Friday, 14 August 2015

Taking the rough with the smooth

I'm nursing a niggle again so it's a few (I hope just a few) days of no running. It would also seem to be a few days of being permanently starving and eating almost all the time!

It's frustrating to have got a niggle just when running was going so well, but these things do happen so it's a good time to do a bit of reflecting and learning. Time to look back over my 'training' (term used very loosely!), diary. It's not a regimented, systematic thing full of tables. I record what I've done each day in terms of runs and cross training, how I've felt and any other little bits of information I feel the need to jot down, maybe who I ran with, where I went; in the case of karate useful drills, things I can see I really need to practice.

It was a salutary lesson that bit of reading and shows I should review things more regularly, the more so because me and running have got so close rather than because a plan says I have to. My mileage had dropped right off April/May to about 90-100 a month what with feeling tired, having a niggle (similar one to what I have now interestingly) and racing hard a couple of times. June the miles went up to just over 140 and July 151. This month so far I've managed around 60 most of which have been off-road and included one hard, fast, mostly off-road race:

Redway Runners inaugural Beat the Barge 5 mile race. I was 1st lady and 3rd overall

It also showed up that my days off usually include some kind of cross-training, either a long walk or (more often) 2 hours hard karate training so I don't really have rest days. So although I have been running really well the jump in miles over the summer was possibly a bit much. There hasn't really been a transition to off-road running either, just straight into lots and lots of tough terrain. This is where I need to take care with the 'just take off and go run somewhere lovely' way I've been doing things. It could be easy to do too much/ too hard running and not notice until I wake up one day with a horrid niggle or sustain an over-use injury.

So the off-road stuff is highlighting I need to do some more strengthening work on hips/ hamstrings/glutes especially on my left side. And more stretching. I can see lots of scribbled, underlined notes reminding me to get back to regular yoga practise! Probably it would be sensible to back off the mileage (and intensity) a bit for a couple of weeks or so then start marathon training to gradually build back up.

The only catch with that last bit is week of 7th September I have a race every day! It's the Tour of MK and then on the Sunday I'm off with quite a few club members to run the Bacchus Half. Whilst I can't possibly give every race my all (and the Bacchus isn't a terribly serious 13.1 from what I can tell) I don't want to be useless. And put me at a start line and I can't help but let the adrenaline carry me along. Maybe I'll go for the 2 cross country runs and treat everything else as easy/ recovery.

Whatever happens, this autumn and winter is going to be a steep learning curve and I must be prepared to accept things going wrong or not to plan. Last winter wasn't so bad- because all of running was so new to me I had no real expectations. This time round I need to keep reminding myself that really it's all new to me again- it's my first marathon and that's so different to anything else I've done I shouldn't load myself with expectation. Sure based on my half times I might want to aim for around 3hr 30 but actually just getting round will be a success. And anyway, it's a step to things I really really want to do-  this year has been the Year of the Unexpected, next year I hope to make Year of the Ultra...

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Under my skin- a love letter to running

Running isn't a thing I do any more.

I don't run for fitness any more. I don't run for mental health any more. I don't run because I want to be faster or stronger any more. I don't run because it's become a habit. I don't even run because I'm a fidget.

It isn't a thing I do.

But I do still run. You see, something happened in the sunrise at Uffington Castle at the weekend...

Let's go back a few days. I gave in to temptation and decided to return home to run a new race my club was putting on. Just for the fun of the race and to see some friendly faces from the club as respite from my 'holiday', not because I thought I could win or get a PB or anything. So I was in the car and driving from Devon to Milton Keynes at 4.30am.

I did the race. No strategy- just start running, and stop when I get to the end. Like the Caucus Race I think it is in Alice in Wonderland. Went off too fast as it's a while since I trained at any kind of race pace. Slowly but surely I began to overtake people. And then I got to the end. 3rd place overall and 1st lady by a decent margin. Nice!

It was a lovely course- part towpath part field and a little bit of redway. And some lovely steps very near the end. But the best bit was how I ran. It was thoughtless, instinctive. Sure I'm very pleased with my placing and with my time- 4.8 miles in 33 minutes- but it was the feeling of running that was so good.

