Run of the Inner Valkyrie

Sunday morning saw the streets of Edinburgh turn into my own personal battlefield. In my previous post, I made no secret of the fact that recent events had, perhaps for all the wrong reasons, inspired me to race the Edinburgh Half Marathon despite having done no event specific speed work. But I had been pissed off to the point of wanting to attack 1:40.

I travelled to Edinburgh with a group of friends on what we affectionately called the “Battle Bus”, which made for a very entertaining start to the day and somehow damped the blow of the fact that the day began at stupid o’clock for all of us. And just as we arrived in the city, the heavens opened to welcome us with a mighty downpour. And while that did nothing dowse my bloodlust, it did cause me to shiver miserably on the start line. But really, what would a run in the capital of Scotland be without a generous helping of proper Scottish weather?

As is normal for me in endurance races, my plan was to run the first two or three kilometres by feel alone, and to sort my pace out thereafter. However, within minutes I couldn’t ignore the fact that although my energy levels were good, my legs felt decidedly heavy and had all but withdrawn co-operation. My feet were soaked and cold before I had run a single mile, and by the time I passed the two mile marker, I was already a few seconds off my target pace.

I won’t go so far as to call it a terrible start, but coming home on the right side of 1:40 was not looking promising. In that moment, I did something that has helped me through many of the darker moments I have experienced on my long ultramarathon training runs. I did absolutely nothing. I noticed how I felt, decided that nothing was actually really wrong, and kept going without trying to change anything right there and then. Because one thing I know for certain is that everything is temporary, if you give it enough time.

Rather than worrying about the race in these early stages or beating myself up about slipping off pace, I just accepted that my body was telling me that this wasn’t the right moment to launch my attack. But the moment would come. The worst case scenario was that the opportune moment would occur not in this, but in a future race; but that was a risk I was willing to take.

The next time I looked at my watch was as I was passing the 10km point. Just over 45 minutes. There was hope! More importantly however, I noticed that my legs had finally woken up and were starting to listen to my demands. I held back for another 4 kilometres, but then, finally, it was time to race!

I had to focus to keep the pace for the last part of the race, but I can’t say that it was a real struggle. Everything had somehow fallen into place and was there for the taking. Before I knew it, the finish line appeared in front of me and I ran towards it until my lungs felt like exploding. Then I ran some more.

I emerged victorious from the battlefield after 1:38 of running my drenched socks off. The negative split was very much dictated by my body, rather than my mind, but hey – I’m not complaining.

Streakers Edinburgh

 (A victorious army, ready to return to the battle bus!)

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Girl On A Mission

“The best revenge is living well.”

–          George Herbert

This Sunday will see me at the start line of the Edinburgh Half Marathon. Prior to a recent event, I must admit that I wasn’t bothered about this race at all. In fact, last weekend my level of enthusiasm had plummeted to the point that I had almost talked myself into withdrawing my entry and going for a long ultramarathon training run in the mountains instead.

But all that changed one night during the week. You see, one fateful night this week, I joined a training session with a local running group that shall not be named. Little did I know at the time that this single training session would ignite the will to race in me like I have rarely experienced it before.

The session required us to get into groups for speedwork. Because I only knew a few people in the group, I went around for a chat and soon found myself in a friendly pack of guys who seemed to run at roughly my pace. Unfortunately, the coaches hadn’t mentioned the fact that they apparently expected us to match the groups by gender as well. Yes, you’ve read that right. How very stupid of me! Without bothering to find out anything about me as a runner, they immediately started to gently nudge me into the direction of a female pack.

As we were running, I jokingly asked the guys why the coaches keep picking on me. One of them just shrugged his shoulders and answered: “Because you are a girl?” In what those of you who know me understand is an incredibly rare occurrence, I was actually lost for words. But I was also determined to stand my ground, and although it was a tough workout, I stuck it out with the guys for a while. But my resolve eventually faltered when two of the three coaches came over to my group in the middle of the session and downright ordered me to go run with the women’s group on the other side of the field instead. Really, I couldn’t make this up.

superwoman glass ceiling

Now, please don’t get me wrong. The women were lovely and I am more than happy to run with them. But excuse my naivety for thinking that speedwork groups should be matched by – how can I put this? – actual running speed, rather than anatomy. I didn’t think it was possible in the 21st century, but I think I might have hit some kind of glass ceiling in a running group.

I was, and still am, pretty frustrated by the whole escapade. It goes without saying that I won’t be found training with this group-which-must-not-be-named in future. But even as my own personal anger subsided, I started to feel bad for the women who regularly train with this them. What kind of message are the trainers hammering into them, week in, week out?

As a result of all of this, I have not only decided to run the half marathon on Sunday after all, but I am going to take all that fury to the start line with me and hurl it at the road ahead of me. While I don’t feel as though I have anything to prove, I’m going to try and put the wisdom of George Herbert’s words to the test and see if the best revenge in the running world is racing well. Wish me luck!

