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January: the month for taking motivation wherever we can find it

27 January 2023
Speculoos & cream cheese: motivation in a biscuit

It’s getting near the end of January (hurrah!), and resolutions are fraying along with tempers. We are all hanging out for payday, for lighter days, and warmer weather. But running can’t wait, at least not for me. If I am going to run London marathon this year – and I think I am – I need to get out there now.

Usually I have a training plan, and use that to hold myself to account. But not this year. At least, not yet. I had so much time off running in late 2022 that I never got to build a good marathon running base. My past three months’ running still look like a rollercoaster with big dips for Covid and The Cold, and I haven’t strung together three weeks’ good mileage yet. Once I can do that, I will call it marathon training.

Running without a plan is tempting in the spring or summer, when just being outside is a delight. Right now, ploughing through the mud in -4, not having a plan is a big risk. With energy bills so high, my house is cold, and just getting changed into my running kit is the hardest part of going for a run.

January is the toughest month for running. It’s mad that this is time most people start training for their first marathon. And honestly, if nearly thirty years of running has taught me anything it’s this: find motivation wherever you can. Looking forward to a bath when you get home? Want to wear that new headband? Have to go to the post office? Want to see the seals in the River Nene? All reasons I have used to go for a run in the past two weeks.

The king of motivators – always – is the one I use least: running with other people. I run alone because it’s convenient, but also because there’s nobody else to worry about. Even when I’m running with friends and family I get anxious: am I talking too much? Too little? Am being boring? Am I going too fast? Too slow? I wish I could turn off these fears, because running with other people is brilliant. Time goes more quickly, I get to hear all the gossip, and – most importantly – I always turn up.

(p.s. I did not see the seals)

Staying in the moment

20 January 2023

My daughter is nine, and developing a nice sideline in life coaching. On Thursday night when I was fretting about work while making the dinner she said “worry about work when you’re at work” and it worked. I did stop worrying. One of the biggest challenges of being a parent – for me at least – is staying in the moment. There are so many distractions, from existential worries to whatsapp alerts. I know that this time is precious. Soon, she’ll be a teenager and won’t want to talk to me for hours at 9pm, and then she’ll have a phone and I won’t want her to be on it.

My aim for today’s run was to stay in the moment: to enjoy being outside on this cold and clear January day. I did enjoy it, but not in the mindful way I had hoped for. My feet were moving calmly, but my brain was running everywhere. Remembering something I said in a meeting that I wished I hadn’t, worrying what trainers to wear at the race I’m doing on Sunday, wondering if I needed to get dad something else for his birthday.

Occasionally I’d stop to walk and find that my mind cleared. The constant beat of questions and worries stopped and I would notice the gutter of ice at the edge of the road, a golden plover in a field, or the fingers of an oak branching into the blue sky.

After my run I swam a few lengths in the swimming pool at the gym. It was nearly lunchtime and very quiet. Shafts of sunlight rippled through the end of the empty fast lane and I ducked in to bask in the glow, eyes closed. I was happy and I can’t remember what I was thinking about. Maybe summer. Maybe nothing.

I used to be scared of the wind

13 January 2023

When I was 8 years old, I was so scared of the wind that I got into a stranger’s car and asked him to drive me home, just to get out of it.

Every morning before school, I would open the curtains to see if leaves or rubbish were being blown along the street. If I could hear the howl of the wind in the chimney, my throat would tighten and my stomach would begin to churn. “I feel sick”, I would say, and mum would let me stay at home. Why didn’t she make me go to school? Mr Leroy, my teacher, had told her that a lot of 8 year olds develop sudden phobias which go away if they are ignored, so that’s what my parents did.

I don’t remember what happened when I got out of the stranger’s car when it pulled up to our kerb, but I do know that the man took me to our door and spoke to my mum. It makes sense that letting me stay at home to watch tv was preferable to that.

It’s been windy this week, and I have hated it. I had to get the train to London on three of the days, which meant cycling against the wind to the station for the first time in weeks. My knees are creaking as a result and, today, I cycled so slowly back from the supermarket that I nearly fell off my bike. It’s a short, flat ride but my bike is heavy, and I am old.

Running in the wind isn’t as hard as cycling, but no matter what direction I run, the wind is never, ever, behind me. Today, on my day off, I cycled to the gym (why do I hate myself?) so that I could go for a cross-country run. On the bike, the wind was grim. On foot, it was fine. Refreshing, even. I ran from Thorpe Wood, up Ferry Hill and out towards Marholm, then across the public footpath which skirts the Milton Estate to Castor Hanglands and back through Ailsworth and Castor. I love this route in every season. It’s high ground (for round here), so even at its muddiest it’s still a pleasure to run.

