Dear Running – I Have a Confession to Make…

I’m not quite sure how to say this, but here goes. I’ve been having an affair.

Please don’t get upset. It’s not you. I still love you running. I know we’ve had our ups and downs. You’ve hurt me and made me cry, and sometimes I’ve had to take a break from us when it has hurt just a little too much. And that’s when it came along, when I was at my weakest.

Bouldering.

I don’t know if it was the bright colours, the – ahem – unique smell of chalk mixed with sweaty climbing shoes or the soft “thwump” of people landing on crash mats, but I was instantly dazzled.

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On that first climb I felt scared and made it halfway up before I scuttled back down like a reticent cat. But the second time I went straight up, and for the briefest of moments, I felt invincible. I felt like if I – someone who once nearly fainted climbing up Ely Cathedral – could conquer this climbing wall and look down without passing out, I could conquer anything.

Don’t get me wrong, bouldering and I have had our arguments. I’ve left with callused hands, scraped knees and a bruised ego when I claimed that I was too short for a route only for a 9 year old to race up it as their warm up. I’ve missed a hold and fallen from a height that although doesn’t look that high from the ground, feels immense when you’re up there. I’ve landed awkwardly. But you know what? I find that heart-racing moment when you know you’re going to fall kind of exciting.

I’ve always liked feeling strong, and when I look in the mirror now I can see how much my arms and shoulders have developed. That’s down to bouldering. I like the easy camaraderie of climbers and how when you’re struggling on a route you know there will be someone to offer advice or calm you down when your hands become slick with sweat and you think you can’t hold on. With running those conversations are just that little bit harder when your lungs are being pushed to their limits. And I love the progression. That’s the thing running – we’ve been together for so long that we’ve kind of flatlined, found a steady pace together that works for us. But with bouldering, I’ve gone from climbing 3s to climbing 5+s, and even attempting 6s with a wry smile. I know it’s not always about PBs and winning, but when you’re having a bad day, that feeling you get when you finally grab that difficult hold is up there with a 5k PB, something I’ve not had for two years now.

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But don’t worry running. I have time for both of you in my life. As much as bouldering has given me a new spark, I still need you. Bouldering requires focus and puzzle solving skills, but it takes you for my mind to truly be free to go wherever it needs to as my feet make that beautiful rhythm on the pavement. I need you.

You are my first and strongest love. I just hope you don’t mind if I have a cheeky bit on the side.

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Aha! The Round Norfolk Relay – My Review

Ok, I’m three cups of coffee, one cup of tea, a load of sweets and a two hour power nap in.  I can do this.

This morning (or last night depending on your view of the world), I woke up at 4:10am to take part in the 198 mile Round Norfolk Relay for my awesome running club Ely Runners. For the uninitiated (as I was prior to my taking part in it) the RNR is a 17 stage mega relay that goes – yep, you guessed it – right the way round Norfolk, starting and ending at King’s Lynn. I was given stage 14, which is thankfully one of the shorter legs at 7.27 miles and goes from Feltwell to Wissington, and my faithful running buddy Pete took on the 10.59 mile stage 15 from Wissington to Downham Market, which meant that we could travel to the start together.

The thing with the RNR is that the organisation behind it is frankly insane. Our team of 5 must have worked their socks off working out everyone’s estimated start time based on the pace each runner thought they would run their leg in. And it’s so hard to know exactly how you’ll do on the day. if you end up being a bit slower than expected it’s not a disaster as the runner you’re handing the baton to should be there ready and waiting. However, if you run a blinder (as some of our runners did) and shave some time off, there’s a risk your runner might not be there waiting for you. It’s high stress stuff for those on the support crew, trying to make sure everything runs smoothly.

So at 4:15am, as I was putting my contact lenses in, I got a message saying my leg would be due to start no later than 5:30am. My previous start time had been 6:08am. And Pete and I had planned to be there 40 minutes in advance. So cue a somewhat, um, “energetic” rush round the house. Pete got to me at 4:48am, 12 minutes earlier than we’d originally planned, and we crossed our fingers and set off.

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Now we hadn’t planned for mega thick fog, which scuppered all chances of putting our foot down, and messages between us and the support crew were intermittent at best due to the ropey Fenland signal. And then we got to a mist-filled Feltwell it looked more like something out of a horror movie than a place where a hundred or so runners and crew would be gathered. Thankfully Pete had been organised and knew where in Feltwell we needed to be, so we finally parked up at around 5:25am, panicking ever so slightly that I needed to be kitted up and raring to go in 5 minutes. But as it turned out, the cheeky little sausages on the support team had been erring on the side of caution due to the previous runner arriving late for their handover, so in order to be sure I’d be there in time they’d told me to be there a tad earlier than necessary. I may not have been overly impressed as I stood in the freezing fog, but with hindsight it gave me bags of time to prepare myself, get hydrated, use the portaloo (3 times -standard) and grab the baton from John at a couple of minutes to 6:00am.

