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.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

"Can't do" won't do

"She'll never be a rower as long as there's a hole in her backside." This charming sentiment came from a "coach" when I was 17, clearly underwhelmed by my aptitude for the sport. Around the same time, the Head of Chemistry at my sixth form college warned me, "I think you're in over your head", about my university application ambitions. A year later, I rowed for that university in a crew that overturned a 10-year losing streak. Perhaps I was in over my head but I was there and, thankfully, everything was as it should be under my shorts.

My mum jokes that the worst thing anyone can tell me is that I can't do something. Like telling somebody NOT TO TOUCH THE RED BUTTON, I set my mind about proving them wrong: pushing that button, setting the alarms off, regardless of the consequences. Surfer Layne Beachely said, "there are so many people out there who will tell you that you can't. What you've got to do is turn around and say, "watch me"." Until fairly recently, I thought this was all true.

If I had believed those two men in my teens, I would never have met my friend, Acer: a much-missed mate who passed away a year ago today. In the eulogy at his memorial, among the awe-inspiring list of his accomplishments, ran a theme of achievements that many people would have dismissed as impossible: a top first at Oxford, boat race victories, an Olympic medal, marathons and an ironman, repeatedly beating the doctors' prognoses with his indomitable spirit and determination. He was not a man who said "watch me" but a man who said "I can", and his intelligence, talent and dedication normally meant that he did. I'm proud to call Acer a friend, not just for what he achieved in his life, but also for the dignity, humility and wisdom that shone throughout.

For a long time I looked back at what those two men said and thought about how I'd stuck two fingers up to them, like a belligerent underdog at the end of their own Mighty Ducks montage; however, over time, I've started to think differently. I have never seen either of them again; I doubt they would remember what they said let alone who I was, even if I ran up to them pointing at my backside shouting, “Look! It’s still there!” I imagine they wouldn't have thought about the dangerous seeds of doubt that they planted, making me wonder if they were right; luckily for me, the small part of me that believed them was eclipsed by the enormous desire to do it anyway. They said what they said with no understanding of how much I wanted it and I doubt they'd have given another thought as to whether they were right or not. Fortunately, they underestimated more than just my ability.

When they said "can't", it didn't matter a jot if they watched me prove them wrong or not; it does matter a lot that their careless words could have created a very different outcome. Underestimation can be a dangerous game and it's better to avoid it at all costs. If I underestimate the young people I work with, sometimes they overwhelm me with expectations exceeded, but the consequences can be far worse if they believe me. Underestimate the January jogger, out wearing something resembling their pyjamas to run, thinking they'll never last the month, and you might be right; or, give them six months and they might be giving you a run for your money at the local 10K. Underestimate yourself and you run the risk of never finding out quite what you can do. “Never underestimate anyone” is a little reminder I offer myself on a pretty regular basis.

Among my plans for this year, I've entered three races that push me far out of my comfort zone: Connemara Ultra, The Bastion, and Snowdonia Marathon. There is a big fat "can't" looming under every one of the hills on the courses that, some might say, leave me in over my head with questions about the anatomy of my back passage. I don't care if they're watching though; I just have to make sure that the will to achieve my goals is greater than any part of me believing them.

In memory of Acer Nethercott (28 November 1977 – 26 January 2013)

Friday, 3 January 2014

Those health muffins

"Guess what's in them! Guess what's in them! You'll never guess what's in them!"

This fun guessing game was how these muffins were first presented to me as I walked in through the door from work.

"Those health muffins"

They contain a curious ingredient: butternut squash. Yep, that funny looking vegetable you pick up at the supermarket and snigger at. Don't deny it. We all do it. Amazingly, it adds a bit of sweetness and moisture to the mix; a dose of Vitamin A to help you see the potholes on those dark, winter runs; and plenty of dietary fibre to keep your colon moving like a marching band.

The original recipe is this one by Jamie Oliver; with a bit of trial and error, I've replaced the sugar with dried fruit. The spelt flour and milled seed mix gives a nice nutty taste but you could follow the original recipe with 300g of plain flour (or gluten free rice/potato flour). I didn't ice these like Mr Oliver suggests but I think a bit of peanut butter works well instead.

Cake won't make you thin (thank goodness for that) but occasionally it's nice to make something that gives back a bit more than it takes. Known in my household as "those health muffins", the recipe for these cakes took a bit of getting my head around at first: I believe in the principle that if the mix tastes good then the cake will too. In reality, this recipe's healthiness stems mostly from the fact that I have no interest whatsoever in eating this mixture in its ore form - when you make it, you'll see why.

