Finishing

A cancelled race in Paris was only the start of a year of COVID impacting on our lives. Now I have a different finish line in sight and the prospect of a run with friends. I hope this is a sign of positive times ahead,

Twelve months ago this weekend, I was sitting in a cafe in Paris eating lunch with my wife and friends and preparing to run the Paris half marathon the following day. Then we got a message. The race was cancelled. This was the first manifestation of the impact COVID would have on our lives. One year on, we are still all living with the consequences.

It was a really weird weekend. I recall when we picked up our numbers at the big expo in the city, I thought this would be the last big event to go ahead because it was apparent the situation in Europe was deteriorating, but within the hour that hope was dashed.

I was due to run the race with five colleagues from work – three based in Paris, one in Belgium and one in Wales – and we had all been training through the winter for the event. After the cancellation we all got together to have dinner in one of our friends’ houses. We ate, had a few drinks, we laughed and we resolved to go for a run in the morning.

During that run, we took what is probably my most favourite running photograph with friends.

Jan, David, Rob and me a the Eiffel Tower

We ended up running what we dubbed the “Not the Parish Half Marathon”. A 13.1 mile tour of Notre Dame, the River Seine, The Louvre, Arc de Triomphe, Eiffel Tower and then back along the river to finish at our hotel near the Bastille.

We hugged when we finished. We had drinks in the hotel bar. We hugged when we said goodbye. Then we headed to the airport and flew home. I have not been back to mainland Europe since.

The year since has seen race cancellation follow race cancellation – with one exception which I will write about next week – and the move to virtual events. Prior to last year, virtual events held very little attraction for me, I was much more interested in running “real” races. To be blunt, I still am, but there is no doubt that for me virtual running has provided a huge amount of motivation since the Spring of 2020.

“virtual running has motivated me to keep going”

I realise it is not for everybody. It does not replace the buzz of the day, the excitement at the start line, the support on the course, the sprint for the finish line and the joy at the end – though not having to queue for the toilet before the run is not really something I miss too much. But virtual running has motivated me to keep going – 5km runs, 10km runs, distance challenges – Race to the Space Station, Montane Spine Virtual Challenge – and the ultimate single event, the virtual Dublin Marathon.

All of them have played their part. And running has been so important to me as a welcome break from the reality of what we have all faced, a chance to get some fresh air and, quite often, my only time out of the house in a day and a break from the routine of working from home.

Now I am approaching the end of my biggest distance challenge – the Land’s End to John O’Groats end to end run which I began back in September. It has taken me six months of pretty solid running to get to this point. Now I have less than twelve miles to go to the end. The conclusion of 874 miles of running in rain, sleet, snow, ice, wind and, occasional, sun is firmly in sight.

The final few miles lie ahead

The weather of the past couple of months has been a challenge too, but this weekend has been the best we have had in a very long time – two days of almost unbroken sunshine which have really helped get me to take out a big chunk of the miles I had left to run.

I find whenever I get close to the end of a challenge, I like to do a big run or a big mileage week to really break the back of what is left. It is not really about the pace, just about clocking off the miles to get it done. So on Saturday I ran seven miles- including a short sprint along the sand at Aberdeen beach – then I did my longest run in a while on Sunday.

I aim to run at least one half marathon distance run a month at the moment so Sunday was my last chance to do that. While it was chilly early one, it was another spectacular day; one where it is a joy to be out.

For long runs like this, I really try to focus on my breathing. Getting this sorted out early I find is a huge bonus, helping me relax. I also had taken the view that I wanted to run it really easy, so I set my watch not to measure distance but to monitor average pace. This was a tactic I used when I was marathon training and I found it quite a good discipline to follow to ensure that I do not go off too fast and then run out of gas at the end.

Running through the grounds of Aberdeen University

It has been a little while since I had ran more than nine miles, so my legs definitely were turning a little bit to jelly on the final, uphill three mile stretch to get home but again, having my breathing under control through this period just lets me concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other to get to the end.

