The Race of my Life – My Review of the 2017 Cambridge Half Marathon

So. The Cambridge Half Marathon has been and gone. And flipping heck, it turned out to be the race of my life.

This epiphany stuff isn’t half bad.

My other half may argue that this wasn’t the case, but in the lead up to this year’s Cambridge Half, I felt like a different person to previous years. Yes I was still nervous, but it wasn’t all consuming. I think there are a lot of reasons for this. Some of it is down to the support I received from Progress as part of the prize I won with Saucony and OSB Events. I was lucky enough to work with two awesome women (Lauren Bradshaw a Specialist Sports Physio, and Hannah Crighton a Massage Therapist) who have both competed and taken part in sport at a pretty high level. They totally got why I would be so nervous about my running, but they also got me to think about why I started running in the first place and to rediscover my love for it. So in addition to expert physio and massage, and a bundle of exercises that I can keep using to improve my strength, I also got a bit of emotional therapy on the side.

Another thing I’ve worked so hard on over the last 3 months or so, is my Strength and Conditioning with Matt Matcham, who works at both Progress and the University of Cambridge Sports Centre. He made sure to pick a selection of exercises that he knew would challenge me, but that I would also enjoy. He knows that I react well to seeing quick improvements so he always made sure there were exercises that would see a steady rate of increase (I went from 35kg to 60kg deadlifts pretty swiftly), and he kept switching them up so that I wouldn’t get bored. I know that being stronger has made me a better athlete. In addition to all of this fitness stuff I’ve been getting some alternative treatment on the side, but I think this deserves a separate blog post in a day or two.

I also – as you know – arranged on Twitter to meet two girls who I have been following on there for a long time, and this created excitement and gave me something to focus on other than the run. Of course I can run 13.1 miles if there’s the promise of brilliant conversation and a plate of chips afterwards. The fact that I ran into Joanna on Saturday night (ok, I pretty much chased her down the road, but she seemed ok with it. I knew we were destined to be IRL besties) made it even better.

Jo and I

And then of course, there was the shift in my mental focus. This particular change was 7 years coming, and so many people have been commenting on how I seem like a different person now. When I’m running, if I feel good I push myself, and if I don’t I pull it back. I’m listening to my body and letting it tell me what it’s capable of, rather than beating myself up in the past when I thought I wasn’t good enough.

On the morning of the race, I knew to do what works for me. I left it until as long as possible to get to the start, leaving my sister’s house at 9:10am, jogging to Jesus Green and using the (completely empty) public toilets there, and then spotting fellow Ely Runner Andy at the start line (we had arranged for him to wait on the right of the pens in the hope that I’d find him) and then leaping the barrier (apologies to the chap whose phone I nearly kicked out of his hand) and being in my pen at 9:25am. Crowds avoided, and waiting down to a minimum.

When we started, I lost Andy fairly swiftly, purely because I’m a short arse, and it was so congested at the front that trying to get past slower runners was agonising unless you’re small enough to duck and weave. This didn’t really let up until we hit Trumpington Street, nearly 3 miles into the run. If I’m honest, I feel like the organisers have become a little greedy with their numbers. I got kicked in the shin turning the corner outside Jack Wills, and a fellow Ely Runner complained of being elbowed more than once. Of the 9000 spaces around 7000 ran (the weather was spectacularly horrible), and really it felt like too many, so I think they need to cap it at 7000 again (knowing that there is usually at least a 10% drop off in runs like this).

The conditions were tough. It was cold, wet and windy, but I felt pretty good for most of it. I was incredibly lucky to have support along the whole route. My mother in law was screaming her head off in Grantchester, I saw Mary at around the halfway mark, another friend’s mum and my amazing friends Ally and Chris were at mile 11 (when I hit the wall in epic fashion, so thank goodness for them. They were the only reason I didn’t stop to walk) and then my friends Pete, Rachel, Nick and Claire were waiting just before mile 12. Now Claire is an INCREDIBLE endurance runner, and when she screams at you to keep going, you bloody well do it. Although which evil sod put Elizabeth Way Bridge at Mile 12? At this point I was seriously in trouble, wheezing so loudly that I was apologising to the runners around me. Then I spotted Barry, another Ely Runner, around 20 metres in front of me, so I did everything I could to catch him up, knowing that he would be able to help me to the finish line, which the flipping legend of a man did.

