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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.

We’re all run/walkers now

30 March 2021

Ten years ago, when I was called a jogger instead of a runner, I got very pissed off. So pissed off I started this blog. My twitter handle is @notajogger. My instagram account is @notajogger. I was pretty serious about not being a jogger.

I still wouldn’t call myself a jogger, but I wouldn’t cry if you did. Because these days, I’m not always a runner. Sometimes – ok, most of the time – I’m a run/walker. What does that mean? Well, it’s a technical term that means I run for a bit and then I walk for a bit to get my breath back and then I start running again.

Seriously, run/walking is an official thing

Run/walking is not just for speed training, but for every run – and even for races. Jeff Galloway calls it “Run Walk Run”, and the principle is that every run becomes a form of interval training: warding off injury, speeding up recovery, and “bestow[ing] joy on non-stop runners who had given up”.

When I, aged 10, was learning to run with my dad, his only piece of running advice was “you can slow down, but you must NEVER walk”. This was firmly lodged in my brain for years. The minute I walked, by definition, the run was over. I could jog a bit to get home, but the main work was done; I had failed as soon as I started walking. Aged 35, I thought it was normal to ask if it was “ever ok to walk?“.

On one level, this still makes sense. If I am training for a race and want to push myself, I need to know that I have the physical and mental toughness to keep going when I want to stop. However, after 25 years of running I don’t need to build this toughness again, because I already have it. Whenever I need it, I can call upon a memory bank of runs where I conquered the urge to walk.

This won’t always work. At the 2018 London Marathon I walked and it felt like a failure because I had no other choice; I walked because I couldn’t run another step. And it didn’t even make me feel better! But one race like this will never destroy the toughness I’ve proved in hundreds of others.

Walking doesn’t have to be a failure, it can be a choice.

During a long run these days, I am more likely to take walk breaks in the first half of the run when my body is still warming up. Once I’ve got going, the pace usually feels easier and I forget to walk. The ultra running trick of walking up all the hills doesn’t really work in the fens, but I can use it for the parts of the route I don’t like instead: the muddy edges of a field, railway crossings, and busy paths where I get stuck behind a queue of people.

Making a tactical decision to walk, when I want to but before I need to, has helped me enjoy my running more this year, and I think it’s helped me stay injury-free.

Running in a global pandemic, is it ever possible not to walk?

Over the last year, I can count the runs where I haven’t walked on two hands. No races, no pressure, no reason not to walk. Sometimes I stop my watch, but more and more these days, I don’t. Who would I be stopping it for?

The “elapsed time” feature on Strava is controversial, but I think it has liberated a lot of runners. We can no longer pretend we can get through a run without stopping at the lights, changing our music, taking photos, tying our laces, having a chat: all excuses we use to have a rest and then carry on running, enjoying it that little bit more because we gave ourselves a break.

I talked to my dad, now 75, about my new habit of taking walk breaks. “You wait,” he said, “when get to my age, you’ll be taking run breaks”.

2021: I’m not ready for races

17 March 2021

Are you looking forward to racing again? Because I am not.

It’s now been a year since the the race I trained for – the 2020 Peterborough Marathon – was postponed for the first time due to coronavirus. It was moved from 5 April to 13 September 2020 “with the hope that this will give you something exciting and challenging to look forward to and plan for.” On 1 July 2020, in the face of continued uncertainty, it was deferred to 11 April 2021. In January 2021, “in these trying times”, it was moved to 23 May 2021.

Happier times at the 2019 Langtoft 10k

It now looks like it will go ahead, under strict social distancing measures in 9 weeks’ time. Sublime Racing have been exemplary race organisers: keeping runners informed, making sensible and sensitive decisions, putting the families and health of their volunteers first. As a runner, I haven’t had to do anything other than move a date in my calendar.

Actually, wait a minute, wasn’t there was something else I was supposed to do for the race? For the marathon? For the 26.2 mile marathon? I can’t remember anything these days unless it’s on a list. Er, hang on, was I supposed to train for it? Because I haven’t done that.

It was all fun with Joe Wicks to begin with…

The past year, but especially the past few months of lockdown in England, have been stressful and depressing. Working from home + schooling from home + exercise restrictions = a lot of pressure on time outside. Sometimes I wanted to run, sometimes to walk, sometimes just to escape, but always to feel better. Running slowly made me feel good, but running fast or hard did not.

I used to enjoy the feeling of running hard, of pushing myself. But now it just makes me feel bad. Partly because I am physically struggling. I have no bounce, no zip, no strength. But mostly, it’s mental. I am so much slower, so much weaker, and I hate it. It makes me want to give up. I can’t imagine not feeling like this. It feels insurmountable.

For many of us, normal life has stopped, slowed down, and moved to a tiny screen. 170 miles of daily commuting shrunk to 17 metres from bed to desk. No more cycling to the station, walking to the office, running to meetings, dashing for the school run. No trips to the shop for a can of coke, a lunchtime coffee, a sandwich, a breath of fresh air. No popping round, no dropping off, no picking up.

I have been running. But that is all the exercise I am doing. On a good day, I think, “I’m like a Kenyan athlete! I just eat, run and sleep”. But I’ve forgotten about the sitting – so much sitting – and I’m definitely overselling the running.

I’m averaging 33 miles a week and I’m doing a long run (12 miles +) most weekends. But I know I am not fit enough to run a marathon. I could run/walk it and get round, but I’ve finished enough marathons to know that this would be painful, and I would not enjoy it. After all this time not racing, wouldn’t it be fun to do the race just for fun? Yes, yes it would. But would it be fun? Oh, reader, it would not.

Yet.

