From 21.2 to 42.2 to 88 to Insanity?

I suspect that I’ve really done it this time. I’ve relinquished whatever shreds of my sanity I still possessed prior to today. I’ve signed myself up for my first ultramarathon. Sort of.

Hey, you know, while I’m on this streak of new running experiences (midnight runs, parkruns, fell races…), I thought, hell, why not try running 88km (or 54 miles) in one day and see what happens?

That’s what I’ll be doing on the 28th of June on the stunning Cateran Trail with two fellow crazy runners. It’s not a race as such (hence I say it’s only sort of an ultramarathon); instead, it’s a charity challenge for a very good cause.

Most people walk the trail, but we’re going to run it. Due to the walkers, it’s got a generous time limit of 24 hours to finish the course. I think it’ll be as gentle an introduction to ultra running as is possible (if such a thing is possible at all!).

Right now, I’m just stupidly excited about the prospects of this new adventure. However, I suspect that my brain is still a little too shell-shocked to fully comprehend what I’ve signed us up for. Until it catches on, I’m just going to enjoy the hype. The fear will come, and I’ve got no doubts that I’m in for some very dark moments that will see me reduced to a shivering, twitching mess of trail trash. Really, I can’t wait!

At the moment, I’m still training for a – hopefully – very fast half-marathon in Inverness in March, followed by a jolly doddle around Rome for the marathon there at the end of March. After that, it looks like I’ll transition into unchartered running territory, by venturing into the land of crazy mileage.

Maspie_waterfall(I’ll be doing lots of this in the spring!)*

But for now, there are other things I must do. For a start, I’ll add my physiotherapist to my Christmas card list and save his number on speed dial. I have a hunch that we’ll become great friends over the next couple of months!

*I realise that this picture might give the misleading impression that I’m planning on standing around a lot under a waterfall in preparation for running an ultramarathon. Although it sounds like good fun too, I don’t think that this would adequately prepare me for running 55 miles. It just so happens that I’m not running (yet) in this picture, as I was walking my most awesome and most loyal friend, the lovely Myra. She’s 14 years old and sadly can’t join me on my runs anymore. I often take her for a little walk before I run, so she gets her exercise and doesn’t feel left out. Note to self: try to get a decent picture of trail running self, so people don’t think that all I do is stand around on the trails!

The Devil and The Craven

Today I passed another milestone in my journey of new running experiences: I took part in my inaugural mountain/fell race. I should have guessed from the name of the race, “Devil’s Burden”, that I’d be in for a heated experience; but little did I know that I was about to take part in one of the biggest mountain races in Scotland. Despite infernal weather, a record 111 relay teams lined up on the start line on this not-so-fine morning, meaning that there were a grand total of 666 bedevilled runners blazing around the Lomond Hills. Really, I couldn’t make this up. I have therefore come to the conclusion that I must have been temporarily possessed when I readily agreed to join them.

The reality is that I run in these mountains a lot and am familiar with the terrain and routes. However, the reality is also that apart from a number of trail races, I tend to only seriously race on the roads. I therefore had no idea how I would fare when unleashed amongst the human equivalent of a herd of mountain goats.

My task was simple: start on the very muddy banks of a reservoir and run in a more or less straight line to the next village. Oh, and there’s also a 1500 foot hill in the way.

I was positively surprised by not embarrassing myself completely with my ability to tackle the mud, surefootedness and speedy uphill climbing. Unlike some other runners, I never once fell over or got caught in barbed wire fences. Hey, for the first 5 kilometres or so I actually deluded myself into thinking that I could pass for a fell runner. Before I knew it, I found myself standing amongst the howling winds at the top of the world (or summit of East Lomond), with only the 450m descend into the abyss separating me from the finish line. There were no paths – just a steep, slippery slope consisting of bog and heather with some pointy rocks thrown in for good measure.

That’s when… well… I’m still trying to come to terms with that happened next. I caught a glimpse of something out of the corner of my eye, blazing past me – a trick of the light? An infernal apparition? No, wait… a runner! It made sense, but wh… how? Then more came flying past me, sometimes in groups of two. They weren’t just passing me; they were disappearing beyond the horizon. On a hill. Going down. How’s that even possible? Witnessing the infernal downhill speed of fellrunners was a sight to behold and one that left me utterly dumbfounded.

downhill running(This is what was happening in my head.)

