London Marathon 2018 – the night before

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I’m stretched out on the sofa, my feet on Andy’s lap like they usually are, a glass of Sauvignon Blanc within reach of my left hand. We’ve had our thin crust pizza and salad for dinner, a pre-race routine of mine which Andy is happy to adopt for the night. Bedtime won’t be later than 8pm, but there’s no legislating for when I’ll actually get to sleep.

Having exchanged fitness for about a stone in weight, I’m not at my peak for a road marathon. Or any marathon. Or running at all. And the last week at work has included managing a broadcast rehearsal on top of a large scale office move, and consequently chronic pain that became so bad on Tuesday night I had to get a cab home from work because I couldn’t even walk to the station. So, there will be some management of expectations tomorrow.

Is that right though; is that the mindset to take in? Treat the race with respect, certainly, don’t take a finish for granted – but that’s not the same as preparing excuses. That paragraph up there, that’s a classic fear of failure. I take up to a month to write blogs because I’m afraid of putting something out that people will hate, or has mistakes, or is constructed poorly. I’m afraid of going into work some days because I still have no natural aptitude for my job, two and a half years in, and constantly fucking it up is kind of exhausting. I have to persuade myself to attend running sessions with my club because I don’t know if I can get to the end of a 6 mile run. I used to run the damn sessions.

I hadn’t been aware of how much this fear pervades my every decision until recently, but now every time I catch myself in a negative mindset I ask myself “Am I just afraid of failing?” and the answer is never “No, absolutely not.” I mean it’s not always a resounding yes either, but as long as it remains a possibility I’m not making the best of the opportunity I have.

That opportunity is a place in the London Marathon, one I almost didn’t get. I had wanted to run this race ever since I started running, and had applied for the ballot unsuccessfully year after year. I finally earned it with a Good for Age run in the 2015 Manchester Marathon, found out a week before London 2016 that the Manchester course had been incorrectly measured and believed I would lose my spot despite being basically on the start line. Happily, even the penalty applied to the qualifying threshold was within my now unofficial PB finish time and I had two years’ worth of entry to the race.

Running it in 2016, I was still relatively fit but very out of practice, and I was so nervous around the crowds that I didn’t pick up a single drink or gel on the whole course. It was miserable. I finished under 4 hrs, but I blew up at the end and nearly passed out at supper. Turns out, running a marathon on a warm day without calories or water is a fucking stupid idea. You’re welcome, anyone who thought they’d try that.

So my memory of London has so far been one of failure. I failed to get my target time, I failed to manage my fluids and energy levels, I failed to run hard and I failed to run for fun. Blah blah blah. Probably best not to bother again then eh? So when a freelance job opportunity with my favourite company came up and the build day was marathon day in 2017, I was almost relieved to be deferring my place for the following year.

That gave me enough time to recover, train properly, reassess. Wait, that’s the wrong order. Assessment: another GFA time might be on the cards – if you have jet packs on your heels. Recovery: ha ha. Train properly: time to pick up a book. And I did, and I stuck to it, right up until the last 4 weeks. I’ve learned what I’m capable of and it turns out that, in the cold light of day, I think I can comfortably do a 4hr20 run, and if I go out of my comfort zone I could even skirt around 4hrs. But I’ve also learned that being afraid to say those words out loud is only hampering my ability to try.

What I know I can do though, absolutely KNOW for certain, is that I can enjoy it if I want to, and that enjoyment doesn’t need to be linked to (or totally divorced from) my expectations. I mean that, I need to accept failure as a possibility, but not be so obsessed with avoiding it that I miss the chance to do something great. Excuses are just another mechanism for dealing with this fear; I have to stop handicapping myself. So before I reach the Blue Start tomorrow, lose my nerve and simultaneously decide I’ll barely finish but also go off at 6:30 minute miles, I’m going to record the things I am thankful for:

  1. My place in the race. I worked really hard for it, and it wasn’t a fluke. And it doesn’t mean that I’m any less deserving of it now, even though I’m three years older and half an hour slower than I used to be. This is something I wanted to do for years and in honour of the many versions of me that couldn’t get in, not to mention the countless others still yet to get their ballot place, I’m going to bloody well have fun.
  2. The sun and the heat. This winter seemed interminable and penetrating. I’m damned if I’m going to complain about nice dry heat now. Running in the heat was a bit of a monkey on my back but I’ve embraced it and now, frankly, I sort of love it. Running in any extreme is fun actually.
  3. My Andrew W.K. playlist. It got me through Manchester. Pure, heart-busting joy.
  4. My health. Dammit, I can run. There are days when I am in so much pain that I can barely see, and there are days when I feel like my limbs are made of stardust. For those days, for those handful of moments, it’s all worth it.
  5. My job. There’s no getting around the fact that it is stressful and physically taxing, but it pays my bills and my entry fees to races, so to be ungrateful for it would be hypocritical. I have a wonderful boss and an exceptionally talented team, and no-one has ever failed to be impressed when I tell them what I do.
  6. My friends and family. The people who we thought would never dream of coming all the way to Northern Cyprus to be at our wedding. The people who probably would have joined us at the drop of a hat, if only we hadn’t underestimated the table plan. The people who will instead (or as well as) celebrate sat at a rickety little table in Shepherds Bush with us, who will share a Thai food platter and a pint of Pride. The people who do every week. The people who will wait in the sun for hours tomorrow for the three second view of me passing.
  7. Me.

Fellow marathoners – what are you thankful for? What will you take with you to tomorrow’s race?

Whatever it is, don’t let it be fear.

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Con-what-now

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Every now and again I look back over my old posts and see if, with the benefit of hindsight, I spot any patterns or consequences that I hadn’t noticed at the time. Probably I account for half of my own hits doing this, but there you go.

In 2015 I ran every day of the year and also covered 16 marathons, finishing at least one every calendar month. It was my best running year in almost every respect. I got PBs in pretty much every distance which stand to this day, ran the highest number of miles with the least amount of injury or illness – seriously, I didn’t get a single cold that year – enjoyed the fastest recovery times I’ve ever had, and above all had the most fun. I didn’t think there was any discipline involved, really. And the only “plan” I had was to keep up the streak and keep enjoying myself.

A change in professional circumstances meant that I reluctantly quit the daily run streak, especially as it was getting harder and harder to fit it in. Within a couple of months a daily run streak had dwindled to barely three times a week to injury knocking me out for weeks at a time. My running career got 2016’d, in short. I’ve reflected on this many times to work out what went wrong, exactly. Was it quitting the run streak? Do I need to run a little bit every day just to keep up my fitness, not to mention my motivation? Was it coincidence; did I just happen to get injured after I quit the streak? Was it the delayed effects of a streak catching up with me six weeks later? I definitely didn’t want to believe that last one but I eventually devoted some time to finding precedents for this situation, and happily found none. In fact I found plenty of reports of run streakers out-running injury and illness for years. But could that simply have been confirmation bias?

So I tried to analyse each elements that changed for me at the turn of the year and work out which one was the culprit.

Work-life balance: New job, more erratic hours, more stressful and less time to run and alleviate that stress. Yes, definitely sounds like a prime suspect. There’s just something that niggles about this hypothesis though; increased stress can absolutely be to blame for illness and there’s no doubt that the injury started a downward spiral of “I’m injured so I can’t run, I can’t run so I’m miserable, I’m miserable so I overeat, now I’m too heavy to run…” But can being more stressed at work really have a direct link to the injury? I mean it was only a wee one; bog standard runner’s knee, sorted within a month and even then only because I was too stubborn to rest it. I can believe that there’s a chain reaction, but I think there’s a chain link missing.

