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.

It’s A Journey, Not A Race

Oh, the ritual of the race! There are these dangerous moments when you think that it would be fun to run a race. It’s in those moments that you run the risk of signing up for an actual race; before your head can contemplate the wisdom of this idea, you find that your fingers have already pushed the “enter” button. What have you gone and done now? It’s not uncommon to then require a few days of cowering behind the couch and sucking on your thumbs to come to terms with the gravity or your actions, but eventually you find that you are capable of switching from avoidance to approach coping. You then go through several trees worth of paper in the process of drawing up and refining the ultimate plan for achieving world domination a particular finish time come race day.

Following this, you will probably spend the next couple of weeks wrestling with this master plan; you will have weeks of changing things around only to find that you have missed a run or two. This is inevitably followed by a panic week, in which you consistently overdo your training and basically view your carefully tinkered plan as defining the bare minimum of your training. At the same time, you begin to cultivate mental images of yourself crossing the finish line, light on your feet, the running definition of glorious grace, all while – naturally – smashing your personal best time. But be warned: the effects of religiously overtraining combined with the distorted view of yourself can encourage you to revise your target race pace downwards to something deliriously optimistic.

A few weeks before the race, you start to notice little bits of evidence in training – whether real or imagined – that your naive finishing time might be possible after all. For instance, you have just run the fourth kilometre of a 5km tempo run at target race pace and didn’t die. Therefore, why shouldn’t it be possible to run that exact same pace for 10km, 21.1km, 6 hours at a time, right? But the instant when things are beginning to look promising is also when your taper begins, which means that you’ll feel rather grumpy about your reduction in training. While in this state of endorphin-withdrawal, you will most likely first feel cranky about the race, and then experience a general animosity towards life in general. In those moments, you would much rather just go for a long run, without a care in the world, not limited by the prospects of a silly race. This is often followed by a phase in which you tell yourself that target times for races are a stupid anyway and that nobody cares about your finishing time, so you might as well walk the race and be done with it.

On the morning of the race, it’s perfectly normal to contemplate why you are doing this at all and to spend a significant amount of energy searching for an exit route. But after the gun has finally bellowed and you are, at last, allowed to stretch your legs, you might find that it’s not so bad after all and settle into a personal kind of groove. You enjoy the moments early on in the race, when you are running much too fast but it still feels good to do so. You even tell yourself that you are feeling so awesome, there’s no reason why you can’t maintain this pace and set a new world record. This act of idiotic thinking is immediately punished by a thousand shades of pain for the remainder of the race, which are sprinkled with just enough magical bouts of the elusive “runner’s high” to stop you from pulling out of the race altogether. It’s true that you learn a lot about yourself while racing; for instance, you become intimately aware of several parts of your body you have never really appreciated before – before they started to hurt like hell, that is. And finally, once you have run, walked, crawled or staggered across the finish like, your biggest achievement of the day (i.e. not throwing up this very moment) is rewarded by a stranger hanging a medal around your neck.

You swear you’ll never do this to yourself ever again. You go home, ice your legs, and convince yourself that a tub of ice-cream and an alcoholic beverage are excellent recovery foods. But a week or so later, usually after another glass or wine or two, you begin to think that it might be fun to run a race one of these days…

Race Journey

Efficient Running (An Alternative)

About half way through my weekly parkrun (a series of timed 5km fun runs that are fun primarily for masochists and manic tempo runs for everyone else) I found myself in need of changing my mental approach to running so fast that it hurts.

Having learned last week that munching a chocolate bar on the start line isn’t at all conducive to fast running, I opted for a chocolate shake this time, which proved to be a superior choice. I ran better and more comfortably and still managed to have chocolate for breakfast – Bridget Jones would be so proud!

Just as I was lamenting if it was possible to turn running stitches into a full-blown hernia and whether or not I was in the process of conducting a personal case study, I was distracted by the first sight of (many) puddles of mud.

Having never been been one to shy away from a bit of dirt, the fact that this was a race – of sorts – was all the excuse I needed to give myself and those running near me a full mud bath by diving right into the middle of the swamp. Splish, splash – as the lumps of mud hit my face, I smiled in the knowledge that my skincare was taken care of for the day.

