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Why I run

I found myself wondering why it is that – even if I’m forced to take a break because of illness or house renovations or holidays – I seem to return to running again and again. Here’s what I came up with.

Everything comes out during a run. If I’m preoccupied with or worried about something, there it will be, right beside me. And by the end of the run, it’s dealt with. Maybe still there, but I know what I’m going to do about it – or have recognised that I can’t do anything about it. I think it’s call de-stressing. It doesn’t mean the same thing won’t crop up again the next time I’m out there again, because life isn’t as simple as that, is it? But everything looks better after the perspective of a run.

It can be pure ideas time. I could tell you the exact spots along the canal where specific ideas have come to me that have ended up in a scene or a snippet of dialogue. I’ve even worked out the basic plot and character outline for a novel during one 14 mile run. Nowadays if I’m struggling with a scene that doesn’t work, I just throw my sandals on and go for a run. By the time I get back, it’s sorted. Walking works as well, but running seems to get me there faster (in both senses of the word).

Sometimes, it’s just an excuse for a break. There are times when I forget to eat lunch (and then wonder why I’m feeling so hungry at four). If I know I’m going for a run, I also know I’ll get out of the house. And eat. And when this is your reading pile for the week, you really need a break sometimes:

Some runs are simply beautiful. Others are just a hard slog, but I forget about them soon enough. Yesterday, I had to drop Abbi off at school for a class trip so I decided to do a 16 mile run along the canal while I was there. Normally I don’t get beyond Ratho (seven miles out), and there are several miles of stillness and rarely a sign of life along the stretch leading up that part of town, but this time I kept going and it was like being in a different country. Walled gardens, low-hanging trees, a winding towpath and the peaceful water of the canal all the way. Years ago I had to do a ridiculously early run through Berlin before catching a flight, and I can still remember running through the deserted streets as the sun rose, then running under the Brandenburg Gate with not a single tourist in sight. But probably my best experience was running along the main road near our house and seeing a deer on the other side of the fence, running along beside me for a few seconds. Some runs you might even describe as spiritual.

The other reason is far less lofty. You can measure it. And your performance is down to you. Of course there are many others who help you (even us rank amateurs) but at the end of the day, when you go out there for a run, and especially for a race, it’s down to you. Sometimes ‘performance’ really doesn’t matter. I can just run for the fun of it (another reason I run!). If I’m not training for a race, I can forget splits and times quite happily. But if it’s full-on training for a race, it’s both a physical and a mental challenge. And that marathon – it’s not 26 miles. It’s not even 26.2 miles. It’s 24 miles plus about 10 more tagged on the end they didn’t tell you about. Every time I think to myself, get to 24 miles then kick hard. It works every time. Until I get to mile 24 and I think, how about I just keep going and get over the finish line without being sick, collapsing or deciding this was a terrible idea and even if I walk the rest of the way, I won’t be last and what does it really matter anyway? So I keep going and it really does feel like another ten miles later and, no matter what my watch says, it feels like I’m barely moving forward, but then the finish line comes and it was all worth it again. I won’t have been first, and I won’t have been last, so beyond that, all that matters is whether I did my best on the day.

You didn’t think running was about getting fit, did you?

Choices

My temporary enforced break from running is the longest period in a few years that I have spent not being out on some road or other. And it brought me to a simple realisation – I’m going to have to choose. This year was to be about a new marathon personal best and getting my novel finished. After two weeks of not running (the good news there is that I’m planning on going out tomorrow and seeing how it goes, I haven’t had a twinge in about a week now so think it’s good to go) I found myself with both more time and more energy because I was no longer doing runs that really tired me out and meant I needed to sleep for a while afterwards. Like the 16 mile ones that start off nice and slow and then build up with a few miles at fast pace towards the end and sprinting as fast as I can at the end. After one of them, you can pretty much forget about me for the rest of the day. Of course you get a lot faster over time doing runs like that once in a while, and they are great marathon preparation, but even with a proper programme with enough recovery time built in, at the level of training required to run marathons in under 3 hours, you are pushing your body a lot over a period of months and I find it does limit what else you can achieve.

The other extreme of that level of training, of course, is a lot worse. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last few years, it’s the mental and emotional benefits which physical exercise also bring with it. And anyway, I couldn’t imagine not running now.

But my plan for the year has changed.

