Sunday, 31 March 2013

Marathon Training Week 6: Wind and Stockholm

It has been an especially good running week, all things considered. I can't believe that it was only a week ago that I set out early, wrapped up in my warmest chill-proof gear for an 18-mile run in sharp, slicing winter winds. I decided to take a chance and do the run in my new shoes, having tested them out on a 10-miler the previous week. I was nervous, and doubting why I'd ever even signed up to do another marathon when the last one was so hard, and the training so all-consuming. After a lovely lazy Saturday I wanted so much to be still wrapped up in bed, hiding away at home from the extended winter that is on the forefront of every British person's mind at the moment.

I ran through Copmanthorpe and from there decided to take a route I'd never ventured before, through the village of Askham Bryan and then back into the city via Acomb. This was partly tactical - the less familiar the route, the less I had to think about the wind and the distance - and partly because this would be my last long run in York before the marathon, and I wanted to explore a few more new roads rather than sticking to the ones I already run on every day. As it would happen, Askham Bryan is one of the most charming places I've seen for a while, with the tiniest church, rows of crooked cottages, and a huge duck pond were bundles of small children wrapped up against the cold were feeding the ducks with their parents. It was a joy to run through the village, envisioning what life might be like if we one day decided to move out here and take on one of the ramshackle houses for ourselves. The route was easy to follow and it wasn't long before I'd racked up 10 miles, but the weather was getting worse and the winds were becoming unbearable. I didn't even bother to look at my Garmin - I just wanted to plough unthinkingly forwards and get home to a sugary cup of tea as soon as possible! At times the wind was screaming right in my face, making it difficult to even move forwards, never mind run. But once I was back on familiar territory at 13 miles I knew I had no choice but to keep going - my route was good, at least, and there were plenty of other runners (probably also training for marathons, I guessed, since no one else would be crazy enough to be out in those conditions!) to grimace at as we crossed paths. Whether out of desperation to get home or recklessness in the face of awful conditions, I found myself speeding up in the last few miles: a welcome energy boost had appeared from nowhere to help me through the breeze blocks of tiredness and freezing wind.

I arrived home aching in that sickly sort of way that comes with high mileage - everything hurt, but my lower back and calves in particular were screaming out, helped on by wind burn on my face and sharp pains in my lungs. According to my Garmin I had made the 18-mile route in 10-minute miles, which I still can't quite believe since I was almost walking into the wind at certain points. It did give me a real boost though, since I hadn't crawled the last mile either, but had found plenty of energy to finish the run the same way I'd finish any short run - with enough energy to get up and do it all again the next day.

And that I did, with a nice short recovery run on the Monday. It was supposed to be a slow one, but somehow that didn't feel natural to me so I stuck to my normal gentle running pace and didn't worry about looking at my watch. After a longer run on Tuesday I'd stacked up 30 miles in 3 days, but was still feeling good despite being incredibly busy and unable to sleep thanks to nerves over the impending move to Sweden.

After two days off during which I rested and then travelled to Stockholm, Daniel and I had a fabulous run around the island of Sodermalm on Good Friday morning. It is much colder and icier in Sweden than it was when I left the UK, but the sun is shining and everything feels so relaxed and spring-like - the streets were calling out to be run on! We mistakenly had a huuuge breakfast at the hotel buffet before we set out, so we took it easy, and even stopped to sit by the frozen water for a little while and balk at the people walking their dog on the ice!

The next morning I was all moved in to my new flat, so we set off before breakfast this time, not wanting to make the same mistake of the previous day's regurgitated eggs and yoghurt. We ran out by the nearby water through a forest (wow I am so lucky, it's like the Scandinavian dream here in Danderyd), then tied in a hill session before heading back to the flat. There are some marvellous hills right on my doorstep, so I did 10 uphill repeats, up to the Swedish flag in someone's garden and then right the way back down. Thanks to the layers of grit covering the roads at the moment it's not particularly easy underfoot, but the hill is steeper and anything I could use in York: you win some, you lose some, I suppose!

 Ok, it looks steeper in real life!

I surprised myself on various levels this week, first with the ease of the incredibly difficult long run, then by the continuing energy over the next few days, and finally by managing to rack up over 40 miles during a week of serious upheaval. I'm already looking forward to tomorrow's 20-miler and the coming weeks of exploring this lovely place!

