Leading

Giving something back. My motivation for running the Manchester Marathon and returning to group running after too long away.

Saturday, March 14, 2020. It was a cold, rainy and breezy morning at Aberdeen beach. Not really the best conditions for the regular parkrun event, but maybe around one hundred and fifty of us turned up to run round. Before we set off I chatted with a few people I knew and I ran it with a friend. Until Tuesday night this week, this was the last time I ran with more than two other people.

I took things like parkrun, races and my regular runs with my JogScotland group very much for granted. It was just something that you did. It was very normal, nothing special. They had all become part of my regular running routine. And then everything stopped.

Being asthmatic, I have tried to be cautious all the way through the pandemic. While the running groups started back up last year – before being curtailed – I did not go back, and even when they resumed in a socially distanced way a few months back I did not return. My choice.

“my chance to give something back”

Now I am fortunate enough – and old enough – to have received both vaccinations for COVID and while I am still cautious, I decided a few weeks ago that I would like to go back. I would like to experience again the joy of group running once more. Also, having recently attended a Leadership in Running Fitness course run by Scottish Athletics, this was now my chance to give something back to the group which has helped my running a lot.

Therefore, on Tuesday night, I took out my first group of nine runners for a six mile route at my JogScotland club. The lead coach from the club came with me – and there were two other run leaders in the group as well – and it was nice to have that reassurance that they were there to help me if things did not go to plan.

I planned my route a couple of days before, trying to build in a mix of road and trails (though I am much more a fan of road than trails when it comes to running) and attempting to get as close to six miles as I could.

A short run past a small pond as part of the run

There was a little bit of paperwork to do, making sure you note down everyone who is there and asking some questions around COVID to make sure we keep everyone safe, then off we went. Two things then went a bit awry. First, my Fitbit did not properly connect to my phone so I was not 100% sure how accurate the distance was, and then worse, I had not properly tied my shorts so they kept falling down over my backside!! A quick stop to fix them was needed about a mile and a half in as I was so sick of having to haul them up or else I would have been mooning anyone behind us!! Then I needed to sprint to catch up with group and make sure I kept them on the route I planned.

That apart, the pace was a little bit quicker than I had planned, but as everyone in the group had run six (and further) it was not too much of a problem I think. Once I managed to get back to the front of the group, I used that chance to try and slow things down slightly.

“it was really great”

But the main thing was just how much I enjoyed it. It really zipped by. I remember thinking, at about halfway round the run, “god, I have really missed this kind of feeling.” Being in among a fun group of pleasant, motivated people having a chat, a bit of banter, on a nice night. It was really great.

Everyone was very kind on the run and I just about got the distance bang on, with a few people lapping the car park at the end to get to 10km, slightly further than the six mile mark. Overall, it was a really positive experience. It is slightly stressful knowing that you are the one who is leading the group, but it was another step towards normality and I cannot wait to be able to do it again.

Generally this week, my running has felt that much better than it did last week. I am definitely putting that down to a hangover from my second jab and the really warm spell of weather. While the weather is still warm, I have felt so much more comfortable while running this week and I have also had some quick runs too with a couple of friends.

Conditions have also been really nice – a bit cooler than it has been thankfully – and on Saturday morning, the views were very special through the trail section of the run through the moors. I am extremely lucky to be able to run in some of these places.

It is probably just as well I feel a bit better with my running as this week marks the formal start of training for the Manchester Marathon. As I have mentioned before I do not plan to change much of my usual running routine during the week, but to begin to build up the distance on my Sunday runs.

Two other friends from the club are also doing the race so it will be nice to share the training experience with them and we plan to do our long runs together. It is a daunting prospect, knowing what is ahead, but as this is my fourth marathon at least I know what to expect. Every race is different. The months of preparation throw different challenges at you. But I also have additional motivation this year.

Me and DJ

One of my best friends died suddenly on Christmas Eve. Donald John and I had known each other for more than thirty years, so I am running this race in his memory and raising funds for a charity which meant a lot to him, Mental Health Aberdeen. He was a passionate supporter and their president for a number of years. When things are tough in training and in the race, I will think of DJ and that will keep me going. If you would like to make a donation, this is a link to my JustGiving page.

The race is four months away, I really hope it goes ahead as an in-person event, but even if it moves to a virtual event, whatever happens, on Sunday, October 10, I will be running twenty six point two miles in memory of the best of friends.

Hot

Sweating, chafing, struggling. All the joys of warm weather running wrapped into one week. At least I finished on a positive note.

I might have done quite a lot of running, but that does not mean that I am immune from having crises of confidence. And this has been one of those weeks.

Runs have felt laboured. Legs have felt heavy. Lungs have been tight. Breathing has been a struggle. It has been just one of these weeks you need to get through in order to come out the other side.

Whether it has been a bit of a hangover from having my second Covid jab – I have generally felt fine, if a little tired for a few days afterwards – I do not know. My main theory though is that it has been related to the heat, but I also think the formal start of training for the Manchester Marathon is also playing on my mind.

