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. 

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My Royal Parks Half

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I DID IT. Properly, actually ran 13.1 miles.

Dreamy conditions, peak physical fitness and a full Kennedy entourage came together for one fine day. On top of all that, the race route was heaven: six miles of cinematic city landmarks before what was effectively a seven-mile park run around Hyde Park.

Despite a long, anxious week of build-up involving endless injury paranoia, on the start line I felt very… ready.

We started out roaming the fanciest of all the city streets, heading past Buckingham Palace, Horse Guards Parade, Churchill War Rooms, Admiralty Arch, Trafalgar Square, etc., etc. It’s an endless string of iconic landmarks to captivate you every step of the way. I would still be admiring one as the next began to appear. It was so. much. fun. I kept bounding cheerfully past people – partly trying to make up for the minutes lost in a portaloo queue at mile one, but bounding nevertheless. It was the best feeling in the world. I would compare it to the feeling I imagine Westlife were singing about in Flying Without Wings.

I hit six miles feeling fresh. That was at the entrance to Hyde Park, where a lot of the charities based their support, making that milestone particularly packed with people. There were so many people cheering for so many runners, and I was part of it!!!! Overwhelmed to the max, basically. Then I turned a corner to see my own support team: Dad, Mum, Callum. I flashed a little smile with an ‘I’m KILLING this!’ level of confidence that was both uncharacteristic and magnificent because I absolutely, totally was. (Why do I never feel that fresh at six miles when I’m running six miles is my question?!)

The whole way round, there was an inspiring mix of calls of my name and funny messages – from “May the course be with you” (my #1), to “Tiramisu if you do it under 2!” and “You go, Glen Coco!” I kept wanting to stop and thank people for their support, except also never ever stop. Reading all of those signs, even if they were for specific people, kept me distracted for most of the way. It made you aware of why so many were doing it. Every crazy costume or heartfelt dedication on the back of a t-shirt was a reminder of how meaningful this challenge was for so many. And I got to be part of the fundraising side of the race for once. It was profoundly inspiring to experience.

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Home straight, aka the longest 800m has ever felt.

I reached the finish line in 2:03:05. This may seem odd to non-runners but, proud as I am of my finish time, it was when I saw my splits that I felt really chuffed with myself. I only went and got negative splits! Negative splits on my first half! Every single 5km of the race was quicker than the one before – and only marginally. Taking out the portaloo debacle that must have added about four or five minutes to my first 5km, all of the splits are pretty even. I bloomin’ NAILED that pacing lark.

Apart from anything, pacing it well meant I pretty much loved it from start to finish. At 10 miles the legs started hurting and the miles started to stretch out, but you rationalise the pain at that point; you’ve run 10. I knew at that point that I was going to finish, no question.

And finish I did.

Thank you to everyone who sponsored me, trained alongside me and put up with me talking about it non-stop for about two months. It was a joy I’ll never forget. And the team I was part of raised a total of £1,425 (£1,661.75 including gift aid) for Together For Short Lives.

Job well done I’d say.

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…

Running Away From My Problems

DSC00104I just finished my 58th Parkrun. 25:25. Another personal best. It feels like a miracle after waking up with tired legs and pizza belly. It feels like a miracle for a lot of reasons. It’s now been a year and a half since I first dusted off my old non-brand trainers (unloved even in their best days) and decided to go for a run one autumn morning.

The truth is I took up running in an effort to combat depression.

It was October 2013. Not my worst month, certainly not my best. My mum had suggested running, or physical activity of any kind, countless times in the months prior. Problem was, I didn’t want to leave the house. I really didn’t like leaving the house. Then my counsellor asked me about my fitness; she asked how much exercise did I do during the week? None. The truthful answer was none. I was perfectly happy doing absolutely no exercise, resentfully resisting the suggestion and throwing away some typically facetious reply about how the only marathon I would be doing was the binge-watching kind. So perfectly happy was I.

“You should aim to do 20 minutes of exercise twice a week,” she told me. “You should do something that makes you out of breath.”

Living in a house full of keen runners, running seemed the obvious option. It didn’t require the commitment of a gym membership or buying new kit. I simply laced up my trainers and started running. And then I walked because, damn, running is really hard. But then I ran again…

The first thing that hit me was how satisfying it is to be physically challenged. I can now personally attest to the whole “runner’s high” thing. Yes, endorphins make you happy. We know this because we all watched Legally Blonde. The unavoidable discomfort that had put me off sport for years is now masked by a far greater, almost euphoric feeling of accomplishment. Is there anything better than that moment when you’re four kilometres down in a 5k and ‘Shake It Off’ comes on your playlist and you find just a little more fuel in the tank? It’s as addictive as everyone claims. Not the ‘Shake It Off’ moment specifically, but The Buzz. I’m running to chase that feeling. It is an exact opposite of the feeling I know I’m running away from so I know I’m going in the right direction.

