Thursday, 30 April 2015

Crowded 'round: an alternative London marathon

I was lucky enough to run the London Marathon last Sunday. It was an incredible day, with crowds lining most of the route, and it felt like a 26.2 mile party. Over the years, it has become increasingly difficult to gain an entry to the event so I recently tried an alternative way of running a marathon around the nation's capital. There was no ballot to get in but, as it turned out, the crowds were just as big.

I counted my urban jogging adventure as
an emergency and evacuated the station
as quickly as my legs could manage.
The London Underround in an 'anytime' challenge, dreamt up by performance coach, Rory Coleman. Taking in 42 underground stations in Zone 1, the route covers more than 20 miles overland but don't expect to stay outside in the open: the real challenge is that you have to touch the yellow line on the platform in each of the stations, and exit using the stairs or escalator.

I thought 9.30 on a Tuesday morning would offer the perfect window to set out from King's Cross: just late enough to miss the morning rush, just early enough to be back before the evening one. By the time I reached the third station and encountered another hoard of people piling down the escalator, I started to wonder whether I'd be the life and soul of the commuter party at both ends of the day, and struggling to beat the last tube home.

Rush hour was starting again by the time I reached some of the later stations in the City that afternoon and, as I weaved my way around the maze of Bank station and the people who filled it, I marvelled at the current record for the route. Standing at four hours 36 minutes, it's only half an hour slower than my marathon PB at Berlin: a flat and fast course, where world records are often broken. A man did a wee on my leg in the start pen of that race and, however long I took to complete the Underround, I figured that if I made it out of the crowds without that happening, it would be a performance I could be proud of.

The crowds weren't the only thing slowing me down: I don't live in London and my sense of direction isn't the most reliable. I received the route from Rory the day before and printed out my booklet of maps to help me find the stations but, running the route by myself, the navigating took me more time than I expected. I was very grateful for a friend's company for 2 miles in the West End, not only for his witty repartee, but his local knowledge too: entry to Covent Garden tube station was closed and only accessible by train but he had a plan ready that involved a quick sprint to Leicester Square and short tube journey back. Enjoying a 20 second sit down between stations, I proudly declared that, at 260 metres, this was the shortest tube journey in London. Phil looked at me sympathetically. If it weren’t for the fact we were underground, I suspect he would have abandoned me there.

The only major navigational hiccough happened after Sloane Square, where I ran for 15 minutes in completely the wrong direction. A local newsagent shook his head when I asked him for directions back to Victoria, and he suggested I get on a bus; instead, I bought a bottle of water from him and carried on running. The route itself was spectacular, taking in some beautiful parts of London; with my GPS showing nearly 26 miles, it looked like I'd also seen some bits of London I wasn't supposed to.

If you want to try the Underround, you can find out more on Rory's website. I've also written about it over at the Guardian Running Blog and recorded a podcast for Lazy Girl Running.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Crossed legs


It was enough to give anyone stage fright. Seconds later, two women in brightly coloured club vests emerged sheepishly from the undergrowth to a large crowd of onlookers – who knows if they managed to go. Just moments into lining up for my first race I was learning that cross country is a serious business, and going to the loo in the right place even more so. I could only assume that shouting at the top of your voice attracts less attention from the locals than two women quietly having a tinkle in a bush and, after a series of complaints from residents last year, the hard-working race organiser was taking no chances. Luckily, I’d read that bit on the website and knew this wasn’t the done thing.

I’ve had the local cross country league on my radar for a while but had yet to make it along to a race; the people I’ve met at my running club love it and I think “are you doing the XC this weekend?” might come a close second to “how was your week?” in the questions most frequently asked at the club run. Today was the last round of our local series and so, inspired by the antics of my friends Laura and Laura, at the nationals last weekend, I decided to give it a go. Besides, I had a pair of leopard print spikes that I’d bought in a sale last year sitting there gaining suspicious glances from my boyfriend; space in the shoe cupboard is at a premium in my household and I needed to justify their existence by getting them as muddy as all of my other shoes.

