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







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!

Friday, 26 July 2013

Small Pants

“I have a pair of pants in my drawer that are much too small for me,” you told me quietly, with that grin on your face.

Each morning, we would cycle the 5 miles out of town for an early morning rowing session on the Thames at Radley. This particular morning, we had been discussing the state of our training kit; mine was practically able to stand up by itself and in dire need of a wash.

“When I put these pants on, I think “Ooh, small pants” and I spend the day reminded of this. I know it’s time to do some washing then.”

We knew you from then on as Small Pants. It was a silly name for such a great man, really. You went on to achieve so much. No matter what you accomplised, you always remembered us, and you never minded us calling you that.

On those bike rides, we established our mutual love of cycling. Long after I stopped rowing, and even when rowing became your job, we talked bikes before boats. We laughed at the noises our student bikes made, both contraptions we’d owned since our early teens; we coveted and congratulated each other on the upgrades over the years since; we swapped stories of accidents, adventures and ambitions on two-wheels; we shared an aspiration to complete an ironman.

You took on Ironman Nice on the hottest day of 2009. One third of the way into the bike course and halfway up the biggest climb of the day, your chain snapped. With the nearest race mechanic 10km away at the top of the next pass, they told you to DNF. Instead, you jogged until someone loaned you a tool to rejoin the chain and completed the remaining 100km on a fraction of the gears you started with. All this before running a marathon. You took this photograph of yourself at the start of the day and posted it in your Facebook album from the event; I keep it by my computer at work and cherish the caption as much as the picture itself.

"Day 3: Happy! (Whatever may be in store for me today, at least I'm not stuck behind a desk in an air-conditioned office under artificial light in front of a computer screen...)" Acer Nethercott

The day I heard the news that you were ill, I rode my bike. I rode my bike and I thought of you. I rode my bike and I worried about you. I rode my bike and I questioned why you hadn’t told us. I rode my bike and I got angry. I rode my bike until I came to the conclusion that you’d tell us directly if things were that bad. I told myself that everything would be OK; you would tell us if it wasn’t. That conversation never happened.

The fact that you kept your illness such a secret has been one of the hardest parts of grieving for you. Feelings of shock and loss, all mixed up with doubts and worries. Only after you passed away did I even begin to comprehend the privacy with which you dealt with all of it. The memories in so many of the messages left in tribute are so completely consistent with how I remember you - funny, generous, inclusive, kind, relentlessly optimistic - that I learned rationalise your choice as simply, "You just wanted us all to remember you". That’s what I will continue to do.

Tomorrow evening, I am starting what will be my longest race ever. I am utterly terrified. I am terrified that I’m unprepared. I’m terrified that I am out of my depth. I am terrified that my body won’t cope and that I won’t finish.

But I will do my very best and I will remember you throughout. I will remember how you faced your fears. I will remember how you conquered difficulties. I will remember that, when life gives you tiny pants, you put them on, smile, and remember to do some bloody washing.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Hashta la vista

I woke up early this morning, face down, wearing the t-shirt I ran in last night. My tongue was stuck to the roof of my mouth and my fingernails painted in four different colours. That must have been some run.

"I've got the data from our run last night" @lazygirlrunning
When Laura declared her intention to become a triathlete last year, we scratched out a deal for an exchange: I’d accompany her open water swimming in return for an invitation to one of her hash runs.

Based out of a local pub, Hash House Harriers seem to use running as a convenient method of building up a thirst for beer; ahead of the run, a “hare” lays a chalk trail for the pack to follow, shouting calls of “On on!” to indicate when the next marking has been found.

Having survived swimming around a lake in a gale in May, Laura felt she needed to go one better than just an “ordinary” hash run and invited me along to the City Hash’s annual “Last Pac-Man Standing” event in London last night.

I hadn’t felt this nervous walking into a pub since my rather competitive older brother signed me up as his dance partner for salsa lessons. I hoped this evening would end better than that did. A group of around 100 hashers in Pac-Man t-shirts were soon herded out on to the pavement and a series of questions were barked at us by the hare in charge,

“Do you know what we’re doing?”
“NO!” answered the masses.

