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Footpath Running (Gina’s Version)

1 July 2022

I have started a new sport: “Footpath Running”. Also known as “byway bounding” or “rocking the UK rights of way”, you may even have heard of it being called “trail running” by people who want to sell you shoes? But take those images of ultra marathons and mountain ridges out of your head. That’s not what Footpath Running is about.

Footpath Running (Gina’s Version) is about following public footpath signs and seeing where they take you. It’s running along rivers, climbing over stiles, and creaking through gates. It’s skirting ponds and whacking through fields. Pacing quiet forest paths or crossing carpets of flowers. You can do it metres from your house (if you’re lucky). You can run 2 miles or 20. Gentle or hard. You don’t have to train for it, and you can walk whenever you like.

Trail running needs a re-brand

The image of trail running makes people think its not for them. It is fascinating to read about races like Western States, or the Spine Race, but sleep deprivation, vertigo, and copious vomiting are not things that inspire most people to do anything. If you live in a flat area, you would be forgiven for thinking that trail running is not even possible without mountains to run up, and freewheel down. It’s not true. There are hundreds of gentle, flat footpaths out there just waiting for you.

Footpaths for all! 

In England, rights of way are everywhere. My number one recommendation for runners here is to pay for the OS maps app. It shows you all the local footpaths wherever you are in the UK, you can plot routes on it, and when you’re out it shows you where you are so you won’t get lost. It is brilliant and I use it every week. I’m not being fussy about what counts as a footpath here, either. If it’s not a road, it’s in: boardwalks, rutted country lanes, cycle paths, farm tracks and all.

Off-road tips

If you’re nervous about venturing off the tarmac, here are some tips from a runner who’s managed to run off road for 20 years without knowing what a “technical trail” is:

  • Start in the spring or summer – the ground is dry, and by the time it gets muddy you’ll be more confident;
  • You don’t need trail shoes unless it’s muddy or you’re going up a mountain;
  • Run in the early morning – it’s less hot, you can catch the rising mist or beads of dew on the grass, all the birds are out and about, and none of the people are;
  • Wear tights or long socks if your route has lots of nettles or is very overgrown;
  • Get to know the paths near where you live and run them throughout the year – getting in tune with the seasons is the original mindfulness.

And the best thing is…

Because it’s a little bit more effort to run on a footpath than a road, and the surface could be uneven or surprising, you might have to…

Slow down and enjoy it!

Tales from a run: noontide wakes anew on the Oundle loop

23 May 2022

Two trail running firsts on yesterday’s 13 mile run loop from Oundle, Northamptonshire, via Lyveden New Bield : first tick bite, and first mid-run historical re-enactment.

Re-enactors re-enacting

Lyveden New Bield is a classic piece of English history: beautiful, rebellious, and completely bonkers. It’s owned by the National Trust but a public footpath goes all the way around the grounds and it’s one of my favourites. A 4.5 mile out and back from Wadenhoe is particularly lovely, if you’re in the area.

Lyveden on a cloudy day

Yesterday I crested the hill by the unfinished New Bield to the sound of musket fire and drums. Lord John Robartes Regiment were parading through the daisies in the distance, bringing history to life in this mysterious place where it always feels close at hand. Visitors in modern dress looked unfinished too, wearing basic trousers and t-shirts, taking photos on their phones. I started to run back down the hill and passed a woman in full skirt and bonnet, who turned her head slowly to look at me, like someone sprung to life from a painting by de Hooch.

It was 11am, warm and sunny, when I started running. Usually I’ve been back from my run for two hours at that point, and am thinking about lunch. But a late night trying to help my daughter sleep with a blocked nose (apparently I will never understand how bad she felt) made for a late start.

Going out in the midday sun blunts my enjoyment of running. It flattens the colours and the landscape, bringing it all into focus at once. It’s too sharp, too harsh. The reflections from the river were glaring rather than sparkling as I stood on the bank to catch my breath. There were hardly any people around, but when I startled a pheasant, a hare, or a muntjac as I ran, I didn’t get the usual feelings of awe and gratitude. I was just sticky and covered in bugs. Sparrowhawks and kites circled overhead, and I felt like their prey.