I used the extra time and energy I had in the last couple of weeks to write (and read) more, but mainly write more. And I think the better balance is entirely beneficial for my writing. Thoughts are coming to me which I can immediately jot down, threads of the narrative start to emerge, and I am happy to tweak the story as I go along, knowing that I can go back later and sort out the earlier part which now needs to change. The biggest sign of something having changed is that I will get to the evening and realise I haven’t eaten anything since the morning, and hadn’t noticed.

Last night, I decided to go to bed earlier in preparation for a more normal work schedule and was reading a Hemingway short story. That lasted for all of about five minutes before I thought of how I should write a scene I had been struggling with. I think it helps that Hemingway manages to write in one page what it takes me ten to say, and when you read the way he does it, you know he’s right. I tried jotting down the idea and put it to the side again, but I realised I wasn’t paying any attention to what I was reading, so I gave up, got out my pen and pencil and wrote it down (adopting the Hemingway trick of leaving a sentence mid-way through so you can go right back into it again the next day.) So much for the earlier night though.

So my new plan is not to run any races this year (OK, maybe a half marathon or something for fun, but not for a fast time) and to be (very) happy with running for the fun of it, enough so I get all the benefits, including thinking time, but not so much that it distracts from writing. And we will see how that goes.

Ramping up the running again

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s been a while since I did a blog on running, but as the copy of Runner’s World in which I have a cameo appearance just arrived, it seemed a good week to… wait… I’m in Runner’s World! Woohoo! Brief intermission for a jig around the house…

Right. Got that out of my system. My little bit is below. Don’t think it counts as my fifteen minutes of fame though.

It’s that time of year where I need to commit to my running goals for next year. For a spring marathon, I have six to seven months from now, which is more than plenty of time to build back up nice and gently and get back into the rhythm again. And it’s long enough since the last marathon to be able to be ruthlessly honest about what worked and what didn’t in the last one, rather than worry about (euphemism for blame) things that were out of my control. The only question in my mind is what I will do differently next time in preparation. And the fact that I’m starting there means that I have already made the conceptual commitment to have another go at the marathon next year. I’ve just enjoyed a few months of easing back a little, having the odd day off from running when something else came up. Like life. And family. And a holiday.

I tend to be quite tired at the end of a marathon. In the sense of can’t really walk for an hour afterwards, lie shivering on the ground tired. Everybody else seems to be fine afterwards. I think it’s just me. But it does mean that staying local is a really nice thing when your family descends on you afterwards and treats you like the babbling, incapacitated wreck that you have become. Edinburgh it is, then. And I know the course well enough now to know where the mentally hard parts are. That would be about miles 20 to 26 then…

Now for the honesty section, which morphs into the what to do differently this time part.

It was very windy last year, ridiculously so. But even it had been totally calm, I would not have hit my target time. I sensed that at about mile 18 because the same thing happened as in training. My pace dropped by ten seconds a mile and I couldn’t get my target pace back again without pushing too hard to be sustainable. And then my legs started to cramp. It was just too fast for my legs to do the full distance at that speed. It is also no consolation at all to know that around 99% of the other runners are behind you and will stay there. I wanted to go faster.

So, I’m running a lot more hills right now to strengthen my legs for those last few miles so it becomes a mental rather than entirely physical challenge next time round. And because I have a reason for running up and down hills, I’m quite enjoying it, seeing how much more I can do each week. It helps that we have this great big hill called Arthur’s Seat in the middle of Edinburgh. I’m getting to know the curves of the road and the relative inclines quite well now. And I take heart when I overtake the same person three times as I run my loops up and down. I’m hoping to see the difference when my training plan has me running fast uphill repeats in a few month’s time. Think 1-2 minutes at a time, done 8 to 12 times in a session, at around the pace you would sprint a 10k race. That will be the first test of how much stronger my legs are this year. I can’t say that I’m looking forward to it, though. Last year they about killed me.

And the second element is simply speed. The way to run faster is to run faster. It’s also a lot of fun seeing how much you can push yourself in training when there’s nobody else around and you can just enjoy the feeling. I’ve picked up speed in the last year which seems to have stuck so I go further, faster, in a 60 minute session. That means that the jump on race day from the pace I’m trotting along normally is a lot lower than last time, when the difference was just too large.

My goal for next year is not just to get as close to a 2:40 time as I can, but to run the whole race well. None of this cramping nonsense. At that point, I can stop with marathons and start doing longer, but slower, distances. But first I have to crack the marathon properly. And I will continue to hope for a calm day. Cool, bit of drizzle, that will be lovely thanks.

