Monday, 23 January 2012

Awesome 2012: Brass Monkey Half Marathon

Yesterday saw in the first really awesome thing in my awesome 2012.

I had been training for weeks and weeks for the York Brass Monkey - a notoriously fast and flat half marathon which for many people is the first big running event of the year. I did it last year and hated it (I hadn't trained much, at all), but then got to know the route rather intimately during our twice-a-week cycling speed sessions, when we would pedal as fast as we could around this course.

So, the training. I really wanted to beat 2 hours in this run; out of all the races I've done, this course is the best bet at a good time, and running it in January means that the temperature will be on your side! I've put in weeks of long distances, between 12 and 16 miles every Saturday morning bar one since November, and have covered over 20 miles a week in total ever since.

But I lagged a lot on the speed training. I hate recovery runs (short sprints with jogging in between), and in all honesty, I only started adding this to my training..umm...5 days before the race...!

So, with that in mind and the fact that I'd have to increase my speed quite substantially, I wasn't wholly convinced that this would happen. Adding to that, the morning of the race came and the winds were disasterously heavy; as about 3 miles of the race crosses a disused airfield, it is always slightly windy on the route. This was going to be tough!

We got out of the car at York, and even walking to the loos was a battle in the bluster. I was pretty sure I didn't want to do it, and was feeling really quite down in the dumps about it all. It was going to be a hellish more-than-two-hours, I knew that much!

The race started right on time - I had to hand my Soreen over to Daniel to finish as I was a bit tardy in my preperations! And we were off! Usually I take it steady for the first couple of miles, but in this case I knew I could push it - I ran 16 miles comfortably 3 weeks ago for goodness sake - and so I did. A couple of miles in and I was way ahead of my ususal pace, and feeling really good. My nerves had disappeared, I felt strong and my energy levels were sky-high. The wind was rallying around us in all directions, so apart from the howling in my ears, even that wasn't such an issue. The sky was blue, I was doing what I love in a city that I love, and I was overtaking other runners by the second.

And then we hit the airfield. Every time I ran forwards I was pushed by the gale into the side of the road. I was running in zig-zag, battling painfully to move both forwards and sidewards at the same time. Energy expenditure doubled, and I pushed and pushed, very slowly, for a good couple of miles. I knew a corner was coming up, and once we got around there the winds died down. But I was tired and disheartened, and there was still 8 miles to go.

To cut a not-so-long story short, the wind blustered around every now and then for the rest of the race. There were moments when my legs were blown from under me as I ran, and points where the gaps between hedges made for sharp bursts of angry wind. But it was ok, I was ok, and despite my fear that the energy had been blown out of me not even halfway through, I found myself flying along, confident in my strengh and ability, for the first time ever.

9 miles, 10 miles, 11 miles the signs all read. 12 miles and I let out a rather aggressive "come on!!" - the home stretch, the glory mile, as I always call it. No matter what, I had to give 100%, and I did. I overtook more runners, trying to focus on getting ahead as oppose to getting quicker. The roadside crowds grew thicker and louder, "you look too fresh, you must be doing a different race!" one steward shouted at me, and I felt that amazing buzz that I have now enjoyed 11 times, but that never gets any less awesome or any less terrifying (I was very nearly sick in the last few metres of my last half marathon..!). I turned the corner towards the finish and looked out for my Dad and Daniel, concentrating on seeing them rather than the blurry finish line.

I saw Daniel click the camera, and I was accross, done! I didn't even care so much about the time - I knew it wasn't under 2 hours, but I was still proud of my efforts, and really pleased to have enjoyed the race as much as I did.

2 hours 5 minutes. A new personal best, and with the wind handicap I can see, for the first time, the possible reality of the under-2-hour mark. I'm getting better, and as I get better, I fall even more madly in love with racing and with running. There's going to be more of this in 2012, but this was a really really awesome start to the running calendar!

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Winter Running

I absolutely love running in winter. I love to see my breath cloud around me in great balls, the paths glistening underfoot, and the hills in the distance white with frost and snow. I run faster in winter; the warmth of spring and summer makes me too nervous to push myself hard, but in the chilly air I feel free and completely alive!

The best thing has been running on the fells in the recent frosts, where the world looks as if it's been painted in delicate white glitter. Running up the moorside is fine, and quite a sweaty job in all weathers, but once up on that moor, the weather is always at its worst, and winds, rain and frost can physically hurt! Did you know that runners age much more quickly than non-runners? All that harsh weather to the face doesn't do us many favours!

I've already talked about keeping fit in winter, and despite joining a running club and finding ways to exercise indoors, it can still be difficult to really feel comfortable when running outside in the cold. I've started to build up quite a high weekly mileage, as I've been training hard for a half marathon on Sunday (eeek!). At the same time I've been trying to really look after myself, by keeping limbered up, warm, nourished and hydrated!

