Freezing Cold Runnings

Uuuuuuuuugh, January training is the worst. I think I lost my sense of humour in the midst of its terribleness. Let’s review.

A break in routine is a predictable disaster for anyone lacking in natural athleticism. And what I lack in athleticism, I lack in spades and spades. With a break from formal training, I crumbled quicker than mama’s New Year’s Day pie. (Chicken and leek, and v. yum.)

There were no organised sessions for two whole weeks over the holiday season, but you know what there was plenty of? Food. I ate so much food, I started turning it down – an unprecedented call. On the Wednesday after Christmas, I reluctantly went out for my traditional Worst Run of the Year™ and dragged my unwilling feet around a solid six miles before seeking solace in more food, more food, all the food… because it was an awful run, the likes of which I have not experienced since, oh yeah, exactly this time last year.

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New Year’s Day quarter marathon, an error in judgment. 

The thing is, I know that I can’t be running the worst I’ve ever run straight off the back of a string of PBs. I know that rationally. But whenever the momentum shifts in the wrong direction, it’s hard to adjust to. It’s hard to hold onto motivation and fight the tide.

The first session back wasn’t too bad. But the following week, when we returned to the athletics track, the temperature seemed to plummet and the timed reps came back to hit us. In the face. With an anvil. I mean, a 1000m rep at the start and the end? Really? These are not the reps we are looking for. Mentally, it’s as tough a session as I can ever remember getting on the track. I can do 1000m reps (sometimes), but when the longest rep is at the end, it looms over you, casting a dark cloud over even the merciful 400 metres. They call it the scorpion. Sting in the tail.

A week later, we’re back to hills, which – and it should tell you everything you need to know when I say this – now seems like the soft option.

Do I want to spend my evening running up and down a hill, with each run a lamppost further? No, I do not. Ideally, I’d like to spend it eating a perfectly cooked hamburger in 7Bone before bingeing as many West Wing episodes as I can until I fall into a peaceful slumber. However, with Parliament Hill looming, I’m eager to do it. I know it’ll settle my nerves and I’ll feel good about myself afterwards.

Hills sessions never run the same risk of bitter disappointment. It’s just a matter of grimly getting your arse up that hill as many times as you can in either eight or 20 minutes, but I’m not dependently counting. With timed reps, every second means something. A second down can’t be soothed by the next two or three attempts being one or more seconds up. You’ll always be thinking, ‘That one shouldn’t have been down. Why was I off the pace?’ I obsess.

So, in their own unique way, hills sessions are more relaxed. Rather like a trip to the spa.

At least that’s what I was telling myself at work as I counted down the minutes until 5 o’clock. I eventually left work fired up and ready for the session, thinking only good can come of this night. I’ll climb every mountain and ford every stream. Bring it on. #YOLO. All that jazz.

Long story short, on the way to training, I realised I’d left all of my kit under my desk at work. It was 6.20pm. Ten minutes. Given the traffic, there was no time to go back and get it. I was with my dad who also moonlights as everyone’s coach, so I couldn’t just go home. Without a sports bra and trainers, no matter how many people offered to see if they had any extra kit, it wasn’t happening. No hills session for me.

If you’re wondering how I handled this, I would say… hmm, not well.

Much in the same pattern as my training, my parkrun times have only slipped since my Christmas Day run. 23:21 went to 24:11… and then 24:30. That’ll teach you to start thinking about sub-23s, girl. (Don’t get me wrong, these times are nothing to sniff at – but, inevitably, losing ground is a disappointing shift in momentum.)

It’s tough. It happens every year, with spectacular consistency. I’m endlessly frustrated at my impeccable pattern of peaking in December – you know, the one month that really contributes nothing to the championship calendar – and then utterly crashing out in the New Year.

At least January’s nearly over. Hopefully 2017 will warm up soon and so will I.

The only thing standing between me and Feb now is Parliament Hill. No biggie. Except… real biggie. I’ll see you on the other side. Yiiiiiikes.

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Spikes

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It’s serious now. Spikes mean I’m a cross-country kid. After all those years of dodging cross-country at school with cat-like agility, I find myself slogging it out along muddied paths and over steep hills on my precious weekends off. ‘Why?’ is a question I often ask myself. Answer pending.

