Running down the road trying to loosen my load

I’ve had an easy week, you know. And I’m not freaking out about it. It got cold, it rained a lot, I had a niggle on the knee (official surgical terminology) and in a moment of clarity I thought “I’ll take it easy this week”. And in a second moment of clarity – “… because I’m not training to win Olympic gold”. I’d had a fairly heavy week for Post-Marathon Me, so I just eased on down with a bit of recovery. Amazingly, this mysterious technique known as “rest” seems to have worked. The niggle on the knee (NoK as doctors and physiotherapists call it) has gone away. I figured it wasn’t the running – bear with me on this – but the walking as it only hurt when fully extended. As the leg is a bit bendier (more esoteric medical speak there) when running the niggle was clearly the result of a speedy two mile walk to the railway station I did on Wednesday. Clearly. Anyway, I managed a 19:29 parkrun with a three mile jog there and back without any problems. So my theory is unequivocally proved.

In addition to the NoK, I’ve also injured my left forearm.  I’ve no idea how this happened. That fact that it coincided with various one armed danglings from a pull bar after an overenthusiastic viewing of UK Ninja Warrior is pure coincidence. But I’ve got two strength workouts in this week so they should see me through to next week without any noticeable loss of strength <clutches limbs in anguish at the potential loss of definition>

So it’s been a useful week for getting health and fitness priorities in order. Those rest days – bliss. I like to look and feel fit and healthy. I like to represent a vegan diet by being fit and healthy. I also like to not move a lot whilst wearing slippers and pyjamas. 20-30 miles a week and a couple (well three) of workouts can do that. I’m thinking I should re-name this blog to something like Running on the Minimal Mileage to Stay Fit and Healthy. And plants. I think this year I shall try to align the ludicrously competitive streak that runs through me with the contradictory impulse to read a book whilst I’m wrapped in a duvet drinking tea. A blistering 5k would be nice. But I like sitting down too much. Accepting that and enjoying the interludes of activity for what they are is I think the way forward. Interludes of Activity? I like that. is available you say?…


The bleak urban sprawl of the outskirts of Ripon.
The bleak urban sprawl of the outskirts of Ripon.
A running selfie?  An internet first, surely.
A running selfie? An internet first, surely.
Hey, it's me! Trying to blow up an invisible balloon.
Hey, it’s me! Trying to blow up an invisible balloon.

Of Monks and Calves

So, that speedwork. Didn’t go quite according to plan. Or did, if that plan was to knacker both calves for a week. I’ve done this before. Twice. This time I was confident the leg-in-a-vice post workout agony could be avoided by being sensible and not flogging 6 x 400m as fast as I could. Seems my interpretation of sensible and not flogging 6 x 400m was a little inaccurate. The calves were a bit on the sore side, but surely not to a debilitating degree I thought, trotting back home. Alas, as the day progressed the vice tightened and I was once again walking like my lower limbs were badly made prosthetics for several days.

Happily, that eased off and I returned to more of a slow and steady approach. And with that return came another. Could it be, the mojo is back? The evidence is threefold:

  1. Fountains Abbey parkrun – all running should be like this. 5k round a world heritage site before it opens to the public every Saturday morning? Just beautiful. How on earth this run got the go ahead is beyond me, but massive kudos to the team behind it, the volunteers and The National Trust for allowing their 12th century Cistercian monastery to be festooned with neon lycra, Deep Heat and wicking fabric once a week.
  2. The running calendar has things on it! And not just things but exciting, new things. A new 10k race for Northallerton. I live there, you know. I want to be putting in a decent performance in front of the hometown crowd, who’ll be chanting my name and waving banners of support. And it looks like it might be on the same day as the Middlesbrough 5k so hopefully all of the good people will be doing that and I’ll win. <Local man throws tantrum after finishing 10k race in 77th place>
  3. The long run – is back! Well, 10 miles, but I’m calling that a long run as it’s the longest I’ve run since the distance of which we do not speak. And, whisper it, I rather enjoyed it. The body has responded well to the increase in distance and it felt good to be out on a Sunday morning, just me, the dogwalkers and the occasional other runner to share a wry and convivial greeting with. Or get completely blanked. Come on, just a nod of recognition, surely? Still, I get to take the social high ground by determinedly wheezing “morning” to Grumpy Beard Dude and Angry Lurch as I now know them.

