Anyone can play guitar…or run

When I was in secondary school (that’s high school to most of the English speaking world), my physical education teacher used to be well-known for being a complete cop-out when it came to giving end of term grades. Basically, everyone, unless they were really exceptional, got a B+. I suppose he figured that if he gave everyone an A he would start to be scrutinised to see how much thought he was actually putting into his grading system. On the other hand, a B+ was not the kind of grade anyone could complain about.

Fortunately, I was really exceptional and managed to escape his extraordinary capacity for sitting on the fence. That’s why he gave me a C.

Fast forward fifteen years or so and I am well on my way to becoming a halfway decent, middle of the pack runner.

But my experience in school has made me well aware that starting to exercise can be very daunting when it is not something you feel confident about doing, or when you don’t have any experience (or worse still, when you had a bad experience with sports at school).

I have seen a lot of articles online about how to start running, but too many of them seem to involve some kind of commodification of what is essentially a free activity…

So let me state this clearly: running does not need to be an expensive hobby. Although it might help, it is not necessary to have a fitness tracking watch, and running gels and electrolyte drinks only become more important once you get up to longer distances.

Even getting a good pair of trainers can wait until later. The most important thing when starting out is simply to leave your house and get out into the world.

So here is my special secret formula for how to start running.

Are you ready?

Here it comes…

Just. Start. Running…

…rummage through your drawers, find any old T-shirt you have that you feel you can wear in public, get your most comfortable pair of trainers, pull on a neglected pair of shorts or trackie bottoms, and leave your house (remembering to take your door key with you of course). Walk to the end of the road, and then start power walking. Up the pace until you naturally can’t walk any faster without breaking into a gentle jog. Ignore your paranoid inner-voice…

…those people are looking at me, they’re judging me because I’m running and they can see that I have a gut!

Actually, they probably don’t care about you. At all.

Either that, or they’re jealous that you’re getting out there and doing it.

Maintain the gentle jog for as long as you feel you are able to without having a heart attack. Listen to your body.

Then walk again until you get your breath back. (This is called active recovery.)

Then repeat as many times as you feel able to do so.

It really doesn’t matter if your first attempt is less than a kilometre. You may not even enjoy the feeling that it gives you straightaway. You might, in fact, hate being out of breath, lightheaded and sweating. But I guarantee that once you have come home, showered and rewarded yourself with a drink and a cheeky little snack, you will be positively glowing.

A word about the photo: I took this on holiday in Cornwall. I went for an early morning run along the coastal path to seek out the lighthouse. (You can just about see it in the distance.) All of the scenery photos on this blog were taking using a simple point-and-shoot smart phone camera during runs. This is one of the many joys of getting out there.

 

The three things I take on a run

For runs of an hour or less, I don’t take water. Yes, hydration is important, but it can become something of a neurosis, and most people should be able to easily be out for this length of time without needing a drink. Plus, carrying a water bottle is a pain in the arse!

I normally have a glass of water when I get back though, and either a chocolate milkshake (this is always being recommended as a recovery drink in Runner’s World) or a home-made smoothie. (I have a frozen smoothie mix from the supermarket, which I blend with apple juice. It has kale, spinach, mango and kiwi fruits in it. I like it because it has fruits but the kale and the spinach balance it out so that it produces less of a whopping sugar spike!)

So coming back to my three items, number one is my door key, handily detached from the other keys so that it doesn’t jangle with every step.

The second is a five pound note; this is my emergency money. I like this because it is the new plastic style note, and is therefore more sweat resistant than the older notes. (Yes, I really do sweat so much that even the stuff in my pockets isn’t safe!) I know that this won’t help anyone who is not from the UK, but having a contactless card will also help to avoid carrying coins, which, again, will jangle incessantly as you run, attracting all sorts of unwanted attention from people in the park. I prefer the note though because you can spend it in shops that haven’t yet joined the contactless revolution.

(Funnily enough, the only thing I have ever had to buy with my emergency fiver was a drink.)

And that brings me to my third item, which is a bit of a cheat because it’s my mobile (+headphones). This is for emergencies and music, and Zombies, Run!

