How Ginge finally got in the medals table

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The start and finish line – resourceful

 

Terry Pratchett had humans pretty much sussed. In The Thief of Time, he states: “some humans would do anything to see if it was possible to do it. If you it a large switch in some cave somewhere, with a sign on it saying ‘End-of-the-World-Switch. PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH’, the paint wouldn’t even have time to dry”.

One of the reasons I set myself these challenges this year was simply to see if I could do them. I knew that I would immensely enjoy the physical challenges I have set myself this year, but the last thing I imaged was coming third in a cross-country 10k race. And it definitely helps when people tell me not to do things along the way..

I came third, partly, because of the course, and the age of the race. It was a tough course with uphill – and as a cyclist, I am good at uphills – and it was also the inaugural race of a small village community, so word hadn’t spread beyond local running clubs.

I also came third partly because someone told me not to.

The day started pleasantly enough – with a warm-up of a ten-kilometre cycle out to the village on a bright sunny day. The start of the course was somewhere I would choose to jog if I lived there, along car-free paths. Despite being a small village race, it was excellently marshalled and you couldn’t have taken a wrong turn if you tried.

I was running a decent pace behind a sinewy lady in a local running club vest, who looked much more runner that I. I used her as a bit of a pace marker if I’m honest, as she looked like she knew what she was doing. We leap-frogged each other a few times, me overtaking her on the uphills and her beating me on the downs.

It felt a little unsporting that all the marshals seemed to know her and gave her a cheer as she ran by, but I pretended they were cheering us in general to egg myself on. Then, we turned a corner. A bald race steward making sure we didn’t run straight ahead into a corn field cheered loudly. “Watch out, you have a Ginge on your shoulder. Pick it up!” he shouted to her by name.

Having lived in Scotland, I am used to crueller comments than, I suppose, the statement-of-fact ‘ginge’. But Scotland has also taught me that when British people refer to you as ‘ginge’, it’s not a compliment. To hear it from one of the course stewards was also a bit unsporting, regardless of how it was meant. Nowhere near the comments I got at the Bubble Rush, but still irksome.

So I decided to overtake.

And that was all it took. I probably finished about two minutes ahead of the village golden girl. It wasn’t a good time by any means – about 48 minutes, and I need to get 45 minutes or less for me to consider myself to have run a decent 10k. The first-placed woman was under 40 minutes. But considering the course and the field of a few hundred, I was pretty happy with this position.

There’s a moral in here somewhere I guess. Something about turning others’ hate (ok, too strong… others’ ‘unsupport’?) into positive energy. Something about shaking hands at the end of the competition, but still never forgetting that it’s a competition. Use the away fans to your advantage. Read Terry Pratchett as part of your training schedule. Either way, it certainly felt great to finally, after half a year of competitions, to have achieved it. Perhaps more away fans is what I need.

The second-placed woman wasn’t actually far in front of me, either. Perhaps if her fan club had shouted at me on the course, I might have come even higher in the rankings….

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Running vest colourful letters spells “REPEAT”. I’ll try…

Like a cat out of water

World Triathlon Series, Leeds, June 2016

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At least the bike was easy to find: only helmet of its kind about

I am a Cat by name and by nature: I don’t like water. In January, I struggle to swim a four lengths back-to-back. (Just how terrified I am of open water is written about in all it’s panic-mode glory in an earlier blog post, ‘overcoming obstacles’).

One wetsuit, daily lengths, an indoor tri and several outdoor training sessions later, And I stood at the Roundhead Park pontoon, eyeing up the course for my first real triathlon, due to take place the following day.

I almost gave up there and then.

It wasn’t even that long a swim – 400 metres of whatever stroke you like. Breaking this down in to 25 metre lengths makes it sound very doable. Seeing the course laid out in real life makes you realise that this distance is actually significant. With no possible breaks or sides of the pool to grab, my bottle had gone.

I sat down on the jetty and put my feet into the water, trying to psyche myself up. I imaged 12 kilometres of biking through Leeds on closed roads – that part was going to be fun. Two-and-a-half kilometres of running is easy – you’ve finished before you’ve even got into your stride. It was absolutely doable.

Apart from the swim. The swim was terrifying me.