“Do you know the rules?”
“NO!” I joined in this time.

“Did you read the instructions on the website?”
“NO!” we chorused one last time.

Pac-Mans each get a beer token. Four beer stops are located at undisclosed locations around central London. Pac-Mans run wild around London until they find beer. Pac-Mans swap beer token for beer. Pac-Mans drink beer. One of Pac-Man's fingernails gets painted to stop him returning to the same beer stop. More beer tokens are available from a man with a bag somewhere in Trafalgar Square. Pac-Mans run wild around London until they find another beer stop. Pac-Mans swap beer token for beer. Pac-Mans drink beer. And so it goes on. No boundaries. No clues. Just look out for several people dressed as ghosts who will chase you down the street and ruthlessly steal your beer tokens.

“What noise does Pac-Man make?”
“WACCA WACCA WACCA!” came the answer.

 “On on!” the hare shouted and we were off.

A stranger in London, I follow Laura across Leicester Square, trying to keep up as best I can. Among the usual crowds of people enjoying a warm, summer evening, we spot one of our gang with a cup. “On on!” shouts Laura and several hashers follow us.

We eventually find two people hidden in Whitehall Gardens with a flask containing some concoction: grapefruit-based, undisclosed spirit mixed in. Refreshed, we wind our way back up to Trafalgar Square to recharge our tokens and sniff out the next stop.

“Ghost!” Laura yells and we find ourselves belting up The Strand. Even my most determined sprint isn’t enough to escape the tenacious ghoul and he steals my beer token. Back to Trafalgar Square we go again, shouting, sprinting, stopping occasionally to recover from a fit of the giggles.

I'm wondering if, perhaps, the secret to running quicker might be to train with a man dressed as a ghost going “Whoooooooo!” behind me.

There is such as a thing as too much fun though and Hashers should be careful on a run. Misdemeanours of any kind are noted and used against you back at the pub when the run is complete. It looks like I've chosen the right night to try my first hash: the “virgins” are spared and only the more established hashers seemed to be penalised in the “down-downs” tonight. Instead, I'm simply left to enjoy an evening playing, chatting, and belly-laughing in London.

Thanks very much to Laura and the City Hash House Harriers for my first introduction to hashing.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Saddle up!

"Winter miles make summer smiles," say cyclists through the bleakest months of the year. When our winter seems to last 10 months, that's easier said than done though; I know I was pretty late to the pedal party this year. July is here now and, with the Tour de France on and temperature's rising, there's no better time to be venturing out on two wheels and giving yourself a break from the hot, sticky run sessions. The Ride London 100 is just around the corner and I know a few runners taking up the challenge. The distance seems to be something on the minds of many so here are my tips* for upping your mileage in training:

*Disclaimer: as ever, my training tips are generally based on loose anecdotal evidence and learning from minor calamities. Expecting any physiological benefits by following them is optimistic to say the least.

Dress up

Being comfortable with the uncomfortable is something runners are generally accustomed to; however, on a bike, there are parts of the body that should never have to learn this. So prioritise the comfort and condition of your bike-lady interface with a proper pair of cycling shorts. They might feel uncomfortable off the bike, but spend more than 2 hours in the saddle without them and you'll need more than a puncture repair kit to sort out your flat tyre. On the top, a cycling jersey with a couple of pockets in the back will allow you to carry essentials such as a map, food, phone, money and spare inner tube. Head over to Lazy Girl Running to read more about the joys of cycling shorts and remember: it never pays to be a chamois dodger.

Buddy up

I've never liked the phrase “misery loves company”; however, I do believe that “mileage loves company”. Cyclists hunts in packs, largely because the wind is our worst enemy and any shelter given by the rider in front can be sweet relief from a relentless breeze. Cycling with company has many other benefits too, not least someone to hold on to your bike while you go for a wee behind a hedge.

