our way. By this time I was still within my eleven hour pace but by a smaller margin than before, and a margin that was shrinking by the mile. Still though, plenty in hand for a finish. As long as it didn’t all go wrong.
Steve had planned to meet his wife around mile thirty with a mysterious and hitherto untested smoothie concoction which would save or slay him. Oats, oat milk, fresh fruit, protein mix and chia seeds – it sounded bloody amazing. But having never tested it in anger before he had no idea if it would give him the boost he’d need for the last twenty miles or if he’d be in the bushes for the rest of the race. Only one way to find out.
He made a brief stop to pick up the drink while I carried on, making use of the momentum I had now that the pain in my feet had passed and simply become numbness. Pain? Ah. It wasn’t until this point that I realised I’d been running through pain for about ten miles already, such was the quality of the company and the distraction. Well, this would get interesting – pain doesn’t often feature for me, and it certainly doesn’t stop me as often as fitness, low blood sugar and temper tantrums do. When he caught up again I asked him about his war stories – the military ones rather than the running ones – and he obliged with some hilarious, some frankly terrifying and a fair few eye opening accounts of the life of a non-commissioned officer. Having heard that it wasn’t hard to imagine someone capable of finishing multiple 100-milers in the Lakes; the mental strength required to withstand the rigours of ultra-running being bread and butter to someone who has survived para-training.
We had slipped a few more places by the time we reached Swyncombe, and I really started to feel the distance by this point – a quick stretch on the cool grass and a moment taken to put on my waterproof jacket both turned out to be excellent decisions as the rain we’d been promised all day finally made an appearance. I had slipped past my eleven hour pace by this point, but still well within the cutoffs and about to hit Grims Ditch, one of my favourite trails ever. Another lady caught up with us at this point and started swapping 100 miler stories with Steve, which was a fascinating exchange to say the least – there really is no point in spending time with this amazing group of people if you can’t take the time to learn from them. I shut my trap (at least until the conversation turned to cars, which I couldn’t resist bowling into) and listened to them like I was listening to a podcast.
The final aid station would be at the other end of Grims Ditch and just over nine miles from the end. A long old stretch to finish on, but it did mean the last intermediate cutoff to worry about was cleared and we passed it with over three hours to go. A slow walk would have made it, but I really didn’t want to cut it that fine. Sadly, I wasn’t entirely in charge of that decision – my legs were screaming and I was doing my level best to tune them out. I succumbed to the chair, just for a few moments, and stared mournfully at the empty Tailwind barrel wondering why I hadn’t filled my bottle up earlier. Luckily the volunteers there had made up a batch of the best white bread butter and cheese sandwiches you’ve ever seen, and with some effort I chewed my way through a couple of them and washed them down with Coke. It was a bit awkward to swallow, and I noticed then just how dehydrated I’d become despite the inclement temperature. Next race I’m sticking a signpost at thirty miles saying “EAT NOW DAMMIT, YOU’LL THANK ME LATER”. As it turned out Steve’s smoothie had been an unqualified success, so much so that I’m tempted to try it myself on my next long run. Liquid calories that don’t taste too sweet are surely the way ahead.
We left the aid station still optimistic, and at the very fringes of daylight, a little bit smug about the fact that we hadn’t had to use our headtorches yet. Within a couple of miles however dusk fell – plummeted really, as it does in the woods – and I was cursing myself for not fishing out the torch when we stopped at the aid station. Talking was becoming increasingly difficult to me as one by one my various functions closed down. There’s almost no chance I’d have finished the race if it wasn’t for Steve; not only had he very kindly offered me a lift to Gatwick Airport on his way home, where I’d have a fighting chance of getting a train since the Reading line was down, but his tireless storytelling and patience dragged me through the deepening gloom. To say we were hiking now would be flattering the pace we kept up, but he insisted on staying with me instead of pushing on and getting the job done. I decided that I couldn’t reward his kindness with whinging so I kept my negative thoughts to myself and kept moving forward, mutely. You can’t complain about pain in front of a soldier.
