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The sharp end

18 September 2018

This Saturday, at parkrun, shifting from foot to foot about three rows from the front, checking out the Helpston Harriers vests ahead, a fellow runner said to his friend, “Woah, we really are at the sharp end!”

I was standing there too. A quick blast on the horn, a broken chord of garmin beeps, and we were running. Sprinting kids, grizzled guys gurning by the first turn, sharp elbowed men cursing the plodders in search of a pb. And me, failing not to go out too fast, again.

There are not many women at the sharp end. I knew a couple were ahead of me but I couldn’t spot them – too small, too slight, to be noticed in amongst the sea of men.

At that parkrun, 7 out of the first 100 to finish were women or girls, but we made up nearly half (48%) of everyone who walked, jogged or ran around Nene Park that morning.

Parkrun is not a race. Our local cross-country league, on the other hand, is. It starts in three weeks’ time (oh god), and I just received this message about it from my club:

More often than not“? This guidance is new, I think. I’ve always understood it to be fastest 7 men, and 3 women. And that’s what it will be. In the first race of 2017/18 season, 5 women finished in the top 100, and only 20 in the first 200.

So why not 5 men and 5 women to score? What is the argument against it? I guess the rules originally reflected the number of runners of each gender a team could field. And they do still mirror them – in that first race last year 38% of runners were women, 62% men. But there were 195 women, more than enough to score. If the teams have the runners, why isn’t the scoring equal?

Could it be elitism, rather than sexism, that drives this choice to hold onto old rules? Elitism is what competitive sport is built on. Rewarding the performance of the very best – who push themselves to their limit – over the mid-pack runners who’d rather hold onto their breakfast and not break their ankles. Prioritising the sharp end, over the fun-runners.

How do we get more women at the sharp end, though? Maybe by not treating them as fun-runners, and giving them an equal chance to score.

Is it wrong to compare your running to other people’s?

16 March 2018

“Comparison is the thief of joy. Run your own race. Don’t compare yourself to others, compare yourself to the person you were yesterday.”

Every fitness programme, every inspirational quote on instagram, every ‘brand ambassador’ for every sport agrees: if you want to be happy, stop judging yourself by others’ progress, and keep your mind on yourself (#runhappy!).

To which I say, I have tried. I really have tried. But it’s impossible. And, maybe, it’s not healthy.

It’s important to have role models

Deena Kastor said of Paula Radcliffe in 2009 that “She makes great decisions. I don’t feel bad comparing myself to her as I believe all marathon athletes do because she’s the ultimate woman in the sport. She’s got the world record by an extraordinary amount and so it’s safe and healthy for all of us to compare ourselves in this sport to look up to her. ”

We know how fast Mo Farah or Paula Radcliffe can run. And if we run ourselves, we know where we rank compared to them, i.e. in a galaxy far, far away. We will never be the fastest in the world. And this is not depressing, because we also know that we will never be the slowest.

Every runner was once a worse runner

Unless you started competing at running aged 5, you probably once struggled to run down the street without coughing up a lung.  No matter how many breaks from running you take through injury or apathy, you will (hopefully) never find running that hard again.

I know we’re all getting older, and looking at my dad panting through a parkrun at 73, running into old age doesn’t look exactly easy. But I still think it will never be as hard as it was at the start, because we will already know we can do it.

Running is a physical struggle that takes place in your head. Every run is a battle of When Can I Stop? versus I Will Keep Going. And every time I Will wins, it makes it a tiny bit easier for I Will to win again.



Running with others is more fun

When I started running, I did it by myself. I wanted to huff and puff and huff and walk a bit and run a bit and walk a bit and then die alone.  All alone. Smartphones did not exist in 1994, so there was no thought of sharing my progress with others.

I am a selfish runner. I run to give myself time to think, time not to think, time to be outside and enjoy the seasons, to see birds and flowers and trees and views. To get fit and stay healthy, to stay sane. To have time away from my family (sorry).

I ran alone for 22 years. At the Great Eastern Run in 2016, I watched all the other women in the queue for the loo laughing and chatting to each other while I waited, dealing with my pre-race nerves alone. They were all wearing club vests. I knew I was missing out on something.

Before I joined a running club, I had never entered a race just for fun. I would never have signed up for a 5-mile cross country race, let alone 6 of them in one season. And if I hadn’t, I would never have known how my post-race low could be totally eclipsed by the high of finding out the team triumphed, despite my performance.



Running your own race is a myth

Running with – and against – other people isn’t just more fun. It makes us better runners. According to research carried out in 1968 at the University of California-Berkeley, running your own race is a myth. We run faster in a pack, and are “fooling ourselves” if we think that we can run as hard alone as we would against others.

Competition does not have to be unhealthy. This profile of Shalane Flanagan, winner of the 2017 New York Marathon, shows that it is possible to be both competitive with and supportive of other runners.

