The loneliness of the long distance runner

Last week I posted about taking part in the fantastic Marathon In A Day event which supported Mind and I commented on the importance of people feeling able to talk about any mental health issues they may have. Having read my post back I started to think about mental health and how unique running, and in particular long distance running, is when it comes to having a lot of time to yourself to think.

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I have played team sports in the past (yes one of those handsome young men is me 20 years ago!!) and they are generally pretty fast and furious, you react largely to what is happening around you and you are utterly immersed in the game. Likewise there are individual sports where you compete against someone but your focus is the game in hand. Running is a different beast though. Most people train on their own and even during a race unless you are super fast and chasing a podium you are only really competing against yourself and the clock. This leaves you with a lot of time to think and how you fill that time is I believe really important to keep your mind healthy.

For some people thinking time is fine, you take in the view, a nice hill, some wildlife, maybe the odd dual carriageway or industrial estate but on the whole you switch off and just run. Others, and I include myself to a degree here, need some form of distraction and for most that is listening to music or perhaps a podcast or talking book, these distractions help to pass the time and some people also use them as a means to increase motivation. There are also runners though who use their time on the highways and byways as thinking time and again I fall into this category. Running helps me to clear my head, I work in a school and last Monday was the first day of term, it was hectic to say the least and I came home with what can best be described as head fog. I knew that I needed to run, I spent the first few miles or so going through the events of the day in my head and rationalising them, I then banked that in my brain, the fog cleared and I gave over my thoughts to more pressing matters, what was I having for tea, how would my daughter get on with her first day at primary school the following day and how many chat group messages with goat gifs would I return home to? This run was less than two hours but as I have progressed in my marathon training I have been running for over five hours in total most weeks and so I have a lot of time to think.

On some longer runs when a mixture of delirium and pain set in, mental fatigue can take over and the need to dig deep and find something from within I find really tests my mind. I know I have it in me to push on but sometimes the legs aren’t always as willing, I have used various techniques to overcome this, as I said above the distraction of music is one and a favourite of mine especially in races is to have the names of my wife and children written on my arm along with other motivators so they are right there clear in front of me. I smile, I think of funny things and I do everything I can to keep my mental state as positive as possible, the worst thing I can do is to get down, think negatively and beat myself up.

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Taking my own advice was essential on Sunday when I completed my first ever run of over 20 miles, ok it was only 20.03 miles as I lapped the cul de sac to edge the distance over the .00, but for me it was a real milestone in my marathon training. It was a tough three hours, it wasn’t pretty at times but I used all of the above to stay positive as the wind howled, the rain soaked me and my calf muscles screamed at me to stop.

If you are reading this and struggling have a think about what I have written, use your running time as head space time, gain some clarity in whatever way suits you and if you need to, never be afraid to share with someone else.

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Marathon In A Day

This past weekend was the first running on the virtual Marathon In A Day (MIAD) event. MIAD was the brainchild of Clare () and Kev () and I must first of all thank Kev for providing me with some great information to help me with my write up. The aims of the event were to support the charity Mind, to make running more accessible and break down the marathon distance into something less scary. Kev and Clare wanted to encourage people to take park in a virtual event that was fun, interesting, different and inclusive, they wanted to get people talking about mental health and supporting each other and boy have they succeeded!!

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Runners from across the globe joined together to support the event and each other and a big shout out must go to Melissa Kahn from the fabulous Run Heifer Run community in the USA who galvanised her herd to participate and put in some stunning performances. Some people took on the full distance themselves either all in one go or by breaking the 26.2 miles down into a number of shorter runs throughout a 24 hour period. Many runners though took up the option of joining together and supporting each other in pairs or small teams, a word of thanks must go here to Antony Hughes who took it upon himself to create a giant spreadsheet so that people and the distances they wanted to run could be matched up. Some of these runners actually met up to run the virtual event in real life as it were which I also think is fabulous as it brought people firmly together who otherwise may never have met, friendships have been formed which hopefully will last.

I was paired with Laura (@ladyseamus) and as I already had 18 miles on my marathon training plan for the weekend I volunteered to bank that for the team with Laura taking on the remainder. It seems like an age passed from signing up until actually taking part but this gave time for a fantastic Twitter group to form, everyone got behind each other, we had plenty of banter, we ribbed Melissa about many things, we created team names and importantly we talked about mental health, everything Kev and Clare wanted to achieve happened and is still carrying on.