“June has become a bit of a scorcher”

For the vast majority of the past six months, the weather in Aberdeen has varied from winter to a brief interlude to early Spring and then back to winter again. Then, what felt like almost overnight, temperatures have suddenly shot up and we are full into summer. After a soggy, cold and windy May, June has become a bit of a scorcher and it has been humid. You cannot underestimate the impact this kind of change can have.

I am not a warm weather runner. (And by the way I realise that in Aberdeen it is nothing like as warm as it is in lots of other places, but everything is relative). When you are used to running in a coastal city which is generally dry, but cool and windy, when things turn warm, my body just finds it hard to cope.

“I.. sweat a hell of a lot more”

The humidity is very draining and oh my god do I sweat. This has been one of the things which seemed to change for me when I started running a few years ago. Though I became much fitter, I also began to sweat a hell of a lot more than I did previously. When it is humid, within a few miles I am totally dripping and my shirt is completely soaked through.

This brings me on to another, lesser talked about running issue. Chafing. Specifically nipple chafing. If you have never experienced it, congratulations. If you have experienced it, then you will know that the problem is bad enough when you run, but is amplified a million times when you get into a shower afterwards. So a healthy dose of vaseline now becomes a bit of a necessity in order to avoid the post-run shower screamfest.

The other tactic I have deployed to get through the week is to take off any pace pressure. My focus this week has just been about getting the miles in, getting through the run and accepting that it is going to feel tough. I have really found it very difficult to settle on my runs this week. By settling I do not mean finding it easy, I simply mean getting to a stage where I feel comfortable. Relaxed breathing, easy pace, strong legs. This week I have had virtually none of that as the temperatures have been high.

It is now four months until the Manchester Marathon, and my training really does not need to change much, other than building in increasingly long runs following a training plan. But my training for Manchester is going to be disrupted as I am due to travel to Japan for work in July. I have no idea if I will be able to do any running at all when I am away, then I will likely have to quarantine when I return, so I may have a five week gap right when I should be making big progress on my weekly mileage. Also, given how hard I found my half marathon distance run last week, this has also played on my mind.

I just need to accept this – there is nothing I can do about it – and hope that my underlying fitness will enable me to ramp up my running through August and September to get me to the start line.

At least my running week ended on a positive note for a couple of reasons. The first wast that my usual Saturday morning run down at the beach actually felt quite good. As I mentioned earlier, I went into it just aiming for a relaxed run and this time, for once, I managed to achieve it. I went earlier than usual to try and beat the heat and it was much cooler, a lot less humid and a bit breezier than it has been, though the wind did feel like it was in my face all the way around.

Then

Then I received my another virtual race medal and t-shirt, from the Vitality London 10k race which I ran with my friends a couple of weeks ago. You can read about that here. I know virtual racing is not the same as a real race, but at least we ran it virtually together at the same time and can all have something tangible to mark our success. Plus I love the colour of the shirt.

A tough week but sometimes that is just how running is. Onwards to next week and a bit of excitement. I am making my return to my local JogScotland group for the first time in more than a year, and fingers crossed, I will be leading one of the groups after recently completing the Leadership in Running Fitness course. Something to look forward to.

Friends

Running is not always about your own achievements. It is about friendship and camaraderie. It is about encouraging others and enjoying their success as much as them.

I have achieved many of my goals in running. But goals are very personal. They matter to you and really not too much to anyone else. What has given me a lot of pleasure in running is helping other people achieve there’s.

Through work, I used to travel a lot and that gave me the opportunity to run with a variety of colleagues in various locations throughout the world. And through my own running journey, perhaps I have also encouraged some of them to challenge themselves a bit more.

But of course, over the past sixteen months or so, I have not seen any of my work colleagues in person. I have not traveled at all. So the chance to run with them has been virtually zero. My closest colleague in the UK, for example, lives about four hundred miles away.

But that does not mean that we cannot encourage each other from afar. So through WhatsApp or Instagram or Fitbit or Strava, we follow each other’s progress and do the usual things friends do. Slag each other off, make jokes at each other’s expense and just generally take the mickey out of each other at any opportunity. (We do also, occasionally, do some work).

“We beat a member of a boyband”

My friend Rob and I have run a couple of races together in previous years. I ran with Rob at his first 10k – when we famously beat a member of a boyband to the line – and also his first half marathon. Without doubt, those two races are among my favourites. Not because of what I achieved that day, but because of what Rob did. Seeing him push himself to complete distances he would once have thought impossible – and playing a part in getting him through the race – was an amazing feeling. As was celebrating with a beer afterwards.

As few races are currently taking place, there has been no opportunity to repeat these experiences, but virtual races do at least provide a chance to run together apart and that was why this week, when I ran the Vitality London Virtual 10k, I had another friend to help.

As well as Rob, I have run with another friend Jon when we have met up with work. In fact,one of the last runs I had with work colleagues was with Rob and Jon when we were working in Phoenix in the USA in January last year.

joj

For some time we have tried to encourage Jon to sign up for a 10k. Though a regular runner, he had been content without doing any races, and that is absolutely fine. Racing is not for everyone and if your enjoyment of the sport does not involve races then that is great. Do what you want to do.

But Rob and I had signed up for the event and we managed to persuade Jon (and his wife Tess) to put their names down too. While we could not run in person with each other, we set out to all run at the same time and encourage each other that way. Rob is in North Wales, Jon in Devon and I am in Aberdeen in Scotland.