Assuming things go to plan, I will finish the LeJog challenge this week. Beyond that? I have no real idea. I have no other challenges lined up in the short term, though I do have a couple of virtual events in May. I have my fingers crossed that the promise of better weather and lighter nights will provide the motivation to keep going. I also realise that the weather we have had of the last few days is not going to last. It is only the end of February after all.

This week though will signal one other positive. After two months of choosing to run on my own due to the COVID situation, numbers have decreased in the city to levels last seen in October, I have made the decision to return to running with friends once more. What better motivation to run can there be than that?

Sponsored Post Learn from the experts: Create a successful blog with our brand new courseThe WordPress.com Blog

Are you new to blogging, and do you want step-by-step guidance on how to publish and grow your blog? Learn more about our new Blogging for Beginners course and get 50% off through December 10th.

WordPress.com is excited to announce our newest offering: a course just for beginning bloggers where you’ll learn everything you need to know about blogging from the most trusted experts in the industry. We have helped millions of blogs get up and running, we know what works, and we want you to to know everything we know. This course provides all the fundamental skills and inspiration you need to get your blog started, an interactive community forum, and content updated annually.

Cheerful

There are reasons to be positive. Better weather, longer daylight hours. But to enjoy them all the more we need to also recognise the hard times we have been through.

Sometimes it can seem hard to find hope. When things are hard and times are dark, a bad situation can seem inescapable. The last year has felt like a time for surviving rather than living. But I found some optimism this week to sustain things for a bit longer.

After weeks of running in cold, dark, wet, icy, snowy and windy conditions, my run on Saturday morning was on a perfect day. The kind of day to give you hope that things are improving. That things will get better. That what we have gone through for the past twelve months is temporary rather than permanent. It is amazing what a bit of nice weather can do for the soul.

Looking north on Aberdeen beach

The first thing was the temperature. This week things have finally begun to warm up. This began earlier in the week so even in my runs in the evening in the dark I was able to discard my luminous Ninja gear (see previous posts) and return to a few less layers, discard my wooly hat, put away the running buff and even get my legs out for a bit of fresh air once more. I am hoping now that my running leggings can now safely stay in the cupboard until next winter.

Legs out!

Running in the cold does not particularly bother me – living in Aberdeen it would make things pretty difficult if it did – and it definitely does not stop me running, but being able to take off some of the layers gives more of a sense of freedom to my running. It just makes me feel better.

On Saturday morning, I could even dispense with my gloves for the first time in ages. It was such a nice morning. Over the past few months, I have established a regular route for my weekend runs and so once more this took me from the beach area to the university, but this time I varied it slightly to also take in Seaton Park. I think it is important not to get too bogged down in running the exact same route all the time – this is always a challenge when running from home – so it was nice to see the sights of St Machar Cathedral and run by the River Don, which wanders through the edge of the park

The River Don in Seaton Park in Aberdeen

This route is also very flat – a big contrast to routes around my house – so I also feel I can push a bit harder, knowing that I do not have a large hill to face in the final few miles. Recently I have tried a slightly different approach to running a bit quicker, by extending my stride length while trying to keep my cadence (the number of times my feet strike the ground) at the same rate. I am never going to be the quickest, but I do get a sense that I am gobbling up a bit more ground when I do it.

After going through the park and University area then I came around the harbour and back up for the final stretch along the beach and another stunning view to enjoy.

Aberdeen beach from Footdee

As I headed along towards the finish of my run back at my car I was pushing pretty hard, I think I just got a bit caught up in the positivity I felt in the morning. It felt good to have a bit of a blast on a flat track as my runs on the hills this week had felt like a real struggle at times, even in the warmer weather.

Some say it is the hope that kills you in the end – as a Falkirk football supporter I can sympathise with this – but I think it reality is the hope that keeps you going to the end. I know we still have a long way to go before life returns to anything like normal, but as the evenings stretch out in front of us and the daylight extends in the morning too, perhaps we can be more positive about the days ahead.

