Redefining Speed

“I don’t have to run faster than the psychotic-maniac-vampire-cannibal, I just have to run faster than whoever is with me when the psychotic-maniac-vampire-cannibal starts chasing us.”

– Jim Benton

2013 has been a great year of running for me. I’ve loved every moment I’ve spent in my running shoes and have discovered many new things about me, as well as the world around me. Above all else, I want to keep that passion alive. I want to still be running when I’m 70 years old and I still love every second of it.

But as it is, I’m not 70 yet and I know there’s more speed in my legs than I have been able to squeeze out of them so far. You see, the distance part of distance running has always come easy to me – I love my weekly long runs more than any other workout and can happily spend several hours out on the trails. However, when my training plan calls for a “5km Tempo Run” or “10 x 1 minute strides, 1 minute off”, or even just a “8km Fartlek run”, all my best intentions fly out the front door with me. The honest truth is that I usually end up figuring out how many kilometres I’m supposed to cover in that particular workout and then I go and do that distance a little faster than normal. In my world, this has so far sufficed to place a tick against any speed workout in my running journal.

And to be fair, my training strategy of endless hilly trail running combined with my narcoleptic approach to speed workouts has gotten me quite far in the past. Sometimes, I even got there reasonably fast!

Having owned up to the fact that speedwork is the Achilles heel of my training, it’s only logical that 2014 shall be the year in which I focus on speed. I’m not necessarily saying that I want to run much faster (although that would be nice too, thank you very much!). Instead, I simply want to focus on getting my speedwork and training paces right (and then see what happens).

I’m a big fan of the McMillan running calculator and the personalised training plans. Given that they provide me with the exact paces at which I should be running each workout, I’m all out of excuses really. I shall make a conscious effort to become more disciplined about my training paces and training intervals while preparing for my next target race (the Inverness Half Marathon). There, I’ve said it.

Besides, if everything else fails, all of this can go down as a cleverly disguised excuse to indulge in some retail therapy. After all, wannabe speedsters need at least one pair for racing flats, right?

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Five Reasons Why I Love Running in Winter

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Reason #5: Snow! So pretty and crunchy beneath my feet! It makes me want to bounce, but I usually manage to resist the urge of rolling around in it and making snow angels. In any case, I’d have to try really hard to get too hot while running in winter.

Reason #4: I use all my running gear. In the summer, I’d run in a sports bra and underpants if I could get away with it (sometimes, I do!). The shortest tops and shorts just keep being washed and worn over and over. Not so in winter. I’ve dug deep into my closet and uncovered all my running gear, which all gets worn in winter, usually in layers or twos and threes.

Reason #3: I try lots of new stuff in winter. In the summer, running outside is easy, when it’s possible to go almost anywhere, at any time. In winter, my usual routes are often no longer safe or sane to run, so I had to get a little creative. I’ve run before work, run at lunchtime, run at night, run on the roads, headed into town and have run on the pavement. I’ve visited the running track, have run while wearing hats and gloves and have experimented with the dreadmill. All of these things didn’t sound at all appealing at first, but really, how can I know what I like and what I don’t, what works for me and what doesn’t, if I don’t try it first? The change of routine is welcome and I’m discovering new things and am learning more about myself as a runner every day.

Think outside the box - Jan A. Poczynek

Reason #2: Badass feel factor increases exponentially when conditions and temperature decreases. Sure, it’s easy to put on the running shoes on a perfect summer evening, when the sun is kissing the horizon and a gentle summer breeze lays in wait to caress my exposed skin. But in winter, running straight into a hailstorm makes me feel so much cooler (in every way) than sitting on the couch and eating peanut butter with a spoon straight out of the jar.

Reason #1: And number one reason why running in winter is awesome? Chocolate! That’s right. Only in winter is it possible to eat chocolate while running. I use it for fuel on long runs or just because it’s a weekday that ends with the letter “y”. Seriously, it doesn’t get more awesome than this!

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Ultra Dreams: The Cotswold 100 Challenge

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While I’ve been trying to decide what I want to do – running wise – in 2014, this particular challenge has caught my eye. I’m not an ultra-runner and am quite attached to my toenails (no pun intended), but I do love a good challenge, nice scenery, adventure, and running for a really long time.