Great. My already slow descend was further stalled by the fact that my mind was now preoccupied with trying to make sense of the madness that surrounded me and no longer paying attention to where my feet were going. Was I really not as fit as I thought? – Always a possibility. Were my shoes not up for the job? – Maybe a contributing factor, as I was wearing trail, not fell shoes. Did all of these runners have no regard for personal safety? Or an active deathwish? – Perhaps, although it would be one hell of a feat to just happen to run into 665 suicidal individuals on a mountain top in Scotland. Then, the truth dawned on me… The real reason why they were hares going down the mountain and I was a tortoise (and in the real world tortoises don’t win races against hares), is that this tortoise is also a phenomenally gigantic whimp.

That’s right – the truth is that they were all much braver than me. I was haunted by visions of falling flat on my face and slithering down the hill with only my teeth digging into the mud to slow my momentum. Meanwhile, the other runners were heading for the finish line, evidently not bothered by what their brains – or quads – had to say about the matter.

I made my way downhill as fast as I could, which wasn’t fast at all given that it was all I could do to resist nervously chewing on my fingernails or curling up in the foetal position. And as I was descending, looking supremely comfortable, graceful and sublimely in my element (*cough*), who should I run into but the official race photographer? (Don’t even bother asking… the answer is NO!).

Another fantastic new experience, another lesson learned, another thing to add to my ever-growing to-do list!

I loved everything about the day and the race. The mountain runners are wonderfully friendly people and wicked athletes. I, on the other hand, have learned a lot about myself as a runner, including that I am a first class pansie. My next mission: wrestle the heart from a lion and then run as though my life depended on it (away from the angry beast) and down the steepest of hills.

Finally, I’d like to take this opportunity to say a huge “thank you” to the other members of my relay team for giving me a chance to run with them. It was a truely fantastic experience and one which I most certainly hope I’ll get to repeat in the future – only faster! I tip my hat to you crazy downhill runners!

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Chasing the Dawn

I don’t really function well in the mornings. For a start, I absolutely need a shower before I can pass for a reasonably well adjusted human being and even then it takes all the focus I can muster to ensure that I don’t leave the house naked. Breakfast becomes a viable option only after I’ve been awake for at least an hour, but two are even better.

It won’t surprise anyone then when I proclaim yet again that I’m no good at early morning runs. It’s as though my body thinks that it’s actually sleepwalking and my brain refuses to obey me. It’s certainly not a time when I’d expect a rave run.

But this morning I woke up early and decided to go for a run regardless of my mind threatening to stage a dirty riot at the mere thought of the endeavour. You see, there are three rules that I run by:

1) Have fun – if it’s not fun, make it fun.

2) Always, always listen to your body – battle with your mind if you must, but work with your body.

3) Keep changing things and try new things – keep moving forward.

I thought that an early morning run would be a perfect opportunity to practice all three of my running decrees at the same time: it’s certainly an uncommon experience for me and I wasn’t sure how my body would react. I expected to have to work hard to find a way to make it enjoyable and as such it had the potential to teach me new and valuable things.

Before I left my house I had the sense to wrap up nice and warm, as the world I was about to step into was dark and frozen. I had to stay in tune with my body, as I wasn’t sure how well I’d physically cope with running on an empty system. I aimed to find a pace that was bearable, but quickly managed to settle into a rhythm that was slow enough to allow me to actually enjoy the run. Before I knew it, I was gathering momentum and yet I was so comfortable that I felt I could have gone on forever. I realised once again that all my previous worries had been completely unnecessary. And just then, my efforts were rewarded with the sights of a wonderfully stunning sunrise:

Dawn

It was a gentle run – sleepy, solitary, and utterly magical; the ultimate morning run.

Have you ever been convinced that you’d not be able to enjoy a run, pushed yourself to do it anyways, only to experience something amazing?

My Accidental Marathon

“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go…”

― Dr. Seuss, Oh the places we go

I would like to propose another item to add to the infamous “death and taxes” list: the dreaded car service. But while the first two really are entirely dreadful and predictable, I have come to discover that there can be interesting and unintended consequences to the latter…

I had to take a day off work only to be stranded for the better part of that day in a town which I don’t like and wait for a certain car dealership to charge me a minor fortune before reuniting me with my vehicle. Sounds like a hoot, doesn’t it? Well actually, it was.

Rather than twiddling my thumbs all day over a good book and a series of lattes, I instead opted to go for a run. I suppose that I shouldn’t be surprised that running has the power to make everything a lot more fun – even dull cities and waiting to be robbed blind by a corporate giant. I hadn’t planned the run in any way; I decided this morning that I’ll go for a run and just grabbed my trainers, hydration pack, £5 and some good tunes.