 

Runner's World

Stopping for a moment…or a year

There was a time when you couldn’t start something with ‘There’s a TED talk’ and expect anyone to understand what you were on about. I’m not sure it was that long ago, actually.

Anyway, there’s a TED talk I wanted to share today. But wait, I have to wind back a bit first for two reasons.

One is the background. I’ve now come down after the marathon. And I feel like these sandals – worn out, a bit broken and a bit fragile.

Worn out sandal

I’m on a recovery plan for a couple of weeks – a few 20 to 30 minute runs at a pace which feels like I’m walking rather than running. One of the most common questions I get is why in training we don’t run the full marathon distance. The answer is that race pace and distance does temporary damage to your body. It’s fine, we recover, but we need to give it time. The next event is rarely less than a few months away, and we can lose some of the sharpness for a bit. The secret is that we will come back stronger if we acknowledge our body’s need to heal, to rest for a while.

And the second reason is because Camille said something a long time before this TED talk came out. Years ago, she wondered why we don’t reverse the process of learn, work, retire, and spend some of the ‘retire’ time earlier in our lives, for example when our children are younger. I think the question is still out there.

So, back to that TED talk. Here it is – Stefan Sagmeister on ‘The Power of Time Off’.

Sagmeister runs a design studio in New York City, and every seven years, he closes it for a year to recuperate and get new ideas. He sees it as taking five years of later retirement and interspersing them into the earlier working years.

But of course, he comes back from his year’s sabbatical with renewed energy and ideas.

Yeah yeah, fine for him I hear you say. Loads of money, typical artsy guy who has to be just that bit different.

So maybe we can’t take a year off – although this family did (and came back to the ‘real world’ with no income and all the usual bills). And perhaps that last sentence should instead read ‘So maybe we believe we can’t take a year off.’

But how do we spend ‘recreation’ time (more of an American than British word, I suspect, but I need it for the next bit) – for re-creation, or for something that just fills in time? Sagmeister’s sabbatical is for re-recreation in its truest sense. It might not be a year for most of us, but is there really not a little time we could choose to use to re-create ourselves and return stronger?

I’m enjoying my two weeks of virtual no-running. Did I mention that I’m allowed to eat and drink whatever I feel like in those two weeks as well? This is fun. And I’m finding time to read more, which is always a good thing. Right now, I’m going to go off into Anthony Horowitz’s world of Sherlock Holmes in ‘Moriarty’, a book I’ve wanted to read since seeing him at a book event months ago.

I’m still stuck on that sabbatical idea though. That might be long enough to get through the stacks of books that remain stubbornly unread.

The marathon blog

Wow. I ran a marathon in under 3 hours. In frankly horrendous wind for the last eight miles. There are two parts to this blog – my run down of the marathon, and some thanks to all the people who keep me going and help me improve.

So – the race. The last six months have been all about wind. Virtually every run I’ve done has been windy and I can think of a good few where a sane person would just have said, you shouldn’t even try to run in this wind, and certainly not try to run fast into it. But a plan is a plan, so out I went every time. And a strong wind remained my biggest fear for the day itself because it’s going to matter and, on a course which doubles back on itself, there is no good solution if it’s windy. Of course, we are all convinced that the headwind is stronger than the tailwind, but they are certainly not equal in terms of impact on performance.

And it was windy. Very.

My target was sub-2:45 hours. By mile 18 I knew that wasn’t going to happen. That would have been about half a mile after the turn, heading into the headwind, having already seen the runners at the very front struggling as they headed back. I was bang on pace up until then but I also knew that it was too fast for the whole thing, even without the wind. I think there’s a feeling you get in your legs that tells you you’re on the wrong side of your limit, and I knew I was getting it. Confirmation came at about mile 20 when I felt the first tiny cramp in my left leg. I’ve been there before – it happened in my first marathon, where I now know I just went off too fast. This time, I think the target was just out of reach, and with the wind factor, I simply had to readjust my expectations and do the best I could on the day. Being a pragmatist, I knew what I had to do. Slow down. To a pace that was the fastest I could go without the legs cramping up properly because when that happens, it’s all over. So I ran the rest of the way constantly testing what my limit had become, and working out that if I could keep going at that pace into the wind, I was still on track for sub-3 hours. The great thing was that I still felt that I had energy left, my breathing was great, my legs just couldn’t keep up that pace. Maybe I should have slowed down more when I hit the wind, maybe I should have…. I don’t know. It just happens. One of the Kenyans seemed to have injured himself during the race. It can happen to anyone. So I just kept trotting along – no way was I going to stop, I was going to run this all the way – counting down the miles and happy that I had done what I really wanted – my best on the day, and smiling all the way. Because when it comes down to it, I just love running. And the feeling of being up there with the “proper” runners was amazing. The spectators were wonderful as ever, some blasting out music, some just cheering, and I got my usual flip-flop comments. Sorry to anyone I didn’t see – I even missed my entire extended family on the way out, but got a blast of encouragement on the way back that made up for it. Best comment of the day was LoLo afterwards – “Dad, you looked liked the Kenyans, it was like you were just out for a jog.” That’s down to Jae (more on that below).

