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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?

The ballet blog

I really have no business writing a blog about ballet, not after two weeks. But I’m going to anyway, because these are just my first observations, the ones I made before I (hopefully) start to get at least one thing right. And I’m going to start with my comparison with what I know a bit better – running.

Most people, barring medical issues, are able to run. Maybe slowly, maybe a bit faster. And it can be as simple as getting the right basic clothing and something for your feet (or not), going outside and putting one foot in front of the other and repeating. Put that way, it might sound repetitive and boring, but when you start to look around and notice the world you are running by, every run is different and some runs can be close to meditative. On the technique front, there is a lot we can improve, and probably a lot we should improve, to help us go faster without more effort, to keep us injury free, and sometimes just to get us to  a place where we are enjoying running again, but we can also just happily carry on running as we were and nobody is going to mind (or probably even notice).

Not so ballet. It only works properly when you are doing it all correctly. And doing it correctly involves pretty much every muscle in your body, including ones I didn’t even know existed two weeks ago, all working together at the same time and in the right way. When you see a ballet dancer standing there on the stage, that is not relaxed. They have more muscles engaged just to stand properly than you or I probably use in the course of a full day.

Here’s an example of the difference, as measured in my entirely unscientific way:

Time needed to notice sweat building up. Running – 20+ minutes or so. Doing plié (think knee bends) exercises – 2 minutes. Tops. Let me see if I can get this right – shoulders over hips, hips over ankles, legs turned out (from the hip, never the knee), weight on the balls of your feet, neck extended, arms extended, core engaged, head up – and don’t forget to smile. Help! And now you can start to do a plié. Knees need to move in line with the direction of your feet, no leaning back or forward, your body should be going straight up and down. And that’s just how to bend your knees properly. Give me a 15 mile run any day.

ballet

The closest you will get to seeing me in tights…

What I’ve noticed immediately is that to perform any individual movement in ballet, so many part of your body have to be working in synch, certainly more than I can keep in my head at one time. And that is before we even start putting anything together in just the most basic of combinations (believe me, they do not feel that basic!) If you watch Strictly Come Dancing/Dance with the Stars, you might remember the judges’ comments on some of the couples (well, the celebrities) who are clearly thinking through the steps still. I have a lot more sympathy now. Just remembering to do a single movement to the front, side and back, with the correct turn-out, in time to the music, and moving only the correct parts of my body… it’s not a pretty sight. And then you have to turn and do it all on the opposite side, by which time I am still trying to work out at what point I lost the plot in the original sequence.

There is a reason that most of the professional ballet dancers you see started young. Dancing is like driving a car. To begin with, that clutch/acceleration combination is close to impossible, then suddenly it starts to work, then you wonder what the problem ever was. Learning to perform all these steps and positions and co-ordinate them is something they learn to do when they are little sponges and don’t care about getting it wrong. And by the time they hit their teenage years, some of them have been doing it for a decade. That is a lot of practice, but not as much as the amount a few will end up doing every day as professionals, in addition to the performances you and I might go to see. The morning after that performance, while we are still talking about what we saw, they will be back practicing their pliés, tendus and battements (see, you get to learn French while learning ballet). It is relentless, but that is what it takes to get to that level. We got to see that earlier in the year when we went on a behind the scenes look at Northern Ballet’s 1984 and at the end were asked if we wanted to watch their morning class. Needless to say we stayed until the last of them had left the stage over an hour later.

And then there is the performance element, the bit that makes one dancer stand out from the rest. They have to have that just to get into the company, never mind progress through the ranks.

The good news is that you will never have to watch me trying to do any of this. However, you might want to watch a few minutes of the Royal Ballet’s daily class instead. Obviously they do more than I do in my class, and they know what they are doing, but at least now I can watch it and think, I know what they are doing, and I can sometimes even see how they are doing it. This is what they do every day. It’s what I’m learning to do (a bit).

In case it wasn’t already obvious, my real reason for taking these classes is to understand a little better what a dancer is doing when we see him or her on the stage so I am able to write (at some future stage, but this is the year I have time for the classes) from the perspective of a dancer, because I realised that this was something which you cannot understand by watching or having it explained to you. You have to experience it, even just a few weeks, and then see the professionals doing it. Only then can you start to see what is really going on, and just how remarkable ballet really is.

Meantime, I have my running to remind me that there are some things I have learned to do better, even if ballet is not (yet) one of them. And it’s fun to be an absolute beginner at something and remember what it’s like to start from nowhere! I am also running differently (yes, including practicing my hand positions on empty country roads – another thing you will never see) because my body is learning to move differently. Anyone for the splits? Ouch.