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

A Few Stern Thoughts on Marriage

Obviously, I've been thinking a lot about marriage lately. About what it means for me, for us, for the future; both the good things and the bad things, and I think there are numerous of each. For a while I didn't want to get married at all, ever; I wasn't prepared to take part in an institution that didn't accept all humans as equal, and I don't and never have considered marriage to be a pre-requisite of anything, or proof of the validity of any relationship.

I felt, and still do feel, that a wedding and a marriage are two almost separate things. Having been engaged for over a year now I can confirm that my worst preconceptions about weddings are in fact truths: weddings are about women, not men; they appear to be designed to play to the most traditional and repressive stereotypes that exist between the sexes, and women seem to love it. There are no bows on our invites, which has caused a stir in a way that truly terrifies me; ours will be a wedding free of all the sentimental feminine cliché: no bows, no love hearts, and no pink roses. There will, however, be an off-white (oyster?) dress, I will walk down the aisle by my father, and I will - probably - shave my legs for the occasion. I was originally planning to wear a green dress and for us to come into the ceremony together - as a couple, the way we plan to spend our married lives, incidentally - but having picked apart every traditional aspect of the wedding day itself, I have settled for those traditions that can actually mean something to me. Because let's not pretend that a woman is walked down the aisle by her father as a symbol of ownership and a dowry trade-off; in 2013 I think we can safely assume that the father is not playing any symbolic role, but is actually just supporting his daughter in one of the most important commitments she will make. Personally I'm looking forward to that precious few minutes with my Dad, linking his arm for maybe the first time ever, and knowing that the whole gesture is probably just as emotional for him as it will be for me.

In my Mum's wedding dress. One of the many weddingy things I've encountered that just wasn't 'me'!
So I have tried really hard not to lose sight of the fact that my wedding day is about a commitment, one I will be making with every inch of my being, and not about the guest list or the invites or the table decorations. It's been hard when faced with dozens of enthusiastic sales people, all trying to sell me the most beautiful and traditional wedding a woman could ever dream of. In the midst of all of this a friend confided that the parts of the day she remembers the most - and the parts she found to be the most emotional - were the vows and her husband's speech: that is, the words she and her now-husband exchanged, most notably those words that made the essential commitment to their lives together. So far this is the single most important piece of knowledge that any married person has shared about their day, and I've kept it solidly in mind for the duration of our planning so far.

I've found myself fiercely defending our choice to get married, both to those who are outwardly cynical about the whole idea, as well as to those who I suspect may be cynics of lifelong commitment. We were recently at a neighbour's party where almost every other guest was divorced, and we were both self-conscious about our perceived naivety among the crowds of knowing hindsight. But still I defend our decision to get married, completely and whole-heartedly, and I believe that we have a right to the optimism that we share in these earliest years of our relationship. Without optimism that it's all going to work out - that we'll still be madly in love in 50 years' time, let's say - then what do we have? What is there without hope and good intention? That's not an existence that I want to be involved in, anyway.

The defining moment in my continuous dialogue with myself about my feelings towards marriage was on the train to Leeds after work one day. The journey was an extension of the Carlisle-Settle line, and there would often be day-trippers travelling back to Leeds armed with a flask of tea, some scones and a guide book on the treasured route that the train takes, which shows off much of the North's most incredible scenery from the comfort and warmth of a train carriage. An old couple, probably in their 70s, were sitting together with their flask, not talking much but occasionally pointing out of the window at something noteworthy. When the train began to pull in to Leeds the man got up, brought the coats and bags down from the overhead rack, and then helped his wife into her coat before they painstakingly made their way to the door. It was then that I saw the importance (to me) of marriage, the idea of lifelong love, but more importantly friendship, that we will inevitably need more and more as time goes on. When my Gran was in a nursing home she said that her biggest regret was not realising until it was too late that her husband was her best friend. Luckily for me, I've already realised what an amazing friendship Daniel and I share, and I intend to take this on into the best and worst bits of my life to come.

