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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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.

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!