That Happy Place

My happy place is a wonderful place to be; everything is fluffy and warm there and the sun always shines. It’s the place where I go to in my head when life hands me lemons and the juicer is broken. Yesterday, I spent the better part of 1 hour and 44 minutes hanging out there while running the St. Andrews Half Marathon.

My single biggest mistake was lining up at the start in the first place. You see, I had registered for the race many months ago, long before I started to go steady with this ultramarathon beast. It just so happened that I did a 24 mile trail training run the day before running the St. Andrews Half Marathon.

But because I clearly have an affinity for acts of futility and because my legs were feeling alright, I decided to make my way to the start line regardless and see what happens. After all, if I didn’t try this, how would I ever know whether or not a 5 hour trail run the day before is a winning strategy for an endurance race?

The event itself was complete chaos*; the whole thing was so poorly organised it had blasted right through the borders of the land of ridiculousness and had settled somewhere in the world of great entertainment value. With this being a local race, there were many familiar faces and we shared many a giggle about the latest race day calamity. But really, when has a little mayhem and complete disregard for basic health and safety ever been able to eclipse the fun of running with good friends and being cheered on by others?

My legs continued to feel pretty good as I was busy running my laps and going loopy on the beach in St. Andrews. However and predictably, after blowing all my fuel on the trails the day before, there was nothing in the tank for me to run on. There was no power in the engine, and when I commanded my legs to turn over a little faster shortly after the half-way point, they simply handed over their P45s.

I was bonking pretty hard, and the water station’s untimely demise also put an end to my chances of wolfing down an energy gel. Physically, I was totally spent and running on empty.

But mentally, interesting things were starting to happen. I’d like to say that I have experiencing something akin to an epiphany, but I wouldn’t rule out exhaustion-induced hallucinations either. Mentally, I felt strong – while there was none of the joy usually associated with running, I did feel a quiet determination in my mind to win the battle against the empty tank and disobedient legs. I thought a lot about the ultra challenge ahead, and what it really means to run an endurance race. I have accepted that the whole essence of endurance is that things will get tough and uncomfortable, and that I have to learn to keep going regardless. And that’s precisely what I am training for. With that in mind, I simply embraced the run for what it was – a valuable experience – and told myself that all I had to do was to keep going.

But then all these stubborn and inconsequential thoughts about training made way to a much more important and meaningful realisation. I suddenly thought about all of those people who can’t do what I’m doing. My thoughts turned to loved ones who are no longer with me. I thought about friends and family who are battling devastating illnesses and are fighting every day for the energy to make it through the day. Then I thought about my injured running friends. And that’s when I realised how lucky I am. I didn’t have to keep going – I was able to keep going. I am able to run, and in that moment that was the greatest privilege of them all.

Of course the official times for the race aren’t published yet, and I’m not holding my breath for any remotely meaningful information to ever be released. My sportswatch informed me that I crossed the finish line after 1:44 and that the course was 21.78 km in length. Physically, it was one of the hardest runs I have ever gutted out. I’m so glad that I did it though, because I have learned something very important. This particular run has made me fully realise that it’s gratitude that brings me happiness.

St. Andrews Half

 (A tired, but happy me arriving at – or near – the finish line)

 ~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The organisation of the St. Andrews Half Marathon was very reliable and consistent: the organisers unfailingly messed up on virtually all aspects of the racing experience. Personal favourites included several changes to the start time and route in the days leading up to the event, and the fact that the start line was still being assembled when the official start time came and went. We did eventually start by running into a field of parked cars and then the route took us straight into oncoming traffic. There were a total of three marshals on the entire route and the aid station promptly ran out of water.

The half marathon route was changed more times that I can shake a stick at, and on the day it involved running four laps of the 5km route, which actually turned out to be close to 22 km in length. That’s if you actually ran four laps of the course, because nobody was counting. Really, I couldn’t make this up. I felt so sorry for the first time runners. At the end of the day, I’m just really happy that nobody came to any harm.

En Garde, Inverness!

At approximately stupid o’clock this morning, my super dog and I got into my little car and commandeered it northwards to Inverness, to take me to the start line of the Inverness Half Marathon.

The three and a half hour drive (including a little stop to stretch all six legs between us) took us through some of the most stunning scenery that Scotland has to offer: the magical, dreamy Perthshire Highlands and the mighty, snow-covered peaks of the Cairngorm National Park.

I suspect that the meditative drive through this wonderful scenery might have had something to do with me feeling supremely calm, grounded and relaxed all day – the ancient, vast mountains reminded me that I’m really just a tiny speckle in an immensely grander scheme of things, which is a very useful mind frame to get into before a race.

My main goal – apart from having a blast, which, let’s face it, is always paramount to everything – was to cross the finish line before the timer made it to 1:45. On an awesome day, I had told myself, I’d try to attack the mighty 1:40.