Marathon-1

Trotting along at mile 16…

So it turns out I need a bit more training (and maybe just a bit of luck with the weather) to get sub-2:45, but I will. The wind yesterday was a real factor and you can see it in the winning time of 2:19, which is a lot lower than the normal fastest time, if still nuts. But I can’t do anything about that. I know what I need to do and, having as ever said to myself in the last five miles, this is really stupid, you should stick to half marathons, I’ll be back out there next year for another jog through East Lothian. My most encouraging stats of the day – 1:22 at the half marathon point and coming in the top 100 overall.

And now for some thanks.

When you think of elite athletes, we all know that there is a huge team behind them, most of whom we never hear anything about, but without whom the performances we see on the day would not be possible.

It’s no different for some of us normal people doing a sport in our spare time, and I wanted to tell the story of how I got to this point from virtual physical inactivity three years ago.

It all started with a work course, where the first thing we looked at was how to deal with the demands of work – and were asked the question of how we could expect to work in the way we wanted  to if we weren’t even physically fit. I went for my first run the day after we got back from the course. I still remember it. 2 miles of nothing but pain, lungs bursting, head pounding, legs aching. The second day was a little better. But not much. By the time I got to running three miles, I thought I was quite the athlete.

Round two of the same course involved me making the mistake of saying I was maybe sort of thinking I might want to run a marathon at some point. And then Carrie Johnson (who was running the 5k this Saturday – a lovely surprise to see her there, and as a spectator for the marathon) asked me why I didn’t just commit to doing it. So I signed up.

It didn’t go so well, mainly because I went off too fast – typical rookie mistake. But I realised I could do it better and faster. And by that time, I had done what all runners do sooner or later – read “Born to Run.” And then “Running with the Kenyans.” And although I couldn’t decide if I wanted to run like the Tarahumara (think obscure tribe in Mexico who run a lot, and in sandals they make themselves from old tyres) or a Kenyan, it didn’t seem to matter too much. Either way, I had concluded that I needed to change the way I ran and essentially start from scratch.

And then things came together in a lovely sequence of events.

Colin McPhail (of Footworks in Edinburgh – great running shop) organised the Scottish Barefoot Conference, including a fun run (you can wear shoes, I wore FiveFingers, those “funny toe shoes”) and some speakers. One was Barefoot Ted, one of the stars of “Born to Run”, who promptly sold me my first pair of his running sandals, which I’ve used ever since and which still bring a smile to my face every time I run in them. As well as a range of reactions from the people who see me in them. Sorry to the person who wanted to stop and talk about them just after the race yesterday – I was struggling to stay on my feet, never mind discuss my footwear, so my answers were rather monosyllabic. But no, they don’t hurt, no they don’t rub on the soles of your feet, and why would anyone run in them if they did? Had it been raining as the forecast had predicted, they would have been the best thing to have on your feet. But I’m glad it was dry.

Marathon-2

The only one smiling at mile 19 is the guy in the sandals… just saying (even if they did finish well before me in the end!)

But wearing a pair of sandals doesn’t make you run like a Kenyan. Jae Gruenke does – the other speaker at the conference. She has without a shadow of a doubt had the biggest impact on my running, building my running form up from scratch and getting rid of my bad running habits I didn’t even know I had. She described it like peeling an onion – every time one thing was sorted, I came up with a new bad habit that hadn’t previously been visible. If you want to find out what it’s like to run much more easily, efficiently and happily, speak with Jae and sign up for her weekly e-mails on running.

