Riding Off Into The Sunset (aka Cross Training)

sunset Palera(this is what I did today)

I’m aware that this blog might give the impression that running is my main hobby. While I love to run with a furious passion, it’s not even my main physical activity. I happen to spend a much more significant portion of my free time looking after, training, and chilling out with this gorgeous creature:

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I’m the proud owner of the world’s most awesome supersteed. She’s a proper lady: strong and powerful, she oozes confidence, is honest and opinionated in equal and untold measures, but above all, she’s extremely loyal. This is certainly a friend to steal horses with.

So when my physiotherapist told me yesterday that he wants me to run a bit less over the coming two weeks, it only irked me a little bit. For the past few weeks, my right hip has been feeling somewhat sluggish and heavy. It rarely hurts, and if it does it’s mild pain which is very unpredictable. Even weirder is the fact that any pain goes away when I run on it for a few kilometres. Still, I can’t ignore the fact that every soft part of my hip is ever so slightly swollen and heavy, so I knew I had to get it checked out. I also knew that I was running on borrowed time and it wouldn’t be long before someone would tell me to cut back.

I’ve had a great year of running so far. Throughout the summer, I had boundless energy to do everything; I’d often run and ride on the same day.* This past month, running has been a real blessing which has eased me into the winter months and has helped me stay happy and focussed during a rather unkind November (for some reason things in my life always go belly-up in November).

I am still allowed to run a little, and I’m sure I’ll continue to enjoy many gentle doddles throughout December. I’ll stay active as the year draws to a close and if nothing else, it’s a great excuse to chase down the sunset on horseback a little more often!

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* I bet some of you are wondering why I don’t just go for a run with the horse, right? Well let me tell you that, in practice, this idea isn’t as cool as it sounds. The first kilometre or so I have to sprint like there’s no tomorrow to keep up with her massive, flying trot. After that, she starts to first eye, then shamelessly flirt with the grass by the side of the path, causing many a wobble. After approximately two kilometres she decides that this distance running malarkey is silly, and abruptly withdraws co-operation. You try dragging a 630km horse behind you while you run. Go on. I dare you.

Snoozing

Forward Momentum

I’ve read somewhere that the body needs at least half a day of recovery per mile run in a race, which would imply that it takes less than two weeks to physically recover from a marathon – which strikes me as a rather simplistic and optimistic estimate! Personally, it makes much more sense to me to to simply accept that recovery needs as long as it takes…

It’s been sixteen days since I ran my first (almost) marathon, and I have enjoyed the recovery almost more than the training itself. I’ve been out running wild and free on most days, with no regard for speed, pace, distance or elevation covered. It’s been a wonderful time to indulge in zen running at its finest.

Today, however, I felt a shift in the gears. For the first time, there was some genuine power in my legs and I felt like running fast. This was the first easy run since the marathon during which my pace had naturally, unnoticeably and comfortably dropped back to well below the 9-minute mile mark.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that today I also suddenly felt the urge to start training again and thought seriously about racing. When I got home, I scanned the horizon for my next potential target race. I’ve identified two serious contenders: I could revisit my favourite race distance and shoot for a new half-marathon PB at the Inverness Half Marathon, or aim for redemption by tackling the Rome Marathon – both of which are in March.

“In a moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.”

–          Theodore Roosevelt

In that spirit, I’ll sleep on it tonight, brew over some training plans and triangulate them with my diary tomorrow and make a decision by the end of the week. I can’t help by marvel at how natural all this has been and that both my body and mind found the perfect time to make it known that recovery is over. It’s time to get serious about running again…

Decisions,_decisions

Trailtroopers Tinsel Dash

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Mud, mud, elf, hill, ice, mud, river, log, rope, slide, mud, bog, elf, hill, waterfall, mud, net, Santa, chocolate! That’s the gist of the 10km Christmas-themed adventure “race” I ran this morning.

In the frosty mist I lined up for my first ever adventure race: the Trailtroopers Tinsel Dash at Finlaystone Country Estate. I was a little apprehensive about the prospect of jumping into icy water (repeatedly) on such a frosty day, not to mention the fact that I had no idea how my upper body strength would measure up against the many obstacles. My event-specific preparation consisted of one phone call to a friend who has run Tough Mudder. His advice: just accept that you’ll get very, very dirty.

With nothing else to go by, I heeded his advice and just threw myself into the adventure; mud, icy rivers, bogs and all. The run itself was wicked fun; a challenging dash across wonderfully wild terrain and countless fun and creative obstacles that were designed to get you alternately very, very muddy and/or very, very wet.

Rewards for completion include the cutest medal I have ever earned, a t-shirt I might actually wear outside of the house (and no, I don’t mean while painting the garden fence) and – wait for it – a Christmas-themed chocolate box, handed out by Santa himself. Christmas spirit officially obtained (I’m easily bribed).

All in all, I had a fantastic time and am chuffed to bits with my run. I fearlessly threw myself at, over, under or into every single obstacle and conquered them all. I also got completely soaked and exceptionally muddy and have acquired several bruises to show for my efforts. Personal highlights include slipping and faceplanting in the middle of an icy river and tackling the last two obstacles with my race number clenched between my teeth, as it had come off while crawling through the mud and the obstacles demanded action from both hands.

