A Welcome Return to the Round Norfolk Relay

There are some running events that you fall head over heels in love with. That you vow you will do again and again so long as the opportunity – and your body – allows. For me, the Round Norfolk Relay is one of those events.

I last ran the Round Norfolk Relay in person in 2017, which feels utterly impossible. In 2018 there was an admin error which meant we could only enter one team from my running club (and we decided to put forward the fastest team we possibly could – they won the open category!), and in 2019 I was injured. In 2020 the event unsurprisingly turned virtual so blink and you’ll miss it, here we are in 2021 and finally the event was happening in real life and I wasn’t injured. The stars – thankfully – aligned.

For those who don’t know, the Round Norfolk Relay is pretty much exactly as it sounds. It’s a 17-stage, 198 mile relay race around the outskirts of Norfolk with an actual baton and everything. The legs aren’t divided equally – the shortest is stage 16 which is 5.49 miles (from Downham Market to Stowbridge) and the longest is stage 12 which is 19.67 miles (from Scole to Thetford). In addition to the horrifically long legs, you also have the ones with what can only be described as an absurd terrain. Stage 5 is run on shingle, and stage 6 features a cliff with a climb of 75m. Stage 13 had a total climb of 100m over 13.25 miles.

The stage 4 to stage 5 handover – shingle!

So as you can imagine I felt extremely lucky to have been gifted with what I can only describe as “my” stage (not that I’m precious. Please don’t ever take it away from me. I’ll give you cake. Dammit I’ll give you money). It’s stage 14, from Feltwell to Wissington, and is a sociable 7.27 miles with just 25m of climb in total.

The only downside to this very pleasant run? I had to hit the road at around 4:30am.

When I ran it back in 2017, I travelled with one of my best buddies and regular GRL blog post star Pete. On that occasion, he ran the 10.59 mile leg after mine, which meant that based on the predicted pace of our team, we had to leave home around 5am to get me to Feltwell for my predicted start time. So plenty of time to get a good few hours of sleep in. This time however, Pete was running the 13.25 mile leg before mine, which meant a much, much earlier leaving time. Like, 3.5 hours earlier.

Yep, that’s right, after managing about 2 hours of fitful sleep, we were in the car by 1:30am, ready for Pete to hit the road at a predicted start time of 2:55am (20 minutes earlier than when we went to sleep thanks to Hannah absolutely beasting stage 11, but we had learned our lesson from the events of 2017 and given ourselves plenty of time to get there)! It’s fair to say that the two of us were slightly delirious on the drive over, raving to Kisstory (DJ Pied Piper and the Masters of Ceremonies being a real highlight) and marvelling at the extremely rural and really quite sinister route that Google Maps had taken us on. But before we knew it we were where we needed to be, anxiously waiting for our legs to start.

And honestly, that was one of the most stressful pre-race waits that I can remember having. I don’t know whether it was the lack of racing events in the last 18 months, the lack of sleep or the fact that the adrenaline had been building all day as we furiously kept up with our teammates via the WhatsApp group. It was probably all three. But as I nervously chatted to one of the brilliant marshals in an attempt to distract myself I was visibly shaking and my stomach was churning. It was really intense.

Spot the very calm runner.

Predictably, Pete absolutely bossed his stage, coming in at 1:39:00 on the nose, pretty much exactly at the pace he had predicted and before I knew it I was baton in hand, heading out into the darkness with no other runners in sight and just the noise of my support crew rumbling along in the van behind me, lighting my path, making sure I took the right turns and just calming me the eff down. And it worked. Within minutes I had found my groove and everything just felt meditative. There is something so eerily beautiful about running in the pitch black countryside in the wee small hours and the lack of sleep meant that the whole run took on this slightly dreamlike quality. It honestly seemed to pass within minutes, and before I knew it I was handing the baton to Jacob and wandering over to Pete in a bit of a daze. I had even managed to shave 3 seconds(!) off my 2017 time.

Now this is the time to talk about the support crew, because they are the real heroes in all of this. While yes, some of us were running on tough terrains or on little to no sleep, by the time they all got to me they had been up for 24 hours, and all bar one of them had run their own leg in surprisingly warm conditions for the time of year. And yet all they were worried about was me, making sure I was hydrated enough, making sure I wasn’t freaking out, and most importantly making sure I was safe. They had fostered the most incredible team atmosphere throughout the day, sending us all photos of our teammates on WhatsApp and bigging them up when they had beaten their predicted time or overtaken another runner. I felt like I was part of something really, really special, and this was all down to them. And this is just what happens on the day itself. The organisation behind the scenes for an event like this is HUGE, from arranging support cyclists and working out the start times for each runner based on the pace of the one before them (and making quick adjustments when someone drops out or gets injured), to making sure we all understood the rules around high vis and buying and giving every runner a lei to wear when they completed their stage. They were just incredible and I cannot thank them enough for giving me the chance to take part in this event that I LOVE. And a round of applause for their bladder control please.

The best of the best of the best.

As Pete and I drove home, Google Maps again decided to test us (or in our sleep-deprived state we missed a turning, far more likely) and we ended up taking a longer route which took us back on the leg I had just run. And here we witnessed this huge queue of runners which looked really spectacular as the sky slowly turned from black to inky blue. There had been hardly any runners on the road around us as Pete and I ran, but we had certainly found the majority of them as we drove home, all hurtling towards Wissington, the flashing lights from their support vehicles lighting up everything around us. We then continued to Ely and watched a misty sunrise, bleary eyed and looking forward to coffee. Those are the kind of memories that stick with you.

36 hours later I’m still on such a high from this event (but that might just be the lack of sleep really kicking in). There is nothing quite like it in the running calendar that creates such a sense of camaraderie and team spirit. While we might all do races for our club, wearing vests and earning points (in the races that do such a thing,) ultimately we are running for ourselves and perhaps chasing a PB. But in the RNR you are very much running for each other, and it’s an incredible feeling.

Same time next year folks?

Red. Sweaty. Delirious. Happy.

