What a difference a year makes

This time almost exactly a year ago, I was contemplating what to pack for my first ever warm weather running training camp. How many pairs of running shoes would I need? How many socks? Would I need a rain jacket? I gave each and every item on my list a great deal of thought, partly so I would end up with the optimum kit but still be under that magic figure of 15kg, but partly because focusing on kit distracted me from the main issue playing on my mind; would I be fit enough to cope with the camp? Having had a lot of time off running over the previous couple of years, for various reasons, I wanted this camp to kickstart my training again, and so I had trained to be fit enough to go and train, if you see what I mean! Although this had gone reasonably well, as the trip approached I was mentally exhausted from work and wondered if I would have any energy at all to give.

IMG_3681

By the end of my week in Portugal, although my legs were tired from daily, and often twice-daily, runs, the combination of sunshine, relaxation by the pool, good company and delicious food had raised my energy levels again. Once my legs had recovered, I could feel and see the impact on my running. I could run further, and faster.

One year later and I’m beginning to think about packing for Portugal again. This time, though, I am starting from a very different place. Yes, having run there before I now know which running shoes to take and how many socks I’ll need, but, most importantly, I know that my mind and energy levels are in a much, much better place, a place from which I can get even more out of my training week in the sun.

So what has changed? In a nutshell, a lot! Running-wise, I’ve run much more consistently and joined a club. I’ve set myself more challenging goals, going back to the running I really love; off-road, cross country and longer distance. It’s a major life-change that has allowed this to happen though; I have given up the job and career that made me so unwell and have decided to put my health and happiness first.

When I return from Portugal this time, it will be to a very different life. I’ll be fitter and faster, I know, and ready to tackle my first 30-miler in May head-on. And, most exciting of all, I’ll be finishing my preparations for launching my new, running-related business. What a difference a year makes!

 

Coniston 14

IMG_0867

11 years ago, in only my second year of what I considered to be ‘proper’ running, I ran the Coniston 14. As its name suggests, it’s a 14 mile road race around Lake Coniston in the beautiful English Lake District. It was a glorious spring day and I ran really well, so I vowed that one day I would go back and run it again.

When I saw that the 2016 edition of the race was going to be on my birthday, I knew the time to run it again had come. What better way to spend a part of a special day! I was certain that the blue skies and sunshine of 2005 would not be repeated, so I packed a variety of running clothes; come rain or snow, I would be prepared. Come the morning of the race, the forecast suggested that shorts and vest would be the way to go though, so despite witnessing many other runners dressed for arctic conditions, I put my summer running kit on and headed to the start.

IMG_0866

For a very small village Coniston hosts a rather big race, with over 1200 runners on the startline. It was therefore a real surprise to bump into someone I’ve known for years, and then someone who belongs to the same club as me, although we had never met before. The running world is certainly a small one!

My GPS watch was not happy at the start, so as I crossed the timing mat it was refusing to pick up a signal and I had run a couple of hundred metres before it would revert to basic stopwatch mode. This meant that my planned focus on good pacing went out of the window from the start; I could only estimate how I was doing at best. The first three miles or so were pretty crowded as we ran along the rollercoaster of ups and downs; I felt strong, and was very relaxed about people passing me. I knew I might pass them back later on. The scenery was lovely and rural, with green fields, spring lambs and dry stone walls; wooded hillsides with occasional glimpses to the lake below. The tranquility was only marred by some car drivers, impatient that their way was blocked by runners; hats off to the family who had turned their engine off and got out to cheer us on.

As we turned onto a smaller road at about three miles, the cars disappeared and the runners started to thin out. My rough calculations told me that I was running at perhaps slightly too fast a pace but as I felt so good, I decided to keep it up. I worked hard at maintaining a steady effort up the hills, down the other side and along the few flatter bits. Because there will still quite a few runners around me, I decided who was on my ‘list’; who I wanted to finish ahead of.

I went through the 10k mark at pretty much the same time as I ran my best 10k last year, albeit on an easier course, and as we turned onto the lakeside road to head back to Coniston, that pace still felt right. The sun was out by now and I was so pleased with my choice of attire. The warm sun and lack of wind in the lee of the hillside made me appreciate the plentiful water stations. How sensible to be giving out water in decent sized paper cups rather than those little plastic ones that split! Despite having a quick walk as I drank, I did not lose sight of those I had on my ‘list’. In fact, rather bizarrely for someone who now lives on one of the flattest parts of the country, I found that I was actually stronger on the hills than many of those around me, including some on my ‘list’. It was only on the longest, steepest uphill at about 12 miles that I had a little walk; my hamstrings were feeling a little tight and a brief walk brought some welcome relief. From there it was a steep downhill and a flat mile to the finish.Still feeling strong and passing two women from my ‘list’, I made my way through the village and past the crowds on the final 200 metres to the finish.

In 2005 I ran this race in 1.56. I knew that I would get nowhere near that this time, being older and heavier and all that, but I’d had the figure of 2.30 in my head as a target. As I heard the band at the finish line and crossed the timing mat, my rough calculations told me I’d probably finished in about 2.28, or maybe 2.27 if I was lucky. I was delighted to receive a text later on confirming a 2.26 finish. Yes! Who needs a GPS watch to pace? Not me if this race was anything to go by!

