One last time…

Robin Hood weekend has always been one of the fixtures of my year, a date around which my year is oriented. I love autumn; and that morning in my old home town by the Trent (along with the bright mistiness of the Lakes) epitomises everything which is so special about it.

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Embankment

And now I find myself sitting here on The Night Before Race Day, checking my kit, planning my timings, and with a unique and special buzz of excitement. But this year it is tinged with more than the usual pre-race uncertainties, and a tinge of sadness lurking.

My rituals will be the same. I will get up at work-o-clock early; drive down an uncommonly deserted M1; queue to park with my head-music playing; walk into the arena to pee, check out the gear tent and buy a polystyrene cup of tea; pee again; change into my race-kit and deposit my bag; pee one more time in a hedge; jog up and down by the Trent as the mist lifts and the rowers glide past the swans; one final pee (or attempt) against a majestic autumnal tree; and then join my start-pen, as late as I possibly can to keep my body – and my heart – warm.

When the gun goes there will be a big cheer but I will be silently inside my own head. This year’s song will be different.

And it’s a different plan.

  • Slow Mile 1, slow, safe, don’t ruin this
  • Lovely familiar bastard hills to Mile 3.5; low gear, small stride, rhythm (pray, this 50th time, that I don’t have to walk for the first time); recover, slow
  • Mile 4-9 “Pace-Not-Race”
  • Mile 10-12 steady
  • Mile 12-onwards….. see what my body is saying

For the last 18 months it’s been saying “Stop. Enough. You’re hurting me.”  Not for the first time; but this time it is insistent. And this time I can’t run through it; this time in fact I can barely run. So this time the deal we’ve made is final: I’m allowed one more, and this time really is the last time.

  • Mile 13.1   I honestly have no idea how I will feel, what state I will be in.

And afterwards? I can’t even think about that right now…

I want to enjoy that unique buzz; enjoy my rituals; enjoy the course and the crowds and the bands and the autumn morning run; enjoy the last mile.

The. Last. Mile.

 

Best check my kit one more time.

POSTSCRIPT

Well, I did it; and I did it ok; and I didn’t stop once. Like Dr Who and his two hearts: my pump did really well, but the deep emotional one was both happy and… pained.

I warmed up well, paced the first mile perfectly (slowly) and properly, safely managed the hills to 3.5 miles. The middle section I kept my steady rhythm, bit of a dip on the hill at Wollaton Park; and then the run in, flat terrain flat pace. A charming and impressive girl, Emily, from a local ED clinic called First Steps ran up to me just before 11 miles and commented on my B-eat vest and we chatted (or she did, I was labouring too much), and then it was 12. Time for The Last Mile.

I felt ok, legs were fine, stamina fine; just the needle-almost-in-the-red to manage. But I let my stride out; and I ran, allowed myself to run. I was feeling it as I passed the full-marathon split and remembered the emotion of making that turn; I was feeling it as I turned off the Embankment onto the grass finish; and I was feeling it as I ran up to the big yellow clock, and stopped my watch, and stopped – for the last time. It was over. It’s over.

I didn’t want to leave, yet, so I sat on the grass and watched people coming in. It was over. A huge sob came up, and I had to cover my face.

But here’s the punchline. It was a personal-worst (as I knew it would be), by over 13 minutes since my last Half in May, and over an hour over my PB. 13 minutes. That means I have lost a minute-a-mile, in just four months. I can’t argue with that. My body has said “Enough! You’re hurting me!” and this time I have to listen.

So I stood up, collected my bag and T-shirt, changed, had a snack, and went back to the car and drove home wearing my medal. Alone, as I do.

Did. Used to.

 

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50 Half marathons… & the end of the road

Well, its has been a struggle, but I have made it to the startline of this year’s Robin Hood Half Marathon. This will be my 50th Half Marathon. It will also be my 19th at Robin Hood (yes, I’m a chronic repeater!) and 21st year at the event overall including two full marathons.

If you have read my recent posts you will know that I have struggled in recent years. and the preparation for this one has been hard, both physically and emotionally.

