Running on Happy

“All men should strive to learn before they die what they are running from, and to, and why.”

– James Thurber

June was epic. I honestly can’t think of a more fitting word to describe a month which included a world record attempt, the Billy Bland challenge, as well as my first ultramarathon?

I admit that part of me was bracing itself for a mighty wave of those “post epic running blues” (the big bully brother of the post marathon blues). However, I can only assume that he took a wrong turn somewhere along the way, because he surely hasn’t made it to my doorstep.

In truth, this relatively quiet month – in terms of running – has given me some fantastic time to reflect. And the more I think about it, the more I realise how much awesomeness running has brought into my life lately.

The places it has taken me over the past year or so have been incredible. Athens and Rome were city highlights, but much more special to me are the countless summits, remote lakes, mountain trails and coastal paths that I have travelled. This is a beautiful country, and I can think of no better way of exploring it than on foot. I always find that there is something both liberating and grounding about running in nature.

When it came to training for my first ultramarathon, each and every long run was a profound journet for me. Each run is teaching me about being patient and about giving up that which I don’t have in the first place; control. I’m learning that I can only change the here and now, and that I always have a choice. And, perhaps most importantly, running keeps reminding me that everything is temporary; which is prompting me to fully live in the good moments and accept the difficult times in equal measures. These are all amazing lessons, which are having a great impact not only on my running, but life in general.

The more I run, the more I find that the process becomes so much more important to me than any outcomes. At this point, I am not even thinking about any particular finish time I want to target in my next big race, the Cologne Marathon. I am, however, looking forward to just running it. The hunger to race it might yet come, or it might not. It really doesn’t matter. All that matter is that right now, from where I’m standing – or should I say running? – things are pretty darn good.

Finally, I have met some amazing people through running lately. Some of you have found their way into my life via this blog; you know who you are! New friendships have been forged while running my home turf, and I have met some very inspirational people through various running events and competitions – not to mention the wicked and awesome local parkrun crowd. I can’t help but notice how much richer my life is as a result of the new people who have happened to run into it. I tip my cap to all of you, and lift my glass to one of you in particular – you know who you are!

I really don’t know if I’m ever going to top June in terms of running achievements, but it doesn’t matter. I really thought that I had nothing epic to write about. But I’m a happy runner, and what better message could I possibly report on a running blog?

?????????

Keep moving forward!

Advertisements

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!

Ultra Grateful

“Focus on the journey, not the destination. Joy is found not in finishing an activity, but in doing it.”

– Greg Anderson

I think everyone here would agree that running is mental, in every possible way. Does it follow then, than ultramarathon running is ultra mental? I guess I’m about to find out.

I admit that when I first looked at my training schedule for the next twelve weeks in its entirety, I promptly had to spend the next few minutes breathing rapidly into a paper bag. The usual “what I have done?” freak-out had definitely taken on ultra proportions.

However, as with all things in life, I’ve once again found that everything is temporary if you give it enough time. Now that I’m two weeks into my ultramarathon training, I couldn’t be more excited about finding myself in all the weird and wonderful places this journey is yet to take me.

Sadly, a significant contributing factor to this change in attitude has been a very sombre event. Ten days ago I lost someone very dear to me in a cruel car accident. I can’t say that I’ve come to terms with the loss at all yet, but for now this brutal reminder of the finality of life has made me all the more adamant to live mine to the fullest.

Right now, I can’t think of anything that makes me feel more alive and happy than being in the wilderness. It’s beautiful, powerful, healthy and life-affirming. It gives me space to think and breathe. And with the arrival of spring, the trails have never felt more wonderful and alive. As such, I’m really happy that the looming ultramarathon in June is only another reason for me to spend much time on the wicked and wonderful trails that Scotland has to offer.

But there’s more to any running training than merely clocking the miles, of course. One of the best parts of spending much time alone in the wilderness is that I keep getting to know myself a little bit better every time. By venturing further than ever before, even after 10 years of running, I’m not only learning valuable new things about how my mind and body work on the run, but also about the extremes of feeling tired, content, ecstatic, fed up, and all the other emotions that come out in the safe solitude that mother nature offers.

