Woldingham to Wimbledon

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Last year was a great year of running for me. I maintained a daily mile streak, and at least one official marathon each calendar month (16 in total). PBs fell all over the shop, and every time I did better than I thought it gave me the confidence to try harder. This year, not so much. It was bound to be a slightly fallow year in comparison, but (to continue the agricultural metaphor) whereas grass can still grow through paving stones running results don’t happen without actually running. And running has really not happened.

As I lined up for my second attempt at the North Downs 100 in August, having been unable to run a number of training races I was hoping to because of work commitments, I realised that I hadn’t finished an official marathon or even added a medal of any kind to my collection since London in April. Not that that’s such a long time between races, but for someone used to being the Mr T of running medals it gnawed at me. As it turned out, the North Downs Way 100 didn’t result in an official finish either so I headed towards the end of August feeling slightly less fabulous than I’d like to, not to mention heavier and less graceful than ever, and I missed the trail miles. So, I scanned teh interwebs for something nearby, low key, muddy and fun, and found the inaugural Woldingham Marathon. In three days’ time.

The route is a two lap loop which covers a couple of hills from the North Downs Way, and helpfully diverts to the one massive hill on the Vanguard Way where the two bisect in the middle too, before looping back to the start/finish in Woldingham School. The diversion up Oxted Downs is really only there to make up miles and offer physical and psychological torture, since all you do when you get to the top is go straight back down again and carry on along the rest of the route (also uphill), and this particularly simplistic brand of sadism is half the fun. Plus, it means the route is shaped kind of like a bum, cleft and all, and who doesn’t like tracing rude pictures with their runs?

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It was exactly what I needed. I arrived at the school vaguely entertaining ideas of a four and a half hour finish, then recognised the area, and quickly downshifted my expectations through five hours, five and a half hours and not looking at the time at all. And then I bumped into fellow Chaser Alex Visram who, in preparation for the Ultra Trail Mount Fuji (the Japanese UTMB, so even madder) had signed up for what he delicately called a “training run”. We bought on the day entries, drank coffee and caught up with a few familiar faces, then fifty or so runners (and one dog) doing either the one-lap half marathon or the two-lap full took off with the bang of the starters pistol (an unexpected bonus to the organisers who seemed as surprised as we did to hear it).

Alex and I started off together but it became painfully obvious that he was running well within his easy pace. He was kind enough to keep me company for a good half lap though, including up to the top of Oxted Downs and back down again, coaching me through my recent running woes all the way. Alex is one of the Clapham Chasers’ ultra kings and full of good advice on how to get through a race, although as one might expect from a seasoned ultrarunner his advice is pretty no-nonsense. I told him about my issues with nausea and fear of sickness through the North Downs 100, and his response didn’t pull any punches. “Jaz, if you want to run 100 miles somewhere along the way you have to accept that being sick is part of it. You can’t be put off by stuff like that. It’s like saying you don’t want to run long distances because you’re afraid of getting blisters.” It was sort of brutal and sort of liberating at the same time, hearing that. It reinforced a perspective that I viewed for the first time just a few weeks before – my ability to finish a 100 miler is a matter of choice. Either I want it enough that I’ll get over the unpleasant details, or I don’t want it enough. That’s all there is to it.

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As we neared Titsey Hill he spied a regular rival a few paces ahead, and decided that as he wasn’t going for the win today he at least wanted to finish ahead of this guy, and off he went – zoom. There was actual dust at his heels, and this was a rainy day. This same stretch had been torture to me just three weekends before, an exposed plain by the side of the M25 with a singletrack barely wide enough for two feet, which under the height of summer sun seems to take forever to cover. Today it was a totally different story – refreshing, slightly treacherous but in a fun way, a flat stretch providing temporary relief from the climb-them-don’t-walk-them hills. As I made my way into the clearing by the Titsey Plantation I fell into step with a gentleman who was no more eager to run uphill than me, and we chatted to distract ourselves from the task.

