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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.

Do I seem like I’m marathon training to you?

3 March 2020

img_6930Deciding to run a marathon is easy. Signing up to run a marathon is easy. Running a marathon… isn’t easy exactly, but at least it’s quick. The bit that really isn’t easy is every single day between signing up for a marathon and actually running it: the training.

The training is the hard bit. And training for a spring marathon is the hardest. It’s dark, it’s cold, I’ve been here before. This year feels harder though, and I’ve been trying to work out why. It’s not any darker and it’s a lot less cold in the UK this year. It is wetter and a whole lot windier, but it’s not the weather that’s the problem.

What is the problem, then? I am five weeks away from Peterborough marathon – my ninth – and I am still stuck knee deep in denial. I signed up late, after New Year. I dusted off last year’s training plan. I added on a few miles a week. I’ve done a handful of sessions. I’ve done some long runs, some races. It looks to the outside world like I’m putting the miles in: 45 a week. Fewer than many, but more than most. Not great, but not the problem either.

If marathon performance = training + belief + luck, is the problem lack of belief?  I’ve had some issues making my peace with getting slower, and a few weeks off with posterior tibial tendinitis in late summer knocked my confidence a bit. But that’s not it. I’m still dreaming of a 3:15 marathon. Not just dreaming, I still believe I can do it (not this year, obviously!) because that injury came after a summer of proper speed. A summer where I smashed my mile, 5k and 10k pbs even though I’m in my mid-forties.

So, it’s not the training or the belief. And I can’t do anything about the luck. The real problem this year is that… whisper it… running a marathon is just not that important.

Things that are more important than marathons this year: my daughter, my relationship, my family, my job, my friends, my colleagues, cross-country races, my sleep, cooking food, junior parkrun, a good book, NetFlix. Did I mention sleep?

I still love you, marathon, but I’m phoning it in this year and we both know it. Cross your fingers for a lot of luck on 5 April 2020.

Confession time: I got some personal bests

9 July 2019

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

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

New 10k pb: 41:38

img_6126-1

PB Face

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

New mile pb: 5:57

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

New 5k pb: 19:54

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

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

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

Boston, baby!

23 April 2019

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

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

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

Getting to the start

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

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

No pressure, then

Boston

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

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

The most well-organised race I’ve ever run

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

Things I loved:

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

Things I didn’t:

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

The things I will remember

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

“Welcome to Boston!”

No more personal bests?

21 March 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reality Check!

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

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

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

Slow down and just enjoy it

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

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

So what’s it all for?

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

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

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

Personal bests are temporary. Running is forever.

The sharp end

18 September 2018

This Saturday, at parkrun, shifting from foot to foot about three rows from the front, checking out the Helpston Harriers vests ahead, a fellow runner said to his friend, “Woah, we really are at the sharp end!”

I was standing there too. A quick blast on the horn, a broken chord of garmin beeps, and we were running. Sprinting kids, grizzled guys gurning by the first turn, sharp elbowed men cursing the plodders in search of a pb. And me, failing not to go out too fast, again.

There are not many women at the sharp end. I knew a couple were ahead of me but I couldn’t spot them – too small, too slight, to be noticed in amongst the sea of men.

At that parkrun, 7 out of the first 100 to finish were women or girls, but we made up nearly half (48%) of everyone who walked, jogged or ran around Nene Park that morning.

Parkrun is not a race. Our local cross-country league, on the other hand, is. It starts in three weeks’ time (oh god), and I just received this message about it from my club:

More often than not“? This guidance is new, I think. I’ve always understood it to be fastest 7 men, and 3 women. And that’s what it will be. In the first race of 2017/18 season, 5 women finished in the top 100, and only 20 in the first 200.

So why not 5 men and 5 women to score? What is the argument against it? I guess the rules originally reflected the number of runners of each gender a team could field. And they do still mirror them – in that first race last year 38% of runners were women, 62% men. But there were 195 women, more than enough to score. If the teams have the runners, why isn’t the scoring equal?

Could it be elitism, rather than sexism, that drives this choice to hold onto old rules? Elitism is what competitive sport is built on. Rewarding the performance of the very best – who push themselves to their limit – over the mid-pack runners who’d rather hold onto their breakfast and not break their ankles. Prioritising the sharp end, over the fun-runners.

How do we get more women at the sharp end, though? Maybe by not treating them as fun-runners, and giving them an equal chance to score.