So I'm having a lot of thoughts about marriage. And about the wedding too, which I am getting increasingly more excited about as time goes on. But already I feel a change in myself, as I see Daniel as the person I'll be sharing forever with and not just the other half of my relationship. We're a team now, and I stop and remind myself of that each time I find myself snapping or getting impatient with him: dealing with disagreements has become almost a pleasure, as we wind our way through the complicated dealings of life together. My journey to my wedding day has already been a long one, and the decision to leave the bows from the invites was just one of the many superficial choices we have made in an effort to signify what the day is about for us (not just for me). But I'm paying a great deal of attention to the words, because somehow we have to make an out loud commitment to something that is becoming more and more deeply routed inside us with every day we share together - as I said to Daniel after he proposed, the commitment has already been made, and now we get to find a way to make it outward-facing, with all of the optimism and wonder that lies between us.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Cartmel Sticky Toffee Trail Race, 2013

Marathon training is still going strong, but after a hard 50-mile week last week I'm having a bit of an easy week this - I need to save my energy for moving to Stockholm on Thursday! I'll get back to some training updates soon, but for now here is just a highlight of my recent running exploits!

Every Christmas morning my Dad presents us all with a white envelope containing some form of adventure that he has carefully selected, with the intention of pushing us to our limits in the name of a good family day out. For my Mum, these white envelopes have become an annual burden, and she makes sure that at least one G&T has been consumed before she dare face what horror might be folded into a simple A5 envelope. In the past we've tried out Honsiter's Via Ferrata (which, sadly, has since closed) and Keswick Half Marathon (my Mum did the York 10k), and last Christmas we were treated to the Cartmel Sticky Toffee Trail Race, one leg of the amazing Lakeland Trails running experience.
Above Honister Pass, August 2011
The Lakeland Trails events are divided into four races: a junior fun run, a 10k race, and then the Challenge and the Race. Runners doing the Challenge get an extra hour to complete the run than those in the Race, where time is cut off after 2;45. Normally this would be plenty of time for an 18k road race, but what with the mud and the hills and the cold nothing could be certain!

We arrived at Cartmel with only an hour to spare, and were already muddy within minutes after picking up our numbers from the mud bath that was race registration! The weather had been awful over the days before the race, and it was a given that the run was going to be incredibly difficult underfoot: even the start line was more like a bog than a racecourse! It was really cold out, too, but after a trial jog around the racecourse in my shorts I decided to stick with the 'less is more' approach to racewear; nothing is more waterproof or washable than skin, after all!

At the start line I began to get really nervous - a big case of the 'everyone looks fitter than me' syndrome amplified by the fact that there were so few people taking part in the Race. As is often the case with trail and fell running, I also noticed that (apart from my brother) I was probably the youngest there: small fry in all respects! The atmosphere at the Lakeland Trails events is just fantastic, though, and the drumming band and friendly crowd lifted my spirits, as did the sudden bout of unexpected impotence from the inflatable 'Start' banner, which delayed proceedings slightly. We finally set off through a sea of mud, and it was heavy going instantly as my shoes sunk in to the ground and came up heavy with sticky soil. On top of the general struggle to stand upright and wade forwards, I was also tired from a week of lots of running, so my pre-race nerves were at an ultimate high.

As usual, though, it didn't take long for me to forget everything other than the awesomeness that was the very moment I was in. The sky had started to clear and the scenery was magnificent - sunlight was strewn across the water of Morcambe Bay to the West, and the snow-topped Lakeland fells loomed to the East, and there I was running through the mud in the chilly March sunshine. The bottom half of my legs were covered in mud from the outset, which meant I was automatically set free into a muddy carelessness that meant I could tractor along with the un-matched freedom that comes with off-road running. I was also exceptionally happy with the shoes I was wearing, as I had taken a risk wearing them for their first run on an 18k race after my trusty trail shoes gave up the ghost only two weeks before. No blisters: it all adds to the joy!

The hills weren't too bad on this run either, and they gave me an opportunity to take over a few runners who had set off faster than me only to falter on the hills. I was bounding along completely alone for some miles, with only paper flags and the occasional marshal to point me in the right direction. While crossing one particularly muddy patch of fell I slid sidewards right into the mud, covering hands, thigh, and the whole left-side of my shorts in mud. The landing was deliciously soft, and part of me wanted to stay there for a while to frolic in the dirt, but with the cut-off time near the front of my mind I ploughed on.

At around 12k I started to tire, as almost every step became an effort as the ground sank beneath me. Parts of the course involved ploughing ankle-deep for some distance, and uphills were a relentless struggle to stop sliding back down again - it became pretty annoying! My back was hurting from the constant need to keep my balance, the sun was right in my face (my sunglasses were left in the car, incidentally!), and I was really hungry. Still, I was having a great time, always amazed by the privilege of being able to run like a mad woman through the Lake District's most beautiful landscapes on a Saturday afternoon.

