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?

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Keep moving forward!

Speed ≠ Everything

“How can you tell if someone has run a marathon? – Don’t worry, they’ll tell you.”

It’s so true, isn’t it? Over the past month or so, whether they wanted to or not, my friends, family, acquaintances, co-workers, the mailman, my dentist, etc. have all been subjected to the details of my marathon escapades in Rome. Their responses predictably fell into one of two categories. The non-runners tried to make polite conversation by asking how long this marathon was, all while backing away slowly, of course. That one just never gets old, does it?

The runners’ response was somewhat more inviting, albeit just as predictable: “Cool. What was your time?” This prompted me to launch into a well-rehearsed monologue of explanations as to why I had decided take it easy in Rome, before – much like a catholic schoolgirl on Sunday mornings – all but confessing my finishing time of 3:48.

I know I can run faster than that. My running buddies, of course, are well aware of this, too. However, the point is that in Rome I made a conscious decision not to run all out, mostly because the race didn’t fit into my training and racing schedule at all. I still loved every second of it, and it actually taught me a lot about finishing a marathon feeling strong. The whole thing has made me think – are we, as runners, too hung up on speed sometimes? What’s that all about?

Friends who take up running often tell me how far they have run and how long it took them. Of course, quantifiable improvements in running performance are very nice, but why don’t they tell me how they felt, how much (or little) fun they had, or where they went or what they saw on the run?

Please don’t get me wrong, I too find it really fun to run really fast sometimes. I like it as much as the next person and like many other runners, I include workouts in my training which are specifically designed to improve my speed. However, this is certainly not my only goal in training, or running in general. It’s not even the most important one, not by a long shot.

Many runs (and sometimes even races) have a very different purpose. A prime example of this is the long run, of course. Not only is speed not important on these runs, it can actually be counter-productive in training. Yet, being hung up about pace on the long run and going too fast has got to be one of the most common rookie running mistakes that I see time and time again.

My easy runs and recovery runs are for the pure joy and relaxation of the sport. I must say that over time, these runs have become more important than ever to me. Some call them “junk miles”, but I couldn’t disagree more. On these runs I just relax and enjoy the scenery and my hard-earned fitness. Having fun on these runs is paramount to everything, and they are so important to keep the passion alive. I never really remember how fast I ran anything, and apart from a few meaningful personal bests, I don’t even recall the finishing times of the races I have done. I do, however, remember the places where I have run, the sights I have seen and the people that I have met.

auchintaple-loch(Auchintaple Loch: a place which I passed – slowly! – on a recent long run.)

As a long-time (and hopefully life-long) runner, I find that this constant focus on speed is just not sustainable. It’s not feasible to constantly hunt those personal bests, for my part, I’m certain that I’d get very, very frustrated before eventually burning out entirely. This is not to say that I don’t have goals in my running or racing, when I’m not focussing on speed and finishing times, I might work on my running form, make a conscious effort to improve my cadence, aim for a clean negative split, try to high-five at least 5 spectators per kilometre, or tweak my nutritional strategy in an effort to avoid those dreaded pit-stops (the seldom talked about arch nemesis of virtually every runner).

Running is so much more to me than simply moving fast. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that I’d almost depreciate what running means to me in my life if I were to quantify it only in numbers. When a fellow runner comes to tell me about a recent run or race, I’m making a point to ask them: “Awesome – how was it?” They might still only tell me about their speed and times, but at least I am keeping the doors wide open.

When The Fastest Way To Get There Is To Go Slow

Well, this is a bit awkward. I’m currently trying to figure out a strategy for running a slow marathon. Yes, you’ve read that right; this time next week, I’ll be heading to Rome in order to run a very leisurely 26.2 mile loop around the eternal city.

Where most runners would be planning a race strategy and pacing plan that will allow them to shave a few seconds off their personal best time, I’m actively trying to figure out a path which will lead me to a new personal worst. I will be most upset with anything better than that.

I promise there is madness to my method. Firstly, I have run my socks off at a half marathon last weekend, and although I can’t feel it in my legs at all, I still want to give my body a chance to fully recover without demanding another endurance race straight away. This is especially important given that my next target race is a 55 mile ultramarathon in June; that is, only three months away now. And because ultras don’t run themselves, I want to be able to hurl myself into training for the monstrosity when I return from Rome, rather than having to make room for extensive recovery time from my latest racing folly.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Rome marathon is notorious for following a downright amazing route, which passes the Colosseum, the Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain, the Vatican and countless other monuments, landmarks and cool stuff. I’d rather enjoy the truly awesome scenery than spend my time alternately focussing my attention on the extent of the pain in my abs and the numbers flashing on my watch.

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So having decided that I’ll go slow, all that’s left to do now is to figure out just how slow I want to go and how to achieve this.

Given my recent half-marathon race time, I should be able run the big 26.2 in about 3:30 if I were to attack it. Therefore, I have decided that I shall be most upset if I run the Rome marathon in anything under four hours. I honestly don’t care how long it takes me to reach the finish line, as long as it’s over that threshold.

Here are some of the specific things that I can do to ensure that my pace remains leisurely:

  1. Before the race begins, I’ll line up a couple of pens back from the one I have been allocated into, hoping that the slower moving masses will rein in any potential outbursts of speedy stupidity on my part.
  2. Once the race starts, I will make sure that my start is very slow indeed. I might even walk the first kilometre or so, just to make sure that all my splits are “terrible”. My theory is that this will drastically reduce the possibility of committing an act of idiocy after glancing at my watch at the 10/20/21.1/30km marker.
  3. I’ll be a good tourist. I shall study the route extensively on the three hour flight to Rome, so that during the race I can focus my attention and energy on spotting as many landmarks as possible. My camera might also make an appearance or two.
  4. I solemnly swear that I will walk through the aid stations. All of them.
  5. Should my watch, at any point, indicate that I’m running faster than 5:41/km (4 hour marathon) pace, I have to immediately perform a 100m walk of shame.
  6. Should I spot the 4:00 pacer at any point during the race, I’ll have to walk until the 4:15 pacer makes an appearance, using the time to think about what I’ve done.

Have you ever aimed for a minimum time in a race? Do you have any tips?

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!

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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?

Forward Momentum

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

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

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

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

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

–          Theodore Roosevelt

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

Decisions,_decisions

We Learn From Failure, Not From Success.

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

–  Edna St. Vincent Millay

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

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

So what went wrong?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Head in Hands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

forward

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

Tourist Runs Wild

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

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

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

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

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

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