I am the first to recognise that I am not good at talking about my mental health. I have experienced some pretty dark times in my life as a result of bullying at school, the loss of relatives in tragic circumstances, the breakdown of a previous marriage and being diagnosed with cancer. I understand when I am low and I have learned to put coping strategies in place, running being one of them, but the group of people I have met through this event have been immensely supportive and I have shared some really personal stuff with them because I felt like they all understood and it was a safe environment for me to express myself, thank you everyone, you have made a real difference for me.

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Anyway back to the running. On Friday last week Laura and I hit the streets of our respective neighbourhoods to do our bit. We ran an impressive 26.5 miles in 3 hours 43 mins 14 secs, in the process I ran the furthest I have ever run and Laura ran a 10k PB, needless to say the rest of the weekend included lots of eating and resting. I also did a couple of vlogs as I ran which I have edited together and you can watch here.

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MIAD has been a huge success, the original 200 places were massively oversubscribed and Kev and Clare will be putting on another event before the end of the year. The working title for the event is The Run Up to Christmas, plans are currently being finalised, it will again support Mind and will be about people racking up miles during the period of 1st – 24th December, with different rewards for covering different total distances. I would really encourage anyone who hasn’t done a virtual event to get involved. This was my first and while there were no cheering crowds at the end I knew that I had the full support of the online running community, not just in my running but in my wellbeing.

As I ran this evening one of the last songs that came on my MP3 player before I arrived home was Time After Time and one of the lyrics really stuck in my head as being particularly pertinent here. Being able to talk about mental health is hugely important, it should not and must not be stigmatised, everyone should have a forum where they feel safe and supported, it is ok to not be ok, if you are feeling down find people you are happy to talk to and comfortable with and they will listen, whenever, wherever, as the song goes; “if you fall I will catch you, I’ll be waiting, time after time”.

 

Blackpool Illuminations 10k – Race Review

August Bank Holiday Saturday, for once the sun has its hat on and all is good with the world. There’s only one thing to do, head for the coast; sand, slot machines, fish and chips and a 10k race! Ok so that last one isn’t on most people’s list for a typical day at the seaside but my Saturday in Blackpool centred around the Illuminations 10k organised by the lovely people at Fylde Coast Runners (FCR).

I’ve been looking forward to the race for a couple of months, it was a sell out and based on the great reports I’d heard about other FCR races and the reviews from the inaugural running of this event last year it was going to be something to behold.

The race was due to start at 8pm but to make the most of the weather we took the 45 minute drive over to the coast early and arrived in Blackpool at around 3.30pm. When I say we, this was the first time that my wife and two children have attended a race to support me all together so it was a real family affair and added an even more special touch to what was already going to be a pretty unique day.

The kids happily cycled along the promenade as we went in search of the registration tent. Having bumped into several other runners along the way we located the tent near the start line, as per the instructions email, on the middle walkway near the Hilton hotel on the North Shore. For those familiar with Blackpool this is just under a mile from the North Pier and whilst a slight leg stretch out of town it means that the race is able to start away from the madding crowds of Blackpool on a Bank Holiday Saturday night, a wise decision. The registration process was quick and simple and I collected my bib, timing chip, pins and glow sticks (yes glow sticks) without delay. As it was only 5pm we headed back into town, deposited the bikes back in the car and the family polished off a McDonald’s whilst I sat there sipping water. There was also time for my wife to add further to her shoe collection and to take a few selfies before walking back up to the start. Catherine and the kids hung back and went in the arcades, this gave them time to fuel their 2p slider obsessions and find a decent vantage point to see me come down the first stretch of the course.

The start area was already heavily populated half an hour before gun time but I found my Twitter buddy Natalie and her girlfriend snazzily dressed in running gear and tutus and we had a good chat, Nat also helped me to put on my green glow stick bracelet which for a 39 year old man was proving ridiculously difficult. The consensus was we were going to just get round and enjoy the race with the bigger picture of impending marathons and half marathons in mind (spoiler alert, it was PBs all round!). With a minute or two to go the queue for the toilets finally cleared and I skipped out of the start pen and had my customary pre-race pit stop and then we were off.

The opening stretch was along the middle walkway running south towards the North Pier, the field fanned out nicely and I was soon high fiving my children before we dropped down to the lower walkway and turned north again to make the run up to Bispham. Passing the start again, just lower down, the race hosts (sorry I didn’t catch their names but they were fantastic) called out as many runners’ names as they could which was a nice boost right at the start of a race and the crowd at this point was strong and cheered friends, family and strangers into the distance.