Even the dude selling me my spikes didn’t look too sure of the idea. There’s apparently a very low demand for size six and a half cross-country spikes, correlating with the very low proportion of people looking to run around muddy fields as fully independent adults, I guess. Always was one for bucking the trends. In the end, I had to settle for the sole pair of 6.5s they were selling, like ‘em or not.

Now that I’ve got my own pair, it seems my excuse for avoiding the more hardcore cross-country races is looking ever more flimsy.

It’s high time, though; I’m six races deep. It’s happening. I borrowed a pair from the club’s communal spike bank for my last race and they looked like they’d been chewed by a dog. A dog wanting to protect its owner from making the terrible mistake of running a cross-country race, probably. Good call, my fur-coated friend. This dog, who may or may not be entirely fictional, has far better judgment than me, clearly.

I’ve got to the point where I’ve decided it’s best just to let the mud and the hills and the wind and the rain in at this point. I’ve accepted my fate. My soggy, puffed out, lying-on-the-ground-in-a-melodramatic-heap fate. And it’s sort of… thrilling.

We have a team now and everything.

Getting ladies’ cross-country teams together is always a bit of a challenge for a small running club but, with a few fresh members up to the challenge as well as my ragged self, we’ve been storming it all season long – in both the cross-country leagues we’re in. We only need three finishers to qualify; so far, we’ve had nine different ladies join the team along the way.

It feels like a team, too. There’s a lovely mix of personalities, ages and abilities. Plus, there’s our fun new tradition of me herding everyone together for a cheesy post-race team photo – usually immediately followed by the inadvertent tradition of suggesting we take said cheesy photo before the race next time. (It’ll never happen.)

Now, armed with spikes, I feel like I’ve reached that final stage of commitment. I’m on the team for good now. For better or worse, for muddier and for drier, in sickness and in health and forsaking all Saturdays, etc. etc.

As we went over to the till to pay for these fancy new spikes you’ve now heard so much about, my dad – cross country expert that he is – added one final comment.

“You’ll need to pick up some 9mm, 12mm and 15mm spikes too.”

9mm, sure.

12mm, okay.

But 15mm spikes? What kind of mad, crazy race demands 15mm spikes?! I mean, honestly! What race do you think I’m—oh, oh no. Oh, no, no, no, no…

*dramatic voice over* Parliament Hill is coming. 

A Love Letter to Parkrun

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I ran 10k to get that hat so you’re damn right I’m gonna wear it.

Saturday. 8am. My alarm, that dreadful marimba tone, interrupts a deep and all-too-brief slumber with determined persistence. It’s almost like it doesn’t turn off unless I wake up and manually swipe it away. In fact, that’s exactly how it is. But usually, somewhere between the eyes opening and the finger swiping, I’ve remembered it’s Parkrun day: my time to shine, or, at the very least, listen to the Hamilton soundtrack for twenty-some minutes without feeling guilty I’m not doing something more productive. My favourite!

I have lived this routine 73 times now (stat courtesy of my Parkrun email alert). Three of those times have been on Christmas Day. I’m still not sick of it.

I distinctly remember one morning when I rather sleepily told my mum I was having a lie-in. It was okay to have a week off, I kept telling myself as I desperately tried to get back to sleep. Then 8:30 rolled around and she went to drive off. I suddenly shot out of my warm, cosy bed and ran out to the driveway in my pyjamas to yell, “Give me two minutes!” Precisely two minutes later, I came back in full kit, still plaiting my hair as I got into the car.

Whenever I travel to East Anglia to visit my best friend, instead of using it as excuse to have a week off, I jog over to the gorgeous Eton Park and do Norwich Parkrun. I can tell she’s always thrilled by me setting an alarm on her morning off.

For running newbies, Parkruns will become your best friend. Other races will come and go but Parkruns are every week at 9am, Poole Park, by the cricket pavillion.

Despite my own abiding love for the 5k, I find that other runners have a tendency to belittle it as no biggie. It’s dismissed as, “Oh, anyone can do it.” But that’s exactly the point. It’s the race distance that’s open to everyone and poses a unique challenge to each individual. For marathon veterans, it’s an opportunity to improve their leg speed. For the kids, it’s an opportunity to go further and perhaps discover a talent for endurance running. For the casual runner, it’s an opportunity to work on their PB without too great an interruption to the weekend.