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.

Injury strikes…

Just last week, I was thinking that it had been over two years since my last running-related injury, and that I was seeing the benefits of having been able to run continuously throughout that period, if not with the same intensity all the time. And then I was trotting along on my weekend long run, reminding myself as I battled against yet another strong headwind that pace is not what matters on those runs, when I had a sharp pain above my right ankle. I stopped, had a play around with my ankle, could feel where the pain was coming from, and decided it was too soon to give up. I’ve had pains come and go before and my made-up rule is to run for another two minutes and just pay attention. Am I moving some part of my body differently? Is there some imbalance I haven’t noticed? And what is the pain doing? In this case, it was coming and going. But after one minute, the coming was winning and the going was…well, going. At this point, I was glad that I had done a mini-loop at the beginning of the run to turn a 12 mile route into a 14 mile one. That meant I was still only a mile and a half from home. And I was walking back.

I’m pretty sure it’s a muscle rather than my Achille’s tendon. But I suspect I’m going to be out of action for a while now. This is not great. By the time I got home (it takes a lot longer to walk than run) I had calmed down from my initial emotional reaction. I was sure I hadn’t done anything I shouldn’t have, like up my mileage or intensity by too much too quickly, and that this was just one of those things that can happen. The only question was what I would do about it now.

I’m a big fan of Stephen Covey’s work. He’s probably best known for his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People which remains a constant source of positive challenge to me when I try to be honest with myself about my own behaviours. The concept he taught which I think I have found most useful and most applicable to life is his circle of influence and circle of concern, and it was to this teaching that I returned on my walk back home today when I had to decide what I was going to do about this sudden change.

The two circles look like this:

InfluenceConcern 1

Our circle of concern is all the things that concern us (the clue’s in the title). It’s very wide, we accumulate a lot of things that are of interest or concern. At its extreme, it might include world peace and alleviating poverty. The smaller circle in the middle is our circle of influence. It’s what we can do something about. Let me illustrate using my brand new injury.

It is most definitely in my circle of concern. It bothers me, it limits what I can do for a period of time, and it’s annoying.

So what is in my circle of influence? The obvious starting point is whether I let my body heal. If I do, it will get better, if I don’t, it will get worse. I could have carried on and run a few more miles when I first felt the pain, but then I would probably have needed carrying for a few months. I could have stayed firmly in my circle of concern and blamed myself for what had happened, blamed someone else (what, take personal responsibility?), sulked about it for days… the list goes on. Instead, I recognised that something had happened that I could no longer do anything about. The only question was, what now? Because that is my circle of influence.

By the time I got home, I had thought of some of the things I would be able to do if I were out of running-action for a while. Like reading more, going for walks, writing at lunchtime instead of running, going on photography walks… and I found it became a long list, more than I could possibly fit into the extra time I would have at my disposal. And that is the beauty of Covey’s concept of the circle of influence. If you spend you energy on your circle of concern, it just wears you down because you can’t do anything about it. But if you focus on what you can do something about – your circle of influence – it gets bigger. The only way to make any impact on your circle of concern is to focus on your circle of influence, which then gets a bit bigger:

InfluenceConcern 2

So at the moment, I don’t know if I will be out of action for a week, a month or a year, but I do know that if I concentrate on what I can do rather than what I can’t do, it can end up being a positive experience. Just different from what I had originally planned. But then life is like that, isn’t it? We can’t control what happens to us, but we can control how we react.

I spent the rest of the day reading, writing and pulled out the Leica ready to take with me when I next see daylight. It turned into a great day. I’m going to make the most of whatever running-free time I have to take for the next while!

What to do?

You might have noticed that, as well as thoughts on running and writing, I also write here about random things that interest me or that concern me. I think I’m probably meant to stick to one subject for a blog, but I already know that I would get bored very quickly if I limited myself in that way. I think that was somewhere between an apology and an explanation for the randomness.

So what’s bothering me this week? Democracy, really. Or how on earth you can have either meaningful engagement in the political process. Or accountability of politicians. You might remember Winston Churchill’s observation on forms of government, which should really be slightly longer than the more commonly seen soundbite:

Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

I liked the bit about “this world of sin and woe.” I’m trying to think of a current politician who might say that.