So I have decided that this will also my last event: my body is telling me it has had enough. In fact the ‘training’ for this has been a battle to keep running at all, to find the slowest pace I can manage – barely a jog/trot – which has still proven to be painful and gruelling. The run will undoubtedly be my slowest ever, and my only goal is to manage to do my 50th.

Because it will be my last run I have decided to make a late try for some charity sponsorship (late by virtue of the fact that until yesterday evening I wasn’t sure I could do it). In the past I have raised money for cancer research many times, for mountain rescue, for Oxfam, for St Gemma’s and Martin House hospices, and for child bereavement. Logically I should probably raise money for British Heart Foundation, but I help them in other ways.

So for this last time I have chosen B-eat Eating Disorders – See the B-eat website and my Fundraising tab above.

I chose this charity precisely because it is not fashionable or well-known: in fact in all my races and events I have only ever seen one group and two other individual B-eat runners. Yet I know many people who have struggled.

The problem remains misunderstood, often unrecognised, and poorly provided for by health services. Nobody really knows how many people are affected, but it does affect both men and women, and people of all ages and backgrounds, and their families. It is often a mental illness associated with other issues, and does NOT only affect teenage girls.

Have a look around the b-eat website, and keep an eye on your friends, family, colleagues…

And if you can sponsor me, this last time, visit my charity page.

Thanks, I really appreciate it, maybe moreso this time than ever.

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From the other side of the drinks table

This article was first published on Run Leeds on 30/08/2017.

I have had the new experience a couple of times in the last year, of acting as a volunteer at two race events. One is the Jane Tomlinson Leeds 10k in July; the other the BHF Harewood Half in February.

For the Leeds 10k the school where I work (Co-op Academy Priesthorpe in Pudsey) has manned the 4km water station by the Vue cinema park after the railway viaduct for a few years now, and we take a team of around 15 staff, family and friends. For Harewood, I ran the Half in its first two years but couldn’t this year due to injury: it’s a great event, local, and I was keen to support BHF so rather than miss it I volunteered and was deployed as a route marshall at the 11-mile point.

Having run for many years and completing many organised events, it is a fascinating and rewarding – and in some ways moving – experience to see the race and runners from the other side of the process, and to appreciate some elements of eh organisation which you might not normally even be aware of.

Firstly, there is the process. As a runner, you have your pre-race rituals, of changing, drinking, warming up, and the pause as you line up and have to wait for the start. As part of the crew, a parallel process is taking place.

Despite being local I contrived to arrive late for Harewood so I missed a briefing for stewards; instead I was driven out to the point by part of the estate staff and heard the radio exchanges about parking, medics, staffing. I found I was stationed with a guy called Steve who was part of the Raynet radio network (all volunteers again) and listened as control ran through a call-&-response through each of the radio stations. Steve was better-organised than me: instead of a flask or water-bottle he had a camping stove on the back of his pickup to make fresh coffee… which he kindly shared with me in a spare mug which he had brought ‘just in case’.

On the water station the hour before the start is frantic: those bottles don’t line up, pre-opened by magic! The polythene trays have to be opened, the individual 6-packs have to be broken, the top on the bottle has to be opened – and with sports-bottles the cap has to be popped up – before they can be laid out onto the tressle tables. Believe me, by the time you have done dozens of bottles your hands seriously ache, and runners aren’t the only ones who collect blisters on race-day!

There is then a strange, quiet lull before the race-car comes into view and the lead runners fly past… and then looking back down the road you can make out what seems like a tidal wave of humanity about to engulf you…!

And once fully under way, you can observe the many trials and emotions amongst the runners which you have experienced yourself. At the 11-mile point in the BHF Harewood Half-marathon, the runners are flagging. This is a long largely straight and slightly undulating wooded stretch running parallel to the A61, and they have battled some demanding hills prior to this point, where the end is still some way off and their energy and spirits are fading.