I’m always a bit wary of going to back to do a race again when the first time holds such great memories, but my second run at Coniston 14 was every bit as good as the first. The route is stunning, with lake and mountain views aplenty, and the organisation superb. Perhaps I won’t wait another 11 years before running it again!

The true test of my run, and my training, was how my legs felt the next day. In a nutshell, they felt fine, fine enough for a recovery 8.5 mile walk up the Old Man of Coniston, Swirl How and Weatherlam, looking down on the lake I’d run round 24 hours earlier.

IMG_0511

 

Recovered?

A week after my painful massage and I think I can finally say that my legs are back to normal – well, as normal as they will ever be! A few easier days and a couple of extra rest days have allowed the pain to subside, although I do still have a few yellow bruises. As I am running Coniston 14 this weekend, I wanted to test my legs out on the road and see how they coped, so yesterday I headed out for a 5.5 mile loop, with a pretty continuous 2 mile gradual climb. A year ago I could just about run continuously up this climb, although on the steepest part I’d probably have been quicker if I’d have walked. One year on and I felt as if I was sailing up it; I had no problem at all. In fact, I felt that I sailed around the whole run. My legs felt great and that was running at a pace not far off my parkrun pace. Recovery complete; bring on Coniston 14!

Having tested my physical recovery during the day, the evening was to be a real test of my mental recovery. At my lowest mental point, I struggled hugely with my concentration and memory; I could barely focus on anything for more than a few minutes, and could recall very little too, even things I had just been told. So I was very interested to see how I would cope with the 3 hour ‘Emergency First Aid in Sport’ course I needed to do (for the career change I am planning – more details to follow soon!)

Fortunately, the instructor was both interesting and engaging, and the session was a great mix of practical and theory. I did need to write down a few things – mostly for my first aid shopping list! – but only once did I find my mind wandering from what was being said. What surprised me though was how utterly tired I felt afterwards, and how poorly I slept. I’ve not had a night like that for a while, with constant waking and weird dreams. My mind is perhaps not as recovered as I had thought.

 

Lesson learned

Over the past few months, I’ve been so busy looking after my mind that I’ve forgotten to look after my body as I should have. Yes, I’ve been eating increasingly well, and yes, I’ve been running and walking a lot, but I’ve failed to appreciate just how much an increasing mileage impacts on my body. I’ve tried to stick to my stretching routine, but there have been cold, wet runs where a hot bath on getting home has taken priority and my stretching has been, well, forgotten.

This neglect was rammed home to me on the massage table today. Having explained in detail the pain in my calf and resigned myself to a very painful massage of that area, it turns out that the problem actually originates in my ITB, was on the verge of causing a knee problem, and had referred down to my calf. Ah. As a result, the massage of my entire left leg was, er, ‘challenging’ to say the least. So, once the anticipated bruising has died down, I need to return not only to my stretching regime, but to regular use of the foam roller and more frequent massages too. Lesson learned.

DNF

DNF. The three letters that runners do not want to have to write or say; inevitably, though, at some stage we all do. Today was one of those days for me. Did Not Finish.

This week has not been the greatest, training-wise. Although I had recovered really well from the Belvoir Challenge last weekend, a sign of my ever-improving fitness, it was a non-running related problem that halted my training. In 2013 I had a wisdom tooth taken out in hospital: never did I expect that over three years later, a random piece of tooth or bone left behind (my dentist couldn’t tell which) would decide to partially emerge from my gum and cause so much pain and infection that I couldn’t run for three days.

This morning though, thanks to antibiotics and painkillers, I felt great; great enough to tackle the Longhorn half marathon, an off-road event in the grounds of Thoresby estate. I planned to focus on my pacing for this race, wanting to tackle the two laps in as even splits as I could manage. I’d only been running for 20 minutes when I realised that my left lower calf was feeling odd, with an increasing burning-type sensation. Stopping to stretch it out, I figured that it would pass, so off I ran. No, it felt no better, so I pulled up again. Having tried another gentle stretch, I walked for a little, thinking that I would build up to running again. But no, every attempt at running increased the burning sensation. Fearful of injuring myself further, and not being able to partake in the training camp I have booked in 5 weeks time, I resigned myself to walking the rest of the first lap (there was no short-cut back) and then DNFing.

Whilst walking back, I used the time to think positively. I may not be running the whole race as planned, but I could still gain much from the experience. In no particular order, my positive thoughts and realisations included:

  1. How very friendly and supportive trail runners are. When walking along the loop, almost every single person that passed me (and all of the people running the 60K ultra) asked if I was OK and if I needed anything. One even slowed to walk with me for a bit, totally unprompted. The very best of humanity can certainly be witnessed in a trail race!
  2. What a great idea it was to provide cocktail sausages at the feed station; such a contrast to the sugary goodies normally on offer. I’d never have thought of eating those on a run, but will definitely be stashing a few in my race vest next time I am out!
  3. I need to sort out and practice a proper nutrition plan for my own ultra. I’ve not really given this much thought until today, but running alongside ultra-runners for the first time (and seeing those sausages!) reminded me that I need to plan this element of my race properly. Biting a few jelly babies’ heads off now and again is not going to cut it for 30 miles.
  4. How impressed I was that the first-aider cycling around the course was carrying ice in his panniers, and how ironic it was that he offered it to me just as it started to snow! That made us both laugh!

So, in the end, DNF was not a disaster, far from it. I may not have had the physical workout that I was expecting and wanting, but my positive thinking skills did. Onwards and upwards!