If you're feeling really keen, contact a local club and ask to join them on a club ride. Group riding is a great skill to learn, not to mention way more fun, and some clubs will offer a beginners' ride with a leader to take care of the navigating. Cycling with cyclists is a great way to improve bike handling, up your mileage, and generally soak up the sport by osmosis.

Fuel up

Just like a long run, nutrition is something to consider carefully on a long bike ride. Cycling has a distinct advantage over running though: the ability to eat solids. Fig rolls, the well-known food of all sporting champions, make excellent bitesize snacks that you can easily retrieve from your jersey pocket. Just be careful not to start munching at the bottom of an incline or you may never breathe again.

If you're heading out for a long day, why not take in a café stop? The elite may frown upon this but it's not cheating if it means you ride for longer than without; I would certainly never judge anyone stopping for a coffee and you can log some valuable Chamois Time in the process. 

Move up

Make the most of a long bike ride by thinking of it as an adventure; anything that takes you away from your usual routes can be considered such and I like to find opportunities to cycle somewhere new. A holiday with your bike is a fairly committed way of doing this: my friend cycled from vineyard to vineyard in France as part of her ironman training last summer, which struck me as an excellent interpretation of the training/life balance. A weekend away closer to home can also be an opportunity to explore new roads. You could take this one step further and even consider cycling there. I've arrived at hen weekends by bike, carrying a dress and a toothbrush in my little rucksack; this does take some level of understanding on the part of the bride-to-be, and friends who are prepared to share their willy straws with you, so choose your occasion wisely.

Burn it up

Bike rides don't always have to be long. Just like running, a short, fast session has its own benefits and many believe that, in cycling, this may outweigh the benefits of really long, slow bike rides; I have no physiological data to back this up, of course, but I do know that a fast 15 mile bike ride is much easier to fit into a working week. Save the long rides for trying out new cafés with friends at the weekend and clocking up the Chamois Time.

I'd love to hear how your training is going so please feel free to leave your own tips in the comments. Stay safe out there and enjoy your cycling.

Friday, 28 June 2013

Win, loos or draw

There are many lessons to be learned as a runner; some of the more pressing ones involve matters of a more personal nature.

We tolerate the lack of loo roll, blue chemicals, and stinky mist of a portaloo purely because we've learned, "if you think you need a wee before the race, you definitely need a wee before the race". You only need to be caught short on a once on a long run before your bowels become as important as your sports bra in the pre-run priority list.

Fewer things can distract a runner's attention more in a race than the imminence of a slightly nerve-wracking fart. On the other hand, fewer things tickle me more than an appropriately timed air biscuit. Frankly, if you're not amused by the occasional trump, I'm not sure we can be friends.

So, when Write this Run challenged us to write a blog post about funny, terrible or embarrassing race experiences, there was really one direction I could take this: down the pan.

Please enjoy my top 5 toilet-related race experiences (or not, if you're eating your tea): a game of Top Trumps, if you will.

5. I can't say I understand, but I can't help but admire those souls who run races dressed as giant African land mammals. If this is your cup of tea, don't forget to think through the details.

My overriding memory from the Great North Run was watching a lady in a 10 foot giraffe costume trying to negotiate her way into a portaloo.

I know that she made it into the cubicle but I'll never know if she made it back out.
4. When a friend sent me this fantastic blog post, "20 type of athlete you'll see at an ironman race", after last year's Challenge Vichy triathlon, I was able to report that all characters were indeed present and correct.

There was one clown missing from the list though: I like to call him "man squatting on run course trying not to get poo on his compression socks".

I may have struggled to run in 40oC heat that day but, in dark times, it's important to remember that there is always someone having a worse race than you.
3. I no longer run with an iPod. There are various reasons for this: wanting to experience a run/race; race organisers banning them from marathons; not wanting to be one of those swerving dervishes cutting people up at a mass start.

Superseding them all, however, was the moment I found myself around mile 9 of the Wokingham half marathon on a very quiet piece of road, running stride for stride next to a fellow competitor, and no-one else around us. With a PB in sight, I focused on the rhythm of the music in my ears and started to push the pace to ease past him.