I also made a positive choice this week to try and make a difference. My running has been helped so much by joining the JogScotland group a couple of years back that I have signed up to a training course to become a jog leader. I was actually thinking about doing this at this point last year, but of course COVID came along to ruin things, so fingers crossed I will be able to go to the course in April and then JogScotland will also return as restrictions on gatherings loosen.

Still on the good news front – trust me I am not usually this upbeat – my first medal for an event in 2021 arrived. This was for the 108 miles of the Virtual Montane Spine Challenge which I did in January (give the weather in February, thank goodness the event was not during this month). It is always such a great boost to get a medal – that physical recognition of the hard work invested.

The first 2021 medal added to the collection

But in order to enjoy good times, you also need to recognise the bad things too. This week, the Inverness Half Marathon for 2021 was cancelled. This was the only “real” race that I did last year and while not surprising in the circumstances, it is still sad to see races being cancelled or postponed. I know how hard race organisers are working to get races on just now.

So for the moment, it is virtual challenges to sustain me, and the biggest of them all, the 874 mile Land’s End to John O’Groats virtual run is coming to its closing miles. I am now 50 miles away from the finish – having started in September – and while sadly my plan to go to John O’Groats to run the final few miles is not going to happen I am hoping that those closing miles will have another positive impact.

The map with the miles ahead of me to get to John O’Groats

I have run on my own since Christmas because of the rise in Covid cases and being extra careful as I am asthmatic. If things continue as they are – and numbers in our area have decreased dramatically recently – then I hope to return to running with friends at the start of March. And what better thing to do, than to run with a friend to round off this epic challenge? Another reason to be cheerful (that is if they will have me back as a running buddy of course :-)).

Endurance

We all have our own personal battles to get through. As I have said many times, running breeds resilience, you just need to work out your own way to discover it. Never be afraid to take a running break, just do not give up.

I used to think of it as my one minute crisis, then it got delayed to two, then about five, then ten, then for a while seemed to disappear, but now it is back and it seems to have settled in to be around twenty five minutes. What is it?

It is the point of a run where you think, “Jeez, this is hard going,” and begin to question most of the life choices you have made that have led you to this point where you are out of the house, supposedly a fully functioning adult, and yet wishing you were anywhere else but right where you were right at that moment in time. When you could be safely curled up on a sofa.

“just jack it in”

When I first started running, this feeling was really hard to get past. It was so tempting to just jack it in and go home. Well, after a couple of minutes you really are not that far from the front door are you, so it would be pretty easy just to turn on your heels and sprint for the house? But when I first started I knew it was going to be difficult.

So my reaction was simple. Just walk for a bit, get your breath back, then run a bit further. And do that on repeat. It was annoying for sure. The progress seemed to be so slow back then to just get a bit further before the walking break had to come in. But each time I ran I got a little further before I had to take a breather. I got to the next junction. I got to the next bus stop. I made it to the next road sign. And by then, things were beginning to get a bit easier.

So that moment extended further out into my run, and the further away I got from my house, the less likely I was to carry out the threat and just head back to the comfort and warm surroundings that lay within.

“Distance running is never easy”

I found as I ran further, not only did that point of struggle come a lot later, but I got better at recognising it and working out how to get through it. Conversely, while I became less likely to stop, I also found it took my longer to feel really comfortable. I was not having the existential crisis and pondering on the value of life, the universe and everything as I struggled to “breathe, but it just seemed to take me ages to get settled and into the run. Once I got beyond that stage, then things became smooth and straightforward. Distances opened up, my breathing was calm and under control and the miles rolled by. Distance running is never easy, but you can get used to how it feels.

As I mentioned at the start, now it seems to be around the two and half mile mark that I feel a bit meh these days. Because I have run for a while, I know that I will get through it; that it is a temporary blip that will pass. All I need to do is just keep going.