The fog was still super thick but it wasn’t too cold out once I got moving. It was also just starting to lighten up when I set off. It was a weird experience. I haven’t run for a while because of a grumpy foot (suspected tendonitis) and I am SO not a morning person. So the entire run seemed to pass super quickly in a bit of a blur, and I really didn’t take much in. I think I just went on autopilot. The sun came up when I was running but the fog was so thick I could barely see more than a few metres ahead of me. And it’s such a weird sensation to hear cars crawling along just a few metres behind you (every nighttime runner needs a support vehicle driving behind them). The Ely Runners crew (we were on the club’s B team) were just awesome, checking I was ok, and the human megaphone James knew me well enough to know that I’d respond well to some banter (by that I mean giving him the finger when he told me to hurry up). And before I knew it, I was being told I was 500 yards away but a cycling marshal (I resisted to urge to ask him how far that actually flipping meant as I haven’t a scoobie about yards) and then I was passing the baton to Pete, who had driven to his start point with Andy from the support crew.

After a few minutes to gather myself and to crow over the frankly RIDICULOUS medal Andy gave to me, we then hopped in the car and drove towards Downham Market to meet Pete, honking the horn and whooping at him as we overtook him a mile or so down the road.

The organisation that goes behind the RNR, both by the support crews and the overall organisers is unreal. This was its 31st year, and they had over 1000 runners taking part. They had marshals positioned 500 metres or so from the start of each checkpoint, who would shout team numbers over their walkie talkies to their colleagues waiting at the check point so that they could make sure the next runner was ready to go (provided they had turned up on time – apparently the chap in front of me had no one waiting for him at Wissington). On paper it looks like an absolute nightmare, but from my point of view it was seamless. The support crew even turned up with a coffee for me as I waited for Pete arrive in Downham Market (the van had switched to cycle support by then).

Pete roared in to Downham Market at around 8:07am, and handed over to Anne who was running the penultimate leg. We also managed to catch up with some members of the A team, who had made up enough time to overtake the B team during stage 16 (the idea is faster teams start later so every team taking part finishes in around a 45 minute window from 10:15am – 11am). Pete and I then hopped in to the car to drive the 25 minutes home (the beauty of our stage of the race is that it’s the closest part of Norfolk to Ely) and at 9:30am went to Arbuckle’s with Rachel, her and Pete’s daughter Ellie and somewhat randomly my parents, niece and nephew. A great end to a great event.

On paper the RNR seems wildly complex, and in some ways it really is. But it’s also SO well done, and it’s an incredible event to be part of. Some people are doing epic feats of endurance (some legs, including one that falls in the early hours, are 19 miles long) and the atmosphere is great. If you’re thinking of entering a team I can’t recommend it enough, if only to go home with a medal that doubles up as a cake plate. I really hope I’m lucky enough to take part again next year. Huge thanks to our organisers Sarah, Steve Caroline, Andy and James. We could not have done this without you depriving yourselves of sleep for 30+ hours, not to mention the hours of organising in the run up to the event. And after all this, I might even wear that flipping hoodie again!

Aha!

The Kevin Henry 5k Season 2017 – My Review

I can’t believe it’s been a month since the Kevin Henry 5k League season finished! In the past this set of races ran until the first Thursday of September, but this year they compressed it into 5 months instead of 6. At the time I was pretty unhappy with this as it meant that sometimes there were only two weeks between races, and as someone who gets quite wound up in race situations (ahem) it felt like my stress levels remained consistently high.

But I love racing 5ks once I get going. Yes it can be really tough to sustain that “faster-than-is-entirely-comfortable” pace and to get used to that burn in your chest and the ache in your legs, but I love the feeling that floods your body after a fast 5k. I just don’t get the same runners’ high from other race distances.

I was nervous about how the season would go. Since changing jobs my training regime has changed considerably. My regular lunchtime track sessions have gone out of the window (which I really miss), and I’ve shifted my evening focus a bit more to working with our junior runners. So at the start of every race I was armed with a decent set of excuses (like I usually am pre-race) and I kept telling people I wasn’t as fit as last year.

Turns out I really need to stop whinging, as I ended up beating all of my 2016 race times apart from one. I’m basically the running equivalent of the boy who cried wolf. Here’s my breakdown (the times in brackets are my 2016 times):

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Newmarket was a pretty sight when we left at least…

27th April – Cambridge Tri Club: 20:29 (21:50), 94th runner out of 307, 14th female

11th May – Ely Runners: 20:41 (20:48), 83rd runner out of 297, 13th female

8th June – Newmarket Joggers: 21:31 (21:17), 107th runner out of 301, 15th female

29th June – Saffron Striders: 20:44 (20:51), 85th runner out of 284, 10th female

13th July – Haverhill Running Club: 21:01 (21:48), 84th runner out of 283, 9th female

3rd August – C&C: 20:30 (20:41), 112th runner out of 321, 12th female*

Of the 6 races, Newmarket is the one that I stress about the most mainly because they don’t have toilets on site, something I’ve complained about before. They’re nearly 1k away, which when you’re a nervous pee-er, is simply not good enough (in my opinion) so I always start that race in a really stressed out state. It was also a warm evening, and I tried to keep up with an Ely Junior who had finished just behind me at the Ely race. As it turns out he was massively slacking off at Ely as he smashed Newmarket in 20:00 minutes dead and completed the last race of the season in 19:17. Blooming hustler. The moral of that story is to run your own race, not someone else’s.