The Zombies running app tracks my stats, just like any other running app, but it also immerses you in a post-apocalyptic story, set to your own music, as you run. I turn on “chasers”, which means that occasionally I get a warning that zombies are closing in on me, and unless I temporarily increase my speed by a given percentage (adjustable in the settings), they will catch me. This is good for HIIT training, but a bit of a pain when I am waiting at the traffic lights.

(It even has a groaning zombie sound effect which is very disturbing on a deserted early morning run.)

For runs that are longer than an hour, I do need to take my mobile hydration system! This is a running pack with a “bladder” and a tube (ok, a straw) so you can sip little and often. My bladder has a one litre capacity, which is good for about a two hour distance.

It looks really cool.*

The little backpack it comes with can also carry a few extra items, including a light rain jacket (a must on long runs, because in England, the weather will switch from pleasant to chucking it down in twenty minutes or so), and you can use the side pockets for energy gels and hand wipes (the salt content of your sweat really starts to build up at this distance).

Apart from that it’s just a hyper-awareness of how silly I look, a nagging sense of self-doubt and a general awareness of my own inadequacy as a human being. (Whoops, I meant a positive attitude, and a sense of wonder at the ever-changing landscape around me.)

*It really, really doesn’t look cool.

(This post was written in response to the word prompt, “jangle”.)

The ups and downs of preparing for an ultra

So, Race to the Stones is in just over a week’s time and I am wonderfully under-prepared as always. Of course now there’s nothing I can do about it. There isn’t enough time to cram in any serious training. I may do some shorter distance runs over the weekend but basically the taper needs to start early next week; any later than that would be an act of self-sabotage.

I am only going to do 50k of course. Let’s keep it real. I’m not one of those nutters doing the whole 100k. Then I’ve opted to camp over because I’m hoping it’s going to be epic. (I have an image of the atmosphere of a music festival campsite in my head.)

I haven’t planned my lift home, I’ve probably not read two or three important emails that have gone out from the organisers, and that’s before we even get into my approach to the official training plan.

The line I’m telling myself is that I’ve done a marathon distance now and the longest run on the training plan is only a half marathon distance. But I’ve only done it once, and then there are all those smaller runs and cross training sessions I conveniently forgot about.

I think the bottom line is that training for a marathon or an ultra takes an awful lot of time. That’s what people don’t seem to tell you. There’s a lot of talk about the commitment required but it doesn’t really get the point across. So let me set the record straight: training for an ultra will take up half of every weekend, and most of your evenings, for months on end. If, like me, you faff about a bit on a Saturday morning before getting out of the house, then you won’t start your run until mid to late morning. Then, if the run is taking you four hours plus, you won’t finish until mid to late afternoon, and that’s before you’ve even showered or eaten, something you might not do straight away because you will have monged out on the sofa for an hour or so once you get through the door.

Then you’ll be too knackered to do anything for the rest of the day, and you will ache the next day, meaning you’ll probably do less than you would have done on the Sunday as well.

And that is why I’ve found myself not quite so crazy about doing every single one of the evening runs as well. Did you know that the official training plan for Race to the Stones recommends six days of exercise a week?

How many times can you answer co-workers’ question about your plan for the evening or weekend with “I’m going for a run” before you turn into a running bore?

The truth is, I’m looking forward to breathing a sigh of relief once the event is over. I then hope to re-assess my approach to running. Am I really a distance person? My best times have been on 5ks, 10ks and the Reading half marathon.

Is this what they talk about when they say don’t burn yourself out with over-training? But how can I be burnt out if I haven’t bothered following half the training plan?

It reminds me of a detail from a book I’ve been reading lately, Running with the Kenyans. The author points out that they basically live the “eat, run, sleep, repeat” mantra, and that’s why they’re so damn good, whereas Westerners tend to pigeon-hole running into a slot on an already packed schedule.

We have so much shit to do every single day of the week: eat breakfast, turn up to work, hoover the house, renew your driving licence, go to the pub, discover whatever show someone has told you is the new, most epic, must-see show ever made since Game of Thrones…

Running is supposed to be a break from all of that, not another item on the to-do list.