I thought of all the training I had done. I was in the pool almost ever day, including over Christmas. I had been to the outdoor pool at Ilkley three times, freezing my face off each time as I got used to wearing a wetsuit. I thought of the financial investment I had made – not only the £70 wetsuit and £20 tri-suit (both heap at half the price, I know how to haggle…) – but the admission fees to the pools, the bike service, the competition fee itself. It was all too much to pull out now.

But I really, really wanted to.

The first marker was half way across an open-water lake. The water quality was such that you couldn’t see three feet in front of your face. Then, it was all the way over to a second marker at the opposite side. The distances looked impossible.

I thought of those who had helped me train. Driven me to the pool, encouraged me, given invaluable training tips, offered me wetsuit advice. I thought about going in to work the next day, having been talking about doing a real life triathlon for six months now, and saying I had bottled it.

I jumped in.

Or rather, lowered myself clumsily off the jetty on all fours backward, but still managed to submerge my head and start hyperventilating as I surfaced. No-one expects amateur triathletes to be particularly graceful, but I looked like a hippo.

I had almost skipped the practice session, thinking it would be fine just to turn up on the day. I am very glad I didn’t, because jumping in to practice 200 metres of the swim was probably the most difficult hippo imitation/sporting participation I have ever done. I needed that warm up to make sure I followed through with it the following day.

But it was worth it for the pride at the end. I didn’t finish with a great time, and the experience certainly didn’t lend itself to graceful photographs. And honestly, there is little remarkable to say about the experience itself, except that cycling 12 kilometres as fast as one possibly can is maybe the closest feeling to flying one can get, and that running even 2.5 kilometres after cycling as fast as one possibly can is harder than it looks. And that swimming, even if it’s just divided into lengths, is still just swimming.

And I did it. The hippo did it.

I am forever tempted to now put “triathlete” after my name, like qualifying letters. It was harder but more satisfying than getting a degree in any instance. And, unlike a degree course, I am certain I will do more. Yes, even the swimming part…

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Feeling more bemused than proud to be honest… what did I just do?

Inflatable football pitches and free bandanas

When I decided I was going to attempt 12 physical challenges over the course of 12 months, I imagined being an ironman at the end of the year. However, when races involving jumping over bouncy castles and lots of bubbles take place in neighbouring villages, it’s a difficult game changer to resist.

No physical fitness was really needed to complete this. You could go as fast or as slow as you wanted, and although there was a fastest time recorded, that was more down to the length of queues for obstacles rather than any great feat of speed.

Releasing your inner seven-year-old, however, was certainly necessary. Which is why I dragged poor old Anthony (pictured below with the orange hat) along as a way to celebrate his 31st birthday.

The hardest obstacle was the inflatable climbing wall. The funniest was probably the inflatable football pitch. The one which we sneaked back around to attempt three times was the slide with bubbles. The goody bag at the end was also pretty good: TWO t-shirts and a bandana. The shirts may have ended up firmly in the pyjama drawer, but we weren’t out for the fashion show. And seven-year-olds love free bananas.

So not the most sporty of challenges or challenging of sports: but sometimes, you need an event like this to remind you how much fun running really is.

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Smiles and yellow ears

Bubbling with anger

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I really, really wanted to like this race.

I’d been ill for a number of weeks with a reoccurring kidney infection. Being me, I like to stubbornly think I can beat these things. But sometimes, you really should just take the damn chemicals, rest up for a while, stop peeing blood, and get your life (aka training schedule) back on track.

As part of this getting back on track, I entered a five-kilometre fundraising bubble rush race, run by a popularly-supported local hospice. It sounded like a good-humoured, not-too-serious, family-friendly day out involving running through bubbles. I came with a mission to run 5 km continuously; it had been a long time since I had done so. I told myself that I wouldn’t be disappointed not to make it around the course, though – I was here to join in the fun. What could go wrong?

And people did bring their sense of humour to the race. It’s a shame, though, that people’s sense of humour is often pretty lame.

The experience reminded me of a recent new story which made the headlines: Lindsey Swift, a ‘plus-size’ runner, had an eloquent and truthful social media rant go viral after she was abused in the street. As soon as I started the run, I got a ‘calm down love, you’re no Usain Bolt…’ mumbled at me by an older man who I jogged past (at kidney-infection-peeing-blood speed, I might add).