Towards the bottom of the hill the mud got so deep that I temporarily had to change my running form from mid-foot strike to front crawl. Cross training – check!

And thus I spent my run physically alternating between navigating the hills, bathing in the mud and doggy-paddling towards rare stretches of dry land in between, all while mentally rejoicing at the ever decreasing length of my to-do list.

I suppose this isn’t quite what the experts mean when they talk about efficient running, but it sure works for me!

Demonstrating my multi-tasking skills:

parkrunner2

23:03 minutes of tempo run, skincare, mud-bathing, breakfast, cross-training, scientific experimentation and solving the world’s problems (in my head)

Curious and Curiouser

snow-night

I don’t know what’s gotten into me lately, but whatever it is, I hope that I can get rid of it soon, because it’s very annoying. For some reason I can’t comprehend, I’ve often felt worried by the prospects of going for a run over the past few weeks. It’s pretty unlike me to fret about things in the first place, and this is just silly, because I absolutely love my runs. The “normal” me can’t wait to lace up her trainers.

I really don’t know what’s behind this, but when I glance at my training schedule I often find myself thinking: “Oh gosh, that’s going to be hard.” Or worse: “I wonder if I can complete this at all.” Unfortunately, these thoughts have sometimes made it harder to put on my running shoes and taking that first step out of the front door had, at times, be accompanied by a defty dose of mental-kicking-of-my-own-bottom.

I could understand these sentiments if my running wasn’t going well, if I was burned out or unwell or just generally struggling with my energy levels. However, nothing could be further from the truth; once I’m on the run, all the worries melt away instantly. My runs have been fantastic lately, and I’ve felt full or energy and ready to enjoy my freedom in the world. Moreover, all my specific workouts have also gone wonderfully well and according to plan – the whole lot of them have been nothing but pleasantly challenging and I finished them with a big smile on my face.

So what is going on? Why do I, in between my runs, seem to forget that I genuinely relish every single one of these runs?

Has anyone else ever felt this way? I’d love to know what’s behind this slump in motivation between my runs, so I can kick it out the front door instead of having to drag myself out through it day in, day out. I wonder if it’s just old man winter clouding over my enthusiasm, as I’ve come to a point where I really can’t wait for spring to make an appearance; not just to brighten up my runs, but my days in general…

Having said that about winter, I should also mention that I have just returned from a wicked trail run in the snow. The conditions were terrible by anyone’s standard – which meant that the run was awesome, of course!

At least I’m still moving forward (and loving it!).

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

Banishing Stitches

Stitches

While I mostly blog about all the jolly good times I have when I run, sometimes running can be a pain in the sides…  Every running book or magazine will mention two strategies for getting rid of the dreaded stitches: either, you slow down and push your hand into the painful area, or you exhale sharply when your opposite foot strikes the ground. Neither of these strategies work particularly well for me, and even if they successfully banish the stitch, it takes quite a bit of time.

However, a few years ago I discovered a nifty little technique which gets rid of stitches almost instantly, every time. I’ve never heard anyone else mentioning this idea, so I thought I’d put it out there and see if it can help other runners as well. All it takes is a little practice… And because I don’t think that while hobbling about and crippled by stitches is a good time to try a new exercise, it’s probably best to try this at home first. Also, I don’t recommend that you try this with a full stomach!

Here’s what to do:

Stand with your feet slightly apart and place your hands on your quads. Then round your body slightly, by pushing your bottom back, bending the knees and leaning somewhat on your hands.

It’s time to focus on your breathing now: take a deep breath in, and then exhale all the air from your lungs and hold your breath. Now pull your navel inwards and upwards towards your spine and as far as you can and hold this position.

When I get a stitch on the run, I use the same motion: I slow my pace slightly if needed (as I won’t be breathing normally for a few strides!), then take a deep breath in before expelling all the air from my lungs and pull my navel strongly inwards and upwards. I hold this for a good few strides, as long as I comfortably can, and then release. It really is that simple, and I have found that it often cures a stitch completely after just one repetition!

If you give it a shot, please let me know if this works for you too – good luck!

