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 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.

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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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…

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.

A Healthy Obsession

Running-ShoesAfter you get past the first hurdles of taking up running, i.e. you manage to get into a regular rhythm of jogs without giving up, it becomes very easy to develop a preoccupation with stats and goals. I can personally attest to this. PBs, splits, handicaps, etc. all somehow become super interesting once you get broken in a little bit. The stats are addictive. It’s human nature to want to progress and after the initial training wheel phase, it becomes important to set attainable and specific goals to reach that damn fine potential you got going on. Often, pursuing those goals all comes wrapped up in weirdly fascinating personal data.

Runs can be long. Even a 5k, for me at least, uses up nearly half an hour. That’s a long time to keep your head in the game, so to speak. While the body is being tested, it helps to give your mind something to do besides wonder whether that really is a stitch coming on. Naturally, you get to thinking about times, and goals, and pace (and sometimes just what you’re having for dinner, to be totally honest). This is why, at race start lines, you often see a huge number of runners equipped with various forms of wearable technology. It’s the new black. In some cases, it literally is black. Would this be a good time for me to mention that unless the goth-vampire aesthetic is your vibe, I really think it’s boring when people go for black when there’s so much colour available in the market of wearables and kit? Whatever, though, you do you. (But seriously, spice up your life.)

The technology available for tracking training is vast, ranging from fancy gadgets like my mother’s beloved Garmin watch to the free app I have on my phone to boss me about. The reason they’re all so popular? The technology is invaluable. It does wonders for managing health goals. Oscar Insurance, a health insurance company in New Jersey and New York, is just one example of a company promoting and using this kind of technology to help members manage their health and fitness. All Oscar members get Misfit bands that they can use to set personal activity goals, sync with the company’s mobile app to keep track of their progress and then get cash rewards at the end of the month for reaching their goals.

In the case of my Runkeeper app, I can have it set up to give me a playlist and interrupt my music to tell me my pace at certain intervals. It allows me to obliviously listen to the whole TSwift catalogue and the app will let me know if I’m on track, pacing my runs for me while I’m getting in some much-needed music therapy. The times keep pushing me on to race my previous bests while my music offers a valued distraction from the aching in my, well, just about everywhere. It’s a great system. Added to the help it gives during the run, all of my times and splits get logged and recorded to enable a wealth of resources when mapping out future fitness ambitions. It’s perfect.

Alongside the pacing, informing the training is the creation of personal goals to enable steady progress. Those goals have varied from a simple 5k personal best to being able to run a new distance to trying to match up split times, or more recently to get a 8.0+ handicap improvement through the last annual year (check!). Tracking my runs is always integral to that; it enables you to become your own personal trainer. Or, in the cases of some of the technology, the recording of the nice lady announcing your times becomes your personal trainer. I talked in a previous blog about my quick burst of progress through the end of 2014, culminating in my ‘Best Improved’ title in December. This was a direct response to recognising an attainable, specific goal and pushing hard for it. Along the way, I was constantly checking my graphs on runbritain.com, looking to see how my progress was coming along in terms of the statistics. There is nothing more motivating than seeing results, and being able to chip away at my times little by little allowed me to keep my streak of success going strong.

Ultimately, running comes down to what works best for each individual, I think. I’ve been keeping fit through my training for over a year now and, after my initial progress, I found that I plateaued for a long period of time in mid-2014. The best answer to that was goal-setting. By the end of last year, I felt unstoppable, smashing PB after PB and far exceeding the goal I had initially set myself. I think it starts with one attainable goal, and then comes the momentum. Once you have the big mo, you’re set.

A Christmas Day in the Life

IMG_177208:00 – My alarm. Pavlovian instinct dictates that if I hear the Marimba tone in any other context, it induces violent rage. I’m so angry at Marimba. The worst thing is I can’t change it because I once set my alarm to my favourite song for about a week and then realised that it was the quickest way to turn love to hate, so changed it back to Marimba. I will live the rest of my mornings in this Marimba hell.

08:06 – Oh, actually… is it Christmas? I could be into that.

08:10 – My dad knocks to check for signs of life. “On for Parkrun?” he asks. I say yes but it goes against every instinct. (It was my idea but 9.2k two days earlier had unexpectedly done me in a bit.)

08:30 – My mum persuades me to wear a Santa hat. I’m skeptical. Festive cheer still buffering.

08:50 – My dad, who is usually unable to do Parkruns due to coaching commitments, has arrived at Poole Park and runs away from my mum, my brother and I. He proceeds to skip and jog and do other charmingly bizarre warm-up exercises. He’s making no bones about how seriously this is being taken. The three of us watch, a little entertained and a little embarrassed. Bless.

