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. 

My Half Mad Half Marathon

It’s Wednesday, a day to rest and recuperate from the endless mileage and stopwatches, and I don’t really know what to do with myself. Dare I say it, a night off from running has left me with itchy feet.

Don’t get me wrong, my legs are tired; they’re hanging limply from my hips like I’m a lame marionette, but I’m quite used to that. They usually figure out what do within the first mile. Left, right, left, right – the usual. At this point, they’re so used to running, I seem to have developed autopilot mode. It’s the basic walking stuff that tends to be where the trouble lies.

Somehow, though, on my journey of athletic discovery, I’ve gone from “OH, PLEASE GOD MAKE IT STOP” to finding the permanent ache of every muscle in my body oddly satisfying. And it’s never been as satisfying as it is right now. Fresh from a lengthy winter-to-spring plateau, I’ve been given renewed motivation and focus.

Aimg_3509 few weeks ago, on an uncharacteristic whim, I signed myself up to run the Royal Parks Half Marathon in aid of Together For Short Lives.

The cause is an incredible one: the UK’s biggest charity providing palliative care to children and young adults with life-shortening or life-threatening conditions – of which there are 49,000 in the UK. Together For Short Lives is there to help these children and their families as they are faced with unimaginably difficult illnesses.

Given that through the training I do with my running club I get to see what a difference health and fitness makes to young people’s lives, it strikes me as a particularly important cause. I’m reminded of what a privilege it is to have the freedom to go out and hit the pavements, or run around a 400-metre track for an hour. Not everyone’s pain is temporary. Not everyone’s struggle finishes on a high.

On a personal level, I’d been in need of a challenge, something to inspire and motivate me to really start pushing myself again. Immediately, once I’d signed up, it started to make a difference. I’ve been running quicker, going further, pushing harder and even eating better.

I’m hoping that soon I might be able to keep up with the entirety of Coach Dad’s Big, Tough Track Sessions, perhaps take on some cross-country kickassery and continue knocking my Parkrun PBs down a peg. For now, though, the priority is getting around 13.1 miles – preferably in a tidy two hours (yikes!) and to raise the all-important £1,200 target for Together For Short Lives.

If you’re able to spare a little cash to make all of those pavement pounding hours worth my while, please support my race and donate here.

Right. Well, I better go and do some core strength exercises. No time for rest!

 

So You Want to Try Parkrun?

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If relentless endorsements of my favourite Saturday morning event have finally worn you down and you’re considering joining the lovely Parkrun community, at the request of my good friend Louise, I bring you every piece of advice that my months of weekly runs have taught me. From what you’ll need to bring along, to what you should expect, allow me to be your Obi Wan…

All You Need Is…

YOUR BARCODE. When you sign up for Parkrun on the website, you’ll get your own personal barcode to print off. Print it. Take it. You’re all set. This is the only absolute necessity.

I choose to also run with my Fitbit, my iPod (in an oh-so-chic bum bag) and a water bottle. England Athletics have become much tighter on headphone restrictions at road races so bear this in mind when entering other events, but at my time of writing you are still allowed headphones at Parkrun.

Start Line Protocol

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Poole Parkrun start line

Because Parkrun events attract a lot of newbies, the start lines can be a little more chaotic than your typical road race owing to the lower level of experience.

For those less versed in start line protocol, the front of the pack will likely be your sub-18 minute runners. Chances are, if it’s your first time, you’ll be closer to the back. At my Parkrun, there are often over 600 runners, and if a 35-minute runner plonked themselves in with the frontrunners, they would get swallowed as soon as the whistle went – or they’d go off too fast in a misguided attempt to keep up. That’s not fun for you or the runners attempting to get past you. But you do also want to avoid going too far back as it can then be hard to get through the crowd. It’s about figuring out your sweet spot. Basically, don’t be afraid to assert yourself but also be considerate to other runners. If you aren’t sure where you should be, talk to the people around you and ask about their goal times – if it matches up to yours, you’re probably in the right place.

#goals

Set goals. Go out with an agenda and push to achieve whatever goal you have set yourself – whether that be long-term or short-term. It will give you a focus. And when you succeed, it feels damn good. If you’re starting from a low level of fitness, the Couch to 5k app might be the perfect way to build up to a Parkrun. You can then set out with the goal of running the whole route without stopping, and then perhaps attempt to better your own Personal Best each week.

Reward yourself with PBPs. My friend Jen introduced me to the concept of Personal Best Presents. The goals we just talked about? Once you achieve ‘em, treat yo self ™. You’ll know you’re hooked when your PBPs end up being new running gloves or a high vis jacket. Reward systems work (I’m pretty sure Supernanny will back me up here), from big treats for major breakthroughs to celebrating sticking to your training plan with a favourite meal. After a few 5ks, you will start craving the achievement of a Personal Best time – and what do Personal Bests mean? Presents!

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