Serious face, serious accessories.
(Photo credit: Emma Carter)
Thanks in part to all the shouting and, possibly, the misfortune of the two ladies now waiting to run with their legs crossed, the chat at the women’s start was all very light-hearted, with different clubs mingling happily. That was until the gun went, reminding us all we were there to race, and sending us on our way around the 6.5 km course. The Lauras had told me how cross country works: places matter, not times, and that’s why it’s such serious business. I wasn’t just racing for myself but for everyone wearing my club’s distinctive yellow vest; I was glad that I’d taken the time to pick out a hairband that matched in that case.

The course was less muddy than I’d expected. There was a large, fairly dry field to run around, with some bumps and long grass that got caught up in my spikes if I didn’t lift my feet. A couple of tarmac sections made me wish I’d spent less time accessorising and more time finding out about the course. Still, at least I’d read enough to know I should have a wee before leaving the house. There were two steep hilly sections, with enough mud at the bottom to vindicate my footwear decision; while tough on the legs, this tricky part of the course also attracted the most supporters. “You can catch her and work together,” came a cheer from a man in the crowd, reminding me that this was a race and every position counts. I’m a bit passive competitive at best, normally preferring to set my own targets than race others, but I tried to stay with the runner in front, and to push hard on the downhills. I even sprinted the last 100 m to try and hold off the girl behind me; I didn’t quite manage it but maybe I’m more competitive than I first thought.

I’ve rarely raced an event with all women. Ignore the drama in the bushes and my misplaced priorities over a hairband: standing at the start surrounded by club runners of all abilities, seeing the leading woman charge through the end of her second lap, and shaking hands with the girl who overtook me before the line, I realised that there is probably no better demonstration of strength in women’s amateur running than at a cross country race.

Forget my shoe choice – my only regret is not doing this sooner. I’ll be back. As long as we still have the venue.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Three degrees of celebration

“Whose silly idea was this?” came a text message from my friend, Laura, on a very cold Saturday morning a few weeks ago. In the interests of honesty, I admit the word ‘silly’ has been used to replace a word I don’t say on this blog. You probably get the picture.

A couple of hours later, we were both sat giggling and shivering in a hot tub, ‘clinking’ our paper cups of hot blackcurrant squash, mostly in celebration and partly in disbelief. The silly idea had been to swim across Tooting Bec Lido, an unheated outdoor pool in London, as part of the UK Cold Water Swimming Championships. Swimming in 3oC water does sound a bit silly but it’s the tip of the iceberg when it comes to some of the other ideas one or other of us has come up with in the time we have been friends.

In October last year, Laura and I travelled with some other great friends to run Snowdonia Marathon. We then hopped on a ferry and ran Dublin Marathon with just a day in between. That seemed quite silly but we did it, singing and laughing as we went. We celebrated in much the same way, with some dodgy headwear, a drink in our hands, and lots of giggling at the end.

I don’t really know what my expectations were when I started this blog a few years ago; I think it seemed a good way of making myself accountable for my attempt to run another marathon after becoming really unfit. And it did just that. What I really didn’t expect was that I would make some incredible friends along the way: people who ‘get me’ just as well as those friends I’ve made in other areas of my life; people who say “go for it” when I mention some silly challenge; and, even better, people who ask me to join them when they have their own ideas and opportunities.

Tricurious by Laura Fountain and Katie King
Published by Summersdale
About a year and a half ago, Laura pitched an idea to me that seemed quite silly at the time. Her idea was that I would join her to co-author a book about triathlon. A book that would tell Laura’s story our how she went from a non-swimmer to completing an iron-distance triathlon, and that would provide practical advice to people starting out in the sport. I suppose it seemed silly not because Laura would write it (she’s got form with this kind of thing) but because she asked me to join her. But I’m so pleased she did.

Like training for a marathon or ironman, the book took time, patience and a lot of hard work. We both like a challenge though and, just like training for a marathon or ironman, it was also made a lot of fun by having a good friend to share it all with along the way. We hope you’ll enjoy reading  Tricurious as much
as we enjoyed writing it.