On the water station it is different: some pass by but most runners will try to take a drink, and what you most notice is the urgency with which they do so. Some are desperate, anxious and panic if they have to break stride, fumble the bottle, or miss their first grab and have to reach again a few yards on. Other are relaxed, have time to smile and say ‘thank you’ as they take their bottle, even slow to a stroll as they do so. Either way, it all takes place through a forest of outstretched arms, swooping hands, clashing arms; and as you try to keep up, you have an extended workout of stretching, bending, dipping, squatting and reaching as you spin back and forth between the table to grab-reach-turn-stretch and repeat as each bottle is snatched from your oustretched arm in an intense and swirling sea of faces, feet and hands. As the 10k runners reach Kirkstall and turn back to the city we move across the road and offer the remaining drinks at what is now the 7.5k point: the process and emotions are all still there, but the action slower.

John-Turner-From-The-Other-SideSometimes you catch someone’s eye, or exchange a word of encouragement or praise; some are too spaced-out to respond, some say “thankyou marshall, great work!”, others just nod or smile and you know you have done something for them, and that moment between strangers is profound. Over the years, I have been all of those runners.

But they may not all be strangers. There may be colleagues from work, other friends and runners, even social-media contacts you have never actually met but clearly recognise: some you know are running and you can look out for all of those, others appear in the field and you recognise each other in different roles – or, in the intensity of your work in the water-station, you have a momentary surprise as they spot you and call out.

And afterwards, when you have collected up all the litter and packaging and discarded bottles, you walk back to head home, passing runners going the other way in their finishers t-shirts, admiring their medals, and swapping stories of their day. And you know you have done something good.

So: a fantastic, eye-opening and rewarding experience, and one I would definitely recommend – especially if there is an event that is important to you but injury prevents you doing it.

One final tip: at a water station don’t panic to hit the very first point as that causes a logjam, the servers can’t keep up and you may have to stop – run on beyond that point and there is much more space… and those volunteers will feel wanted! Catch their eye, point or nod so they know which bottle you are going for and if you miss don’t worry, there is another volunteer just behind.

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Running into my Fourth Age… or maybe not at all

I nearly closed this blog at the turn of the year. Not because I don’t have things to say, but rather because I don’t have the bandwidth these days to set it down. In the end I renewed the fee just before midnight; maybe one more year. I am typing this on London Marathon morning, the race on the tv in the background as I repeatedly click the refresh button on the tracker.

Annus horibilis

Last year – 2016 – was generally recognised as a bad year, full of deaths of special people from David Bowie onwards, and sad, troubled world events. For me too. In 2015 I had run strongly and was even tempted to look at an autumn marathon, but in the end took the prudent decision not to risk it. But I entered 2016 very positive and primed for a big year. I ran a strong Harewood House Half (trails, tough) in February and then just a couple of weeks later the complete contrast of the flat fast Silverstone Half on the F1 circuit. I was entered for a repeat of my home Leeds Half in May followed immediately by the Liverpool Rock & Roll Half which promised to be fun, and by then I would be just a couple of runs short of my 50th Half. I had also begun to seriously consider an autumn marathon and ponder whether to repeat my favourite Robin Hood, or enter Chester as a first. And I even pondered whether it might be feasible to run two back-to-back. That’s how positive I was feeling. In March; a year ago.

Then Mum became ill. Actually she had been ill for some time but there had been no visible sign of her ovarian cancer; and by mid-April after an incredibly intense and draining few weeks, she passed away in a care home close to us, her funeral finally taking place on our wedding anniversary at the end of April. I was exhausted, physically and emotionally. (There is a positive – and life-changing – aspect to this, but I will write of that separately.)

So I lined up for Leeds Half having had only a few 20-30 minute runs in weeks. But I needed to run; I needed to cling on.

Leeds Half, and a ‘muscle strain’

I have enough base fitness, and started ok. But at about 6 miles or so I first felt it. A dull ache in my upper-left chest. And then a sharper pain down the inside of my left arm.

Yes, that; and you don’t need to be a paramedic to know what it means. In any case I have felt this before. I had a small heart-attack four years ago: it wasn’t serious, but that’s what it was. Ever since, I have had my cornflakes sprinkled with beta-blockers, aspirin, statins and blood-pressure meds; but the doctors have encouraged me to continue running, safely, including the York full marathon in September 2014, eighteen months after my episode. And, allowing for an adjustment to my pace and an acceptance that I can no longer race, I have continued to run reasonably well.