Here are a few tips that I've learnt along the way - just in time for milder temperatures!

Wrap up, but not too much

I love to run with bare legs, and the shorter the shorts, the better! I do have lycra running trousers, but I only wear these in extremes of cold as I find them very restricting, and have been wearing mid-length lycra shorts during these colder months. As the legs do pretty much all of the work while running, they do stay warm quite nicely, and so long as you're well warmed up there should be no problem with getting too cold once you get going. Also, there's nothing more waterproof than skin - I wouldn't even consider anything other than shorts when running in rain. Soggy lycra from waist to ankle? No thanks!

The most important bits to keep warm are feet, hands and head. Ankle-length socks, light running gloves and a light wicking hat should do the trick nicely. I also read somewhere that it's good to fill your bottle with warm water, which will keep your hands warm while you get going - I haven't tried it, but still, a good idea!

So, usually it's shorts, a long-sleeved running top, hat, socks and gloves. But I also have a great fast-wicking mid-layer which ties easily around the waist, and a fluorescent waterproof - I only wear this in serious cold/winds, as it ends up a bit like a sauna in there!

Keep the skin protected

In an effort to protect my skin as much as possible from the weather, I basically add a whole new layer of blubber to my face before heading off on a run. Baby Bottom Butter from Waitrose is fantastic for this (it's lovely as a night time moisturiser, too), as it basically coats the skin in olive oil, keeping it moist as well as protected from any wind, cold or rain.

I've had a lot of trouble with cold sores this winter, and I attribute it to not looking after my lips while out running. Badger Balm is my ultimate choice for lip care, but when it comes to running I just smother my lips in ordinary chap stick. I hate the stuff - my Dad's an engineer and he assures me that petroleum jelly is not a thing for the lips (in fact, it was him who introduced me to Badger Balm in the first place) - but it does stop the cold sore problem without me having to use buckets of my favourite lip balm!

Finally, an amazing hand treatment in itself, I moisturise my hands with a really gentle, non-oily cream before I put my running gloves on. I have very bad dry skin on my hands, and the best product I know for my particular skin type is Aveeno, which is made with oats and is truly divine. Decent moisturiser plus gloved hands plus sweaty skin plus lots of blood circulation really does leave wonderfully soft hands after a long run!

Stay nourished

I''ve been doing regular training runs of over 12 miles (I did 16 miles a couple of weeks ago - whew!), and I decided from the outset to try taking snacks and drinks along for a decent power surge when needed. I've been taking Lucozade Sport, which is ok, but I'd be very grateful to hear of any recommendations for good energy drinks (not gels)! On a 14 mile run, I'd have my first drink at 7 miles, then every 2 miles until the end of the run. This not only keeps me hydrated and reasonably energised, but it also helps to focus on the matter at hand - long distance - which can be quite daunting when not broken down into 2-mile drink stops. I've also been taking a small snack, and the best I've found is a bag of dried apricots: light on the tummy, easy to chew and swallow, easy to carry. Running in both hot and cold weather can really mess with concentration and energy levels (I feel pretty dazed after 10 miles in the best of conditions), so I've found it helpful to have a bit of support and nourishment along the way.


I've also just started with recovery shakes. I was so against the idea of filling my body with sugars and chemicals after it's taken me so boldly on such long runs, but then I tried it, and I felt amazing. I used to find myself craving everything and anything for a couple of days after pushing myself hard on a run, but this helps stop that, and I can get back to normal, healthy eating straight away. I'm converted!

Note: Unfortunately no one is paying me to say I like these products, I just genuinely do love them!

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Notes From a Yoga Class

When I first read this post by Phil last year, I was so taken by the idea of putting into words the sensations and experiences that occur during a yoga session that I intended since to do the same thing myself. Last week I tried it for the first time, and was amazed by how much I could remember from a class which seems to carry me unknowingly through it, and how the final written expression of that session seemed to consolidate it all so perfectly.

Last night I came home from yoga at 9:05pm, and got ready for bed straight away. I made a chamomile tea, put a few drops of lavender in my oil burner and got into bed with the beautiful journal that Daniel bought me for Christmas. Having already intended to come home and write about the experience, I had spent the class paying attention to my mind and body; listening out for tightness, unwanted thoughts, unsteady postures. I'd love to share the notes from last night's yoga class, as it was a particularly beautiful session during a particularly difficult couple of weeks.