Tricurious is officially out in March but we learned today that Amazon have started to send out the pre-ordered copies. This weekend, I’m joining Laura and her friends to run between some of her favourite pubs across London for her birthday. It’s another idea that I suspect will be accompanied by the clinking of glasses and a lot of laughter.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

It's now or next year

Wishing you a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. May lots of great things happen, whenever you choose to make them.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Summit to be proud of

“At midnight, we walk,” said our 70 year old guide, Fataeli, last Tuesday evening.

Over the course of 3 days, we had trekked with our leader and his team of guides and superhuman porters through lush rainforest, across moorland, and up to sparse alpine desert to reach an altitude of 4700 m above sea level and a hut where we could rest for 4 hours before the final ascent of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.

We had been given three main pieces of advice before we left days earlier: “Drink lots, apply sunscreen, and go slowly”. Dehydration can contribute to the effects of altitude sickness but, sticking rigidly to the first piece of advice, I was beginning to think someone was having a joke as altitude increased but vegetation cover and temperature decreased. A man of few words, Fataeli didn’t labour the point, he just pointed out suitable rocks and waited patiently as we disappeared to pee again.

Porters walk towards the Alpine desert as Kilimanjaro's Kibo peak lurks behind the clouds.

The idea to climb Kilimanjaro came from my friend, Hong, earlier this year. She’s one of those friends that gets out and does stuff. I like people like that. There’s nothing more flattering then when they ask you to join them; it makes you realise that they think you might be capable of doing it too. As my friend Laura says, “if you want to do something amazing, surround yourself with amazing people.” So when Hong asked me if I’d like to join her on this adventure, I jumped at the chance.

We left Kibo Hut at midnight in total darkness: 10 other inspiring people who say “yes” to things in life and a team of 6 talented local guides there to help make that happen. With over 300 ascents of Kibo peak to Fataeli’s name, a dodgy knee and laboured gait belied a wealth of experience, total respect from each and every guide on the mountain, and a steady pace that would maximise our chances of successfully reaching the summit. I tried to stay in line behind him, following his torch as he picked out the best route through the volcanic rocks.

Looking up the steep scree climb ahead, a zig-zag of head torches stretched above as far as I could see, making it difficult to tell where the mountain stopped and the stars began. Warned that this would be a mental challenge as much as physical, I opted to look instead at the feet of the person in front and just keep moving forwards. I counted 20 steps at a time and, when I reached the target without vomiting from the altitude, I grinned with triumph; when that became too difficult, I mumbled with each individual footstep, “I can... I can... I can..."

Fataeli’s pace continued like a train. Becoming dizzy and fatigued from the altitude, I could only take two steps forward, before slipping backwards one on the scree, or lurching precariously to the side as I lost my balance. I thought that coping with the mental challenge would be my strength, but when you feel sick as you walk, yet even sicker from cold when you stop, it started to feel like my stubborn streak had met its match and I began to fall behind. When I finally came to a standstill, wondering how I was going to carry on, I felt two hands clutch my shoulders and steady me. “Slowly slowly, take your breath,” came a voice, singing gently behind me. One of the guides, Augustin, had hung back to walk with me and didn’t leave my side again.

We reached Gilman’s Point, the summit of the Marangu route, at 5685 metres at about 6 o’clock in the morning. I flopped down onto a rock next to Fataeli and groaned; giggling, he handed me a cup of tea, nudged me in the ribs and pointed to the sun rising behind us, and then to Augustin who was encouraging me to stand up and push on for another 2 hours towards the Uhuru summit, the highest point in Africa. My stubborn streak might have been wavering but theirs certainly weren’t.

Yes we can,” said Augustin, seeing the look on my face, “Obama said that, and now so do we.” Maybe he’d heard my mumbling earlier, or maybe only this kind of positivity can survive above this altitude, but I liked his attitude and I stood up again.