Lack of fitness: Definitely another possibility. But you don’t lose fitness just like that; not in the timescale we’re talking. I didn’t lose a damn leg. And although it felt at the time like I was never going to run again, I was still managing a couple of easy runs a week and spent no more than a fortnight without running at all. Proportionally to my expectations of myself I wasn’t doing well, but I imagine that’s what most runners call their off-season. It should have been possible for me to regain it.

Lack of motivation: Honestly? Nope. I mean there were days I felt like being lazy or avoided a session and felt guilty about it afterwards, but I still missed running, I just couldn’t do as much as I wanted. I was miserable, but not unmotivated.

Overtraining: Yes, that was a thing. That was definitely a thing – in 2017. I’m talking about a year before. It could well be the root of the issues I had later, in that I pushed myself too hard to make up for missed runs, but when I quit the run streak I didn’t feel the slightest hint of what I now know to be classic OTS symptoms. I didn’t quit because I was exhausted, I quit because I thought I should while I was ahead.

And finally, the fringiest and most superstitious of reasons, 2016: Because everything that was cool died in 2016. I’m not seriously considering this as a genuine cause, but I’m leaving it there anyway because fuck 2016.

I’ve written about all these hypotheses at one point or another, but none of them have ticked all the boxes for me, none of them present as a wholly satisfactory explanation for my loss of form. And then I read a reply to a Facebook post on the Ultrarunning Community asking how long the longest run should be in preparation for a 100 mile race. The reply was written by Tracey Watson, as far as I know the only person to have done the Centurion Double Grand Slam in two consecutive years – or at all – which means officially finishing four 100 mile races and four 50 mile races in a single year, between April and November. Now if she’s not qualified to answer this question, who is?

Her answer? She never does longer than 30 miles on a training run, not even for the 100s; the 50 milers pretty much act as training for those anyway. The key to training, she said, was consistency.

That very obvious and often-cited piece of advice made something suddenly click for me. Not that I hadn’t heard it before, but I hadn’t really made the connection. The missing link in the chain, the one thing that could explain the difference between 2015 and 2016, that even contributed to the later onset of OTS, was consistency.

I looked again at 2015. Instead of seeing my daily run as a benefit in and of itself, perhaps I was actually reaping the benefit of consistent training. The other major feature of that year was that I had relatively standard working hours and trained in pretty much the same pattern across each week, with a marathon every fourth week on average. Apart from a notable exception, each month’s running total was only around 10% more or less than the average, which includes the numbers skewed by Druids and a failed attempt at the NDW100. For the first time it occurred to me that the routine, rather than the volume, could have been the key.

Then I looked at the start of 2016. That’s not just when I quit the streak and therefore the training pattern I had been used to. Work-wise, that’s also when my hours went completely topsy turvy and when I started having to miss or rearrange races. Then I started missing sessions, and trying to make up for them by going harder and longer when the opportunity arose, not knowing when I’d get the next chance. Unsurprisingly, by February I was nursing a classic runner’s knee, and in April I was forcing myself around the London Marathon course at an effort that oscillated between suicide and sloth. After that, I didn’t finish another race until the end of August. I didn’t just lose consistency, I forgot what it meant altogether.

Between then and Wendover Woods this past November my fitness slipped gradually away and I couldn’t work out why. It felt like I was trying to hold onto sand as it passed between my fingers; I’d grasp and stretch my hands out to catch as much as possible and simply lose it all the faster. Understanding the importance of consistency felt like remembering I needed to cup my hands together. So I turned to something that hasn’t really worked for me before, but might just be able to re-establish a routine. I picked up a training plan.

I’ve never got on with them in the past either because I’d not found a plan that suited my preferred effort-based philosophy, or because I’m simply not disciplined enough to follow a plan. I much prefer the “see how you feel” approach and it doesn’t tend to let me down because I never see running as a chore, as something I have to do because the plan says so. However, the P&D plan I’d tried once before, only to discover that I had started it way too late, seemed worth a try even if I had to adjust it a bit. Each day’s session is much the same as the previous week’s, with either the addition of effort or a mile or so in distance.