And I’m sure that if all goes well on the day, as soon as the buzz starts kicking in, I’ll remember why I do this and start loving it all over again. Then I’ll come home all excited and sign up to another one.

(I’ll keep you posted.)

Dropping out of my first marathon (Part two)

Well, first off, that South Downs medal you can see in the picture was begged for me out of pity by my lovely fiancé. My misery at having dropped out of the race was compounded when I saw my running buddy with a fresh looking new technical shirt:

“Why did this have to be a race pack with a running shirt? I love running shirts. It’s not fair.”

Such was the extent of my feeling sorry for myself and wanting a race pack I hadn’t earned.

I wanted it.

I didn’t want it.

In the end, the decision was taken for me, possibly just to shut me up*.

So now that we’ve cleared that up, the other medal is for the Littledown marathon, which I did complete. It wasn’t pretty, and I walked up to 40% of it by my estimation but this is my first marathon medal I can wear without feeling like a fraud.

The Littledown marathon is an excellent event, 26 laps of a flat one mile course, plus a little 0.2 add-on at the start. This is one to go for if you’re attempting a PB, and the support of the running community there is amazing.

That said, to start with I thought they were going to be mega-serious, and I mean MEGA-serious. When we arrived and registered, we were all given two timing chips, one for each shoe. We’d never seen this before so we asked why there were two. With a completely straight face, we were told that when there is only a chip on one shoe, it could skew the timing if the foot without the chip were to cross the finish line first. Wow! If that kind of split second timing made a difference to my runs, I certainly wouldn’t be writing a blog called “the half arsed runner”.

Settling into the realisation that I would almost be the last finisher in a race of about 60 people, I hung back, trying to pace myself as the pack bolted. My running buddy was aiming for a marathon PB of 4h45m and my plan was to try and keep pace with him for as long as I could. I blasted my most upbeat tunes and tried to stay positive as another hot day suppressed my energy. (The last three races I have done have been sweltering.) There was no way I was dropping out of this one unless I collapsed.

It was around mile fifteen that I started walking a good third of each lap, a ratio that increased right up to nineteen or twenty, when it was pretty much walking laps with little bouts of jogging when I felt up to it. (Ok, let’s be honest, it was when I was too embarrassed to walk past the spectators.)

Around mile nineteen something else happened. I started chatting to another runner (walker). Disaster! Now my walking was legitimised. If she was walking, then it was okay for me to walk. (I probably should have sussed that she wasn’t taking it too seriously when she stopped to do a little dance for her supporters each lap; she was the very spirit of half arsed running – not caring too much about your time but loving getting out there.)

By mile 22 I had made peace with the fact that I wasn’t actually running anymore, and I saw yet more competitors walking, defeated by the heat.

And so it was that I came in at 5h28m, a time I only achieved by laying a fast fifteen mile foundation with my running buddy (who lapped me twice later in the race).

The dancing runner fell short of the six-hour cut-off point but they kept it open for her, and for two other ladies who were really struggling with the distance. In the end, they stayed on for an extra hour and were very gracious about it. (It really was a good event.)

Two full days on and I’m still aching. I have no money for a massage and I didn’t get any food in, so I’ve been eating crap and seizing up behind my office desk.

But the marathon remains the benchmark of distance running, the completion of which serves as an entry point, a way of being taken seriously and of being accepted into the community. And if someone whose idea of a recovery meal is a Maccy Ds drive-through can do it, then pretty much anyone who puts in the training should be able to shuffle their way to the finish line.

 

*(Yes, I have realised that the wording at the bottom of the medal means I could legitimately wear it as a half-marathon medal, but how low would that be?)

Dropping out of my first marathon (Part one)

01/07/2017

As normal as it is to have at least some level of anticipation about running a full marathon, tomorrow holds a particular significance for me; with the memory of me dropping out of my first marathon attempt two weeks ago still fresh in my mind, I know a couple of things.

