How to love running; or Brigitte’s Beautiful Black Dog

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Hi everyone. Remember me? I used to whinge a lot on the internet and now, now I just whinge a lot to myself instead.

I haven’t really got anything to whinge about. I finally own my own home, a lifelong dream to a working class kid from a nomadic family. Every day I get back from work and I stroke a bit of the pebbledashing, or run my toe along the moss in between the paving stones, to remind myself it’s mine (ours) (mostly Halifax’s).

I have an awesome job. I mean seriously, it’s the sort of job that if children knew it existed they’d probably say they wanted to be that instead of teacher or vet. The team I work with are truly brilliant; humble about both their achievements and my ineptitude, gracious in the face of my daily expletive filled temper tantrums. Most people in my position would not have passed probation; I get to see my name on the credits of cinema releases only a few lines under Sir Ian McKellen and Daniel Radcliffe. It is a bit baffling.

I have a gorgeous husband-to-be-to-be. He is gentle, calm, patient, funny, honest. When I first laid eyes on him I thought he looked just like Billy Corgan and my heart went pop. He’s got a much nicer voice, although he does also have an unexpected penchant for wrestling. He bought me tickets to Metallica for my birthday and made a Spotify playlist for the car even though I know he’s really only ever listened to Enter Sandman. He turns out to be pretty good at crewing too, even though he patently HATES it. We agree on almost all points except raisins. It’s as close as one gets to the definition of perfection.

But I’ve still been a total misery guts this last year. I mean, 2016 sucked, but I’m not Syrian or African American or a refugee – “economic” or otherwise – or living in poverty or living in danger for my political beliefs or living in a country where my gender makes me a second class citizen (mostly) or living in a state of uncertainty about my gender identity or my sexuality and I don’t really have anything in particular to complain about. I think if I did I’d probably be less of a misery guts; you know, I fucking love a fight. What I am living with however, is my beautiful black dog. Brigitte Aphrodite found the way to articulate it and Winston Churchill did too, so I’m stealing it.

Not being someone who functions on less than eight hours of sleep, four or five has become the norm, plagued by either insomnia or anxiety dreams. The dreams themselves are usually pretty banal. I wake up hideously late for work. It’s a week in the future and I haven’t prepared for the build I’m planning. Or something. It might not be a dream. I might just wake up at 5am, panting and sweating, and freaking out. I burst into uncontrollable tears. I haven’t done this thing. What happens if that thing. People will be angry. People will be upset. I’m going to have to tell someone they can’t have what they want. Why is this so frightening? I don’t care about making people happy. It’s just theatre. Worse things happen at sea, or in the White House. I do care about doing a good job though, and the only person that can let me down is me. So here we are.

Aware as I am that this anxiety is irrational, it doesn’t make it easier to confront. It’s not simply that I don’t want to get up in the morning; what I want is to freeze the world as it exists outside my house and keep it in stasis until I’m ready to face it again, without being certain if I ever will be. It’s as if the front door is the barrier on a level crossing and by opening it every day I willingly put myself in the path of high-speed trains, so logic tells me don’t open it, don’t cross the threshold. But I have to, and every day I dance with trains. I’ve even had nightmares about train tracks for fuck’s sake.

I realised, towards the end of 2016, that I was heading in a direction I’ve gone before. The end of that road was similarly miserable, and with size 4 jeans hanging off my bony hips. This time I knew that to take control I needed not to fixate on what I was doing, but what I was deciding. And luckily, I had a very recent memory of something that I decided to do once, that made me happy. For every day in 2015 I ran at least a mile a day. Sometimes in ridiculous circumstances, sometimes the very definition of “junk miles”, but I never suffered injury and recovery was a matter of hours not days. Keeping up my streak became more important than finishing a job, taking a lunch break, getting an extra half hour of sleep. And that time never ever felt wasted.