“We usually see competitive women, particularly athletically excellent women, only in one of two ways: either competing to defeat one another, or all about team over self. But that’s a flawed, limiting paradigm. The Shalane Effect dismantles it: She is extraordinarily competitive, but not petty; team-oriented, but not deferential. Elevating other women is actually an act of self-interest: It’s not so lonely at the top if you bring others along.”

The Strava Effect 


So if comparing your running to others’ gives you something to aim for, is more fun than running alone and makes you faster, why am I writing this? And why are there so many internet memes telling us to stop comparing ourselves to others?

Because of the internet!

It has never been so easy to track your performance, and compare it to your friend’s, that guy who always beats you, and your nearest Olympian’s. You don’t have to go to the track and study the split times, or wait for race results to come out in the newspaper. If you choose to, and most of us do, you can record your every move, upload it to Strava and share it on facebook before you’ve even finished stretching.

If it’s easy to share your own running, it’s almost impossible to avoid other people’s. Fitness boasts are everywhere, and I should know, I make them every week on my instagram. They make me feel good, but what if they make any other people feel bad?

One Sunday, I had just got back from one of those brilliant runs – where the sun is shining, you feel good and every step is a delight. It wasn’t a fast one – a proper long slow run that I really enjoyed. I was feeling on top of the world, logged the run on Strava and then up popped an almost identical run by a runner who is a similar speed to me – but she had run it 1 minute per mile faster.

Immediately I felt deflated. I could have run faster. Should I have run faster?

Know your limits

I should not have run faster! And I should not have felt deflated, looking at Strava that day. I should have been proud of my run, acknowledged that it was slower for a good reason, and felt happy for my friend. In a moment of strength, I would have done that. But I was feeling weak, so instead I unfollowed her on Strava and felt doubly bad – both for comparing myself to her and for not being able to ‘cope’ with how it made me feel.

Sometimes, you eat the bar, and sometimes the bar eats you. If you’re feeling good, and want to be inspired by others’ running, find new routes or just see what your friends are up to, pick up your phone and knock yourself out (not literally).

If you’re not, switch it off for a bit.

There are not two ideal approaches when it comes to comparing yourself to others: one zen like state where you only care about your own performance and don’t notice other people; and one where you know exactly where you fit but it only brings you joy. There is only one, human, approach: which one day brings you joy and the next day brings you down.

It is not wrong to compare your running to other people’s. It is just natural. Embrace it.

Is it cold? Is it dark? Yes? Let’s train for a marathon!

3 January 2018

CarinSleet

Marathon training in England in January is the worst.

It is dark from 4pm to 8am. It is cold. It is windy. Trails are muddy. Pavements icy. If you are really lucky you will catch some horizontal sleet in the face and feel like your scalp has been frozen and ripped off the back of your head like a bad wig.

Your running routes, which in the light are many and varied and fragrant and fascinating, winding through Nene Park and along cycle ways, over Castor hill and along the River Nene, have reduced to one: up and down the Oundle Road.

When the weather is like this, I recommend training for a marathon to really maximise that time outside. I would also recommend London, so that 16 weeks of training start exactly on 1 January 2018. And, if I were you, I would pick a training plan that aims for maximum mileage – none of this Run less, Run faster nonsense.

6 runs a week is what you need! What do you mean you don’t have time to do that because you have a full-time job in London and a 4 year old? Does your alarm not go off at 5am?

Once you’ve booked your place and written your training plan, erase it and start again because you need to fit it around the 5 cross-country races you said you’d run for Yaxley Runners on Sundays. Also, volunteering at junior parkrun. Also, all of your 4 year old’s friends’ birthday parties. Oh, and apparently your husband might occasionally want to leave the house. Some people are so selfish.

Now that your plan is written, the hard work is over. You really should think about fuel, though. This year, why not have an approach to nutrition which is not just ‘eat more chocolate and crisps’? And while you’re pondering that, maybe have a think about buying new trainers now rather than wearing all your existing ones down to thin rubber husks and buying 4 new pairs that don’t quite fit you 3 weeks before the race?

You are now sorted. Wait, I forgot, what about positive mental attitude? Repeat after me:

“Marathon training in England in January is the best!”

I am not an athlete

6 July 2017

ParkrunDawnGina

Going for a jog? That question used to make my blood boil. No, I am not going for a “jog”, I do not jog, I run, I would say. I am a Runner. Running was serious, dynamic, intentional, a permanent state. Jogging was something other people did. Occasionally, slowly, and wearing heavy duty cotton.

God, I was patronising. I feel differently now. I am still a runner (of course!) but now the label that irks me is at the other end of the fitness scale – “Athlete”.

Two years ago I moved to a new city. I didn’t know many people, and I had some time off work in the Spring. I decided to take up a new sport, in addition to running, and I chose Crossfit.