My thoughts so far:

1)      I just love the idea of this – spending each day running through beautiful countrysides towards a campsite where comrades, ice-baths, massages and pasta-feasts await. Awesome!

2)      I’ve never ran that far before in my life, but that’s okay. As always, a big part of the challenge will be the training. It could be a fantastic and relatively gentle introduction to running really long distances, as it’s run over four days and it’s not a race. It’s essentially the equivalent of running a trail marathon each day for four consecutive days.

3)      I’ve hiked the West-Highland Way (which is a similar distance) over seven days a few years ago. That was perfectly doable without any training, which makes me think that reducing this to four days by running most of it will be quite possible with some dedicated training.

4)      I’m pretty sure I’d take this challenge as easy as possible (as far as running 100 miles can ever made easy!). I’d aim to run a half-marathon in the morning, stop somewhere and sit down for a proper lunch, walk while I’m digesting said lunch, then jog the last part, before enjoying the ice, massage and pasta-feast. I’d also be quite likely to stop for such important things as buying ice-cream and admiration of the scenery.

5)      I’d love to team up with someone for this. I think it would be even more fun to run at the side of a partner in crime/madness.

What do you think? Am I missing something obvious, or should I take the plunge and hover over training plans and the sign-up button?

Two Nights, One Village

Considering that I’m a trail-running tree-hugger at heart, I never thought that I could enjoy spending wintry evenings running on the roads.

The fact is that I simply wouldn’t feel safe on the trails in the darkness, especially because I often run on my own. I still haven’t been able to move myself to head to the gym and revisit the dreadmill, so this week, in a somewhat desperate move, I’ve simply stepped out my front door and ran around my village.

Inspired by the lovely smallislandrunner, I decided to make a game out of it, and over two evenings ran along every street in my little village. I’ve lived here for a few years, but this still helped me discover a few nooks and crannies I have never visited before.

What’s more, it’s been really good fun – I enjoyed the silence of the streets at night, watching my shadow dance in the street lamp light and listening to my footfall on the damp sidewalks.

Isn’t it funny how things that we dread can turn out to be so good for us?

Pittenweem Night

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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Marathon Madness is (Almost) Upon Me

My bags are packed, my animals have been delivered into the care of trusted friends, my plants have been generously watered and my travel documents have been checked and double checked. Tomorrow I will board the plane to Athens and begin my much-needed ten day vacation on the Aegean shores.  Oh, and then there’s that little excursion to Marathon on Sunday morning.

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I’m 5 days away from running my first marathon, and I feel like a child who is counting down the days until Christmas… Someone once said that the marathon race itself is a runner’s lap of honour to celebrate all the hard training, which is a great way of looking at it I think.

During my taper, I had plenty of time to reflect upon my training. I hope I don’t sound arrogant when I say that this has gone a long way to soothing my pre-race nerves. For one, my training has gone genuinely well – I’ve hit all my weekly targets, while remaining flexible and sensible during individual runs. Tallying up the total number of kilometres I’ve run in training over the past 16 weeks, I realised that this number will cross into four figure territory during the marathon on Sunday. Regardless of what happens on Sunday, it won’t change the fact that for the first time in my life I have run 1000km in four months!

I’ve even been uncharacteristically well behaved during the taper itself (so far!). Only once did I run significantly longer than I should have done and I didn’t sneak in any extra runs or naughty cross training. Bashing out two tempo runs on consecutive days was the only genuine act of idiocy I own up to.

I’m fairly certain that this act of self-restraint was only possible because I kept myself occupied with other marathon-related tasks during the taper. My mp3 player is now loaded with a carefully assembled marathon soundtrack. My poor muscles have been stretched and stretched some more. The sports massages were amazing and I’ve discovered foam rolling (seriously, it’s something else!). Finally, I think my podiatric tlc might have rescued a toenail I had already written off long ago.

So now there’s not much left to do but to get on that plane and keep counting down the days until I get to run my lap of honour!