Feeling nostalgic with Adidas

I remember back when I was about 14 my mum gave me £100 from the savings she had put aside for me to go clothes shopping with. This was a very big deal and a huge amount of money to me in the mid-90s, but she was very explicit about the terms of use.

Clothes shopping.

Naturally I came back with a load of tat from Athena including a to-scale purple glass head (perfect for displaying my hats! One at a time anyway!) and just one single t-shirt. Unsurprisingly, I got a fairly decent telling off for my blatant disregard of the rules and complete lack of respect for money, but to be fair to young, frivolous me (I’m still frivolous now. Young, not so much), I got my money’s worth out of that t-shirt. It became my favourite thing, and it was worn at every opportunity. It was a burgundy Adidas Originals t-shirt with bright blue detailing, and I loved it.

(Thanks Depop!)

Adidas was one of THE sports labels in the 90s. Do a quick Google image search and you’ll see Mel C in her tracksuits, Madonna in a maxi dress, J-Lo and Gwen Stefani in satiny trousers worn with crop tops and everyone – EVERYONE – else sporting a pair of Gazelles.

Kate Moss in Gazelles from 1993. Photo: Denzil McNeelance/Adidas

But somewhere between secondary school and my exercise wilderness years (i.e. my late teens and early 20s where I did very little in the way of considered movement), bar the odd pair of Stan Smiths Adidas simply fell out of my wardrobe. And when in my late 20s I rediscovered exercise and it became a huge part of who I am, that relationship never really picked up again, but I can’t really explain why. I wasn’t purposefully avoiding their gear, it was more that I veered towards Sweaty Betty (and the fact that they have a standalone store in Cambridge) and the sorts of shops that tend to sell Adidas are generally aimed at a younger clientele that nearly 40-year old me can’t be dealing with (I’m looking at you JD Sports!).

So when I was asked if I would like to collaborate with Adidas by trying out some of their sportswear, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to rediscover what made me love that t-shirt so much. I know from being a Yoga with Adriene fan that she routinely wears their gear and has collaborated on some ranges with them, so they hadn’t completely fallen out of my consciousness and I had occasionally coveted a part of her outfit during a downward dog or warrior pose. And while I flirted with the idea of trying some of their yoga pieces, I of course ended up selecting items from their running range.

I chose an Ultimate Alpha Bra in Orbit Violet, the Adizero two-in-one shorts in Halo Mint, the Own the Run Tank Top in Black, some Team GB Wristbands in Solar Red (a must have for a sweaty runner like me!) and a pair of their Adizero Adios 6 Tokyo Shoes in Cloud White. Essentially, an entire outfit, perfect for running Brandon Country parkrun in, which is where Justin (you can find his blog here) took these photos. Let’s look at each piece in turn.

Ultimate Alpha Bra – £35

Now normally I would save my favourite item for last, but it makes sense to start with the basics of an outfit. But I can say with absolute clarity that this bra is a revelation. I run solely in Shock Absorber’s Ultimate Run Bra, and I didn’t have any expectation that this would come close to the level of comfort offered by SA but I couldn’t have been more wrong. It fitted perfectly with none of that awkward wriggling you sometimes have to do with a sports bra to get it to sit right – just remember to remove the care labels to ensure you don’t get any rubbing. During the run I felt comfortable and ‘held together’ without feeling like my breathing was in any way restricted. Now I’m not exactly blessed in this department so I can’t say how well this bra would work on a larger bust, but I am definitely going to be ordering more of these so that I can keep them in rotation. An absolute dream piece that is also available in black and pink.

Adizero Two-in-One Shorts – £50

When it comes to running, shorts that don’t ride up are a must have for me. They either need to have an under layer or they need to have a rubberised grip around the thigh. These have both, which immediately made them a winner for me. They didn’t budge when I ran, and Brandon parkrun is a nice undulating course so they were properly put through their paces. They are really lightweight, even with the two layers, and are going to be a summer must have. If the mint isn’t your bag, they come in black too. The little bonus is that the undershorts have a pocket on each side, which although isn’t big enough for your smartphone, is perfect for a key and your very important parkrun barcode!

Own the Run Tank Top – £25

Disclaimer – I loved this tank top so much I’ve already bought myself the same one in pink!

There’s not too much I can say about this top other than that it’s as light as anything and it wicked the sweat away so well without obviously becoming weighty. I like tops that have a bit of flow to them rather than being skintight, and this just ticked all of my boxes at a really good price point.

Team GB Wristbands – £10

There’s not much to dislike about a pair of wristbands but when running in summer these are an absolute must have for me as my body is super efficient at cooling itself down. In other words, I don’t glow. I don’t perspire. I SWEAT. LOTS. The colour of these appealed to my flamboyant side, and they’re made of an unusually soft material and hopefully won’t become scratchy after multiple washes like some of the more traditional ‘towelling’ ones I’ve had in the past.

Adizero Adios 6 Tokyo Shoes – £110

Now I have to say that I have never found MY shoes. You know those running trainers that feel like they were moulded specifically to your feet, that you’re tempted to buy 5 pairs of to stock pile in case they change the next version? I just haven’t found them. A pair of Mizunos came close, and so did the Brooks Adrenaline GTS, but nothing has quite landed. So after quite a bit of research on the Adidas website and checking a few reviewer sites, I chose to try the Adizero 6, which are made with Primegreen, a series of high-performance recycled material, with 50% of upper made from recycled content.

Coming in at just 221g and with an 8mm heel drop (my preference), these have the makings of a super speedy road shoe (disclaimer no 2 – I didn’t wear them for the trail parkrun as I couldn’t bear to get my brand new shiny shoes muddy and sandy on their first wear, so I had taken them out for a fairly speedy road 5k the day before). They are in fact billed as a 5k/10k racer. They have a super lightweight mesh upper (great for keeping cool, less so if you’re going out in the rain) and they felt really grippy on my run. They’re pretty stiff in the mid foot but come into their own on the forefoot, and as a toe runner this could work really well for me. The only downside to them that I could find is that they’re on the narrow side so I need to relace mine, and they seem to have come up on the small side. I usually wear a size 5 in regular shoes and a size 6 in running shoes, but I could have benefitted from another half size up.