The one I’m most proud of is Haverhill. Regular readers of this blog might remember last year’s meltdown but this year I dug deep and managed to pace it just right. I was a little disappointed at first not to have dipped under 21:00, but I soon managed to put my rational thinking cap back on to realise that to have taken 47 seconds off a 5k was utterly brilliant. As for the last race, I turned up to it completely exhausted. I have a little too much on my plate at the moment (all my own doing) and I was just running on empty. But I wanted to try and end the season having done all 6 races, so I was going to run it no matter what. Thankfully I happened to bump into Lauren Bradshaw fresh from some mental marathon, and she said her legs weren’t feeling too hot either, so we agreed to run together and aim for something like 21 minutes. Her famous last words were “you’ll have to drag me round”.

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Comparing red faces at Haverhill

Did I heck. The absolute speed demon shot off, chatting to fellow runners on the way as I struggled to settle my breathing. The first 3k were really hard. I didn’t want to let Lauren down by slowing up as I knew she’d want to be loyal and stay with me, so I just tried to focus on my breathing as much as possible and not let the panic in my chest rise like it did at Newmarket. The headwind was also really unhelpful, but I kept having to remind myself that I’d be grateful to have it behind me on the final 1k. On the last 300m around the track I could suddenly hear someone thundering behind us. No way was I letting Lauren work that hard for us to be beaten on the line so I sped up and she responded and I finished just behind her. At first I thought I might have gotten a PB but it turns out that I was 12 seconds off it. So the 2015 5k PB still stands but you know what? That was a stronger season than I could have hoped for, and next year I can aim for that sub 21:00 Haverhill race and maybe even sneak that PB.

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With the legend that is Bradders

* The C&C race had Lauren in the position behind me, but she definitely finished in front of me so I’ve put the times she was given.

Spitfire Scramble 2017 – Saying Goodbye to my Comfort Zone

What would take you outside of your comfort zone? Wing walking? Swimming with sharks? Getting a hug off Donald Trump in your favourite white outfit?

Well for me, it’s camping. Yep, you heard that right. I am the sort of person who loves hot showers, clean toilets and my own bed. After a horrendous camping experience when I was 11 (freak Lauren out became everyone’s favourite activity on that trip), I had no inclination to do it again. EVER. My friend Lucy put it perfectly when she said “why would you choose to spend your free time living at a lower standard than you do normally?”. FYI that’s the clean version of what she actually said, but it summed up my feelings on the matter.

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My ever supportive friends and family.

So how exactly did I find myself camping in a field just outside Dagenham, losing punch-ups with poison-fanged insects and substituting showers with baby wipes? I honestly have no idea. I just know that in October last year my friend and all-round adventure-seeker Jen asked for runners to join her team of 8 people for the 24-hour Spitfire Scramble, and I put my name down. I’m assuming she caught me at a moment when both my caffeine and sugar levels had completely crashed and I was in the midst of some sort of hallucination where I thought I was Bear Grylls*. It’s the only thing I can think of.

But July flew round, and three days before we set off I realised I should probably order a sleeping bag, pillow and mat (I’m nailing this adulting malarkey). After a frustrating 2.5 drive from Cambridge, we were in a field on a Friday evening, and I was actually vaguely helping to pitch a tent whilst mildly panicking about what lay ahead. I also had to make the decision to take out my contact lenses and leave them out for the next 36 hours, reasoning that running slightly blind was preferable to an eye infection. That first night, I was so glad that I was in the company of Jen and Becky (later joined by Paula, Fiona, Ruth, Paul, Rachael and Chris, plus Rachael and Chris’ AMAZING dogs Yogi and Boo). They made me laugh non stop, sorted me out with food, and Becky gave me wine, which made her a demi-god in my eyes at that moment. I went to bed pretty early (party pooper), and actually managed a semi-decent 8.5 hours of sleep, only waking a couple of times when the temperature dipped.

The amazeballs Yogi and Boo. Boo ran 17 miles! 

On Saturday morning, Jen, Paul and Ruth made plans to go to Harrow Lodge parkrun just 2 miles down the road. Ruth and Paul had come camping with their incredibly cute 3 year old daughter Katie who wanted to be pushed around parkrun in her buggy, and if you met her you’d find it hard to say no to her too (especially when she talks about being a “hairy” princess and pronounces Essex “Eggets”). Then Jen checked the time of the 1st place woman the week before, and she had clocked 23:58. Obviously my competitive side kicked in instantly,  and knowing that even taking it easy I could do a 22 minute parkrun, I decided to go along. Of course, a SUPER speedy woman turned up and smashed it in 19:38, so I had to make do with 2nd place. It was a lovely course though, and a nice way to stretch my legs before the Spitfire Scramble got under way, and Ruth and I also took the opportunity to stuff our faces with a massive breakfast at the park cafe. I only got slightly worried when it started to rain…

When we got back to the campsite, our remaining team members John and Mel had arrived, and the 8 of us with our support team of Jen, Fiona and Becky were ready to go. With his trusty whiteboard in place Chris took charge of the running schedule, and my first 5.7 mile lap was due to start around 4:30pm.

Pretty sunset, tired and sweaty runner.

The way the Spitfire Scramble works is pretty simple. There are different categories, from solo runners up to a maximum of 8. We were obviously in the mixed 5-8 category, with 5 female and 3 male runners. We all had to estimate how quickly we would do our laps, and then the next runner in sequence went down to the changeover zone about 10 minutes before the next runner was due in. Initially I’d assumed we’d each do 3 laps, taking it nice and easy and coming in around the hour mark, with the chance that one or two of us might squeeze in a 4th lap.