Jae also helped me with the last part of the jigsaw – a coach. I discovered that generic training programmes didn’t work for me. I needed something that would get me to hit a target that seemed unattainable. Like knocking half an hour off my marathon time, and then going even faster the next time. Jae suggested an online coach in the US, Greg McMillan. And I signed up for a training plan, used it, and did marathon number two 30 minutes faster than the first time, and easily so, with a programme that explained what each of the runs was for, what to look out for, what to focus on, and just gave me tremendous confidence on the day. So much so that I signed up for a second plan for this marathon, this time for almost six months of build up and preparation. You have to have faith in your coach, even if he’s someone you’ve never met or even spoken with, and that allowed me to keep going on the bad run days, knowing that the next run would be better. And seeing improvements on a weekly basis, with new personal bests over some distance being set pretty much every week in the last six weeks. I’m going to use the exact same plan next time because I think I’ve now hit the right level of base fitness to be able to hit the next target.

And through Greg’s website, I discovered another ingredient which I hadn’t previously known I need to sort. Nutrition. I was Mr Gel Boy. Committed, three an hour in the race. Talk about sugar intake… Greg recommended looking at a different product that contained no sugar, gives a sustained release of carbs, and allows your body to adapt to burning fat as a primary fuel source. Yup folks, you can power your runs on all that fat you always wanted to lose. I am not going to comment on all the claims Generation UCAN make, all I will say is that I haven’t taken a gel in months, and ran a hilly 24 miler recently on nothing but UCAN before I set off and water during the run, and did it faster (and a lot easier) than my marathon race last year. So I’m a convert. And it was great yesterday, I ran the whole thing with no gels, just a couple of home-made UCAN goos along the way.

Donald, Sarah and Andy have been great running companions on our Friday team runs, making the run so much more enjoyable and showing me some new routes through Edinburgh that I didn’t know existed. Turns out there’s a lovely path from the West End of Edinburgh through to Granton!

The final thanks goes to the people without whom none of this would have been possible or worthwhile. Camille has put up with my need for ever increasing amounts of food over the last months, my virtual half-day absences on long run days, me getting home late from work when I’ve gone out for a run at lunchtime, and coming home stinking after a run. As well as the constant cycle of running clothes I hog the washing machine with, the sandals I leave in random places when I’m “too tired” to put them where they belong. And the girls always greet me with a “how was your run?” when I get back.

LoLo yesterday was my star support, along with her cousins who donated their coats in the cause of warming me up when I lay shivering on the ground (it wasn’t a pretty sight), even though that left them in only a t-shirt. My other support crew yesterday drove me to the race, took photos, got me some milk when I couldn’t face eating or drinking anything else, covered me in layers to warm me up, used umbrellas to keep the wind off me, and gave me big hugs when I came off the finish line, as well as literally lifting me back up off the ground when my legs couldn’t take my weight. Thanks Mum, Dad, Ros, Mat, Alexander and Stephanie… I’m afraid I’m doing it all again next year.

Marathon-3

Walking was an issue at this point – how far did I still have to go to get my bag of warm clothes? – those lorries in the distance!

In the lap of the gods…

The marathon in 13 days (not that I’m counting) is now becoming very real. The race number arrived last week:

Marathon number

And I’ve started checking the weather for the 31st – basically cold and raining:

Marathon weather

That will be normal, then, although yesterday was really taking the biscuit. 24 miles with the dreaded combination of cold, wind and rain. The sandals performed admirably and I kept telling myself that although the sunglasses (when I started out, it was sunny!) really should have come with automatic wipers, at least the wind and rain weren’t constantly in my eyes. And I only had one car honk his horn at me. Why a car driver would feel aggrieved when the other person is a guy running in the rain in sandals escapes me. I just kept going. To be honest, it was a great run. Apparently if the conditions aren’t so good, sometimes you relax more and run better than you expected. Which might be as well given the forecast for the race day, but I have learned that it changes a lot between the first 2-week outlook and the day itself. The thing I’m looking out for (= scared of) is the wind factor. You can run just as fast in the rain, but if you have a strong headwind, it’s going to make a difference. But on that one, we are in the lap of the gods. It will be what it will be and I’ve done what I can.

From here on, it’s getting ready for the race. The weekly distance is a bit lower but the intensity of the runs is about the same so it will still feel like a proper run each time. Then I’ll get onto the beetroot juice (3% improvement in performance might not sound like a lot, but it’s about 5 minutes difference for a marathon and I’ll take that any day). And then I will just have to load up on sleep in the final week. What a sacrifice…

And then I get to go out and run with a few thousand kindred spirits. It’s going to be a great day. I already know that I won’t be first and I won’t be last. So I’m going to go and have some fun…oh yes, and run fast!