Obviously one 5k isn’t going to tell me everything I need to know about these shoes, but the signs are really promising. Plus they have gold accents so they make me feel fancy.

So needless to say my love of Adidas is well and truly reignited. It feels like a shame that it’s taken me so long to realise how well suited their running gear is to my needs, but better late than never eh? And as for that t-shirt, I didn’t buy the one from Depop, but instead treated myself to a 2021 version, because sometimes you need to channel your 14 year old self.

Cat hair: Model’s own

Thank you to Adidas and Kaizen for gifting me the five items reviewed in this post. All views are my own. You can see the full Adidas running range at https://www.adidas.co.uk/running-clothing #CreatedWithAdidas

Can we just let women do sport please?

Urgh, sometimes it is just exhausting being a woman who participates in sport. From the everyday cat calls, and comments on whether or not “that” woman “should” be wearing “that” item of clothing (“Ooh I’m not sure she pulls that off. She hasn’t really got the figure for it has she? Should you really be running in just a sports bra?”) to the constant awareness of safety when out running alone (keys between the knuckles anyone?) it’s all just a bit much when all we want to do is just keep ourselves healthy and enjoy doing something we love.

When will women be allowed to just be when exercising, and feel safe whilst doing so?

The reason this has got my particular gander of late is because of headlines that came out during Tokyo 2020. You could only have been living under a rock not to hear about the fine handed out to the Women’s Norwegian Beach Handball team. They chose to wear – still pretty small – spandex shorts rather than bikini bottoms. Now if you’re a normal human being you’d probably think “fair enough. Those little pants are pretty revealing, and are probably less than ideal if you’re on your period, and you can still see how their bodies are moving if you want to argue that that’s the reason for minimal clothing.” But dear reader, the European Handball Federation were having none of it. They fined the team $177 per player for their protest. I mean, rules are rules, and the International Handball Federation dictates that women wear sports bras and bikini bottoms “with a close fit and cut on an upward angle toward the top of the leg,” and sides shorter than four inches, during beach competition. 

What? Ick. When pressed about this rule, IHF spokesperson Jessica Rockstroh could not point to any specific reason for it, and simply said “we’re looking into it internally.” Ok, so can I at least assume that the men’s team has similar rules to ensure that their bodies are fully on show and not restricted when playing?

Oh.

And before anyone says it, I’m sure there are other teams who are quite happy wearing the bikinis. But this is what’s missing when it comes to beach handball. Choice. If it has zero impact on how someone performs their sport and has zero impact on the scoring ability of said sport, there should be equality of choice between the sexes when it comes to the kit they compete in.

And clearly this works just fine in other sports. Check out the finish line of the mixed triathlon relay at Tokyo. While Jess Learmonth and Georgia Taylor-Brown from Team GB wore trisuits with shorts, Leonie Periault and Cassandre Beaugrand from France wore swimsuits. They had a choice on which was more comfortable, and made it. And in the gymnastics, Sarah Voss from Germany kickstarted a revolution in her team by wearing a bodysuit (in gymnastics, this doesn’t officially break any rules). Tellingly, she said “As a little girl I didn’t see the tight gym outfits as such a big deal. But when puberty began, when my period came, I began feeling increasingly uncomfortable.”

Arguments around what women look like or what they wear during sport is a tale as old as time. But to pick some recent examples, in 2004, Sepp Blatter’s suggestion for increasing interest in women’s football was that they should “let the women play in more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball. They could, for example, have tighter shorts. Female players are pretty, if you excuse me for saying so, and they already have some different rules to men – such as playing with a lighter ball. That decision was taken to create a more female aesthetic, so why not do it in fashion?”. In 2013, when commentating during Wimbledon, John Inverdale said of Marion Bartoli (who went on to win the Championship) “I just wonder if her dad, because he has obviously been the most influential person in her life, did say to her when she was 12, 13, 14 maybe, ‘listen, you are never going to be, you know, a looker. You are never going to be somebody like a Sharapova, you’re never going to be 5ft 11, you’re never going to be somebody with long legs, so you have to compensate for that.'” In 2018, the French Tennis Federation banned Serena Williams from competing in a black catsuit, despite the fact that she was wearing it not just for aesthetic purposes (it was an incredible bodysuit), but because it was a compression suit to help with blood clots, a health issue that had resulted in a pulmonary embolism in her lung that sidelined her for a year. Then just last month, Team GB paralympian Olivia Breen was told that her bottoms were “too short and revealing” and that she should wear something more appropriate. Unsurprisingly, at first glance they look less revealing than those required for beach handball.

It feels like women can’t win. Either they’re being sexualised, or are told that what they’re wearing isn’t appropriate or is too sexual. Can you imagine any of these conversations happening between a sport’s officials and the male athletes? Was Kristian Blummenfelt told off for his trisuit that became transparent when it got wet? Was Tom Daley told to wear larger swimming trunks (according to him, “they have to be small because everything has to stay in place”)? Were any male handball players told off because their vests were too baggy? If this did happen I’d be really interested to hear about it.

A study by Greater Sport showed that 1/3 girls aged 14-16 are unhappy with their body image, and another by Dove in 2010 found that 60% of girls drop out of sport due to this poor body image. If you were a self conscious 14 year old who had discovered a love of beach handball, but were then told “oh by the way, this is the outfit you’ll have to wear”, do you think you would have had the confidence to press on and wear it? I certainly wouldn’t have, and I would have wondered why I couldn’t wear a vest and shorts like the boys when we’re doing the exact same sport. Policing what women wear in sport is damaging. We should be doing everything we can to keep our girls in sport during puberty and beyond. They need to be encouraged to embrace what their bodies can do, not what they look like.