“I know it is not the same”

For the others it was a scorching day, but for me conditions were actually quite cool and breezy. We all sent some messages of encouragement via WhatsApp then off we went. I know it is not the same as racing together, I get that it feels a bit false. But as I ran round and stopped to take pictures and to send Jon messages of encouragement which I knew would show up on his Fitbit as notifications, I really felt strongly that we were all together. We were all pulling towards one single goal as I ran alongside the River Don on my route.

And so, a little while later, as Rob and I finished, I felt really anxious waiting to hear back from Jon on how it had gone. I had no doubt he could do it, but I so wanted to get confirmation that he had done it – and he had!!

On a boiling hot morning – as you can see from the picture – Jon completed his first ever 10k race, expertly paced round by his wife Tess. A phenomenal achievement and one which gave me so much pleasure. To have been part of Jon’s running journey and to see him get to the finish line really filled me with joy.

It was equally hot for Rob, but he too smashed it out of the park. Once we all got back home we jumped on a call to congratulate each other for doing it. It was not my fastest run. It was not my longest distance. It was not even that nice a morning. But none of that matters. What matters is the achievements of my friends and if I can have helped in any way, then that is all the better. Jon even talked about doing another 10k race!!

Speaking of being helped, while the weather has been so nice this week, it has been misty and foggy first thing so it was unexpectedly warm when I went out with my friend Susan for an early morning half marathon run. She chose the route, which was a bit hilly, and if I am being totally honest, I really struggled toward the end. I felt like I was running out of gas at about ten miles, not exactly ideal when you have a three mile hill to run up towards the finish.

So this was where I benefited from the friendship of another. If I had not been running with Susan, I probably would not have kept it going up those final few miles (or even up the big hill in the middle of the run either!). Running has taught me so much about myself, but it has also brought me great friends. Mind you, it may be some time before I let her plan the route for one of our runs….

The point I am trying to make here is that running is not always about your own achievements. It is about camaraderie, it is about encouraging others, it is about recognising that the benefits are not just physical but also mental. In knowing that you can help friends achieve things they never thought they could, and having friends who will also help you when times are tough, you are gaining much more than just a few miles to add to your Strava account.

Pay it Forward

It is time to give back to those who have helped me so much. I just hope I can also help others on their own running journey.

It is never always possible to give something back. But this week I began my journey to repay some of the benefits I have received from running. I completed my first ever coaching course.

The Leadership in Running Fitness Course – a UK-wide course run by the country’s Athletic Federations – will put me in a position to lead groups at my local JogScotland club once I return (and a bit more on that later).

I had been thinking about doing the course in the early part of last year, but then of course Covid happened and the world changed. So when the courses were advertised again earlier this year I took the chance and signed up. The original course date was in April but got moved to May, however this clashed with a weekend away with my wife.

I worried that my chance to do it would have to be deferred again, but luckily I was able to transfer my place to another location, so last weekend I, and twelve others, arrived at Grangemouth Stadium for the practical part of the course.

Completing the coaching course on the track at Grangemouth

Before attending, I had to complete four online courses which covered some of the key aspects of running fitness – preparation, running technique, stretching and a host of others.

For the practical day I had to prepare a warm-up session, how I would deliver a training session and a cool down. That was slightly nerve-wracking as we were split into groups of four and five and each of us had to deliver, in turn, the sessions we had prepared, with the other attendees as the athletes. What was good about it was the opportunity to look at what the others had prepared and suggested and to talk and learn from them of their own experience and their running groups.

“I am still cautious”

The course lasted about two and a half hours, then afterwards I had to complete a safeguarding course – also online – before completing all the tasks. So fingers crossed, in a few weeks time, I will receive my coaching card and be up and running. the reason I mention a few weeks time is that I am still cautious about running in groups (and being in large groups of people) as I am asthmatic. I chose not to return to my JogScotland group last year when they started back up, and have not been back in the few weeks since the resumption in 2021. However, as I am due to receive my second vaccination next week, I will begin my running leadership duties in the middle of June.

My running benefited so much from being able to run with others, that I am glad that I will be able to, hopefully, help others too. Whether that is in the form of running encouragement, motivation or just getting them up the hill we are on, it will be worth it.

“feeling a bit more hopeful”

On the actual running front, I have had a more positive week. Whether it is some of the stuff I learned on the course about good endurance running technique or whether I am just, more generally, feeling a bit more hopeful about the overall Covid situation, I have definitely had a solid week of running.

As I was at Grangemouth, my wife and I went through and stayed overnight in Edinburgh so on Sunday morning I took advantage and got in a couple of easy miles in the city. I love Edinburgh, and the views of the castle during a run through Princes Street Gardens were great. Having run in so few different places in the past fifteen months, it is such a joy to get to enjoy being somewhere else once again.

Cloudy skies over Edinburgh Castle

For the run in Edinburgh, the weather was ok, but mostly it has continued to refuse to play ball, with a run on Wednesday night just the latest where cloudy and cold conditions, combined with an always in your face wind just totally did my head in. Thankfully for Thursday, the blue skies emerged in the afternoon and it was such a pleasure to run on a beautiful night. It has been such a long time since I have done so.