End of an era

It says something when you can run a marathon in under 2 hours 37 minutes saying to yourself “I don’t care about the time”. If it helps, that time equates to running every mile (and the 0.2 mile at the end) in under six minutes. Try doing that for just a few miles, and see how you feel. But if you’re Paula Radcliffe, that’s not even that fast. She not only holds the women’s world record marathon time (2 hours 15 minutes and 25 seconds – we’re talking 5 minutes 15 seconds a mile for that time – don’t try that at home), but the three fastest ever women’s marathon times. And her world record time was set in 2003 – nobody else has got close in the last 12 years. The men continue to set their own new records every few years, sometimes more often, so it really does feel that there is something special about her record (in both senses of the word). The lifetime achievement award she received yesterday in what was her last competitive marathon was very well deserved and a lovely touch.

To achieve that kind of performance requires a dedication and persistence most of us can only dream of. Although running 140+ miles a week is probably the stuff of nightmares rather than dreams. The difference between a 2:15 and 2:37 time is probably close to 90 miles a week, not to mention the massages, ice baths and other regular practices required to allow your body to cope with those kinds of demands. And avoid injury which that kind of punishing schedule can lead to.

Back in the world of the mortals, it’s now five weeks until the Edinburgh marathon and bang in the middle of the really hard part. That’s weeks averaging about 55 miles with individual runs increasing to 24 miles or involving 18 miles with the last 8 at race pace, but without the buzz and lift that comes from running with others and having crowds giving encouragement all along the way. Sometimes, it’s hard just to keep going, never mind worrying about how fast you’re going. But there are always the training runs that remind you of the progress you’re making. Last week involved a strange kind of run, designed to give you an indication of whether you are on track to hit your target marathon time. The concept is simple if unusual. You run 800m (that’s just under half a mile in old speak), somewhere around 8 times, with a break between each 800m. The trick is to try to run the fast 800m sections in the same time in minutes and seconds that you want to run the marathon in hours and minutes. Got that? So for a 3 hour marathon, you would try to run the 800m repeats in 3 minutes, with a 3 minute rest period in between each one.

So I tried that, and after the second 800m I thought, this is not going to be fun. I was right. But it turned out it was doable if more than a little tiring. And then a little perspective kicked in – two years ago, I couldn’t even have sprinted at the pace I was doing these repeats in. And I’m doing my weekly long slow runs at about the pace I ran my last marathon in. So even for us amateurs, significant progress is possible, way beyond what we probably think we are capable of. I was greatly encouraged yesterday with a new half marathon record on a training run where I was only running fast for the last eight miles.

But for all that, I have still got no idea how I am going to run 26.2 miles at my expected pace. I’m just trusting in the training plan, the fast that the final two weeks will be about getting race sharp, and the runners and supporters on the day getting me the extra speed and stamina I need. If you are in Edinburgh on May 31st, I would be particularly happy to see you at about mile 21. I’ll even try to smile for you.

And now it’s sunny, if freezing, outside so I’m going to get my winter running kit on, gloves and all, and go for a run.

 

My poor sandals are also showing the strain of this year’s training!:

Worn out sandal

History in the making

Sport is so emotional. Just look at the crowds at football matches, and that’s the people who aren’t even participating in the activity. If politics can be tribal, sports seem to take us back to our primitive roots.

This weekend was historical in the world of rowing. It was the first time the women’s crews had been “allowed” to compete on the same day and same course as the men have been competing since as long as I can remember (someone can Google if the current course is the one they’ve always used). I have a patchy record when it comes to watching the race, solely because I usually forget when its on and/or get distracted on the day. But I didn’t want to miss this one.

When I raced the course (no, not in THE boat race) we did it in reverse, ending up in Putney. When we were down in London a few weeks ago I ran beside the Thames and the memories came flooding back – driving down in a minibus all day with a trailer of boats on the back, sleeping on the floor of one of the local boathouses (I suspect we slept well after the trip down there), and then rowing on the Thames for the first time, trying to get the hang of the currents and other boats on the river having trained only on a narrow canal. I still have the photo of us coming under Hammersmith Bridge. We were fast, but we didn’t look very pretty with everyone’s oars doing something slightly different. But hey, if it works.