“stick with it”

The point I am trying to make here is that, even though I have been running now for around four and a bit years now, I still struggle with it. I kind of assume everyone does, but maybe better runners than me do not. So for anyone who is starting out, or who has not been running as much due to the crazy times we live in, or is thinking about starting, please stick with it.

Do not think, when you see others out pounding the streets, that they have not gone through – or are indeed gong through – the same things that you are. We all start somewhere. We all have our own personal battles to get through. As I have said many times, running breeds resilience, you just need to work out your own way to discover it. Never be afraid to take a running break, just do not give up.

“keeping things ticking”

It certainly would have been easy to give up this week, as we have had the worst weather in the past ten years in Aberdeen and tons of snow to add to the icy temperatures and strong winds of the past few weeks. Tuesday was the day of the major snowfall, but it fell mostly during the day so I did make it out but boy was it hard going throughout and probably my slowest run in a few years. Time is irrelevant though when the conditions are hard, it is just about keeping things ticking over with 5km close to home.

Snowy trails and skies

The following night I made it out again, though I was beginning to doubt my sanity as I slipped and slided my way around the same route and actually tweaked my ankle a little bit. That was enough to dissuade me from going out again on Thursday. As the weather was now less snowy but still icy – and the pavements were thoroughly treacherous – I made the decision to stay in and rest up before going out at the weekend. The risk of injury I felt was too great, and our health service have enough on their plate right now without worrying about an idiot like me.

“a bit of a bus dodging”

Come Saturday, I thought I would head to my usual course down at the beach area, hoping that the pavements there would be better. While the beachfront was clear, the roads nearby were still a bit of a nightmare so it became a bit of a bus dodging as I took the decision to run on the road and take my chances with the traffic as that seemed a more appealing prospect than a broken ankle on an icy pavement.

While the tempertures now are not as extreme as during the week, oh my goodness it was windy. This was pretty tough running into it for the first few miles, but on the way back? I have never before felt like I was going to get blown over by a wind behind. Trust me, I know what kind of shape I am in right now, and there is no way I can run a sub-7 minute mile without some kind of assistance.

This will likely be the least mileage I have run in a week since the week after the virtual Dublin marathon in October and I am ok with that. It has been about being realistic about the conditions and just going with the flow. No point in worrying about it. The weather will get better soon, hopefully, and I can focus on the important things again. Like how long is it going to take me to feel comfortable on this run….

Cover

No big running targets. No big goals. Just take it as it comes and do what I can do. In other words, just chill the heck out for a bit.

There may be no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes, but boy has this week been a bit of a tester in terms of running weather. In fact, I think it has been a bit of a test since before Christmas.

After what I wrote last week (Missed) this week I have again just taken the view that I will do what I can do and be happy with that. No big targets. No big goals. Just take it as it comes and do what I can do. In other words, just chill the heck out for a bit.

There is no point putting additional pressure on right now – frankly we have enough to deal with – it is now just a case of doing it because I enjoy it and recognise the benefits in terms of mental and physical health that it brings.

“The wind is actually at my back”

It has still been a thought to go out this week though, but with a positive twist. Well, for me anyway. One side benefit of the weather has been the wind direction. A wind straight out of the east is unusual for us in Aberdeen and for me what it means it that the wind is actually at my back for the closing miles of the majority of my runs. A pleasant change, even if it means when I am running into it on the way out, the sleet and rain stings a bit on my face.

Mind you, when I am as covered up as I have been this week – multiple layers, two pairs of gloves, running leggings and shorts, a buff and hat pulled down as far as it can go – the sleet trying to hit my eyes does not have much of a target to aim for. It’s like running dressed as a luminous Ninja.

“letting running take a back seat”

Running in the dark, wind, rain, sleet, slush and snow is not for everyone and I do not blame anyone who is letting running take a back seat at the moment until the weather improves. I think all of us are looking forward to Spring and a bit of an easing of the conditions – it feels a heck of a long time ago since I ran outside in just a t-shirt and shorts.