09:00 – WHY AM I DOING THIS?

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09:10 – (Louder this time.) WHY AM I DOING THIS?

09:20 – I feel very aware of every ache and pain in my body. The sensation runs head-to-toe. Particularly toe. However, it also makes me feel like a brilliant, powerful musk ox.

09:24 – Nearly over. Nearly over. Nearly over.

09:27 – Over.

10:30 – Back at home, I’m feeling too lazy to shower. It’s just so much effort. It’s 15 minutes of heaven followed by an hour of pulling my hair out. I begin to wonder if I should cut my long hair off and return to the unflattering bob that carried me through high school. Maybe it would do for me what it’s done for Taylor Swift. No, I decide. I have to be game ready if ever HAIM need a stand-in.

10:40 – I should move.

11:00 – I am overwhelmed with the biggest wave of cba and look for ways to stall drying my very wet hair and putting my makeup on and, you know, generally turning myself into a human.

12:00 – My self-esteem has sky-rocketed since I last checked in. It’s at least 47% because of the fact that I’m wearing red lipstick.

12:03 – No one, other than my immediate family, will get to appreciate the effort I just went to. The only pictures taken of me today will be makeup-less, running shots. I open Photobooth with shameless urgency. THIS EFFORT MUST BE DOCUMENTED.

Documentation of effort.

Documentation of effort.

12:04 – I post my Photobooth picture. I have now balanced out the makeup-less pictures of me running. The internet has found equilibrium once again. Praise you, Photobooth.

12:10 – I go downstairs to show off the masterpiece I just painted onto my face. My dad doesn’t look up from his guitar as I pass him in the living room. My mum turns around, amidst her deluge of roasting and boiling and chopping, to comment, “Oh, you look lovely.”

12:15 – I’m beginning to wonder if the time I spent perfecting my red lipstick was worth it for, “Oh, you look lovely.” I’m forced to face the harsh reality that Christmas dinner will undoubtedly ruin the aesthetic. I should care about something more important.

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13:00 – The dinner isn’t ready but no one told my stomach. I am now loitering with intent. I sense my mother wants more space than I’m giving.

13:25 – There’s no sign of dinner yet but I’m sat at the table in a hope that this will adequately convey my eagerness and hurry things up. My stomach is making noises.

13:30 – I gobble up the starter like I just came off a detox or something. Prawn cocktail hits the very 70s spot. 10/10, would recommend to friend. Solid start.

13:45 – There is a painful wait between courses but I try to keep my urgent appetite under wraps. My brother and I end up in a discussion about the family hierarchy, in which my brother gets placed fifth. He questions why he is fifth in a family of four, to which I reply, “You’re fifth, Dad’s fourth, Mum’s third and the hypothetical family dog is second. The dog loses first place on the basis that it’s only a potentiality. If the dog was real it would be first, second, third and fourth.” He accepts this.

14:00 – We begin our main.

14:15 – Mum, Dad and I finish our Christmas dinner. Callum soldiers on.

14:20 – Callum’s still eating. We wait patiently, all stuffed.

14:35 – He’s still chewing on his beef. (We don’t eat turkey.)

14:40 – I suggest that when my brother eventually finishes eating, we relocate to the lounge to let our main course go down before dessert. My body does not respond well to being tested. Even the most delicious dessert fails to appeal when you’re full to capacity. I think any further information on this topic might be considered, in some cultures, “too much information”. You can expect many essays on this subject in my upcoming non-fiction book, ‘I Wish I Hadn’t Said Anything’.

14:53 – Nearly three o’clock. We begin unwrapping presents. I think we all feel a little bit smug about our restraint. I certainly feel smug. That’s not unusual.

14:55 – My dad selects my first present as I say, “Make it a good’un!” He goes for the one that is most obviously a box of chocolates. I must remind myself of the true meaning of Christmas, which, as an atheist, ambiguously resembles the American’s Thanksgiving tradition from what I can tell (turkey, more people than the dinner table can fit, etc.). I am feeling particularly guilty about my atheism during the Christmas period, not least because I ate a month’s worth of advent chocolate from a ‘Real Advent’ advent calendar detailing the ‘Story of Christmas’. (If I’m honest, the story hasn’t been updated since last year so it wasn’t really a page-turner. If you’re looking for twists, stick to Gone Girl.)

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My brother chose this necklace for me because “it looks like Twitter and you’re obsessed with Twitter.”