I don’t think I have ever pushed my body so hard in a run, and when I saw that my time began with 1.3… I think I went a bit into shock. There’s nothing like a marshal putting out a hand and saying “are you ok?” to make you wonder just how blimmin’ awful you look. But with my toes burning from what would turn out to be some pretty epic blisters, I picked up my medal in a daze, caught up with Lauren at the Progress tent (who had smashed the 90 minute mark with 1:29:45) and then saw Ally and Chris running up to me, a box of brownies in their hands and the offer of a coffee, before they made me leave to go and get some warmer clothes from my sister’s house as my lips were turning blue. I feel at this point I should mention the mistake OSB made with the bag collection queues and lack of foils for runners. The conditions were pretty dangerous for people to be standing in the cold for that long, but they admitted the mistake really quickly, and are already looking at ways to improve it next year. And this was the only negative in what was a brilliant, brilliant race. The marshals and volunteers were the absolute best I have experienced, as were the people who came out to support runners. Doing that in such bleak weather made them all heroes in my eyes.

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When I got the text to say I had run 1:35:37, I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t to be honest. I never, ever imagined I could be that kind of runner, and I don’t know if I’ll ever achieve something like that again. And the best thing is, I don’t care. I didn’t run that race to achieve that time. It was just a brilliant side effect. I know I put in so much hard work over the last three months and set myself up as well as I can, but I also enjoyed the race (well, maybe not the last two miles), and that was my goal.

As for the pub trip afterwards, getting to know Joanna and Pip was just brilliant, and I convinced Ally and Chris to come along too, so I was surrounded by awesome, awesome people. Even though we came close to gnawing our own arms off thanks to an hour long wait for food, it was the best couple of hours I could have hoped for, and played a part in making March 5th 2017 a day I will never, ever forget.

Same time next year?

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The Making of an Athlete

So, if you’re signed up to the Cambridge Half Marathon or are my Facebook friend or follower on Twitter, you may have seen that I am now the “sponsored athlete” for the Cambridge Half Marathon.

Oh sweet Barack on a Bicycle.

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I am seriously going to miss this guy. Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters.

I’ll  be honest. When I first saw the email I wasn’t sure whether or not to accept. It’s one thing to back out of a race because you’re not fully fit, are nervous about a recent injury or simply don’t fancy it. It’s another to back out when people have invested a lot of time and money in you and your race plan. In other words – you just don’t do that. So if I said yes, bar a serious injury, I would lose my get out of jail free card. But after having to back out of last year’s Cambridge Half, I realised that I would be crazy to pass up this opportunity to redeem myself. As part of the package I get the following from Progress:

1 x 60 min new physiotherapy assessment including run analysis
6 x 30 min follow-up physiotherapy sessions
8 x 30 min sport massage sessions
8 x 30 min AlterG sessions
Saucony Trainers, shorts and a t-shirt

Not to mention working with Lauren Bradshaw, a Specialist Sports Physiotherapist with a half marathon PB of 1:31. What kind of an idiot would say no to that?

When I told my friend Ally (theemiddlesis to the outside world) that I had accepted the prize but that I was somewhat nervous (read: bricking it) about losing the option to bail, she pointed out that that when I have had to bail in the past, I have absolutely hated it. She reminded me of last year’s tears on the finish line when all of my Ely Runner clubmates finished high on PBs, and I was like that tearful drunk at a party bringing everyone else down with them.

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Gif from Giphy

Blooming heck that girl knows how to give you some perspective.

Since agreeing to the role of “sponsored athlete” it has to be pointed out that my running hasn’t exactly been stress free. I have a mysterious recurring issue with my foot that despite physio and osteo appointments, rest and excessive amounts of yoga and foam rolling has failed to really disappear, and I also had a more than ropey result at my first ever Frostbite 5 miler on Sunday. I just got it a bit wrong and blew up in the last mile, my head giving up before my stomach for once (which I suppose makes a nice change) and the last 750 metres turned into an embarrassing walk/run mess. I was so disappointed with myself, but I have never managed to recover when I stop to walk. When my head gives up, that’s it, and it continues to do so for the rest of the run. I managed a time of 36:39, but I should be capable of something closer to 35.