Then I farted so loud, I heard it over my headphones. I got the PB though.
2. Counting lengths at the swimming baths is a tricky business in itself, never mind when you're racing.

At my first triathlon, I was reassured to be told in the race briefing, "don't worry if you lose count, when you have swum 28 lengths, someone will put a big number 2 in the water".

Luckily, it was just a laminated sign with a numeral on it; I kept my mouth closed in the shallow end just in case.
1. "You were my tailwind and are all record breaking runners, too!" said Haile Gebrselassie after he set a new world record at Berlin Marathon in 2007. I shared the road with the great man that day but it wasn't the tailwind I could feel while waiting in the start pen.

Packed into the crowd, I realised a warm sensation spreading down the back of my legs. Was it the collective tingle of nervous anticipation? No, it was the tepid sprinkle of a man's urination. On foreign soil and not knowing enough German to scold the perpetrator, I used my best international frown and shrug to ask him what he thought he was up to. He looked me in the eye and said in a London accent, "What's your problem? You'll have a shower at the end."

My race didn't go to plan that day but, in dark times, there are rare occasions when it's OK to hope that someone is having a worse race than you.

If you're racing this weekend - good luck! Feel free to leave your Win, Loos or Draw scores in the comments.

Monday, 24 June 2013

Plan to race, race to plan

My job relies hugely on planning; without it, the young, impressionable humans in my care would just join me on long runs in between games of sleeping lions and snacking on cashew nuts. Then I would be sacked because children need to learn things and some of them are allergic to nuts. Planning outside work is something I seem to have lost my appetite for though.

I used to follow a plan meticulously in the run up to a marathon and panic when I missed a session; more recently, I’ve set out a looser idea of how to build up the mileage sensibly and used it as a guide around which to enjoy the sessions that most take my fancy. Both approaches have their merits and both their pitfalls. Then, of course, sometimes I do neither.

Plans on race day have become similarly casual. The last marathon I did was mapped out something like this: 1) go for a poo before the start; 2) maintain forwards motion, no matter how difficult it gets; 3) finish. 

My hunch is that the lack of training plan and lack of race plan might be linked.

Last year, Laura, someone I look up to for her ability to make things happen, told me about her latest mission: to take on the triathlon world, combating its expense one cheeky e-mail at a time. Her latest success had come in the form of two entries to the Marlow Olympic triathlon and she was kindly offering me one of them. With nothing else in the calendar at that stage, beyond term dates and birthdays, I gratefully accepted and vowed to plan other events around it.

Triathlon isn't something I have any particular aptitude for; I just happen to love the three sports. I am lucky enough to have been through a swimming club as a kid when I could have been causing mayhem instead, and I take unbridled enjoyment from riding my bike down hills at speed; anything beyond that comes down to guesswork, sheer bloody-mindedness and an acceptance that I won't be setting any records on the run. I completed an ironboy last weekend so it would have seemed quite natural to stick to my usual race anti-plan yesterday and trundle around chatting. Instead, for the first time in a long time, and inspired by Laura's determination, I scratched out a race plan on the beermat in my mind: 1) swim like hell; 2) cycle like hell; 3) the run will just have to happen somehow.

How did it pan out? Despite missing the front of the wave while I was having the longest tinkle known to humanity in my wetsuit, I had one of the best swims I've had for months, catching the men's wave in front and leaving the water 5th in a field of about 35 women. Lovely boyfriend loaned me his smokin' hot wheels for the cycle and taking the pressure off the run meant that I had the confidence to push on without worrying about maintaining reserves. And the run just had to happen somehow. It might seem strange to only 'race' part of the event but I beat my overall time from the 2011 event by 22 minutes. Maybe a ⅔ race plan isn't as silly as it sounds.

I do have another triathlon in the calendar this summer for which the plan remains simply to maintain forward motion, no matter how difficult it gets, and finish. I'll probably try to go for a poo before hand too. 

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Low profile

Last Sunday, I ran the Cockenzie Power Station Marathon of East Lothian.

Never heard of it?