A photographer was waiting at the last mile to take photos of runners splashing through a stream, which would have been a nice way to wash myself down if it wasn't for the final mile of mud! It soothed my poor feet, though, and freshened up my legs for the last push. After a slippery ascent into and then through some tricky woodland terrain (my Dad had warned me about the slimy tree roots, which are a nightmare when you're tired from running) I came back down onto Cartmel racecourse, and headed towards the finish line which was literally a brown bog. Finishing the race knee-deep in filth was fitting, and I was glad to see that my Dad and brother were just as muddy as I was. I collected my hard-earned sticky toffee pudding, then wrapped up in the car with a hot chocolate and a cereal bar. Next time I won't forget to pack baby wipes.


We finished off the day in typical style: my Mum had prepared a slap-up meal of veggie chilli, garlic bread and rice, with crumble and sliceable custard for pudding. Fittingly, I reached the end of the day feeling Christmas levels of fullness, but the wind burn, grazes and dirt in my toenails were a nice reminder of the adventure we'd enjoyed earlier that day.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Wedding Planning and Me: the Unlikely Duo

It's been a year now since we got engaged. Amazing to think of that startlingly sunny day, the daffodils out and the sun warm on our skin during a picnic lunch, when it is still so bitingly cold outside this year. Every time I think back to that weekend I get a pang in my stomach of enduring joy and also sadness that it's over; back then I was naïve to the inevitable trials and stresses of planning a wedding, and the tears and questions that it would bring!

I've been purposely quiet about our wedding plans over the past six months. After being a guest at the most wonderful wedding of one of my closest friends in November I realise how powerful a wedding day can be when the details are kept secret between the bride and groom. I want to keep it all to myself until September, but at the same time I'm bursting with impatience, wanting to tell everyone about the tiniest details that I have planned, should they go unnoticed in the bigger picture of our wedding day.

The amazing thing about a wedding (and I want to point out how separate the ideas of 'wedding' and 'marriage' are to me here: in no way am I ignorant to the fact that a wedding is, in its entirety, about marriage) is that it's about making an internal vision come to life. I know some people have their weddings planned from 'being a little girl' (Yuck. Since when was the wedding just a female institution?), but for me this wasn't the case: Daniel and I each took some time to think about our ideal wedding, then put the ideas together to make a picture of what we wanted. Over time this picture has developed and changed quite dramatically, and what we have now resembles only very basically what we originally came up with. A lot of the process has been about compromise; I wanted a very small wedding with only our nearest and dearest, but we are now planning for around 80 guests thanks to the sheer number of wonderful people in our lives!

And those wonderful people have been the best part of the process so far. I finished off the first of our wedding invitations yesterday, and there it was in front of me: exactly what I had imagined our invites would be like so many months ago. Thanks to artist friends and seamstress friends and gardening friends and countless other friends, we're getting something that resembles exactly what we want. How often does that happen?

I'm also enjoying the thought processes behind everything; the parts that people really won't see, but that I can enjoy knowing that we've done everything we can to make the day represent the values that we share. I could talk about the wedding food here (which has been considered (and tasted) in the most careful detail), but I want to keep that quiet until the day, when I'm hoping that even I will have forgotten how glorious it will be. From sourcing paper for the invites to re-using materials for stationary, from determining what we'll eat and drink on the day to creating the perfect wedding dress and flowers: everything is thought out, the result of careful discussion and decision, research and creativity. I'm not planning to have the 'perfect' wedding (the notion of perfect simply doesn't exist in the lexicon of my life), which takes the pressure off and makes the whole thing so much more fun. Instead we're creating a jamboree of all the things we love and care about, from our favourite tastes and scents to the things that make us laugh or inspire us. It won't be the most delicate and beautiful wedding in history, but I'm hoping it will be a lot of fun, and a wonderful metaphor for the years we've already shared together and the lifetime as a couple that we are committing to.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Marathon Training: Week 3

I've been reeling from the success of Haweswater Half for the entire week, and consequently I've had a spring in my running step and a newfound confidence in the way I define myself as a runner: maybe I can do it after all, maybe I'm not 'just slow'. It's made me want to push harder, to run even faster next time; I'm getting over a fear that I've had since I started running longer distances that keeps me from even trying to push myself beyond comfortable and hiding behind my self-imposed label of 'just being slow'. Instead I now want to learn to let go of all the barriers that I've built up in my head - because Sunday's run was all about pushing through barriers I have built for myself over the years - and keep reminding myself that discomfort isn't painful, it's just uncomfortable: the discomfort that got me through my first non-stop mile all those years ago is the same discomfort that will see me through better training and, hopefully, increasingly faster race times.