Blue skies for once on an evening run

Come the weekend, this was the time for my first Virtual Race of the year – the London Vitality 10k. A few of us have signed up for this event and we will run together (apart) on Monday but I wanted to push things on my Saturday morning run. I certainly do not feel that I am in the best shape just now. While I am running regularly, I really feel I need to lose a bit of weight, so I wanted to test myself.

Misty conditions on the seafront

The first mile did not feel too great but after that I began to feel a bit more able to push and so I went hard for the next few miles. The last kilometre or so really felt hard, which is probably a true reflection of where I am right now, but I was still really pleased with my time of 52minutes and 36 seconds for the run. This is some time off my best but in the circumstances I will more than happily take it. Luckily, while Saturday turned into a beautiful day, the conditions were cool and cloudy for the run itself. The forecast is warm for Monday, when I plan to have a nice, relaxed 10k with friends, including one doing his first ever 10k event. I just wish we could all be together but we will all do our best to encourage each other on.

It is only a few weeks now until I begin marathon training for what will, hopefully, be my first in-person race of the year at the Manchester Marathon. The idea at the moment is just to maintain the weekly mileage I am doing right now and then build things up slowly following a defined plan as we head toward race day. Every race poses a new set of challenges. Let’s hope I am up to them.

Breathe

Sometimes, I have weeks which are a real struggle. This week has been one of them. I have no idea why things have felt so hard but it has definitely been a few days of running which I am very glad to put behind me.

It started on Tuesday night, which was a lovely night for a run. Bit of sunshine for a change, gentle breeze, definitely moving away from the cold weather which has dominated things so much for most of the past six weeks.

But I just could not get comfortable at all. The course I had chosen was pretty much straight downhill, a flat mile in the middle, then uphill three miles on the way back, so not exactly the easiest but also one which I have run many times before so I knew what I was letting myself in for.

If I am unable to control my breathing, everything else becomes a struggle and that was definitely the case here, and that even included stopping to chat with a friend who I met when I was about two miles in at the bottom of the big hill at the start.

Nice night, terrible run

The sole good thing about it was that I got through it, but I did not get through it without stopping and slowing. Stopping to chat with my friend, stopping to take this picture and slowing down a lot coming back uphill. And if you know me, I hate doing any of these things.

The following night I attempted another 10km run. This one felt not quite as bad but all the way through it I was thinking, “did I really run a half marathon just last week and almost twenty miles only a few weeks back?”. Despite having run three marathons, there are definitely runs where I doubt whether I actually ever did that.

“I cannot be bothered”

I had intended to run again the next night – I like to think I can put a bad run behind me by going for another one – but work rather got in the way so that plan had to be abandoned. A morning run was the only option then but I woke up feeling really tired and with a definite case of “I cannot be bothered with this”, so I had to totally drag myself out.

Then when I started running I instantly hated everything about it. I was not even close to being out of the end of my street and in my head I was thinking, “this is awful. My legs feel heavier than lead. My lungs cannot be doing with this.”. This was not the most auspicious of starts, and frankly things did not really get any better. Breathing worse than Darth Vader with emphysema I felt like I was crawling all the way round. The only thing to do was to get to the end.

“I did make it to the end”

And I guess that is the whole point about these three runs. In each of them, as much as I hated almost every last second of them, I did make it to the end. I am not saying that I could have necessarily have run any further on any of them but I did get to the finish. The physical side of my running might have been telling me one thing this week, but at least on the mental side I was still able to dig deep to get through it.

I think it is important to take positives from weeks like this, as tough as that might seem at the time. There certainly did not feel like there was anything good about them during them but no run is wasted. It adds to your physical characteristics, but it also gives you another view of how to handle things when they are tough.

Saturday morning is my usual run at the beach, so after what had gone on all week, I stepped out of my car full of anxiety and worry about how this one would go. I had resolved to take it easy and just to get the miles in, regardless of pace. But, just as on Friday morning where I knew almost instantly that things were going to be grim, on Saturday, within about the first one hundred metres things felt really different.

Grey skies but nice conditions

Legs felt light, pace was good, breathing was better. In my head, all of a sudden I was up for it. Perhaps that is the key. As much as running is physical, so much of it is mental. As soon as I felt ok, the rest of the run was straightforward. I am not saying that it was easy, running never is, but I was much more able to cope.

One thing which was weird was this.

An almost deserted King Street

This is one of Aberdeen’s busiest streets, at around 8.30 am on a Saturday morning. A time when normally traffic would be getting busy with staff and shoppers heading into the city centre. Yet here I am, running down the middle of the road with no traffic around. I guess this is a reminder of the difficulties we have all gone through – and continue to go through – as a result of the pandemic. My running troubles pale into insignificance when you compare them to that.

The path of running is never straightforward but it is only one portion of our lives. Yes it gets me down when I have runs like I have had this week but it should not overshadow the rest of our lives. I might not have enjoyed my running much this week but it still provided some positives for me to reflect on. Next week? Upwards and onwards.

Adapt

There is a great value in running in doing one simple thing. Keep turning up.