Leaving aside the question of whether things would be better if everyone agreed that having me as a benign dictator would be preferable (history suggests not), I’ve been asking myself what my role in the current system should be. I have voted in every election since I was eighteen, for a range of individuals who happened to be members of different political parties. Maybe that makes me a floating voter. At the last general election, I read every manifesto of the main parties. One of them was even well written. The rest were somewhere on a spectrum of dreadfulness. How many meaningless soundbites can you string together to create what is, technically, a sentence? A lot, it turns out. But understanding what the high level policies will mean in practice seems to be a task which eludes most of us, me included. But we have to decide what we believe would be best and put our cross in the box. So I did that.

And I was pretty unhappy about this process. What do you do when the person whose policies you most agree with/least disagree with has no chance of winning and you cannot in good conscience vote for any (either) of the parties who could win in your constituency?

I got annoyed. I had in my entire life only once written properly to my MP when the government decided to cut the tariffs for renewable energy generation with very little notice. In the end, the government lost that one in court. Not that my MP was interested. That was a good few years ago, but then two things happened and I went from annoyed to angry because they were both issues of principle and then my moral compass jabs me in the ribs and I know I can’t leave it be. One was the Assisted Dying Bill which I blogged about at the time, where my MP seems not to have understood either the question he was being asked to vote on or the parliamentary process involved. I’m still trying to engage him on this. I might return to it here in the future. But I think the other example is worthy of more comment.

In October, you might remember the visit by China’s president to the UK. China is not known as an example of democracy. But what really troubled me was the way in which one protester in particular was treated in London. Let’s just rewind a few years though, because the context matters here.

The Tiananmen Square massacre is something that those of us around at the time can never forget and the image of one man standing in front of a tank has been used ever since as a symbol of protest. Shao Jiang survived that protest (and you might remember that even mention of it is banned on the censored version of the internet available in China). He spent months in prison in China for his role in the associated opposition movement. Since then, he has been a prominent campaigner for democracy in China. When the Chinese president visited London, Dr Jiang ran into the road where the motorcade was to come and held up two placards. One said “Democracy now,” the other “End autocracy” in both English and Chinese. For doing this, he was arrested. The legislation he was arrested under is targeted at two or more people acting together to cause “harassment, alarm or distress.” Right. The president of China was harassed, alarmed or distressed by this?

It gets better. His laptop and phone were taken by the police when his home was searched (“raided” is the slightly more emotive word for that.) And he was banned from being in a few places, including within 100 metres of Xi Jingping. The reason for that was “to prevent further offences and to prevent further harassment of the victim.” Wait. When did Xi Jingping become a victim in all of this?

As well as concern about this specific case, I also realised that I couldn’t say why I wouldn’t be arrested and have my home raided and my belongings taken if I went to, for example, another climate march. For all I know, a visiting politician might feel harassed. Do I think that likely? No. But if you can be arrested in London for being, at worst, a nuisance to a politician we are supposed to be being nice to, and a member of the cabinet doesn’t feel he can express a view, is that the end of the right to peaceful protest? Where do any of us stand now?

March

Ready to be arrested and have your home raided?

Oh, and I also wrote to David Cameron. Summary of responses:

MP (highlights are mine):

The operational policing of protests and the use of police powers are entirely matters for Chief Constables in the United Kingdom, and therefore it would be inappropriate for me to comment at this time on specific individual cases.  Similarly, the system of policing complaints in this country is an independent one, to ensure that officers and staff are answerable to the public.

I am a strong believer in the peaceful right to protest and as I have said, the right to protest peacefully is guaranteed under UK law, but protesters’ rights need to be balanced with the right of others to go about their business without fear of intimidation or serious disruption to the community. Rights to peaceful protest do not extend to violent, threatening behaviour, and the police have the powers to deal with such acts.

So – (1) no comment – fortunately other MPs have expressed their view in public, (2) violent, threatening behaviour is not acceptable (guess what, I agree – what it has to do with this case escapes me).

Civil Servant (I didn’t expect to get an answer from the prime minister – for transparency, I will include the full reply on this one at the end as I’m including only two lines here. It’s also almost amusing to see how it takes five paragraphs to say nothing about what I wrote about):

Decisions on arrests are an operational matter for the police.

Protestors’ rights need to be balanced with the rights of others to go about their business without fear of intimidation or serious disruption to the community.

Wait – didn’t I just read that? Oh yes, that must be the standard explanation being given then – word for word in the second part.

I’ve written back to my MP. No reply after a month. Starting to feel like I’m talking to myself. That’s normally reserved for long runs.