Overall, 32 miles run this week and a fastest Parkrun since last August in 19:26. It’s not so bad this running lark.

Goals for 2016

As evidenced by the eerie silence that has surrounded this blog since last October, my running mojo suffered a knockout blow from the marathon. I’ve managed to keep on with two or three runs a week but there is a definite sensation that this is more out of duty than any enjoyment or passion. Having confirmed that long distance running is not for me I’ve struggled to bring back the energy for the shorter distances. I think what has thrown me off course most was the “surprise niggle” that started in late September and hung around for a good two months. A hip, knee, IT band issue that left me feeling that running was doing more harm than good and questioning why I was choosing to gangle down the street four times a week at varying paces and distances.   

Crossing everything (including the IT Band, which might help) the problem seems to have cleared up. I’m back up to 10k pain free and doing a weird stretch every day that I maintain has helped (good old correlation). I still have a vague sense of dread about increasing the distance, but countering that is a definite feeling that I want to keep up a respectable half marathon level of fitness, particularly if the 6 Bridges Half comes to fruition this year (Ooof, a quick check sees that 2017 is the aim. And relax…) In the meantime Parkrun, with its subtle competitiveness, regularity, lovely lovely stats and community without the faff has been the running life support. The need to turn up on a Saturday morning and put in a half decent performance has remained a constant. Particularly as I now have one on the on the doorstep. Albeit currently a very boggy doorstep. Roll on a dry Spring.        


So, 2016 has arrived and with it a need to get back on track. I’ve got a plant based diet to represent, dammit! While the running has a taken a nose dive the three strength workouts I do a week have been ticked off with regularity, so they’re staying in the plan. I like the weights stuff. Mainly because after half an hour I’m done. There’s a theme in this blog somewhere… But there really was only one contender for running goal 2016. Last year I ran personal best times at 10k, 10 miles, half and full marathon distances but the elusive 5k PB didn’t materialise. Worse, my times dipped horribly as the marathon loomed. So this year it’s all about the 3.1 miles. First crack 18:11 then be the proud owner of a 17:… time. I’ve looked at various training plans online and thought “Hmmm, they seem fiddly and boring” so applied the “the plan that you actually do is the best one” and kept to the “this is a hobby, enjoy it for Christ’s sake” mantra. I’ve simply added a weekly speed session and fartlek 10k type thing. With a Parkrun on Saturday and a long run (11 miles) on Sunday I feel that I can pull off a low mileage 5k PB. After all my current PB was achieved on around 25 miles a week. 26.2 is dead, long live 3.1!

Marathon Reflections

My first marathon in 2013 was a hobble into the unknown. As a 20-ish miles per week recreational runner with a dislike of cold, rain and activities that generally involve leaving the house the idea of running a marathon was something that had never appealed to me. That was until the headline “New marathon announced for York” appeared on the BBC News website and a previously unknown part of my brain decided that it was taking over and I would be running it. I really had no choice in the matter. 16 weeks of doubt, discomfort and occasional delirium culminated in an almighty struggle to get round 26.2 miles without dying. Which I did. Just. Blacking out for a good five minutes after the race on the bus back to the railway station was an inauspicious moment in my running career. But get round I did. In 4 hours and 54 seconds. This of course bugged the hell out of me. My 5k, 10k and half marathon times are all fairly respectable but not having a marathon time that at least started with a “3…” was disheartening. So it was inevitable that despite vowing never to spend close to one sixth of a day running round in a big circle again, the pink exploding man called to me once more.

