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Confession time: I got some personal bests

9 July 2019

Well, this is awkward. It took me a couple of years to write about facing up to a future of no more personal bests. “Personal bests are temporary, running is forever”, I wrote, waxing philosophical.

But… it turns out I could get another personal best. And, um, not just one. In May, three weeks after Boston marathon, I knocked over a minute off my 10k time at Langtoft Road Run. I love this race. Flat country lanes, wisteria clad cottages, and the weather was ideal: cloudy and cool. My legs felt rested and the pace (6:45 minutes a mile) felt just the right side of too hard. Nothing really hurt until the last mile and then there was NO WAY I was slowing down and letting it go. A pb! My first personal best since joining Yaxley Runners in 2016.

New 10k pb: 41:38

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PB Face

10 days after Langtoft, we met at the track on a warm Wednesday evening for the club’s annual Timed Mile. A love/hate affair involving no dinner, pre-race terror and a post-effort cough that lasts all night. It was worth it, as I went sub- 6 minutes for one mile on the track for the first time. Thank god that’s over for another year.

New mile pb: 5:57

Three weeks later in Ferry Meadows, I turned up to the first race of the Peterborough Grand Prix 5km series, interested to see what would happen. It was busy, and I was carried along by faster men and women for a kilometre before actually deciding to go for the sub-20. I’ve been there many, many times before, and failed. This time it felt possible. I had a moment of fear and a flicker of feeling I didn’t want to try. But then, belief! I was going to do it. The struggle in the last kilometre was real, but I forced my legs to keep turning over, kept counting to 60 (my last resort mental trick) and forced myself to sprint for the line.

New 5k pb: 19:54

This old girl, it seems, is on fire. The question is, why?

Is it my Boston marathon training kicking in too late? Is it a bit more hill training? Is it the handful of track sessions I’ve done? Is it consistent mileage? Is it pilates? Is it self-belief? Is it the cooler weather this summer?

I think it’s all of these things combined. My only epiphany during this purple patch is this: you won’t get faster by pushing harder during races if the pace feels hard, you’ll only get faster when that pace feels easier. You’ve got to put in the work to make it feel easy.

Boston, baby!

23 April 2019

I ran the 2019 Boston marathon! I haven’t written a race report in a while, but I’m making an exception for this one.

Why is Boston so special? Because you have to work hard to make it to the start, work harder to make it to the finish, and when those Bostonians say “Good Job!” as they hang the unicorn medal around your neck, they really make you believe it.

If you don’t believe me, watch this excellent film. Be careful though, it might make you want to sign up.

Getting to the start

As a Brit, Boston was a race I was aware of, but not one I thought I’d ever run. I’m not a huge fan of aeroplanes or big city marathons, so the thought that I would fly somewhere ‘just’ to run a marathon was nuts. But then, in 2017, a couple of my running clubmates ran Boston, and I realised what a big deal it was. Given that most people struggle to run fast enough to qualify, and I could, why wouldn’t I?

After many years of not caring about this race, I suddenly cared a lot. We planned a big trip around it, seeing friends in Connecticut and in New York. We saved for 18 months – booking the hotel room as soon as I nailed my qualifying time at Edinburgh (after a failed attempt in London) in 2018.

No pressure, then

Boston

With all the expectations I had of the race, the holiday and the $$$$$$$ we were spending on hotel rooms, I had one job: get to the start line uninjured. I abandoned the high mileage Hansons plan which did so well for me in 2016 but resulted in injury in 2018. I used one of the free Boston plans (level 3) and something crazy happened – I actually enjoyed the training! It was varied, interesting, and most of the interval training was 10k or half marathon pace, not 5k. Win win win.

I arrived in the US ready for the taper, and… well… let’s just say I enjoyed it.

The most well-organised race I’ve ever run

So, my holiday was great! But what about the race? I trained for a 3:25, and ran a 3:32. It was amazing and awful – sometimes at the same time. But definitely mostly amazing.