My 13 mile loop ran from Oundle wharf. Across the water meadows by the River Nene to Cotterstock, I ticked off a quick road section then up onto the trail past Shorts Wood and Glapthorn Cow Pasture. A hard track section weaved through Lower Benefield (sprinting through a field of startled cows), and back onto the fields to Lyveden. Then a new path for me, what looked from the map like a straight path between fields and woods to Oundle, cutting through the golf course at the end for an added frisson of ball-to-the-head danger.

This route is exposed to the sun, running mostly through open fields, but two wooded sections – Banhaw Wood and Bearshank Wood – did deliver tiny echoes of my usual early morning running magic. Bearshank Wood was new to me. Where could that name come from? The trail ran through the centre of the wood, along a grassy path lined with bugle. It was just the kind of path I usually love, but so overgrown that I started worrying about ticks.

Bearshank Wood

I was wearing short shorts, and had bare legs and arms. After Bearshank Wood, the path was almost invisible, heading straight through a field of oil seed rape which was head high, with overhanging plants I’d need to bushwhack through. I did, because there wasn’t an alternative. I was hot, more than half-way home, and didn’t have much water left. I needed to take the fastest route back to the car. On the next (similarly overgrown) oil seed rape field, I literally chased a deer along the path. Then the trail skirted fields for at least a mile, and I could either run through the knee high crop on loose soil, or through thigh high grass…

When I got to the car I checked for ticks. Nothing, phew. But when I got into the shower, there one was, attached to my chest (sorry!) and feeding away. I prised it off with tweezers and spent the next 8 hours obsessively checking for more. Not all ticks carry diseases, so hopefully I’ll be fine, but here’s some advice if you want to prevent ticks, or have been bitten.

One of many cross-field paths

Most of this route is running heaven at any time of year, but in future I will avoid the path from Lyveden to Oundle until crops have been harvested, and remember how much I prefer to run in the early mornings when “the fields look rough with hoary dew“.

Dealing with running injuries like a grown-up

7 May 2022

For someone who has been a runner for 27 years, I’ve been lucky. I’ve had no major injuries and, looking back, my few minor ones have only taken me a handful of weeks to get over. So when I got a calf strain after the Stamford 30k, was I super-chilled and cool about it? Reader, I was not.

Injury face

I felt despondent. More than half-way through a training block for Brighton marathon, with seven weeks and two long runs to go, I was just getting fit and strong for the first time in two years. I felt like an idiot for pushing too hard in the 30k (justified), and worried that I would never run without pain again (absolutely not justified).

12 weeks later, everything is different. Yes, I deferred my marathon place, but I actually only stopped running for about ten days and the injury is gone. On Sunday I ran a 10k in my third fastest time ever. Spring is here and every run is a joy. Is it possible that I might take some lessons from this? Doubtful, but just in case, here are a few:

Langtoft 10k – 7th woman!

Good ways to deal with a running injury

  • Just foam roll it, it’ll be fine
  • Ask an instagram influencer what to do about it
  • Tape it up like that guy on youtube
  • Just run through it!

Joke. Actual good ways to deal with a running injury

  • Get an expert opinion. If you can afford it, see a physio for a diagnosis of the problem and advice on exercises and treatment. And if you have money to spend on new trainers or kit you don’t absolutely need, you can afford a physio appointment.
  • Stop running. If it’s not improving, and especially if it’s getting worse, STOP. Cycle, walk or swim if they don’t hurt, and you want to get out of breath or be outside.
  • Be kind to yourself. Running is not the only reason you get to eat chocolate or feel proud of yourself. In fact, as you’re missing those running endorphins you deserve to do *more* – not less – of the things that bring you joy. Have the cake.
  • Think long-term. It feels like running has turned to shit forever, but what if it’s good? This could be sorted in weeks or even days. Maybe you’ll do all those physio exercises everyday and turn into Kipchoge? It could happen! Give it time, and remember that it won’t be much time at all, looking back.
  • Remember there will be other races. It absolutely sucks to miss a big race, but not as much as it sucks to run one while in pain. Also, there are plenty of things that suck about races: the nerves, the plastic waste, the toilet queues. With luck, you can go for a quiet, no-pressure run on race day to remind yourself of why you do it.
  • Do something less boring instead. Suddenly have time on your hands? Do something with it. Call your parents; knit a scarf; read a book; see a friend; join a swanky overpriced gym!
Pilates with a glass of wine? Why not?