Sports Torture/Massage

I have only one regret following the sports massage I had this week: I wish I had gotten it sooner. Much sooner. In fact, I wish I had started subjecting myself to regular professional sports massages a couple of months ago, when I first embarked on this marathon training madness. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not an indulgence – a sports massage is a far cry (sometimes literally) from a touchy-feely spa type massage. There’s definitely quite a bit of pain involved, but I found the process also amazingly revealing. I became aware of tight spots in my body that I never realised were there. It turns out that there’s a pattern of tension running through almost every major muscle group on the dominant side of my body. It’s blatantly obvious now that it’s been pointed out to me, but before the massage, I really didn’t have a clue.

Yet my therapist remarked – jokingly, I hope! – that if I keep letting my right side do all the running, I’ll soon end up going around in circles. There was no panic about it, no “this is terrible and you’ll have to come back at least once a week for the rest of the year” nonsense. Quite on the contrary, the massage therapist’s approach was reassuringly realistic. She insisted that bodies aren’t perfect and symmetrical and that running close to 1000km in three months – as I have done lately – is bound to highlight and exacerbate the weaknesses and oddities that nature has inflicted upon me. “Let’s face it”, she said as she clawed into my hamstrings, “when you train for a marathon, you’re going to get niggles. The key is managing them.” I left the clinic not only with a completely kneaded and relaxed body, but also a plethora of trips, stretches and exercises to play around with in my free time.

Another nifty side effect of the sports massage is that I really felt like an athlete. That might sound a little odd given that I’m about to run a marathon, but most of the time I feel like a fluke, an imposter who tries to hang out with the big guys. Yet while the massage therapist was dropping her body weight into my back via her elbows, we discussed my training and recovery in detail (well alright, she discussed while I winced – still, it’s closer to a conversation about my running than I usually get, as most people retreat swiftly in the opposite direction as soon as I mention the “m” word).

I cannot recommend it enough – if you are a runner, or any athlete, I’d definitely suggest surrendering to a sports massage here and there. Even and especially when things are going apparently really well – as they are for me – a capable professional can still highlight things that can be improved and dealt with before they become problems. I’ll definitely surrender my muscles into Karen’s capable hands again, before running in the magical Scottish wilderness turns me into a human equivalent of the fabled Haggis, only capable of running around in circles.

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Thoughts on Healthy Running

As much as I love running, it’s not always pain free. I’m not talking about the “pain” I feel when I force my legs to work particularly hard and my lungs threaten to explode. I’m talking about the running-related kind of pain that I’m not actually proud of; the kind of injuries which can put us runners out of action and make us positively unbearable to be around.

My poor feet bear the scars of the battles I have ran in the form of blisters and black toenails. I have slipped and tripped over anything from dogs, children, logs, roots, puddles to my own two feet. I have tumbled gracelessly and fallen straight into nettles, dirt and mud – resulting in a plethora of cuts and bruises to most body parts, as well as my pride. The pinnacle of my running related (self-)harm came in the form of a tree which I somehow failed to avoid. The tree, in turn, asserted its presence by breaking two of my toes.

Ok, I admit, I seem to have an aptitude for – how shall I put this? – suffering foolhardy injuries (perhaps my partner was onto something when he asked if I like to watch documentaries about natural disasters “for inspiration”). However, true running-related injuries remain a mystery to me. When it comes to IT band syndrome, runner’s knee, shin splints, plantar fasciitis and other conditions that send shivers down any runner’s spine, I am very pleased to say that in ten years of running, I have not run into any of them.

I put my resilience to these conditions primarily down to plain old good luck. Perhaps I have good genes or youth is still on my side. Maybe I have just never really run hard enough to truly push my body to its limits. I’m certainly in not assuming that I will dodge the running-injury-bullet forever.

Nevertheless, I have five golden rules that I run by. While they aren’t particularly novel or ground-breaking, I wanted to share them here as they have genuinely become the cornerstones of my physical fitness:

1.      Live a healthy life. I would never expect my body to be able to perform any feat of strength or endurance if I didn’t take the time to look after if properly. A healthy diet, getting plenty of sleep, investing in my relationships with other people and  keeping tabs on stress and chocolate consumption are all part of my everyday adventure.