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Six weeks in and already my body has got used to resting on a Monday – usually the day after a long run and a day which fits my work schedule – then doing 9 or 10 miles aerobic pace on a Tuesday (i.e. run home from work), recovery or rest on Wednesday and Friday, tempo on Thursday, hard effort parkrun on Saturday (OK I do bend the rules there) and a long run on Sunday. The fact that I can remember this without looking at the plan tells me that the consistency is working. Or to put it another way, the routine. I’m in the next phase now which means upping the effort levels and the distances a bit, but I’m building on solid foundations. At least, that’s the theory.

The thing is I’m still much much slower (and heavier) than I was three years ago, but I’m feeling more in control than I have for a long time, which means I’m enjoying myself more. All because of the comfort of knowing what my week looks like. And I won’t hit all the targets of the plan itself bang on, but you know what? That’s fine. I’m still moving in the right direction, at a steady pace, nice and consistent. If that’s the best I can hope for, it’s enough.

The last couple of years have been tough, but I don’t think I’d have made this connection and started to fix my approach if I hadn’t hit rock bottom. For my signoff today, I’m going to hand over to Truth Potato:

truth potato failure

 

 

Reading and running, my two favourite things…

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You all know I love to run. You all know I love to waffle.
What you might not know is that my absolute favouritest thing – besides my budgies and my goldfish and sometimes my human – is my bookcase.

 

I’m a subscriber to the belief that a bookshelf full of unread (or about to be re-read) books is a treasure trove of potential. It’s a world of worlds waiting for me to explore, adventures that don’t get my feet wet. I can get through a book a week on public transport, two if there’s a strike, and find that the worlds of running and reading crossover best when I’m feeling in need of inspiration. Also, I’m INCREDIBLY suggestible.

 

So I thought, I wonder how many running related books I’ve read so far? Which books have had the greatest effect on my running career? Which ones would I recommend to other people?

 

The answer to that third question is: all of them. I didn’t necessarily love all of them, but what’s good for the goose isn’t always good for the gander (amirite girls) and the more you read the more you know what you like; if you don’t believe there’s such a thing as a junk mile, there’s no such thing as a junk page if it teaches you something about yourself. Don’t get me wrong; this isn’t going to be a well-researched and insightful London Review of Books type affair where I unearth undiscovered masterpieces or out cult classics; this is simply a data dump of all the running literature I’ve ever read (and remembered).

 

So in alphabetical order, for want of any more meaningful order, here they all are. A select few either deserved comment or needed further explanation; others, not so much. If you’re looking for a way to beat those January blues, get stuck in. And if your favourite tome isn’t listed here, let me know in the comments below. I’m down to my last twenty, people!

 