Beyond what women wear when doing sport, there is also the issue of safety when exercising. I broached this subject in a piece I wrote for Ox Gadgets last year which covered the safety of apps like Strava and the gender balance of apps like Zwift (where even in a virtual world women can’t avoid being hit on). Then when Sarah Everard’s life was so cruelly cut short when she was abducted off the street, raped and murdered by a Metropolitan Police Officer last March, I asked members of my running club if they felt safe when running, and if they had ever experienced harassment when exercising. Now I have to say that I do live in a low crime area of the UK, but even then the stories I received were harrowing. Many members, male and female alike, had stories of abuse thrown at them and stories of drivers slowing down and driving alongside them and feeling threatened when coming across people in quieter streets. But the key difference between the male and female members of the club, was that the abuse female runners received was always based around the threat of sexual violence, culminating in one runner having a driver pull over in a lay-by she was running past. He rolled down his window, and thinking he might need directions, she jogged over, only to see him looking at her as he masturbated in his car. This happened at 7.30 in the morning, in daylight, in a quiet town. As a result of this assault, she no longer runs on her own, feels anxious whenever she sees a similar car, and chooses to run different routes or at different times in case the man involved has a regular commute through the area at a similar time each day. I imagine other women might never run again after such an experience.

So where am I going with all of this? To be honest, I’m not really sure. I think this blog post was borne out of frustration that has been building for a while, anger and upset that women I know have had to change their sporting behaviours because of sexual assault, and that athletes at the top of their game are still being discussed for what they wear instead of for what they do. I was a self conscious kid growing up, and I was one of those women who left sport in puberty. The reason my blog is called what it is is because I didn’t start running until I was 28. I guess I just want people to do better, and to call out casual sexism when they see it. I want them to not tell women that they should not run on their own again when they are subjected to a sexual assault, like they are somehow to blame for a man’s repulsive behaviour. And I definitely want women to keep doing peaceful protests, wearing what they feel comfortable to compete in even if the archaic rules tell them that they can’t. Because then hopefully, little by little, women competing in sport will be able to do so without being sexualised at every turn, and young women will feel empowered to stick with the sport they love as their bodies change, because they know it will go on to do wonderful things.

Can running mean too much?

Yep, I’ve been quiet on here. And sadly it’s not due to getting out and enjoying my marathon training plan and the easing of restrictions here in the UK.

Just two weeks after my blog post about getting a place in the London Marathon, my stupid plantar fasciitis (thanks shitty tendons) made a screaming comeback like an attention-seeking toddler having a hissy fit. Honestly, the timing was almost laughable. Twelve weeks later and I’m – finally – tentatively sticking a less than happy toe back into the water whilst I wait for my long-awaited for osteopath appointment to roll around. I know that its recurrence is due to a number of factors. Pre-lockdown I used to have monthly physio MOTs and it’s been 14 months since my last appointment, I’ve been working from a sofa all year due to the size of my house and having two adults working from home, and I’ve been doing online workout classes on a non-sprung floor. That’s all going to add up.

To be honest, London isn’t massively on my mind at the moment. I need to start my training plan in earnest in June if I’m going to make the October start line, and since I only just started running again two weeks ago and am at 2.5 miles, realistically that’s looking super unlikely. And I know some people think that London shouldn’t be about the time and you should just enjoy it, but I don’t even have any longer run foundations to build on right now. I’ll be starting nearly from scratch, and even getting around and enjoying it, regardless of time, feels like too big an ask. So I’m just waiting for them to announce their deferral process so I can get that sorted and not need to think about it.

But in these last few weeks, I’ve realised just how much of me is tied up in running. So much of who I am is wrapped up in this pastime of mine that I feel like I’ve really lost my way – and part of who I am – in the last few months. I’ve had to block notifications from my running club on Facebook as I couldn’t bear to see people sharing their virtual race results and sharing photos of themselves back at training. I’ve had to temporarily mute messenger conversations from close friends when the talk turned to running as the jealousy became too much. I’ve had to block notifications on Strava when I kept being told that any segment or “local legend” titles that I held had been snapped up by someone else. Everything just felt so negative and there’s also another argument here for stepping back from social media, but that’s another conversation for another time.

I have thrown myself into cycling, both on the turbo trainer and in the real world, and the racing side of Zwift has helped me to scratch my competitive itch, but nothing makes me feel the way running does. Nothing fits me like running does. I bumped into Ely Runner Kath just yesterday, and she summed it up beautifully. She told me that to her, running is meditative. She has come to know her local routes so well that she has one for nearly every mood. It’s not quite like cycling where you have to have more of your wits around you 100% of the time, looking out for potholes and being hyper aware of cars. With running, you can pick a quiet trail and switch off, and in Ely we’re lucky enough to be able to be in the depths of the countryside within minutes, with nothing but bird song and maybe the distant rumble of a train for company. It’s soul food and I feel like I’m starving.

Although I’ve been injured before, it’s quite an overwhelming thing to be injured during a global pandemic, when your biggest coping mechanism for good mental health is suddenly taken away and access to the treatment you need to get back out running is harder to come by. We’re all coping with so much change and uncertainty already, and to lose the one thing you rely on as a constant is gut wrenching. I’ve cried at friends who haven’t even been able to hug me and tell me that of course I’ll be back. That I’ve been here before and it’s part and parcel of being an athlete. And deep down I know this. But I think over the last 14 months my capacity for any mental strain has diminished, and to be a running blogger who can’t run, to be known as Girl Running Late online but have nothing to say about it means that I feel like without running, I’m nothing.

But I have to say, that alongside my husband, it’s my running friends – both old and new – who have kept me going. There are those that drag me out for bike rides just so that we can try and find Justin some random tat on the side of the road and make up even more nicknames for each other (sorry Bethan), those who turn up with flowers and chocolates just because they know I’m having a bad week (thanks Rach and Ann), those that let me cry at them and help me to see the bigger picture (thanks Pete) and those who offer to come out for a walk when they would normally be out running (Charlotte, Janet, Shaun, Emma, Emily) just so that we can laugh and vent about anything and everything (sometimes with a bonus doggo and/or baby). It’s meant more to me than they probably realise (even if Justin did beat my Mill Hill segment on a bike ride, the git).