There is, in my view, something seriously wrong here. I am, however, pleased that Dr Jiang has now complained to the independent IPCC about the way the police behaved in this case. And optimistic that the important questions which it raised will be dealt with properly.

So I’m left with one unanswered question – what do I do when I think something is badly amiss and when genuine questions are met with non-answers? Stand for election myself? I can’t imagine anything worse. But if everyone said that, where would we be left? (Don’t say “where we are now,” that’s not helpful!).

There is one thing I can do. I will engage in another “first” for me and go and see my MP at his next surgery. Of course they are all during working hours so that will have to be holiday time. But I cannot accept that not replying to a constituent gets an MP out of engaging on an issue.

Democracy. Loving it. Need to fix it. This might take some time.

 

 

 

 

And here is the full reply from the Home Office on my Shao Jiang question – which in my opinion does not even touch on the question:

Thank you for your email of 24 October to the Prime Minister regarding your concerns.  As I hope you will appreciate, the Prime Minister receives a large amount of correspondence and is unable to reply to each piece individually.  Your email has therefore been forwarded to the Direct Communications Unit at the Home Office and I have been asked to reply. 

Peaceful protest is a vital part of a democratic society.  It is a long-standing tradition in this country that people are free to gather together and to demonstrate their views, however uncomfortable these may be to the majority of us, provided that they do so within the law.

There is, of course, a balance to be struck.  Protestors’ rights need to be balanced with the rights of others to go about their business without fear of intimidation or serious disruption to the community.  

The law has to balance the need for the police to have powers to prevent and deal with disorder at demonstrations, with democratic rights to peaceful protest.  This includes rights to express views that are within the law but which we may find uncomfortable or distasteful.  However, if individuals cross the boundary into criminal acts including public order offences, the police will take action.

Decisions on arrests are an operational matter for the police, in line with their duties to keep the peace, to protect communities, and to prevent the commission of offences, working within the provisions of the legal framework set by Parliament.

I hope you find this reply helpful.

The sandals blog

Running saved me today. Not for the first time. Sanity has been restored again, although it does always seem to be a temporary solution needing another fix soon enough.

But there were reasons for running happiness today. First, it’s the first day of my training programme for next year’s Edinburgh marathon. So in 25 weeks it will all be over. And taking a down period (admittedly, it’s relative, not absolute) after the last marathon was a good call by my (online) coach. I come down pretty hard after a big race like that, which has something to do with the amount of training that goes into it. I am back to being super-optimistic about my next race, helped by the fact that my paces are currently about where they were just before the last race, and this time it’s at the beginning, not end, of the training cycle. My long run this weekend was so much fun that I decided to do an extra couple of miles at the end. I think it was partly relief at not having to run through driving sleet and snow like the previous weekend.

And then today my new sandals arrived. What? Another pair of sandals? Let me explain. These ones are special (OK, they are all special in their own way, they are like your children, each has their good and… no, I’ll stop this analogy now.)

So what’s with the sandals anyway? It’s probably one of the oldest technologies we have. Strap something to your feet to protect them from the worst of the surfaces you will be running or walking on and away you go. Nowadays, with a bit more finesse perhaps because the materials available to us have improved over the last few thousand years. You might remember that I get all my sandals from Luna Sandals, partly because of the story behind them, but also because they are available in Europe, unlike the other running sandals which are available in the US (don’t say it too loudly, but a lot of them look very similar to each other). A runner colloquially known as Barefoot Ted participated in an ultramarathon race in Mexico with a tribe who live there and spend what even I would regard as a disproportionate amount of time running. They also run either barefoot or in homemade sandals, made from old car or truck tyres. So not exactly natural materials, but what they have to hand. Manuel Luna showed Ted how to make these sandals, and Ted turned this knowledge into a business based in Seattle, where all the sandals are now made.

I’m not going to get into all the reasons for running in something other than the trainers which most people use because I’m really not that bothered what other people do. I just know that I’m always happy when I’m out in my sandals and that’s enough. Plus I do get extra cheers and supports during a race, as well as sympathy from some of the people I’m running with. That in itself is worth a lot.

But let’s face it, the weather can be an issue. But perhaps not in the way you might expect. So here’s the ones I use throughout the year, depending on what’s happening outside.

IMG_3036

After a couple of years in running only in sandals, these are my go-to ones – the leather top is super comfy and amazingly effective at dealing with sweaty feet on warm days when I’m running fast. And on most other days. The only thing they are not good at, in fact, is when it is properly wet.