Ah, this story. Combines my twin obsessions of stupidly long distance running and the years between wars. It is a truly ridiculous story, and only available in hardback that I can find. 
I mean, what can I say? I have this on my iBooks, just so I can dip in every now and again – usually to the bit about the race. This book divided opinion and being written in a journalistic, multi-narrative style it tends to take each reader on a different version of the story. To my mum, it was about barefoot running. To me, it was about how competition and pushing oneself to the limits is a fundamental form of respect. 
Don’t read this expecting to read another Born To run. Read this expecting to hear about how heroes don’t always have pecs of steel.
This book is, just like Born To Run, a book that launched a thousand ultrarunning careers. It’s easier to believe now that Dean Karnazes found himself capable of the feats he describes here but arguably it’s because, in sharing his story, he made that belief available to countless others. One hell of a character, and one hell of a classic. 
For the more serious ultrarunners out there this is an amazing pocket size coach. What Koerner doesn’t know about ultrarunning probably doesn’t need to be known, and this provides a format that can be neatly dipped in and out of depending on where you are in your training. 
Unusually for many Murakami fans, this was the first book of his that I read (as well as one of the first running-related books I read). A non-fiction account of his relationship with running and eventually triathlon, and how they support his writing work. Immediately became obsessed both with running and with him. 
I met Helen a few years ago at the end of the Salisbury 5-4-3-2-1 and bought a copy directly from her. Helen is lovely to talk to, but not being a runner herself (actually she’s a physiotherapist) her perspective is very much that of someone who can’t believe people run long distances (!) and her tone is a bit incredulous. That said this book tells the stories of many of the 100 Marathon Club members and was the first time I realised I wanted to be one of them.
James Adams – when he’s not coming up with diabolical ideas for races – is an invaluable font of knowledge and pretty f**king funny to boot. Don’t you hate him already? This book charts his attempts to get fit enough for a Transamerican run, and it’s about the most relatable book many of us will read. 
It’s quite neat that these last two sit together – two books charting the history of two very iconic races. The Comrades one in particular really made me see why that race is so important to so many people. 
Not a running book, actually; a book about walking the Camino de Santiago. But a heartwarming tale of endurance and humanity. 
You don’t need me to tell you why you should read these last two. 
A fascinating take on sports psychology and its practical application. Think of this as a training manual for your brain. 
See comment re: Lizzy and Kilian.
Zatopek, my running hero. I found this while looking for the best-rated book about his life and running career and was pleasantly surprised to discover it was written by Richard Askwith, author of the classic Feet In The Clouds. Sometimes when I need motivation on a 5k I chant “Za-to-pek, Za-to-pek” to myself. I know, wanker. 
I did not like this book at all. Imagine Dean Karnazes but more ego and less pathos. Then again, I know that a lot of people have found his story to be a huge inspiration, not just for running but for making healthier lifestyle choices. Perhaps I’m just a cynical old bat?
From the King of the ultra trail, this book favours the Eat part as much, if not more than, Run. A fascinating examination of the role nutrition plays in overall health and fitness, played out against the heartbreaking backdrop of Jurek’s youth. It’s kind of hard to laze out of a long run and eat Doritos on the sofa if you’re reading this 🙂 

 

Not yet read, but on the shelf/wish-list:

 

If magazines are more your thing and you can’t wait a whole month for your next Runners World, then you may want to consider supporting some of the brilliant indie publications that are available. It goes without saying that Ultra is top of any list both for quality of content and quality of publication – I struggle to stop sniffing the pages long enough to read them – and there’s a very warm place in my heart for Brian and Dawn at So Let’s Go Running, a magazine that did such a fantastic job of bringing runners together they ended up forming a club. Both magazines feature articles by your average Joe runners, and as much as Women’s Running/Men’s Running and Trail Running provide useful pro tips on training, nutrition and kit, there’s something about connecting with the story of another person just like me which makes me feel like a real runner. It’s something which appeals to me as I tend to skip over the matronly “here’s what you should do” articles and go straight to the personal accounts; in a similar vein, Like The Wind is a quarterly magazine full of stories by runners for runners and like Ultra, beautifully produced for a very reasonable cost. I hasten to add that these are all UK publications – sorry world – but I’d love to hear about your favourites, wherever you are!

 

Here’s where you tell me about the CRIMINAL omissions I’ve made – what would you recommend for the bookshelf?

 

(Note – these links are all for Amazon UK, but it’s just for convenience; I don’t see a penny of commission! If you find these titles in your local independent bookshop then by all means be excellent people and support them.)

Lady of leisure

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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?

Running

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.

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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.

Resting

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.

Writing

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.

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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.

Recharging

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.

Thames Riverside 20 – Race or Pace

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For months I’ve been waxing lyrical about volunteer, marshals, pacers and race directors, all those good sorts who give up their day (and often a lot more besides) to make it possible for us selfish runners to do our thing, and making grand pronouncements about doing my stint one day. So when the call went out to the Clapham Chasers Facebook forum for people to help run our annual race, the Thames Riverside 20, I’d sort of run out of reasons not to. 