MEGALOLZ.

It turned out pretty quickly that we were all being quite cagey with our estimates and were coming in quite a few minutes under (I estimated 55 minutes but came in at 44 for lap 1), so our runners’ schedule was continuously updated.  As I saw my next laps were scheduled for 10:15pm and 4:15am,  I felt myself starting to panic that I couldn’t even manage a second lap let alone a third, so I messaged my running friends Pete and Rach in a bit of a panic, but with the aid of some trusty GIFs they quickly talked some sense into me. I then saw that our three speedy speedsters John, Paul and Mel had all signed up for a double nighttime shift (just casually running 11.5 miles in the dead of night, no biggie) to ensure that their teammates could get as much rest as possible. So no way was I going to let them down.

Although my second lap was my slowest, it was also my most sociable. I teamed up with what turned out to be the Race Director of that morning’s parkrun, Mark, and when he stopped at 4 miles to get some water from his support crew, I then ran the final 1.7 miles with Shimpei from Guildford, who distracted me from the monster hill that loomed up just before mile 5. I also weirdly enjoyed the 4:30am lap, mainly because I got to watch the (only slightly blurry) sunrise.

When I got back from that lap around 5:15am, I saw that I had been put down for a 4th and final lap at around 9:45am. I cannot tell you how badly I didn’t want to run another lap. I’ll be honest, I hadn’t done any real training for this event. I’d told myself it would be 3 10ks spread over 24 hours, which seems weirdly manageable. Had I known I’d end up doing 26 miles in 26 hours, I would have bleeding well trained. As I got ready to snatch a couple of hours of sleep John assured me that they could cover me if I couldn’t do my 4th lap, which made me feel terrible when he’d already done a double and was down for a total of 5 laps. I went to sleep at around 6am, and told everyone I’d be up at 8am to see if I could manage my 4th lap, but I already knew I was going to do it.

To be honest, I don’t really remember much about that last lap. I’d had a total of around 5 hours of sleep (from around 12:30am-3:30am and 6am-8am), and I was definitely running on pure adrenalin. I thought I’d be lucky to come in under an hour, but I somehow managed 46 minutes, meaning all 4 of my laps had comfortably come in under 50 minutes. In total, our team managed 31 laps, and we came 5th out of 47 teams in our category. We all joined John as he crossed the line for the last time, and the medals we received were frankly awesome.  And then suddently it was all over. I was in complete awe of how quickly everyone managed to pack up their things, and we were on the road by 1pm and in contrast to our journey there were back in Cambridge in just over an hour.

Photo taken after lap1. Boo was the ultimate spirit lifter.

I can say without doubt that the Spitfire Scramble was the most mentally challenging event I’ve ever done, but also the one I’m most proud of. As for my thoughts on the actual event itself, the atmosphere is one of the best I’ve ever come across, with brilliant marshals and a lovely supportive atmosphere from all other runners. Although there were times at night when it felt like you were totally on your own, the event was well sign posted, Jen’s chest light was brilliant (you have to wear a light between 8pm and sunrise), and the mini glowsticks on the path were so useful. They had a water station halfway round the route which was manned throughout the 24 hours, and they had another self-serve one at the changeover area as well. The toilets were really well looked after and regularly cleaned, but you had to get a coach to be driven to a local school for showers, so we all decided wet wipes would be good enough for 36 hours! Needless to say that shower when I got home was the best one I have ever had. Ever ever. The medal is also an absolute BEAUT.

I think the only downside of the event is that they could have done with some more food trucks on site. They only had one, and people were queuing for up to half an hour just to get a coffee. A couple of extra hot drink vans might have been useful (I would have killed for Silver Oak Coffee and the Rural Coffee Project to have been there!), and all of our team agreed that an ice cream van would have been flipping awesome.

My recovery from the event was more intense than I expected. Although my legs felt fine, my back and left foot felt seriously fatigued, and I was mentally exhausted. I would say that I didn’t feel back to normal until the following Friday, and I pretty much ate whatever I could get my hands on for a good 5 or 6 days. The almond croissant market definitely saw a boost.

Would I do it again? If you’d asked me that last week it would have been an emphatic no, possibly accompanied by a headbutt. When Jen mentioned that some of the team were doing the Thunder Run just a week later I thought they were well and truly out of their trees (I still do to be honest). But as each day passes, a teeny tiny part of me is thinking “hmm….maybe…”. So ask me again in a couple of months. Maybe that sleeping bag will see the light of day again after all.

*Yes. To me 2 nights of camping is the equivalent of Bear Grylls living on an island for 60 days eating nothing but sand and raw fish and sleeping under a net of snakes whilst setting fire to himself. I’m a drama queen, ok?

 

 

 

 

The Simple Joy of the Running Commute

A while ago, a runner (and all round awesome person) I know was telling me about how much she loved her running commute. I nodded along, smiling at the thought of it, feeling slightly awestruck at the mental distance she was regularly covering (10 miles!), but never thinking it was something I would add into my routine. It was too difficult to organise, too hard for me to work out how to get kit to and from work, and too hard for me to downscale all that tat I shove into my bike pannier and take with me to work every day.

Oh how wrong I was.