I don’t run five kilometres every Saturday morning to gloat about it. Most of the time, it doesn’t earn so much as a tweet. It’s for me. I value opportunities to test my limits every now and again, to try new things – longer distances, cross country, track racing – but I always love my Saturday morning Parkruns most of all. A PB feels like magic. After 73 goes at it, to know that I can still achieve the best one yet is a special feeling.

I often hear about people getting into running after setting their sights on a massive challenge. Usually the marathon. But the majority of those who take up the sport purely to train for a single, big race seem to completely stop once it’s over. The buildup is so great, the pressure so immense that when it’s done, they’re relieved. They stop almost entirely. All the fitness that they’ve built up slowly falls away. Given how challenging the beginning is, those first baby steps where you’re trying to drag your arse around a couple of miles, I am strongly in favour of clinging to every bit of fitness I can muster and never letting it go.

Surely a better challenge for someone who is turning to running in an effort to improve their fitness would be to set a goal number of Parkruns for the year? Consistency over bragging rights? Yes, you’re not going to be the guy in the office who did the sub-whatever London Marathon, but doing a Parkrun a week for a year is surely a pretty sizeable personal achievement? If you can run marathon after marathon then more power to you, but really I’m talking about those of us mere mortals who just want to keep in shape. The number of times I’ve been asked, “So, when are you going to do a marathon then?” makes me want to throw my trainers into an incinerator.

Wanting to run and wanting to run a marathon are two different things. I like running. The experience of running. I feel as though there’s a misconception out in the world that it’s not running if it doesn’t hurt so much you hate it, if it doesn’t make your calves scream and your nipples bleed. To quote the great philosopher Shania Twain: “Nah!” It doesn’t have to be about testing the physical limits of your body. It can simply be about fitness. Do what you can do. Do you what you’ll enjoy.

Parkruns aren’t about who’s the toughest; they’re about going out there each week and doing your best. Was that too soppy? I don’t care.

Now I’m On Track

IMG_2749When my dad knocks on my door, it means he wants something. One time it meant we were having takeaway pizza, but most of the time it means he wants something. On Friday he knocked on my door, entered without waiting for a response (!!!) and led with, “I’ve got an idea to run by you.” Never good.

His fabulous idea was for me to go along to the last track meeting of the season in Exeter and run in the 3000m. Do you know how many times around the track that is?! Seven point five. Let me put that another way: too damn many.

Anyway, I said yes. For a few reasons: 1. I’m a little bit stupid. 2. I’m very easily guilted into things by my parents. 3. #yolo 4. Having had the track team help me train for the past year, at no benefit to themselves whatsoever, I thought it would be nice to try and make all their coaching worthwhile – the club was in a slightly vulnerable position within the division and having another athlete finish the race would earn extra points towards avoiding relegation. 5. I saw my brother run 10,000m (25 laps!) a few weeks ago and he didn’t lose his mind along the way, so I knew it wasn’t impossible. And, 6. My dad treated me to some new shorts because my training shorts aren’t club colours. Blue shorts with a red and black vest? No, siree! Gotta style it out.

Before I faced the scary, new challenge that Exeter posed, I had my all-too-familiar weekly Parkrun to best. My Parkrun PBs probably stopped being interesting a while ago, but last Saturday it felt particularly important to have a successful run – something to fall back on if I had my ego totally shattered the following day. I finished it in 24:48, a leap forward from my previous best of 25:24. At last I’m a sub-25er! Hard work pays off, kids.

The Sunday morning wakeup call was 7am. Day of rest, my arse.

The beginning of the day involved a lot of turning to my dad and other important-seeming adults to check this was a good idea. I have never been so nervous before a race. Plus, I would be headphone-less – how was I going to run 3000m without the support of Carly Rae and Tay? While I do some training on the track, racing on the track was never on the cards. It’s far too exposed. The exactness of the times on the perfect flat of the track is better suited to super speedy folk. And there are plenty of those at my club. Except in my age category, I guess (which, by the way, is SENIOR women – when do I get my bus pass?). But this particular model of human was not designed for speed. I went into this race knowing that, barring an upset, I would be coming last; in fact, my dad’s assurance to me was, “Not everyone is going to lap you.” And that’s the best I was hoping for. If I ran well, I wouldn’t be embarrassingly far behind everyone. Terrifying.