As someone who works in health and fitness, I know how damaging comments against others’ physical activity can be. It’s a disheartening culture, but seemingly inevitable: if you’re outside exercising, you are a target of others’ attention. People often start running with the intention to improve their physical condition, and it can take a huge leap of confidence to start pounding the streets. So it’s off-putting to be reminded that you’re not in your own bubble when you exercise. It may even make people find excuses not to exercise. Physical health can suffer from this withdrawal: a vicious circle begins, kick-started from just a few comments.

Now, I admit that I am someone who thinks that the world has got far too PC. So perhaps I am hypocritical, and the Usain Bolt comment seems mild – perhaps funny, even. I am well aware that I am not a six-foot-five ripped black male. However, knowing that people are paying attention to me, at a time when I was already hobbling ungracefully around the course under a lot of pain, was hurtful. And the fact that the individual thought these comments appropriate at a family-friendly, fun-themed run is just a bit sad. It props up a culture which is accepting of verbal abuse and body-shaming.

But rather than get high and mighty, I tried to tell myself that it’s easy to get annoyed when you’re hot and bothered on a cross-country race course. I pretended not to hear him and jogged on.

The Bubble Rush is named so because there are bubble stations to jog through at regular intervals. By the time I had got to the third station, it was thigh-deep in white bubbles. The kids around me were up to their necks in bubbles and loving it. There was a photographer at the station, so I tried to look enthusiastic rather than pained, attempting a spurt of pace through and kicking the bubbles up like confetti. Even if just for myself, I was trying to get a defiant photo which made out that I was having fun.

And then came the second comment. This one was cruder, of a sexual nature (consider I’m exiting the bubble station covered in white bubbles and you may get the gist…). As I’ve come to expect by now, the offending caller directed his comment to me by rather impolitely identifying my hair colour. My dark mindset set in again, and for the rest of the race I resented even being there.

By the time I had finished, I was feeling not only crap about my own abilities, but also like the world was watching me. Yes, it was only two people out of two thousand. But it was also at a fundraising race that was full of families and children. If here is a setting for nasty comments, where isn’t?

I’d love to end this log on a high note, or simply with just a point. But the story ends there. I don’t confront the bullies. I don’t feel good about my current form. I go home, having been put off supporting a local hospice again because of two of their other supporters.

I absolutely agree with Lindsey – it’s sad that people don’t engage their brains before opening their mouths. Further, it’s tragic that people are put off their fitness goals by people being small-minded. And not that it makes it any better, but such attentions are not something that you only receive if you are a plus-size. There’s a lot of people out there who are just so insecure in themselves that they like to put others down.

But I guess if I am to retrospectively forge any kind of point or moral out of this, it’s just to ask people to think before they speak. If I do know anyone who thinks this is fun banter, consider how powerful your words are. You never know what someone is going through to be there, and whatever their pace or appearance or motives, they are doing something positive which does no one any harm. A throw-away comment doesn’t just make someone roll their eyes in the moment: it can effect their personal confidence, health and happiness (not to mention willingness to support certain causes!). Direct your critical energy towards something that actually deserves criticism.

But for now, I will brush myself off and tell myself it’s just words. Perhaps what doesn’t kill you just makes you run faster.

Overcoming obstacles

The Major North obstacle race: March, 2016

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At the start line… just after the warm up…

My best friend is in the military. He does not speak fondly of ‘phys’ – so I find some of the pseudo-military fitness classes in fashion quite funny. From what I hear, the encouraging cries of by ‘well done, trooper!’ and ‘chin up, squadron!’ are as far from real military fitness as expecting a private shower afterwards.

However, it is entertaining. It was with this light-hearted attitude that I entered the British Military Fitness Major North race in March. Little did I know that I would leave with some serious homework to do. It was excellent, but a lot tougher than I expected: the kind of experience you don’t know why you’re putting yourself through, but find you’re still talking about obsessively three weeks later.