I’m not even sure how it started. I know one day back in March my friend Pete decided to run from Cambridge to Waterbeach, which is around 10k along the river. He did it, and I happened to bump into him as he was jogging back home. He was full of the joys of his run, if feeling a little foolish at deciding to stick both a coat and an umbrella in his rucksack. I guess you never know right?

I started thinking seriously about giving it a go, chatting to some runners on Twitter, and seeing just how many people love choosing running as part of their commute to or from work. So I decided to get myself a running backpack (this Deuter Speed Lite was a steal back in April for £25), and managed to learn to pack light. For anyone who knows me well, this is nothing short of a miracle. I swapped my journey to work, leaving my bike at Ely station and walking the 1.3 miles to work from Cambridge station in my running gear, changing into my carefully chosen lightweight work outfit when I reached the office. At the end of the day, I then jogged half a mile to meet Pete outside the Scott Polar Research Institute and off we went, running a mile through the city until we hit the river path.

And blooming heck what a gorgeous run it is. It’s so easy to follow, nice and flat, not super busy with people (so long as you avoid The Bumps!) and flipping full of nature. On our first run together we saw herons, swans and deer. We time it so that there are two trains we can catch from Waterbeach 15 minutes apart (so if you miss the first train on the old cold day you don’t freeze waiting on a platform for ages as your sweat dries – attractive I know). We’ve only had one really buggy day (a miracle when you’re running alongside water) when we both landed beasties in the eyes, but that’s such a small issue to deal with. The best bit of all is that we’re both feeling faster when we run without rucksacks. I’m not sure if we actually are, but there’s a lot to be said about the mental boost of feeling like you’re flying just a little bit faster than normal.

The only problem now is I’m not sure what I’ll do when winter rolls back in. I know it’s ages off now, but the riverside isn’t lit at all, so running home after work simply won’t be an option. The only choice would be to switch the commute from evening to morning, and as someone who isn’t a morning person OR a morning exerciser, this doesn’t exactly appeal.

But six months without my weekly run commute? I feel bereft just thinking about it. You may well see me on that 7:30 train after all…

The Wings for Life World Run – A New Favourite

I can’t believe that it’s already been four weeks since I did the Wings for Life World Run (and have done very little else other than the Ely hosted Kevin Henry 5k League Race and the usual training runs). Time is slipping away from me and there is a decent reason for this (I’m working on a new project) but I’ll explain more about that in another post another day.

Long time readers of this blog will know that I did the Wings for Life last year and loved it despite the bonkers blazing heat. I was lucky enough to hook up with two other awesome Ely Runners and loved it so much that I signed up for the 2017 run the next day. It’s amazing how quickly those sign ups roll around isn’t it?

The Wings for Life is unlike any other race I’ve ever done. The atmosphere is amazing, and yet weirdly so much more chilled out than any other big city centre race. Admittedly it’s only about 40% the size of the Cambridge Half Marathon (when you take into account drop outs) but it seems so much smaller. And when you have David Coulthard mooching about, taking photos with excitable runners and making jokes about dog’s bottoms, you know you’re on to something special.

I had originally arranged to run this with an old work colleague a while back, but due to unforeseen circumstances he could no longer do it, so a couple of weeks before the run I arranged to run it with Justin, a fellow Ely runner, who in bonkers fashion had only run his first ever marathon 6 days earlier. I know. The lovely thing about Justin is that he’s a much better runner than he thinks he is, but he also totally gets my running quirks and just lets them exist with no drama (which ironically makes them less likely to be an issue – it’s being around other highly strung runners that make my anxieties flare). So as we arrived in Cambridge stupidly early, I found myself really looking forward to it.

At about 11:40am, we all gathered on the start and Justin and I made sure we stood on the right of the pen to ensure a high five from Mr Coulthard (a lesson learned from the 2016 race). It was about then that I realised that I was actually blooming hungry, and scarfing my flapjack at 9:45am had been unwise. Fuelling for a midday run is NOT easy. But off we set at 12pm sharp, and high five secured Justin and I were off.

And boy did we run. The two of us decided we didn’t really care how far we got or how fast we ran, and we took full advantage of the water stations, making sure to stop and fuel properly without pressure. We settled into a really nice comfortable pace, and the weather was absolutely ideal, which was such a relief after last year. It wasn’t until about 15k that Justin’s marathon started to catch up with him and his foot started giving him some gyp, so we slowed down and decided to see if we could just manage to beat my distance from last year (17.89km).

We flipping SMASHED it.

Somehow, the two of us charged on to the half marathon mark, and with tears in my eyes as I realised that this was the furthest I had EVER run, we kept plugging away. It was at around 21.5k that we heard a rumble from the crowd behind us and knew that the catcher car was starting its final chase towards us. So we belted it, praying that we would make 22k. We did, and still the catcher car wasn’t on us, and 23k suddenly seemed possible. With Justin’s blessing I “took the bloody handbrake off” and belted for the 23k mark before finally watching the catcher car cruise past me at 23.25k. Weirdly enough I ended up outside the house of someone I knew (but had no idea they lived in Willingham) and chatted with them until Justin arrived and gratefully accepted a bit of cake (thanks Bex!) before we walked to the nearest bus stop.