The path goes through farmlands and woodlands. Flocks of linnets rose and crossed my path from field to field. A single skylark struggled against a gust of wind, eager to get away from me. Approaching the crossways of two footpaths, the windsock that marks the private air field was blowing horizontal. A long sward of clipped green grass sat temptingly behind the PRIVATE sign. I always think that this airstrip would be a great place to do interval training, though someone would probably shoot me for it.

Back on the Helpston Road, a pheasant scooted across my path, backlit by a weak winter sun. A constant comb of light, shafts which couldn’t break through the clouds, hovered in the eastern sky. As I approached Ailsworth I had to slow to a walk to get my heart rate down, the remains of November’s covid still lurking in my lungs. Before the A47 bridge, birds of prey circled concentrically: red kites on the left, a buzzard on the right.

I was surprised by the January colours on this run. I was slow, and had lots of time to look at the landscape. The ploughed fields looked purple, but shards of hay were glowing orange in the furrows. So often, colours seen at a glance reveal themselves to be a combination of two quite different ones, in close up.

This week I went to a training session that’s been on my mind. It was on polarity thinking, something that can be used for ongoing problems that have two correct answers which are interdependent (eg, self and others; continuity and change). There are upsides and downsides for each pole, and the aim of polarity thinking is to stay in the upsides of both poles, without sinking into the downs.

As I was running, I was thinking about being scared of the wind. Was it the wind that was frightening, or its effect: how it made me feel? The swirl and howl of a gale raised a panic in me that I couldn’t deal with. Indoors was safety from that. Outdoors was risk. I’m not frightened of the wind any more, but I am scared of heights, stairs that you can see through, and really big dogs. Staying inside my house would keep me safe from all of those, but stop me from doing almost anything. You never know when an architect is going to put one of those staircases in.

My new year’s resolution is to not have this cold

6 January 2023

When I was getting changed into my running kit this morning, my nose started bleeding onto the bathroom floor. I’ve had The Cold for three weeks now and I’m still not tired of complaining. It’s been horrific – like having a head full of glue – but so satisfying to moan about. I had to start my run breathing only through my mouth, and the bleeding stopped.

I left the house with no plan as to how far I’d run or how long. I didn’t have a purpose for the run other than to get outside. Headphones in, I started off with an audiobook, but there was no space for my thoughts so I put some music on. Music makes my mind wander; speech doesn’t, which is usually what I want. But today I wanted to wander.

From my house, all paths lead to Nene Park, so I knew I’d end up there, but would I do a muddy river run, a lakeside loop, or a longer outing to Castor or Alwalton? If I don’t start a run with a plan, I can listen to my body, adapt to the weather or conditions, and it can be less boring. But it can also be bad, of course: much easier to give up, harder to stay focused. Today I didn’t finally agree with myself how far I was going until mile 5. I had been hoping for 10, but settled on 8. I ran for 1 hour 15 minutes, but was outside for another 20 minutes on top of that, looking at birds and taking pictures with my phone.

On the path to the park I saw a couple of big groups of runners out together, in their high-vis jackets, chatting and looking cheerful. Friday morning is always busy on the trails around Nene Park, but it was much busier than usual. There were lots of walkers and runners, most of them older than me, with some wearing the odd outfits of newly reformed new year’s resolution runners. I always love seeing the random things people wear to run – it reminds me that anyone really can just leave the house and go. Today a wiry Jacob Rees Mogg type dashed past me with purpose, sporting long grey socks and a faded country casuals cotton rugby shirt tucked high into bunchy shorts, his gold framed glasses slipping down his nose.

I took a lap around the nature reserve at Woodston Ponds. I’m never sure if it’s ok to run on the wooden boardwalk – I don’t want to damage it as I know it has to be repaired by Wildlife Trust volunteers. If I’m doing a gentle pace like today though, I figure it’s ok, I’m not pounding around scaring the birds. From the entrance gate of the reserve, I spotted a heron high up in a tree overlooking the River Nene, and he was still there when I made it to the river side of the loop, surveying his domain.

Herons and cormorants are common birds around here. So common, I rarely notice them until they fly past unexpectedly – a heron lifting off from the bank on silent wings, a cormorant wheeling onto the water. They make me remember: dinosaurs still live among us. Today I got the rare treat of an egret, on the backwater near Goldie Lane. When I stopped to get my camera out, it stalked away through the reeds, less like a heron and more like a flustered hen.