If running is all about staying consistent and sticking to a routine, then what happens when that routine goes out the window and you find yourself struggling to fit in the runs you want to do? It is time to just go with the flow.

The last couple of weeks have been extremely busy for me at work. It has involved a lot of working late into the evening to attend meetings, coupled with early morning starts which have not really left too much time for much else.

“easy to be frustrated”

Combine that with the usual family stuff and it is pretty easy to fall out of the pattern that I have been following for most of this year. It would be easy to be frustrated by this – and I have felt a bit up and down about it – but the reality is that there is nothing I can do to change the circumstances so I simply need to adjust my expectations.

It is not that I have not managed to get out – far from it – but it has meant shifting around when I run and also adjusting how far I am running when I do go out. This resulted in scaling back from a couple of 10km runs in the week to a couple of 5kms as that was all I could fit in. On the Bank Holiday Monday I decided to run a Half as I had the time. It was not when I particularly planned to do a half marathon this month but it was all about taking advantage of the time I had as I knew that for most of the rest of the week I would be unlikely to get out.

“a frisson of excitement”

At this point, as I am not specifically training for an event – though I do have a virtual 10k at the end of the month, which resulted in a frisson of excitement when I got a race bib through (when was the last time I had one of these!) – I am really just trying to keep things ticking over. I am not particularly pushing myself very hard but just attempting to keep the mileage going.

The bib for the virtual London 1ok

So while the consistency (some might say monotony) of running Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and then Saturday and Sunday has been broken up in the past couple of weeks I am ok with it. I very much think of myself as a hobby runner (though I take the hobby maybe a bit too seriously at times) and it is good to recognise that that is what it is. There is no point in stressing about something which is, in many ways, my way of relieving stress from other parts of my life!

As for the running itself, the weather has gone a bit crazy once more, though I think I have been relatively lucky and have missed out on the worst of it. However, I never thought in May I would still be donning a couple of layers for some of my early morning runs and be concerned about snow and ice. I had thought we had left all of these things behind a few weeks back. In saying that, the views when I have been running have been lovely.

I mentioned the half I ran earlier in the week. It was definitely one where all I was really interested in was getting the distance done. I had no fast time ambitions, other than keeping it somewhere below two hours and ten minutes. This is a reasonably easy pace for me these days, certainly without pushing it as my best is more than fifteen minutes quicker than that (will I ever be that quick again?).

The run itself went fine, though I did get a few scratches from having to step into a bush when running on a country road as a car looked like it had not seen me, even though I was wearing bright clothes, it was a sunny morning and I was running right in at the side of the road itself as there was no pavement on that stretch. It really brought home how careful we need to be when running on those kinds of roads and if it means stopping for a bit then so be it. Better that than the alternative.

Just a scratch but a reminder about staying safe

That half, then a seven mile run on Friday, both involved long, uphill finishes. These were both hard going, particularly the Friday one as this was also into a cold and gusty wind. These are the kind of runs which you need to get through though and just ensuring that I did not stop during either of them was a great feeling. I slowed down going up them, of course, but as I do not feel I am in the best shape right now, the achievement was in getting up them. Sometimes it is about facing your fears and when you overcome them, it says a lot about your own character. As I have said many times, running builds reslience.

I am hoping that next week things will return to a bit more of a normal pattern, but despite everything, the runs this week took me past five hundred miles for the year so far. It is amazing to me that I have hit that kind of milestone at this point of the year really without thinking too much about it. I guess that is a vindication of how far my running has come in recent years and the great value of doing a simple thing. Just turning up. It may not have been as regular as I would have liked in the past few weeks, but I am still getting it done. And that is really what counts.

Thankful

Great weather, great company, gorgeous views and a bit of a spark to my running. A really positive few days.

There are lots of things you can moan about when you go running. The weather. How you are feeling. The terrain. The hills. But despite everything, I am just so thankful to be able to get out and go and this week has been one full of good things.

Work commitments have meant my midweek running returned to the evenings and it made me realise just how much I enjoy things at this time of year in Scotland. The nights begin to stretch out in front of us, the temperatures begin to edge up (though still with a chilly wind) and the landscape I run in emerges from winter and begins to show a glimpse of the summer colours to come.

Evening running means running as the sun begins to set and the views of the countryside around where I live come alive. One positive thing of the Covid crisis has been the discovery of some other routes and trails nearby and so now when I go out I am always looking for a way to take advantage of these.

I am not a huge fan of trail running – tripping over roots is a constant worry for someone with as high a centre of gravity as me – but I am willing to ignore that in order to enjoy the scenery. I do have to say that I wish I spent a bit less time looking at my fee though and more time looking up! The way the light changes through this period surprises me every time.

The golden sunset light

And then there are the sunsets themselves, the hues of the sky; sometimes pink, sometimes fierce red as the sun goes down give me another reason to ignore the strain of the run and focus on the sheer majesty of what is unfolding as I pound along.

Sunset breaking through the clouds

I have also been fortunate enough this week to resume running with a couple of friends, for the first time in many months. Susan and Cara and I last ran together at the tail end of last year before the restrictions on running with more than one other person came in. While in recent weeks I have run with them both individually we had not run together as a trio for ages. It was so good to be back together again for a Sunday morning run and chat, and the weather continued to play its part for six nice riverside miles.