In fact this winter has definitely been the most severe since I started running again back in 2017. When I was marathon training through the winters of that year and 2018, I do not recall a lengthy spell of poor weather like we have had recently. And last year, we barely had any days with frost, far less a prolonged period of icy temperatures and high winds.

“being practical and realistic…”

Those high winds have built through the week, so my Saturday run, which I normally do at the beach, had a slightly different feel to it this week. While I still went to the beach to start and finish, I varied my route and ran more into town to at least get a bit of shelter from the biting, strong wind whipping straight off the sea, with its boiling white foam under leaden skies. It comes back to being practical and realistic in the situation. No point flogging myself when an alternative was available.

Stormy seas and skies

As I changed my route, it also took me down Aberdeen’s main shopping street. There was something almost eerie running down it at 9.30am on a Saturday morning and to see it practically deserted. Clearly the weather played its part in discouraging people to go out, but obviously the biggest reason is the ongoing pandemic. How I wish we can go back to busier days. I am sure we all do.

An empty Union Street

Every mile counts though and that was brought home to me as I tracked my virtual Land’s End to John O’ Groats run. I started back in September and this week I reached the milestone of seven hundred and seventy five miles. You might think that is an odd number, but what it means is that I have less than one hundred miles to go.

My position on the map as I head towards John O’Groats

I have deliberately not set a timescale for when I am going to finish. All I am doing now is clocking off the miles, going back to what I said at the start. No pressure, I will get there when I get there. All I want to do now is continue to stay healthy, run when I can and keep using the time I get outside to relieve the pressures of the day and the situation of the moment. Regardless of what the weather might throw at us this week.

Missed

Set targets, do your best to achieve them, but for the times that you do not? Reflect on the efforts you made and recognise them for what they are. If you do all you can in the circumstances you find yourself, what else can you do?

At the start of a week, I usually have some targets. They might be for work or for things I need to do or for running. For the past few months, I have set a target to run a marathon distance each week. This week, I am not going to get there. Am I bothered? I am really not.

Usually missing a target would really annoy me. What is the point of setting an achievable goal if you are going to just miss it? (note that I said an achievable goal, I will come back to that). Well much more important than the goal is what it takes to get there. And this week? Well this week other things got in the way so for the sake of my overall wellness, running had to take a back seat.

“the reality of life is that not everything is manageable”

I have still made it out three times, so it is not like I am not running at all, and all going well I will get out again tomorrow, but I simply have not had the time to dedicate to it. And I am absolutely fine with that. There are times when you cannot help but to change your plans, to adjust what you set out to do because the reality of life is that not everything is manageable. It is not as if I am any kind of professional runner, it is just supposed to be a bit of fun.

Work, in particular this week, has involved a lot of long days. Starting at 8am and finishing around 8pm (or later) is not really conducive to doing a lot of miles. Yes, I could have got up earlier or gone out later than normal, but I simply did not have the inclination to do it. It is not like I am training for an event or have something specific in mind right now, all I am trying to do is to keep up with regular running, stay fit and give me a bit of space and time on my own.

“I just did not have the energy”

You might think that actually, a bit of extra running might have helped this week, giving me a chance to de-stress after the long days, but I just did not have the energy to do it. I have been running a marathon distance and more each week for the best part of seven months now and I am simply tired. The last few weeks has been characterised by sore legs and a long time to warm up and feel comfortable. Taking a bit of a break this week is the least I can do.

It has also been hard to just keep going out in the cold, dark and wet nights. On Thursday, I said to my family I was heading out and was not sure how long I would be, maybe half an hour, maybe an hour. When I stepped out the door and it was absolutely tipping it down and blowing a bit of a gale, I did not take a lot of persuasion to convince myself that a nice five km would be more than enough for me that night.