First and foremost, that was the first time I have ever dropped out of a race, and just the very fact of having done so opens that particular door up. Having dropped out of an official race once, will it be easier to do so a second time? It feels as if a precedent has been set.

It was a running buddy who signed me up for tomorrow. He was with me for most of the race I quit on before and rightly intuited that I would want to give it another go as soon as possible but will I be able to deal with two failures in such a short space of time if something goes wrong again?

To be fair, the conditions on the day were horrendous, and I would be surprised if a single runner there got a PB. The particular event was the South Downs marathon held on 17th June, and it was the hottest day of the year so far. The most common word I overheard among the other competitors afterwards was “brutal”. The stops ran out of bottles of water and it later transpired that they had planned for two bottles per runner but that some runners had been drinking one, putting one in their packs and then pouring the other over their heads. I can’t say I’m entirely unsympathetic to that, even though I was feeling too guilty to take two bottles at the first stop (something I had well and truly got over by the second stop).

On top of that, apart from The Hurt, this was the hilliest course I have ever run on. I was expecting hills, but…(fill in your expletives here!) I think it wasn’t much more than ten miles in that many of the runners gave up all pretence of actually trying to run the whole course and were unashamedly walking every hill.

I promptly joined them.

Another thing that got me psychologically was my lack of tunes. I use Spotify on my phone when running and all my playlists are there. My rock/metal playlist, my trance playlist, my half marathon playlist, and so on, all carefully selected for different moods and distances, and all wonderfully out of signal on the day. Apparently it didn’t occur to me that the South Downs might not have great 4G reception.

I have run a race without music before, a 10k when headphones were banned. They’re technically banned at most races, but at this one it was strictly enforced, and I was one sulky, grumpy child when I first realised that I wouldn’t get away with keeping my phones in. However, as the race went on, I found myself starting to enjoy the quiet as I broke away from other runners and ran huge stretches with only my breath for company. At the risk of letting myself get too hipsterish it was almost meditational.

This was a full 26.2 miles though, damn it! And some banging tunes would have really helped me out.

Of course, everything above is an excuse for my own lack of preparation, setting myself up for failure. The heat was unfortunate, but I should have trained more assiduously for hills. My home town is mostly flat and hills weren’t something I particularly sought out during my training. In fact, I work on the third floor of an office and I take the lift far too often, telling myself that I don’t want to sweat under the (seemingly permanently) cranked up heating system in my work shirt.

Truth to be told, I didn’t actually check the course profile before the race, so I must have been the only runner there to whom the incredibly hilly nature of THE SOUTH DOWNS came as a surprise (!)

And why was I relying on phone reception for tunes if music is so important to my run? I could have taken a back-up MP3 player or just downloaded the tunes directly onto my phone.

It all shows me that my approach to running so far has been too casual. I have been running outside for about three years now and it is only this year that I have started stepping up the distance beyond a 10k. Basically I signed up for the Reading Half Marathon in a moment of madness after a run that went particularly well last autumn, and it forced me to do longer distances in training runs. That went well, and for the first time, the weight really started dropping off, and with a time of just over two hours (damn that toilet break), I was fast becoming a halfway decent middle of the pack runner. Therefore, it was pure excitement that made me sign-up to marathons and an ultra-marathon later in the year (more to come on that).

But this “just get out the door, that’s the main thing, who needs all the gimmicks, like energy gels and fit bits” attitude won’t cut it anymore. If I drop out of another race, a growing sense of imposter syndrome’s going to be setting in big time, and it will be my own fault – for not taking seriously what other runners put a lot more care and thought into.

I feel very lucky not to have been injured yet, and as my distances go up, I feel as if I’m starting to train on borrowed time in this regard.

At least I’ve started foam rolling after races now!

I just need to get off my arse and learn some warm-ups as well.

Could I have finished the South Downs by walking the last six miles instead of dropping out somewhere just past twenty? Probably. Would I have got heat stroke if I had gone any further without shade? Probably!

If I want to keep running I have to develop the ability to distinguish an excuse from an actual learning point, and adjust my preparations accordingly, but most of all, I need to pay the sport the respect it deserves!