The sun had started to set and it was a cool, calm evening, perfect for running, the view out to the Irish Sea was glorious and something that again added to the distinctive feeling of the event. The course itself was pancake flat and the surface was perfect for trotting out a decent, consistent pace. In what seemed like no time I reached the point where the race split and those who had entered the 5k made the climb back up to the promenade whilst us 10k runners continued on. Not much further down the front was the water station, I don’t tend to drink at all during a 10k so left the bottles for others but it was nice of a fellow runner to notice I didn’t have one and he offered me his bottle before he disposed of it, the running family at its supportive best.

Looking up as I neared Bispham I could see the Illuminations lighting up the dusk above me and those at the front of the race who had already made the turn for home, I have to say this spurred me on and having checked my Garmin I knew that a PB was possible. I felt strong despite having already run nearly 43 miles in the week and all those sensible thoughts of just enjoying myself went out of the window.

Back on the promenade I picked up the pace and passed quite a few runners from both the 10k and the tail end of the 5k. I had only spotted a distance marker at 4k and so I was reliant on my Garmin being accurate but as the number of spectators increased I knew I must be approaching the finish although I couldn’t actually see it. Time was ticking on, I knew I was going to be close to 45 minutes but it was nip and tuck. The route then dipped off the promenade back onto the middle walkway, the banks of spectators grew and I could hear the race hosts again. I put my head down and went for it, in doing so I totally missed seeing my family but I was in the zone, I crossed the line and stopped my watch at 45.11, a PB, fantastic.

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I collected my water and beautiful spinning medal and found the family to celebrate and cheer others home. It was great to see the same determination in so many runners approaching the finish and the support of the crowd was genuinely heart-warming, there was some fantastic fancy dress too with several runners going full on Christmas tree with the number of fairy lights they’d managed to decorate themselves in.

Once Natalie had made it home we strolled back to town, took a few more selfies and helped out others with their obligatory celebration group shots with the famous Blackpool Tower in all its illuminated glory as the backdrop.

I was thrilled to have felt so good and to have produced a time so close to a target that I had actually set for myself already for next year, to run a sub 45 minute 10k. On reflection I loved everything about the event, if I wasn’t PB chasing I would have probably taken in more of the Illuminations which were actually turned on especially for the event as the actual official switch on isn’t until this Friday, 1st September. I will definitely be entering more FCR events in the future and would recommend this race to everyone whether an experienced runner or not, it caters for all comers and it is a fabulous way to spend a Saturday night.

Run Tourism – Holland

Earlier in the year I ventured into the world of run tourism for the first time on a trip to Spain, I made sure to ask my wife if she minded me taking my kit and I was given the green light so off I went exploring around Albir, Althea and Benidorm.

IMG_20170818_151111Last week we went to the Duinrell holiday park in Wassenaar, Holland, when I say “we”, this wasn’t your average family holiday, this was 10 adults and 14 kids aged 3-13. I didn’t need to ask if I could take my kit this time, being in the middle of full on marathon training at the moment Catherine knew it was coming and that I’d be disappearing a couple of times to explore and get some miles in my legs.

Before travelling I put out a request on Twitter for any recommendations and the very kind Heart Runner Girl suggested a couple of possible runs for me based on her local knowledge. I managed three runs while I was there, all on different routes and all had their own particular features.

After the overnight ferry from Hull to Rotterdam we arrived at Duinrell on the Saturday, the first day was spent acclimatising and finding our way around the park and what it had to offer. I was already itching to get out though and so first thing on Sunday morning I was up and heading for the beach. It was a beautiful morning and after running down a few tree lined avenues the road turned slightly and the dunes that dominate this area of coastline began.

What I immediately noticed too was how everyone appeared to be catered for. There was the road, then a separate cycle path, a separate pavement and also a sand covered bridleway. Part way down to the beach the route forked and the road went off to the right whilst the other paths veered off left. I’m always cautious crossing roads abroad so the knowledge that I was on my own path helped me to relax and enjoy my run. After around 5k the path and road converged again at the main beach car park and then I followed the short path down to the beach itself, having taken a few photos I made the return trip and arrived back just as the rest of the family were waking up. It was a very straight forward run and clearly a popular one as I passed over 20 other runners in the 45 minutes of so that I was out. Without fail, everyone acknowledged me with a nod, a smile, a wave or said good morning (at least that’s what I think they were saying, my Dutch isn’t that great!). The knowledge gained during the run came in handy the next day when we decided on a trip to the beach. There was no way I was going to try and walk down to the beach with the kids given the distance but I knew we could park easily and having seen the bars and snack outlets I also knew that we’d be well catered for.