At the furthest point of my run, just before I turned for home, I noticed a group of cormorants in the middle of Gunwade Lake. They kept disappearing underwater so it was hard to tell how many there were – maybe six, which felt unusual. Or do groups of cormorants fish together all the time when I’m not looking? I thought about all the people I’d assumed were new year’s resolution exercisers, like they were rare egrets, and I was a common heron, even though I haven’t run regularly for weeks due to Covid then The Cold. We were all out there together, on our feet, in nature.

You do not have to run.

16 December 2022

I have The Cold. It starts with a hacking cough, you know the one. The one you think is Covid but can’t be Covid because you just had Covid and managed to run 27 miles last week and you were really looking forward to running further than ten miles this weekend and maybe making it to the magical half marathon and over 30 miles for the week but now you can’t run because when you cough it feels like a knife to the lungs? That one.

On Thursday night I could feel The Cold approaching. Both the husband and child already had it but I was firmly in denial until this morning, when I finally had to face it: I had The Cold. I felt a quiet and controlled rage. It had been such a busy work week with no time to run, leading up to a Thursday with not one but two board meetings. Instagram and twitter were full of photos of people running around in the frost while I sat like a sloth at my desk. I had a plan to get back to fitness after Covid. I had a two a day mince pie habit. I *needed* to run.

I gave myself a talking to. It is good to eat food I enjoy, and lots of it, in the winter. It cheers me up and literally no-one cares if I put on weight. It is fine not to get fit or fast in the next few weeks. I know I want to, but it’s better not to be injured and run a bit, than to be injured and not run at all. It’s not my fault that covid affected my heart rate and running, but it will be my fault if I rush back to training hard and do myself more damage.

Whenever I get that panicky feeling that “I have to run”, I stop to examine where it’s coming from. It’s usually not a good place. I don’t think running should be a punishment, or a chore. It’s something that I love. I might not love every run, but I can give myself the chance to.

I don’t have to run, I want to run. But today I couldn’t run, so I went for a walk instead. Then I ate a mince pie. It was delicious.

2023 in running: a miserable and magical year

9 December 2022

It’s been a funny old year. But haven’t they all been, lately? A journalist asked for some stats at work the other day and I had to write an email justifying why no two years are really comparable and then I stopped and thought: why am I doing this? Of course you can’t compare 2020 to 2021 to 2022. We’re living through a series of crises.

It has not been a vintage running year for me. I picked up a calf injury by pushing too hard in a 30k race in February, deferred my Brighton marathon place, trained fitfully over a hot summer, ran the Rutland marathon and did not enjoy it, then finally got Covid and missed the beginning of the cross-country season. My annual mileage is set to be my lowest for many years.

But, surprise! I still love running. When I have managed to get out for a run – even (especially?) the ones where I walked – I’ve loved it more than ever. The injury and Covid were rotten, but they made me appreciate running more. I missed being outside, covering ten miles with ease, and getting out of my head as well as the house.

I went part-time (if 4 days a week with some work on fridays really counts as part-time, which I would argue it does not) in March, with the intention of doing some creative writing on my day off. I’ve found it hard. Not working quite so much has been great, but it turns out that creativity is not a tap I can just turn on when I have a spare few hours. Also, there are a whole heap of other things I want to do with six hours to myself, and running is high on the list.

My best runs this year have been Friday morning runs. Some of them with Lazy Girl Laura, but most of them alone. Does running count as being creative? Maybe not, but it definitely does count as beautiful. I’ve shared some of my favourite running photos from the year in this blog. You can’t see me in any of the pictures, but I was there.

Covid, twitter, and the golden age of run-blogging

18 November 2022

You join me in the endtimes. I’ve had three weeks off running after picking up the “novel coronavirus” – maybe you’ve heard about it? I feel a lot better now, but while I was delirious with tiredness and brain fog, a new owner of twitter took over and immediately set about destroying it. Like a kid who doesn’t want to leave the beach, he is joyfully running straight through everyone’s sandcastles and flicking the Vs at all the parents who built them.

I joined twitter in 2011, the same year I started writing this blog, so the two will always be linked in my brain. I don’t get much pick-up from sharing my writing there, but I have a few loyal fans who click the links, and it gives me joy to connect to them.

I used to share my blogs on facebook, back when I had an account, and I miss being able to share it with friends and family in that way. But I do not miss facebook. Lately, I’ve attempted to share what I write on instagram, but it doesn’t really work does it, sharing articles on insta? It’s like trying to get kids to eat broccoli while they’re transfixed by a rotating buffet of puddings. Maybe you’ll bribe them once, but mostly they’ll ignore you.