Thawing slowly as the sun rose, we stopped every few minutes for me to catch my breath or drink water, while Augustin took photos on my camera. I normally prefer to hide behind the lens but he was keen to ensure that each moment was captured and, among some stunning landscape photographs, I acquired a fine collection of altitude-induced gurning shots that will allow me to relive the suffering more accurately than any description here could. “Even at our pace, the top is only 10 minutes away now,” he reassured me, taking me by the hand and leading me along the final climb to the rooftop of Africa at 5895 metres above sea level. He took a few more photos before asking, “you know how to ski, right?”; it seems that the descent down the volcanic scree slope of Kibo peak is actually more fun than the climb.

Scree descent back to Kibo Hut (Mawenzi peak in the background)

We met a lady in the airport on the way home wearing her Kilimanjaro souvenir t-shirt. She and her son had climbed the same route as us and summited on the same morning. When I asked how their climb had gone, she said she would display her Uhuru photo on the wall at home but would never tell the real story of how she made it there: how she was helped to the summit by her guide; how he carried her bag; how he held her hand; how he hugged her when she cried. I was saddened to hear this. Reaching the summit may have been my aim at first but the kindness, patience and persistence of a relative stranger made this challenge more memorable than any bragging rights.

We should appreciate the people around us that help make amazing things happen. Whether you watch their footsteps in front of you, or feel their hand on your back. Whether they nudge you in the ribs and point out a sunset, or hold your gloves and rucksack while you wee on a mountain. Whether they hand you a cup of tea when you feel rougher than you ever thought possible, or make you snort it out of your nose with laughter moments later. Whether they invite you on their adventures, or listen to your stories when you get back. As Laura says, “if you start hanging round with people who think that your dreams sound like a great way to spend your time, rather than those who question why you’d want to do such a thing, you’ll find those dreams become a reality a lot sooner.” The summit photo that I’ll hang on my wall at home has two people in it; I'm grateful for that and proud of the story why.

Kilimanjaro guide, Augustin, and me at Uhuru Peak, August 20th 2014

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The Bastion 2014: a long-haul triathlon

An aeroplane from Gatwick rumbles across a blue sky and the sun begins to fall behind me, casting a long shadow ahead on the trail. I look up at the plane and wonder where it’s off to, then down at the pair of unusually long legs created by the trick of the light; the shadow confirms they’re now moving at a mere shuffle. It’s 8.30pm and I’ve been running for nearly 5 hours.

It was an aeroplane flying over my hotel that woke me up at 4.30 this morning, not that I’d slept particularly soundly before that. My alarm bleeped shortly after, I forced down some muesli and coffee, and made my way to the start of The Bastion, a new ironman event from the Castle Triathlon Series at Hever Castle in Kent.

Iron-distance triathlons are a bit like long-haul flights: they make me very nervous before they start; you see a lot of people wearing compression socks throughout; and you only get to consume food in tiny portions. You also live in hope that you won’t need to go for a poo at any point during the process; if you do, there is likely to be a long queue for a very cramped toilet.

This was my second ironman, the first being an event that ran through the night last year; I was looking for a different challenge this time and the possibility of taking part in daylight was a bonus. Having tackled the hills of the half-iron version, The Gauntlet, at Hever last year too, no-one was more surprised than me when I signed up for what has been billed as one of the most challenging courses in the UK.

The 3.8 km swim took place beneath a drizzly sky in the early hours of Sunday morning; while posing no problem in the lake, the weather was causing a few anxious murmurs in the field about what this would mean for the bike course. My concerns lay less with what was falling from the sky and more with what lay ahead over the hills I’d be climbing.

Ashdown Forest summit
Taking in a total ascent of more than 2700 m over 180 km, I had questioned throughout my training whether I could actually finish the bike course within the time allowed. I promised to take it steady on the climbs, to keep fuelling, and to keep smiling. Within an hour or two, the clouds had cleared, drying the roads and making the descents an appealing change from the relentless peaks. With the sun high at midday, so too was the pollen count and the contents of my nose needed clearing all too frequently; I accepted that any weight loss must be helpful for climbing and continued to jettison snot rockets across the staggering countryside of Kent and East Sussex. Only when I made it to the top of Ashdown Forest, the highest point in the race, for the sixth time, did I start to believe that that cut-off time was within reach.