Like some archetype of the universal unconscious, the image of the pink exploding man haunted my small apartment…

What did I learn this time around? First, I really don’t like marathon running. Or training. A bit of a hindrance to the prospective sub four hour marathon runner. I’ve come to the conclusion that running, like many things in life is on a spectrum, akin to the extrovert / introvert idea that I’m very fond of.  This suggests that introverts are drained by excessive social interaction while extroverts are energised by it. I think there are people who gain energy from long runs and those who are drained by them. I’ve read of people who experience a long run as meditation or therapy. Something they actually enjoy doing. The weirdos… My experience of anything over 10 miles or so is feeling hollowed, frequently wiped out and generally resentful at the time it takes to get round. As I’m the only one making me do this, feeling aimlessly resentful at the world isn’t a very healthy frame of mind to be in. Perhaps there’s an aerobic / anaerobic spectrum of enjoyment for running. I love the feeling of short bursts of speed (with the caveat that speed is all relative. My short burst of speed is presumably Mo Farah’s easy warm up) but the looming prospect of a 20 mile run at 5:30 km pace makes my heart sink. Which is a little absurd. Running is, after all, one of my hobbies. It’s like me sitting down to organize my stamp collection and thinking “urgh, not sodding stamp collecting again.”  Not that I collect stamps, you understand.  That’s simply a metaphor.

Finally! The Uzbekistan collection is complete!

Second, the running I do like (Ah 5k. Lovely, lovely 5k.  A 5k race is like Christmas Day when you’re 10 years old. Anything starting “18:…” is like finding Optimus Prime under the tree. “20:…” feels like unwrapping your maths homework) suffers when I train for a marathon. Many runners can maintain their performance over the shorter distances but I’m not one of them. Post-marathon I’m currently around two minutes off my best 5k time. Which leads nicely on to number three – injury. As I head over 15 miles for a long run the problems start. Or started. This time around I thought I had the knee / hip problem of 2013 sorted. I was fitter, stronger and cross trained more effectively.  Everything had seemingly gone really well. Three 20 mile and one 22 mile runs were all completed without a whisper of protest from the iliotibial band. Then my knee and hip suddenly remembered I was running a marathon and helpfully decided to hobble me with a constant shooting pain. With three halves and a 10k in September I’d also over done it bit, so come race day I felt pretty flat and grumpy.

Me at the start line of the marathon. Artist's impression.
Me at the start line of the marathon. Artist’s impression.

Also, it really did feel like there was some kind of mental switch flicked with that 22 mile run. “Ah yes, I’ve done that now. Time to move on.” But there was another month of running to go and my interest and enthusiasm were seriously on the wane.  I was wearying of the public nature of the whole thing. The sponsorship begging bowl had gone round to friends, family and colleagues *** rant at unforthcoming colleagues redacted **** and the attention and chat is fine when it’s going well. But when you’re tired, grumpy, in pain and looking at the prospect of failure the yearning for anonymity is powerful. Coupled with this was the strong desire not to let down the plant based world with a shoddy marathon performance.  I thought it wise not to wear my club vest on the day to avoid any shouts of “Should have eaten more bacon lol” if I had to limp out after three miles.

So how did the the race pan out? Well, the hip / knee pain wasn’t too much of an issue as it turned out. It blended in nicely with all the other pains I was experiencing. At the fabled 22 mile point a wave of exhaustion hit and I walked / ran for the last four miles. The target was sub 4, and I managed a 3:56:59, which is fine, but there was little sense of achievement on crossing the line.  More a feeling of just finishing an exam in a subject I didn’t like. I’ve felt proud and elated with a sub-90 minute half and a 38:45 10k this year, but just sneaking under 4 hours for the marathon, exhausted, didn’t feel good. Without the injury, with a better fueling strategy (i.e. “some” rather than “none”) and less races in the build up I’d be feeling a lot more positive about the experience and my performance. But a euphoric finish in the marathon could easily gloss over the actual reality of the past 16 weeks. That reality being “this marathon lark isn’t for me”.

Eagle eyed readers may be able to spot the dip in pace.
Eagle eyed readers may be able to spot the dip in pace.

It’s telling that of the five distances I’ve run this year I’ve achieved personal best times in four of them. But the PB I really wanted, the 5k, I haven’t achieved.  A contrary impulse based in some kind of insecurity that says “That thing you like doing, don’t do that.  Do this thing that you don’t like instead”.  There’s a lot to be said for choosing the right goals.  To do that you have to know yourself.  What your limits are, when and how far to push them.  To recognise when a goal is damaging rather than developing.  I want to feel fit and healthy. I want to look in decent shape. I want to enjoy running fast and racing.  Marathon training doesn’t help me with that.