The bus ride back was insane. It was FULL of runners (my heart went out to those who ended up standing, but not so much that I offered them my seat), and as we drove through all the villages (Willingham was about as far from the start as you can get on the route) we were waved at by hundreds of people. I think that’s as close as I’ll ever get to being part of something akin to an Olympics parade! It was the most amazing feeling, but the buzz was dulled slightly when we saw the queue for the bag collection.

Luckily I ADORE this run and won’t say a bad thing about it, but flipping heck that queue was insane. Memo to self – don’t use the bag drop next year unless you really, really have to. You’re better off convincing a friend to come to Cambridge with you and paying for them to stay in the Grain and Hop Store stuffing their face with sweet potato fries while you run. There was zero order to it, and Justin ended up having to find his bag himself after the WFL volunteer couldn’t locate it in the mess.

But this was such a small blip. This event is just my absolute favourite (sorry Cambridge half) and I’m praying that they keep it in Cambridge. I’m sure it will still be brilliant if they move it elsewhere, but the awesomeness of the race combined with the perfect location for me is what makes this race truly special.

And I have to say the biggest thank you to Justin – he’s INCREDIBLY TALENTED (!) and such an easy running companion. We talked when we felt like it and stayed quiet when we didn’t. It was effortless and I wouldn’t have done half as well without him. He is also a champion photographer spotter and I’ve never had such a great selection of race photos! Same time again next year turtleflea?

 

 

The Instant Camaraderie of Runners

I know you’ve all watched it by now. Or if you’re like me, you’ve watched it about 40 times. The moment Swansea Harriers’ Matt Rees stopped 200m from the end of the London Marathon to help David Wyeth from Chorlton Runners reach the finish line. David’s legs had gone to jelly, his body having run out of carbohydrate stores and he was in danger of not making it. He was agonisingly close to the finish line, waving past runners who were slowing down to check on him and claiming that he was ok. But Matt knew fully well that he wasn’t, and chucking his own time out of the window he helped get David to the finish.

Matthew Rees Credit London Marathon

Credit: London Marathon

Twitter went bonkers, and rightfully so. The London Marathon has the ability to bring grown adults to tears as they sit on the sofa, drinking tea and eating mint Oreos (just me?) whilst marvelling at people putting themselves through the most mentally tough thing some of them will ever do. Let’s face it, the world is a bit of a “funny” place right about now, and sometimes we all need to have our faith in humankind rekindled, and watching the way people help and support each other in feats of physical endurance (let’s not forget Alistair Brownlee helping Jonny across the finish line in the Triathlon World Series in Mexico – and letting him cross the line first no less) is a sure fire way to melt even the iciest of hearts.

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But it doesn’t just happen on the world stage. At the 1st Kevin Henry League race of the season last week, I found myself struggling with about 1.5k to go. I wasn’t going easy on myself, and I was pretty cold after getting caught in a hailstorm on the way to the race. I also had a few people overtake me (including some ridiculously chirpy folk, Andrew and Lauren, I’m talking about you!), which doesn’t happen that often and made me panic that I had gone off too fast. At the 4k mark I knew I was going to make it to the finish ok, but I knew it was going to be ugly – when my breathing starts sounding like a dog who has inhaled a broken harmonica I know I’m in trouble. But then I realised that I was running side by side with a Haverhill Runner, and by some miracle I was managing to match my pace to his. I swore like an absolute trouper (but I did apologise after every verbal bomb, honest) and somehow this lovely man kept me going, offering encouragement and saying things like “come on, only 400m to go”. And then to top it all off, he let me cross the line first. What a blooming legend.

So the next day I tweeted that I owed this man a drink and copied in the Haverhill Running Club, and then a few days later another runner I follow on Twitter sent me this (someone from the Club had clearly mentioned me on their Facebook page):

Haverhill Neil

There I was thinking he had dragged me round, when really we had dragged each other round, and he got a PB to boot. We’re running for different clubs but we just desperately wanted to get each other across that finish line in one piece. I’ve since chatted to Neil on Facebook, and I’ve no doubt we’ll be running together again and who knows? Maybe we’ll both get a PB this season (but if we don’t, that’s ok too)! I love running for so many reasons, but the bond it can create between complete strangers is just awesome.

Acupuncture and I: A New Love Story

Regular readers of this blog will know that 2016 was a tough running year for me. I had so many injury niggles over the year, and my anxiety around my running got so bad that I had to step back from races and even longer runs because my IBS flare ups were making it impossible to run.

But then towards the end of last year, a friend reached out with the idea of an experiment of sorts, after reading my blog post about my IBS. This friend is an acupuncturist in Ely, and we know each other through a mutual friend. We actually ran Insane Terrain as part of a team of 4 back in 2014. So, he offered to give me a few free sessions of acupuncture, and if they went well I could tell you guys about it, and if they didn’t help me, we could just part ways and continue to meet up at the odd get together.

Now I’ve always been pretty open to the idea of “alternative therapies” (the category that acupuncture tends to get lumped into) so I was more than happy to give it a go. After an introduction session where Anthony spent about an hour learning about my medical background (reasonably complex) and commenting on my “slippery” pulse (that didn’t sound like a compliment), I then had a cluster of treatments over a 6 week period, before moving to a treatment every 4-6 weeks.

Insane Terrain

Insane Terrain. Yes those shorts were odd.