Susan, Cara and me at the River Don

Running with them – and also with my other friend Jeanette whom I ran with last week – has reminded me again of how much I have missed the social side of running. While I am still being cautious about group running and do not feel ready yet to return to that, it was great to be back to doing something which was so normal and taken for granted for so long.

One other positive from this week was my Saturday morning run. For various reasons recently, I have doubted myself a lot about my running – part of the reason for challenging myself with my long run last week (which you can read about here) – and began to convince myself that I will never again approach the times I have set in the past. Now maybe I will never beat those times but at least on Saturday I proved that when I try I can still get close to them – for 10k anyway.

I did not set out to go really hard, but as I built into the run and got over the initial, usual agonies of the first twenty minutes, I felt pretty good and surprised myself with the time I set. Still a few minutes outside my best but as I did not feel I was totally going for it (and had had a few drinks the night before which perhaps dulled my preparation) then maybe when races do resume, there is another sub-50 minute 10k in the old boy yet.

Another spectacular Saturday morning for running

The positive thing about this run is that it has challenged a few demons which were building up in my own head about my running abilities. I feel I have become fat through lockdown – a body image problem I do not think I will every resolve – and as a result, had lost the spark I needed to go a bit quicker. I know that pace is relative and inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, but the run has undoubtedly given my confidence a bit of a boost.

Overall, a really positive week. Great weather, great company, gorgeous views and a bit of a spark to my running. As Scotland re-opens further this week from the most serious lockdown restrictions, let’s hope the positivity continues. And yes, I have looked at the forecast for this week but remember, there is no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes.

Grieving

I still cannot quite get my head around it. I continue to think I will just bump into him somewhere. I know my friend Donald John (DJ) died on Christmas Eve, but I am not yet truly ready to believe it.

His was a sudden and unexpected death. There was no warning, no time for farewells, no way to express to him in life how much he meant to me and so many others. I think that is maybe why I am finding letting go so difficult.

There are so many things which remind me of him; make me think of him. Then I have the stark realisation that the thing I would like to tell him about will just have to stay with me as I can no longer tell him anything.

It could be something related to the football and his beloved Celtic or Scotland. It could be something in the news as we both worked as journalists together for a long time. It could be something about where we used to work. It could be nothing. But I still think of him and think,”oh, I’ll need to ping DJ about that”, and then remember that I cannot.

This week I was driving in town and I drove past the restaurant where we met up just a few weeks before Christmas and had a great meal together. We laughed and joked together. I remember arriving for the meal and he was already there, in the bar waiting to go to our table and his face mask had broken as he had walked in the door, so he had to get one from the staff so we could walk to the table. That kind of summed him up, a bit disorganised, a bit naive, totally lovable.

Together for what would be the final time

We had the meal and drinks then, because of the COVID restrictions, we had to give our table up after two hours, but we were allowed to carry on our meal in another part of the restaurant. We only ended the meal after a pudding of ice cream and a beer (you could not get served alcohol unless it was part of a meal) as DJ had to get back to take his little dog, Breagh, for a walk.

He talked about what a salvation she had been for him during lockdown; something to give him focus, get him out of the house, a break and a release from the madness of 2020. We drove him back to the house – yes, this was a breach of the rules but so what – and out she bounded from the house when he went in. We chatted a bit more, talked about how we needed to make this a regular thing as I was not travelling for work, wished each other a nice Christmas and we drove away. It still feels surreal that that was the last time I will ever see him.

His Christmas card came in a few days later. Usually, this was always preceded by a text from DJ asking what our address was. The fact that we have lived in the same house for almost twenty years and he had been here countless times was kind of irrelevant. As I mentioned before he disorganised but all the more lovable for that. I still have the Christmas card up on my desk. I am going to keep it there.

I run regularly and I quite often go through Seaton Park in Aberdeen. this was where he would occasionally walk Breagh, even on the day he died his last post on Facebook was with her in the park. Occasionally I see a dog like her and a thought flashes through my head that maybe it is DJ that is with her. But then I know it is not.

I have experienced loss before – my own father died more than twenty five years ago and all my grandparents have also passed away. My own in-laws died just a few years ago. But in some respects this was the expected order of things. The older generation go before us. I think this may partly explain my feelings of so much loss over DJ’s death.

He was the first of what I would class as my generation of friends to do. Maybe I have just been very fortunate but none of those I am close to from school or college or my immediate family had passed away (and long may that continue) prior to DJ’s death. I know that death is very much part of life – the hardest part – but this just did not feel right. I also feel bad for DJ that 2020 turned out to be his last year as well; the things he missed out on in what would be his final months. And I feel guilty for not seeing him more during those days.

Others knew him better than me. Others were closer to him. And I can only imagine their loss. My wife said to me once that when we die, we actually die twice. Once when we physically die. And then a second time when no one comes to visit our grave or think about us any more. I am not sure which is the sadder occasion, but it will be a very long time before people no longer think about DJ anymore. I will be thinking about him often for the rest of my days.