So, back at Leeds, I eased off and the pain went. I processed what I was feeling and continued to run. We do that, don’t we, we runners: we continue to run though we know we are hurting ourselves. As I continued to run and felt ok my pace picked back up… and so did the pains. So I eased off, and repeated that cycle a few times to the finish. Ironically the official race pic of me is my best ever: taken from low down with Leeds Town Hall in bright spring sunshine behind, both feet off the floor and great form. But inside I was distraught, as I collected my medal in my own gathering darkness.

Not dealing with it

I fully understood the implications well enough. It’s not just the immediate risk to me (and my family) of running too hard on any given day, there’s a wider issue: running isn’t something I ‘do’ it is a fundamental component of who I am. It is my escape, and a lifeline where I am ‘ok’, where I am ‘good enough’, amidst so much other chaos and failure. And was I about to be told to stop? For good? This thought filled me with dread, with a shattering loss which hadn’t even happened, yet.

I told myself it was because of the circumstances and would not be a permanent problem; all I needed to do was train properly, build up again gently, and get back to normal. It was a one-off, I would be fine. I ran gently in the week, and then again the following weekend and after. And whenever I pushed, I felt it again. I gave up on Liverpool.

Summer, Autumn, Winter

We moved house in July which ruined any structured training during the summer, and whenever I ran and tried to pick up in advance of the autumn, the same pains returned. At a slower pace I began to build the mileage for Robin Hood in September until ironically I was an out-of-the-blue Achilles injury which made me miss only my second run there in twenty years. And there was my year, over.

It wasn’t just my pump which was hurting, but also the real heart, the big red one which is often too deep and passionate for its own good. (Like Dr Who, me, with my two hearts.) I hadn’t told anyone about Leeds. I internalise this kind of thing, turn it over and over and over in thought and emotion; I often keep things below the surface, where they grow and spread and weigh me down. There is no-one I can talk it out with, because there is no-one who understands, and it can become very lonely, and exhausting, living with a dark weight inside which no-one else sees.

There was the recognition that my heart (the pump) was in distress and a deep sense of the possible consequences. But also the loss of the year’s hopes and an even more profound dread that I was about to be told I could no longer run, or at best be reduced to a Saturday-morning park jogger. I began to wonder how I would replace it – for either exercise or the emotional/spiritual aspects (the deep red one) – and realised that nothing adequately could. Yes I could cycle, or swim, or join a gym or all of the above, and I could determine to get to the mountains more often. But nothing could replace the practicality and simplicity and exhilaration of a muddy run in the woods in the brittle sunshine of autumn. Over the weeks, and with the reminder-pains of every run, I was painting myself into something like bereavement.

Needle in the red

I continued to run, once or twice a week; always short, always slow, barely a jog or trot; but always devoid of any energy and labouring. And with the permanent but very real sensation that I was running with the needle hovering just below the red on the dial… or into it, and then the pain inevitably came.

Other things were happening elsewhere in life and by Christmas/New Year I wasn’t in a good place at all, and the loneliness and loss were becoming overwhelming. In the end I resolved to confront it and booked an appointment for the new year with the doctor. I also told my daughter, and she persuaded me to admit the problem to my wife so that when the eventual answer came, it would be less of a shock.

To my surprise (and by now confusion, for I had already persuaded myself of the worst) the doctor was fairly relaxed and didn’t confiscate my trainers straight away. It seems the pain isn’t my pump itself but the rest of my body complaining at the oxygen-deficit (and my moderate heart-rate not a sign of good fitness but of the beta-blockers doing their job). The doc said that surgery might be an option but couldn’t be guaranteed to work, and different medication was the first option: we agreed the goal was to keep me running but with enough protection to keep me safe. We even agreed that once I had adapted to the new meds I could try to build up for another Half – endurance if not pace at least. So long as I stuck to the rule of keeping the needle below the red, and pain-free.