(Incidentally, apart from being a runner, I also do a lot of yoga; in fact, earned most of my bread and butter while studying by teaching yoga. The idea was inspired by a rarely-taught yoga exercise called Uddiyana Bandha – or abdominal lifts.)

Musical Memories of Running in 2013

While I don’t always run to music, I have noticed that sometimes songs can anchor certain memories, and because I have started to occasionally run to music in 2013, some songs have become irrevocably linked to certain running moments for me.

Do you have any favourite running songs? Do any of them remind you of particularly memorable moments? In the spirit of reflecting upon the year which draws to a close today, I want to share my top ten running song and corresponding memories of 2013 here (and thereby own up to the randomness that is my running music playlist…):

Aerosmith – Living on the Edge

This song reminds me of the start of a 20 mile long run I did in the summer. It now stands for that wonderful feeling of taking the first few steps of a run which I know is going to be awesome. It’s like the first day of the holidays; the start of an adventure that is only just beginning…

Bon Jovi – Blaze of Glory

I was just cooling down after an all-out hill sprint session that had seriously zapped all my strength at the time, and just as I was cruising back down towards the harbour down a gentle slope this song came on. It reminds me how good it feels to give everything once in a while.

Fun – We are Young

This song started ringing in my ears on a particularly beautiful summer day while I was running through a rather remote and lushly green forest. I just couldn’t help myself, the sheer joy of it grabbed me and I started to bounce around the track and danced along to the tune. It’s good not to take anything for granted and to fully enjoy the good moments when they happen. It’s okay to dance like nobody is watching (but best done when there’s really nobody watching…!)

Guns’n’Roses – Sweet Child of Mine

I was coming to the end of yet another long run when the guitar solo at the start of the song put some serious bounce back into my steps. It is possible to find new reserves of strength and speed even after running for hours already and this song will always remind me of this important knowledge.

London Grammar – Strong

One of my most beautiful regular runs is also one of the toughest; it follows a stream up into the mountains, which means that the first three kilometres of the trail take me relentlessly uphill. The first time I managed to run the whole way up to the first plateau without stopping I felt pretty close to throwing up.  I had to walk for a bit after all, there was no way around it. This song got me through the mixed feelings of making it to the top for the first time and not being able to run once I got there. It’s ok to take a break here and there, and it’s important to work with my body rather than against it. Once I had taken a few moments to recover, I ran on for more than ten additional kilometres, feeling strong and full of oomphf.

Massive Attack – Teardrop

This song means a lot to me at any time, regardless of whether I’m running or not. It reminds me of how many problems I have solved on a run. I mostly just have fun on runs, but sometimes running is a great way of working through all sorts of emotions. Running is good for me in more ways that I could list.

Mumford & Sons – Lover of the Light

I was running in a nearby nature reserve and was trying to find the way to some lakes which I knew to be somewhere around the north-western parts. The map which I had studied beforehand (but which I had failed to take with me) had clearly indicated the presence of lakes. However, I ran, re-ran and backtracked many paths that day, until even I had to concede that I was running around in circles. This song instantly snapped me out of increasing levels of frustration. I realised that I was running strong and healthy and the destination didn’t really matter all that much. It’s all about the journey after all, isn’t it? It may have been another “dance in the forest while nobody is watching” moment.

Newton Faulkner – If This is It

When it comes to simply enjoying the moment, this is the ultimate song for me. One day, while I was clocking up some miles on the country roads around my village, this song came on. The views in the area are pretty, but not amazing, at least not to me. They are just my home turf. But running always makes them special.

The Rolling Stones – Sympathy for the Devil

This song will always remind me of the beginning of the end. I love the song and I love the Stones, but I mostly remember hearing this song when I was battling with the ever more crippling physical effects of dehydration during the Athens Classical Marathon. The drum loop at the end of the song goes on and on and on, just like my misery on that day. I needed it to end; both the race and the song. Sadly, both dragged on for what seemed like forever on that day…

The Used – Taste of Ink

Again, this song stands for the life-affirming awesomeness that running has been for me in 2013. I heard it when I reached the top of a mountain I run fairly regularly. The ascent itself isn’t really runnable, but as with all hills, the best parts are the views from the top and the prospects of charging downhill “brakes off, brains off”. Here I am indeed!