The good thing about Anthony is that although he is incredibly knowledgeable about what he does, he is in no way preachy about it, something I would struggle to get on board with. Instead he just drops into the conversation the fact that I have too much “Yang” (always go, go, go for me) in between the two of us putting the world to rights discussing everything from politics to reality TV. He is incredibly easy to talk to and is also a huge advocate of discussing the importance of mental health, a cause close to my heart (he highly recommends the Headspace app and is the brains behind Talking FreELY, a new Mental Health Awareness group in Ely). All of these things make a great practitioner.

As for the treatment itself, I do get a load of needles put into me (I think the most was maybe about 25) but they don’t hurt. Sometimes they cause a pins and needles sensation but it’s never uncomfortable. Anthony also uses moxa, a herb which he lights and allows to smoulder on my back which is then removed as soon as I start to feel the heat. It’s used to impact on the flow of “qi” in the area being treated, and I am obsessed with the smokey aroma it gives off. A nice side effect. He also often places ear seeds on my ear on trigger points where I can press on them whenever I feel my anxiety building.

But I guess the question is, did acupuncture work for me? My IBS issues during training all but disappeared (apart from when I failed to avoid triggers, such as episodes of unusually high stress or a super strong coffee less than 2 hours before a 10 mile run – idiotic) and my general demeanour around races has been a lot calmer. But the real test was always going to be the Cambridge Half Marathon. A race with a capacity of 9000 runners is huge for me. I hate being in large crowds, and in previous years I would be unbearable to be around from about 2 weeks before the race. Usually I would be maybe 15% excited and 85% nervous about a race like this, but this year it was easily the other way around. I also planned my morning pretty carefully, hanging out at my sister’s until about 10 past 9, before running/jogging to Jesus Green, using the completely empty public toilets there (perhaps I shouldn’t be letting you lot in on this tip!) and then simply hopping the gate into my starting pen 4 minutes before the race was due to start. I avoided all of those stress triggers, and went on to do the race of my life. I firmly believe that the treatment Anthony has done on me has played a huge part in my running epiphany, and I’ve been a (paying) customer of his since the start of the year, and will continue to be from now on.

The Race of my Life – My Review of the 2017 Cambridge Half Marathon

So. The Cambridge Half Marathon has been and gone. And flipping heck, it turned out to be the race of my life.

This epiphany stuff isn’t half bad.

My other half may argue that this wasn’t the case, but in the lead up to this year’s Cambridge Half, I felt like a different person to previous years. Yes I was still nervous, but it wasn’t all consuming. I think there are a lot of reasons for this. Some of it is down to the support I received from Progress as part of the prize I won with Saucony and OSB Events. I was lucky enough to work with two awesome women (Lauren Bradshaw a Specialist Sports Physio, and Hannah Crighton a Massage Therapist) who have both competed and taken part in sport at a pretty high level. They totally got why I would be so nervous about my running, but they also got me to think about why I started running in the first place and to rediscover my love for it. So in addition to expert physio and massage, and a bundle of exercises that I can keep using to improve my strength, I also got a bit of emotional therapy on the side.

Another thing I’ve worked so hard on over the last 3 months or so, is my Strength and Conditioning with Matt Matcham, who works at both Progress and the University of Cambridge Sports Centre. He made sure to pick a selection of exercises that he knew would challenge me, but that I would also enjoy. He knows that I react well to seeing quick improvements so he always made sure there were exercises that would see a steady rate of increase (I went from 35kg to 60kg deadlifts pretty swiftly), and he kept switching them up so that I wouldn’t get bored. I know that being stronger has made me a better athlete. In addition to all of this fitness stuff I’ve been getting some alternative treatment on the side, but I think this deserves a separate blog post in a day or two.

I also – as you know – arranged on Twitter to meet two girls who I have been following on there for a long time, and this created excitement and gave me something to focus on other than the run. Of course I can run 13.1 miles if there’s the promise of brilliant conversation and a plate of chips afterwards. The fact that I ran into Joanna on Saturday night (ok, I pretty much chased her down the road, but she seemed ok with it. I knew we were destined to be IRL besties) made it even better.

Jo and I

And then of course, there was the shift in my mental focus. This particular change was 7 years coming, and so many people have been commenting on how I seem like a different person now. When I’m running, if I feel good I push myself, and if I don’t I pull it back. I’m listening to my body and letting it tell me what it’s capable of, rather than beating myself up in the past when I thought I wasn’t good enough.

On the morning of the race, I knew to do what works for me. I left it until as long as possible to get to the start, leaving my sister’s house at 9:10am, jogging to Jesus Green and using the (completely empty) public toilets there, and then spotting fellow Ely Runner Andy at the start line (we had arranged for him to wait on the right of the pens in the hope that I’d find him) and then leaping the barrier (apologies to the chap whose phone I nearly kicked out of his hand) and being in my pen at 9:25am. Crowds avoided, and waiting down to a minimum.

When we started, I lost Andy fairly swiftly, purely because I’m a short arse, and it was so congested at the front that trying to get past slower runners was agonising unless you’re small enough to duck and weave. This didn’t really let up until we hit Trumpington Street, nearly 3 miles into the run. If I’m honest, I feel like the organisers have become a little greedy with their numbers. I got kicked in the shin turning the corner outside Jack Wills, and a fellow Ely Runner complained of being elbowed more than once. Of the 9000 spaces around 7000 ran (the weather was spectacularly horrible), and really it felt like too many, so I think they need to cap it at 7000 again (knowing that there is usually at least a 10% drop off in runs like this).