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Geoff – a colourblind surgeon, and veteran runner who was preparing for his first ultra in September after having run his first marathon in 1981 – was a fascinating companion, and we were well on our way back to the start/finish point before I noticed how much time had passed. It felt quite a lot like a social trail run, rather than a race; at least, I was treating it that way. I needed to rediscover the love of running itself, and dissociate the fear of failure from the act of the exercise. Focusing on the more social part of the activity sort of hit my reset button.

We talked at length about his career as a reconstructive surgeon, and I asked all manner of daft questions:
“Does being colourblind affect your work, when you’re doing intricate things like veins and arteries?”
“Well no, arteries and veins are different sizes anyway…” *looks at me as if I’m retarded* “What’s the worst job you ever had to do?”
“Skin grafts on burned children.” *awkward silence*
As time passed we realised each of us were dragging the other person along by turns, and that overall we were pretty much bob on the same pace, so as we climbed Titsey Hill the second time we agreed to finish together come what may.

As we passed the water station the final time with three miles to go, the volunteers told me I was currently fourth lady. It was the first time I’d really considered our positions in the context of the race. Gentleman Geoff urged me to push on, but since there wasn’t anyone behind us for miles and (I reasoned) there were probably only five women in the race anyway I preferred to stick with the plan to finish together hand in hand, and that’s exactly what we did. A watershed moment in the year that running forgot, I bagged a medal, a friend and a race that I enjoyed all the way through. I just can’t get bored of tootling around the Surrey hills and chatting and eating biscuits – and the silly thing is, I already know that abstract achievements like this drive me more than calculable results ever have. Not to mention ticking off another marathon on the list to 100; another huge moment, considering the last time I’d officially done that was April. I’d started to wrestle back control.

So Woldingham was almost as impulsive a marathon as it’s possible to get, but it was absolutely worth it. On the other hand, the Suunto Run Wimbledon marathon had been on the cards since July when I was drawn in by a Facebook advert for the inaugural race. The race was four squiggly laps around the common, offering 10k, half marathon, solo marathon and relay marathon options. Nearby and low-key, mostly offroad (I assumed), sponsored by my favourite brand of running watch, something about free marshmallows. Yep, sign me up.

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It would also be a good opportunity to get out the headtorch; the race was due to start at 4pm on the Saturday meaning that the second half would be run after dusk, under cover of trees which blocked out what little moonlight broke through the clouds, in effectively pitch darkness. I’m a bit of a wimp when it comes to running on little or no sleep but I do love a race in the dark, especially one that starts late and necessitates an afternoon nap. And that’s pretty much all I knew about it until the Wednesday before. Once again, my failure to do race research would define my experience.

As I warmed up in the start/finish area in a clearing near the Windmill, I bumped into another Chaser trail regular Igor, who was returning to running with a stab at the half marathon after a busy year creating new human beings. Sticking with the theme of “this is a social run with a medal, not a race” we covered the first two laps together in a comfortable but not easy 2:05, chatting the whole way through about life, the universe and everything. As someone who grew up in the Soviet Union, moved to the US and there became a citizen before settling in the UK, Igor is a fascinating person to talk to/interrogate with daft questions; we covered Brexit, global economics, parenthood, the two hour marathon, America optimism vs Russian cynicism and why Turkish people are so charmingly blunt, all with the help of natural daylight. After the second lap I waved Igor on his way, downed a gel and set up my torch for the remainder of the race, as dusk was threatening to descend at a moment’s notice. And then I realised I needed the loo.

As if someone had switched the lights off we were plunged into darkness for lap three, apart from the half mile or so around the A3 subway lit by sodium lamps (frankly, I preferred the darkness) and it became more important than ever to watch where my feet were going. Igor and I had both had a couple of near misses even when the light was good, so there was no need for heroics; then again, the pressure was growing in my bladder with at least an hour to the next possible loo stop so I didn’t exactly want to dawdle. Being a lap race it was difficult to tell where in the field I was (although I assumed it must be a way towards the back) and the 10k and half marathon runners were mostly finished by this point. With the exception of a girl from the 100 Marathon Club who I caught up with a couple of times then gave up trying to follow, I found myself basically on my own.