 2.      Be an athlete. I don’t think of myself as a runner; I think of myself as an athlete who happens to love running in particular. I habitually engage in physical activities other than running, such as horse riding, yoga and swimming. I work a lot on my balance, core strength and when the stars align I might even be spotted lifting weights. I don’t do these things especially to improve my running per se; I do them to improve myself as an athlete.

 3.      Think about your running form. Few would deny the importance of a good running form, both in terms of enhancing performance and avoiding injuries. In general, I like to trust my body to know what it is doing. Rather than trying to somehow consciously change the way I run, I have made running form drills a part of my warm-up routine.

 4.      Vary everything. I never do the same workout twice. I change the speed, distance, intensity, surface, time of day and direction all the time. That doesn’t mean that I never submit myself to a planned workout regime. One week, I might run a tempo session on the track, the next week I’ll take it to the beach and the week after I might run it on the hilliest trail I can find. You get the idea. The variety keeps things fun and interesting, the workouts remain challenging and the ever changing surfaces ensure that different muscles get to bear the brunt of it.

 5.      Listen to your body. This is perhaps the most important point. When my body is telling me that it’s tired, I don’t attempt to get out of this hole by trying to dig deeper. By this I don’t mean that I don’t stick with tough workouts – I quite like them actually. But when something feels genuinely wrong, I am happy to walk away and try again another day. On the other hand, I also don’t hesitate to keep going for longer than planned when a run happens to feel particularly groovy. I refuse to become a slave to any training schedule and sacrifice common sense in the process.

While these habits have done nothing to thwart my sporadic displays of gracelessness, they are certainly not doing me any harm either. In fact, I rather suspect that they have a thing or two to do with my continued enjoyment of injury free running.

 Happy, healthy running everyone!

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Taper Territory

I’m not going to beat around the bush here: I’m no good at tapering. Give me any training plan and I’ll hammer out the tough workouts with cheerful obedience. However, tell me to slow down and put my feet up and I not only lose that focus, but come dangerously close to losing the plot altogether. The closer I get to the actual race, the more I feel like I should be doing something (specifically, running hard); slowing down, on the other hand, feels as foreign, foolish and repulsive as eating fried insects on a stick.

My first marathon is now only fifteen days away, which places me squarely into the danger zone of metaphorical insect eating. I realised with horror that yesterday’s trail run was the last of my beloved mid-week 10km workouts. Don’t get me wrong, I fully understand the necessity of the dreaded taper: it’s when you funnel all that great training into a bottle, cork it up and spend three weeks shaking it with beastial vigour, only to pop the cork in unison with the sound of the start gun and explode onto the race course.  Thankfully, I have plenty of training under my belt which is ready for the bottle; I don’t intend to throw 14 weeks of lovely running into the bottomless pit of idiocy by failing to slow down now.

Instead of just sitting around and chomping on my fingernails, I am going to direct all that antsy energy at the many marathon related tasks which I have been neglecting:

  • Put some effort into dropping some serious hints in the vicinity of my partner in the hope that he will arrange an indulgent spa day for me after the race – one can always hope!
  • In the meantime, I should really stretch a little more and sign up for a sports massage or two.
  • My feet – toenails in particular – are screaming out for some love after the many weeks of abuse. I shall heed their call.
  • The pants dilemma still needs to be solved – that is, I need to decide which shorts to wear for the marathon (a recent 20 miler has revealed a disastrous chafing flaw in my favourite Nike racing shorts).
  • My newly acquired mp3 player needs to be filled with the tunes that shall ring in my ears for 26.2 miles. This is serious stuff.
  • I will investigate just how much chocolate can be consumed in taper times, by means of a personal case study.
  • Crucially, I still need to finalise the preparations for my trip to Marathon (as in, I’ll be starting my first marathon in Marathon, to run THE marathon from Marathon to Athens).
  • I need to stock up on porridge and Vaseline.
  • Perhaps most importantly, I still need to figure out what in the name of Pheidippides I want to achieve during the actual race (besides not dying).