“goals are about things I CAN achieve”

Coming back to what I said about having achievable goals, I think that is also something that is really important. Yes, you can have stretch goals – a bit of extra incentive – but for the majority of things, my goals are about things I CAN achieve. It is not about setting yourself up to fail. If you know that the most you can manage is to run two times a week then have that as your target. There is no point saying to yourself that you are going to get out and crunch out four runs a week if that is unlikely to happen. All that will happen is that you will get to the end of the week and reflect that you are a failure, as opposed to recognising that the two times you did run you did the best you could.

All of this stuff is entirely in your own gift and in your own head. I know I am my own worst critic and can be pretty hard on myself, but not this week. I know I have done all I could and that is fine with me. Also, does it matter to anyone else but me? No it does not.

So set targets, do your best to achieve them, but for the times that you do not? Reflect on the efforts you made and recognise them for what they are. If you do all you can in the circumstances you find yourself, what else can you do?

I do feel that the bit of a rest this week made my Saturday run more enjoyable. It probably also helped that it was not throwing it down like it was on Thursday night and running at the beach in Aberdeen in the morning is such a joy.

Looking north on Aberdeen beach

Talking of joy – and how much do we all need a bit of joy in our lives right now – I did get one boost this week when I finally received the medal from the virtual Barcelona Marathon which I did back in November. This was a race you could do over a number of days, rather than all at once, so was not as strenuous as a full marathon, but I was still delighted to get the medal and to hang it next to the medal I received when I ran the actual Barcelona Marathon in March 2019.

This week also saw me sign up for the first race of this year, but with the uncertainty about racing in the short term I have gone for the virtual option for the Vitality London 10k. This is planned to be a real race, which would be fabulous to do in London itself, but while I hope it goes ahead I am not convinced it will. By doing the virtual option, hopefully I will get the chance to run it with friends here and with friends virtually as some colleagues from work have also signed up.

So a week where it would be easy to get down has actually ended on some positive notes. Next week? We go again.

Comfort

Just stick with running and things will improve. There is a lot to be said for just keeping going.

I read something this week which said, “running is the art of being comfortable at feeling uncomfortable.” As almost everything at the moment feels a bit uncomfortable, this did prompt me to think a bit.

There is no doubt in my own mind that running has made me more resilient; that ability to keep going, to assess how I am feeling and realise that the pain will not last, that the hill will end, that if I just continue I can overcome what I am going through at that particular moment. This is not something that came easy or naturally. It came through a lot of training and recognising actually what I am capable of achieving.

If you had said to me five years ago that I would have run the various distances which I have, all the way up to three marathons there is no way I would have believed you. But through time I did all of these things and proved so many things to myself about what I could do.

“what on earth are we up to here?”

So what about “being comfortable at feeling uncomfortable”. The first few minutes and miles of any run are the most uncomfortable for me. That period where you step out the door into whatever the weather might be throwing at you at the moment in a Scottish winter and taking those first few paces. The first one hundred metres or so are ok, but after that your body begins to say, “hang on, what on earth are we up to here? You want me to run HOW far?”.

This usually manifests itself in some seriously heaving breathing as my lungs struggle to get into the rhythm of what I am attempting to do and the development of almost every single ache and pain known to man. Did I really have that niggle in my hamstring before I came out? Why do my knees suddenly ache? Is my neck stiff? And just what is chafing around my unmentionables?

All of these things challenge you and they challenge me on every run. Running short distances is one of the reasons why I dislike 5kms so much. They are too short to get into a sensible rhythm and too quick to be able to get rid of that feeling that you are going to run out of breath before you cross the finish line.

“dodgy route planning”

Get beyond those opening miles and that is when things begin to improve. This week, for example, I unintentionally ran an eight mile route during the week. I went out thinking I might do about six, but a combination of a bit of dodgy route planning and a downhill first few miles which took me further from home than I thought meant by the time I turned for home, I would get to the eight mile distance. But the other thing was, I felt absolutely fine. In fact, I felt better than I had done the night before when I HAD done six.