One small mercy was that my race was scheduled at 12 noon. I had long enough to prepare, scrounge a banana off my brother and warm-up without having to simmer in low-level panic all afternoon. There were four other Wimborne athletes running the 3000m (in different age/gender categories) at 12 o’clock, so we all went for a jog and a stretch together. I then spent the 20 or so minutes immediately before the race vacillating between needing a drink and needing to pee.

During my pre-race pep talk, Coach Dad informed me that I should be running 115 second laps based on science and graphs or something, and if I could do that, I’d finish in 14:20.

Standing on the start line for the 3000m was one of the more scary moments of my life. I’m used to road races, where the start is usually a crowd of a few hundred people positioning themselves based on how fast the people around them look. On the track, there aren’t enough people to hide behind. Everyone stood along the curved 200m line as I anxiously copied everything my teammate did, pretending I totally knew what I was doing. Then the gun went and we were off.

Once I’d shaken off the fright of the gunshot noise, I settled in. And something funny happened: I remembered I could run. I’d been so caught up worrying about it that I’d managed to convince myself that my legs wouldn’t work. Once I realised that the legs had some speed in them, I suddenly had to slow myself down because my first lap was way under 115 seconds – which, sure enough, I paid for. My split times were a little inconsistent, with the middle laps falling to around 119 seconds before I dug in for the latter stages of the race.

I don’t imagine I’ll ever run with more support than I had during that race. The stretch from the 200m mark to the finish line was a chorus of cheering, with encouraging faces appearing in outer lanes and calling out from the mound next to the track. They cheered all eight times I went past with increasing enthusiasm.

Other than that, the race is a blur. I was running just that fast. My official time was 14:23.74. Not an embarrassment.

Race over, I could eat lunch and watch everyone else’s events, a free woman once again! It was actually a really delightful day out once the 3000m was out of the way. The weather was scorching, and there were plenty of different events to watch – including my speedy little brother in the 5000m. Mostly, it was nice to come along to support the people I’ve been training with now for a solid year and enjoy in the tremendous team spirit that comes from the top down.

Wimborne AC did incredibly well on the whole, placing third. The mission to stay in Division 1 was a success. Job done! Now don’t get any ideas about the impending cross-country season…

Winning

photoWhen you heard (because it was all over the news) that I won an award on Saturday, I imagine your first thought was that it must be Glamour’s Woman of the Year. A reasonable assumption, and you can send your complaints accordingly, but no. I won the award for Best Improved Runner at my club. Equally prestigious. Not counting third place in an Irish dance recital when I was seven years old (which may have been more of a pity prize than anything, since I was struck with terrible stage fright and burst into tears), this is the first award I’ve ever won.

On Saturday morning I did what I do every week and forced myself out of bed at 8am, shivering my little butt off, to go and do Poole Parkrun. This particular week marked my 34th 5k since Christmas Day last year. The pacers were out for the occasion so I was feeling particularly motivated, especially after a promising training session on Thursday, and decided to make Mr 26 my mark – lucky man. Before Saturday, my PB was 26:34 and I was ready to beat it – it had been a whole two weeks, after all. Armed with my trusty playlist and my luminous Boscombe 10k woolly hat, I gave the 26 minute man a good chase for those three-and-a-bit miles. Sadly, he still beat me.

While I was feeling a little downbeat about how the run went, I wasn’t too far off the elusive Mr 26. Turns out, and I don’t want to break a scandal (except I kinda do), Mr 26 was actually more like Mr 25:40. My time was 25:55! New PB and I’m into the 25s. Success. It was a lovely way to begin a big ego trip of a day, really.

photoAt the awards bash in the evening, I was given my prize alongside my fellow award-winning Kennedy, the Roadmaster of 2014 (and, let’s face it, every year), my mum. People very kindly made a nice little fuss, though all it did was remind me that my mortification over public attention has not lessened since my jigging days. Best Improved Runner was based on runbritain handicap points, comparing the start of the year to the end. In my case, I had a handicap improvement of 8.4 points before the mid-November deadline.