Building Belief

I never gave up. I went for that extra minute when I started. I ran to the next junction when I felt like stopping. I just kept going. And if I can do it, so can anyone else.

If I could give one piece of advice to someone thinking about running or starting out on a programme like couch to 5k it would not be about what shoes to get, or which routes to take, or which are the best shorts or leggings or whatever. It would one simple message – do not give up.

Running is hard, infuriating, difficult and can be exhausting. And all of these emotions and much more are condensed into those first few runs that you do. Not just that, these emotions can carry on for a long time. Sometimes you run and feel you could run forever. Sometimes you run and feel, after a short distance, that you cannot manage another step.

“make it a habit”

But the benefits of sticking with it far outweigh the short-term crises of confidence you may go through while trying to make it a habit. And when I say short-term crises, I can assure you that I went through a lot of that when I began running a few years back. Just because I am much fitter now does not mean I do not understand how tough it is to get going.

As we come out of lockdown in Scotland, hopefully more people will want to get out and exercise. New people to running, but also others who have found it hard to find the motivation to run on their own and value the benefits which group running can bring to give them that extra kick to get out the door.

“it breeds confidence”

Sticking with it does one fundamental thing – it breeds confidence in yourself that you can achieve what you want. Simple things make a huge difference. I found that by starting with a run walk, then slowly increasing the amount of time I ran (by a minute for example) and consequently reducing the amount of time I walked did wonders for me as I gradually progressed from walking to running.

What is it pro-athletes talk about? They talk about making, “Marginal gains”. These are minor improvements in technique or time that at that level can give them the edge they need to achieve their goals. Marginal gains does not just apply to the elite, it applies to all of us. And then there is the confidence. Once you have run for five minutes without stopping, your body – and more importantly your mind – knows you can do it. So if you can do it once, you can do it again. And then maybe five minutes can become six or even seven and so on.

“too unfit to run”

I have written before about the time I went to a hotel gym when I was away for work and I struggled to manage five minutes on a treadmill. It still took me a few years after that before I made the step to really change my lifestyle and improve my health and fitness, but that memory keeps coming back to me. Then when I started with walking – I was too unfit to run at this point – slowly building up distance and step count before I felt ready to run. Then with running setting myself some targets to achieve – 1km, 5km and then what was for me at that point the ultimate test, a 10km run. Once I had achieved one of these goals, it gave me the faith in myself to know that if I could do it once I could do it again. The fear of the challenge had gone.

“Sticking with it has given me the confidence”

I remember training for my first 10km and thinking, “How can I run for an hour? How is that even possible?” Yet it was and still is. Now, I have worked hard and am in the position where a 10km run is something I would routinely do for training. Coming back to my main point here. Sticking with it has given me the confidence.

I have been fortunate – and determined – to build on my running experience and take things up to marathon distance. What that also means, is that I firmly believe that I can achieve any distance up to the full twenty six point miles. There is no way the guy on the treadmill all those years back could contemplate twenty six point two minutes, far less twenty six point two miles.

“a test for me mentally”

That is what led me this week to go out for a twenty mile run. It was not that I thought it would be easy. It was not that I thought this would not be a test. It was that I wanted to do it BECAUSE it would be a test. A test of me physically, yes, but more importantly in my opinion, a test for me mentally. I was pretty confident my legs would get me through it, but did I have the sheer will to keep on going when my head may be telling me to give up?

The furthest I have run recently has been half marathon distance, so this would represent a significant step up from that. In fact, for a lot of marathon training programmes, twenty miles is the furthest run you may do prior to the actual race. Knowing that, I planned my route accordingly – keeping it pretty flat and in particular, for the last few miles, deciding that I would start and finish at Aberdeen beach, thereby annulling my usual three mile uphill slog home.

Now you might say, “all you have proved there is that you did not fancy running hills when things were really tough,” and you would be right. But as this was not about slogging my guts out but rather about challenging me for time on my feet and achieving the distance without actually doing any extra training beyond what I have been doing for the past few months, I felt comfortable about making that choice. When I do start marathon training for real in the summer ahead of the Manchester Marathon in October, the hill slog home will still be there.

I was also fortunate that it was a perfect day for running, so when I started there was barely a breath of wind and hardly a cloud in the sky.

Ideal conditions

The opening few miles were very scenic, along the beach and then the riverside and these miles passed easily. The only challenging hill was at around five miles but through this and the next few miles what I found more distracting was actually the traffic. Having run early mornings and evenings for a long while I found it quite off putting until I got up to about eight miles and headed out on a disused railway track to get towards the ten mile mark and the point I would turn and head back.

The point where, after slightly more than ten miles, I turned back

I use the website mapmyrun to plan my long routes, which I find helps take out the guesswork about distance as for the return I planned to run a different route to the one I took heading out. I find these kinds of routes give a better variety than a straight out and back run as I think with those runs I become very conscious of the distance I have left to go. The other thing about this run – and other long runs I do – is that I set my Fitbit to show my average pace rather than distance covered. I find this better as a measure of my level of effort. Yes, every so often I check the distance but I do find distance checking a distraction as you get further into a run. Frankly, in a marathon, mile markers beyond mile sixteen depress me as I realise how far I still have to run!

