Running Happy

This seems like such a simplistic title for a blog post, but it needs no zhooshing up (yes, that IS how you spell it, I saw it on Pointless). For the last few months I have been running happy and it is an absolute revelation.

I love running, and I hope this comes across in this blog. But on the odd occasion (ahem) I’ve sucked the joy out of the thing I love by constantly pushing myself to my physical limits, dreading races and putting so much pressure on myself that I wondered whether or not running was the best thing for my mental health.

What a mess.

So for the last few races, I’ve taken the foot off the gas and slowed down so that I can enjoy the process of running, and it has been nothing short of joyful. I’ve run chatty half marathons with friends, paced some of the juniors I coach at 10ks, run with kids at parkrun and have looked like a giddy idiot in all of the photos:

Grinning 1

Grinning 2

As well as making me happy, this also enables me to encourage others, and as PBs start to become a bit of a rarity for me, helping someone else to achieve theirs gives me the exact same high.

I’ve also been doing more casual longer runs. In the past I’ve always pushed hard on longer runs (despite knowing that you shouldn’t hit race pace in training), but I’m adding more run commutes and runs to parkrun in to my schedule (around 5.5 miles along the riverside from Ely to Littleport), and took part in a steady 8-mile Ely Runners Sunday trail run yesterday, which had to have been one of the most gorgeous runs I’ve ever done:

Easter Trail Run

Photo courtesy of trail runner extraordinaire Kyle Armstrong

At the beauty of it all is, when I do feel like pushing myself, my speed isn’t suffering for this new attitude. I paced a junior at a 5k last week, and we crossed the line in 20:52, and I felt like I had a decent amount still left in the tank after encouraging her the whole way round. Perhaps (gasp!) this new, more relaxed attitude will actually help me?

I originally started long distance running to try something new and after a few weeks I realised I had found my sport, the one that makes me feel strong, that helps me clear my mind and one that I actually happen to be pretty good at. But most of all I did it because it made me feel happy. Now, by actually slowing it down from time to time, I’m allowing myself to be in the moment and marvel and this bloody brilliant thing that my body allows me to do. There will come a time (hopefully in the far, far distant future) when I won’t be able to run any more, so I intend to be grateful for the here and nowΒ  and continue to focus on the pure joy of running.

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 sureΒ 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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Keeping it in the Family

An awesome thing happened today! For the first time ever, I trained with my big sister (National Masters 400m Champion if you will) Stacy. Although I obviously went through my athletics “phase” as a kid (i.e. an opportunity to hang out with my cooler older sister with the odd stumble over a hurdle or belly flop over a high jump bar thrown in), this was the first time we had trained together as fully-fledged grown ups (give or take). I was almost as excited as this girl:

Happy Jumping Athlete
So I turned up at the track today at 1:15pm, and the weather was gorgeous except for the wind that was going to be driving us back on the last 100 metres of each 300 metre lap we’d be doing. We would be doing 6 of these with a 4 minute break in between each one, which meant we had to push ourselves pretty hard but make sure we had enough in the tank to do 6 reps. Pacing myself over shorter sprint-type distances is still something I’m learning, but I like to think I’m improving.

After a fairly lengthy warm up (Alan never approves of rushing this) Stacy and I were set up to do staggered starts with Stacy setting off first and then my following when she hit the halfway mark. I’ve never seen Stacy run so close up before and it was fascinating. As a middle distance runner she’s much bouncier than me as she runs on her toes (as opposed to my mid/heel striking depending on how tired I am) and it made her look really powerful on the track. She also drives back her arms SO far which gives her her extreme power. Just look at the photo in this article for evidence of this.

Now as any regular reader of this blog will know, my self doubt has been a real problem with my running. There must be times when Alan wants to do this to me:

Get Happy

But having Stacy there seemed to change something in me. I tried to explain my thoughts to Alan about this and not sure I was very articulate, but I’ll try and do it here. I think if I’m running with someone who is a similar runner to me, I’ll try and compete with them and run at their pace rather than at mine, burning out too soon and generally having a miserable time of it. But with Stacy, I know that trying to run at her pace is a fool’s errand. She has been at the top of her game for years, and probably has enough titles and medals to build a small house. I’m never going to be able to run at her pace over these distances. So instead I just tried to run at MY best, rather than at someone else’s.

And it worked. Alan expected me to run 300m laps at 58 or 59 seconds, and instead I was coming in at 55 or 56 seconds compared to Stacy’s 51 or 52. What was brilliant was talking to Stacy in between laps, and seeing that even someone at her level finds these sessions tough. We talked about how we both find lap 4 the worst one, knowing that it’s near the end but not quite near enough to push through the pain barrier as we still have 2 more after that to get through. She also told me about “Louis’ Last Lap”, so named after someone she knows who always thinks of the second to last lap as the last one so that he can drive through it and imagine he’s finishing his laps. Because after all, however hard you’ve found the session, you can always get through the last lap. And I got through it by digging deep and coming in a fraction over 54 seconds. Who wants to take anything left in the tank home with them eh?

Listening to the banter between Stacy and Alan all the way through the session kept my spirits high, and having Alan tell me at the end that he thought it was the best I’d ever run was an incredible feeling. He told me I looked like the “real deal”, which has to be one of the best compliments I’ve ever received. I had managed to do all 6 laps without slipping into a mental funk and without losing seconds off my time. I enjoyed the session SO much. There’s just one problem – I’m going to want to keep running with Stacy, so I really hope she doesn’t plan to change her workout routine any time soon! I suppose there’s a risk of her becoming my new dummy(!), but I think she just inspires me to be the best athletic version of myself I can be. Roll on the next session.
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