Things I loved:

  • So many fast women! I started in the blue wave, with a qualifying time of 3:32, and I was mostly surrounded by female runners for the whole race. This was brilliant and in my experience very unusual! There was not a whole lot of chatting going on (we were working too hard for that), but it was truly awesome and inspiring to run alongside so many speedy women.
  • A race run by runners, for runners. It felt like a local race, scaled up, but not commercialised. Everything you wanted was where you needed it when you needed it. Coffee? Bagel? Toilet? Toilet again just before the start? They even gave you a bottle of water BEFORE your medal at the end. Extra points for this.
  • The volunteers – there were almost half as many volunteers as runners and it showed. They were SO GREAT at every water station and at the finish they made me feel like a rockstar.
  • The City – this is a big deal for Boston. There were signs everywhere from the minute you arrive. The crowds during the race were smaller than London, but three times as enthusiastic. One guy locked eyes with me and shouted ” I BELIEVE IN YOU”. I believed in him.

Things I didn’t:

  • The weather. It is so changeable there you could get anything, and we did. Torrential rain stopped before I started, but the humidity stayed. It was already warm and once the sun came out at 10 miles I knew my pace was toast.
  • My bloody shorts. It was the third day of my period, and I should have known better than to wear blue shorts. My biggest worry was that spectators would think that I’d shat myself. “It’s blood!” I considered shouting, “I just have my period!” Seriously, I am ashamed to say it did knock my confidence and I was really self conscious for most of the race. Plus towards the end the dried blood made for some pretty bad chafing. Sorry if this grosses you out (actually, no I’m not), but for all you bleeders, know that it happened and I got through it. No-one died of shock or made a rude comment and I am a WARRIOR.

The things I will remember

  • The rolling ribbon of runners stretching out in front of me as far as I could see, seemingly stationary in the far distance.
  • The smell of weed as we passed the groups of college kids.
  • The fight not to pass out running up (and down) the Newton Hills.
  • The taste of Gatorade. So much Gatorade.
  • That I did not walk.
  • That the sun went in as soon as I finished.
  • The feeling of joy when Dan and Martha met me afterwards.
  • The taste of the Harpoon IPA afterwards.

“Welcome to Boston!”

No more personal bests?

21 March 2019

I heard something clever on a podcast lately about running. No, I don’t remember which one. I listen to a lot of podcasts.

“First you run for health. Then you run for time. Then you run for meaning”

Me, I’m right in the middle of the last section: searching for the meaning in running.

I ran a lot of miles in 2018 – 1,627 – and entered 17 races. I did not got a personal best (pb) time in the marathon. I did not get a pb in the half marathon, 10k, 5k, or Mile. It was the same story in 2017.

Every week my lovely running club members post their new personal best times on our club facebook page. “How lovely!”, I post, “You are amazing!”, and I mean it, I do. I am also hugely jealous. All these runners improving their times, feeling like life is on the up and up, whilst my times are getting slower, or staying the same.

I am 43 years old and wondering: am I on the downward slope towards death now?

Reality Check!

I am still running fast. I ran a parkrun 30 seconds outside my pb earlier this year. I am marathon training at the moment and, on a good day, running can still feel great.

At this point you’re either thinking “Don’t worry, Gina, you’re not past your best, you can still get a pb if you work hard enough!”, or “so what? There’s more to running than being fast.”

If we were having this conversation last year, I would have agreed with the first thought. Now, I’m trying to get on board with the second one. Should I embrace slow running?

Slow down and just enjoy it

Before the 2018 London Marathon, when the blazing sun made me want to walk from mile 3 and vomit from mile 10, I told everyone that if I couldn’t run my goal time (already 15 minutes slower than my pb), I would “slow down and just enjoy it”. I am here to tell you, I did slow down, and I did not enjoy it.

Why does slow running equal enjoyment? It’s not an either/or. I’ve had some good slow runs and I’ve had some horrific ones. Dragging out the pain is not a win for anyone. A 5 hour marathon must be harder (for the mind and body) than a 3.5 hour one.

So what’s it all for?

I’ve been running for 20 years. I love running. I am a running evangelist. I am a running ninja. I am a running bore. I run 4-6 days a week, every week. If I haven’t run for two days I feel wrong. If a week passes and I don’t go for a run, I am either ill or injured. Have I mentioned I like running?

It’s normal that there isn’t much room for improvement now. Yes, I could find new time-based goals: age-group pbs, new races, new distances, embrace ultra running… But I think that would be missing the point. Running for meaning, for me, means remembering why I love running.

Running gives me headspace, gets me outside, shows me the seasons passing and the phases of the moon, introduces me to new places, gets me where I want to go, makes me friends, makes me strong, shows me what I’m capable of, helps me believe in myself.

Personal bests are temporary. Running is forever.

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