Since my role at the Monday social runs has gone from struggling backmarker to regular pacer and novice group leader, it seemed like a natural progression to offering my services as a pacer for the 9:30 group. I’ve got to admit, this was another one of those things that I merrily signed up for with my worry-about-the-details later head, and felt fine about, until my details-and-doubt head started to ask questions. Like: Jaz, are you sure you can maintain a steady pace for twenty miles? Your Garmin readouts look like Pinocchio’s lie detector test, and other people are relying on you now. Can you even run twenty miles at 9:30mm? The last time you did that you couldn’t walk for a week. You’ve got a race every single weekend for five weeks. Are you sure you won’t crash at mile 16 like you usually do? It’s an 8am start, the day after QPR v Spurs. Since when have you been a morning person, let alone after a home game? 

Thanks, doubt brain. The very definition of a self fulfilling prophecy, I got about four hours’ sleep on the Saturday night, and what little sleep I did get was punctuated with anxiety dreams about waking up late and missing the start or losing all my kit or fucking it all up. The one saving grace was that I would be paired with Cat, stalwart of the trail club and Monday night social run, a lady well used to picking up after me when I fell to pieces. 

Mildly surprised to discover that there was more than one six o’clock on a Sunday, I got to Fulham Palace Park just as the birds were waking up and spent some of my nervous energy helping the HQ set-up team, until Sham told me off for getting underfoot and I had to find another way to amuse myself. Eventually we got our briefing – “Run at your pace. Run at exactly your pace. Don’t stop for anything.” – and lined up for the off. The pace groups were set at half minute intervals from sub 7:00mm to 10:00mm and would set off in ascending order with two minutes between each start, so Cat and I had a good twelve minutes to piss around dancing jigs and taking silly photos. Ok, not Cat. Just me. 

  

I never get bored of the riverside, or how lucky I am to live so near the Thames path. When we finally got our starters orders the first half mile took us over Putney Bridge to the south bank, and we all marvelled at the sight of the tranquil river in the hazy spring morning. The first sign of the tireless support we would receive was just on the other side of the bridge, fellow Chasers Alex and Frankie cheering like loons as Sunday morning strollers and Saturday night walk-of-shamers looked wryly on. I’m sure everyone who passed us thought they and they alone were the sane ones. 

Our group was only about twenty people to begin with, a mixture of experienced runners and first time marathoners on their last long run before London or Paris. For most people, today’s run was the long run in their training schedule and for some it would be the longest they’d ever run before. For all the pressure that piled on us as pacers, it was actually a huge privilege to be helping someone towards such a significant milestone. To me, the Thames path means spring and summer long runs and marathon prep with my mum, so it’s seen a lot of milestones passed in my running career already; I love that it now has a whole new layer of meaning to me. I loved hearing that mixture of trepidation and resolve in the first timers with us; they all joked that they didn’t know if they’d make the finish, but their eyes said quite the opposite. 

Joking about the first timers making it to the end was something of a front for my own worries about being able to finish. I normally run to effort; I’ve never run at such a consistent pace before, not even on flat ground. Only eight days after another attempt at the Moonlight Challenge, my thighs were sore and hamstrings nowhere near loosening up as we saw the front runners pass us going the other way around mile 7 (or mile 13 to them). They looked so strong, and I still didn’t have a rhythm or another gear to move up to if I’d needed it. I mean, the whole point was I wasn’t meant to need it, but I’m not used to running with basically no margin for error. I concentrated on making sure the Garmin stayed happy and tried to pretend I didn’t want to stop and stick my face in a bowl of ice cream.

Then I saw something that was both heartbreaking and which spurred me on. At the third water station in Richmond, just before the 10 mile turnaround point, there was Diana – trail club regular, tough as nails diminutive Latvian lightning streak who has gone from strength to strength this last year – folded up in a sorry looking little bundle on the ground. Having been cruising along in the 8mm pacing group and feeling fresh as a daisy, apparently she had felt her hamstring go twang (luckily not too far from the aid station) and that was that. It was gutting to see her like that, grimacing not so much with pain but with frustration. I had to resist the temptation to dart out and give her a hug, check she was ok, but of course she was already in the safest hands possible. Besides, this was not my race – the most useful thing we could do at this point was keep our group at a steady pace and make sure there weren’t any other blowouts. 