Since my dad will read this more times than anyone else, I feel I should cater to my audience a little bit and quickly add that I’d still be the couch potato of yesterday were it not for the patience and encouragement of my mum and dad (also, the music of Taylor Swift). My mum was the one who put up with me when it was all new and I just whined incessantly throughout our 2 mile walk-runs, and has since come with me to every Parkrun. While I’ve been ticking off the 5ks with my mum, Thursday sessions on the track with my dad (and an enthusiastic crowd of other lovely people) have completely upped the game when it comes to my speed – having taken me from a 31-minute 5k to a sub-26er in only three months.

I’m thrilled to end the year with this small but rather validating achievement. It’s been a year’s worth of fighting against every natural instinct, ignoring all of the blisters and chasing humans half my size around a 400m track that’s got me to here. I’m excited to push myself even further in 2015, with my eyes on a few more races and, hopefully, a few more PBs. I’m not a natural athlete by any stretch of the imagination but man, I love it. If you’re not a runner and are thinking about potential new year’s resolutions, it’s time to lace up those trainers and hit the road.

Thursday Night Lights

photoVery recently, I started attending an athletics track session to complement the Parkruns I’ve been rocking on the reg. There’s something terribly intimidating about running on the track. The definite white lines and the precision of the stopwatch are harder to hide behind than the absentminded jogging jaunts I’m used to. The fact that the track is located inside an army camp only makes the whole lark a little more intense (like, do I need to worry that if I got too good, I’d get called up?*).

To give some perspective of fitness, if the group I train with were placed in some dystopian YA novel wherein only one can survive, I have two potential paths: either I’m dead before they finish reading out my name, or I’m the reclusive one who survives till the end by sheer fluke, having hidden in a cave for the duration. The latter circumstance would only be possible if the cave had a decent wifi connection (or at least some 3G), otherwise I would get caught while trying to climb a nearby tree for signal. I may have digressed. I’m the slowest is the point. By quite some margin.

However, I declare buoyantly, all I had to do to succeed was complete the session. As with anything you do for the first time, I had nothing to beat. It’s become apparent to me that one of my primary motivations is the intent to avoid appearing pathetic in front of other people. Typically, this requires the presence of other people. While outside of the track I often run with my mum, she’s so used to seeing me look pathetic that this stopped taking effect a while ago when it’s just the two of us. At track, there’s quite a crowd. No one wants to collapse, crying, onto the ground in front of that many people, so I focus my weary head on getting those reps over with sharpish.

The session, intended to work on speed, involves doing several reps of different distances with set goal times per 400m (e.g. 100 second laps). On 1,000 metre reps, I trail 150 metres behind, wheezing my way to the finish line as I wave my hand to gesture that the group should go on without me (either with the next rep or, if I’m feeling particularly winded, life). To any casual bystanders, my attempt to “go hard” would probably resemble anyone else’s recovery lap if it weren’t for the desperate breathlessness and raspberry shade of face. It is not my purpose to compete with anyone else, I just want to improve my leg speed. Week one went exactly as well as it should have. I sucked by anyone else’s standards but rocked by my own. I went. I ran. I conquered.

I think that just about sums it up.

I think that just about sums it up.

The talent of my peers at the Thursday night sessions negates my use of the word “peers” there, and makes it wholly impossible not to look pathetic. As looking feeble (think pre-serum Steve Rogers, right) in the short-term was unavoidable, very quickly I had to decide whether or not I wanted to make the long-term commitment to come each Thursday for my weekly exercise in humiliation with the intent that little by little, I get a tad closer to not pathetic. I know what you’re thinking; I’ve set myself a high bar. But what can I say? I’m a dreamer.

In truth, the benefits of attending the track sessions are hard to dispute. While my body is telling me (loudly and repeatedly) no, my times are telling me yes. Since I began coming at the beginning of September, I’ve seen improvements in my Parkrun time every single week (taking off around 1 minute most weeks), reducing my 5k PB from 33:09 to 28:29. Before I began the track training, I’d set myself a goal to get under the illusive 30-minute mark, and it certainly helped me achieve that.

I started attending track sessions at the beginning of September and my improvement since has been pretty sizeable.

I began attending track sessions at the beginning of Sept and the effect is plain to see.

I guess it turns out exercise is good for you after all. Who knew?

 

*I feel like maybe not but it’s going to niggle.