I wish you all a fantastic start to 2014 – may the year bring you countless happy moments!

happy new year

“Tomorrow, is the first blank page of a 365 page book. Write a good one.”

Holiday Randomness

St. Andrews fog(running near St. Andrews in the fog)

One of the best aspects of being off work for the holidays is that much of the structure and routine in my life get swept away by a wonderful sense of randomness. I get up when I like, go to bed when I like, I eat when I’m hungry, and I run and ride my horse whenever I feel like it. I’ve been baking cakes, hung out with friends and have contemplated writing my next novel.

Unfortunately, in the midst of this controlled chaos, I have yet to find the time to write a coherent blog post. Therefore, rather than yielding to blogging silence, the least I can do is to share the randomness with you. In that spirit, here are some of the running things I’ve been up to:

  1. I’ve added a new pair of running shoes to my repertoire: the Asics Hyperspeed 5. As I’ve pointed out in an earlier post, one of my main running goals for 2014 is to get serious about my speed workouts. I was so excited when they arrived that I decided to take them for a spin straight away…
  2. I’ve discovered that early morning runs are not for me. Seriously, half of the time I don’t know my own name before breakfast, so why I thought it was a good idea to go for a run after rolling out of bed (new shoes or not) eludes me. While my first run in my racing flats wasn’t terribly fast, I was still very impressed by them – they are insanely light and definitely keep me on my toes (no pun intended). However, the absence of cushioning is also very noticeable, and I know that I’ll have to work my way up the miles with them carefully before I can comfortably race half-marathons in these shoes.
  3. Eating a curry the night before going for a long run is not a good idea. Actually, it’s an exceedingly terrible idea. Just thought you’d like to know.
  4. Try as I might, I just can’t convince my friends that running in the hills in December is good fun. Most of them think that my hill runs are crazy (regardless of the time of year) and some even think that any form of running is a dreadful idea. I have, however, been able to convince some very important friends to come hiking in the mountains with me. It’s also good fun (just slower fun) and means that I can scout new trails for running. I’ve been getting very excited about sneaking back to some of the places we have visited; just me and my running shoes.
  5. While I’m on the topic of scouting new areas: I’ve started reccing the route I’ll run in June as part of the Great British Relay. I’ve almost got the route it finalised; I’m staying off the main roads, which makes the route slightly longer, meaning that I’ll have to run faster. It’s a careful balancing act between safety, fun, speed and time. While I know that the event is still months and months away, I’m getting pretty excited about it already.
  6. Last but certainly not least, my experimentation with the Nike Running Dri-fit Toe Socks has begun. So far, I can report that they are a bit tricky to put on but feel quite nice to run in. They also make my feet look kinda cute (now there’s something I never thought I’d say). I will keep using them for a few weeks and see if they make any difference to the state of my toenails. Certainly after my long run this morning, my toes felt marginally less battered than normal, so my hopes for these socks remain high!

I hope you’re all having a very merry holiday time!

Running Bloggers, Merrily Running Together?

First of all, I want to wish everyone a very happy Christmas! I hope you’ll have some very relaxing and invigorating festive days as this year draws to a close. Let 2014 be the year when all your wildest dreams come true and chase you, incarnate, down the street.

Snow-Laded-Christmas-Tree

So far, I’ve spend my Christmas riding, running, eating, and getting merry in many ways. I celebrated Christmas Eve with a little evening run around St. Andrews, including a spell of running on the West Sands, the beach made famous by “Chariots of Fire”.

St. Andrews beach

Today, I ran up the Bishop in the Lomond Hills, which seemed appropriate for Christmas Day. However, when I say run, I mean that I crawled up the hill (I took the steep path up from Scotlandwell) only to be almost blown away near the top and getting very wet feet on the boggy descend. Nevertheless, it was lots of fun, life affirming, and certainly a great workout that allowed me to tuck into Christmas dinner without shame.

Bishop 1

Thank you all for being part of this great community of running bloggers! A few days ago, the lovely TartanJogger and I half-jokingly contemplated the possibility of going for a run together at some point. It’s made me think that there are many fellow running bloggers here who I’d just love to meet for a run. Any thoughts, any takers?