So what next? I see Melissa at Spritely Osteopathy in less than 2 weeks, and I know that her treatment is going to be the first step in getting back out there. I’ve been doing a lot more pilates to work on my glutes and core, the twin engines of a runner’s body, and I’ve signed up to Fiit, whose huge number of classes and points based workout system keeps me motivated. And as for the running, I’ll keep taking it very steady, restricting myself to a short run every three days and not deviating from that plan, and knowing that if my foot flares up again I’ll need to stop. For now, that’s enough for me. I’ve realised that even running a mile is restorative, and makes me feel like myself again. Yes, a lot of who I am is defined by my running, but it’s also given me the people who have kept me afloat both during this injury and during the whole of the last 14 months. So maybe it’s ok that it’s such a huge part of what makes me, me. Because without it, my support network would have been a hell of a lot smaller. Just don’t be offended if I don’t like your long Sunday run on Strava. I’m not quite there yet.

London Baby!

I don’t think it’s going to take a genius to realise what this post is about.

That’s right. Mrs “I’m probably never going to do a marathon” only went and got a ballot place for VLM 2021.

You know what it’s like. You watch the marathon, get sucked up in the emotion and enter the ballot with a tear in your eye after watching a man dressed like a camel tell his family he loves them at mile 21, knowing full well your chance of getting a place is something like 1/25. Even the weirdness of the 2020 marathon didn’t stop me as I watched all of those amazing runners take on the challenge virtually, without even the famous London crowds to cheer them on.

But then I forgot all about it, and when my email turned up last week I clicked the link with a wry smile fully expecting the usual “commiserations” message and preparing to go about my day. So when I saw the lovely red-headed lady’s face with the words “YOU’RE IN!” I did whatever anyone else would do. Started shaking and immediately went to the toilet. My body basically went straight into fight or flight mode, just like it always does on any event start line. Adrenaline is a bitch.

As I saw the disappointed posts start to come in on the Ely Runners Facebook page, without a single person saying they had been successful, something stopped me from getting involved in the chat. I think I needed to take the time to absorb the news and to accept the enormity of it for me as a runner. So many of my incredible clubmates have done multiple marathons, and although they all respect the distance, for a lot of them, it no longer holds any fear. But for me, I have a comfort zone, and it’s 5km.

But here I am, a week later, and I’m – dare I say it – a wee bit excited? I feel incredibly privileged to have something to train for in a time when few races and running events are taking place. And I have been utterly overwhelmed by the support I’ve received. I have a training plan coming my way courtesy of Charlotte. I have offers of running buddies on those long runs from Justin, Shaun, Pete and more. I have offers of dealing with the nutrition and mental side of things from Jo. And I have had nothing but messages of support from those I’ve told, all who have made me believe that yes – I can do this.

But I know I have a lot of work ahead of me, and it’s not just about getting the miles in. Anyone who knows me knows I’m going to want to do this to the best of my ability, and to do that I have things I need to work on. I need to work on my core and glute strength to manage my hyperlordosis which tends to make itself known around 10 miles into any longer run. I need to stay on top of my rehab and make sure I look after my calves which have a habit of tightening up thanks to my form which sees me running up on my toes (in a time when I can’t see my physio for my monthly MOT). I need to be more structured in my training instead of just running what I want when I want. But most importantly, I need to sort out my head. I need my brain to stop telling me that I’m not capable of such a long distance, that I’m simply not built for it. I need to believe in myself.

But the best bit of advice I’ve had so far has come from Charlotte, who immediately told me not to think about the time, and to instead treat London Marathon as the event it is. She told me to make sure I take everything in and be truly present, because London is an experience, and it might be a once in a lifetime one for me. If I enjoy the distance and decide I want to do other marathons, I can focus on the time then. London shouldn’t be about that. And in her words, “It’s about looking back and saying you did it and enjoyed it rather than ‘got through it’.” Amen sister.

So prepare yourself folks – I’m about to embark on a marathon journey, and I really hope you’ll come along for the ride.

It’s time to look forward

My poor old blog. How I’ve neglected you this year. But what a year eh?

I feel like I’ve spent so much of the last nine months grieving. For the old way of things yes, but also for loved ones. I’ve lost two very important members of my family, one feline, and one human. 2020 has taken so much from me and I often wonder if I’ll ever be the person I was before this year.

I feel scarred.

And when I’m struggling with my mental health, I find myself wondering why it feels like everyone else is coping better, living better and yes – running better. I can fall into the comparison trap and the rabbit hole that is Strava, wondering why so many other people seem to be able to run further, faster, stronger while every time I manage to go out for a run I feel I have to warn whoever I’m running with that “I’m not really feeling it today” in an act of self preservation just in case I “under perform” (in a social run of all things). My mindset is in pieces.

I’ve been in the social media business long enough to know that deep down what we all share online isn’t necessarily the full story. One look at my Instagram and you’d never know that behind the scenes I have – at times – been overwhelmed by grief. And I also would be the first person to tell anyone else that comparison is the path to misery. But I’ve been unable to lift myself out of the my online self-flagellating behaviour.

But two things happened to me recently that have helped to lift my spirits and to help me realise that actually I am doing ok. The first was a book from a fellow Ely Runner, posted through my door on Christmas Eve, a day when I was really struggling. It was The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by Charlie Macksey, a beautifully illustrated tome of wisdom that I know I will keep dipping in and out of for the rest of my life. It’s full of the most poignant, beautiful statements, and this one in particular stood out:

Why do I think that I had to achieve great things in 2020? The fact that I’ve kept moving, gone for runs, walks and bike rides and done my online zoom classes, is more than enough. I’ve kept my body strong so that when my mind feels up to it again, I can push for those fast times again.

If that’s what I want.