If I’m ever thinking, “I don’t want to run today”, I think about how dropping out might affect my rate of improvement and hastily dismiss the thought. I’ve never known motivation like it. I’m not a serious athlete. I’m not looking to become a serious athlete. But I want to be better than I was last week. So, I go out to feel good. Those aching calf muscles afterwards only serve as a gentle reminder of how great I did. Besides, if I wake up early for a run, go out and push myself, it’s a free pass for the rest of the day. A day when I’ve run is a day when I’ve achieved and, therefore, I can relaaaaax. Imagine Pixar’s Inside Out is the inside of my mind: Sadness takes a nap while Joy (voiced, of course, by Amy Poehler) eagerly repeats affirmations as I unwind with some feminist literature.

Then there’s my long lost friend Vitamin D. Sunlight hitting my skin, warming its colour to a few shades up from its natural vampiric white. I feel like I went years living inside, only venturing out when I had to, for food or education or if a fire alarm went off. I’m a writer. I sit and I write. I’m more relaxed in front of a Word document than anywhere else. Running is a break from that, offering balance to my natural lifestyle. It takes me so many places, exploring my home county one foot in front of the other. I live in Bournemouth. I have the seafront, from Boscombe Pier to Sandbanks, and the New Forest, and the numerous athletics tracks that host club training sessions. Is there a place any more perfect to run? I doubt it. I have my running shoes to thank for showing me my world. I’d never really noticed how beautiful it all is – even if I do try to ignore my mum when she points out all the geese and rainbows and flowers and MUM, I CAN’T TALK RIGHT NOW, I’M TOTALLY OUT OF BREATH. WE’LL TALK LATER.

Getting out more, I’m meeting people all the time – happy, active people. I think I might even be one of them now. At the end of our track sessions, I don’t see a single person looking glum. The stand is always abuzz with proud smiles, people asking, “How was your session?” and “Are you racing at the weekend?”

Running might seem like a lonely sport; it’s not strictly a team sport, after all, but I think if you find the right running club, it does feel like a team. It’s not that there aren’t runs where I want to stick my headphones in my ears and drown everything else out with nondescript dance music. There are plenty and they’re necessary. But going out and having people cheer you on is an entirely separate, valuable experience. Making friends is always a plus, right? We all appreciate nice people supporting us.

And finally, of course, there’s the reason most people want to start exercising: that old “getting in shape” chestnut. While my main motivation for exercising was mental health, I have to admit that the idea of slimming down was an added incentive. The fact that I hated my body was never a big issue but it simmered beneath the surface, perfectly in line with the many millions of women who share that experience and have their vulnerability fed by marketing and the media. I would conceal whatever figure I had underneath baggy grey-tone tops that hung off me, hoping never to draw any attention. Funny thing is, my figure hasn’t really changed, only the way I see it has. I train four or five times a week but my body looks about the same. It’s probably tighter and firmer, but the same size, same shape. Running has merely given me an appreciation of what my body is capable of. The legs I always resented for being too chunky can carry me for miles and miles. My body is strong. It doesn’t matter what anyone else says about it, my body is so great, it can run far away from anyone who says otherwise. I feel oddly powerful, like I could lead the people into battle or catch kids who are trespassing on my land (I have no land). So, now I wear colours and I wear shorts. Sometimes even a cheeky crop top. I don’t care. My body is healthy. I’m happy.

People often ask me, “Why now? What made you take up running?” I don’t know what to tell them. I don’t think they understand the weight of the question. “The desperate need to feel better,” doesn’t seem like the appropriate response, but it’s the truth. And it worked.

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.

My First Race

I’ve been toying with the idea of doing a Parkrun for some time. If you aren’t aware of the Parkrun event, it’s a free weekly 5k run and many are organised all over the place. I was hoping simply to be fit enough to get around the course without walking. On the Saturday prior to Christmas Day, I declared – I’m very dramatic, you see – that I felt ready up to the challenge.

“And when was the next Parkrun?” I hear you cry. Well, it was Wednesday morning – when I usually train with my dad. In case you’re not good with days, and let’s face it no one is at Christmas, the other thing that not-so-coincidentally fell on that Wednesday was Christmas Day. We quickly decided that this was the perfect opportunity for me to run my first race. I really can’t stress enough just how quickly this decision was made. Almost too quickly. Had I run at the same pace as I made this decision, I’d have been setting records.

Aside from a weird dream I’d had about getting on a bus mid-race, I was really excited for the run. I was ready to do it. I knew I could finish. It was time. An added bonus of the timing of the Parkrun was that my dad, who’s usually training some far more talented athletes than I on a Saturday morning, was able to be there. Given that my dad set this whole snowball in motion as the first runner in the family, it felt only right that he be there for my first race, relaxed as it was. In the end, the whole family came out. Mum decided last minute that she was going to run too, meaning that I ended up with what appeared to be two bodyguards, and my younger brother just came for the entertainment.

