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Is it a cross-country race, or is it a near-death experience?

24 March 2023

I’m not just here for the good days, the training revelations and pictures of dreamy footpaths. I’m here for the worst days too. The races that are so bad you don’t want to run another step, and even though you don’t give up, you can’t feel good about it afterwards because you hated it so much you wish you had given up.

I had one of those days at the last race of our local cross-country season on Sunday 12th March. Nearly two weeks have passed, but the pain is still fresh enough to write about it. I never enjoy this race. The final in our “frostbite” season, it’s always unseasonably warm, and lo, the sun was shining. It’s also famously windy, and lo, the wind was blowing.

Beginning in Huntingdon’s Jubilee Park, the five mile race starts with a long lap of a boggy playing field, where everyone goes pounding off too fast around the sides of a football pitch, blocking your view of the ankle-breaking divots in the grass. Once your heartrate is good and high, the field squeezes through a gap in a spiky hedge out onto the course proper: long miles of rough grassy paths on the fringes of exposed open farmland, somehow both flat and uphill, and buffeted by a constant howling gale.

The worst thing about this terrible race is how far ahead you can see. If you manage to lift your eyes up from the ground for a second, there will be a long string of faster runners in the distance, reminding you how much further you have to go. And the absolute very worst thing is the section in mile four where the sketchy path turns into a lumpy bank for half a mile. I won’t even call this part a “path” because literally no-one has set foot on it for a year since the last race. It is lumpy, tussocky, long grass, with huge holes and nowhere safe to put your feet. As soon as it began, I remembered it from the last time, and the urge to walk, stop, or lie down and wait for death, was overwhelming.

Luckily, most other runners were also hating it. Despite slowing down to what felt like a crawl, I didn’t get passed by many people. And several were walking – not something I usually see in a frostbite race. Looking at strava afterwards, I took a tiny shred of comfort from the misery of others.

I am ashamed of how sorry I felt for myself at the end of the race. It’s a team event, and our team did well. But instead of congratulating others on their runs, I went off in a huff and jogged around the field until I felt less angry. Yaxley Runners finished second on the day, and third in the league, but I only found this out on Monday, when I’d calmed down enough to check the website.

We all have bad days, and the important thing is to learn from them, right? Okay. The lesson I’m taking from this one is: never run this race again*

The camera does lie

*Only joking, Team Captain, I’ll be there.

Is it a training race, or a race race?

5 March 2023

It’s that time of year. You’ve just finished a long marathon training run. Your face is salty, your thighs are throbbing, but you’re buzzing. You did it! It’s in the bank. You upload your run to strava, and while you’re waiting, you scroll through other people’s runs. You look at the distances, the times, the comments. You tap “view analysis” and look at your elapsed time. It doesn’t look as good. The buzz starts wearing off.

“I could have gone faster”, you think.

Yes. You could have gone faster. But *should* you have? The answer is no, and you know it. Long slow runs are called LSRs for a reason. They’re not long tempo runs, or long steady runs, or long fast runs. Being slow is the point.

While we’re out running further, our bodies are getting stronger. The stress of the increased mileage is overloading our muscles, and triggering adaptation. By running slowly, we’re reducing the impact of this overload on our bodies, recovering more quickly, and protecting ourselves from injury. There are no strava crowns for being slow and sensible, so we just have to remember that the benefits are invisible, but real.

This is easy to say, but harder to stick to. Last weekend I ran a 20 mile race- the Tarpley 20 – as part of my marathon training. Before I joined a running club, I had never heard of anyone doing a race as a training run. Don’t these people realise that running is free? I would have said. But long races make for brilliant marathon training. They are locally run, reasonably priced and well supported. If you’re struggling to motivate yourself to cover 30k or 20 miles by yourself, pinning on a race number alongside 300 people who probably feel the same really helps.

The challenge with a training race, though, for anyone with a shred of competitiveness in their veins, is that it’s still a race. It’s really hard not to race a race. I should know, I’ve done it. At the Stamford 30k in 2022 I went too hard in driving rain and picked up a calf strain that ended my chances of running Brighton marathon. At the Oundle 20 in 2019, I got carried away with it being a club championship race and, looking back, put in a much better performance than I managed at Boston marathon four weeks later.

At the start line last Sunday, I could still feel the temptation. Before the race, to guard against this, I had told anyone who’d listen that I was going to take it slow. Even so, I found myself finishing my first mile in 8 minutes 17 seconds (AKA, this year’s goal marathon pace). Luckily, my brother in law caught up with me in mile two and asked me (in the nicest way) what the hell I was doing. Slowing down, I replied.

I did, and as a result, I really enjoyed the run, especially the last few miles. When I got to the finish, I not only felt I could run another 6.2 miles, I actually wanted to. I can honestly say I have never felt like that at the end of any race, ever.

I am not a coach, and I can only talk from my own experience, but I wouldn’t race – as in, properly race – anything longer than 10km in the run up to a marathon. If we’re tempted to push it harder for longer, we need to ask ourselves: what is the main goal? Is it to perform really well in the marathon, and get to it on top form and uninjured? Is it to perform really well in the club champs? Is it to boss the cross country season? Because we cannot do them all.

When it comes to your marathon, so many things about race day are uncertain. Focus on what you can control. Focus on the goal.

Don’t risk leaving your best race in training.

Whisper it… I might be getting my fitness back

13 February 2023

After three months of covid and a post-covid cold from hell, I’m finally getting back to my pre-covid fitness. It makes me nervous to write this, in case I chase it away, but I also want to record it. If I say it out loud, I can start to believe it.

Early morning intervals are back

Three months sounds like nothing, but feels like forever. At first I was just happy to be able to get outside. But when my garmin beeped a “your stress levels are unusually high” warning at the start of a run, and then repeatedly told me my easy jogs were done at a “threshold” level heart rate, I was worried. How could I listen to my body, when I felt fine but so obviously wasn’t?

Mine was a mild Covid case, with most of the OG symptoms but no cough. I only took one day off work and, after two weeks of no running, I was keen to start again. People who’d had covid (which at this point was pretty much everyone) kept warning me to “take it easy”, and “don’t rush back to exercise”. It sounded like they wanted to add “… or you’ll get long covid”. I tried to find some proper medical advice for post-covid running, but failed. Is there any?

This Runner’s World article is the best summary I could find of what information there is for us to go on. It shares data on elite athletes, which I did not find helpful, but also looks at a big study of fitbit data which finds that the average covid sufferer doesn’t return to regular resting heartrate for 79 days following infection. 79 days is… three months.

Three months after Covid infection, my heart rate is now connected to the effort I’m putting in. I can stay in the “easy” heart rate zone without stopping to walk, and in the past two weeks I’ve run:

  • my first interval session since October 2022;
  • a 5 mile cross-country race, within 15 seconds a mile of my old pace; and
  • an 18 mile long run.

My heartrate looked normal during each of these, and they were all a massive effort and a hideous struggle. I loved them!

It’ s official. I’m back. (fingers crossed)

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.