The second thing that happened was a long Sunday morning run on the most glorious sunny winter’s day with my two Ely Runners besties, Pete and Justin. Every winter Ely Runners hosts a long Christmas run from Woodditton to Ely, followed by a fill-your-boots carvery Christmas lunch at a local pub. Obviously it couldn’t happen in its usual format this year, so Pete and I decided to do our own version, and invited Justin to join us. We had planned to do 10 miles, just 5 miles out along the river and back, but Justin – in his usual state of mountain-goat-on-muddy-terrain giddiness – convinced us to push on for a full half marathon, something Pete and I haven’t done for a considerable amount of time. Our pace was gentle and we stopped every 3 miles or so for a shot of customary rolo vodka (not quite as good as Claire’s legendary creation, but a decent replica). At least Pete and I did – Justin had Guinness in one half of his hydration vest. We chatted about nonsense, stopped for photos and laughed our heads off. We ran for the sheer joy of it and nothing else. It was exactly what I needed. Afterwards Justin sent me this photo of Pete and I distantly toasting each other. I immediately bemoaned what a godawful photo of me it was and Justin simply said, “Nope. It’s fab! A moment of happiness.” And it really is.

So what next? What should I look forward to in 2021? I want more runs like the one above (hopefully it won’t be too long before we can run with more than one other person again). I want to run because I want to run, not because I feel like I should or must. I want to not care about how fast I run (although that is still a work in progress). And I want to stop putting so much pressure on myself to achieve great things after what has arguably been the worst year of my life, even without the pandemic. Because sometimes, just getting up and carrying on is enough.

Thanks for reading, and Happy New Year. Now go and get yourself a shot of rolo vodka.

A Love Letter to the Lido

I thought of the Lido again this morning, as I woke up with my hair sticky against my neck after another hot and restless night. I thought of that moment of standing on the edge of the water, literally dipping a toe in and instantly regretting it as the icy shock made me question my life choices and ponder the preferable option of a coffee from Fitzbillies instead. I quickly learned to never hesitate when visiting this outdoor pool. Plunging in is the only way to fly, even if all of your internal organs scream in unison when you first hit the water. It’s worth it.

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I’ve never regretted a trip to Jesus Green Lido. Even when the season rolled towards its end and the temperature of the water would be so low that I would emerge after a 30 minute swim with blue lips and the feeling that I would never know true warmth again, I would spend the day in the most amazing mood. An indoor pool has never been able to come close to replicating that feeling. It feels so soulless somehow, like the roof prevents the magic from hitting the water. I like hearing the trees rustle when I swim, sweeping away fallen leaves and the occasional disgruntled insect and bobbing bird with my broad, clumsy strokes (a natural swimmer I am not). I like feeling the breeze on my shoulders as a squirrel scampers across the grass, all accompanied by the low hum of traffic from Chesterton Road, mixing with the birdsong. I like squinting into the low sun in one direction and feeling the relief between my eyes as I change direction for another 91 metres.

Yes, you heard that right. For anyone who doesn’t know, Jesus Green Lido is 91 metres long and just 14m wide. It’s one of the longest outdoor pools in Europe, designed in such a way as to mimic the feeling of swimming in its neighbour, the River Cam. The deepest part of the pool is in the middle, something I find oddly reassuring (after a tiring length it’s pleasant to be able to place your feet on the bottom, regardless of which direction you’ve swum in). The changing huts are comfortingly retro, made from wood with a sizeable gap at the top and bottom, and there is something freeing about the unabashed way my fellow female swimmers use the communal showers and chat about the weather. When you’ve seen each other in minimal amounts of form fitting lycra, nudity suddenly seems like a very minor next step (something the Brit in me has generally felt uncomfortable with, but strangely not at the Lido).

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With Covid-19 having shut the lido for much of the 2020 season, when I heard that it was opening again, I didn’t feel excited. I felt sad, as I knew that due to my discomfort around the pandemic I was going to miss the entire season. I’m not ready to get on a train again to get there. I’m not ready to be near so many people. And I’m not ready to see the lido in such a different way. I’m not ready to book an hour-long slot for my swim like some strange forced fun and spend the entire session with one wary eye on my belongings on the side of the pool due to the gloriously old-fashioned basket room being closed. I’m not ready to rush. Jesus Green lido was made for lazy social swims (only one third of the pool is usually reserved for “fast” swimmers), relaxing under the surrounding trees and generally experiencing a feeling of nostalgia for simpler times.

So instead I’m looking forward. Jesus Green Lido will celebrate its 100th birthday in 2023, and what a glorious celebration that’s going to be. I (hopefully) have many summers left in me to set a stupidly early alarm so that I can be in the water by 7.30am. And in the meantime I’ll reread one of my favourite books, The Lido, by Libby Page. I’ll browse the lido collection by artist Lou Taylor and maybe treat myself to that brooch at last (or even better, that silk scarf). I’ll google “1930s lido” and fill my boots with fabulous images and feel a moment of sadness for those that have been long since filled in. If there is any risk of the pandemic bringing about the closure of Jesus Green, I will play whatever part I can in ensuring this doesn’t happen. I would happily donate the £5-£10 a week I usually spent on my swim to the Lido if it needed it, as it’s given me so much happiness that extends far beyond this.

Maybe I’m romanticising Jesus Green Lido. But this is a love letter after all.

When you need your support crew

I’ve written on here before about how when I first started running, I saw myself very much as a lone runner who had no interest in competition (AH HA HA!), but that all changed when I joined Ely Runners in 2015. Now I really don’t enjoy running on my own, and never have I missed my fellow runners as much as I do now.

I’ll be honest – I’ve really been struggling.

I was genuinely doing ok with lockdown to begin with. Not great obviously, because this SERIOUSLY sucks, but I got into an exercise routine thanks to the amazing array of online workouts available, I started running with the other half when he decided he wanted to take it up to stay fit while he could no longer play his beloved badminton, and I started picking up old hobbies again. But then I had to say goodbye to my darling cat and the wheels suddenly came off in spectacular fashion.

For those among you who aren’t really pet people, it might be hard for you to understand just how much my heart broke when the worst possible moment finally came. Without going into it too much, she was diagnosed with a rare, incurable cancer 6 months ago, so we knew our time with her was limited and we did our absolute best to make the most of the time we had with her, especially during lockdown. But to have to say goodbye to your companion for the last 12.5 years when you’re not even allowed to set foot inside the vets is agonising, and suddenly lockdown became this pressure cooker that threatened to suffocate me.