The meds were awful to begin with, and at first didn’t solve the problem… so back to the docs for an increase in dosage. But I was running, and in the period between February and Easter I gradually picked up, in the sense that it very gradually became less labourious, and I have eventually found an adjusted pace, even adapted my form.

A year ago my (already slower-paced) Half-marathon plan would be something like 3 miles at 9-min/mile pace followed by 3 at 8:45, maybe 8:30s to 12 miles and then let the finish take care of itself (and sometimes on a good day I would be cruising at 8:15 or even less). Now though, I am struggling to keep to 10-10:30 min/mile pace. All of my runs now take 20% longer than before. And I can’t reach that state where the pump and lungs and legs are all cruising at an elevated rate and the adrenaline and endorphins are flowing… and you find you are running with your deep red heart glowing. I still plod, trudge. But I am running, and as long as I keep the needle below the red, I am safe.

Spring, and running into my fourth age

So. I have booked my place at Leeds Half. This will be my 48th Half Marathon. And it will come a year after my last: a year of doubt, fear and darkness, dominated amongst other things by the fear of the loss of running. For good. Losing some of the essence of me, for good.

As I type here on London Marathon day I am still not sure I will make the start-line. I haven’t even reached the longest-run distance I need and am running out of weekends to reach it; plus, last September’s achilles is snarling again. But I do believe now that – albeit much slower – if I can complete the training and arrive healthy at the startline – I can run the distance. I am running, and building up: for the first time in a year I have crossed that line from running to ‘training’.

I have no goal, no target time. Just to reach the startline safely; and to run it, safely.

Not for the first time I am investing a run with a huge weight of significance. This feels like a deeply important moment, a milestone in my running-as-life.

The first age of my running was in my teens and twenties: I just ran, no structure or plan, just ran.

My second age was in my thirties to mid-forties: late, I know, but serious running built on planning, pace, training and split times, and measured in races and PBs.

In my late forties and early fifties came my third age: an acceptance that as I was ageing I couldn’t keep pushing my body to extremes and chase times, but by easing off I could liberate myself, avoid (or limit) injury, run for its own joy and extend my time. The Art of Running Slowly.

We will find out over the next few weeks whether my Fourth Age is going to be slower and even more measured but – critically – still running. Or the end of running; the end of part of me.

This has been a year coming; and may be the most significant run of my life.

Update 13-05-17: Well I made it to the startline. I have run enough, with a couple of 12-milers (back round Eccup reservoir, which made me happy after a long absence), and some circuits including the first hills of the course. I have found a new pace and rhythm, and can (generally) keep that at the level where the pains don’t come.

So tomorrow morning I will line up for my first race in a year, knowing that I will record a lifetime personal-worst, by close to half an hour probably. But for this one, the time doesn’t matter.

My 48th half-marathon. And I am as nervous as if it were my first. Which, in a way, it is.

THE RESULT

LEEDS Well, I ran Leeds sucessfully in the end… given that the goal was to run it and have no finish-time expectations. I made the startline, and managed enough slow steady warmups to feel ready and safe (and in a lovely moment a twitter contact Ian C tapped me on the shoulder and said hello, that he had been watching and didn’t want to interrupt – fellow runners, eh!). I stuck to my slow safe pace through the first miles and as I crested the top of the interminable hill that is Stonegate Road – no family this year, sadly – I knew I was going to be ok. Turning down towards the ringroad I looked up and there was a Red Kite swooping above: one of mine from Eccup, she had come in to check I was ok, to tell me I was ok. I was running, half-marathon, and I was ok. I made some kind of involuntary sob, not unlike when I crossed the line at my first marathon (London 1994). I ran on and managed the second climb well, felt maybe a slight twinge and eased off, and then plotted the miles. Along the long run-in of Kirkstall Road past the Abbey I felt ok and realised I was running better than those around me; at 12 miles I had no kick but that didn’t matter today; and at the finish I was still ok but no big surge for the cameras, but that didn’t matter for today, I was just relieved to be in and collect my medal. This medal mattered. 2:08:22 and a Personal Worst by some 15 minutes; welcome to my Fourth Age… but I’m still running.