The two main races were, in the end, not much of a contest and Oxford even ended up winning all four races. And it’s not as if Cambridge weren’t fast or good, they just weren’t good enough on the day. Some of the commentary was about how much better Oxford were looking after a few minutes. That’s what happens when you are that far ahead and can relax. Everything comes together and stays together. If you’re the boat behind them, not only do you have to row in the other crew’s wake, everything else is psychologically much harder and that can be reflected in scrappier strokes, less cohesion as a crew and just generally not having it as “together” as the crew in front.

Boat

Nice boat, not much good for racing (for the techies among you, this was originally a 300Mb scanned negative)

I find it’s not a lot different with running. If things are going well, it’s easier to relax, find a good stride, move well and enjoy the experience. Once it starts to go though, it’s a lot harder to get back into it again. And no matter how much training you do, you will have good and bad days. The cliche that sport is [insert random percentage] effort and [insert another random percentage] mental is spot on. You have to believe you can do what you’ve set out to do. Despite the bad days, the setbacks, the injuries. And the weather (yes, I’m still scarred from yesterday’s horrendous weather – why couldn’t it be warm and sunny like today instead of just above zero, raining and snowing the whole time?). It’s all part of the experience. We talk of life being a marathon, not a sprint. Well marathon training is also like that – months or years in the making for a few hours on a certain day at a certain time, and then once it’s over and we’ve decided that the vow at about mile 20 never again to do such a stupid thing was perhaps a little hasty, we start thinking about the next event when we’ll do this or that differently or try to hit a new personal best. Sometimes the bad runs, or even the bad races, are the thing which renews our determination and gives us new motivation.

And now all I need is to go for a recovery run today and I’ll be back into the swing of things again and ready for another week of training. Today is a good day for a run. Pretty much like every day.

Six months on…

My sobering thought for today is that it’s now been six months already since I devoted some proper time to writing. Last week, a number of people asked me ‘how’s the writing going?’ Here’s the answer. Or answers.

Since some time before Christmas, I’ve been writing 1,000 words a day. That means every day without exception, including Christmas Day (it was a late finish that day). What was at first a nightmare prospect (you wouldn’t believe the number of times I’ve said in the past ‘The last thing I want to do when I get home from work is start writing, I’m just too tired’) has now become a routine. And I don’t think I’m any more tired now than I was when I wasn’t writing in any meaningful way. Instead, every day I have a little victory, either because I sat down and was finished before I knew it or, more likely, because I just kept at it until I was done for the day. I’m sort of rotating routines, sometimes I get up at 6 and try to have it done by 7 when everyone else starts to appear, or I wait until the house is quiet in the evening and then disappear for an hour. Or longer.

What I don’t do now is watch much TV. In fact, other than a weekly ironing session, almost none. This last weekend was a nice exception because the girls had borrowed a DVD they were desperate to watch, so we planned that in for Friday evening when I got home (it’s amazing how fast everything gets done when they are motivated!) and then we were at the library on Saturday and seemed to pick up a couple of DVDs while we were there (I know, DVDs from a library… not in our day etc etc), one of which we watched as a family as a Mother’s Day activity (funnily enough, it wasn’t the mother who chose the film.)

Daily writing is a lot better than trying to have Monday as the writing day. You can’t leave a week between sessions, it just doesn’t work. For me, at least.

So 1,000 words a day must by now equate to over 100,000 just since December and well more over the last six months. Does this mean I’m almost done? Nowhere near. If this were a marathon (and at least they’re over and done with in only a few hours) I think I’m currently walking towards the starting pen with broadly the right kit on, but not quite sure what to do after mile one or two. I think the last six months have been more akin to base training, trying things out, seeing what works for me and what doesn’t. I have a long list of what doesn’t work, a rather shorter one of what does. But it’s a start.

My experience of writing fiction is nothing like writing non-fiction. The facts matter, but they are in the background. Sometimes… often… they jump out into the foreground and you know you’ve lost it again. A few times, I’ve just stopped when I realised I was describing, getting all theoretical, too many facts, and asked myself ‘how would [insert name of good writer] approach this?’ then tried that. So thank you Stephen King, Jodi Picoult, Douglas Kennedy, Harlan Coben… and the rest of you. Reading great writers’ work is like free tuition classes. And more enjoyable.