After a 6am interval session in minus temperatures and two painfully tiring days at work, tonight's yoga class couldn't come soon enough. It was freezing in the room, which was packed with people filled with good intention and new year resolution. My chest was tight and my breathing heavy from the constant anxiety that follows me around these days. I was aware that my exhales were loud and unwieldy, but I let them go naturally: bursts of air leaping from my lungs with a fit of tense energy. I looked inwards; I held each trouble in my head for a moment and then let it drop, letting them go one-by-one as I succumbed to the physical sensations of my body. Just as yoga lets me consolidate mind and body, it also allows me to separate mind and body - when I succeed in this, I come away from the class feeling lighter and stronger simultaneously.

Eventually I stretched up into Down Dog. My legs felt crooked and tight, my arms tired and reluctant. We were encouraged to focus on the grounding of our fingers and toes; I struggled with this initially, but eventually sensed the full weight of my body bearing down on these 20 small digits. Down Dog is so often an exercise in strength, but giving way to all of my body except the tiniest extremities pulled away all fear and tension, and I found a more comfortable, deeper Down Dog this way.

My legs felt neither strong nor flexible tonight - a symptom of so much running recently - but I strived to hold myself focused and comfortable in every pose. My balance was off any my body awkward and uncooperative in spinal twists, but I tried to listen, tried not to push. I focused on stillness and remaining strong in the poses, however fully I did or didn't manage to hold them. 
Finally we moved into a balance pose (Warrior 3). As my hands left the mat, leaving my single leg to hold my body weight, I began to wobble from side to side on one foot. Rather than worry about losing my balance, I practised emptying my head of all expectation, all judgement. I focused my energy into the toes, ball of the foot and heel - all pressing into the earth - and felt the sturdy world beneath me. I managed to hold myself, strong, focused and still, in the pose for a good half minute, enjoying my breath as relief to the heat in my thigh and calf. From here I sank down to rest in Child's Pose. My legs burned with lactic acid and my body was drained from pressing all energies so hard in one direction. But my mind was light and free, for the first time in a good while.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

2012: A Big Year

2012 is set to be a big year. I am currently making huge life-changing steps to get where I want to be, and it is taking a fair amount of my energy. Alongside that, because dreams don't always come true and money doesn't grow on tress, I'm also planning a whole range of huge life-changing things, because I've had my year of wanting things to change, and now I'm having my year of making things change.

So, here are a few of the huge (and less-huge) goals for this year - the hugest one of which has been left out, in order to protect my own sanity if it all falls apart!

1. Climb a new mountain
2. Go on holiday abroad
3. Buy a house (huge, I know, but exciting, too!)
4. Get a time of 2 hours or less in a half marathon
5. Write
6. Floss every day (10 days out of 11 so far - not bad!)
7. Get something published
8. Read more non-fiction

Aside from these goals, though, I just want 2012 to be awesome. 2010 was awesome, and it didn't involve a novel or a house deposit or even particularly good dentistry; when I think back, the achievements and fulfilment that came with 2010 came directly from me, from my heart, even. So I'm giving my heart to this year; to building myself again from scratch, to taking on awesome things and saying 'yes' to even the scariest challenges. I want to re-discover the person I was two years ago: enthusiastic about the future, passionate about my cause, lively and sociable. She's still in there somewhere, I'm sure!

I've woken up every morning lately with a ball of excitement inside me, eager to get into my day and make the awesome happen. I feel more in love than ever, more in control than ever, and more excited than I have in a long time about just being where I am, and getting where I want to be. The thing about a new year is that it gives us a place to start afresh; even though the sun and moon rise and fall just as every other day, the celebrations, the champagne, the relfections on the previous year - they all say 'here, take another chance and use it'. I feel that I've been uncharacteristically gloomy for the past few months, letting my woes stew together and constantly wishing I was elsewhere. So, in short, my new year's resolution (which has taken 11 days to really materialize) is to constantly strive to be the person I want to be. To be kinder, more passionate, a little less frantic, to spend time doing what I love, to take risks and put myself right out there when given the opportunity.

2012 is going to bring its challenges, I'm sure. But this year I am striving to do more awesome things, and to make 2012 a really big year.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Be Kind: Rewind*

I set off into 2011 with the good intention to be kinder to myself. I resolved to "at least try and let time flow by, and not worry too much about the precious seconds that slip past without any real intensity".


I'm not sure how successful this was one the broader scale. I ran 99 miles worth of races, and cycled 170 miles of sportives. I climbed four mountains - one of which I descended by zip wire, took up fell running and had a rather terrifying few hours mountain biking with my Dad.

A few hundred feet above Honister Pass - spot the road in the top LH corner!!

And when I think back to the highlights of 2011, these things are exactly what I think of. I think of the sweet melon that we ate 80 miles into our 100 mile ride. I think of the evenings when I arrived home eager to get out on my bike in the dusk light and forget the day. I remember the 13 mile run and 70 mile bike ride that I did while unemployed, and that dark evening run right after my Uncle died when I had to stop to choke on my tears. It seems that intensity is how I get by, and as ridiculous as I realize I may appear at times, the intensity and adrenaline of these adventures is what drove me through 2011; I'm not going to let that stop now.