I couldn’t go for my solo, head-clearing runs because I couldn’t bear to be on my own (if I were to go for a run, I would have to be at home on my own when my husband went for his daily exercise). I wouldn’t even go upstairs to bed on my own so I would stay up until the early hours and skate by on 4 or 5 hours sleep a night (he’s a well-conditioned night owl). I cried every day because everything in the house reminded me of her. I felt like I was constantly on the verge of a panic attack (having had one once at University I recognised that jittery tightness in my chest and the shallow breathing) and I kept thinking how what I really needed was to go for one of those really long runs with one of my closest buddies and howl at the universe and what a crapstorm it could be sometimes.

And my word, the guilt. The guilt of not being able to go in to the vet. The guilt of making the decision in the first place. The guilt of my husband having to shoulder the job of getting me through this entirely on his own. The guilt of struggling with the loss of a pet when people are losing human loved ones by the hundreds in extreme conditions every single day. It was almost as consuming as the grief itself.

But thank goodness for the online world and for those who will be there in whatever ways they can despite the fact they are all currently dealing with all of their own new-world stresses. I had friends who let me ugly cry at them through a screen. Those who dropped off flowers, gin, chocolate and those who I don’t even know that well but who messaged me to check how I was doing and to assure me that in time, it would get better. And looking back I realised that almost all of these people are those who I’ve met through running or my gym.

I think that when you’ve beasted an epic run together that involved dodging cows, dodgy stomachs and bog-like conditions (Ely Runners Christmas run, I’m looking at you) or survived a fitness class together where you end it face-planted in a puddle of your own sweat, you can look at each other in a new light and feel able to open up to each other. You can let yourself be a little bit raw emotionally, having already done it physically.

And slowly but surely, thanks to my remote – but thankfully, still very much present – support crew, I’m starting to come out the other side. I’ve got friends to do online classes with, friends who send me stupid GIFs, friends who drop off a seemingly endless supply of cake and friends who I know I can call and who will answer straight away when I have a bad moment. I’ve picked up the yoga again after a 6-week hiatus, because for a while only cardio appealed as it forced me to only focus on the physical. Yoga felt like it would give my brain too much time to breathe and therefore too much time to think. I’ve started doing Headspace’s grief programme, am baking more and am occasionally able to think of Minnie with a smile instead of tears.

After reading all of this you might be wondering why I’m writing about this in a fitness blog, but to me, mental health and physical health are the same thing – health. And the mental aspect of my health picked up a serious injury and I had to work out how to deal with that. And quite honestly, I’d rather have plantar fasciitis. But thanks to my husband (who is nothing short of a hero for getting me through the last 4 weeks when he had his own grief to manage) and my amazing support crew, I feel like very slowly but definitely surely, I’m coming out of the other side. I would name them all but it would simply take too long. But you all know who you are, and when this is over I can’t wait to thank you all properly in person.

And bloody hell I can’t wait to go for a run with you.

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How I’m Staying Active in Lockdown

So I wasn’t originally planning on writing a post about how I’ve been trying to stay active (and sane!) during the Covid-19 lockdown, because let’s face it – every fitness blogger will be doing the same. But thanks to a stitch-up by (friend and radio host) Richard “Spanners” Ready, I’m compelled to share my fitness tricks and tips! Hopefully some of these will be useful to you or someone you know.

ONLINE CLASSES

There are frankly hundreds of available classes online at the moment, many of them for free, and others for a nominal fee to keep fitness instructors – who have found their income severely affected – financially afloat. To be honest, the amount of choice has been a little overwhelming at times (I’ll be on Instagram and suddenly get alert after alert of gyms and fitness influencers going live) but I’ve found a few that have really worked for me, especially in a small space.

@DanceFitnessWithLily – my friend Becky put me on to Lily, and I’m so grateful that she did! Lily is a professional dancer and choreographer based in London and she has the most infectious energy. She is offering 5 classes a week using Instagram Live, and she saves them to her story afterwards so you’ve got 24 hours to give them a go. They usually last 30-40 minutes, and they’re easy to do in a small space. Lily clearly loves what she does, and when she talks along to the songs with perfection pronunciation you can’t help but smile. An absolute tonic during these tough times. You can also follow Lily’s main account at @lilymaemcgregor.

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Runderwear – Underwear company Runderwear are doing a #60DayChallenge at 10am every day, which you can either do live with them on Facebook or do at your leisure by watching the video back. It’s usually no more than a 15 minute workout, based around bodyweight exercises such as lunges, squats etc. You can sign up to get a daily email reminder and a breakdown of the exercises here.

Magda Dawczak – Magda is an Ely resident and friend of mine who I met when she taught me Zumba. She usually teaches classes at the Hive in Ely, but that has obviously temporarily closed. Despite not having her regular income, Magda has decided to ask anyone who would like to attend her online Zoom* classes to donate money to the NHS using the 70085 number. Magda is one of the strongest women I know, but don’t be scared – her classes are based around cardio, core work and Zumba, which are accessible to everyone. You can find her on Instagram as @happy_fit_uk.

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Jo Hopkins – Jo is another local instructor who I know from the classes she teaches for Sweaty Betty Cambridge. She is an absolute human whirlwind, and not even a pandemic can change that. Jo is running – get this – 4 or 5 classes A DAY, including stretch and mobility classes, daily 30-minute lunchtime family exercise sessions and Saturday night dance parties! You can get involved for £5 a class (paid via bank transfer) or for £15 a week you can do as many classes as you like! Jo is also using Zoom for this, and you can find her on Instagram at @johopkins.moveit. She also has an incredible plant-based food company, so you can follow that at @josvivakitchen for foodie inspo!

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Helena Everdell – Helena is one of my yoga instructors and owner of one of the most soothing voices known to humankind. She’s sharing great little 5 minute videos on Instagram focusing on different body parts such as neck and shoulders, abs and a full body burner, so you can slot these into your WFH days whilst the kettle is boiling. Plus if you’re lucky, her dog Pablo makes a cameo, and we all know that cute dogs make everything better. You can follow her at @helena.everdell.