At the moment, I’ve got some characters who need some life putting into them. And series of events that seems to have varied somewhat over the last six months. Things just happen to these people that I wasn’t expecting. Some of it is helpful. Some of it is relevant. Some of it might even get used. But it’s all good practice and experience. And it’s somewhere to start from.

There are good days and bad days. Which is why just getting my 1,000 words done is sometimes the only way forward on a bad day. I read something really helpful about running years ago – ‘running tomorrow is as important as running today.’ There’s no point in overdoing it today if you end up injured, and a bad day today might lead to a good day tomorrow. And I find that ‘writing tomorrow is as important as writing today.’ Who knows what tomorrow will bring? If I go back over the last six months’ worth of material, there will be some things in there that I can use – edit heavily for sure, but use – among all the thousands of words that I will happily dispatch to the ‘nice try, but no thanks’ pile. But there will be no going back, editing or otherwise reading any of that until I get to the end of the first draft. Just keep going. It really is like a marathon. One step at a time and one word at a time.

And the three word answer to the original question is ‘I’m loving it.’ Just don’t show me the stat that the average income for a professional writer is £11,000 a year.

Graffiti

This week’s photo from my other project – this time a building in Edinburgh’s city centre which I think will shortly be demolished.

 

Challenges

There are number of reasons I enjoy writing. One is definitely the challenge. I was reminded of this recently when I met with a former colleague I hadn’t seen in several years. I remembered something he had said to me when I was leaving the company we were both working for at the time (note – never underestimate people’s ability to remember for a very long time something which was meant just as a throwaway comment). I was bored there, with no realistic prospect of that changing. We had been talking about what it would have taken to get me to stay and he said ‘we were going to give you incremental challenges.’ That stuck in my mind until now because it encapsulated what I don’t want, need, or benefit from. I don’t do incremental challenge as an approach. It’s simply not meaningful enough to me. Of course, that has to be balanced with keeping a degree of sanity because you can’t do everything at once. And it doesn’t mean that new challenges feel any easier at the time, but they certainly aren’t boring.

My personal challenges in 2015 are, in addition to those associated with my main job, running a marathon at what seems a ridiculous time (under 2 hours 45 minutes, there, now I’ve said it) and finishing my novel. The marathon time comes from it being a round number that isn’t something I already know I could do. Last year, I finished in 3 hours 13 minutes, so I reckon I could do under three hours. That feels like incremental improvement to me. What I don’t know is how much faster I could go. 2:30 is definitely too far a push, so I settled for 2:45. It might even be a time that gets me automatic entry to the Berlin marathon, which would be even better. Last year, I was running for a Boston marathon qualifying time, even though I then found out how much it would cost to get there and run the race, so I’m waiting until I’m fast enough to make the trip worthwhile. My new training plan for next May started a couple of weeks ago, so I have that goal in mind now.

On the writing front, I also have a plan with dates on it, backed up with my updated goal of writing every day, without fail. The basic principle is 1,000 words a day, 2,000 on weekends unless I really am away all day, in which case it reverts to 1,000 again, and somewhere between 2 and 5,000 on Mondays. I’ve also been applying a lesson I learned when I started running. I would get out of bed an hour earlier to get a run in because otherwise I wouldn’t have the energy in the evening. And then it was done, not hanging over me all day. So I’ve been getting up at 6 again (and going to bed earlier!) and writing for an hour in the mornings, while having breakfast, all in peace and quiet. Lovely, if very dark. When everyone else gets up, I’m done or finishing up and can get on with the rest of the day.

And I’m also trying to figure out what makes (fiction) writing work. A book I’m working through at the moment is Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing.

Sol Stein

Stein has written nine novels, edited other books, taught creative writing, and written non-fiction books, screenplays and TV shows. So I’m going to listen to what he has to say. Here’s what he has to say  on page 3:

‘The correct intention [of writing] is to provide the reader with an experience that is superior to the experiences the reader encounters in everyday life.’

Right, that counts as a challenge.

The chapter I’m currently reading – I’m taking this book slowly, there’s just too much to take in – is about characters. But the chapter title says it much better – ‘Competing with God: Making Fascinating People.’ It is incredibly helpful to see sentences and paragraphs through Stein’s eyes and see the techniques he describes in action. And better still to then try them out and see the difference. It’s a good job you can edit your text afterwards.

So those are my current challenges, both are something I don’t already know I can do based on previous experience, and that makes them interesting. And they aren’t incremental. Anything other than incremental…