I dropped off the car and then I ran. And ran. And ran some more. I meandered my way around the city, following a vague path from green space to green space, hoping to find some trails in the urban jungle. After I had passed the imaginary 20 kilometre marker, I felt worthy of a reward and briefly dashed into the next bakery, bought some cake and nibbled away at this over the course of the next kilometre or so. Eating a slice of carrot cake on a long run was a novel experiment in running nutrition and as such had the potential to go very wrong indeed. However, although it wasn’t the most practical thing to eat while moving, it proved to be great fuel for even more running. But after another 45 minutes had passed I felt renewed prangs of hunger, and briefly contemplated more cake. A bout of soul (or rather, stomach) searching, however, revealed that what I really craved was something savoury, so I made a beeline for the nearest supermarket and acquired a bag of crisps – the second experiment in running nutrition, with results comparable to the carrot cake case study. I also picked up a tried-and-tested chocolate bar to avoid the need for further pit stops.

With no news on the car and my body willing and able, I just kept putting one foot in front of the other and continued my quest as a seeker of green spaces in a grey city. When the call finally came to inform me that my car was ready I had run 45km. By Pheidippides!

marathon thoughts

Okay, I admit that I just love the fact that I accidentally ran a marathon and a bit. However, once the sheepish schoolgirl giggles calmed down, there are a few important lessons which I have learned from this particular run:

1)      Long runs are all about having fun and staying comfortable. Ok, this isn’t exactly an epiphany, but this particular run brought these truths home to me like never before. Long runs are most enjoyable when the pace is being kept to something that feels like a doddle and much time is spent simply enjoying the scenery. I just went for it and took care of my physical needs and – lo and behold – it turns out I continued to run strong for a very long time. I should add that I felt that I could have gone on for much longer and only stopped because it was time to get my car. And it’s a good thing too that I stopped before I did something seriously silly, as I still need my legs to handle the demands of an intensive half-marathon training schedule!

2)      I’m amazed that my body let me get away with eating cake and crisps on a run. It appears that I have been unnecessarily cautious with running nutrition in the past. While I’ve always believed that there’s no right or wrong when it comes to running nutrition, I’m realising now that I haven’t been as open-minded about it as I could and perhaps should have been. The bottom line is that on long runs, we need calories; and we need to get them in whatever form we can tolerate. Giving in to my silly cravings (aka listening to my body!) worked wonderfully for me; it turns out that my body can be bribed to go on forever as long as I keep feeding it calorific comfort food… I expect to get a lot more adventurous in future!

3)      I learned to not worry about long runs. Yes, they are hard, and when things go wrong, they easily have the potential to go very, very wrong. However, it’s not the end of the world.  Long runs are our chance to enjoy our hobby in all its glory; to see a lot of the world and reap the rewards of our hard-earned fitness. They are also a good opportunity to try new stuff.

4)      This particular long run has demystified the marathon, which is a great breakthrough after my meltdown in Athens. Running a marathon doesn’t have to be painful. It doesn’t even have to be particularly hard. Sure, when running to smash that PB, pushing the pace for such a long distance will always require a hefty dose of masochism. However, there’s a different way to run a marathon: it can also be run leisurely and genuinely enjoyed all the way. My whole escapade saw me out and about for 4 hours and 50 minutes, was a fair bit longer than a marathon and included two pit stops at the shops (really, you’ve got to laugh). Sure, it’s slow, but still far from embarrassingly slow. More importantly, it was so much fun that it’s left me wanting to do it all again. And after all, isn’t that one of the most important – but often overlooked – aspect of our training?

Vive le Parkrun!

On this fine Saturday morning I finally managed to drag myself out of bed early enough to line up – albeit still half asleep – at the start of my local Parkrun.

parkrun

For those of you who don’t know (it started out as a UK thing), parkruns are free, timed 5km fun runs that are held every Saturday morning in parks all over the country and beyond. It’s such a great idea that it’s catching on quickly, and there are now parkrun events popping up in other European countries as well as across the great pond.

I’m ashamed to say that I’ve been inexcusably late in jumping on the parkrun wagon. I’ve been meaning to take part for ages and I kept hearing great things about the wonderful organisation, relaxed and inclusive atmosphere and soaring fun-factor of these events. I first registered on the website and printed out my barcode more months ago than I care to admit (the barcode is all you need to get individually timed). All that I had to do now was to show up at an event and run.

But week after wintry week, my best intentions were defeated by the siren call of my warm bed, which beckoned me to stay just a little longer. “I’ll just go next week,” I kept telling myself again and again and… well, you get the idea.

So what is this ungodly start time for which I repeatedly failed to disengage myself from my bed? It’s 9:30am… Before you point and laugh at my unquestionable pansieness, please remember that I live a country life, meaning that I have a dog to walk and a horse to take care off before I even think about my own breakfast. Also, when I say “my local parkrun”, I mean that I can get there by driving only 30 minutes. (Now you can point and laugh, it’s ok…).