Suddenly, fifteen days don’t sound like much time at all. Now that I have a clear chart to navigate the taper-territory (and chocolate!), I hope that my voyage across these treacherous waters will be much smoother than I had initially feared.

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Dreadmill Revelations

Today, the inconceivable has come to pass. Snowballs are flying in hell as I write this. Rome is burning. Yours truly had a good run on the treadmill.

Wait, what? I must admit that I’m still pretty shell-shocked myself and am trying to figure out how that could have happened. Perhaps it was just one of those days when Venus and the Moon aligned on some celestial plane, meaning that any run was destined to be awesome, regardless of the conditions. I also haven’t discounted the possibility that I may have just been temporarily possessed. The fact remains that the girl who lives by this motto

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actually had a good time running on the spot in a sweaty room full of strangers for more than an hour.

So what exactly did go, well… right? I can think of a whopping three reasons:

Firstly, I had a terrible run last night, and by terrible I mean dreadful. I joined my athletics club for a workout, not appreciating that they have moved to the winter training schedules, which means running in packs around village roads by night. (I’m still trying to simply ignore winter, so it really did take me by surprise). To make matters worse, the coach promptly sent me off with the fast paced group. While I’m glad that he has faith in me, it meant that I spent the better part of a nightly hour chasing a group of super athletes around dimly-lit streets. In the rain. They were casually discussing their sub-three hour marathon plans while I was basically fighting for my life. I never knew that my lungs were capable of generating such pain. I was roasting beneath the water-repellent-my-ass layers of my reflective rain coat, but unable to take it off lest I wanted to become a target for approaching cars. Trust me, that particular thought did not go uncontemplated throughout the evening. When the ordeal was finally over, I barely managed to stagger back to my car and the dry heaves lasted all night. But because all runners share a bit of a masochistic personality trait, today I was naturally raring to go again, keen to redeem myself. It was dark and wet yet again, so I jumped on the treadmill with a most primal “bring-it-on” attitude, knowing that whatever torture it would fathom, it could never rival last night’s agony. As it was, I found immense satisfaction in watching the rain tickle down the outside of the window in front of me. Therefore, revelation number one is that a positive attitude really helps. Who would have thought?

Secondly, I never run with music – until today. When I’m outside, I quite like listening to the wind, the waves, and the chirping of the birds (yes, I’m a treehugger). On a more practical level, I also consider it a perk to be able to hear approaching cars, wildebeests and chainsaw wielding psychopaths before the point of impact. However, earlier this week I purchased a little mp3 player and have started putting together a soundtrack for the looming marathon. Today I took the musical set-up for a trial run. I’m happy to report that the headphones are comfy, the sound is clear, the mp3 player didn’t drown in my sweat and the whole thing had the nifty and unexpected side effect of making my time on the treadmill infinitely more interesting. Revelation number two: the next time I will find myself facing the dreadmill, I shall again be armed with my loaded mp3 player.

This brings me to my final point about the joys of running on a treadmill. My training schedule demanded a threshold run from me today. My initial plan involved hitting the track (another once-in-a-very-blue-moon occurrence with me) for some good old “Yasso 800s” – I know, I know, not quite a TR but still speedwork. But due to the darkness and the rain, and mostly not wanting to repeat last nights torment (oh dear God no), I took the workout to the treadmill. And oh boy did it spice things up… the miles flew by and for the first time I know for a fact that I completed the whole workout faithfully and at the correct pace. There’s huge satisfaction in that. Revelation number 3: treadmills are great for structured speedwork; and running hard intervals makes the time pass much, much faster!

Today, the girl who runs wild has stepped upon her arch-nemesis. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I’ve found an ally against winter in the treadmill, but I think it is fair to say that I have at least taken the first few steps away from the warpath. I’ll always prefer running outside*, and the wilder the trail the more I’m likely to enjoy it. However, after today, I must concede through gritted teeth that running on the dreadmill can certainly be worthwhile, bearable, and dare I say it, fun.

*Last night excluded

P.S.: I can confirm that this is also true:

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