LIVERPOOL (Rock n Roll Half) More unfinished business from last year. The less said about this the better. I managed to cock it up including booking the hotel for the wrong night, (not) sleeping in a complete dump as a result, and damaging the car while parking in a stress. It’s a great event, and I would like to do it again properly. 2:10:41 and struggling. But I did it.

So, just need to choose which event for my 50th Half Marathon.

IMG_6056

Start of my Fourth Age

 

 

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“They think it’s all over…!?”

We’ve all done it. That is, had an injury and carried on running despite it, through it. We tell ourselves we will loosen it, or burn it off, or that the exercise will help it repair. On occasion we keep on going and carry an injury so long that it never actually repairs, instead becoming  a permanent scar or weakness to accompany us on all future runs (and play with our minds in the run up to important events).

But this time it’s different. I fear this one may be terminal. I fear I may have to stop running. And I mean stop, for good.

Last year I was going well: a couple of half marathons and a strong summer and I was that close to being able to run the full marathon at Robin Hood. But prudently I decided not to push it, to hold it over for this year… and by spring I wasn’t just planning an autumn marathon – I was contemplating Nottingham and Chester full marathons back-to-back.

It started fine, the fantastic (tough, beautiful and highly recommended) Harewood Half Marathon in February, and then in March the complete contrast of the half-marathon on Silverstone race circuit. The plan was to run my home-course Leeds Half at the beginning of May and then finish the month with the Liverpool Rock&Run Half – a new one for me, following a lovely family break there last year. That would have been my 48th Half and left me plotting my 50th, depending on what distance I chose for Robin Hood.

But the plan never happened. Mum became ill before Easter and after an intense spell passed away in April. This left me exhausted but I pressed on with Leeds in early May on almost zero training. I shouldn’t have. An earlier and deep-rooted injury rang its alarm bells and I knew Liverpool was off. I tried to pick up but never fully got going and the demands of work and moving house in July left me precious little time to rebuild. Giving up on 26.2 I was looking on-track for September’s Half at Robin Hood, when a totally unheralded Achilles rose up from nowhere and stopped me, dead. And that was pretty-much my year gone.

We have all had them. Those injuries where we are forced to acknowledge that our bodies have had enough, and rather than just easing off we have to take a proper break – six or eight weeks, typically. We then re-start from scratch, tentatively walk-jogging 20 metres, then 50, to see how it feels, and gradually having the confidence to build up the distance and frequency. At first it seems that the heart and lungs have shrunk to nothing, and it feels just awful; but soon they respond, the fitness and endurance build up and the form returns, and we are off, in awe of our body’s power to repair, and making plans again.

But not this time, it seems.

I have done the steps, I have done the building… but no response. Although with perseverance I can extend the duration, I am weeks in and rather than feeling the running return I can still barely jog. And rather than feeling the strength build, I can feel the injury stalking me. Whatever the length, and however I feel, I am stuck in second gear, and rather than celebrating how my body can respond, it seems I am throttled, permanently limited. Every time I run, I am acutely conscious that I am simultaneously barely plodding yet also holding the needle precariously close to the red zone.

Deep down, I know that if I try to push on, it will be dangerous. In truth I think I have known that for a couple of months, but I have put my fingers in my ears and screwed up my eyes and gone “blah-de blah-de blah blah…. not listening!!!” But now, also deep down, I have admitted it to myself.

I know the time has come to take advice. I know what the advice will be: enough, stop! I know that I may be allowed to carry on, to jog a little, at a slow pace, Saturday afternoons round the park.

But that’s not why I run. I run for those moments when, an hour into a 12-mile run, I actually forget that I’m running. My body is flowing all of its own accord and without me because I am somewhere else, my mind meandering wherever and my spirit soaring somewhere… well…, spiritual.

I’m not ready to become a middle-aged jogger in the park. In theory any run is something, and better than no run at all. But those are not my runs. And if I can’t run, nor can I see a substitute.  Sure, I can go to the mountains more; and I could swim, go to a gym, use my bike more. All good exercise, but they have the fundamental limitation that you can’t just put your trainers on and go, and you can’t easily do them wherever your travels take you. And good though they may be, apart from when I’m in the mountains I don’t escape to those special places, the places of the mind and spirit.