So week 3 of my marathon training started on a high note. On Monday I did a slow 5-mile run to recover from Haweswater. It felt good to be out running straight away; I always try to get out for half an hour or so the day after a big run just to loosen off and finish off warming down from the previous day's efforts - the week-long rest I used to take after the first races I did is now the last thing I want to do!

Tuesday was a little unusual in that we both took the day off to taste our wedding menu. I was still aching from Sunday so I decided to swap the double-running-with-intervals day for a longer run, and pushed myself hard to go as fast as I could. The week's schedule came undone shortly after this session, when a lack of buses meant that we had to cycle to and from our wedding taster. I arrived home exhausted and bloated, feeling rather listless after 3 intense days of activity. The plan was to get up early on Wednesday, but I was so tired I felt physically sick, and teamed with a super-busy day of seminars, workshops and training, I decided to take Wednesday off for some much-needed recuperation.

And I was so glad I did, as the rest of the week was a breeze! I had too much energy, and ended up stacking up 40 miles in what should have been a 35-mile week. I had no problem heading out for a run at 6:30 on Thursday morning, and then again for some intervals on Thursday evening. This week's interval session was the most painful on my schedule, with 6 minutes of fast followed by 2 minutes slow (only 3 times though, so not too bad). Once I get going I always enjoy these sessions much more than I probably should, and I even got carried away and ended up doing one 8-minute interval of fast running - running through the city on a crisp evening is my kind of fun. I arrived home on top of the world, looking forward to a dhal that had been simmering away since the morning in our slow cooker.

Friday morning's hill running was muddy and damp, but I pushed as hard as I could knowing that intervals followed only hours later with hills means inevitable burny arms. The fun thing about doing hills before anyone else is up and in the world is that you can shout out to nobody when you reach the top of each ascent: "ONE!"...."TWO!!"..."THREEEE!!!". A bit crazy, maybe, but fun!  I was amazed later that evening to find that I still had energy left to burn (excited energy, maybe, after a really exciting week), so I cycled out in the rain to the sports centre and did an hour of body pump. Naturally, we spent Friday night in the pub: a couple of hard-earned pints all around!

The final running excitement came on Saturday, when I headed into town to visit Up and Running for some much-needed new running shoes. My gait analysis (which ALL runners need - no excuses folks!) showed that my running style has changed over the past year, as I'm now a mid-foot striker as oppose to a heel-striker. This is all good news, since I was considering trying a neutral shoe (I've been wearing stability shoes for the past 4 years) to see whether I could get on with one now I'm a more regular runner. I chickened out, anyway, as I'm still wobbling in my ankle when I land, and with two marathons in the coming months I don't want to be getting any injuries - been there, done that, and it was horrid. I did get myself a pair of Brookes Adrenalines, though, which I can't wait to try out on Monday morning! I've never had Brookes before (I currently wear Mizuno Inspires, which I love) but so many people rave about them, it's time I had a go!

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Haweswater Half Marathon 2013

After completing Haweswater Half Marathon for the first time in March last year I was sure that - along with Keswick in May, Worksop in October and the Brass Monkey in January - it would become one of those races that make up my yearly running calendar. In my eyes it's pretty much the perfect race: relatively small, beautiful scenery, a nice time of year - an introverted atmosphere where people who simply love running simply run, without the horns and wigs and garish distractions of many bigger, more 'corporate' races. It's a 'there-and-back' route, running out to the far edge of Haweswater, looping around the small car park and then leading back in to the village of Bampton, just outside Penrith. Despite that, it works (and I have done there-and-back routes in the past that simply don't work at all): Haweswater is just beautiful, a reservoir set in some of the less grandiose Lakeland scenery with a backdrop of forests and snow-topped fells which still look untouched. It's actually one of the few places in England where you could hope to see a golden eagle. Runners get to enjoy views towards the mountains on the way out, and views over the water on the way back in again, so in this case at least the route's doubling-back on itself feels more like a buy-one-get-one-free opportunity than a cop out.