But I know I need to be kinder to myself. I haven’t competed for a while due to this reason, my foot was still a bit grumbly and the terrain wasn’t an easy one. If I heard anyone else berating themselves after a race the way I did I would point out all of the positives and tell them that they were being really unfair on themselves. I suppose at least realising this is a step in the right direction? Right?

And then yesterday, Stacy and I were reunited on the track with the one and only Baldrick. It’s been a while since we’ve been able to have him with us on the track, and the last time Stacy and I trained together a fortnight ago we had an absolute shocker. I felt like it was the first time I had ever run, and I nearly stopped three times on a 400m rep. 400m for crying out loud! And it wasn’t just me – Stace had the exact same experience. But then yesterday, we both smashed the session (a mix of distances), and I ran my fastest ever 400m (although it is obviously a hell of a lot easier when you’re only doing one rep rather than 6). I feel like Alan is my lucky charm, and things are now on the up again. He’s going to get a training plan in place, and together with Progress (I had my first appointment with them this morning – I’ll post about that once my calves have recovered!) I’m going to do my utmost to wipe 2016 from the slate (aren’t we all really) and make 2017 my running year.

Wish me luck.

 

 

Finding Focus for the Cambridge Half

Sometimes, things don’t always go to plan.

Take the NYE 10k. I had a miserable time of it, and it really threw me. It was mentally and physically difficult, and I felt weak and my confidence around future long races took a serious hit, leading me to doubt whether or not I even wanted to run long distance anymore. It felt like the joy of it had completely gone.

This Sunday (the 28th February), it’s the Cambridge Half Marathon. As training, I’ve done one 7 mile run, two 8 mile runs and two 11 mile runs. These training sessions have been spread out and sporadic, not helped by the three weeks of training I missed due to the awful cold-afflicted time I had of it at the end of January. Most of these runs have been tougher than I’m used to, because at the moment I’m probably only at around 65% of my peak fitness. This also means that I’ve picked up niggles along the way, including a “grumpy” knee and a pulled groin as recently as last week. All of this piles up so that I stress out and run in a tense, stiff posture, making myself more likely to get hurt. It’s a vicious cycle. In addition to this, I’ve been struggling with my hydration due to medication, and this weekend have also developed an allergic reaction to something that has covered parts of my body – including my feet – in a sore, uncomfortable rash. Awesome (and attractive).

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So I admit that I’ve been tempted to bail on the Half on numerous occasions. At times it felt like the universe was telling me to. I knew a PB would be hard to come by, and I was worried about doing myself more damage on a long run that I was unprepared for. But then something awful happened that made me snap out of my funk and regain my focus.

A fellow local runner and blogger Marcus Gynn lost his fight against cancer on the 11th February. Now I know Marcus for a variety of reasons. My other half grew up with him, and had always told me stories about Marcus, mostly based around his Duke of Edinburgh shenanigans, including being chased by a bull in his bright orange high vis jacket, and setting fire to himself so that his fellow DofE buddies had to roll him down a hill to put him out while he laughed his head off. Since then I’d bumped into Marcus at a variety of races, due to his sheer love of running (his medal haul was pretty epic) and the fact that we ran at a really similar pace. I remember how tickled my OH was when he saw this race from the 2014 Cambridge Half and Marcus and I were the only runners in the photo:

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Marcus would have loved to be running the Cambridge Half again, and here I was whinging that it was hard. Of course it’s bloody hard sometimes. If it wasn’t we’d all be nipping off for a 13 mile run before work. So I’ve completely reassessed why I run. I started doing it because like Marcus, I loved it. If I’m not at peak fitness I don’t have to push for a PB. I can just enjoy it. So that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to run with my friend Rachel, soak up the atmosphere, and run it for Marcus. I’ve sorted my niggles out with some epic osteopathy sessions with miracle-worker Melissa at Spritely Osteopathy and with an intense sports massage from Megan at the FAST Clinic (damn my stubborn glutes!) and I’m trying to get a handle on this rash. But if I have to slather my feet in Vaseline or even crawl this run, I’m going to do it. Unless anyone’s up for giving me a piggyback?

An awesome Twitterer has also set up an account in Marcus’ memory, @runformarcus1. The aim is to raise as much money for Marcus’ family’s chosen charities as possible, and in return you get a wristband with #runformarcus on it that you can wear on all your runs so that a part of him is always with you, cheering you on. If you’d like to donate £5 (to cover the cost of the band plus ensure a decent bit for the charities) or more you can do so here. Please also have a read of his blog if you can. It’s a joy to read and his bravery in the face of his illness is awe-inspiring.