That's down to an outstanding piece of marketing that rebrands it with the somewhat less catchy title, Edinburgh Marathon.

The Edinburgh Marathon medal, modelled on one of the course landmarks (*EMF stands for Edinburgh Might Feature)

It's not just the name that draws a loyal crowd of marathon disciples; there is also the promise of that down hill course. To me, this claim conjured images of the masses gambolling down a hill of precisely 26.2 miles long with such speed that a moat of custard and a giant inflatable wall would be needed to slow us sufficiently to hang a medal around our necks at the finish. In reality, the race starts on a small hill that sends you trotting down to the foot of Arthur's Seat within the first 15 minutes, before whisking you out of Edinburgh for the rest of the event. The remainder of the course is relatively flat, well-organised, congestion-free, and certainly sets a tempting bait for the PB hunter-gatherers out there, if not the tourists nor those with a short attention span.

I spent a year living in Edinburgh about a decade ago and love any excuse to return, particularly as a great friend now lives there with her young family and a visit was long overdue. Buoyed by a year of training progress and fuelled by the frustration of a truncated A-race, I completed my entry form last September, also mindful that the yearly subscription to "Hey, Loser!" was due any day and entries to the "other" spring marathons would fill shortly after. I don't remember what I put down as an estimated finish time but, judging by the location of my start pen and the sinewy hamstrings of the athletes surrounding me on that hill on Sunday, I'd say I'd been a bit optimistic. Just 4 weeks earlier, I'd run Manchester Marathon and I was certainly not in PB form so I scurried back up the hill and nestled myself back into more comfortable obscurity to start the run.

Packing my bag for the marathon the night before, it occurred to me that things all seemed much more straightforward than normal. "Just pack the stuff you wore at the last marathon," I thought. I wondered if perhaps one of the biggest difficulties with running marathons is simply that we just don't run them often enough. This lower key approach to preparing for a marathon was certainly proving better for the nerves the night before. It's funny how you actually need to start running before you remember some of the other familiar patterns that form around a run of 26.2 miles though:

edinburgh marathon

Luckily for me, the best-support-crew-ever-assembled-at-mile-20-of-a-marathon were there to take me out of My Dark Place and send me on my way to that beer and an 8th marathon medal. The majority of this marathon may have been low profile but seeing this little lot was a big highlight.

Thank you, Jenny and the support crew.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Trial and terror

I turned 33 last weekend. A youngster to some but old enough to be aware of a few changes: like having more patience but more prominent frown lines; like drinking less but taking up to 48 hours to get over a hangover; like shouldering the rising cost of participating in races but becoming less and less motivated by whether there's a medal at the end (unless it's longer than a marathon, in which case I fully expect a diamond-encrusted unicorn testicle hanging from a platinum rope chain).

"Robocake"- @lazygirlrunning
This month, I've ventured back into a sport I haven't competed in since my mid-20s: cycling time trials. Known in the cycling world as the "race of truth", time trials commonly form part of a stage race, where riders leave the shelter and tactics of the bunch to ride as hard as they can against the clock; except, that is, in the UK where a curious breed of cyclists make this an event in itself and chase courses around the country to improve on their PBs.

Time trialling bucks the trend in escalating race costs and you can enter an event for just £8.50: there's no memento but, instead, you trade in your number at the end for a hot cup of tea to enjoy as you make excuses for the day's performance with fellow competitors.

The PB-chasing means that many of the most popular races are held on flat, straight pieces of road and the presence of traffic is considered, by many, a bonus. In my 5 year absence, the slower courses have become so unpopular that it has become hard to find an event in our local area than doesn't take in a dual carriageway, and, this morning, I found myself preparing to race along the A40 Witney bypass. Waiting in a lay-by on a piece of carbon fibre as trucks rumbled past at 70 mph, I noticed an alarming difference in 33-year old me: I was utterly terrified.

"Is this worth it?" I thought, as the timer counted back from 10. A car surged past, much too close for comfort, as he reached 5.

"Go careful!", yelled lovely boyfriend, waiting to start a few minutes behind me.

3... 2... 1... Go!