Then forward to 5.30am the next morning. I'm on my way back to Devon, car is parked at the carpark half way up White Horse Hill. Wouldn't it be fun to run up to Uffington Castle, down the Ridgeway to Wayland's Smithy then back again before continuing on to Devon? Not a serious lengthy run, just a run because it's there and I love early morning running. My little expedition to Dartmoor earlier in the week gave me confidence too- this was a place where I couldn't really get lost and I've got the taste for this kind of impulsive running now.

There's a clue. Impulsive running...

So off I went. Scampered up and down the embankments of the castle like a puppy. Then off along the dusty chalk track of the Ridgeway. I'm sure I'll find Wayland's Smithy easily enough. Find it, reclaim it (but that's another story) and head back again, marvelling at the beauty of chalkland hedgerows- they are so different to the ones in North Devon or around my home. Lots of knapweed and scabious.

But something changed during those 4 and a bit miles. The feeling between my feet and the ground was like nothing I've ever experienced before. I've walked over chalk downs countless times and never felt this. The feeling of the turf and chalk under my feet was one of intimacy- like when you're in love. It was a wordless conversation. The feeling of running was different. All of a sudden it wasn't me doing running; the running was me. The need to be there, running, was as fundamental as the need to eat or sleep. Running was no longer an extra, something to be fitted in somehow. It's under my skin. It is who and what I am.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

The joy is in the journey

Whilst in Devon this month I had promised myself a run on Dartmoor. Family in Okehampton gave me the perfect excuse- go for a lovely run then come back and visit my brother. A previous visit and short run earlier in the year had given me a taste for further exploration; looking at the map I could see getting up on to Dartmoor was quite straightforward. Just pick up the Tarka Trail at the end of Belmont Park:

...and follow the Okement:
Until you cross a footbridge, follow the trail up a hill through the woods:
...until you're on the moor:

Well, clearly something went wrong!

This time I've got as far as Belstone Common. I can see Belstone Tor but there are so many paths I don't know which one to choose. So of course I choose the one which is up hill (well, Dartmoor is up) and that happens to be a stream as well:

I find lots of places of unexpected beauty as I choose one path then another in a fruitless attempt to get onto Dartmoor proper. Waist high in gorse, head high in bracken it's fun and I love the challenge of the terrain but I'm beginning to get a little bit cross and frustrated. I'd set my heart on climbing a tor and it's staying tantalisingly just out of reach.

At last it looks more promising. But although my legs feel fine my mind is getting tired. I had set out not knowing quite where I was going, how I was going to get there, what the going would be like nor how long it would take. Sure I had a map but actually translating what I was seeing into marks on the map was much harder than expected. The Tarka Trail at this end  is barely marked and there are so many more paths and trails than are shown on the map. It's going on 30 years since I was last navigating on Dartmoor with a map!

Finally Dartmoor proper. Start to follow a broken track unsure where it goes. Straight to a bunch of army cadets unfortunately.

I'm just full of mental niggles now. Stupid cadets. Hate protein flapjack. Why can't I find a tor to climb?

I felt like I had to admit defeat- something I truly hate doing. A bit of me wanted to persist because my legs were feeling fine. But because every bit of this run was about the unknown I was concerned about pushing too hard and running into a mental or physical wall. There was no safety net if it all went wrong.

Very reluctantly I turned around and headed back.

I tried very hard not to feel defeated. There had been so many good things about this run- I'd been comfortable with some challenging terrain; I'd happened on so many beautiful places; my legs were feeling good; I'd been sensible about pace the whole way. Almost everything about this run was outside my experience and comfort zone and I'd survived. No, not survived- I'd done well. Sure I didn't get to where I'd wanted to go but was that really the point of the run? Is a run a failure just because you don't reach your planned destination?

Today I'm drained. Physically a bit tired and sore but mentally I'm all over the place; Dartmoor gets under your skin like that. And I keep coming back to this:

 running is in the mind and soul more than it's in the legs
There is so much more to learn. I think this journey never ends.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Into the Unknown

On Wednesday I threw everything out the window. I'm not on a training plan at the moment, just trying to ease up a bit so I'm fresh and ready to start training in September for my first marathon.

The kids are away on a karate training camp and Wednesday was visiting afternoon so I decided I'd run to visit them. And then run home again. What could be simpler or more pleasurable? A quick check suggested it would be about 17 miles- the furthest I've ever run in a day.

The map confirmed that I could indeed get there following the Grand Union Canal towpath. I needed to get a train to reach my starting point as there's no sensible way of running to the canal from here unless I hit the trails to pick up the Greensand Ridge path but I didn't feel confident about doing that. I'm not familiar with that route and being limited by time and not knowing how I would get on running so far I didn't want to risk bonking in the middle of woods miles from anywhere!