Hope you, and future me, find these ground-breaking insights helpful. I’m just off to cancel that gym membership.

NB Proper injury advice is available from your local physio, mine is the excellent Preston’s Health.

The Next % Dilemma

14 February 2022

I’m half way through my training plan for Brighton Marathon and I’ve realised that even if I make it to race day intact, my trainers will not. I run in New Balance 880s – basic neutral road shoes. They’re good; comfortable, no injuries and they last well. But lately, my eye has been wandering and I’ve been wondering: what if I’m the only person on race day without carbon plate shoes?

Everybody’s doing it now

This photo was taken at the race I did yesterday: the Valentine’s 30k – run by a local club Stamford Striders. It was a great event with a real community feel, run around country roads. It’s not an elite race, but a fair proportion of runners of all speeds were wearing Nike Vaporfly Next % shoes – or similar ones with a carbon plate.

The last time I raced over a similar distance was in early 2020, when Next % shoes were still a talking point – considered to be expensive and still pretty rare. At the start line, a couple next to me were wearing matching ones, and other runners were nudging each other. Now, most marathon runners I know either own them already, or are saving up to get some. They’re common at parkrun and I even saw someone lining up at a cross country race in them last weekend.

Would I wear them for a cross country race? Of course not. Spikes, or shoes with lugs, make me faster at cross country, and I have always worn them. Would they make me faster at Brighton marathon? Probably. If I were an elite runner competing against others, or up against the clock trying to get a Boston qualifying time, I would be off to the Nike store right now. But I set my marathon pb wearing road shoes, and if I beat that pb now (as if) wearing carbon plate shoes, I would always think, “it was the shoes that did it”.

And so…

Am I going to buy a pair? I don’t think so. If someone gave me some as a present, I would be interested to see what happened, but no, I’m grateful for a reason not to spend the money.

I do occasionally panic that I will be the only one lining up in Brighton in normal shoes, but don’t you worry. If I can run sub-3:30 for a marathon in regular road shoes at 46 years old, I will make sure everyone hears about it.

What’s your *real* race goal? And why is it different to the one you just told that guy?

7 November 2021

Racing again after so much time away is tough, mentally as well as physically. Now’s the time to put all those coaching tips into action: focus on your progress, not your time; don’t compare yourself to other people; set achievable goals.

One of many gems from Laura Fountain aka Lazy Girl Running

Today was the second Frostbite Friendly League cross country race of the season (yes, it’s only been two weeks since the last one). This time, it was in Ferry Meadows, Peterborough. Fast, flat and familiar; I run parts of the route every week. Conditions were great: not a hint of mud. Mild, with a fresh breeze. Basically… no excuses. How fast I ran today, is how fast I *can* run.

Before the race I had a chat with a teammate; we’d spoken last week about how to judge our performances in this weird world where we haven’t raced for 18 months. We agreed on three things: be honest about where we are now, set a realistic goal, and judge ourselves by that and only that. Last week, this approach worked out. I wanted to run 7 minute 30 seconds miles on a hilly course. I ran 7:20s.

This week, I didn’t have any confidence in my ability. I felt tired – exhausted – and nervous and completely negative. “I think I’ll be slower than the last one”, I said to him. Even though the course was flatter. “I haven’t done any speed training” I said to another friend. Even though I’d run a fast parkrun the Saturday before. Inside, I knew I would be disappointed if I wasn’t faster than the first race, so why couldn’t I say that out loud?