The last couple of miles back to Goring were profoundly dark, and our torches were doing bugger all to cut through the blackness. We had been joined by one of Steve’s friends and a couple of other runners by this point, all moving in single file along the single track, all just looking for the streetlights and the end. When it finally arrived my feet and legs were burning – just half a mile of pavement to go, and it felt like walking fifty miles of hot coals. Unable to restrain myself any more I started audibly whimpering, choking down tears just to get to the end. We decided to cross the line together as a group of three – when it finally came it turned out to be the side door to the hall and we had to file in one at a time, but we were reunited on the other side. Twelve and a half hours, and we were done. I was dizzy, slurring, in agony, but relieved.
Ilsuk was still in the village hall doing the rounds, despite having finish a couple of hours earlier, while I forced down some coffee and tried to sit. While we recovered we saw the last few finishers stumble including two guys who finished just inside the cutoff and at least two that, heartbreakingly, didn’t. To struggle that far knowing that you wouldn’t even get the medal is a special kind of tough. I came to enough to force down a sausage in a roll – it took a good half hour to do so – and settled into the warm of the car, suddenly overwhelmed by gratitude. And then, horror. I still had Wendover Woods to do to complete the grand slam, and that was so hard the cutoff was two hours longer. Is that a good thing, or a bad thing?
Thanks to Steve’s hospitality I was home within a couple of hours and out the next day for my one mile hobble around the block to shake out my legs and keep up my streak. But come Monday morning – a heavy day at work which started with me carrying my own staging around because my crew had been accidentally cancelled – the hobble became something much worse. Somehow, despite my legs taking the brunt of the battery, I had actually pulled muscles all across my chest and ribcage and breathing became a serious issue. Like, I could talk or breathe but not do both issue. All day on my feet with a trailer shoot I hoped I would just shake it out, but by the time I got home I knew for certain there was no chance of me running. Pain in general has never stopped me before, but chest pains, that’ll do it. The streak, and my heart, were broken.
So I relinquished it in the hope that I might still save another, much longer lasting streak – I’ve run every Ealing Half Marathon since it started in 2012 and I have no intention of giving that up so easily. My one day off turned into two days, and having booked off the Wednesday as lieu time I finally got a chance to catch up on some rest (and a load of Air Crash Investigation). When Sunday came around I felt, though not entirely in shape for a road half marathon, like I had a chance of not embarrassing myself, and like I had at least enough breath to finish. Proudly wearing my QPR shirt I settled in in front of the 1:50 pacers, hoping to stay in front of them but prepared to let them go. I resolved to enjoy the atmosphere, return every high five and every shout of “YOU RRRRSSS!”, smile all the way round, remember that I do this for fun. And bloody hell, it was.
I actually managed to keep the pace up for a good ten miles before my body refused to respond to the command to push harder. It was painful, but I could run through it – i just couldn’t turn my legs over any faster. The real turning point however came just after mile eleven; just as I tried to give another burst of energy, my chest cramped up like an imploding star. I could barely breathe. I kept running, but I let my pace ease up until the cramp passed. That’s it – you don’t dick around with chest pains. The pacers finally overtook me and I let myself glide to the end, saving my last bit of energy for a leap over the line – there wasn’t even enough to sprint. As I landed, almost knocking over guest commentator Susie Chan in the process, I smiled. I had done it in 1:51 and change, and only five minutes out from my all time PB (a time set with at least half a stone less weight).
Embarrassing as my CW50 time was, I have to concede that it’s a lot better than I deserve having invested so little time in running recently. This shouldn’t be about pity or excuses or self-flagellation, but equally I want to recognise that a little anticipation goes a long way. Either I’ve become complacent or I’ve stopped caring altogether; either way I must be able to do something about it. Perhaps right now running can’t take priority over everything else; it could still take priority over 90% of everything else. Perhaps I’m not fit enough to enjoy a fifty mile trail race at the moment; I have two months to change that. And if I don’t, I’ll have thrown away all the hard work that brought me this far. Perhaps I underestimate what I can do, setting myself unwieldy and contradictory targets, because I don’t want to admit there’s such a thing as an unattainable target.
Perhaps I’ve forgotten this is meant to be fun.
So, this is my account of week two of Dr Phil Maffetone’s Two Week test. The purpose of the test, which I touched on briefly in part one of this blog, is to eliminate carbohydrates from my diet for two weeks and to exercise only within my maximum aerobic heart rate limit, a two-pronged attack to both remove the supply of fast-burning fuel from my body and the demand for using it, thereby re-training my body to use its natural fat stores. Why, exactly, am I going to all this trouble?