There’s a point in any flight when I look out of the window and think it’s all a bit too amazing that we’re still up in the sky. I know that the physics will explain how it’s happening but I prefer not to question it and I just have to believe that we’re going to stay up there. As I rolled into transition, there could be no doubt in my mind that I would finish the marathon ahead; not because my legs felt particularly fresh (they didn’t) or because marathon running is my strength (it isn't) but because I’d already completed something that I wasn’t really sure I could. Besides, if you let any doubts about finishing an ironman into your head, you’re likely to descend into a nosedive from which it is very difficult to regain control.

After stroopwafel #2
The key is to think of the run not as a marathon. So I started by thinking of it as 4 laps. Four beautiful, hilly, muddy, technical, off-road laps. At 7 km I reached a feed station with such an array of goodies I had to stop for a few minutes to consider carefully what I’d like. There, behind the plate of halved bananas and molten jelly babies, I spied an entire packet of Belgian stroopwafels and my eyes widened. These couldn’t be for us. This is the kind of thing that’s best kept on a very high shelf at home. “Help yourself!” announced the marshall. I prised away a biscuit from the top of the packet and scampered away merrily before anyone could stop me. Then it dawned on me that I would pass that aid station 3 more times. This was no longer a run of 4 laps, but an opportunity for 4 Belgian stroopwafels. I couldn’t be happier.

It’s approaching 9pm by the time I start my final lap; my hopes of finishing in daylight are dwindling so I grab my head torch and set off into the grounds of Hever Castle one last time. With light fading rapidly and a full moon glowing behind the clouds, I reset my goal to make it home before the planes stop flying over from Gatwick. There are no in-flight movies and I have to make my own entertainment: I sing as I run alone through cornfields; I chat to the lovely marshalls, who are still smiling after being there for hours; and finally, as I run down through the woods and another flight passes overhead, I stick out my arms and make aeroplane noises to join in. Rabbits, caught in the beam of my head torch, look unimpressed.

From the darkness, I hear the commentator spot my light and cheer me onto the runway towards the finish. There are high-fives from lovely boyfriend and my parents as I bank in for landing, and I’m allowed to run through the finishing tape, arms aloft, as if I’ve won the thing. A dedicated race organiser and his top notch crew are still there after a very long day, ready with hearty congratulations and a medal. The Bastion is no holiday but it truly is a first class event.

Back in my hotel room, waiting to drop off to sleep, another aeroplane rumbles overhead. A little smile creeps over my face: I’ve completed the toughest race I’ve ever tackled and I’ve beaten the planes. I’m also pleased I don’t live this close to an airport.

Thank you to Castle Triathlon Series for the race entry; The Bastion will be back on July 12th 2015, or they have lots of other stunning races to choose from throughout the year.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

An Irish blessing: Connemara Ultra Marathon 2014

May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.

According to the race briefing, little could go wrong with navigation,

“Run to the end of the road, turn right, run along this road and turn right. When you get to the end of that road, turn right. Turn right again. Then turn right. Which way do you go?”

“Left!” came the answer from the excited crowd in the race briefing at the Connemara Ultra Marathon.

Based in a remote national park on the west coast of Ireland, the event takes in a 39 mile loop, through the mountains and past the lakes of this beautiful area. Looking at the profile of the course, we were certain that the road would rise up, whether or not it would meet us was a different matter altogether; and, while the nature of the course would guarantee some easy navigation, it would be unable to guarantee that the wind would always be at our backs.

We were asked to stay on the transfer buses while they built the start line, rain lashing against the windows; moments later, the skies were clearing as we were running along an open road towards the mountains.

Source: Connemarathon

May the sun shine warm upon your face,
the rains fall soft upon your fields

Relaxing into a comfortable pace, I spent the first ten miles running with a changing group of characters - some old hands, some on their first ultra, all happy to chat about what the day might bring - and my two travel companions, Liz and Simon, stretched their legs further along the road ahead.

“Look! There’s blue sky in front of us!” I jubilated to a Belfast man staying in the same B&B as us. “We’re going over there, so we are,” he replied with a chuckle, pointing in the opposite direction towards clouds darker than the tarmac in front of us.