Another factor which might have dampened my motivation somewhat – and I hate to admit this – is the fact that I have never liked racing the 5km distance. Some people seem to think that just because I can run for hours and hours on end, a mere 5km should be the running equivalent of a piece of cake for me, right? Wrong; very, very wrong (although I love the running and cake idea)! Running for hours merely shows that I possess some means of dealing with fatigue (and possibly a pathologically stubborn character). Racing 5km, on the other hand, requires staying in a physically uncomfortable state for a shorter period of time, but the truth is that while battling cramps and stitches and gasping for breath, every step feels like an eternity. So having established that I am a comfort-loving-pansie, do you really think that the girl who can’t get out of bed in the morning is any good at convincing herself to stay in a zone of “controlled discomfort” for any length of time? I don’t think so either.

And because this particular pansie is also exceptionally good at avoidant coping, the last time I actually subjected myself to a 5km race is ages ago. Think years. Maybe even a decade.

What tipped me over the edge – or rather, out of bed this morning – was my speedy running goal for 2014. After all, what is a 5km race for an endurance runner, if not an excellent tempo run? What is more, with over 100 witnesses to the deed, it’s one which even I would be highly unlikely to whimp out of. Even the distance has been measured for me – win!

So there I was this morning, just happy to have made it for once. I even arrived with a few minutes to spare, which I used for a little warm-up run around the very pretty park and a manic attempt to figure out the course. Any nerves, however, were soothed by the very friendly and totally laid-back atmosphere of the event. All you really have to do is to make it to the startline at 9:30 am, wait for the gun and run your socks off! Once over the finish line you get a position chip, which gets scanned together with that barcode you printed off months ago. That’s it! Go home, eat an almond butter sandwich, drink a celebratory hot chocolate and check the website for the results.

This morning’s run made me appreciate one of the awesome aspects of this distance: it really is for everyone. There were some serious club runners who left me choking on their dust after a mere 50 yards. There were veteran runners who use the event to stay sharp. There were those like me, who see the run as a speed workout. There were also families running together and runners who took their dogs for a spin around the park. There were those who aimed to simply complete the distance. All in all, there were over 100 runners from all walks of life, all enjoying the timed 5km run together, but for their own personal reasons.

As for little old me, I complete the course in 23 minutes and 20 seconds. I was the fourth female finisher and second for my age group. I’m absolutely delighted with that, especially since I was mostly just trying to a) stay awake and b) not get lost. I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve never been so chuffed to place a tick against the tempo run in my training diary.

I strongly suspect that it will no longer be a rare sight to see me rolling out of my beloved bed and straight into my running shoes at stupid o’clock on Saturday mornings. After all, there will always be tempo runs to be run.  And who knows, could it be that my next 5km PB is lurking in my local park?

I’d encourage every runner to find their local parkrun and to just give it a shot. It’s free, it’s easy, it’s fun, it’s relaxed, and you can bring your better half/friend/dog/toddler/goat/ironing board – in short: it really is for everyone.

My Kind of Tribe

Tribe

It’s far from my nature (and the spirit of this blog) to get hung up on running gear, but there’s one particularly novel company which I believe deserves a big shout-out.

Nothing reflects the community spirit of this fledgling company more so than the fact that it got off the ground by one of the most successful fashion campaigns in Kickstarter history. That’s right, people from all walks of life invested a lot of money to get yet another manufacturer of sports clothing on the market.

But why would anyone do such a thing, you ask? To put it simply, people believed in Tribesports because the athletes themselves (that is, you and me) are at the heart of this company. Tribesports does things very differently, you see.

All the big names in sports apparel (bless them!) develop new gear with a small team of experts and then spend heaps of dosh trying to convince you and me why we really need this particular gear. Sometimes they get it right, and sometimes, well – let’s just say not so much. And then there are the middle men, the retailers that all take their slice of the profits.

The clever people behind Tribesports, on the other hand, start by asking thousands of people what they really want. And then they go and make it. It’s as simple as that.

The result is some really wicked, technical gear (just think: the gear you have always wanted!). The icing on the cake is that Tribesports apparel actually retails for significantly less money than that of their big name competitors, because they don’t spend the money on advertising, middlemen or getting it wrong. It’s just you and them. And the tribe.

This wild runner is proud to be part of the tribe.

Tribe Logo

Keeping Up Appearances

I have a confession to make: when I have to stop at a red light while out on a road run, I sneakily also stop my sportswatch. The fact that this doesn’t actually change my workout or make me cross the road any faster is irrelevant. All that matters is that the run looks fast when I finish it and review the stats, dammit! (And don’t even try telling me that you don’t do the same…!)

crossingstreetrunner