The Maffetone method – so called because it is a holistic lifestyle method and not just a diet and exercise plan – focuses on identifying the causes of and contributors to stress, promoting the body’s natural resources to defend itself. It has been used (and recommended) by many endurance athletes, including Ironman Mark Allen, as well as average Joes looking for a solution to perpetual fatigue – although less so by sprinters, rowers, athletes relying on short bursts of high intensity effort. According to the good doctor, a potential stressor on the human body is an undiagnosed but common occurrence of carbohydrate intolerance – to be clear, this isn’t a “all carbs = bad” blanket statement, it’s simply questions the ability to digest the quantity of carbohydrates found in a standard western diet. If you find it hard to believe that too much carbs could be a thing, think about how crazy you thought I was for taking this plan on in the first place, consider if the thought flashed through your mind “what the hell is she going to eat then?” If you did think that, try to imagine what your diet might look like if you avoided carbs for two weeks. In Britain especially we commonly eat bread or cereal for breakfast, sandwiches and crisps for lunch, rice, pasta or potatoes with dinner. It’s not much of a stretch to ask if we really need that much starch in our diet. It’s only a step further to ask if we can more efficiently burn our fat stores and forever avoid the dreaded bonk.
Hand in hand with this principle goes a re-education of exercise limits; understanding the difference between aerobic and anaerobic exercise, which the book summarises thus:
Aerobic: The ability to obtain more energy through increased fat burning
Anaerobic: The increased use of sugar for energy and decreased fat burning
If you’ve ever told yourself “no pain, no gain” during a workout, the chances are you’ve been working above your aerobic threshold – in other words, anaerobically – and are burning sugar for fuel. We can store a limited supply of this, as anyone who has hit the wall at mile 20 despite mainlining Lucozade can attest. By simply working within our aerobic capacity we are using aerobic muscle fibers – more resistant to injury than their anaerobic counterparts – and burning our fat stores, stores which are significantly more prevalent and provide far more energy pound for pound than sugar can do. But, and here’s another factor that flies in the face of common practice, it means doing a lot of slow running in order to get faster and build endurance. I mean, all my running is slow running so yet again it seemed like a much more intuitive plan for me than it might do for a lot of people. In fact I remember hearing about the Maffetone method for the first time not via Chris McDougall, but in a podcast interview with Larisa Dannis who described her workouts as being limited by her max heartrate, where the improvement comes from increasing speed against a fixed effort rather than increasing effort to improve overall speed. At the time I thought that it sounded like a much less painful and much more sustainable way to get results, and so far the practice seems to be bearing fruit. To know for certain though I will need to retake the MAF test (described in part 1) at monthly intervals and measure the improvements. Watch this space.
A lot of the measures he suggests do make sense when taken in isolation and within context, even though the programme as a whole can sound extreme at the outset. So I was careful not to lose sight of the reason I was attracted to it in the first place: namely that I am feeling as unwell as I’ve ever felt, due to a known combination of work and life stresses I can’t do much about, overtraining in my running (which I am tempering with a month and a half off from racing), and other stressors which I need to identify before I can resolve. With that in mind, anything seemed worth trying. The idea that excess carbohydrate could be a stressor seemed worth exploring, offering a seemingly win-win outcome. If reducing my carbohydrate intake relieves some of that pressure, yay. If it doesn’t and I can still eat cake sandwiches and pasta without fear that it’s poisoning me, yay.
Monday 24th July
Back to the working week. I felt a little sluggish after the weekend but part of that had to be attributed to the fact I was still recovering from a busy race schedule. And perhaps a whisper of a hangover. Breakfast was Brazil nuts, which turns out to be a great way to start the day if you’re not used to eating much early.
Andy has graciously allowed me to take control of lunches for the week and took a Tupperware full of Turkish salad, macaroni and tinned mackerel – and as far as I know, didn’t hate it. Had to be an improvement on Wetherspoons, anyway. I topped my own portion of salad with pepperoni (bending the processed meats rule) and huge chunks of halloumi. I can’t think of a single meal that halloumi doesn’t improve.