Fourteen miles in I returned to the riverside at a different stretch of the River Don and also began to contemplate where I would take my next gel. I use gels for long runs and had taken one at eight miles. I should also say that I run with a drink too – in this case just some orange squash – and I had taken with me a peanut bar in case I got hungry.

Heading along the riverside path

As I got to fifteen miles I took my next gel and this was where I also returned to the traffic and busy roads. Like before, I found this a real distraction, and without doubt this was the toughest part of the run for me. I mentioned before that this would be as much a mental test for me as a physical one, and this was definitely where I had to rely on convincing my brain to keep my legs going. I do think that getting your mind in a good place is such an important attribute for any kind of distance running. I you believe you can do it, you CAN do it.

This was also where I made my schoolboy error. I came to a busy roundabout and paused my watch as I waited to cross. As a car stopped to let me over, I touched my watch to restart it and off I went. When I got to the next roundabout, about a mile and half further down the road, I went to do the same, then realised that I had forgotten to restart it! I was so annoyed with myself that to be honest, I probably did not think much about how tired I felt for a little while.

The “missing” part of my run

A few miles later and I reached back to the beach and I was done. My watch showed just more than eighteen miles but in reality it was closer to the twenty I had set out to do. I did not care though. I had run further than I had since the Virtual Dublin Marathon back in October and had proved to myself that if I try, really try, then I have got that kind of mileage in my legs if I want to do it. Plus once again, my head also knows it.

And going back to what I said at the start, the only reason I know anything of what I am capable of is because of one thing. I never gave up. I went for that extra minute when I was tired. I ran to the next junction when I felt like stopping. I just kept going. And if I can do it, so can anyone else.

Learning

Running is an educational experience and I am learning all the time. Learning all the time about running. Learning all the time about me.

Ticking over. I guess that is the best way to describe my running at the moment. No heroics. No big distances. No crazy paces. Just ticking over. And I feel all the better for it, even though for other reasons it has been a tough week.

Since completing my LeJog challenge a few weeks back, I had found that I was just getting progressively more tired when I ran. Shorter distances were proving a struggle. Runs that should have been easy were becoming laboured. In some ways, I just was not enjoying things as I used to.

“I have felt seriously down”

There is no doubt that the current ongoing lockdown/Covid situation was not helping. While I feel better about my running this week, I have felt seriously down and thoroughly fed up at points this week. When the weather turned so cold and windy early in the week, I found myself feeling quite depressed. Having been through so much since Christmas, this additional twist of winter definitely got to me. Something I have also written about previously, my weight, was also worrying me as I felt I am not eating as healthily as I should be.

Having run on both Saturday and Sunday in really nice conditions – on the run on Sunday I actually felt a bit warm for the first time this year – when the weather turned on Sunday afternoon, it really dented my motivation.

Calm conditions for a riverside run on Sunday

By Monday morning, we had gale force winds and snow and that persisted through Tuesday. While the snow itself did not really lie – except in sheltered places and overnight – the wind was biting and icy. Having gone from thinking it was t-shirt running weather, I found myself on Tuesday night in three layers, gloves, a buff and a wooly hat. It really did my head in. This was not what April running should be about.

A depressing way to run in April

I even found myself on Wednesday night – one of my usual running evenings – deciding not to go out; eschewing another run in the cold and wind for a night on the sofa. The downturn in my mood was really impacting on my motivation.

I made the decision to run early on Thursday morning. I do much prefer morning running, but it is not always convenient with my work schedule, but as I just planned a 5k this was something I could easily fit in, and I instantly felt so much better.

Overnight there had been no snow, the weather had (briefly) turned slightly warmer and it felt great to be out. The benefits of running – both on my mood and my physical well-being – really kicked in.

A brief mild spell on Thursday

The following morning I ran with my friend Cara – someone I have not seen nor ran with for months – and it was really lovely to get in a 5k, even though the wind had regained a bit of its icy chill. In the past few weeks, I have now managed runs with a few friends and that has felt so special after running on my own for so long since we went back into lockdown. I am very grateful for the friends I have.

Running with Cara

The other benefit has been the shorter distances; giving my body a bit of a rest. I really felt this on Saturday when I went for my run at the beach. In recent weeks, this 10k run, while flat, has also felt a bit laboured at times. Though I have pushed through this – and these are important runs to complete as they build resilience – I have not really found them very enjoyable. As a hobby runner, if there is no enjoyment in it then really what is the point? But during my latest run I felt really good, even able to push a bit harder back into the wind on the second part of the run, after enjoying spectacular seaside views on the way out.

The surf was up at Aberdeen beach

What I am trying to say here is that it is clear to me that there are times to push hard and times to hang back. Pushing hard all the time will lead me to either physical or mental fatigue, and when there is no real target then there is little point in just going at it all of the time. Running is an educational experience and I am learning all the time. Learning all the time about running. Learning all the time about me. And as for the weight? Being sensible, cutting out small things, is all I need to do to get back on track. I am on holiday from work this week, a good chance to get out of some of the eating habits once more.

Easier miles and fewer miles now will benefit me in the long run when it comes to training for an actual event and the times when maybe I do need to push and I need to have that mental strength to sustain the physical challenge.