Well, the day wasn’t awesome; it was cold, raining and a bit too windy for my liking (Fàilte gu Alba – Welcome to Scotland). However, I myself couldn’t have felt any more ready. While performing the usual pre-race bounce and shuffle to stay warm in the starting pens, I felt as though I was the eye of a hurricane; the calm core that is ready to unleash a storm. There was a little voice inside my head that whispered quietly: “Hey – why not?”. Thanks to my composed state of mind, I listened.

As I crossed the start line, I sent a mental warning to 1:40 – it better be ready for me, because I was embarking on a rapid advance in its general direction. My run (aka the charge) was great fun, because there really was nothing to do but to run my socks off.

I ran with my heart and rarely looked at my watch. It didn’t matter much, as my feelings about the pace were good and I genuinely couldn’t have run any harder than I did and maintained the pace. The first half of the route was very pretty, following and crossing the river Ness before meandering along some quiet country roads. These pretty country roads, however, were also pretty hilly for a city race, and while they didn’t break my stride, I have no doubts about losing a number of valuable seconds to them. There were also some exposed sections of the route where the wind gate-crashed the duel between me and the clock – and needless to say, it wasn’t rooting for me.

The second half of the race took us back into residential areas of the town, and I was surprised to find that the roads hadn’t been closed to traffice for the race. While the busy roundabouts had plenty of stewards on them, other sections on quieter residential areas were literally run alongside the uncontrolled traffic. This required a lot of watching out for cars, hopping on-and-off the pavements and crossing to the other side of the road. At one point I was even asked to by a police officer to wait on the sidewalk for a moment to let some cars pass before crossing the road. On the plus side, a ridiculously immature part of me finds it really cool that I was actually stopped by the police while running a race!

The behaviour of my fellow runners was overall brilliant – I wasn’t spat on once and nobody threw water-bottles at my feet at the very well organised aid stations. However, I did have one (well two!) almost run-ins with a fellow runner/fruitcake in the vicinity of the 12 mile marker. This running muppet decided to take a walking break from his 7:30min/mile pace, which he is of course perfectly entitled to do. However, he did so in the middle of the path, rather abruptly and right in front of me. It took a quick, side-hopping ninja move on my part to avoid a full-on (or rather, rear on!) collision which could have ended the race for both of us. Being on an important ninja mission, I simply ignored him and continued my charge. Unfortunately for me, the running muppet clearly decided that he wasn’t going to get chick’d at this point in the race and immediately flew past me again, which required a flat-out sprint. Good on him, I thought, still very much focussed on keeping my personal advance towards  for the finish line as swift as possible. However, the now sprinting muppet then spotted a friend amongst the spectators and shouted a loud greeting, all while pointing rapidly in their direction – missing my forehead by approximately one inch. And thus, I am ashamed to confess, I suffered a momentary fall from grace while performing ninja-dodge number 2: I rivalled the volume of his own shouting and may have called him a … how shall I put this? Let’s just say I loudly insinuated that I thought of him as someone who frequently practices self-gratification of an adult nature… I can’t say I’m proud of it, but at least my outburst put an end to any further attempts on his part to knock me unconscious.

ninja runner

Thankfully, this outburst of anger/self-defense did nothing to upset my serene, eye-of-the-hurricane mountain magic running mojo, which stayed with me all the way finish line and beyond. According to my watch, I crossed the line in 1:40:10. However, my official chip time came back as 1:40:24. I honestly have no idea where this significant discrepancy comes from, but it really doesn’t matter! I’m super happy with either (or both!) times. Incidentally, my watch also recorded the course to be slightly longer than a half marathon, which is pretty normal and really not surprising, given the number of times I had to cross the road en route to dodge traffic! The point is, however, that according to my GPS watch it had taken me 1:40:03 to cover an actual half-marathon distance. All things considered, I really couldn’t have asked for more and am chuffed to bits! 1:45 was well and truly left in the dust and 1:40 should be very scared indeed!

As for the race itself, it seems to fall into an interesting no-man’s-land between club race and big city race. With a total of just over 1700 runners finishing the course, it’s certainly much bigger than your local running club half marathon. At the same time, it doesn’t have the buzz of a big city race to it either. I found the volume of people on the course extremely pleasant; there were always people around me, but not so much that it ever got crowded, even at the start of the race. The organisation was fantastic (registration, aid-stations, goody-bag, etc.) except for the part which involved 1700 runners dodging traffic for approximately half of the race, which was a massive let-down for me.

On the drive home, the mountain scenery that had so effectively soothed my psyche on the way up to Inverness was a fitting backdrop to revel in all the wicked fun I had on the run today. I stopped to take my super doggy for a little walk in Aviemore, as she had patiently waited in the car while I went on my latest running escapade. In order to celebrate with me, she did get to wear my hard-earned medal for a while, which made her very happy, too*:

MyraInverness

* For those who don’t know my dog, you should know that she absolutely loves to wear things around her neck! I don’t know why this is, but when I playfully hold long pieces of string out to her, she always puts her nose through them. She also hates having her collar taken off. It’s just one of her many quirky little sides.

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!