The mixture doesn't rise much so you can afford to be generous when adding it to the tins. If you want to make 12 mega-muffins, you may want to try these tall muffin cases (made from 15cm squares of greaseproof paper shoved into the wells of a muffin tin, or available pre-made and much prettier from Waitrose, I think), unless you fancy cleaning a volcanic muffin eruption from the bottom of your oven. Failing that, I reckon the mix would stretch to 18-24 smaller cakes, baked for slightly less time. Once cooled, the muffins can be frozen, or they'll last a few days in an airtight container (less if you store them in your belly instead).

Monday, 30 December 2013

Last post

But what if I come last?” I was asked, over coffee, earlier this year.

At the start of the year, I set out some goals for becoming a better runner. I achieved almost all of my goals: I ran happy, I talked to other runners, I thanked marshals, I marshaled. I also tried to persuade some colleagues to enter a couple of events this year; however, despite some initial interest, there wasn't much take up. Various reasons were given, all fair enough; you can’t make someone do something they don't want to do. One question stood out among all the responses: What if I come last?  

What if?

This summer, my friend sent me a link to a tweet from a fitness professional with this motivational tidbit to stop us losing any sleep over this nagging doubt:

 
Did that help you? No, I didn’t think so either.

Luckily, this year, I found out the answer to the question a different way: I finished last in a race.

It wasn't easy but this is how I did it:

1. I entered a race that scared the bejesus out of me;
2. I made a promise to a friend, sadly too late for him to hear, that I would finish that race;
3. I started this race at 6.15pm, in the full knowledge that I would still be racing while others slept, and when they woke again in the morning;
4. I swam 2.4 miles in a lake with a thunderstorm looming overhead;
5. I cycled 112 miles on a 20-lap course, along a dual carriageway, through rain, thunder and lightning;
6. I had a maniacally enthusiastic cheering squad, who stood on a roundabout, in the rain, holding up signs, placating angry motorists, eating chips, guest tweeting, and helping other competitors with mechanical problems so that they could continue with their race;
7. I mended two punctures so that I could keep going – one at midnight, one at 2am – both in the pouring rain;
8. It rained so hard, I actually did a wee while riding my bike (taking care to remove my bottle first from the frame below);
9. I got off my bike and started running a marathon at 3.30 am (it had finally stopped raining by this point);
10. I was never more happy to start running a marathon (even one that took place on an 8-lap course around an industrial estate);
11. I fell asleep on my feet momentarily while running that marathon, only waking myself with the thud of my own footfall;
12. I smiled and chatted to the other competitors and marshals still out there on that marathon course; this included a competitor who, after he finished, drove around the run course to find me before he left, to tell me to enjoy the rest of my race;
13. I ran every step, even when my one remaining supporter was able to walk faster than me, carrying a rucksack and a deckchair;
14. I ran past the finish line 7 times before I was actually allowed to finish;
15. At 10 am, I finished, smiling, well over an hour before the race cut off;
16. I got a handshake on the finish from the kindest, most dedicated race organiser I've ever met; he later sent me an email telling me that I was a “true ironlady”;
17. I received an amazing card in the post from one of my enthusiastic roundabout supporters, re-iterating this sentiment;
18. In a field of 65 entrants, 29 of us finished. I was 29th;
19. In a field of 5 women, 4 finished. I was 4th;
20. I kept the promise to my friend.

Card by Laura
In 2013, I completed my first ironman and I came last. I didn’t intend to be last. I set out to finish
and finish I did. The thing is, I learned more about myself, my patience, resilience, and determination, by coming last in that race than in any other event where I’ve placed midfield, top 10, or even won.

Finishing last in a race is not something that should put anyone off. Perhaps it would do us all some good to experience it at least once.

I have entered another ironman for 2014: The Bastion at Hever Castle. I completed the half-iron distance, The Gauntlet, in September this year, so I know how tough this race is going to be for me. I'm looking forward to the challenge ahead. I don't go into this race intending to be last but there is every possibility that it will happen.  

What if I come last?

If it’s the difference between doing something and not, I would rather take last any day.  

Wishing you a happy and successful 2014!