So, post-marathon #2 I’m feeling the same as with marathon #1 – injured, frustrated, relieved that it’s all over.  Let’s see if I can get back to where I was and enjoy the sport again.

P.S. I’m with this guy.

Sherwoods Vauxhall Darlington 10km 2015

Outrageously, in the 18th century Daniel Defoe disparaged the town of Darlington, writing that it had “nothing remarkable but dirt”.  Well, all I can say to that is Daniel Defoe clearly never ran the Sherwoods Vauxhall Darlington 10km Road Race.  He’d have found more to Darlington than dirt if he had.  Come to think of it the council is missing a cracking slogan opportunity here: – “There’s more to Darlington than dirt!”  Incidentally, Wikipedia also tells me that “The Durham Ox came from Darlington”. What?  Nevermind, I’ve a race report to do.

Like the York 10k, due to logistics or general apathy, I’d missed Darlington off the race schedule the last couple of years.  But with the running mojo restored and South Park being my designated home parkrun for the past six months it was back.  Like a Terminator driving a car through a window.  Well, not quite, but with it being only 10 minutes away on the train there really was no excuse.

Conditions were good on the day but did present me with the old conundrum “to shade or not to shade?”  I do like the psychological protective barrier that sunglasses offer whilst I’m mashed into a crowd of 1500 people, but that has to be balanced out by the potential for looking like an arse if it clouds over, starts chucking it down, I can’t see a thing and run into a lamppost.  I took the risk, the clouds dissipated and I of course looked super cool.  In my £12 Sainsbury’s sunglasses.

Super... cool?
Super… cool?

There was a feeling of deja vu with another cosy start area and a motivating speech from a mayor.  There was no bee punch though, so I wasn’t hyperventilating with hilarity two meters in.

It’s a two lap course which can be a bit of a mental challenge.  The thought of “urghghgg I’ve got to go round again??!” always creeps in, no matter how much positive mental attitude strategies I’m employing.  However, once I’ve wheeled away from the tantalising finishing area (so close… so very close…) and headed back out (urghrghgh) it’s useful I now know where the uphills will be (heeeeughghgh) and the downhills (wheeeeeeeee!) and can pace myself accordingly.

I’ve always found the course to be deceptively tough with plenty of little ups and downs to navigate, and Sunday was no exception.  I was still a bit heavy legged from York and the week’s marathon training so was satisfied with a 39:42.  (Although the presence of “Matthew Jones, 15th Place, 33:39″ did set the pulse racing a little when I looked at the results.  Yeah!  Oh wait, that’s not me…) What I was also happy with was the finish.  With about three chaps in front of me putting in a sprint for the line the sensible part of my brain (the Slowius Sensibili?)  said “ease down, you’ve got the sub-40.  Live to sprint another day”. Until someone bombed past me and the Stupidulla Competatata took over and decided that wasn’t happening.  Once again dignity was left gasping for breath by the side of the road as I made up three places and dipped for the line.  Because that’s what running is all about.  Finishing 153rd rather than 156th  – YEAH!

Thanks as ever to the organizers, volunteers and people of the town for getting behind an event everyone in Darlington can be proud of.  Well, I say everyone.  I was highly amused by this comment from “mrvunderbar” on the Northern Echo website:

We have a perfectly good park 2 minutes away from the town center. The event could of quite easily been held there and caused very little disruption. I always have my sandwiches sat on a bench on High Row but I had to do without today because of this spectacle of selfish vanity.

Now, this may well be an effective wind up but for the sake of argument because there is always at least one cretin who moans when anything of interest happens in a town:  1600 people doing six and a bit laps of Southpark? Plus a fun run and a junior 3k? Sure Mr. I-know-nothing-about-this-thing-that-you’re-doing-but-you-can-easily-do-it-over-there-so-I-can-eat-my-sandwiches-here, no problem… And let’s cancel the one morning a year when 2000+ people come to Darlington on a Sunday morning, generating business, encouraging people young and old to exercise, get healthy, commit to a goal, and achieve that goal.  Because mrvunderbar wants to eat his sandwiches on that bench.  Runners of Darlington, BE ASHAMED OF YOUR SELFISH VANITY.