When I got to the end of lap three I was flagging a little, having pretty much run 20 miles on one gel, and I passed the timing mat around 3:20. Not great, but not a disaster. I pulled over to ask one of the marshals if I could use the loo without being disqualified and she stared at me with horror. While I wondered if I’d broken some sort of running etiquette by asking to use the loo, she composed herself enough to ask if I had another lap to go.

“Yeah, this is my third. One more to go.”
“Well… you can use the loo, but the cutoff is four hours. Are you going to be finished by then?”

It took me a moment to a) process that she was asking if I’d finish the RACE within four hours not the toilet trip and b) that she was asking if I would finish a 6.5 mile lap, in the dark, in the woods, in under 40 mins. I admitted that I would not. “So, will I be allowed to finish?”

She had to go and find the race director to get confirmation that I’d be allowed to continue while I waited for an agonising 5 minutes, during which I was even too afraid to leave the timing area for the loo in case I’d missed another crucial rule. How did I miss that the cutoff for the race was 4 hours? I definitely didn’t remember seeing it before I’d signed up, as even Optimistic Jaz wouldn’t be that reckless, and I racked my memory for a clue in the race day instructions I’d read before coming out. I remembered (and a little bit ignored) the headphones rule, I remembered deciphering the squiggly map, I remembered that there was no food or gel on offer but that there would be water… then I vaguely remembered a comment about being done in 8 hours so the organisers could go to the pub and thinking how generous that was. Bit of mental arithmetic followed: 4pm plus 8 hours does not equal being able to go to the pub. In retrospect, I reasoned, perhaps the rule was actually “finish by 8pm”. Ah.

Eventually I got a reassurance that I could continue and officially finish, but there would be no medical assistance and no marshals. Not a problem to me, a seasoned night-time runner and part-time Womble, but it got me to thinking how you could expect the last finisher to finish within four hours; and moreover why wouldn’t you advertise that more before you even take anyone’s money? Four hours is pretty punchy for an off-road marathon, half of which is in the dark; although arguably only by today’s standards. I thought about veteran Chaser Rob who started running marathons in the early 80s when he admitted to often coming plum last despite finishing in under three and a half hours. I didn’t really have the right to get angry at the organisers, I told myself, when I hadn’t even read the instructions properly. I even considered pulling out halfway through the final lap so as not to make anyone hang around too long, but eventually decided the best I could do would be to finish what I’d started.

Dragging myself through the inevitable 20 mile crash (one Gu gel and three Shot Bloks in, I now realise it was also the least well fuelled marathon I’d ever run) I tried to push as hard as my legs would allow while still maintaining some control. I switched from audiobook to upbeat ska punk (thank God for the staple Less Than Jake playlist) and ploughed on, with absolutely no other runners, no marshals, no people at all in sight. Even if I didn’t officially finish and get my bling, it would be important to me to overcome my doubts and finish, to prove to that negative voice in my head that it didn’t rule me. I skipped along to the blaring music through the eastern edge of the common, over ground that forms part of the Wimbledon parkrun lap, enjoying the familiarity and pretending it was a summer Saturday morning. And then everything was suddenly black and silence.

Where am I? You’re face down in the soil on Wimbledon Common.
Why do my hands hurt? Uh, you Supermanned it. Covered a good 6 feet gliding along the floor. Probably.
How? A tree root, I imagine. What else? Dickhead.
Holy fuck why can’t I hear anything am I deaf- No, you’re not. You landed on your iPod shuffle and paused it. Also you bruised your hip landing on the iPod. But check the iPod first.
My knees are screaming they’re going to fall off. No, they’re not. But they’re pretty bruised too.