Now, I’ve lived in rural Scotland, so I do not mean it lightly when I say it was one of the more uncomfortable experiences of my life. I’ve trained in some pretty yuk conditions: I’ve been unable to feel my feet at the top of snowy munroes; I’ve slid on my backside down muddy hillsides ‘cause there’s no other territory to train for cross country; I’ve emigrated to a country where I can run comfortably run without gale force winds, sub-zero temperatures and thick drizzle getting interrupting play for six months of the year. I did not, however, make a habit of wading through Scottish rivers. I tended to run around them. If obstacle races had been on my agenda then, this was the obvious flaw in my training plan.

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“No mud, no glory!”

 

It was the cheesy military element to it which kept me going. There was the Marine Zone, which comprised of swamps, ice pools and deep stretches of muddy water, and other zones with similarly gimmicky names where people shot at you with water pistols, or had you dive over bales to throw potato ‘grenades’ at distant objects. It was wondering what they would throw at you next that kept me going when standing in a freezing puddle while a queue built up to dive over a floating log.

And afterwards, it was hard to tell the bruises from the mud. It would probably have been a better experience in a team. Having others to pull you out of swamps or push you in to ice puddles, saving you squeamishly teetering on the edge before someone in an ill-fitting military-surplus uniform pushes you in with the butt of a water pistol, would have added to the experience. But the atmosphere was conductive to making friends with strangers: when push comes to shove, not many people are going to leave you stuck in the mud.

Apart from a little bit of running between obstacles, it might not seem to have much in common with a triathlon. But there was a serious lesson to be learned.

Having watched the queue ahead of me plummet one by one into the first ice-lake, the jump itself wasn’t difficult. It was the second ice pool which was harder. Because I had completely forgotten – and was firmly reminded by the first pool – how much I hate open water.

As soon as I was up to my chest in water, I felt my lungs contract in panic. Water was in my face, and I started to hyperventilate. Panicking, I scrabbled around looking for some way of clawing myself out. Stumbling on to dry land, I sat down heavily to get some rhythm back in to my breathing. Those around me laughed and helped me up. It was part of the jovial atmosphere, but I knew I had to learn to control the panic rising better.

For the second pool, I concentrated on my breathing as I gingerly inched in. It didn’t particularly help, but at least I had recognised the state of panic I was going to feel, and was starting to formulate a plan.

I kept telling myself that despite the race stewards tough military exteriors, these people were ultimately there for everyone’s safety. Furthermore, the people just a few feet in front or behind me who had just helped me dislodge a leg from knee-deep mud were hardly going to have saved my shoes to let me drown. Second pool down: twenty-three to go.

For the third pool, I had my plan and was more composed. Rather than try to hold my face clear, I ducked right in and swam breast-stroke across. I concentrated on blowing lots of bubbles into the mud each time I exhaled. It was the first pool that I crossed without panicking: I grinned a big mud-toothed grin as I climbed out. By the end of the Marine Zone, I looked like a swamp monster, and had got into a nice panic-attack-free head space. I was almost looking forward to the puddles.

Being a geek, I afterwards read up on the effects of cold water shock on lung capacity, and other such topics that made me wish I had been a sports scientist. Understanding how the body copes under pressure definitely helps me mentally prepare for sports, and one of the recommended coping techniques for open water swimmers prone to panic was, reassuringly, breathing in through the nose and of through the mouth, blowing bubbles into the water until you get used to the temperature and pressure, and establish a rhythm. It also simply helped that there were multiple google results for this kind of panic – I’m not alone in being a triathlete who is terrified of open water, it seems.

But back to the passing out parade. Just as I started to be a pro at the ice pools, Marine Zone was over. It was back to running and jumping over things, which I can do with very little panic. Up and over one particularly fun five-metre wall, aided by ropes and more military surplus kids, and it was well done trooper, chin up squadron, have a beer on us.

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Hurrah!

Half hearted, full pace

Harewood half: British Heart Foundation cross county race, Feb 2016

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Cookies!

It’s definitely time to take on a full marathon.

I don’t want to admit it, because it creates more work. But 13 miles is starting to seem like just another run in the park. Not a particularly graceful, elegant or fast run in the park, but my legs aren’t as stiff afterwards as they should be.