But, on the contrary to all of the above, I do think I learned a little about being kind to myself in 2011, especially towards the end of the year. It still takes a lot of effort, but my general pace has slowed to a steady lilt; I take time to sip a herbal tea before bed, I sit and write whenever I feel the urge, I listen to the radio more and read magazines as well as books. Taking time to simply sit and sip tea (a tip suggested by Rachel, which I highly recommend) has become an integral part of my day, and instead of the short and intense home-yoga sessions that I used to do a few times a week, I now enjoy a full and completely wonderful yoga class once a week (during which I inevitably fall asleep). I always knew that these things were needed in my life; they don't only complement the amount of activity that I do, but they also drive it and help my body and mind to re-charge afterwards.

Along with the physical aspects, of course, nutrition has to also play a large part. This is still very much a work in progress, but I am working hard to eat well and with mindfulness on every occasion. I now drink much more water, and have stopped using nasty squash packed with nasty sweetners to disguise the wonder that is H2O. I cook lentils a few times a week (packed with protein and hugely versatile!) and have started eating eggs much more often - and feel amazing for it! All pasta is now wholemeal, and rice is almost always wholemeal (white basmati rice is my ultimate indulgence - it could be much worse, I reckon!). On top of that, nuts, oils and seeds feature in my diet on a daily basis.

Eating healthily hasn't been a problem for me for a very long time now, but I am conscious of how hard I push my body on a weekly basis, and along with the copious amounts of fruit and veg that I feed it, I know I need to consider the fats and proteins and sugars that were never really an issue before. It's all part of being kind, and in fact it's the part that I take the most pride in!

As for 2012? Well, I'm still a little reluctant to set my intentions in stone for this year. I have some massive goals that I am working towards right now, and I'm quite prepared to let all hell break loose in every other aspect of my life to give myself every chance of getting where I need to be. I suppose that I want more of the same in 2012; I want to continue working on acting mindfully in every aspect of my life, and for it to become a natural part of myself, rather than a concerted effort. I also have a long list of goals, which I may share in an up-coming post.


*Did anyone else see this film with Jack Black? I saw it at the cinema and from what I remember really enjoyed it...anyway, that has nothing to do with this post!

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

And Here We Are, 2012

2012: so here it is! Happy New Year! I hope the first few days of this fresh new year have been good to you!

I feel as if Christmas never really happened this year. It was so quiet and simple, it slipped by innocently, and before I knew it I was back at my desk, logging on to a pitiful 64 emails (as much as I'd hate to have hundreds of emails waiting for me after ten days' holiday, my sorry 64 - most of which weren't really meant for me - did make me realize just how little my position matters in the grand scheme of things. Ha!) and counting down the hours until banana time (10:30am, no earlier).

Before I charge into all of my good intentions for the year ahead, I'd like to first recount a few good memories from the past few days. I think I need a bit more time to reflect on what the festive season brought me before I really start to plan and make any lists; intentions don't need to be rushed, anyway. Still, I find myself in a much calmer state than I was before the Christmas break, as if all of my frantic obsessing about where I'm going, and my charging ahead full-throttle into something, anything, but this has melted away during the festivities.

I spent a quiet Christmas at my parents', just them, me and, fleetingly, my younger brother. We didn't talk until late into the night as we usually do, we didn't drink all the wine, host visitors for evening drinks or stop off at the supermarket every day for more houmous; it was an incredibly unindulgent, low-key affair. I think we were all going through the same, quiet emotions, and interestingly, the one thing I know we all shared this Christmas wasn't spoken aloud once. It didn't seem necessary, somehow.

Instead, we went for walks, sat by the fire, read a lot, and worked quietly on our own projects. I cooked for my parents, I went running with my Dad, I went running alone. We went for our traditional family ramble on Boxing Day (minus my brother, who had a better offer from his girlfriend - typical!), and our traditional gathering on Christmas Eve.

Then, I spent a cosy New Year tucked up in the mountains with the man I love. We ate a lot, walked in the mud and rain, chatted about things not to do with work, played games and slept in late. We went for a short run together in the dark, browsed the shops in Keswick and hurriedly scoffed many picnics as we froze in the first real cold spell of the winter. We also visited Grasmere and Dove Cottage, which was wonderful.

So now I'm starting to come to terms with 2012. I'm enjoying getting some routine back, and enjoying the placid feeling that's remained since I arrived home for Christmas. I'm writing every day, being more careful with how I'm eating, enjoying long evenings at home, and trying not to spend too much time with my computer. Long may all of this last!