Dinner was the remainder of our curry. Andy bulked his up with rice, which can’t be the worst carbohydrate going, and I with roasted cauliflower. This turned out to be a delicious and surprisingly filling side, and went well with the curry (once I’d dumped a load of cumin and chilli on it). I tried to up my fat intake with some pork crackling snacks, after spending all last week thinking protein is the key. While the cauliflower roasted I took myself for a couple of miles around the local area, keeping as rigidly as possible within my maximum aerobic heart rate – 147. It’s probably a good measure of just how fatigued I am that some days I can barely move my legs fast enough to reach that maximum, as low as it is – I’m scratching around the mid thirties. I don’t think that’s a good sign.
Tuesday 25th July
I had a proper breakfast today – sausage, eggs and bacon in the work canteen. Who knew, it set me up well for the day and I didn’t need a single snack. In fact I barely drank any coffee. I can’t tell you how many years it’s been since I got to 4pm without six cups of coffee.
I did my run at lunchtime, taking the rare opportunity to leave the office for half an hour and came back feeling so much better for having the luxury to enjoy more than a hurried ten minutes around the block. When I got back I had a roast chicken salad waiting for me, which I have to admit I wasn’t really hungry enough for, but I knew dinner would be late as I promised to wait for Andy to get home from football. I won’t get this kind of structured day again for a while, and creature of habit that I am, I could easily make this a daily routine. Evening runs just aren’t doing anything for me at the moment; by the time I get home my muscles are worn to gummy threads like overstretched Blu-tac. The afternoon flies by.
Dinner is a huge mound of stir fried green veg with two fillets of sea bass pan-fried in butter. It. Is. Delicious. Even Andy agrees, although after a vigorous session of 5-a-side it’s not really enough for him and he has a chaser of chicken dippers. I realise I have had a glass of wine almost every day since starting this plan, which is probably not the point. I may have to examine just how much I’m drinking at the moment.
I had my little tub of almonds and Brazil nuts while waiting for Andy to get home, and the ubiquitous almond butter later in the evening while Big Little Bro and I chatted into the small hours about all the degrees we’re going to do when we’re rich. His plan is basically to stay in academia for as long as humanly possible. He makes a very compelling argument. I go to sleep dreaming of being a student again.
Wednesday 26th July
I overslept, unsurprisingly, so didn’t have time to make myself a lunchbox. Drat. At least I managed another cooked breakfast at work – which is amazing value and relatively clean eating. To be fair, I hadn’t felt the need for lunch or snack yesterday and I can always pick up a bag of almonds from the corner shop, so I wasn’t too worried.
It being a pretty active day at work I did have to stop for a proper lunch – the canteen had roast half chicken on which I supplemented with salad. I did a lot of hurrying back and forth between another theatre down the road, not to mention a few miles on foot around the building, and for the first time since starting this test my endurance failed me.
We had planned to make stroganoff for dinner but I ended up staying so late with work to finish off there was not time to make it. I ran from work to the tube sation and from the tube station home, but it was a slow and painful run. Halloumi omelette gave me just enough energy to get to sleep.
Thursday 27th July
Broadcast day today again – which means another late finish, a lot of stress and another load of running around with irregular breaks. I managed a breakfast of carrot batons and peanut butter but that wasn’t until 12pm, swiftly followed by Nando’s chicken and peas for lunch.
Scrolling back through the macronutrients log on MyFitnessPal, I suddenly realised that sausages do of course have carbs in them (depending on what is mixed with the sausagemeat). Damn bugger balls. I mean I’m not exactly the most discliplined dieter but I thought I wasn’t doing too badly. A little research into the principles of the keto diet, which is a longer term and more sustainable but less flexible option for this principle of eating, shows that between 20 and 50 grams of carbs a day is the recommended maximum limit. Comparing my intake over the last two weeks with that at least I can see I’ve not been exceeding 25 grams a day, and most of those come from vegetables still on the yes list, so they must be OK. I am looking forward to bolstering some of those allowable grams with yoghurt and fruit though.
I get home at half 2 in the morning. Dinner was more nuts. As far as fuel goes it did just about get me through the day, but it is getting a bit miserable if I don’t plan my lunches ahead of time.