We took a right and headed into the national park with mountains for miles around: the Twelve Bens to the left, the Maumturks to the right, and the road undulating at their feet. I tried my weather forecasting skills once more and confidently told two men from Dublin that the day would remain bright and that the rain had left us alone; moments later, we were slapped around the face by a gust of wind that brought hailstones and a firm message that I was in no position to make these predictions. Runners who’d left supplies in the aid boxes picked up food as we passed the start of the marathon (and later, the half marathon) course, while a silent, bearded man in a marshal bib stopped regularly by the side of the road to hand out bottles from the boot of his car to keep us hydrated.

Buoyed with confidence at the 27 mile mark, realising I was now in “ultra” territory, I felt invincible and contemplated when I thought I would tackle a fifty-miler. A lady drew along side me, wearing unfathomably tiny shorts, and keen to tell me about her sore calves, her sore back, and her blisters, and about how desperate she was for the race to end. “And you?” she enquired. Unsure whether the polite response was one of mutual negativity, I simply offered, “my knickers are chafing a bit.” Solemn silence fell and I looked bashfully at my shoes, wondering if I’d shared too much. She broke the lull as she skipped on, “Well, I'm fine. I don’t wear any anyway.” I vowed to learn from this and offer details of a different sore bit when asked again in future.

Moments later, a head wind and a hill brought me to a near standstill; my hamstrings felt like they were pushing the world backwards under my feet and my hip flexors were having to drag my legs back like heavy sacks to have another go. Maybe the fifty wasn’t such a good idea after all. More messages from those mountains that they got to call the shots, not me. But just as the weariness set in, the sky cleared; the yellow grouse flowers seemed brighter, the sheep seemed happier, and the scenery opened up into the most beautiful yet. These mountains were far kinder than they appeared. So too was the silent, bearded man, who now drove up and down the road alongside us, smiling at us, cracking jokes and offering bottles from the window of his car.

and until we meet again,
may the hills hold you in the palms of their hands.

With less than 10 miles to go, Liz and I regrouped, both having emerged from our own dark places, and we trotted along together sharing hopes, fears, and a packet of ibuprofen. Occasionally, the wind would push so strongly at our backs that it picked us up and forced us to run faster than our aching legs were ready to. We mused over what had been promised at 36 miles - a hill known simply as the “Hell of the West” - and wondered just how bad it could be. A friend who’d run the marathon before had told me it wasn’t so much a big hill as a small mountain; each of the three race distances takes it in so that no-one feels left out and everyone finishes looking mildly stunned by its magnitude. We turned another right and saw a small yet completely exposed mountain pass stretching on for well over a mile in front of us. We marched up, taking the chance to eat the last of our food and trying carefully not to let the howling wind consume our remaining supplies. Some sheep leaning at 45o looked quizzically at us, their fleeces blown sideways into wooly comb-overs; I sensed they had questions for which we simply didn’t have the answers.

Shuffling over the top of the climb, a mile of leg-knotting downhill took us awkwardly yet eagerly to the finish line where we were met by hot soup, chairs, and the congratulations of a dedicated race organiser and his team. Liz and I looked at each other and grinned, stunned that we’d completed nearly 40 miles of brutal yet utterly beautiful running in 7 hours and 20 minutes. Simon finished shortly after with another huge smile. The wind had been at our backs, our fronts, our sides, and had occasionally sent weather straight up to slap us around the face.

Among the first-time Connemara runners like us were a loyal crowd of competitors that return year after year and I considered whether this would be an event I’d run again; while I’m still undecided, what I think keeps people coming back, other than a very well organised event, is the guarantee of a different experience every time, thanks to the unpredictable Irish weather. Would I recommend it? If you want to run a race lined with supporters, swamped in space blankets and goody bags daubed with flashy commercial sponsors then this is unlikely be the race for you; if you want to spend a day humbled by the majesty of Ireland’s scenery and the kindness of strangers, and to run through mountains that hold you in the palm of their hands like the tiny humans we are, then yes, you should definitely do Connemara. May the road rise up to meet you.
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