Thankfully the next sign of life we saw was the turnaround point, with an exuberant Naomi dancing and singing at the hairpin bend. Seeing her meant that we were past halfway, that there was always less left than we’d already done, and that we were technically on the home straight. Being the second to last group it occurred to me that she must have been keeping up her energetic little jig for AGES. I’d definitely rather run for three hours than dance and be cheerful for three hours. What a ledge. 

One thing I always forget about the towpath is just how stony it is in places, even though I think of it as a relatively low impact surface compared with road running or flat compared with trails. It’s hardly time for the Hokas, but around Kew Gardens on the return journey I was starting to feel real soreness in my toe joints and became aware of just how hard I was having to work not to turn an ankle. It’s brilliant for training on, but not as fast a racing course as you might think. I realised that for the first time since Istanbul I was seriously pushing myself just to maintain the pace. I have so much fun when I’m out on trails – no weight of expectation, no sense of chore or effort, beautiful scenery to drift off into – there’s a distinct possibility that I’ve become a lazy bastard.

We had started to lose a couple of our group by now, some because they were gently ramping up the pace and leaving us behind, others unable to keep up. The closer we got to the rowing clubs at Putney, the fewer in number we became. It’s hard to resist the temptation to drop back and keep the stragglers company – as hard as it is not to open up the throttle as Putney Bridge loomed into view – but the reward for consistency soon became obvious as two of the group, first timers who had only ever done eighteen miles before, celebrated their furthest distance at mile 19, high fived us, then asked permission to go on ahead. I’ve never heard anything so charming in a race; someone asking permission to go faster. And as Cat and I reached the bridge, we found ourselves totally alone. 

I couldn’t resist challenging her to a sprint finish at the entrance of the park, since it didn’t matter any more, just so I could do my Mo Farah impression. I hit my Garmin as I crossed the line, but I already knew what my time was and straightaway went to find Diana for the hug I’d been saving for her. It felt weird not to have to check for my chip time or placing. It felt weirder still not to have my hear bursting from my ribcage at the end of a race. Is this what consistent pacing feels like? 

I learned new metrics for judging success that day: it came in the form of pride in a stranger’s achievements; in joy at seeing our average pace over the twenty miles was 9:29 minutes per mile, bang on target, not too fast; in finishing twenty miles without succumbing once to the temptation to walk, and still feeling like I had a strong final 10k in me; and in knowing I did my best without letting anyone down. It wasn’t a PB, or a podium finish – I didn’t even get a bloody medal. It was just a job well done. 

 

The Promise

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I’m running my first ultramarathon in 20 days. I’m supposed to be, anyway. I promised myself I would run an ultramarathon before my thirtieth birthday, and it’s the last opportunity I have to keep my promise.

I want to do it because I love the challenge, and I love the peace of long-distance running. And I love that you don’t have to be good at it to enjoy it. In fact, not running for a time makes the experience all the more enjoyable for me. The last time I took a break from running was shortly after I’d got my 10k PB 2 minutes quicker than the previous attempt and had started to wear myself out trying to beat it. I’d fallen into that “what’s the point of trying if I’m going to fail” trap and only the new challenge of distance rather than speed got me back on track. With the unenviable combination of a vicious competitive streak and no aptitude for sports, I had to take up running; I’ve only got myself to answer to, account for and compete against and that suits me fine.

The ultra I’ve chosen – partly because of timing, partly because it’s not too nuts a distance (32.75 miles) and partly because it’s run in 5 laps of just over 10k which means my support team (mum) can be waiting at one spot with top up supplies for me rather than chasing me around the course. It’s also in the middle of the night, in a farm in Canterbury, in February. That sentence alone did it for me.