Friday 28th July
Ahhhh… day off. It’s our ninth anniversary today. We had plans to spend the day together doing middle aged things like shop for a new bathroom, but Andy had to go into work in the morning so I took the opportunity to sleep and continue Project Clearout. I treat myself to a breakfast of bacon, eggs and halloumi fried in butter which is THE BOMB. I didn’t need lunch as such but we had decided to go out to Boxpark for dinner anyway so I left good and early for dinner.
This is where things got messy. Boxpark had some amazing street food outlets to try – not many of them test-friendly though, so I started with a plate of grilled chorizo and a malbec. Thinking I wouldn’t find anything else to eat I have to confess to stealing a slice of Andy’s sourdough toast and hummus. It tasted good, but I immediately felt plate-pickers remorse.
And then we found Feed Me Primal, a paleo food stall. Holy crap why did we not find this first? An incredible plate of carb free noms, starting with a cauliflower rice base, topped with grilled veg, steak and chicken, then spinach and almond flatbread. I cannot even describe how good it was – even ANDY actively enjoyed it. As in, find this recipe and replicate it. No persuasion needed.
From there however, it all went downhill (or uphill, depending on your perspective). I can’t pretend rum punches, increasingly bitter wine and eventually two shots of tequila feature on the Two-Week Test “yes” list, even if they don’t specifically appear on the “no” one. All I remember after that is screwing up Andy’s Uber rating by making the driver stop so I could throw up, and wailing “I’M GONNA DIE” into our mop bucket.
Saturday 29th July
Fry up at George’s Café. All I could manage to stay alive.
Missed parkrun. Missed day out with friends. Had to have two naps before going to sleep.
Lunch was half a jar of peanut butter and tears. Dinner was an entire pot of Onken yoghurt that I made my little brother go out for.
I cannot find the chapter in the book about how to survive a hangover.
Sunday 30th July
The final day of the no-carbs low-HR two-week test, if I can still call it that after the myriad infractions. It would be the biggest test of all, going for a social trail run with the Chasers combined with a bit of Prudential Ride 100 sightseeing. We had planned to start at Box Hill, run to the top to cheer on the cyclists there, then run back down and west along the North Downs to Guildford to round off the day. Nut butter for breakfast, and not a single hint of the hangries to start with.
Although we weren’t going at any kind of pace, starting off on a climb sent my heartrate through the roof straightaway, and probably knocked me out for the rest of the run. It was lovely to be out on the trails and enormous fun shouting at cyclists, but my leg muscles were threadbare before we even got to Denbies and by the top of that hill I was already shuffling. Counting back through the races and work projects I’ve done this year, it’s not surprise I can barely move my legs any more, but it’s still demoralising to realise I’m back to square one until I can recover.
I snaffled a Chia Charge bar and a nutty 9Bar, neither of which were totally carb-free but the closest thing I could find in the morning. I didn’t feel any sugar crash or energy slump symptoms – I just wanted to go to sleep. I wanted to stop moving, just for a day. Cat cajoled me through the last five miles, through me grumbling and whining and stopping for a stretch and looking for nearby train stations to bail out to. It was one of the hardest runs I’ve ever done. I felt like a ball of negativity gathering volume and ferocity and I rolled down a hill of despair. I was not good company.
But finally, despite my best efforts, we made it to Guildford Station, stopped off at Marks for the biggest bag of nuts you’ve ever seen, and were homeward bound. I soaked myself in a hot bath as soon as I got home and lay flat on the sofa while Andy ordered curry for dinner. Half a roast chicken (good), a sneaky bit of tarka dhal (not good, but GOOD), Bombay peas (probably good). Bed: excellent.
Monday 31st July and beyond
So, what next? Well, the next step is to gradually reintroduce various different carbs to my diet – although never in two meals in a row – and evaluate which ones still affect me, while continuing to train within my maximum aeriobic heartrate of 147bpm. I might have been a bit lax on the final couple of days but to be fair I think I’d already found myself pretty certain that bread, pasta and potatoes have to be handled with caution, whereas pulses, vegetable and yoghurt are very manageable. The proof would of course be in the low-carb pudding – weighing and measuring myself to compare with the results before I started.