So half a mile little run to the station and wait excitedly for the train. 12.30pm is an odd time of day to set off: it's lunchtime but obviously I've not been able to have lunch. Instead I made sure I had a decent breakfast then grazed during the morning. Several snacks stashed in my vest as well as water. I've listened to people talking about maintaining nutrition during long runs (not that my planned jaunt is all that far) and know I will need to eat while I'm out even if I don't feel hungry.

Off down the towpath! It's nice and smooth and wide enough to run whilst looking about for birds without worrying about tripping and falling in the canal. Best to avoid getting Weil's Disease if at all possible! This was the 2nd of countless herons.

I reach 3 Locks without difficulty although as I forgot to come onto the road in order to cross over the canal I have to go back on myself. The running feels good, I'm able to focus on good form and am (I think) keeping a sensible pace. Have had a snack and drink and am quite happy stopping every now and then to take photos.
My mind, however, begins to play games with me. All the while I'm running happily along it keeps reminding me I've got to come back again. 'You've done 6 miles now? Well when you get here again you'll have done 12 and still have 6 to go' (can't recall actually how far along 3 Locks is, but that's the kind of thing my mind was up to anyway).

Once at the outskirts of LB I'm a bit concerned I won't find the place to come off the towpath but I vaguely remember the footbridge near the start of the Dirt Half and know that's the place to look for. Fortunately it's signposted and before I know it I've run 8.92 miles along the canal all the way to karate camp! Apparently I arrive looking fresh as a daisy, according to Sensei Phil anyway.

Time to see my kids and replenish water supplies as well as have another snack bar. After about an hour of mostly wandering about I decide to head home as I want to be sure of coinciding with a train (we live on a branch line with just 1 train an hour). I feel tired, my legs are a bit heavy and I think my hips are tightening up so I set off at a sensible steady 8:40 ish min/mile pace.

I'm not enjoying the tranquillity any more. My hips are feeling really tight, enough to make my left knee feel niggly. Perhaps the lack of hills has contributed to this? When contemplating the run I'd figured that a flat route would be sensible given the mileage I was planning to complete- but in retrospect hills wouldn't have added to the difficulty and would actually have given my body (and mind) a bit of respite. I do love a hill!
And I ran past the turning for the Big Long Hill which comes around mile 6 or 7 of the Dirt Half. A little bit of me thought- shall I? But really it would have been daft to run up it then back down again before continuing home.

Lots of little things began to niggle me. The water sloshing in the half empty bottle, the rustling sound of the wrapper of the last snack bar, the realisation that my running top has armholes that are too high and are beginning to rub, the fact that I'm fed up with sweet snack bars and really want something deeply savoury. These are all things I couldn't have anticipated. Things that give me an insight into just how tough it's going to be when I start my forays into ultras next year... I think the running will be the easiest part of that particular journey!

Now I'm tired. It's only about 3 more miles but it's hard going. I know now that the pace on my outward run was too fast. Sure it felt fine at the time but it was fine for an easy 9 mile run, not for an easy 19 miles. Every time I begin to feel really fatigued I try to bring myself back to running form. I work my way down from head to feet: shoulders relaxed and down, core strong, posture, pelvis, stride, relaxed arms... Rather like performing kata. There are many similarities between running and karate; mostly they compliment each other although there are times when the training for each discipline competes and while one improves the other suffers.

I'm also beginning to think about food, dreaming up the perfect dinner for when I get home. I'm getting very hungry. Why didn't I bring more snacks with me?

As I see bridge number 98 I know it's not so far and my pace quickens. I see some terns! How can that be possible- they are coastal birds! But it's definitely terns- they are delicate and nothing like gulls. [Consulting with my dad today it appears that inland terns are very common, especially where I live. They like gravel pits for breeding grounds.]
The pleasure of the unexpected carries me the rest of the way to the station. A bit of a stretch while I wait for the train and soon I'm back where I started. Strangely the brief rest on the train has left me feeling fresh enough to run the half mile back home and even feel like I could manage another 3 miles or so. They wouldn't be pretty but I reckon I could run them, if I had to...
So 18.8 miles, 2hrs 41min running time and a lot of lessons learned. What a great day! And it wasn't over yet, but that's not for this blog...