My second run was very much in the “make it up as you go along” category. This time I headed away from the beach and into the centre of Wassenaar, I came across a beautiful old windmill as I wended my way through the streets and then I discovered the various dykes and waterways that criss-crossed the town so I decided to follow them for a while and see where I ended up. The run was so tranquil, despite it being late afternoon and it was great to take in something so quintessentially Dutch. I did end up at a dyke that I couldn’t cross and so had to do a U-turn but that’s part of the adventure of exploring in this way. Eventually I ended up back at Duinrell after just over 10k and in time to fire up the BBQ for some well earned burgers, bratwurst and beer.

The third and final run was another early morning start this time in the direction of Den Haag. I followed the cycle path signs which indicated 10k to the city which is the official seat of Dutch government, home to the Netherlands’ monarch, parliament, ​and supreme court. The cycle path and pavement are away from the main roads and there were some gorgeous views of mist lingering across the fields as the sun came up. The cycle path signs made this a very easy route to follow and nearing the outskirts of Den Haag the signs changed to point you in the direction of various local landmarks. I decided to follow signs for the World Forum and this route took my through a beautiful park. I’d deliberately not checked my Garmin during my run but I felt like I maintained a decent pace assisted in no small part by the flat landscape which was in stark contrast to many of my normal routes. Just after 11 miles I checked my time and it looked like I could be on for an unofficial half marathon PB if I kept the pace up (I say unofficial as to me official PBs are set during races, I know people have different opinions on this but that’s my view). I felt good at this point and so I worked hard to keep going. My total distance for the run was 14.1 miles but when I saved the run I got that lovely “new record” message saying my new half marathon best time was 1:42.13, my official best time set at the Leeds Half Marathon earlier in the year is 1:44.55, let’s just say the two landscapes are rather different and I’m hoping that the flat lands around York can bring me an equally speedy time in a couple of weeks on my marathon debut.

All in all this was another great run tourism experience, I loved finding my way around a new place and taking in some of the local sights, next time you are away somewhere new why not take your kit and give it a try, don’t forget to put your feet up too though!

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Pendle Running Festival 10k – Race Review

A pile of horse manure, plenty of hills, homemade flapjack and the warmest welcome you could hope to receive, it may sound like a rather odd combination but that pretty much sums up my Saturday morning at the Pendle Running Festival 10k.

If you are looking for a big budget event with all the trimmings then this race is probably not for you. What you do get here though is a wonderful running community spirit, some spectacular scenery (albeit shrouded in mist this morning) and a course that asks you plenty of questions.

I arrived around 45 minutes before the start and headed to the registration at Barley village hall to collect my race number, the great and good of the East Lancashire running scene were already in evidence with plenty of runners from Trawden AC and Clayton Le Moors Harriers sporting their club colours. There were also a smattering of runners from other clubs and I passed on a bit of local course knowledge to a few chaps from Holcombe Harriers as they stood inspecting the course map.

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Following the signs down to the start I did wonder for a moment if I was lost, I went down a path, over some cobbles, then down another muddier, rockier path and emerged in a clearing next to a rather large pile of horse manure. I was soon joined by others though and given there was a Start sign here we figured this was it. The race organiser appeared and after a short briefing about the dangers of narrow country lanes and the promise of home baked goods and bacon butties at the finish we were off.

The festival holds a 10k and half marathon on its first day and both groups set off together, 131 runners in total, going back up the path the way we’d come was a bit tricky, thanks to the man holding the low hanging tree branch up out of everyone’s way here! We soon emerged onto the road though and fanned out down towards Roughlee.

The weather was overcast with slight drizzle, perfect in my mind for running and the first mile and a half or so went by pleasantly, we even took in a bit of local history passing the Pendle Witch statue.

 

I knew things were about to change abruptly though as we took a sharp left turn onto Stang Top Road. It felt like a scene from the Tour de France, one minute the peleton is racing along in a bunch on the flat, the next they head uphill and it splinters. Stang Top Road is tough, steep and pretty much unrelenting save for a short downhill section before the final climb, if you do the half marathon you have the pleasure of running this beast twice! Some people started to walk, others seemed to be going backwards, I kept my head down and my legs moving and put my faith in my training and the fact that I actually enjoy hills, weirdo!