The whole event was very well organised; a challenging run in a fun winter-wonderland against the backdrop of a tongue-in-cheek Christmas theme.

However, one slight downside is that that the “race” nature of this run had to be treated with a bucket of tinsel. Although the run was timed, all obstacles are essentially voluntary. Some obstacles were clearly marked as bonus obstacles (e.g. wading up the icy river), at other obstacles the elvish marshals asked each runner whether or not they wanted to give it a shot (e.g. when carrying heavy items), and many obstacles were hidden out in the woods with no way of knowing which competitor actually completed them. However, in all cases, whether or not the obstacle was tackled by a competitor was in no way recorded or considered in the finishing times.

While I can understand the merits of giving competitors the option of skipping obstacles they are not comfortable with, this “free for all” nature of the event meant that finish times and especially the positions of individual competitors were not particularly meaningful. Still, the organisers gave prices for the top three finishers, even though it was clear that these individuals had simply skipped some of the harder and more time consuming obstacles.

But not to worry, it was still a wild, wicked and wonderfully wintry adventure. Besides, Santa will no doubt know that this little runner was a very good girl this year and has completed every single obstacle!

Two Nights, One Village

Considering that I’m a trail-running tree-hugger at heart, I never thought that I could enjoy spending wintry evenings running on the roads.

The fact is that I simply wouldn’t feel safe on the trails in the darkness, especially because I often run on my own. I still haven’t been able to move myself to head to the gym and revisit the dreadmill, so this week, in a somewhat desperate move, I’ve simply stepped out my front door and ran around my village.

Inspired by the lovely smallislandrunner, I decided to make a game out of it, and over two evenings ran along every street in my little village. I’ve lived here for a few years, but this still helped me discover a few nooks and crannies I have never visited before.

What’s more, it’s been really good fun – I enjoyed the silence of the streets at night, watching my shadow dance in the street lamp light and listening to my footfall on the damp sidewalks.

Isn’t it funny how things that we dread can turn out to be so good for us?

Pittenweem Night

The Greatest Metaphor for Life

“Running is the greatest metaphor for life, because you get out of it what you put into it.”

Never before have the lessons I learn from running and life in general been as similar as they are now.

In a previous post, I have marvelled at finding a renewed joy in running, now that the organised training for a marathon is behind me.

I’m discovering that with the loss of structure and no longer being committed to a cause comes a wonderful and delicious sense of freedom. And with freedom come new opportunities. I am free to run whenever I want, simply follow my heart to new or old places and do so for as long as I desire. I am learning that I am the type of person who is happy to take a risk and doesn’t get crushed by failure.

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It turns out that I quite like the thrill of being a little bit lost in the world. It opens up the possibility of finding new paths to travel, whether by running them on my own two legs or more an exploration of life in general.

And no, I’m not going to apologise for the positive and dreamy nature of this post, because that is who I am!

love-everything

We Learn From Failure, Not From Success.

“I am glad that I paid so little attention to good advice; had I abided by it, I might have been saved from some of my most valuable mistakes.”

–  Edna St. Vincent Millay

Prior to running the Athens Classical Marathon, I had contemplated a plethora of possible race scenarios: great run, good run, fun run, slow run, tough run, seemingly endless run, painful run… The one thing that wasn’t on my list of conceivable outcomes was the dreaded DNF. This post is not really intended as a moan about the first race I’ve not completed (ok, maybe a little); it’s mostly about accepting that stuff (and other things beginning with s) happens.

I’m happy to make a mistake. Heck, sometimes I go and make the same mistake three or four times, just to make sure that it’s definitely a mistake. However, now that I have learned that making a mistake in a marathon results in a long, long journey of inconceivable misery, which slowly descends towards a final destination in the depths of deepest despair, I have decided that there are some mistakes I’d rather not repeat.*

So what went wrong?

First and foremost, I simply wasn’t prepared for the heat on the day of the race. And to be fair, nobody was prepared for that, as average temperatures in Athens are around 14 degrees in November. On the day of the marathon, it was officially 26 degrees, but my watch clocked a scorching 31 degrees around lunchtime. To say that I didn’t train in these conditions is an understatement – living in Scotland, I never had a chance to do so.

Still, on the day of the race I did everything as I had practised during my long runs – which meant that after a mere 12 kilometres I was experiencing the first signs of dehydration.

At this point, my lack of experience with the distance and conditions meant that I never realised what was happening to me and therefore failed to do anything useful to remedy the situation. If I had slowed down significantly at this point in the race and re-fuelled properly, I believe that I might have drastically changed the nature of my subsequent run.

Instead, I just decided to do what every darn motivational message about marathons tells you to do; I kept going when things got tough. As it turned out, this was the single worst thing I could have done. (Oh, hindsight!) I’ve learned an important lesson about marathons (and life in general) and that is that there is only one rule when it comes to holes: when you are in one, don’t keep digging.

Ultimately, my marathon debut ended after 40 kilometres as a result of a rookie hydration and nutrition mistake, coupled with my complete lack of experience of how to deal with these issues.