I should have had more faith in myself. I didn’t finish feeling disappointed, I was delighted. I ran just over 7 minute miles; my fastest run for a very long time. My splits were pretty even, only adding 20 seconds for the small upwards section in the middle mile. A couple of times during the race, I even felt like my old self. I sped up to overtake people. I charged down the (only) downhill. I gritted my teeth and pushed to the finish even though I really, really wanted to give up.

So, what have I learned from this race that I can take into the next one?

  1. Be more positive. Have more faith in yourself.
  2. Races and fast parkruns count as training too.
  3. Admit your real goals out loud. No-one apart from you cares if you don’t achieve them.
  4. No-one likes a sandbagger.

Really looking forward to the next Frostbite race. Now, time for some hill training!

Cross Country heaven / hell is back!

26 October 2021

“I think I’m having a mile two moment!” a friend yelled as he ran past me on Sunday morning, up a hill through the woods during the first race of the Frostbite Friendly League cross country series. “I’m glad someone is!”, I thought, but too late to shout back even if I’d had the breath.  

Cross country season is back in England, and I was surprised to be happy about it, as we arrived at Priory Park in St Neots in Sunday morning sunshine. If you have ever run a cross country race you will know this feeling. You hate it, but you also love it – all of it all of the time. Not just that you hate the race, and love it when it’s finished (though also that).

Feeling sick with nerves beforehand, relief when the race starts, adrenaline kicking in for the first mile, realisation that this will go on for another 4 miles and you’ve definitely gone off too fast (always), gritting your teeth for the monster middle section, slowing down every time the throat tightens, speeding up again for the downhills. And then, no matter how slowly you’ve just been running, sprinting it in at the end like a 400m runner.

It’s so great to be out there again, burning our lungs and side stepping tree roots, cheering our teammates and vowing to do more hill training before the next one. If there’s a better fitness test out there than a series of 5 mile cross country races from October to March, I’d be surprised. I’ve run them in good weather and bad, coming off a summer of excellent training and one of injury. During marathon training, after a rest. They always tell you where you’re at.

So where am I at? I ran the first race (4.8 miles) one minute slower than my best time. It’s the first race of the series, and I’m never at peak fitness for it. But one minute off, after 18 months with no races and a lot of sitting at home on my arse? I’m happy with that. The best thing is that I didn’t feel like I couldn’t go faster at all, I just knew I couldn’t do it on Sunday. It’s still in there, my fitness. Got 5 more races to dig it out.

I really do vow to do some hill training now

Mile Two, I Love You

8 October 2021

I’m running, but I’m not fit. I mean, I’m fitter than someone who doesn’t run. But I’m not race fit. I mean, I could run a race, faster than some people, but not as fast as I want to run it. Okay, I am a bit fit. And the bit fit that I am, to be specific, is Mile Two Fit.

In Mile One, I am slow. Every run at the moment starts slow – this is the thing about being over 40, I have to start slowly no matter how many warm up exercises I’ve done in the hallway. My knees are creaking, my back is stiff, I’m shuffling my feet.

By Mile Two, I am ready to rock, ready to run, ready ready ready steady go baby! I feel great. I don’t even feel like I’m trying. My legs are turning over, my feet are bouncing, my breath is coming easy. I’m holding myself back and I’m still super fast. Can you even believe that mile split?!

By Mile Three the party’s winding down. I keep pushing the pace but it’s not easy now, it’s an effort. I have to concentrate on breathing, think about my stride, work hard to drive my knees forward and pick up my feet.

At Mile Four, it’s over, but I’m still moving, just about. I’ve already done 5k! Everything else is a bonus at this point. Mile Five is extra – if I slowed down enough in Mile Four I might get a second wind for half a mile. Mile Six is usually the last, so it’s fine to walk a bit of that.

Mile Two, I miss you. I want to live in that Mile Two feeling for the whole run. Mile two, I love you.