In the Glory Days of blogging, back in 2011, people didn’t even use twitter or facebook to find articles, they actually subscribed to wordpress and blogger feeds. I subscribed to them! The number of race reports I’ve read for races I will never run or even want to run outnumbers (by far) the number I’ve actually written. The random everyday runners I followed and invested my time and support in; I miss every one.

I am sad about the death of twitter because it feels like my final connection with that golden age of blogging is dying. And it makes me feel old. But the words are still here, hidden away on my tiny corner of the internet. I’ve been reading a few today and this one raised a smile. Eleven years on, not so much has changed: I’m still running round Rutland Water, and Dan’s still making Dad jokes.

Thoughts from Rutland Marathon

28 September 2022

Such perfect marathon weather’. The smooth path stretches along the edge of the dam. A family claps and cheers from a bench. Ten more runners overtake me.

I’m glad I’m not going out too fast’. The smooth path ends, turns gravelly and weaves through a carpark and up onto a grassy slope.  

‘I just need to keep the lid on for ten miles’. A marshal shouts, “well done young lady”. I’m 46, but I’ll take it. The stony track curves up and down around the inlet of the reservoir.

‘Look at the water, maybe I’ll see the osprey’. The lead runner of the half marathon whizzes past.

‘Keep it steady’. Another sharp uphill, a right turn, a left, a downhill.

The turning point must be soon’. The lead male runner passes, big beard, leopard print vest.

 ‘Do not speed up’. The first woman runs past, pink t-shirt, big smile.

‘I do not need to speed up’. Five more women pass and the turning point is there. The route doubles back around a line of orange cones in the woods.

‘Keep a lid on it’. Runners pass, still on their way to the turning point. The five mile marker goes by.

‘Only five? No, don’t think that. Half way to ten ’. The runners coming the other way are slower and more friendly.

‘This is better, I’m enjoying it’. Say “well done!” to every female runner. A dog lifts its leg to pee on the seven mile marker post.

‘Nearly at the dam, now’. A man sitting on a bench makes full eye contact with me and says nothing. Across the dam. A child jumps up and down, blowing a whistle.

‘I should be feeling better than this’.

The path stumbles between mole hills and rabbit holes. ‘This grass is really green from the rain’.

The route goes back past the start funnel. ‘Try to look good’.

The loudspeaker calls out the names of passing runners. A few cheers. ‘Try to feel good’.

Out of the carpark, the seventeen mile loop back to the finish begins. ‘I won’t count the hills’.

There were six hills between that point and Hambleton Peninsula. ‘This might be a bad patch’.  

The half marathon turning point is behind me at eleven miles. ‘I might feel better soon’.

The path stretches out along the north shore, looking flat but somehow going uphill. ‘It’s good to be outside’.

Mile fourteen. Mile fifteen. Up the hill to mile sixteen, my chest pulls with every breath of air.

“Stop it!” I shout out loud.

But I can’t push away the negative thoughts. Over the final ten miles, I try everything.

‘It’s good that my achilles isn’t hurting’.

‘Every uphill has a downhill’.

‘This gel will make me feel better.’

‘I always love running here’.

‘It’s still a beautiful day’.

‘No-one is going past you’.

‘Everyone feels the same.’

‘Don’t walk unless you have to’.

‘Just walk if you need to’.

‘Just get to the finish’.

‘You’re going to make it’.

When I cross the finish line I feel two things: relief, and certainty that there was nothing I could have done differently. This day wasn’t my day.

It is true that much of a marathon is what’s inside your head, the stories you tell yourself about how you’re feeling, the stories you tell yourself before you start, and how you spin it afterwards. But now that I’m older, I can see that it’s really the body. Yes, you can make yourself keep running or let yourself give up, you can decide to push or decide to walk. But it all comes from the body. The training, or the feelings on the day, dictate it too.

Looking at my insane heart rate recordings, I know I couldn’t have done anything else on this day. I know that the rushing of blood in my ears, the nearly fainting, that was the very edge of what was possible. I went right up against it. There was nothing more I could have done on that day.

When you’re young, or you have tons of training in your legs, you can carry a bad day and your brain is your only barrier. As you get older, on a bad day you can’t push through it.  But on a good day, you can run just as fast as ever.

Play Misty For Me

16 September 2022

I get excited when the overnight temperature on the weather app drops to single figures, but the days are still warm. On a clear night, mist will rise from the river and spread its cold fingers over the water meadows, leaving wisps of cloud floating over the lake. As the first rays of sun peep over the horizon, the mist disappears like a magic trick.

Sunrise was at 6:36am, and I didn’t want to run in the dark, but I did want to be by the river at first light. I set my alarm for 5:35am. I know it’s mad, but this doesn’t feel early any more. In lockdown, I became obsessed with running before anyone else was up, and as the days got longer, my alarms got earlier.