However, it would be unfair to write the whole event off as a failure.

Head in Hands

Despite not crossing the finish line, it wasn’t all bad:

I ran 40 km in one go, which is further than I have ever run before. Okay, so it was two kilometres short of the finish line.  On a training run, that little shortfall wouldn’t even bother me. I still ran from Marathon to Athens, and the modern route is longer than that which Pheidippides ran all those years ago. Unlike the Greek hero, I survived the experience (barely). Hey, I even got further than Paula Radcliffe did on the same route in 2004.

Secondly, I absolutely loved the training. Not for a second did I think that it was all for nothing – nothing that happened on the day of the race can diminish the 1000 wonderful kilometres I have run in preparation for the race. I also believe that my training itself was good – my legs felt great on the day and my recovery was swift.

On the day, I handled the tricky start of the race quite well, in that my pacing was steady and appropriate. I have some fantastic memories of locals handing olive branches to the runners around the tomb of Marathon and even brought one home with me. I loved seeing hundreds of children standing by the side of the road, watching the runners fly by with big, admiring eyes and outstretched hands waiting for a high-five. I was happy to oblige, as often as I could.

I actually ran a pretty good and well-paced first half of the marathon. I should add that I’m reasonably familiar with racing the half-marathon distance. Although I have never before run into trouble as early as 12km in a race before, I somehow can’t help but think that I subconsciously went into some half-marathon survival mode which I didn’t even know I possess, but which could nevertheless come in very handy in future races.

Finally, I’m genuinely glad that I stopped when I did. Pulling out of the race was not easy, but it has taught me a lot about myself as a person and as a runner. Some runners drop out of races the moment their goal time becomes unattainable while others don’t drop out until they literally collapse. I was physically unwell when I stopped; shaking and weakened by severe cramps. Clearly, I’m not a runner who will run myself to oblivion for the sake of a medal. I’m cool with that. I am grateful for the moment of clarity I had during the darkest moments of the race: I run for fun, because I enjoy it and because it’s good for me. Ok, so I won’t be an Olympic runner any time soon. I’m glad I’ve cleared that up for myself.

And now the rant – I’m sorry. (I’m not sorry.)

Sometimes, dropping out of a race is the right thing to do. There, I said it. I know it directly defies the countless pictures, articles, motivational slogans, mugs, t-shirts, and whatnots which suggest that running is painful but that true runners are so awesome they rise above the pain and keep going anyways. I’ve learned that this can be a dangerous message. Running on tired legs and fighting fatigue is one thing every runner needs to face at some point. However, this should not be confused with running through an injury or genuine physical distress, which is just silly, self-destructive and dangerous.

I’m not trying to justify my own actions; I maintain that I am glad that I dropped out of my first marathon. Sure, a DNF is a nasty blow to the system (not to mention ego), but I’d take it any day over a medal presented in conjunction with an IV drip in the back of an ambulance on route to the nearest A&E.

Because I dropped out, I was able to run again in the days that followed the race. It also meant that despite everything, my first marathon has been a positive experience for me, and one which has taught me so much!

forward

*Naturally, I’m already planning my next marathon.

Tourist Runs Wild

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The physical recovery from the (almost) marathon I ran on Sunday was surprisingly smooth. For the remainder of the day I resembled a shrivelled up zombie, only capable of stumbling around aimlessly and producing various goaning noises. On Monday morning my limping was more purpuseful and less stiff, and by lunchtime I was tucking into a big plate of pasta. Monday afternoon I was capable of walking down three flights of stairs (facing forward) and went for a 5km recovery jog around Athens. Since then, I’ve been for several more runs in and around this great city.

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My post-marathon running plan is incredibly straightforward: enjoy running.

It’s not as though I didn’t enjoy my pre-marathon training runs – quite the oposite in fact. However, for the past 16 weeks or so, each and every run had a purpose: work on speed, run some hills, run 18 miles. While I have absolutely benefitted as a runner from this strict regime, I also love the freedom of running outwith such boundaries.

Nevertheless, my runs this week have been a bit of a shock to the system; no glancing at my watch, no thoughts about pace, elevation or distance covered. At first I felt a little lost (ok, I admit, I really did get lost several times in this massive city!), but then it came back to me so easily: put one foot in front of the other, follow your heart for as long as you like, head in whatever direction looks most tempting, and enjoy the scenery. I’ve spent several happy hours exploring Athens and it’s surroundings in my beloved running shoes. I still track and log my runs (some things never change), but this time there’s no pre-determined purpose or forward-thinking goal. For the time being, I run just for the pleasure of running and am re-discovering feelings of playful joy and liberty that I didn’t even know I had temporarily shut away by following a strict training schedule.

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Despite not quite completing the Classic Marathon this time around, I have enjoyed running in Athens and the surrounding Attika region of Greece. Running is part of the heritage of this great culture and beautiful city, and it feels right to run here. Random Athenians have congratulated me and cheered me on as I ran past them in the middle of the city, as though my running is a tribute to their ancient traditions. It’s an urban jungle, an adventure so very different from the much colder and quieter Scottish trails that make up my usual stomping ground. But still, what a place to run!

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