I picked myself up and tested the weight on my fragile joints; adrenalin coursed through me so I couldn’t really feel what was damaged and what wasn’t, and that seemed like good enough reason to coast on it while it lasted, so I restarted my music and carried on running. My right hand in particular was pretty badly cut – two gouges caused by hitting a piece of branch on the floor had been stuffed with soil from the momentum of my fall, and nothing I could do would get it out. There wasn’t any help except at the end, so the end was where I needed to get. I laughed at myself remembering the last fall I’d had was another Superman slide along Wimbledon Common, a quarter of a mile up the trail, running the Wimbledon Half Marathon earlier this year. I’m nothing if not consistent.

The adrenalin did its thing – I ploughed on at something slightly faster than walking pace, crossed the finish line to a one-man reception who handed me my medal (yay!), my marshmallows (double yay!) and a sympathetic smile. I thanked him and asked if there were many more people to come. “No dear. Just you.” And that was how I got my first ever last finisher. All those times I freaked out about being the last person on the course when I first started running in 2012; I couldn’t help but giggle. Having done it, it was actually sort of liberating.

When Chasers’ results guru Graham Sutherland posted up his weekly roundup on Monday evening it was the first time I’d even considered my race position (except for being, you know, DEAD LAST), so I was pretty surprised to discover that I was aso technically second lady. That’s right – the 100 Marathon Club girl that I had been trying to keep up with was the only other girl doing the full marathon. This lofty accolade was confirmed a couple of weeks later when I went to the Post Office to pick up what I thought was a parcel of bedding, and discovered instead an amazing 25l running backpack/drybag and a handful of Buffs as my second lady prize. I’ve never got a podium position before either, so getting both that and the wooden spoon in the same race deserves a prize of its own, I think. And I suppose, in finally regaining my sense of humour, I did. Which is the best possible prize I could have picked up.

On reflection, I got to the end of 2015 feeling a little tired but overall pretty fit, and like a much better person than I used to be; not so many temper tantrums or panic attacks, with a more positive perspective in general. The new job and the tiredness (and the partner increasingly worried that I’d joined some sort of exercise cult) persuaded me that I needed to dial back a little and recharge this year, whereupon the first thing that happened was a classic overuse injury, my first ever. Was this the delayed effect of last year’s exertions or was it because I’d stopped doing daily exercise that had previously helped ward off niggles and promoted faster recovery? In February, I’d have been easily persuaded that it was the former; now, the latter seems unquestionably true, especially corroborated by other daily run streak runners I know. Because it’s what I want to believe. I want to believe that running a mile or more every day and a marathon every month is good for me physically, because psychologically it turned my life around. That part isn’t in question at all for me, as anyone who knows me knows what a grumpy cow I’ve been this year. Running every day makes me happy. Or at least, it makes me hate the world and everyone in it marginally less.

On a slightly more sophisticated level, I have to acknowledge that happiness also comes from a sense of achievement where success is measured against expectation. All year I’ve had my expectations set somewhere between where they were last November when I was in much better shape, and the moon; no wonder that I was struggling to reach any of the targets I’d set and have been consequently feeling deflated. In my mind I was prepared or the fact that this year would be a bit of a plateau and hadn’t planned to go for any big goals or expect the leaps and strides I had last year – treating the whole year more like a rest and recovery period, I suppose – but in my heart I was still persuading myself that I should go for a 3:35 marathon and finish a 103 mile trail race on a month of no rest. A perfect recipe for unhappiness.

So how do I get happy? Trusting in my year out, making the rest and recovery work for me not the other way round, making decisions by looking at what I want to achieve not from FOMO are all good starts. The sense of humour, that’s the clincher. This shit is meant to be FUN. In the spirit of which (don’t laugh) I’ve decided to focus on the Centurion 50 milers next year before even considering upgrading to a 100 again – although, because I’m a borderline compulsive, I’m going for the four race grand slam (obviously) – and I’ve asked for help this time too. My early New Year’s Resolution will simply be to give myself a realistic target and trust in the awesome support network that the Chasers offers. After “eat more cake” that’s about as easy a resolution to keep as there is.

I mean, I love running. We all do. Otherwise, what the hell are we doing here?

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Going to that London

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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