On running alone, in a pandemic

21 December 2020

Nobody likes to feel left out. Last week, my daughter was describing her friends choosing to play with other people at breakfast club. She described the feeling really well saying, “I don’t know where am I now. Where’s the space for me?”

We talked about why her friends might want to play with others, and about how she also chooses who to play with – and who not to play with. Everyone is left out sometimes. But that didn’t make her feel better.

I’m feeling left out too. Before Corona, I felt part of the “running community” through my club, and through parkrun. I could never make the Monday club night, but I did regular races and met up weekly at parkrun. I didn’t have to make an effort, the running community was just there for me and I took it for granted. Lately, I feel increasingly cut off and I’ve been thinking about why.

I like running alone

I run alone, almost always. Since March, I’ve had to start most runs before 6am just to be able fit them in. I live with my husband and 7 year old daughter, so one of us is on child duty when she is not at school. He also runs, also alone. We have done one run together this year: a half marathon on my birthday.

I like running alone. Before I joined a running club I assumed everyone ran solo all the time, because I always had. I like being alone with my thoughts. I like listening to podcasts. I like stopping to take photos or look at birds. I like being silent. I like not feeling embarrassed about how often I blow my nose. I like going faster or slower when I feel like it. I like running at my own speed.

Other people don’t

Most other runners I have spoken to, especially women, find it more motivating to run with other people. The time passes more quickly, on an easy run it’s fun to chat, and on a tough run you can share the pain together. It’s also much harder to cancel a run when you know you are someone else’s reason to turn up.

This year, I am aware that groups of my running friends are going out to run together regularly, and that it’s been a source of joy for them during the pandemic. They’re keeping each other company and keeping each other running.

I was invited, and joined in a couple of times, but now I’m out of the loop – mostly because I deactivated facebook, which I recommend to everyone.

I have done a handful of runs with other people – with my sister, and with my nephew. But when it comes to setting up runs with those I know less well, I haven’t made an effort. It’s hard to make the first move, and am I really prepared to break out of my solo running bubble?

If I run with a slower group, will I find it hard to stick to the pace, and will the group feel less comfortable because I am there? If I set up a run with a faster runner, will I feel under pressure to match their pace?

I hate running fast at the moment. I hate the feeling. The laboured breath, the painful chest, the burning legs, the mental effort. All of it. I can barely remember the strength that speed training gave me when it kicked in during a race: the flying feet, the bounding knees, the leap and push. No more.

This year, I am running just to keep running.

So where am I now? Where’s the space for me?

This week I got an email about a marathon squad, which made it clear it was not for me: “this is a group for those in the mid to back of the race. Nobody is too slow to join us. If you are a regular marathoner or expecting a time of 3.45 or faster, this is probably not the group for you.” I completely respect this response – I’m not the person this is aimed at. I don’t need a group to motivate me to run, and if my pace might put other people off, then that would be bad.

But the message also gave me the bad feeling that my daughter talked about. Where is the space for me? I don’t want to get faster, or stronger, or go longer. I’m not welcome with the slower group. So where am I?

This is where I’ll be: out on the trails, in the mud. Stopping to walk or dashing up a hill. Breathing it in. Looking around. In the dark. In the rain. Watching for the light. Running.

My lockdown marathon

12 July 2020

“I think I’ll run a marathon on Saturday morning”, I said to myself on Thursday evening. The weather looked good – sunny but cool for July. The last time I’d made this decision, four weeks ago, it was humid and 22 degrees by 7am; I gave up at 16 miles.

I didn’t train for this marathon. I mean, I did train for a marathon, but that was weeks ago in another world. A world of playdates and swimming lessons, commuting and cross-country. A world where races were cancelled because the wind was a bit too strong. At the one race I did I get to run – the Tarpley 20 – we huddled together in a school hall before the race, sharing pens and drinks, hugging our friends and, afterwards, helping ourselves from the open cake buffet with our sweaty fingers.

I didn’t train for this marathon, but over the course of the lockdown my weekend long run got steadily longer. I just couldn’t get enough of being outside. I went from 10 miles to 12 miles to 13 miles to 15 miles to 16 miles. I wasn’t running fast, I was taking as much time as I could get away with. I walked whenever I felt like walking. I found new paths and followed signs I’d never noticed before. I noted each bird returning from migration, I found bright blue eggshells, I took hundreds of photos and videos.

One Sunday, back when one piece of daily exercise was all we were permitted, I ran 7 miles to Castor Hanglands just to hear a nightingale. I walked for an hour when I got there, trespassing far beyond what I imagined my allotted time should be, squelching through mud in leaky trainers. Finally, I brushed across a carpet of dying bluebells to hear three nightingales exchanging  low warbles and high peeps of song, covering the range of sound in all directions. I was elated, guilty, satisfied, scared. I jogged home and lived off that moment for a week.

The roads and trails from Woodston to Castor along the River Nene, up from Ailsworth towards Helpston, over to Marholm and back through Ferry Meadows, have become stitched into my brain. I love them. I see them in my dreams. I’m not tired of them, even after running 26.2 miles on them this weekend. Yes, I finished the marathon this time.

It was not a typical marathon day. I got up at 4:45am, had some toast and coffee, left the house at 6:45am and was home by 10:35am. Even when I started, I didn’t feel like I was about to run a marathon. Every mile I wondered “will I finish it today?”. I was under no obligation. I hadn’t told anyone I was going to do it, and who would have cared even if I had? By 10 miles, I thought I could finish. I felt good, I was running a very sensible pace (for me) and it was just a long training run. At 23 miles I could definitely have stopped. But I wasn’t going to stop. I was fit, I was healthy, I was outside, I was alive.