So, I’ve taken the decision to restart my streak. Andy, reasonably, doesn’t approve of my manias in any form, but I think he understands the implications of the alternative. As I write this I’m over four months in, and the effects are already visible. Physically, I’m more toned and stronger (although still around a half stone overweight). Mentally I am coping better with tiny things, and that’s a small win. I already find that a single mile around the block is enough to shake out tension and anxiety, and make me a more bearable person to live with if not entirely a better one. The routine is teaching me to rediscover the connection between physical and mental health. I do not say “I hate” as much as I used to.

Quite besides the anxiety, for a good year I have been plagued with chronic pain. If I had to point out which part of my body hurt I’m not sure I could. Everything just hurt. Muscles, bones, breathing, thinking. The daily mile is just enough to loosen things up and for the pain to fade. The absence of it tortured me. If I’m describing an addiction, then frankly I’m OK with this kind of addiction. It’s better than codeine or crack or Candy Crush Saga.

What my running addiction has forced me to do is reassess my priorities again. I’m ashamed to say that with or without the daily mile finding time to spend at home remained a low priority; there’s always a reason to stay late at work to finish that one thing and the decision to spend my holiday days doing freelance work is only my own, but 2016 forced me to acknowledge that my runs weren’t pushing Andy down the pecking order, I was. Quitting my daily run streak did not create more time for me to spend at home, it simply removed a reason for me to catch the last direct train home. On top of which, I was grumpy and twitchy for not having had any proper exercise and Andy probably didn’t want me at home in that state anyway.

 

So, he knows that unless I can get it done in my lunch break (still not fucking likely) he’s going to lose me for ten minutes a day. He can spend that ten minutes playing Mass Effect and barely notice I’m gone. I’ll come back refreshed and in less pain, ergo less whingy, ergo less disruptive to his game of Mass Effect. Win win. My wonderful boss is similarly supportive of this new prioritisation strategy – in fact, she has an alarm on her desk that goes off at six to make sure we all go home on time now. She is, I think, also a little sick of grumpy Jaz. By reviewing my priorities, I realised how much the good people around me suffer the effects of my ill temper without losing faith in me, and I owe it to them to show an improvement.

The unexpected side effect is that I’m not just loving that I’m running again, I’m loving running again. I don’t see upholding the streak as a chore at all; I see it as investment in a better me. Like putting a couple of quid in a bank account every day, and getting interest on every deposit. Somehow, twenty miles a week spread over three days seemed not to be giving any returns; spread over seven days it seems to have twice the value. My training pattern has become an important allegory for my ultramarathon strategy, where learning that you can recover from a bonk and resisting the temptation to quit is the single most important bit of training you can do. Even at half eleven at night, when I started work at half six in the morning, spent all day on my feet and feel nauseous from eating only Doritos, I can find the strength to take one step, and if I can take that step I can take another and another and basically that’s all there is to it.

In my mind, to love running you need to love learning, and still have something to learn. It’s got less to do with measurable factors like speed and distance as goals in and of themselves and more with what you need to do to reach them, what you learn about yourself along the way. These are lessons that can be taken into all the areas of your life, wherever you find them. Much like an apprenticeship, you can do the reading part but it still takes a certain amount of real life practice to really learn those lessons and find how to apply them. My apprenticeship has given me the courage to set goals again, something I became afraid to do for fear of failing to reach them. Goal number one is to say “I” and “me” less – yeah, not a great start this – goal number two is to readjust my expectations; goal number three is to complete the Centurion 50 mile Grand Slam. If I can normalise 50 mile trail races I can normalise going over a level crossing every morning. If I can dance with the trains I can do anything.

I can and I will.

 

Featured image credit: https://visitmerksay.wordpress.com/tag/black-dog/ 
Inspiration: Brigitte Aphrodite. Look her up, she’s proper awesome.
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The Big Fat Run of the Year 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Enough waffle; here are the stats.

Monthly total miles:

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

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

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

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

Run-life balance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watch this space.