15:05 – My brother surprises everybody with the unprecedented amount of effort gone into his presents (though, not his wrapping). My mum, dad and I are all as much shocked as grateful. Probably more shocked. Callum really stepped up his Christmas game this year. Such moments in my younger brother’s life tend to live on forever, so we will probably still be talking about Callum’s Big Christmas in the year 2053. I’m okay with that, though. So long as we also remember how bloody slowly he ate his dinner. I mean, really! (When reached for comment, Callum had this to say: “The beef was chewy.”)

15:12 – I unwrap BJ Novak’s One More Thing. Everybody asks me who BJ Novak is.

15:23 – My mum unwraps the new Take That album – a gift from me. She remarks on the backwards nature of the exchange given the many Christmases that I had Take That albums and concert tickets bestowed on me. “How the turntables…” I say in response. It falls flat. After a pause, my dad quietly tells me, “It’s, ‘How the tables have turned’, Jess.” I may have over-Gilmored.

15:35 – I unwrap a Parks and Recreation boxset, The Lego Movie and Guardians of the Galaxy and gladly thank my mother for generously giving me all of Chris Pratt’s 2014 filmography. Sorry Jesus, it was Pratt who put the Chris into Christmas this year, buddy.

15:50 – We bask in the glow of Christmas lights and unwrapped presents.

16:10 – Dessert. My mum asks if I want my chocolate brownie gateaux heated up a little. I say yes. Heated up is always better.

16:12 – No, it’s not. The cake seems to have shrunk and liquified. We’ve made a strategic error.

16:13 – Tastes okay, though.

16:14 – My brother smugly savours his chocolate cheesecake, undamaged from microwave misadventures, as he looks on from the other end of the dinner table. Damn you, demon boy.

16:20 – We watch The Lego Movie together, at my suggestion. Even my brother is in for a viewing party. My dad is confused within about 20 seconds. No one attempts to help him. We all know it’d be fruitless.

16:25 – EVERYTHING IS AWESOME. EVERYTHING IS COOL WHEN YOU’RE PART OF A TEAM.

18:15 – I go next door to visit my nan, who is particularly taken with my nail polish. This has long been my biggest talking point with family members outside of the Kennedy core four. It’s a relief. It’s infinitely preferable to university- or career-related questions. Yes, let’s talk about the manicure I gave myself. My granddad is forcibly pulled into the conversation and nods his befuddled approval.

19:15 – I head back to the house for the Miranda Christmas special, ready to curl up with comedy. Soon, I realise that it’s rather light on the funnies but stick with it out of curiosity.

19:45 – They’re crying and I’m confused about it.

19:50Call The Midwife comes on as I attempt to piece together what just happened on Miranda. Given that I rather enjoyed the last Call The Midwife Christmas episode, I indulge myself. Also, I once met the nun-cum-not-a-nun-anymore on a tube so I feel some degree of loyalty towards this show.

20:00Call The Midwife is tedious so I opt to look over my presents more thoroughly. Picking up Amy Poehler’s Yes Please, I begin to thumb through it, eventually reading the preface casually and then all of a sudden it’s…

22:37 – …and I’m 150 pages in. Downton is on in the background (equally tedious, even longer running time). Amy’s so hilarious, I think to myself with a sigh of admiration. Oh, Amy, you poetic, noble land mermaid.

22:40 – My mum tells me she loves me and remarks upon what a nice day it’s been. We are all impressed by my brother’s sunny disposition.

22:42 – My mum repeats that she loves us. I think my dad is asleep. Either that or there’s a pneumatic drill nearby.

22:43 – Gushing continues. My mum notices the chapter title, “Humping Justin Timberlake” but says nothing.

22:48 – Poehler’s still hilarious. It feels ever so slightly weird to be reading her sex advice chapter while sat next to my mother while she watches Downton Abbey, but I work through it.

22:51 – I momentarily stop reading because Carson proposes to Mrs Hughes. I don’t care about Downton, but I think everyone can agree they were the real love story of that show. Maybe it’ll be like Moonlighting, I muse; now they’re together, the show will lose all its appeal. Then I remember it’s been terrible for years.

22:52 – Maybe it was never good.

23:45 – It has come time for bed. I attempt to gather my presents but, delightfully, there are too many to take in one load. My dad helps out and I’m soon arranging my newly unwrapped presents on my bedroom floor like I’m keeping them there on display. I am like a six-year-old child, standing over my haul of gifts. I feel mighty.

00:00 – I think it might have been my favourite Christmas yet. Casual and quiet with the core four. In the words of Amy Poehler, YES PLEASE THANK YOU.