We arrived in Bampton over an hour early but the clubhouse was already buzzing with runners registering and psyching themselves up for the race. The car park is a short walk away from the facilities, and I was struck as soon as I stepped onto the grass by how fresh the air tasted; I hadn't been to the Lake District since the previous September, and I felt my senses lighting up with all of the sights, tastes and smells that I had missed - it was certainly good to be back. The hills in the distance were still covered in snow, and it was distinctly chillier in Bampton than it had been in Yorkshire when we set off at 8am, but it was a nice sort of chilly that I wanted to be out in - running, preferably. Still, I was nervous and had no idea what to expect from myself. After 6 weeks off running and two very hard weeks with too much painfully slow running, I was convinced that it was not going to be my day and that I just didn't have it in me to comfortably see myself through a half marathon. Still, I was going to give it my best shot.

I got my warm up jogging back and forth and back and forth again to the toilets, no thanks to my nervous tummy which strikes me down every time I do a race (and I've been doing them for almost 5 years now); I probably covered a mile or so before even setting off to the start line. After much dithering about the cold I decided in the end to stick with my plan of box shorts, long sleeves and gloves, knowing that I'd have to face the chill for a while at the start but would probably run faster to get warmed up! Finally we were jogging our way to the start line, weaving among other runners and their support teams and breathing in the excitement, adrenaline and deep heat as we went. I joined the huddle of runners waiting to get going, moving towards the back but not as much as I would have in the past, and listened in to the conversations taking place around me. The ladies to my right were discussing the Windermere Marathon: I was amongst friends! A race organiser stood up on the wall to greet us, shouting (no need for a megaphone here) out the precautions that we should take and then, all of a sudden, "GO!" And we went!

That first-moment-of-the-race feeling hit me like a barrel: my mind fell down between my feet and my stomach inverted itself, and suddenly I was running and doubting that I could run and overtaking because I knew I could actually run, and then I started to breathe and to listen to the hundreds of footsteps and that lull of silence in the first moments of the race, and my pace and breath began to work in time with one another, finally. We passed through the village to cheers, then out onto the country roads which were almost empty of cars, and the first mile passed in exhilarating seconds. Well, maybe not seconds, but under 8;30, anyway, which was much faster than it should have been, but I was flying and didn't want to stop. Then the 2 miles sign flashed up ahead, just before the first steep hill of what would be a hilly 13 miles, and my confidence plummeted. I crawled up that hill, leaving all of my premature energy to be trampled at the bottom; my legs didn't want to go and my whole body burned with tiredness and frustration, and even then, not even 3 miles in, I was wondering if I should have the first of my energy gels to curb the gnawing feeling in my empty stomach. I was both plodding on and giving up at the same time, fighting with my mind to decide how I'd take the next 11 miles. I was too hot and annoyed at my long sleeves, and the man behind me was exhaling with incredible drama which was putting me off no end. I let him pass, and as I turned on to the road next to the water a cool breeze came my way. Feeling much better about it all, I decided to give it everything.

And so the road moved underneath my feet and I managed to break my pace back so that, 5 miles in, I was averaging at under 9 minutes/mile: I knew that if I kept it going I'd be getting a PB, but the question was how I'd do it! The hills kept on coming, with shorter and shorter intervals between each, and my only consolation was that I'd get to run down them on the way back. There were a good few downhills, too, where of course I could enjoy an injection of speed on the way out, but would be pulling back the pace again when I came back up them in a few miles' time. And so it kept going and going, driven forward by the scenery and the promise of the next mile marker. I looped around the small car park at 6.75 miles, looking forward to an energy gel at mile 7 but dreading the long uphill that was to come.

I had planned to take a gel at miles 7 and 10, so as soon as my Garmin beeped I tried to rip the top off the first gel with my teeth. The pack ripped but not enough to break a hole into the sachet, and eventually I had to stop and try and prise apart the packaging with my front teeth (just thinking about that is making me squirm!). I kept on running while taking the gel, but felt so mixed up and disoriented from stopping that I had to stop again just to gather myself and finish the gel. Frustrated, I shoved the sticky packaging down the front of my top and kept on going, with a long incline to tackle with my newly gel-fuelled legs. And it worked: the hill felt like nothing compared to what I was expecting, and though I lost too much time messing with the gel (that mile came in at 10 minutes - such a waste) I was able to pick myself up and get back to the nice pace I'd been running at beforehand.