It went pretty well really. I didn’t come close to walking or falling over. That was my primary mission. The hailstones provided an unwelcome little treat but besides that all went smoothly. I finished in 34:41. I was happy enough with that for a first time. It was a lovely way to start Christmas Day. And, let me tell you, I’d never deserved my Christmas dinner more!

I’m pleased to report that I’ve since run another of the Parkrun 5ks. This time even my brother ran, so we had family results ranging from 5th place to 415th. I lost 154 seconds on my previous time on the Saturday. My brother took pains to warn me not to ever expect such an improvement again. For a second there I was thinking, “Wow, at this rate, I’ll be winning in a month.” Maybe not.

At the Saturday race, there was a huge turnout of runners we knew. There was no training that morning so everyone was using the Parkrun as a substitute for the training session by doing what they call “tempo runs”. What may have started out as a training run quickly seemed to turn into race mode. Those rebels! Callum, my brother, seemed very pleased with himself as he lapped me (just in time, might I add). One thing I did rather enjoy was that a lot of my parents’ runner friends who were there did a double take as they spotted me running. It warms my heart to know that the lazy reputation that I’d effortlessly cultivated for years has been so hastily undermined. Ah, Christmas.

From now on, I’ll be making the Parkruns a weekly appointment. And, thanks to some helpful Christmas gifts, I’ve got all the right kit for it now too! My next goal? A sub-30 5k, and 50% on the age-graded Parkrun scoring percentage.

Now I Run

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In the last few weeks, there has been one significant change in my life: I run now. That’s a thing that I do. Twice a week, in fact. What might seem inevitable (it’s kind of a Kennedy thing), never felt that way when I was standing at the sidelines watching my parents and brother racing. If I had a penny for every time someone has asked me, “So when are you going to start running?”, a whole lot of people would have had pennies thrown at them. NEVER. I’m not athletic, I’m not competitive, I’m not interested.

Now I must sit here and eat my words. I don’t really know what prompted me to suggest to my mum that we go for a run, but at last those box fresh trainers that Dad had optimistically bought me years earlier were seeing the light of day!

I have the incredibly good fortune of having two parents who know running well enough that I’m well looked after (“Do your stretches.” / “Can’t I just lay down and cry?”). Both my mum and dad have been incredibly generous and patient with me, giving up Saturday and Wednesday mornings respectively to keep me company. I don’t think I could do it without the motivation of their support and encouragement at the moment. It’s a bonding exercise (ha, literally!) – when I’m not swearing in a fit of running rage. I really am sorry about that, Mum.

Of course, it hurts. I think I’ve had stitch every single time. For the first two or three weeks, I couldn’t talk at all because I had to focus on controlling my breathing for the entire duration. I am suddenly very aware of every muscle in my body at the end. Once Mum asked me what kind of pain I was in and I replied, “It feels like a Teletubby cut a hole out of my stomach to stick a TV in.” On reflection, I’m as sceptical over the accuracy of that statement as she was.

I think the moment I realised that there was a difference between pain and injury was the biggest breakthrough I’ve had. Stopping doesn’t make a stitch go away so you might as well keep running. So I do. And I’m so used to it now, it doesn’t hurt in the same way. I’ve made peace with the discomfort. At the end, if I’m not in some discomfort then I know I haven’t pushed myself and don’t feel happy with what I’ve done. Is that normal? There was one particular week where I felt like I’d run really slowly, and it had been a little bit of an obstacle course (due to lots of puddles and fallen trees) so I’d never found a rhythm, but at the end I pushed so hard because I knew it’d make me feel like it had been worth coming out. There was a very determined mantra of, “One foot in front of the other” running through my mind throughout that. That’s all it is, one foot in front of the other. Mum commented that she was glad my stubbornness had finally come to some use.

The thing that always put me off tying up the laces of my blindingly white trainers and getting out there – all of that pain – is now part of the draw. I enjoy my Wednesdays and Saturdays more than any other day because it’s a perfect way to start a day – fresh air and a guiltless break from uni work! I’ve been running two miles on each outing. For me, that’s challenging. But I plan to keep challenging myself. Hopefully soon what I find challenging won’t sound quite so pathetic. I’m not trying to break any records. I just want to feel fit and healthy. And I’m feeling more so with every jog. I can even (kind of) hold a conversation when we’re running now.

It’s also made me appreciate more how incredible Mum and Dad’s achievements are. Right now, the thought of a third mile makes me tremble, let alone a 26th! They’re amazing (read: insane). As well as the crazy parents, two weeks ago I watched my little brother claim his biggest win yet: a 10 mile race on home turf, in a mere 56:52. The boy’s a machine! A running machine! It was a really wonderful day, though, and those crazy parents were beaming. You can even read all of my dad’s proud dad feelings in his write-up of that day.

It’s been a good few weeks so far. I’m hoping I can do a Parkrun soon – something laidback to start me off. I’m optimistic that I’ll be sticking with this running lark, thanks to my parents’ unwavering support. And also because it would probably be super embarrassing to make a blog post about it and then stop. Besides, it’s fun!