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I ignored the drink station at the top and carried on, up more hills, thankfully the gradient was slightly less than vertical this time and there were a few more flat and downhill sections thrown in. What I loved was that everyone was watching out for each other, everyone talked as they passed each other, some were clearly running in pairs or threes, the roads were marshalled but still open and so whenever a car was coming the call went up and along the line of runners from back to front as a warning. I also experienced a first in running on roads with cattle grids, given the rain these were treacherous and navigated with extreme caution.

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After heading across the moor towards Pendle Hill the route took a left back towards the finish at Barley. There was another uphill section into a headwind to negotiate before the final mile or so of pure downhill. I’ve consciously been working on my downhill running and I really saw the benefit, a 6:33 mile after all the climbing my legs had done felt fantastic. I had enough in the tank for a sprint to the finish and was welcomed home by others finishers as I crossed the line in 50:01. As there was no chip timing my Garmin gave me all my times and splits but I didn’t find out until later in the day that I was actually the 17th male finisher and 20th overall in the 10k field of 63.

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I was presented with my medal and a bottle of water and remembering the briefing I went back to the village hall to pick up a brew and some lovely gooey flapjack which I enjoyed whilst cheering more runners home and seeing some of the half marathon field back out on the rest of their race.

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I can genuinely say that I really enjoyed myself. The event was well organised, well marshalled and there was a real feel good factor about everything, this was running at its basic best. Today was never going to be a PB for me, today was about trying a new event, getting more miles in my legs, taking on a challenging course and pushing myself and I ticked all those boxes and met some lovely people too, what better way is there to spend a Saturday morning? I’ll definitely be back next year, I might even give the half marathon a go, I do love them hills!

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Man With A Plan

Sunday 8th October 2017, when I look back in years to come this day will either be fondly remembered with a smile and a glowing sense of satisfaction and achievement or there’ll be a grimace, a rueful shake of the head and thoughts of what might have been.

All roads, all thoughts, all the training I have been putting in, even the majority of what I have been writing about on here, ultimately lead to the York marathon and last week I started my marathon training in earnest. I like organisation and structure and wanting to give myself the best shot of making it to the start line in good shape I have put together the obligatory training plan. I’ve seen numerous plans online, a good friend sent me a plan he previously used (65 miles in a week at its peak!), and various people have suggested plans that have worked for them. We are all unique beasts though and so the plan that I have come up with is designed to suit me in terms of my current fitness, where I need to push myself to distance wise and when I am actually able to get out and run.

My aim is to do two longer runs per week along with a shorter, faster run built in too. Depending on how I feel and what I can fit in around life, I may also add some short bits of speed work and some track or field laps too, the plan really though is to build up sensibly to around 40 miles per week which I think is manageable, will give me the chance to spend plenty of time out on my feet but won’t push me beyond what I can reasonably achieve at the moment which would then increase my risk of injury and the whole thing falling apart around my ears.

In all honesty I have probably over thought this whole experience but the memories of the Great North Run 2007 when I was woefully under prepared nag me still. I know my running, my fitness and my preparation are already so much better than they were then and if someone held a gun to my head now and told me to run a marathon I could probably do it but I want to enjoy the day and if I do then I will have the confidence to enter future marathons. The battle here is almost entirely in my own mind, as the rational thoughts are shouted down by the self-doubt and the fear of the unknown.

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Looking at the positive though marathon training week one has gone well. First of all my fantastic wife offered to bring forward my 40th birthday present by 5 months and so I have a shiny new Garmin Forerunner 35 to play with and my hope is that this will really help me to nail down my pacing and give me confidence that my legs will last the distance, I’m also a data geek so love looking at all the stats it fires out. My first run of the week was deliberately hilly as I prepare for the challenging course of the Pendle Running Festival 10k on 15th July, a solid 7 miles, followed on Wednesday by a quick 5 miler, as both runs coincided with summer (yes that was it folks, summer came and went last week, we’re on the downhill to Christmas now, if you missed it you missed out) I came home in a rather sweaty state after both. Friday’s 13 miles were a lot cooler though and felt good especially since I haven’t run more than 10 miles since the Leeds half back in mid May, looking at the myriad of stats from my Garmin my pacing was rather wonky but where I live and run is an undulating environment and so I’m never going to get it bang on.

The countdown then is now on, I love it when a plan comes together!