Fifteen pedals strokes in, I was safely on my aerobars, breathing deeply and listening carefully for approaching traffic behind me.

2nd "women"
Funny things start to happen when you're racing, don't they? The harder my legs pushed, the more my fears were being replaced by the adrenaline surge of competition; a self-preserving respect of traffic was being accompanied by a childish urge to pretend I was racing on my own little motorbike. The halfway turn circled a roundabout and sent me back into a tailwind. A quick glimpse of my GPS showed 29 mph at one point: maybe not quite a motorbike, but a pretty nifty pizza delivery scooter.

I returned to the race HQ to find my ride had secured some unexpected silverware. In the interests of full disclosure, there were 3 women in the race: a podium place was guaranteed from the start, even if survival wasn't.

Of more interest to me than this, however, was that the winner was at least 15 years older than me and fear was most certainly not standing in her way. There is definitely hope for me yet.

 I don't think I'll be making a habit of riding along a dual carriageway every week. That doesn't mean I'm growing up though. I mean, seriously, how many real grown-ups get to dress up as a bicycle-riding robot on a Sunday morning?

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Flow writer

50 lovely bloggers, 12 inspiring speakers, and 2 wonder women: even 300+ words seems barely enough to do Sunday's Write This Run event justice. Instead, I've taken some of the day's nuggets and intepreted in them in only way I know how: a diagram.
 write this run flow chart

Thank you, Liz and Laura, for organising a truly brilliant day. 
You really do make good things happen.

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Stranger things have happened

"Hello," said a little voice, as we approached the 5 mile marker, "is this your first marathon?"

"No, it isn't, but is it yours?" I replied.

"Yes. I just want to finish it. I really hope I can."

"Me too." I sighed.

Four months have passed since setting out my manifesto for improving my running manners; approximately the same amount of time you're supposed to spend building up to a marathon. Except I didn't. I won't bore you with the reasons; you don't need to read that. What I did do, in a feat of will over reason, was go from zero to 19.4 miles over the course of a three-week training binge and turn up in Manchester last weekend with 3 main aims:

1. Finish with a smile,
2. Avoid, if possible, being trampled to a gory death by the 5 hour pace group,
3. Photobomb as many pictures as I could.

Up the road were blogging chums and running rockstars, Laura and Liz. The out-and-back sections early in the course provided reassurance that they were pacing it well for their respective targets and I felt proud watching them race purposefully past in the opposite direction. We may have only met once previously but we've followed each others training and racing electronically for some time within the online running community; the value of which they recognise to be so powerful that they've put their hearts, souls and technicolour compression socks into making the UK's first running bloggers' conference, Write this Run, happen next weekend.

Our paces matched comfortably so our conversation continued and I discovered that my new companion's name was Jill. Not because she told me but because she had the foresight to have it printed in huge silver text across her vest and because the loyal supporters of Manchester marathon were so happy to cheer. Over the course of the miles that followed, I learned that she was running her first marathon, aged 50, to raise money for a local cancer trust. She hadn't run previously but she had prepared methodically, overcoming injury, and was determined to finish the marathon. I grew instantly fond of her conviction, which glimmered from beneath her warm and modest demeanor. Neither of us had any reason to speed up or slow down so we continued on our way, step-by-step, together, towards the finish line.

Pushing through mile 19, Jill announced she was struggling and that she would need to slow for a while. I asked if she'd like me to stay with her and finish together. She took some convincing that I would be happy to do this but accepted the offer with a smile. Little did Jill know that I was in uncharted waters here: I had never run this far with another runner for company, let alone a stranger. In fact, I hadn't broken wind for nearly 3 hours, concerned my new running companion would think it rude. But what Jill had given me was a purpose to keep on running and a new target for this marathon.

Approaching the finish, we saw Jill's husband and 15-year old son; they couldn't have been more proud of her and rightly so. I feel I ought to issue a public apology at this stage; unaware who they were at first, I simply saw a camera phone and pulled out my best jazz hands, thinking momentarily of my own race aims from earlier in the day. If I spoiled a cherished family memory then I am genuinely sorry.

