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.
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.
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.