Racing in a vaccinated world – it’s time to get out there again

19 September 2021

Perspective is an odd thing. When parkrun were pushing for a return in England in September 2020 it felt too soon, and that turned out to be correct. I didn’t want to be Run Director responsible for a junior parkrun event when cases in Peterborough were rising and a friend or family member of a volunteer could potentially catch COVID and die as a result. Back then there were 10 new cases in P-town every day (about 36 per 100,000 people). This week, the rate is ten times higher – 360 per 100,000 people, and yet I’ve been happily running and volunteering at parkrun and junior parkrun for a few weeks now.

It’s obvious what’s changed. I am vaccinated, along with most “at risk” older and vulnerable people in the UK (though maybe not in Peteborough?). And vaccination is preventing severe illness and death. But coming back to racing and parkrun is still something I’m getting used to, and I wanted to write down how I’m feeling so that, in a year’s time, I can look back at this as Captain Hindsight and point out all the things I got wrong. Or hopefully not! Anyway:

Running outside with other people now feels safer

Remember in the early days of COVID when we weren’t sure whether we should even be outside at all? People in my local facebook group warned of particles of virus floating about like giant snowflakes in the air, and complained about joggers – our dangerous breath and sweat and snot and spit. I wore a buff for my runs and raised it over my nose and mouth when I passed people, but that didn’t stop them looking scared and moving away.

To be honest, I still hold my breath when I pass someone on a narrow path. Maybe I’ll always do it? But I know that outside transmission is much less likely, and as long as I’m not stuck running one metre behind the same person for 15 minutes, I feel comfortable.

I think COVID has made us more considerate runners. I will happily miss out on high fives if it means never being accidentally spat on or elbowed out of the way in a race, thank you very much. And as for the man I once saw sitting on a cafe chair in his sweaty pants merrily changing his trousers after parkrun, some things are best left behind.

I am ready to run a bit faster

When races started coming back in England, I was unfit, unhappy, and unready to race. Running saved my life hundreds of times over the past 18 months, but walking was also a big part of that and, for me, walking and racing don’t mix. Over the summer, many of my friends and family have been marathon training (and running! Shout out to Chris conquering the terrifyingly hilly Bath marathon) and inevitably I got fomo and signed up for a race.

I wanted to start with a race I would love, so I chose my favourite distance – a half marathon – and my favourite format – rolling country lanes. The Wissey Half Marathon takes place in “the idyllic Norfolk countryside, starting and finishing in the historic village of Oxborough”. It is advertised as fast and flat, but I wasn’t looking for a pb. I just wanted to enjoy it and push myself a tiny bit in the run-up and on the day.

I didn’t do much specific training. I was already running 30-35 miles a week, including a long run at the weekend. I did introduce a tiny bit of speed and hill work and what little I did, I enjoyed. I used David Roche’s 6 week re-introduction to speed and enjoyed the power hill strides, though finding an actual hill for them in Peterborough was the hardest bit!

I remember why I love races

After a month of grey skies and 18 degree damp, 5th September was of course warm and sunny. It was a perfect day for a picnic in the park, less perfect for racing 13.1 miles. On the car journey to Norfolk, I was surprised to find that I didn’t care. I was happy to slow down if I needed to, delighted to look at the views, and excited to get out in the countryside. I ran 11 of the 13 miles with a huge grin on my face, and yes the grin turned to a slight grimace in the last two, but we can gloss over that. My target was 8 minute miles, and I made it: 1 hour and 43 minutes on the clock, 12 minutes slower than my best, but I felt like I’d won.

I loved everything about the race: the parking on the village green; every single runner saying hello as we walked to the start; the terrible instant coffee in the village hall; fields of sunflowers either side of the road; rolling fields and combine harvesters; tractors waiting for the runners to pass; friendly marshals and their kids helping out; chats with fellow runners. My favourite moment was about 5 miles in: I was running with an older man who was run/walking (fast!) and we passed a “public footpath” sign pointing the way to a smooth grassy path along the side of a field, heading over a hill into the distance. “I wonder where that goes?” we both asked, in unison.

It’s great to be out there again.