We upped the pace for a final sprint and finished together with arms aloft, grinning widely. She hugged me and thanked me for the support and I filled with pride for what she had achieved that day. Who knows why Jill chose me to start chatting to, but I will always remain glad that she did. There is every possibility that we'll never meet again, or maybe this funny little running world will ensure we do - either way, thank you, Jill, for letting me be part of your day.

With the completion of marathon number 7,  I believe I may have stumbled upon lesson number 5 for being a better runner: take genuine joy from other people's achievements, even if that means you have to stifle a fart for 21 miles.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Being a better runner

What is a good runner?

A fast one? A regular one? A lean one? A winning one? 

I've run for a long time without ever being what I consider a typically "good" runner; however, I've started to think that it all depends on how you define it. Amongst my regular goals for the year, one is to become a slightly "better" runner but probably not in the way I've thought about it until now. 

Here some simple aims and ideas for being a better runner in 2013:

A new year revolution
January can be a frustrating time of year if exercise is already embedded into your lifestyle. Many of us lucky enough to be in this position can be heard asking, “why wait til January?”, whilst TV advertising shifts from Brad Pitt wittering on about the inevitability of buying a perfume that would sell itself if poo were smeared on the bottle to a new year blitz of diet plans and anti-smoking campaigns across our screens. Instead of whining about it, let’s capitalise on this time of year. Already tired of hearing about new diets at work? Why not offer to join some colleagues on a little run? Encourage them to count miles rather than calories and give yourselves something new to talk about over the water cooler. So what if the gym and pool are full of new members on a January training binge? Don’t despair that your lucky treadmill is being used by someone walking in deck shoes, or bitch about them on Twitter; congratulate them instead. They’ve already done the hard bit and got out of the front door; with some friendly support, they may well continue to build on that. We all started somewhere and would do well to remember that.

Smile: it might happen
It takes 17 muscles to smile but 52 to roll your eyes and mutter as you plod away, feeling dismissed once again; this is something I will aim to remember in 2013 on the regular occasions when my runners’ nod goes unnoticed. Like Sheldon training Penny with chocolates, stick with it and encourage the behaviour you want to see more of. This year, I shall smile and nod regardless of reciprocity and hope that it catches on.

A race of two halves
I've heard it said that you should run the first half of a marathon with your head and the second half with your heart; this wisdom extends beyond a sensible pacing strategy and, whilst the first half of a race can be every runner for themselves, the second half offers an opportunity to be a better runner. Whatever the distance, as the field spreads out, lend some support to the person next to you: a word of encouragement as you pass another runner takes little extra energy from you but could make all the difference to someone questioning whether they can hold onto the chances of a PB. Likewise, be gracious if overtaken and offer a nod or raised eyebrow in return; this can be done, whether or not your teeth are gritted.

Marshall the troops
Fact: races don’t happen without awesome people who volunteer their time to organise and support the event. It’s time to say thank you. Literally. As you pass a marshall, thank them for marshalling. If you’re running full tilt, this may not always be possible but if we all thank one marshall* at each race, hopefully all go home feeling a bit more valued for giving up their Sunday morning. Likewise, an e-mail to thank the organiser will give both you and them that warm fuzzy glow that helps us keep going with this pastime. What could be better than that? Ah, yes, actually volunteering to marshall from time to time; something I plan to do this year in my quest to become a better runner.

*When I say, "thank one marshall", I’m hoping we’ll each choose a different one; otherwise, you know, we might make that marshall paranoid and not want to do it again.

How will you be a better runner in 2013?

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

2012 in tan lines

Happy New Year! 

Before getting too stuck into plans for this year, I thought a little summary of 2012 was in order. A combination of sun-seeking and race tourism made high mileages possible whilst training for the race formerly known as the race than dare not be named, so my summary of 2012 is brought to you through the medium of melanin (and minor abrasions).

Jantan Febtan
Martan Aprtan
Maytan JUNtan
JULtan AUGtan
SEPtan octtan
novtan DECtan
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