Running isn’t something I do, it’s part of me, it’s what I am. And if I can’t run my runs, where does that leave me? Where can I go, if I can’t go to those places? I have no answer to that; and it feels bleak.

Time will tell, and very soon I think. Within the next couple of months I will either run Harewood again, or I will be sat with a specialist. And I think I already know which it will be, and what they will tell me. In my heart.

 

+++

In parallel news, this may well be the last blogpost here.

One of the aspects of my running has always been the way my mind goes on its own runs when I am out. Trouble is, I had no-one to share it with, no-one to talk to, no-one who would understand, no-one with whom I could empty my head and heart and emotions. I started to write it down, and found I enjoyed doing that.

So I started T-A-R-S a couple of years ago. At first I had a lot to say, mind and feelings spilling out. And I had some nice feedback, which was nice. But by last year I was barely touching it. Even so I renewed anyway. This year I have hardly written anything except to update the Harewood review. So now the renewal reminders are arriving from WordPress, and I have decided to let it go. I am not sure I have anything worth saying, and certainly nothing new. So you have until mid-January to have a rummage around and see if there’s anything you want.

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Race Review: Harewood House Half Marathon (No 2)

You know that feeling when something is SO GOOD you feel sure that doing it again may be a disappointment? Well, the British Heart Foundation Harewood Half Marathon was every bit as good on its second running as first time round.

I won’t repeat everything from Harewood Half 2015 but it absolutely delivered again, in every respect. Following are just a couple of additional thoughts.

It struck me that one of the things which is just right is the size of the field. I don’t know

Start

Credit: Yorkshire Evening Post

how many run but it must be in the hundreds: this – and the fantastic organisation – make it feel like a big event, but not so much that you are lost in a sea of runners. You may find yourself on your own for stretches of the course, but with a runner 20m or so in front not so much as to feel alone.

Also the nature of the terrain makes it feels like an event for real runners. You hear people puffing and blowing, and there are comments between people about how tough it is… but they all keep going.

For me personally it was another one of those special runs: tough enough to have to find

Harewood16 Time

I wasn’t actually THIS quick!

something deep inside yourself but joyful at the same time. I didn’t push my heart as hard as last year but I did keep a good strong steady pace, right on plan. Steady. The kind of steady where you let people stretch away, content that you know how hard it is further up, and then overhaul them later. I think the expression is “Boom!”

I ran the whole way keeping in mind that there was the bastard hill at 12.75 miles to come: along the lakeside then up the vicious steep bank to the left corner of the house and across to the other corner only to drop back down again before the final climb. Then as I ran the long grassy stretch after 12 miles (“It’s 12milescoming….Breathe; it’s coming”) I saw ahead that the course had changed and went straight up the lane to pass the house and finish. Half of me was relieved; but the part of the runner’s brain which enjoys pain was actually disappointed.

My Garmin measured the course a little short which may have been it failing to track the twists and turns of the wooded areas, or maybe that last missing hill, or possibly the unintentional shaving of a corner here and there on an open grass trail. (I think maybe BHF need to consider a line of tape on the inside of a turn: eg at the 12-mile point the runners made a curve some distance in from a marshall who stood on his own presumably at the intended turning point.) It didn’t matter though, I wasn’t chasing a PB or a championship. In any case, on this course, you really would have to be an olympic-class curmudgeon to feel short-changed in any way.

Oh, and just in case you think I’m biased because this run is practically in my back garden (not in the same way as the Earl of Harewood, obvs!) have a peek at @VeggieRunnersUK race review.

Well done, BHF, very well done. See you again next year; and you’re on a hat-trick. No pressure then 🙂

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Half-Marathon No 45: me and my body going for a run…

It’s the night before a race; and once more I have that delicious mix of uncertainty and excitement. A half-marathon, this will be my 45th so I’m not exactly a novice; but this will be the first time I have run tomorrow’s race, so that excitement burns just as intensely.