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Running away

Let’s go to Amsterdam!” announced my friend after one too many glasses of wine, “we can run the marathon!” Over the years, I’d received almost as many copies of that magazine from London Marathon as I’d had drinks that evening and it wasn’t difficult to persuade me. What started as an opportunity to spend time with friends on a jolly weekend away soon became a bit of a habit and we organised several trips that would take in a bit of running too.

In a break from usual form, I ran two UK marathons earlier this year, so running Frankfurt marathon with Jen, Laura and Liz last weekend was an exciting return to normal proceedings and an opportunity to combine 3 of my favourite things: time with friends, sport, and a holiday. If you fancy a bit of race tourism yourself, here are one or two things I’ve learned along the way.  

Packing for a race away is much like packing for a race at home, just with a weight restriction and the possibility of being frisked. There are some essential things to consider when travelling to pastures new though. For example, remembering to pack your trainers (and, if applicable, your sports bra) in your hand luggage: they are the things you won't want to be replacing at the Expo when your hold luggage ends up on a flight to Svalbard. You could, of course, wear them to travel, just remember to pack some spares: it is generally considered poor form to board a return flight the morning after your marathon smelling like a buzzard's burp. Offending trainers should be hermetically sealed, or at least double-bagged in Sainsbury's carriers, and buried at the bottom of your suitcase; if you can convince a friendly member of cabin crew to dangle them from the wings, even better.

As the saying goes: when in Rome, do as the Romans do. That is unless the particular energy drink brand at that marathon gives you a squirty stomach and untrustworthy farts. Just as in any marathon, you're advised to fuel up on what you're used to in training; the same, quite miraculously, is true when you race elsewhere too, so take your race supplies with you. If you’re taking hand luggage only then remember that your gels will form part of your liquid allowance; it's up to you whether you prioritise them over your shampoo. Race day breakfast is another important consideration: I’m a big fan of muesli and yoghurt, not just because I know I can digest it, but also because it’s reasonably easy to translate in supermarkets across the world.

If you’d like a supporter to join you on your marathon adventure, remember to be honest. I heard a celebrity chef on the radio last week, laughing about how he lied to his wife so that she’d come along to his races abroad. The fact that he got away with it only leads me to assume she was growing bored of his fancy nosh and was relieved to have an evening eating a plateful of flaccid macaroni as she joined him in carb-loading the night before his race. You’re better off just coming clean: this is not going to be a way of treating your non-running partner to a romantic city break in a glamorous European destination (not unless a long walk to a conference centre, where you’ll queue to collect a number and dither over buying some self-tying shoe laces and the latest anti-chafing runners' lubricant, is what gets them in the mood). If your partner does come along to support, be decent enough to flash them a smile whenever you see them on the course, no matter how much you're wishing you'd Vaseline'd wherever you didn't remember to Vaseline, and make sure you take them out for a proper meal afterwards to say thank you. Whether or not you choose to show them your chafed bits afterwards is entirely your decision.

My German wasn’t up to asking, “excuse me, Sir, but why are you weeing on my leg?when I ran Berlin marathon; lucky, really, that the perpetrator was British. It would be churlish to assume everyone speaks English though so, as a minimum, I do try to make sure I know how to say “thank you” to the marshals and volunteers in their language. Jay went one step further here and provided some handy race day phrases for any Paris marathon runners earlier this year; I sincerely hope he’ll be expanding this to other languages soon. Over the course of 26.2 miles, you can expect to hear all sorts shouted at you by supporters along the route: “Heia heia!”, “Lauf lauf!”, “Allez allez!” all generally mean, “keep running, you fruit loops!” The most difficult interpretation, however, can come from the pronunciation of the name written on your running shirt: “Yah Katty!”, “Yeh Ketty!”, and “Wooooooo Kezzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzneeeeeeeeeee!”, have all been shouted in valid attempts to pronounce my name overseas, and I was genuinely grateful for each and every one of them.

When the race is done, it’s important to remember that the local population’s interest in your marathon will wane as soon as the roads reopen. If you’re lucky, the staff at the restaurant and bar will humour you as you lower yourself gingerly into a chair for the evening with a medal around your neck, but don’t expect the same treatment from the airport staff the day after. There is always someone still wearing their medal in the departure lounge but no-one will think you’re a hero if you set off the security gate by waddling through wearing it and squealing, “Oh, this old thing!” Pack it into your hand luggage instead and, you never know, it might distract the supervisor from his cup of coffee long enough to trigger a bag search: you can then assume the podium position, hands aloft like the champion you are, as you're unceremoniously patted down.