In Crossfit everyone is an athlete. Everyone does the same workouts and the message is that anyone – everyone – can succeed. Each year, through the Open, thousands of people submit five workout times online and can compare their performance to anyone else in the world. It’s thrilling to see the times of the elite athletes and a real model for how a mass participation sport can be driven by, and keep connected to, the success of those at its very top. How many London marathon runners know the names of the elite field? Every Crossfitter has checked out Katrin Davidsdottir’s Instagram.

But can everyone really succeed in Crossfit? It’s bloody hard. I’m fit, competitive and bloody minded and I found it almost impossible. You can scale the workouts, but you have not really made it unless you have done them “RX”. Everyone may be called an athlete, but I found the culture unforgiving of weakness.

Nobody cares, train harder.

Maintain control of your destiny without regard for the obstacles and hardships that are laid on your path.

We can’t live with self-pity. It cannot exist.

I kept up the Crossfit for about a year, until marathon training took over. After the marathon I felt guilty. I should go back to Crossfit, I thought. I have lost all my gainz. I no longer even lift. Instead, I watched a lot of lifting videos on Instagram. I gazed at six packs. I weighed up the pros and cons:

  • Pros: learning new skills; improved flexibility; handstands; my body looked good.
  • Cons: dread of each class; 2-3 days of agony after every class; inability to run fast or far any more; cost; always finishing last; growing obsession with how my body looked.

DoYouEvenLift

I didn’t renew my membership. Instead I took up a different 9am class each Saturday morning: parkrun. Peterborough parkrun is massive – regularly hosting 600 runners, and all of human life is there. Babies, children, people with disabilities, families, older people and their dogs. I had done a parkrun or two before, but never really “got” it. I don’t lack any motivation to run, and why would I need to meet in a park to run a measly 5k? Also, if I can’t get a pb time every week, why would I bother?

But then, my nephews decided they wanted to run it, so I ran it with them. And then, my sister in law decided she would give it a go, so I ran it with her. And then my sister, and then her husband, and then my dad (aged 72). Over a year I ran a couple of parkruns at my pace (and I did get a pb), but I ran 20 more that took longer than 30 minutes. I volunteered, I was tail runner, I just went along and cheered. It became part of my life, and of the life of our family.

At parkrun, you’re not even allowed to call it a race. It’s a run. We are all runners, even the walkers. Treating it like a race is not just frowned upon, it’s deeply uncool. When you come first, you get the same applause that everyone else gets. Everyone’s time is posted online, but there’s a crucial difference. The number that counts is not the time it takes you, it’s the number of parkruns you’ve done.  Every week we cheer people reaching their 50th, 100th, 250th parkruns. It really is the taking part that counts.

It’s the taking part that counts – that’s what they say when you don’t win, I used to think. But not now. Now I know, that’s how you win, and we’re all winners, especially the joggers.

Parkrun

Mmm Bop! Running London the Hansons way

25 April 2016

Gina marathon

I turned 40 last year and yesterday I ran the 2016 London Marathon in 3 hours, 18 minutes and 3 seconds! This is a 10 minute personal best.  Can you tell that I’m happy?

I never thought I would run London. The huge crowds of runners at the start have always terrified me. But I had the chance to go for a ‘Good for Age’ place (starting at the much smaller Green start), so I took the backhanded compliment and went for it.

Things I loved:

  • Tower Bridge!
  • The energy of the crowds at Greenwich, Canary Wharf and especially Lower Thames Street. It really did make me run faster and feel better.
  • The comedy signs.  “If Trump can run for president you can do this” (at least 2), “If Leicester can win the league you can do this”, “Wave if you’re not wearing underwear”, and my favourite: “Touch here for Power”. Good work.
  • The music. All the drummers! When someone played Prince! The awesome noise at Run Dem Crew! And best of all the rave tunnel just before 24 miles. Next year they need strobes.

Things I didn’t:

  • Kids wearing surgical gloves wanting high fives – parents, chill out
  • The first 4 miles

The thing I forgot about:

Marathons are hard.

The Hansons Marathon Method dictates not running more than 16 miles at a time, which meant that the long runs were some of my easiest training runs. The tempo runs, maxing out at 10 miles, were harder.

26.2 miles, at tempo running pace, was the hardest. All the training (I averaged 50 miles a week) will do a lot, but it won’t run the race for you. All the work on the day still has to be done, and done by you.

The worst bit by far was the first 4 miles. It was impossible to find my pace in the crowd, dodging other runners, traffic islands, speed bumps, kerbs, water bottles, discarded clothes. I knew I needed to slow down but I couldn’t make myself do it. The need to get to the last 10 miles, just to find out if I could cope, was overwhelming.