The event is the BHF Harewood House Half Marathon, only the second year it has been run (here is my write-up of last year’s). So I know what I’m going to – in fact I ran a circuit of the estate last weekend as my final training run. I finished cold and ‘running-on-empty’, but then I had made it a 17-miler. Just to be on the safe side. And I finished pain-free, and no ill-effects the following day.

45 times out; ageing and slowing; but hey, I’m still going out in the cold early tomorrow to run 13.1 miles in a very beautiful setting. I know this circuit is hard and hilly and demanding; I won’t ‘race’ as such, I will run my own pace (or, rather, the pace my body tells me) but I will run, and I will love it.

When I started this blog I called it T-A-R-S because I had had so many years of pushing my body, and hurting it, driven by targets and split-times and PBs. But in the end I had a Damascene realisation that I could not forever keep getting quicker, and once I accepted that, it was liberating. I slowed down, I enjoyed the runs more, I felt the runs more in their own right, and (Rule No 1) I listened to my body more. And I stopped hurting it. I used to accept that the longstanding pain in my right calf, or my left knee, or my right bumcheek, or even my shoulder, were all a normal part of the work I was putting in. But now they are gone.

I found that my body is capable of amazing things, if I respect it. In the last few years I have learnt to allow the pace of my runs to be set not by targets or the stopwatch, but how I feel, by what my body is telling me. I am slower overall, yes: but often I can cruise along with almost no effort, heart and legs and lungs all in perfect balance, harmony. And some days I swear I can fly. Pain free and uninjured. I still record the times and splits, but out of interest rather than dictated to or judged by them. If I’m quick I smile; if I’m slow I shrug but enjoy the running nevertheless. Pain free and uninjured.

I have re-engineered my form in the last two years, more upright and keeping my arms lower and – most important of all – with a shorter stride which now has me fore- or mid-foot striking instead of overextending. If I hit an incline or want to go quicker I just put in more back-chopping strides. But at the mile-12 marker of a Half when I have been holding my pace back (I call it “Split-12”) I ask my body how it feels, and if we are both ok then I can let myself rip, just for the last mile (which now is a glorious celebration rather than a gasping tunnel of pain) … then I can let my knees come up, and I touch the ground less, and I leave them all behind…  and I finish strong, and unhurt, and safe, and high.

Also I have experimented with yoga, and while I have never been taught or learnt to meditate, I know without a shadow of doubt that it has made me better balanced, better aligned, made me stronger, improved my form, and made me run in a more harmonious way. I have also become leaner; which is a nice side-effect.

And I have finally come to terms with the fact that three years ago I had a small heart attack. It was just a small one, but as an injury it was (is) rather more impactful than a hamstring or achilles or calf niggle. It means that I now have to put a red ‘X’ on my race-number and details of my meds on the back; and I have to fight the beta-blockers for the first 15 minutes of every run. And while I resent it, I can still record my admiration and gratitude for all the amazing scientists and medics who have cared for and continue to protect me. So I have adapted, survived; and I think I am better for it.

So my body and I are fine now. In fact more than just ‘fine’: I respect it, and I let it decide how far and how fast we are going to go. I have found that if I do this, it will take me to the most wonderful places. And even at my age it can still learn and change and adapt and get better. We run longer, easier, yogafied and with better form; finishing strongly, pain-free and uninjured. I am in awe of my body, and respect it. I feel privileged that it continues to take me out. And I realise now that I am still learning; my body is still responding. Of course I am not changing my body: it has always been capable of these things, I have been slow and now I’m just catching up. Not for the first time, I feel humbled and in awe that it continues to carry me, and put up with me.

It’s late. I need to pack up my bag. My pre-race stuff, my race kit, my warm after-kit; I need to pin my race-number (with its ‘X’ and meds) on my vest.

Because tomorrow my body is taking me for a run. Some days when my body takes me for a run, my heart soars. Let’s see how tomorrow is, in the British Heart Foundation Harewood House Half Marathon. We might finish under two hours or it might be a little more; who knows, we’re not particularly fussed. But I know – we know, my body and I – that tomorrow we will enjoy our run. We will simply enjoy the running.

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