However, being a wuss, rather than jump in to a full marathon straight away, I decided to see if going cross-country made any difference. I did so at the Harewood House half marathon, which I would say was a medium-difficulty course set to the backdrop of a beautiful countryside mansion in the Yorkshire dales.

It was a nice day out, and I enjoyed the atmosphere a lot. It was a well-organised race with a good atmosphere, and cookies at the finish (always helps). There were also the penguins at the manner house bird enclosure to visit afterwards. Knowing that I was running towards sugar and my favourite type of bird probably helped my time, but it was here that I also discovered I’m pretty good at running up hills.

This was a good confidence boost. I’ve never been the spindly runner built for speedy long flat courses, but having a cyclist’s bum helps in different ways. Those Land’s End to John O’Groats thighs might be a hinderance on the flat, but when everyone else was slowing down for the steep, muddy climbs, I was tearing on up. A bit like a mountain bike, though, I was caught on the downhills by the road racers – at least I know what I need to improve on.

However, distract myself with bird life, gingerbread hearts and confidence boosts on the uphills as I might, there’s no denying it. I just have to bite the bullet(/cookie) and book myself in for the long haul. No more half measures.

26-mile run training buddy, anyone…?

Cancer Research Winter Run

Here follows a straightforward report of my second 10k of the year. This run definitely struck a deeper chord than a countdown of kilometres, however, and much more reflective one on the same run is to follow… sometime. 

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One of the many landmarks behind me, and one of the many freebies on my head… A green… thing.

This run wasn’t intentionally one of my 12 challenges for the year. However, having enjoyed the Serpentine 10k so much, I decided another run in London wouldn’t be a bad idea.

In comparison to the Serpentine, however, this run proved to be a completely different kettle of penguins. Taking place on New Year’s Day, the Serpentine 10k was a mix of very decent runners and hardcore New Year’s Resolutionists. The Winter Run series by Cancer Research are designed to be good fun – or at least as good fun as running 10 kilometres in freezing rain can be. This is why, a month or so before the race, I signed up. Two weeks later, I got an email back saying I had been placed in the first wave as I had indicated that I was “a faster runner”. With my training schedule being frequently interrupted with festivities, weather-based excuses and lazyitis, I didn’t want to think about what time I might have predicted to have finished the course in.

But fun it was. There were penguins playing tambourines, reggae bands, and snow machines along the way. There were lots of freebies and a great communal atmosphere at the start, and a big hug from a polar bear at the finish. There were many of London’s top land marks to see en-route. It got me out on the streets of London early on a Sunday morning to see the sights from a car-free viewpoint; not many can say they’ve seen London in that way. By 10.30, I had justified a thousand calorie breakfast. And I was surrounded by polar bears and penguins: pretty perfect Sunday.

The penguins and bands certainly helped to distract me from the cramps and stitches I felt by kilometre 7. I didn’t notice any of the landmarks, however, as I was concentrating on the running.

At the Serpentine race, I had finished in 48 minutes, and hoped to shave at least a minute off this.  I had a fantastic first two kilometres, but started too quickly, and quickly regretted having coffee at breakfast. I struggled through the next 6 kilometres at an uneven pace as a result. Seeing the 8 kilometre marker, I knew I had to push myself to have a change of beating 48. I struggled to get into a rhythm, but kept reminding myself to keep pace, and held it until the finish line. Although I know I could have paced myself a lot better, it was the first time after a race I’ve felt like I should feel after my best effort –  I had to sit down before I was sick.

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A very happy 45-minute 10k runner.

I hadn’t seen the clock at the finish line, so wanted to believe I had achieved 47 minutes – on the basis of 4 good kilometres I would have thought so, but on the basis of the crampy, stitchy, coffee-stomached  6 middle kilometres thought I might as well start blaming the weather for my defeat. Still, it was 10k more than most people had run that Sunday morning. I met my brother on Brick Lane to go to the marvellous Cereal Killer cereal café as a well earned breakfast.

On Brick Lane, I got the results text to say I’d run 10 kilometres in 45:46.

In other words: I AM NOW A 45 MINUTE 10K RUNNER.

I danced all the way down Brick Lane. Perhaps that “faster runner” category wasn’t so horribly ludicrous after all…