Finally, if you're travelling abroad for a marathon, be prepared to accept that your race is not necessarily your priority. While PBs are certainly not out of the question, flying to another country and staying in unfamiliar surroundings may not be the perfect preparation; yes, the pros do it but I'm sure they'd equally like to spend the evening at home in their own bed before a big race too. Instead, accept your adventure for what it is, be that an opportunity to explore a new city, to spend time with the friends you don't see often enough, or simply to learn another new way of pronouncing your name. Run well but remember to have fun.

So, where are you planning to race next?



Sunday, 13 October 2013

A month of three halves

I do love a half. Just like beer, it's enough to build up an appetite, but you can have one and still be able to drive home. Alternatively, you can sample several and be a little bit squiffy at the end of it all. The latter is the approach I took this September with my race calendar: a month of three halves.


Run to the Beat Half Marathon - September 8th 2013

Billed as “London’s Music Half Marathon”, I wondered why so many people were lining up at the start of this year’s Run to the Beat with their earphones in. Perhaps it’s because the music came in the form of the occasional over-excited DJ bobbing his head in a caravan, interspersed with someone’s latest “Now” compilation CD playing out over a speaker by the side of the road.

I was there as a guest of Sophie and in no position to complain about a free entry; however, for all the organisational mishaps, which have been widely criticised, I found the biggest problems came with the number of people listening to their own music, turning an event of mass participation into a masterclass in mass halfwittery. With all the stopping and swerving in the middle of the course, it was like a zombie apocalypse had come and they’d raided Dixons. This event could be greatly improved if more people simply left their earphones at home.

I managed a decent enough run, with a short rest at 4 miles to queue outside Woolwich Barracks, but the highlight my day had to be a visit to the Meantime Brewery pub in Greenwich after.

Henley Swim Half Marathon - September 15th 2013

Last year, we pulled out a few people with mild hypothermia,” said the organiser, casually, in the pre-race briefing. These are 11 words you don’t want to hear when you’re stood in a swimming costume, preparing to get in a 16°C lake.

In swimming, marathon distance is 10km, so this 5km paddle fitted the bill in my month of halves and I had opted to do this one without my wetsuit. Why? The guys at Henley Swim are organisers who know how to put on a good event and, after enjoying their Bridge to Bridge 14km swim in the summer, I was keen to give this local race a go. As with most of their events, a top 10 finish in your category will bag you a place at their popular flagship event, the Henley Classic, the following summer. In my line of sporting mediocrity, the best hope of success comes in the form of a tiny field; that’s why I found myself stepping into the chilly water with nothing but my cozzie, a grimace, and 2 other “traditional” ladies to contend with.

The half marathon was another great event from this small, streamlined set-up, with a fire pit, hot tub and bacon sandwiches to thaw us out after. Coming home with a shiny gold medal couldn’t be sniffed at either, even if it did take me until Tuesday to warm back up.

The Gauntlet Half Iron-distance Triathlon 2013 - September 29th 2013

Part of the popular series of European triathlons, The Gauntlet was a new addition to this year’s Hever Castle triathlon weekend and promised to be a good race if you liked castles and half iron-distance triathlons. I didn’t really see Hever Castle until about 6 hours into the race but, in the meantime, I’d had a nice swim followed by a lesson in being constantly overtaken.

Hilly bike courses aren't really my strong suit but this 90km one took us around many of Kent’s quaint and quirky place names: Chuck Hatch, Plummyfeather Lane, Brown Chamois Hill. That the last one was where a man in a Porsche Cayenne thought it would a sensible time to pull out of his driveway; a rare moment where I had gathered any speed during the day. There were many other points where I was moving so slowly that I genuinely wondered how I was able to remain upright on my bike. The half marathon run was no flatter, but it was fun and beautiful in equal measures.

Nearly 8 hours after lowering myself into the lake, a man dressed as Henry VIII handed me a medal and directed me towards the hospitality tent and barbeque. The Gauntlet was a well-organised and enjoyable event; in hindsight, this is probably a better race if you love hills but feel more ambivalent about castles. It definitely deserved a full pint afterwards.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Comic fatigue

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Thanks to the organiser and marshals of the Midnight Man triathlon; possibly one of the nicest iron distance race crews you're ever likely to meet!
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