When I tell people about the race, I always find myself qualifying it with “it’s not even quite 33 miles”, “it’s not much more than I’ve done before”, “it’s only technically an ultra”. Why do I do that? No-one’s ever agreed with me on that last point – not even one running buddy who has attempted the Grand Union Canal run three times and who knows what is an ultra and what isn’t. Why I am downplaying it?

I’m not trying to show off (said the woman writing a blog about it). No really, I’m not. This blog isn’t meant to be about me dick measuring – with any luck it’s just equal parts sharing experiences with like-minded people and catharsis. It’s also not that I’m taking it lightly. What as you up to at the weekend? Oh, just knocking out 30-odd miles, nothing special. If only 30 miles wasn’t a big deal to me. And I’m certainly not fishing for glory or compliments like some kind of Facebook attention seeker throwing out vague, maudlin statuses that people reply to with comments like “U ok hun?”. Not today, anyway.

I think ultimately I’m managing my own expectations, not anyone else’s. If I stopped to think about the enormity of the challenge I’d never get further than the foot of my bed. How many miles? And I’ve got to do the same loop five times? And I’m running on my own? In the middle of the night? When the temperature is bound to be in minus figures? And probably raining? And I’ve got a two hour drive home afterwards? ARGH.

Which must have been at the back of my mind for the last two weeks. Two horrendous run-free weeks, for one reason and another. For every session missed the panic in the pit of my stomach doubled, another hour’s sleep was lost. First work – both my day job and a freelance job I’ve for some reason signed up to – started to eat into my running sessions. Then unexpected family visits, then family visits I was expecting that never materialised. Then illness, while I wrapped myself in cotton wool against the terror of… a common cold. Then my Wednesday running group cancelled, and I didn’t want to go alone. Then it was a bit cold. Then there was a y in the day. Any of these sound familiar?

Keeping up my training is all about streaks for me. A good training streak sustains itself – you don’t want a blemish on the record so you’ll drag yourself from your deathbed to go out running. Then there’s the other side of the coin. Haven’t been for five days? It might as well be six. Make sure that sniffly nose is definitely recovered, or get that report finished for work so you can concentrate better tomorrow. It’s a defence mechanism against nerves and worry. If I’m on a streak I don’t have the luxury of worrying if I’m able to continue it, because the compulsion to maintain the streak takes precedence. But if I pause for one moment that’s one moment to spend worrying about all the things that could happen ever, which becomes two moments, which becomes two weeks. My compulsion to sustain a streak or keep a routine is my catalyst for action otherwise I’d rationalise my way out of ever leaving the house.

Of course that’s not the whole story – on a good day I can go out feeling like shit but knowing that I never come back from a run feeling worse, and it’ll all be worth it in a few miles time. I know how much I love running while I’m out there doing it but it always starts with that first tight-muscled wheezy-breathed numb-fingered step to kick start the engine. So how do I recapture that thought when I’m wrapped in a blanket, simultaneously convincing myself not to run and torturing myself for giving in so easily?

Some people either don’t have that hard a time persuading themselves to go out, or instinctively know it’ll all be worth it when they do. These are good people, and they probably help old ladies across the street and smile for no particular reason. Some people raise money for charity to give themselves the motivation to go out and train in all weathers, the fear of letting someone else down worse than the fear of the challenge itself. For others, the motivation lies in getting fitter or slimmer and looking like someone out of Heat magazine. Some people have no fear; running is as part a fabric of their being as breathing and eating. For me, and I dare say (hope) many others, a challenge is its own reward.

That’s it for me; I’ve said I’m going to finish an ultra before I’m thirty and that’s what I’m going to do. I’ve told enough people now I’ll be made out a liar if I don’t follow through – or worse, flaky. It’s a verbal contract. The downplaying tactics are all for my benefit, not anyone else’s.

Enough psyching myself out. I’m lacing up my running shoes. I’ve a promise to keep.