For water, these are the business:

IMG_3037

I can run through any amount of water and they will be dry a few minutes later from the combination of the heat from my feet, the circulating air and the pressure of foot on sandal with every step. The straps stay wet for longer, but I don’t even notice that as they’re just keeping the sandal nice and snug. And if you think I enjoy running in sandals generally, you should see me when there’s a puddle or stream I have to go through. Although I confess that I did go around the one that was about twenty metres long and several inches deep at the weekend.

Offload? Just need more grip. Like this:

IMG_3038

These are going to come into their own when I finally crack the marathon next year and can move onto something else that’s longer and doesn’t involve quite so much asphalt.

And snow or ice? Meet the new sandals – which go back to the beginning and are made from a car tyre:

IMG_3080 IMG_3081

As you can see from the tread. They are heavier than my other sandals and I’m expecting these ones to last for a very very long time before I wear through them. Apart from cats taking a like to the straps and ripping sandals to bits, the only time I need to replace a pair of sandals is when I wear them down so there is nothing left in parts of the sole. My theory is that the Michelin car tyres these are made from are good for many thousand miles so, even though there is a difference between a circle rolling very fast on a car and me making contact on the ground 190 times a minute (yes, I know this, I find things to amuse myself with during long runs), I think they will last a lot longer than the other ones. And I like that the straps on these are leather – something new to experience. I’m planning on taking them for a spin this week to see how they feel.

And finally, the ones for wearing all summer long, but for walking in rather than running. Well, I would wear them all summer long if I were allowed to…

IMG_3039

So whatever the conditions, I have the sandals for them. And I am so done with needing any more for a very long time!

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

It’s over – time for a reboot

So, the Book Festival is over. I had to take one last quick picture after my last event this year – lovely to see the gardens still so full after two weeks. Only fifty weeks till we get to do it all again!

Book festival

I suppose that means we have to return to real life. And to the serious business of writing.

I tried taking a break (it was called holiday) from writing, which was great until it came to getting back into a rhythm again. I prefer to think of it as a rhythm rather than a routine, if only because my association with routine is not a happy one. It’s what I dread the most because I have no patience for repetition. I saw a great video the other day of a contraption which launched a tennis ball down a hallway for a dog to fetch. The clever part was that the dog had learned to reload the machine, knowing that if it did it correctly, the ball would shoot back out again seconds later. I am fairly sure that the dog could have done it all day, or until it realised how hungry it was, or it just ran out of energy. But repetition and routine are not for me. I just get bored too easily.

And then I realised that I have a pretty structured running plan which has never come close to being boring. So maybe I was being too black and white when it came to finding an equivalent plan for my writing time.

The keys to my running plan are:

– being realistic about what you can do in a given week. Three runs a day might work if running is your job. For me, five times a week is about right.

– running flat out every time you go out is a recipe for disaster. I had to learn this by getting wrong, thinking I had to push myself every time I went out. It doesn’t work (and it’s not fun). Your body needs recovery, and the recovery allows it to come back stronger. Over time, it makes a big difference and recovery is as part of the overall plan as pushing yourself on other days. So I have only two hard sessions a week – one long run, one speed session. Add on a recovery run (more like a slow jog) after each of the hard days and a medium length easy run and you have yourself a plan.

– Vary the sessions. Each time I go out, I have to check and see what it is I am to run that day. I have the overall rhythm of the training week in my head, but not what exactly I’m to do on a given day. That gives me a lot of variety and different challenges every week.

So I decided to replicate this (to some extent at least) with a writing schedule. So I have one day a week when I will write for a long time, another where I will just write quickly and not think too much about it (my speed session), a couple of days of balancing reading and writing (recovery days), and others where I just have to sit down for 45-60 minutes and write. Then I’m done for the day. And one day when I focus on my characters revealing themselves. I’ve tried to work this around the evenings that I know I will be sitting outside a dance studio while the girls are working hard, and I will leave behind anything that can connect to the internet, which I think should be renamed the distractanet, and take only my beloved Neo. On which I can do only one thing – write.

So far, I’m only a few days into this so I’m not getting too carried away yet, but it’s helping to get into what I hope will become a rhythm with some focus on the time I do have available.

I view this a a slightly more positive way of recognising the need for a balance of hard work and recovery than is perhaps suggested by Hannah Arendt’s somewhat more existential perspective:

‘There is no lasting happiness outside outside the prescribed cycle of painful exhaustion and pleasurable regeneration, and whatever throws this cycle out of balance … ruins the elemental happiness that comes from being alive.’

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