And so the miles kept coming and with each I felt a little more confident to push myself as hard as I could. I decided to forget the gel at mile 10 and just push through instead, given that I wanted to get to the finish line with all teeth in place. At mile 11, just as we'd left the scenic waterside route, "Another one bites the dust" blared out from a car parked by the side of the road, and onlookers cheered on runners enthusiastically. I felt great - on top of the world - and by this point I knew I'd make a sub-2;00, and maybe even a PB. Around mile 12 an old lady on a bench assured me that it was "all easy from here - lots of downhill now", I thanked here and gave it that little bit more. Then I saw my Dad, sitting on a wall eating his post-race flapjack; and then over the hump bridge and back into Bampton, where some young female stewards cheered me on, encouraging me to beat the man in front (I didn't quite manage that one). The street was lined with people clapping and cheering, and so I ran and ran, feeling suddenly self-conscious about it all: my bright red legs and snot-streaked face, and probably also my 'intense effort' expression which I imagine is not my best look. As I crossed the line I heard a steward shout out my number and time, "251, 1 hour 56 [I don't remember how many] seconds]": I'd managed it, not only sub-2;00 on a bad day, but also a personal best, and, better still, I'd had a really amazing time doing it.

I collected my Haweswater Half Marathon mug and flapjack, and as I was warming down a man came up to me to congratulate my effort; "I was trying to catch you for the last 3 miles, but couldn't do it", he said. I was pleased!

 For me, this race was everything about why I run. Finally I'm starting to see myself getting better and more confident as a runner, and its paying off in terms of my enjoyment of races and my sense of pride in how I run them. Only 4 years ago I ran my first half marathon in almost half an hour longer than I did this one (OK, so it was Keswick, which is a killer), and for a long time I couldn't imagine a time when I might break that elusive 2 hour mark. I'm not fast, and probably never will be, but the boost that came with that 1;56 and the man behind me's comment wouldn't be any bigger had I beaten 1;30. I always say that running is awesome because it shows the human capacity for improvement, but the best thing is that this just keeps coming and coming: I'm still improving 5 years later, and hope to keep doing so for some time yet!

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Apple and Ginger Flapjacks, and a Baking Drought

Since I moved back to York last year I have effortlessly lost over a stone (14lbs) in bodyweight, and am down almost two dress sizes. This has proved to be good and bad in equal measure, really: I was feeling a little too hefty this time last year, albeit a very happy sort of hefty, and all the nice clothes I acquired while I had a proper job with a real life salary are now hanging off me like very pretty sacks. Numerous family members have commented, inquiring into how (and why - since I wasn't exactly in need of any sort of weight loss programme) I have managed this miracle feat that so many seem to aspire to, and all I can say is "umm...I don't know really. I quit my desk job?".

But last week I was looking over some photos from the past 2 years, and the light in my head switched on, the choirs started singing, and the answer was suddenly clear. There was photo after photo of heavenly homemade treats: loaves of bread, cakes, biscuits, crumbles, pies and pizzas. Back in our apartment in Saltaire we had the sort of oven I have come to dream about, and during our time there I took full advantage. Of course, I haven't stopped baking since we moved back to York, but I now have to enjoy a very limited possibility of treats, thanks to the table-top micro-oven that we have been using since April last year. I will never forget our first evening in this house, when we had been hauling, lifting, unpacking and cleaning all day long. We had some posh pizzas ready for cooking up while we sipped on some celebratory Cava, and all was going to plan until the oven (rather retro in appearance, it has to be said) wouldn't light. We tried and tried in desperation, but it wasn't happening. So instead we pulled together and made a disappointingly healthy pasta dish, and set out the next day to get the only oven we could feasibly use in our tumbling-down kitchen: one of those microwave-cum-oven-cum-grill affairs that is never as good as it promises on the tin.

Now, it has to be said that the oven itself has been ok. We can roast veggies and make pizzas with no problem, and it definitely beats having no oven at all. But, as I discovered not long after we bought it, it just won't bake like a real oven. I've been reduced to only baking things that can be turned upside down, as it seems to have a problem with getting past the upper crust of any baking project. Bread is ok, biscuits are ok, even pies can work if you're careful, but cakes, buns, muffins, pastries and anything in a tray is out of the question. And so I need another hole punching into my belt, and my jeans hang around my bottom in a rather unsightly manner. Desperate times.

So this weekend, while enjoying the luxuries of my parents' home to their fullest possibility, I baked for the first time in what feels like months. It was a joy, it came almost without thinking, the ingredients falling together in the bowl as if graced by the presence of those fairies that cleaned Cinderella's house in the Disney film. My parents have an Aga, and a big beautiful kitchen which is just so much fun to bake in - the more space I have to dust everything in flour, the happier I am. I found some cubes of sugared ginger that were slightly past their 'best' (ahem) in the cupboard, and two apples that may or may not have been there since Christmas. Then, when I came upon a block of butter that was best before February I knew what I had to do: flapjacks it was.