A hymn to the early morning run

22 August 2021

August in England. High summer, which this year means 19 degrees and grey skies at noon. Except for the days I wear jeans and a coat, when the sun comes out and it’s suddenly boiling. Until I put my shorts back on and it starts to rain.

When the outside world is room temperature, it’s unsettling. I can’t open a window to let the air in, it’s already there. Everything feels the same, inside and out. The strangest thing about this summer is that I could go for a run at any time of the day and it wouldn’t ever be too hot or uncomfortable or sticky; it would just be okay. Acceptable. Fine.

I should be using this opportunity to run interval sessions in my lunch break, and have a lie in instead of getting up at the crack of dawn to beat the heat. Obviously, I’m not doing this. Not (just) because I hate intervals, but because running at lunchtime sucks. I have already showered. I don’t want to get changed again. The paths will be busy; there will be people around and I might have to say hello to them. But most of all, I’m too hungry to run.

Lunchtime is for lunch. And eating lunch is very important to me, but that’s not the reason I’m not running at lunchtime. I have become an early morning runner. These days, more than half of my runs begin before 6am.

5:45am, 5:11am, 5:37am.

When my daughter was a baby, starting the day at times like these was pure torture. We used to say, “if it starts with a five, it’s a fail”. Now I’m choosing it.

Before corona, I ran at 5am because I had to. I needed to leave the house to catch my London train before 7am, and sharing parenting and bedtimes meant that mornings were the only option. But now we have an 8 year old who can put herself to bed and we both work from home. I no longer have to get up early to run, I just want to.

How did I get here?

It started in the first lockdown. Running early meant being alone on the trails and that felt safe. The spring and summer of 2020 were beautiful and that brought joy. Misty mornings, damp blossoms, and spider webs in the grass. In Autumn, encroaching darkness pushed me onto the roads but I didn’t feel sad. I welcomed the quiet hum of the streetlights and the changing of traffic signals on an empty street. The setting moon and the rising sun. Pouring rain. Christmas lights.

Running in the early morning is like a gift every day. There is always something fleeting to see, and I might be the only one to notice it. This morning the sun broke over a group of cows in a misty field after the rain, and I nearly tripped over a dead mole on the side of the road, velvety and perfect.

By the end of my run it was overcast and dull again. Room temperature. Grey.

Women, we don’t have to look good while running.

1 June 2021

All my joy in running comes from the world outside my body. The sun on my back; the dirt under my feet; leaves brushing by my legs. Traffic lights changing to green in the twilight. A glimpse of swifts overhead. The muffled thump of footsteps in the snow.

Joy comes from how my body reacts. The thrill of clearing a big puddle at the last minute. The gradual unclenching of my shoulders as I’m warming up. The moment when I can’t tell raindrops from sweat any more and give in to being soaked. As gravity takes over on a long downhill and my legs freewheel like they belong to someone else. The triumph of getting control of my breathing and knowing that I’m strong enough to start running again.

I run with my body, but experience it with my mind. When I’m running I can see so much, experience so much, and it is a liberation. My body and my senses are taken up with the act of running. I am freed from myself.

It’s strange that this feeling of freedom is rarely reflected in the images we share of running, and that the opposite is true. We seem confined to our bodies. We share photos of ourselves, staged or taken many times, with filters and flattering lighting. We cut out the backgrounds, we wipe away the sweat and salt from our skin. Sometimes, photos of people running do convey the joy or pain that we’re feeling, or record what we’ve achieved, but mostly they’re just poses, faces and clothes.

I don’t care how runners look. I want to know where they’ve been, what they’ve seen, and what they’ve done. When I see a sweaty, salty selfie it makes me smile, and I love a good race pic as much as the next runner, but I worry that with every image I share of myself I might be erasing a tiny bit of what running really means to me. What if all our running selfies are creating a Perfect Beauty Standards Running Monster that makes other women and girls think running is not for them?

It’s not how we look while running that matters, it’s how we feel. Our appearance to others is fleeting, passing in the blink of an eye. For me, it’s not what running is about. I want to see and understand what running means to other people, not what it makes them look like. More reflections. Fewer mirror selfies.