THE place for sandwich eating
THE place for sandwich eating

Asda Foundation York 10K 2015

For some reason lost in the mists of time I didn’t run the York 10k last year. I think I was in the middle of a perfect storm of tendonitis and wallet-itis and decided to save the Achilles and the bank account a bit of pain. Which was a shame because the race is a really impressive experience – Five thousand people heading through the centre of York, past the Minster and out along the river. Also, in 2012 it was my first race as a fully-fledged vegan. Miraculously my bones didn’t break due to calcium deficiency and I broke 40 minutes for the first time instead, cheered on by Jones Snr. So the race has some good vibes and fond memories.

Coming into the race this year, I was feeling pretty fit but a week out disaster stuck in the form of a virulent variant of bird and swine flu that left me at death’s door for a week. That or a minor summer cold. Either way, I wasn’t sure what sort of form I was in for Sunday but I made sure I had plenty of concealed tissues on my person and headed for the Knavesmire start line, one that featured a reassuring mix of grizzled club runners, rhinos and Captain America.

One thing that seems to be a constant of the York 10k is the infuriatingly and excessively upbeat compere courtesy of Stray FM. With a voice that could give a runner ear chafe in ten seconds flat and filling dead air as only a local radio DJ can we were repeated told that the start was ONLY MOMENTS AWAY!!!! “Only” in this case meant 20 minutes. As the start is snug to say the least the vigorous warm up involved only a jiggling shuffle and a record number of “urgh, get on with it”s. The impromptu mash up of Cary Rae Jepson and Queen resulted in minor amusement to alleviate the irritation, though.

“Don’t call me now maybe, I’m having such a good time…”
“Don’t call me now maybe, I’m having such a good time…”

Just when we thought the start really was ONLY MOMENTS AWAY!!! it was time to introduce Yorkshire TV stalwart Harry Grasham and the mayor. Neither of whom were running. Boooooo chanted the crowd. The crowd in my head.

What had more of an energising effect than a mayoral appearance was THE BEE. As my good friend Ben of Ben’s Running Blog has ably detailed, just as the start commenced a rogue bee decided to get in on the action and weaved between the packed in runners. There was potential here for panic, a stampede and hundreds dead. But one man saved us all. Now, I’m not a runner that’s unfamiliar with a sudden bee appearance. As my Strava feed will tell you, however, I favour the approach of going “urghghgh a bee” and flinching / zigzagging across the pavement like I’m being shot at by sniper.

What this situation called for was decisiveness. As the bee swooped in, the runner to my left, without thought or hesitation and with only a minor “ugh!” of surprise, on pure instinct punched the bee OUT OF THE AIR. I can’t stress enough how impressive this looked. Just like a boxer taking an upper cut to the chin the bee groggily departed the arena.* In addition to being awesome, this was of course hilarious, not helped by the awed cry of “did you just punch a bee out of the air??!” from Ben. So it took a good 1 km to focus on the running and not the bee vs man rumble in the jungle.

harry bee
Clearly the pre-start hilarity did me good as I was holding steady at under 4 minute kilometres as I went through the centre of York. Plus I got a shout of “GO VEGAN! PLANT POWER! WOOOO!” Had I been more plant powered I might have offered more than a gurn and a thumbs up, but it still gave me boost. There was further potential for man / animal warfare as I approached the river section and had to pass a family of unnerved looking geese. I was momentarily panicked that the York Press would be carrying an “Irony as Vegan Runner mauled by Goose” headline story on Monday morning, but thankfully they must have recognised I was an ally and decided not to drive me into the river.

Does anyone have the correct time?
Does anyone have the correct time?

As the finish line approached it was once again time to think “why haven’t I learned how to sprint yet?”. A Tyne Bridge Harrier bombed past me at full pelt so I wasn’t alone for once in the undignified sprawl for the line, and this may have helped shave a few seconds off my time. That time being 38:45. PB – smashed! 39 minutes – KRACKED with a kapital K!