The conditions were tough. It was cold, wet and windy, but I felt pretty good for most of it. I was incredibly lucky to have support along the whole route. My mother in law was screaming her head off in Grantchester, I saw Mary at around the halfway mark, another friend’s mum and my amazing friends Ally and Chris were at mile 11 (when I hit the wall in epic fashion, so thank goodness for them. They were the only reason I didn’t stop to walk) and then my friends Pete, Rachel, Nick and Claire were waiting just before mile 12. Now Claire is an INCREDIBLE endurance runner, and when she screams at you to keep going, you bloody well do it. Although which evil sod put Elizabeth Way Bridge at Mile 12? At this point I was seriously in trouble, wheezing so loudly that I was apologising to the runners around me. Then I spotted Barry, another Ely Runner, around 20 metres in front of me, so I did everything I could to catch him up, knowing that he would be able to help me to the finish line, which the flipping legend of a man did.

I don’t think I have ever pushed my body so hard in a run, and when I saw that my time began with 1.3… I think I went a bit into shock. There’s nothing like a marshal putting out a hand and saying “are you ok?” to make you wonder just how blimmin’ awful you look. But with my toes burning from what would turn out to be some pretty epic blisters, I picked up my medal in a daze, caught up with Lauren at the Progress tent (who had smashed the 90 minute mark with 1:29:45) and then saw Ally and Chris running up to me, a box of brownies in their hands and the offer of a coffee, before they made me leave to go and get some warmer clothes from my sister’s house as my lips were turning blue. I feel at this point I should mention the mistake OSB made with the bag collection queues and lack of foils for runners. The conditions were pretty dangerous for people to be standing in the cold for that long, but they admitted the mistake really quickly, and are already looking at ways to improve it next year. And this was the only negative in what was a brilliant, brilliant race. The marshals and volunteers were the absolute best I have experienced, as were the people who came out to support runners. Doing that in such bleak weather made them all heroes in my eyes.

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When I got the text to say I had run 1:35:37, I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t to be honest. I never, ever imagined I could be that kind of runner, and I don’t know if I’ll ever achieve something like that again. And the best thing is, I don’t care. I didn’t run that race to achieve that time. It was just a brilliant side effect. I know I put in so much hard work over the last three months and set myself up as well as I can, but I also enjoyed the race (well, maybe not the last two miles), and that was my goal.

As for the pub trip afterwards, getting to know Joanna and Pip was just brilliant, and I convinced Ally and Chris to come along too, so I was surrounded by awesome, awesome people. Even though we came close to gnawing our own arms off thanks to an hour long wait for food, it was the best couple of hours I could have hoped for, and played a part in making March 5th 2017 a day I will never, ever forget.

Same time next year?

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“Comparison is the Thief of Joy” – My Running Epiphany (featuring Raj Koothrappali)

Throughout this post, I am going to use Raj from The Big Bang Theory to illustrate my thoughts. Just because he articulates them so beautifully.

raj-wreck-gif

Last year I fell out of love with running.

I’m not sure what the trigger was. It might have been the lack of consistent training due to my injuries and Alan being unwell at periods throughout the year. But more likely I think it’s the pressure I put on myself.

Why am I not as fast as last year?

Why am I not getting any PBs?

Why can’t I keep up with her?

WHY IS THIS IS SO HARD?

Good grief, how boring right? Imagine being in my head for all of 2016. It was exhausting and generally hideous and it made my hobby almost unbearable. I kept comparing myself to how I had run in 2015 and to other runners, and I kept telling myself I wasn’t doing well enough.

But compared to WHAT? It was all so utterly meaningless.

raj-wrong

My pre-race anxiety nearly obliterated my ability to run, especially during the Kevin Henry 5k series – I cried at at least two of them. I mean for goodness’ sake this was meant to be FUN. When did I turn into this stressed out athlete? When did running become something I had started to dread?

But a few weeks ago, something happened. I decided to stop caring so much. My mantra is now – cover your ears if you’re not a fan of the swears (forgive me, I’m half Irish) is “F*CK IT”.

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I think this partly came about because I recently updated the “races” section of my blog, and when I saw how many races I actually ran last year, I was in shock. I had no idea I’d done so many. I think because the vast majority of them weren’t the kind of races that come with goodie bags and selfie-worthy bling I hadn’t actually “counted” them. But I really should have done. Because they were each in their own way a big deal. I even won two trophies last year for crying out loud.

So, I’ve decided to stop caring about times and what everyone else is doing, and to fall in love with running again. For the first time ever I’m more excited than nervous about the Cambridge Half Marathon (if you’re a long time reader of this blog you’ll remember the terrible head space I was in last year). I’ve even arranged to meet up post-run with Joanna and Pip, two awesome Twitter peeps who I’ve wanted to meet IRL for AGES. I’ll be the one with the pink hair girls.

From now on, if a race goes well, great. If it doesn’t, there’s always another. Above all else I want to finish every run having enjoyed it. I know that with social media it can be so easy to fall into the comparison trap, but everyone who is out there running is an awesome runner, regardless of how often they run, the distance they cover or the pace they run at. I include myself in that.

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Thank you Raj. All GIFs from Giphy.