So unlike my usual recipes, this is not a healthied-up version of anything. It's proper bad-for-you (if you eat it all in one go) flapjack, which, let's be honest, is always the best thing for anyone on a Sunday afternoon with a cuppa and a newspaper. Even better during the day when a lovely husband-in-the-making brings on up on a plate with a milky coffee to help with your readings on neuroscience - try it and see!

Apple and Ginger Flapjacks
Makes 24.

450g rolled oats
75g soft brown sugar
250g unsalted butter
50g honey
2 baking apples, peeled and chopped into 1cm cubes
100g crystallised ginger, chopped into 1cm cubes (or use sticky stem ginger)

1. Combine the oats and sugar in a large bowl
2. In a pan, melt the butter with the honey, then add this to the oat mix. Stir in the apple and ginger until combined.
3. Pour into a tin and press down with the back of a wooden spoon. Bake at 190C for 25 minutes until golden on top.
4. When the flapjacks have been cooling for 10 minutes, cut into 12 squares and then again into triangles.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Marathon Training: Week 2

It's certainly been a good running week this week, helped along by a nice bit of sunshine to see off an uncharacteristically joyous February with an early hint of springtime.

There wasn't a trace of springtime in sight last Sunday, however, when I was scheduled to run a 14-miler to get some distance in ready for tomorrow's Haweswater Half Marathon. My plan was to run the Brass Monkey route, a rather lonely circuit heading out through endless flat countryside towards Tadcaster, with a couple of miles through the ceaselessly windy Acaster Airfield to add to the fun. It's one of those routes that seems to go on forever: even when cycling it there's always that wish, somewhere along the route, that you had stayed at home today instead, and home feels like many miles away when running or cycling into winds that sweep across the farmland plains all year round. Sunday was no different, and I set out like a bag of nerves in a high-vis, airtight wrapping. I was wearing a lot more gear than I normally would, but it was really cold, and there was no point on the run when I was tempted to take any of it off - I surprised myself by being glad of my Pocket Rocket, as normally I can't get a mile down the road without feeling as if I'm wrapped in cellophane. I ran really steadily, sticking diligently to my marathon pace of 10-minute miles. At first I felt like I was going way too slow, but it's always nice to look at my watch to find that this easy pace is actually just the right pace. And it was easy, for the first 10 miles, as I was just glad to be out on a Sunday, to feel free of that Sunday feeling that usually hangs over me from the moment I wake up. Plodding along to the sound of my footsteps and breathing is such a nice way to forget the world and space out for an hour or so. Ten miles in and it started to feel quite difficult, especially as I realised that the route was going to take me further than I had originally intended; by thirteen miles I still hadn't got back to Bishopthorpe, yet my pace was slowing and my lungs were aching from the cold. I promised myself that once my Garmin beeped at mile 15 I could walk the rest of the way, but that beep came with a nice downhill slope to enjoy, so I decided to run the rest of the route with the last dregs of my energy. I picked up the pace (which is always a good morale booster, I find, even when it hurts) and gave it everything I had left, clocking in at just over 16 miles at the bottom of the street. My pace was 10;03 a mile, which was just about what I had planned though I was disappointed about how difficult it had been. I couldn't help but think of my Dad's amazing feat for charity last year: he would have had another 70 miles to go at that point!

After last year's Brass Monkey
I was already up on my planned weekly mileage, but kept going a bit over my planned distance and had clocked up 38 miles by Wednesday. After a really good interval session on Wednesday morning the Wednesday evening run was a bit of an effort, made easier by a beautiful sunset over York Knavesmire during a lovely off-road route. I finished off the week with a great hill session on Friday lunchtime, complete with sunshine, frolicking dogs and cheery walkers to make the burning in my arms (why do my arms always ache so much?!) a little less troublesome.

So, a good week with a slightly higher than planned total distance of 41 miles. I'm looking forward to the half marathon tomorrow - it will be my first this year since the Brass Monkey was cancelled due to snow in January - though the tiredness I've been feeling recently after 9-10 miles means I'm not expecting to get a good time. Still, with energy gels at the ready and little short shorts keeping me cool, who knows what might happen!