It’s no world record and a good six minutes behind the winner but I was weirdly moved. Something about putting in the training and then actually getting a result from it. A slow realisation that the body really is a machine that you can tweak and modify, in this case, to run faster. A quietly powerful feeling of the conscious and unconscious processes working together. Although I might have been over-awed by the T-Shirt slogan (“GLORY ACHIEVED”? Hell yeah!) and the stupendous medal.

Now that's a medal
Now that’s a medal

With that it was time to pull a pair of jeans over my clammy shorts and head off to the cinema to watch Sunset Boulevard. The only way to celebrate a new PB. Mo Farah went straight to the Odeon to see Double Indemnity after he won Olympic Gold, you know.

I AM BIG! It’s the 10k road races that got small.
I AM BIG! It’s the 10k road races that got small.

* no bees were harmed in the making of this blog.

Northallerton parkrun #1

One of the beauties of running as my sport of choice is that it suits my social instincts. Generally solitary with occasional and fleeting moments of anonymous connectivity. Like bus drivers acknowledging each other at a tricky junction, I’ve perfected the grimacing nod when passing fellow runners who respond with similar and on we go with our strange pursuit. This week however, circumstance decreed that I had to step outside the nod zone and into the INTERACTION ZONE. Because Northallerton was getting its very own Parkrun.

Having frequently bemoaned the lack of activities that I probably wouldn’t do anyway in “the administrative heart of North Yorkshire”, it was time to get involved. I’m not one to stand by when other people are putting in the hard work and volunteers are needed. Well, I am, but I like Parkrun and have no excuse not to help one on my doorstep get set up. (note the “get set up” i.e. code for “not every week!”)

Already being an accomplished marshal (Tees Barrage Parkrun Marshal 2013. Once.) I was fully prepped for the high vis vest experience. What I wasn’t prepared for was having a role with actual responsibility. My assumption was marshalling generally involved standing around feeling a bit awkward for health and safety reasons and offering occasional encouragement. But not here. I was positioned at a hazardous intersection where runners emerging from a wooded area merge into a cycle lane. There was only one man standing between hundreds of runners and a horrific melange of wicking fabric and handlebars. And that man was me.

I’d get two goes at it, though, with a test run on Monday before the main event on Saturday. In the Monday evening drizzle I positioned myself on the deserted cycle path and waited for the procession of valient test runners. Well this is easy I thought as the runners set off and… hazards suddenly everywhere! Dog walkers! A bike! YOUTHS! ON BIKES! This was a rookie marshal nightmare. But I held it together and was pleasantly surprised to discover the power of the high vis vest. THE YOUTHS looked apprehensive and intimidated rather than surly and about to throw things. My clear and concise safety information (“erm… there’ll be some runners coming through here in a minute, like”) was delivered and off they went without further ado. I think I’ll wear high vis every day.

With that hurdle overcome I just had to figure out what my encouraging slogan would be. With eclectic diversity I moved effortlessly between “well done” and “well run” with a bit of clapping. This seemed to go down quite well and once I’d got a few “thank you marshal!”s and some jovial thumbs up the clammy feeling of awkwardness rapidly dissipated.

So, Monday went pretty well apart from a dog running off with one of the cones, but that was outside of my jurisdiction and the big day rolled around. 181 people lined up for the start, again with me being the only thing keeping them from an horrendous spoking.

Runners. Thousands of them.
Runners. Thousands of them.

And this time I was allocated a whistle to draw attention to any emergencies. Happily the morning passed without whistling being required. A passing 80 year old woman did start talking to me but I stayed in the zone, ever alert for potential hazards. I tried to recruit her as a volunteer for next week, but no dice. Another chatty woman on a bike turned up for a look, which was nice, then the world’s grumpiest man cycled past muttering something indistinguishable, possibly “eugh bastard runners”. But that didn’t dampen spirits as a chorus of “Thank you Marshal” made me feel like A BOSS. I also enjoyed sharing the universal gesture for bemusement at a non-parkrun runner running in the opposite direction to the park runners. I’ll bet the Germans have a good word for that*

Me. Marshalling at the Parkrun.
Me. Marshalling at the Parkrun.

So I had a taste of extended running interaction and survived, and also enjoyed it. I’ll be back next week. BUT NOT EVERY WEEK, just to stress.