For two, frankly undisciplined and completely unscientific weeks’ worth of food experimentation, I was rewarded with three and half pounds in weight lost, and two centimetres lost from both my waist and hips. Some of this has to be attributed to water loss (despite my efforts to stay topped up), but I do at least feel slightly less wobbly around the edges. More importantly than that however is the fact that I’ve got through two broadcast weeks without feeling sluggish, bloated or dizzy, and without needing my reading glasses or near-lethal doses of caffeine. I can barely manage a day, usually. This, above all else, is a win for me.
With moderation, I’m not missing carbohydrates as much as I thought – in fact, it was the easiest thing in the world to decide to continue limiting my carb intake beyond the two weeks, and avoiding processed sugar indefinitely. Rice, beans, fruit and yoghurt are the first things back on the menu, provided I don’t go overboard, and the odd slice of bread won’t kill me – although that and beer are probably my biggest weaknesses. I’ve been gleefully embracing “fatty” foods, having learned what good fat tastes like, and chucking out anything bearing the legend low-fat, low-calorie or “light”. I am satisfied so much more than I used to be. I no longer need to snack, or suffer light-headedness and sugar crashes in the middle of the afternoon. I, a runner who could be sponsored by Haribo and Nutella, have honestly not craved a single bite of sugar.
But how valid, exactly, was the test? The occasional slip-ups aside – and I should clarify here that the book’s advice is to restart the test every time you do, which I obviously did not follow – it’s worth reviewing it in the context of its overall purpose, which wasn’t exclusively about weight loss for me. It was about a holistic lifestyle reboot, retraining my body to use its resources for fuel, for recovery and for reducing its susceptibility to stress. My lifestyle is stressful; either I change my lifestyle (not happening) or I change the way I handle it. The alternative would be to carry on freewheeling down this slope of negativity, taking everyone I love with me. It also held a mirror to a burgeoning problem which, if I’m honest, shocked me a little. I’ve tracked my food and drinks on MyFitnessPal every day for the last couple of years and obsessively reviewed every morsel and every calorie, but only in these last two weeks noticed just how heavy a drinker I’ve become. I’m not proud to admit that it took counting grams of carbohydrate to finally notice that I automatically reach for a beer or a wine at the end of every day, reasoning that it’ll help me sleep better or digest my food or just because I deserve it. Still, even if the test itself is bogus, at least I’m more conscious of what I’m putting in my body. Until football season starts, of course.
So, reducing one potential stressor – nutritional imbalance – has to help contribute to the whole, and I believe it has. Reducing another – the effects of overtraining, by running to effort and limiting anaerobic activity – was an easy win as well, especially for a midpacker endurance athlete. Eliminating the main stressor in my life – work – may not be an option until I win the lottery, but by managing the other stressors I am giving myself a bigger capacity to cope with it. There’s no silver bullet there; I won’t get over that particular hurdle without a protracted period of rest, and as it happens I do have a week off work coming up. In the interest of empiricism, I’m very tempted to try the test again after my break, to be sure of the validity of it. Then again, it’s already served a purpose of sorts, retraining my cravings and confirming some suspicions. There are not many things I can be 100% sure of, but if there’s one it’s that the occasional puppy-eyed stare at someone else’s buttered toast comes from missing the taste, the pleasure of the treat, not because my body is telling me I need it. Those stares are reserved for Meridian nut butters these days.
If this resonates with you in any way, the first thing I would say is do your research. What’s good for the goose isn’t always good for the gander. The nutritional aspect of the Maffetone Method may sound as if its not a million miles from the ketogenic diet, the paleo diet, Atkins, LCHF, all with slight variations on very similar principles; but unlike the diets listed it promotes flexibility and adaptation informaed by regular monitoring of results, rather than a rigid plan. As always, it’s worth learning about what the plan involves and even consulting a nutritionist before undertaking any significant lifestyle changes. Not a blog.
Here’s the disclaimer bit. To be clear, I’m not an expert; neither am I on commission nor holding shares in the book or in Meridian. I just wanted to share my average Joe experience in the hope that someone else asking themselves the same questions I did can perhaps find some answers of their own. If you only take one thing away from my post, take this: when you begin to feel like a passive force in your own life, when you feel that your training has hit a plateau or your nutrition needs a reboot, read. Learn. Observe, examine, analyse. The clues are all there, if you take the time to find them. Anyone can make a change: just make sure you’re making the right one for you.