I had a coffee but didn’t eat breakfast. I did my usual activation exercises. Ten years ago I would have thought this too was mad: who would sacrifice 30 minutes of sleep for a coffee and some squats? But ten years ago I could have sprinted in heels. Now I have to warm up just to walk downstairs.

I jogged through the estate in the twilight, crossing the railway tracks and the weir before I saw another person. Three women in hijabs, who I sometimes see at this hour, said good morning as they ran past me on the bridge.

Taking the river path, I could feel the mist cold in my nostrils, and damp on my arms and legs. Over the footbridge and into Ferry Meadows, the sun was up and the pale light turned briefly orange. Over the lake, the sky was settling into blue, and terns wheeled and skimmed the surface. A heron sat hunched on a buoy in the middle of the lake and invisible fish rippled the water from below.

I felt completely free to enjoy this run. It’s the second Friday after school started, my parents are away, I don’t have to work, and it’s the first Friday in a few months where I can put myself first. I didn’t have to do the school drop off. I didn’t have to run fast, or far. Still, I had a goal. Every run has a purpose. Sometimes you set it, sometimes it’s set for you, and sometimes you learn it afterwards.

Today, I ran to drink in the beauty. I don’t care if this sounds naff because it isn’t. I learned that in lockdown too.

The secret to a good long run: eat more food

22 August 2022

On Sunday, during a camping trip and following two nights of broken sleep in a tent, I ran 20 miles along Norfolk country roads and afterwards I simply carried on with my weekend as if it hadn’t happened. My secret? Food. Before the run, during the run, after the run: food, food, food.

I don’t often run 20 miles and am not particularly fit (for me) at the moment – I’m just trying to get to the start line of the Rutland marathon on September uninjured, with three long (18 miles +) runs under my belt. I am 46 and my knees do a weird click when I stretch my quads, but it turns out that age does bring some experience. Before my first marathon, a long run could wipe out a whole day: the aching hips, the toilet issues, feeling sick afterwards, feeling lightheaded during.

Nowadays I put in the work not to feel like that. But don’t worry! It’s not real work and most of it is very very tasty. Here’s what I did for Sunday, in case it helps you with your long run routine.

The day before

I treat a long run (18 miles plus) like a marathon. I try to carb load, drink enough water, and try not to drink too much alcohol. On Sunday this meant:

  • Some carbs for *every* meal the day before, plus a snack. I had a massive flapjack from the bakery in Wells-next-the-Sea.
  • Extra carbs with dinner/ evening meal. I was camping so I had baked beans and sausages – not a great pre-run meal – so I had a big slice of sourdough with it and afterwards I was feeling quite full, so I had another slice.
  • Pudding. I had toasted (or as my daughter said “roasted”) marshmallows. Yes please.
  • A beer, sure, it’s saturday night! But nothing after 9pm, and a pint of water after.

The morning

  • Finish eating 1.5 – 2 hours before I start the run
  • Some caffeine to start my… morning routine.
  • Eat boring, non fibrous, carbs. If I would usually have two slices of toast, I eat three. On Sunday I had a big iced bun and half a(nother) flapjack.
  • ( I avoid peanut butter, after several trips to the bushes at the Bewl Water Marathon 2017)
I got up at 5:20am – recommended

The run

  • It was hot, so I took two full soft flasks (500ml) of water with electrolyte tablets, in my vest. I sip regularly when I feel like it. Towards the end of the run I stopped a couple of times to drink a bit more. I came back with some left, but I would rather take more and be safe.
  • I had two gels, at 6 miles and 14 miles – I use Science in Sport ones – I wouldn’t say I like them, but they’re easy to get hold of in supermarkets and I am now used to them.
  • I took some sweets (jelly tots: a bad choice, they are like glue in your mouth) and ate them at 10 miles and 16 miles. They tasted of regret.

After the run

  • I eat as soon as I can – I had a packet of salt and vinegar hula hoops and an apple when I got back to the tent.
  • Drink, obviously.
  • Eat something with protein within the hour – nuts, cheese, something small is fine.
  • Drink again – easy to forget!
  • Have a proper meal when I feel hungry, it doesn’t have to be big, I’ve fuelled the run already. I had half my daughter’s (massive) burger, and an ice-cream.
  • Have a beer, if you like! I had one from the Adnams tent at Blakeney village fete.

Healthy choices?

A 20 mile run is an extreme thing to ask your body to do. It needs quick energy, easily available, to do it well. Looking at this list, very few of these foods look like “healthy” choices. But that doesn’t mean they’re not good. This is what good looks like for me.