Once past half way I got my confidence back. My splits were even, I wasn’t going to blow up. By 19 miles the wheels were definitely staying on. It was tough – my feet hurt a LOT – but what can you do? After 21 miles I stopped thinking about finish times and just concentrated on maintaining pace for that mile. At 23 miles I knew I could do it. At 25 miles I started the push. At 800 metres to go I started sprinting for the line. At 600 metres to go I stopped sprinting because that was insane, and enjoyed my coast to the finish.

I’m so glad I did it. I’m even more glad I’ve done it. I don’t think I’ll do it again?

The thing I’m most proud of:

Check out my splits!

Marathon chart

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It took me two years to write this

19 April 2016

I love running blogs. Love reading them. Love that they are hanging on to life in the age of 140 characters. Love that there’s a whole industry of fitness blogging* now. Particularly love all the female bloggers inspiring others to get involved.

I love running blogs, just not my own, apparently.

I stopped writing my blog for various reasons, a few of which were reasonable. It is hard to write about your running life without mentioning your young child, who may or may not want their little face and derring do shared with the world**. It is also hard to think of new and interesting things to say that people might want to read, whilst not writing about your young child.

I did not stop running! Of course I didn’t. I did have a miniature dalliance with crossfit – which is a whole other post – but the running continued.

I moved out of London, to Peterborough, a year ago and the running there is fantastic. Flat, completely and utterly pancake flat and devoid of anything even vaguely resembling a hill, but fantastic. From my house I can run loops of 3,4, 13, even 20 miles without seeing a car. The trails are empty. The woods full of birdsong. The air crystal clear.

So what am I doing on Sunday? The thing I said I would never do, running the sodding London marathon.

I turned 40. I realised that my Milton Keynes marathon time would qualify me for a Good for Age place. So, I leapt onto the bandwagon. I ditched the crossfit, bought a copy of the Hansons Marathon Method, and did a shed load of training.

I am ready.

Wish me luck!

IMG_1868

* I don’t love photos of people hugging protein powder jars. And I really don’t love people posting pictures of their abs accompanied by claims that body image isn’t important.

** the 23 people who read this blog.

 

How to run a 10k race and actually enjoy it

7 July 2014

10k is my nemesis distance. Too long to be short, too short to be long; it’s running kryptonite.

This is one reason why I haven’t attempted a 10k race since September 2011, the others being 2) pregnancy, c) wine.

On Sunday our friend Brian was staying for the weekend and we decided to run one of the Regent’s Park Summer 10k series  – you can just turn up 15 minutes before the start, pay your £16, tie on your timing chip and off you go. Spontaneity is not usually my middle name, but in this case I think not booking in advance gave me some psychological advantages: I didn’t obsess about it beforehand, I didn’t really* train for it, and I didn’t have a pace in mind. There were no hopes to be dashed – I was just going to turn up, give it a go and see what happened.

What happened? Some flippin’ excellent things! I paced it sensibly, ran a negative split, and got a new pb of 43:04. Best of all, I didn’t even feel like death at the end so there is room for improvement.

Now that the race is over and I no longer need them, I have come up with some useful tips on how to run a 10k.

1. START SLOWLY

The Regent’s Park 10k is a 3 lap course, which I have previously found to be soul destroying, but this time I used it to my advantage. Rather than starting at maximum pace and trying in vain to get faster each lap, I started at a pace that felt way too slow and really did get faster each lap. Aiming for a 45 minute finish, I actually came in a lot quicker as I felt so good in the second and third laps.

2. STRUGGLING? SLOW DOWN

I wasn’t aiming for a pb so I tried a crazy thing: actually enjoying the race. Every time I started to feel uncomfortable in the lungs, legs or stomach, I slowed down a bit because I didn’t want to feel like that. Then, once I felt better, I found I sped back up to pace without really trying.

3. GET TACTICAL

The Regent’s Park course is billed as “flat”, but really it has a couple of slight inclines and declines which shouldn’t be ignored. If you try to run them all at the same pace, your perception of how hard you’re working gets skewed and you end up ruining yourself. Slow down a bit on every incline, and you will reap the rewards on the downhills.

4. SAVE IT FOR THE END

This is a version of 1. Pick a point at which you are willing to give it everything and save your heroics for then. I picked 8k, but it ended up being 9k, then really just the final straight. Things do even out in the end, though. I used to peg it for one lap, die in the second and end up jogging it in. How much better to end on a sprint finish in front of your husband and child?

Like any tips, these seem really obvious. But, given that I’ve managed 20 years of running without following them, I hope they’re worth sharing.

* Ok, I have done some training, but nothing specifically 10k focused other than two interval sessions during which I nearly threw up. (6 x 800m with 1.5 minute recoveries, pain fans)

photo 3

Me, daughter and 38 minute 10k-er Brian post-race. Plus plastic cup.