By definition, endurance events should involve an aspect of carrying on regardless of feeling a various degrees of fatigue, ranging from weary legs to a full blown death-grip bonk. In those battles, the mind can be either a dangerous master or a beautiful servant. In shorter races, I find that my usual strategy for dealing with any signs of trouble is to keep telling myself that it’ll be over soon al while clinging on until the bitter end. However, it doesn’t take a genius to realise that in an ultramarathon this strategy would at best result in an abysmally miserable run, and at worst – and far more likely – result in the sobbing mess of a runner in need of urgent trailside rescue (and possibly therapy). Of course I accept that parts of the run (and life!) will be gloomy, but also that it’s up to me to banish the negative thoughts over and over again. In that sense, running is once again a great metaphor for life.

My recent brush with the frailty of life has reminded me of something very important, which I am sure can help me out in darker times. At the moment, I am just grateful to be able to run at all: grateful to have this life, grateful for my health, grateful to live in such a beautiful place, grateful for this powerful body that puts up with all the nonsense I inflict upon it, and ultimately, incredibly grateful for this opportunity to run and learn and grow.

If this all sounds very fatalistic or depressing, let me assure you, it’s not. In fact, when I did a terrible job at awkwardly trying to explain all of this to a wonderfully eloquent friend this morning, he eventually described it as “relentless positivity”. It sure works for me!

I hope you are all moving forward as well, whatever your purpose or pace. 🙂

parkrunnin_birthday

(A relentless optimist on the run:

contemplating the meaning of life while clocking a parkrun PB of 22:10 this morning)

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.

Ultra Mind Boggling

Any idiot can run a marathon. It takes a special kind of idiot to run an ultramarathon.

-Alan Cabelly

With the Inverness Half Marathon and Rome Marathon well and truly run, my attention is now naturally turning towards my next target race. In principle, this is all business as usual: I flirt with an event, research it a little, enter it, contemplate/freak out about what I’ve just done, plan the training, and proceed to throw myself at it with bestial vigour. When it’s all done and dusted, I brush myself off and it all begins again. Only this time, I fear that my head might just explode.

Help

You see, my next target run happens to be a 55 mile ultramarathon. I’ve got thirteen weeks to prepare myself for the ordeal fun. Here are just some of the thoughts which are currently haunting my head:

  • The distance is more than twice as far as I’ve ever run. I’m trying to imagine running a marathon, but instead of limping across the finish line, I’ll just keep going and run: Another. Whole. Blooming. Marathon. And then, instead of limping across that finish line, I’ll still keep going to stagger on for another 3 miles, just for the laugh. After that, I can hypothetically limp over any line I like, but I’m pretty sure I’ll just drop dead instead. Seriously, this is a distance that most people would refuse to cycle.
  • This ultra-distance-I-can’t-comprehend will all be run on the trails. Sounds really lovely, doesn’t it? It will be, I’m sure. Especially the bit where none of it is flat. My quads hate me already.
  • I’ve worked out that I will need to consume around 6000 calories during that run. I honestly can’t even being to comprehend how I’m going to achieve this. Presently, the mere thought is enough to provoke my stomach into staging a dirty riot. It’s like eating the equivalent of a Christmas day dinner on the run. I’m beginning to suspect that ultramarathons are basically falsely advertised binge-eating contests with a little bit of running in between.
  • I’m actually paying money so that I can spend a day eating obscene amounts of sweets, lose all my toenails and pee/poo/vomit repeatedly in the bushes. Whoever markets these events is a genius.
  • There’s a good chance that I’ll start the run in the best shape of my life. There’s an equally good chance that I’ll finish the run in the worst shape of my life.

Still, I have got all these overly romantic visions of spending many wonderful hours on the trails as part of some spiritual journey in which I find myself by running away. Clearly, there is a seriously masochistic aspect of my personality that is longing to be discovered.

My training plan is ready. So am I. I think.

Funny Ultramarathon Sign

Rebel Without A Pause

Is anyone else wondering how it’s possible that we are already approaching March? What happened to the first one-sixth of the year? Have I been hibernating? Have I been travelling at the speed of light? My main running goal for 2014, after all, was to educate myself properly about running speed workouts and to subject myself to them in all their gory glory.

joyofrunning

Before I blast my way through the whole year and straight into 2015, I think it’s about time that I pause for a moment and reflect upon what I have learned about speedwork so far:

  1. It’s perfectly doable. I was the first to admit that prior to this year, I was a speedwork Scrooge. I could handle some hill sprints and the odd fartlek run, but anything beyond that I deemed too complicated or painful for a free spirit such as myself. However, I found that even the toughest of intervals are absolutely doable and strangely satisfying and fun to complete. There, I’ve said it.
  2. Planning is paramount. Incorporating speedwork into my training schedule has taught me the importance of monitoring my runs and planning my workouts carefully. I find that the single most important factor to consider is my recovery time. I’m learning how much time I need to recover from the different workouts. I firmly believe that this is highly individual, but for each individual, there’s a pattern. I’m learning that there are some workouts I bounce back from, virtually ready to tackle the next on the following day if needed. Other workouts, on the other hand, leave me in need of extra recovery. By paying attention to this, I can make sure that I plan my training in a way that ensures that I’m physically in the best form to tackle a particular workout, and give myself enough rest to allow my body to adapt to the demands I’m placing upon it when this is needed the most. I’ve actually found that my training has gotten easier as as result of me learning more about my recovery times and planning my training schedules a lot more carefully.
  3. I’m feeling the paces. By running deliberately in different training zones I’m learning a lot more about what the different paces feel like. I play games on my runs now where I guess my pace before I look at my watch, and I’m getting increasingly more accurate with my guestimates. What is more, by running set distances at a target pace, I’m quickly developing a pretty accurate feel for how long I’m likely to be able to maintain a certain pace. Both are, in my opinion, really useful skills, which allow me to run very evenly paced training runs.
  4. Speed + Endurance = Stamina. I’ve always loved endurance runs and clock quite a high weekly running mileage – I just love to run and running a lot feels natural to me. That volume of running has taken me quite far (no pun intended!) and does, to a degree, translate itself into faster speeds in shorter races. However, I am find that the opposite is also true – since adding some serious speedwork to my training, I’ve noticed a big difference in my physical endurance and strength on longer runs. About two weeks ago I finished a 38km long run feeling perfectly strong and bouncy, surprised to note the curious absence of the “tired bum” syndrome I usually experience after a run of this calibre.
  5. I’m feeling it! Last but absolutely not least, I’ve learned that it’s totally worth it. Be warned, for this is the bit where I shamelessly gloat a little (ok, a lot!). This is where I tell you that I “accidentally” ran my all-time 10km PB during a training run two days ago. Yes, really. I got a little carried away (or hungry) during a tempo run and arrived back on my doorstep (to the smell of honey roasted vegetables in my oven) after 45:23 minutes. Yummy! This tells me that I’m either doing something very right with my training, or I’m doing something very wrong with my racing! Either way, I’m a happy bunny!

What do you think? How do you feel about speedwork? Have you noticed any differences as a result – besides running faster? Have I inspired you lace up your trainers and tackle some intervals? (I’m looking at you – you know who you are!)

Feeling Seriously Runspired!

SONY DSC

“There’s an overwhelming cultural mentality today that difficult tasks should be avoided; that volitional discomfort is an indication of some psychological oddity. Meanwhile, ultramarathons promise exactly the opposite; the expectation is that the race will be strenuous. Your body will get battered, your spirit will get broken, and you’ll question your sanity and emotional stability. (What’s more – you’ll pay somebody a lot of money in race fees for this to happen. If it weren’t for ultrarunning, there’d be a huge boom in masochism support groups. Clearly, we NEED this sport.) It’s no wonder most people think we’re insane.

But here’s the good part: our gain for suffering through all of this is something akin to enlightenment. We understand that our bodies and minds are capable of far more than most people ever realize – that the primary limiting factors in life’s journeys are the extent to which our minds can dream, and to which we’re willing to work to achieve them.

These truths we discover about ourselves are what keep us coming back for more. In that regard, ultrarunners are the fishermen leaving the shore: we’re fully aware that the storms might be terrible – but the rewards we harvest by venturing into the sea are always worth the hardship.”

-Donald Buraglio, The Running Life: Wisdom and Observations from a Lifetime of Running

I can’t think of a more wonderful place to run my first ultramarathon than the Scottish Highlands – what a place to be, what a life to live! Am seriously getting excited about pushing the limits, even though the race itself is still four months away. Here’s what’s in store for me, the backdrop to all the pain I’ll no doubt suffer:

Cateran trail

SONY DSC

Cateran trail3

cateran trail 4

I’m feeling so antsy right now that I’m seriously thinking about heading up there and start to recce the trail this weekend – despite the fact that the whole area is currently buried under several feet of snow!