I’m going to #RunForMarcus on Sunday. I really hope you’ll join me.

 

Sometimes it’s OK to Walk (or Run) Away

Some of you may have realised that I have a tendency to overcommit myself. Whether it’s making cakes at 10pm, leading running groups for beginners, volunteering at parkrun, hosting cake clubs, learning Italian, attempting to add a couple of hundred words to my novel in the evening, blogging(!), making cards/cross stitches/bauble wreaths/arm knitted scarves (yes, really) for people and probably more that I can’t remember as my brain is in a permanent low state of frazzlement (yes that’s now a word). I often get asked how I do as much as I do and sometimes I don’t really know. I guess some weeks some of these things take a back seat to others and I try my best to prioritise whilst still – most importantly – finding time for my family and friends.

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Standard Monday evening

I like to help people and I’m awful at saying no regardless of circumstances. And I really hate to let people down once I’ve committed to something.  But mostly I think I have quite a bad case of FOMO. I like to sign up to things and say yes to things that interest me because what if they’re brilliant and I’m not there? So earlier this year I signed up to the Great Eastern Run which took place on Sunday. But I didn’t run it.

If you’ve ever done a big-ish run before you’ll know that you have to sign up for these things pretty far in advance. For example, the Cambridge Half is at the end of February but entries open next week. And we all know about the London Marathon timings thanks to a recent influx of status updates and tweets of joy or frustration from those trying to get a place. And having that amount of time can be a really good thing as it gives you the chance to formulate a cracking training plan. But on the flip side you always sign up to these things knowing you may get injured during training or come down ill a few days beforehand. Those are the breaks. But I wasn’t ill or injured. I simply wasn’t in the right mental state or indeed the best physical state to run 13 miles, and that wasn’t an easy thing to accept.

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Marathon disappointments from some awesome Twitter types I follow

Now I know I can run 13 miles. I’ve done it a few times and although it’s not easy I’m physically fit enough to do it. But I want to do every race to the best of my ability, and so much of my training recently has been on interval and speedwork, leaving distance training to take a back seat. About 6 weeks ago I was starting to get nervous about the run, and I decided to talk to Alan to see what he thought I should do. But he raised the subject before I had the chance. He told me he didn’t think I should do it because I wasn’t quite in the right head space, which would make me more likely to have a bad run which would set me back mentally and also put me at risk of picking up an injury. Naturally my competitive instinct at that moment was to protest, to claim that of course I could do it. I thought I was letting myself down by backing out, not to mention my friend Elaine who had also signed up for it with the understanding that we’d be emotionally supporting each other to the finish line. But so much of the relationship between a runner and their coach is based on trust. If Alan gave me some advice and I then ignored it, then why should he bother? Plus can you imagine how insufferable he would be if I did get an injury? So we made a deal – give this one a miss with the aim to smash the Cambridge Half in February. And let’s face it – Alan has been right about an awful lot recently.

So this weekend I went seriously easy on myself and did very little. On Saturday evening Pete and I went for a speedy run around Ely in frankly gorgeous weather,  managing a chatty 5.4 miles in 40:30 which would put me in a comfortable 10k PB position. And then on Sunday morning I did Zumba with Elaine, laughing most of the way through the class at her antics before going to coffee with her where we put the world to rights for over and hour.

Scrolling through Facebook and Twitter later that day I did feel a pang of envy at those who had done the run, but I knew I had made the right decision. Sometimes you have to walk (or indeed run) away from something because it’s the right thing to do at that moment, even if the competitive part of you is yelling at you to just do it anyway and sod the consequences. Plus I have the Town & Gown 10k in two weeks, and after my run with Pete I’m now looking forward to it, feeling strong and confident that my chances of a good run are high.

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Sometimes I have to admit that my coach knows better than I do and that it’s OK to have an incredibly lazy weekend where you leave an indentation in the armchair because you’ve read 150 pages of your book and not moved for two hours except to reach for another chocolate. Sometimes you just need to do nothing.

And ok, so I did bake biscuits on Sunday afternoon, but they were easy ones, honest!