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Elyte Fitness – it’s not too late to join a gym! My amazing gym, Elyte, has moved to online classes for all of its members, so for me it’s just brilliant to be able to check in with all of my workout buddies and still get my sweat on with them. Elyte even offered for members to borrow equipment so that they could use them in their own homes, including the spin bikes. This goes above and beyond, and reminds me why I’m a member at the best gym round here.

LEARN A NEW SKILL

Ever wanted to be able to do a headstand? Learn to hula hoop? Do the splits? Try couch to 5k? Do a press up? This is your chance. Don’t waste it.

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MAKE THE MOST OF YOUR ALLOTTED OUTDOOR TIME

Whether it’s walking the dog, getting out for a run or jumping on the bike, please make the most of your chance to get outdoors while all of this is going on. We all know how much good vitamin D and fresh air does for us all, and although it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by everything that’s happening, changing your scenery (in a socially distant way of course) will make such a huge difference to your day.

TRY MY WORKOUTS!

If this isn’t enough for you, I even wrote a couple of challenges for my running buddies that you can try at home! Fancy giving either of these a go?

1000 Rep Challenge

You can do this either as it’s written, or by breaking it down into 5 rounds:

50 x mountain climbers
50 x press ups
50 x burpees
50 x jump lunge (per leg)
50 x sit ups
50 x tuck jumps
50 x plank up downs
50 x plyo star jumps (hands to the floor)
50 x squat jumps
500 x skips (or high knees if you don’t have a rope

7 Minute EMOM

And EMOM means you start each exercise every minute on the minute. When you’ve finished the exercise, you can rest for the remainder of the minute. Repeat 4 times (28 minutes total).

10 burpees
40 flutter kicks
20 squat jumps
20 leg raises
10 surfer burpees
40 russian twists
20 squat thrusts

Let me know if you try either of these, and if you’ve discovered any other online gems I’d love to hear about them!

*Zoom is a video conferencing programme that has become INVALUABLE during this time. You can get the app and sign up for an account for free, and then people like Magda and Jo send out the link to the meeting (class) to attendees who have signed up and you’re good to go! Just remember that if you turn your camera on all of the attendees can see you, so think twice before doing a class in your underwear.

That time I represented my county

So, a few hours after representing Cambridgeshire for the first time at the Inter Regionals Cross Country event in Loughborough, I think my disappointment at my performance has finally settled enough for me to get my thoughts written down.

Holy mother forking shirtballs that was hard.

I knew stepping up to this level was going to be tough. I knew I would probably be near the back. I knew the terrain would be unlike anything I’ve ever done before. I knew, I knew, I knew. And yet I didn’t.

After a little over a 2-hour drive with my clubmate (and constant source of inspiration) Gemma, who would be running in the under 17s girls’ race, and her mum Sue, also an Ely Runner who is one of the most committed representatives (and cheerleaders!) for the club I know, we turned up about 90 minutes before my race and located the Cambridgeshire flag so that we could get our numbers. This was when the first disappointment struck – 2 of the women weren’t coming, which meant we didn’t have have enough senior women running to field a scoring team. We needed 6, but we only had 4. In some ways it felt like the pressure was off, but in another, I was so disappointed not to be able to score for my county. I had said to Gemma in the car that the worst thing that could happen was if someone bailed, as I was then travelling 80-odd miles each way, to do a race that was so far out of my comfort zone that it was practically a dot on the horizon, and for it not to make a difference.

But after chatting with my teammates Kayleigh, Elisabeth and Sarah, we all agreed that we could at least enjoy it and treat it as a training run. And I genuinely planned to do the former. Honestly. I really, truly wanted to.

But I hated nearly every second of it.

The course was unlike anything I had ever experienced. Half the course was deep, boggy mud that gripped onto my ankles like a drowning man grabbing at a buoy, sucking at my shoes and succeeding in taking one off a couple of miles from the end (I wasn’t the only victim of this judging by the abandoned spikes littering the course), losing me valuable time as I battled to shove it back on. The gaps we had between the boggiest sections offered little in the way of respite, and knowing that I had to do two laps meant that I wanted to quit time and time again, certain I couldn’t possibly make my legs fight through that mire again.  And I barely could. I lost count of the number of times I had to stop to walk up the inclines, the fight to keep tears back as I felt like I was letting myself and the county down by losing the mental battle cross country represents.

The worst part was when my watch buzzed the 6 mile mark and I realised that the run was going to be significantly more than the 10km it was meant to be. This is when the need for the RunEqual campaign really hit home. It’s hard enough to qualify at 5.8km for a 10km race but for a 11.25km race? That’s nearly double. At least if we had qualified at 10km that extra 1.25km may not have been so daunting (although how British Athletics over-measured by that much I’ll never know). Come on Cambridgeshire – how can you expect to field a strong senior women team if the discrepancy between what we’re doing at a local level and the county level is so huge? THIS is why we need to be equalising our distances.

I did at least manage to finish strong, but that’s what desperation to end a nightmare will do to you. After a successful Frostbite XC at Huntingdon last week I had honestly thought I might be able to do something special, but instead I crossed the line in 56:41, 205th runner out of a field of 254, managing an average pace of around 8.07 per mile. I was devastated.

BUT – this isn’t all doom and gloom. It takes a chat with your best friends/sister/partner to give things a bit of context. Firstly – I’ve never run 10km (or 11.25km!) of cross country before. I’m a 5km road runner through and through. Also, I was only 4 minutes behind Kayleigh and 2 minutes behind Sarah, both senior women while I’m (ahem) a veteran. And I didn’t quit. Despite EVERYTHING in my body telling me to, I made it to the finish. Not everyone did. I think the thing I’m most gutted about is the fact I had to stop and walk numerous times. I lost the mental battle, and I need to work out what I can do to stop that from happening again.

I may never compete for Cambridgeshire again. Let’s face it – the older I get the less likely I am to be considered. So I’m disappointed that possibly the one time I don that blue vest the result is not what I wanted or what I believe I’m capable of. But at least I was there, and at least I have that vest and a story to tell. And perhaps more importantly, a few lessons learned.

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