And I think this comes back to that sense of feeling comfortable. As I run further I get more into a rhythm. I get more into a sense of breathing deeper and easier. My muscles warm up and most of those aches and pains get left behind in the early miles. My lungs no longer scream. I just feel better.

Keeping going this week – and those eight and six mile runs plus the others – got me to the end of my latest challenge. The Montane Virtual Spine Challenge Race. The test was to run one hundred and seventy five kilometres (one hundred and nine miles) in January to complete. I got there on Friday morning and rather appropriately, the weather was pretty grim when I past the landmark on an early morning run. This virtual race follows the route of the real race, so my finish line was in the village of Hawes. How I wish I could have been there in reality to finish and then go for a pint to celebrate. Maybe one day.

I cannot say I felt particularly comfortable – it was windy and it felt like I was running through treacle at this point – but I got there and that is what counted.

I also finally received my medal for the virtual Comrades Half Marathon which I completed in June. It has taken a long time for the medal to arrive, but it is a real beaut. I know it is just a chunk of metal but these things do give me such a boost when they arrive and I add them to my collection. And I think all of us need as much of a boost as we can get these days.

And speaking of getting a boost, my run on Saturday morning was one to really lift the spirits. I mentioned the weather earlier and through the last few weeks we have had to contend with snow, slush, ice, rain and wind, but this run was in the most perfect conditions. It was a pleasure to be out to run along the beach and through the grounds of Aberdeen University. Well, you know, once I had got the first couple of miles out of the way.

Days like today give me a bit of hope for the future. Things feel so tough for everyone just now and I am very thankful to still be healthy and able to get out and enjoy mornings like this – even if there are times when the running still makes me feel uncomfortable.

So maybe this is what it is about. Just stick with it and things will improve. Get past the early stages where all you want to do is stop and head back in. Tell yourself that you can do it. Win the battle with the voice in your head that is telling you to stop. There is a lot to be said for just keeping going, for learning the art at being comfortable at feeling uncomfortable.

Light

Everything is hard just now, but running is my light at the end of the day. Something to look forward to, though there are plenty of times the sofa seems more appealing.

No races to train for. No social running (my choice). Poor weather – wind, snow, ice, rain. Living in lockdown. Welcome to January 2021.

Forgive me for the gloomy start, but there can be no doubt that the opening days of the year have been pretty depressing. I have also had my first race postponement of the year. The Liverpool Half Marathon (already delayed from last May to this May) has been put back until the end of October. If you just look at all this news, then you would be forgiven for thinking that everything is doom and gloom.

And there is no doubt that things are very tough for us all right now, which is why I view my running right now as a bit of salvation; a light to look forward to at the end of more dark days.

I am not going to lie. There have definitely been days over the past couple of weeks where my motivation levels have hit somewhere between the floor and rock bottom and that the comforts of my bed or the sofa have seemed far more appealing than getting togged up to go out and cope with the rigours of the early January weather to get in a few miles. I also do not think I am alone in feeling that way and if you have too, please know that you are not alone.

Speaking of being alone, I have chosen to run solo again rather than run with friends. As an asthmatic, I am trying to be ultra cautious, though this decision makes me feel bad inside. It is not that I do not trust my running friends, far from it, but for me I just think it is the right thing to do for now. I will enjoy it all the more when we do start running together again.

Nice views, but ones I will be enjoying on my own for a while

I wrote a little while back about whether habit or motivation was a stronger force. I definitely believe that the facts of the past few months where I have got into a routine of running five days a week – with Mondays and Fridays as rest days – has helped in recent times. That acceptance that on these days I am going to go for a run, almost as a matter of fact, regardless of weather or how keen I am to go. On these days I run. I just do.

I do not want this to sound arrogant or dismissive of people who are finding it hard to get themselves out the door at the moment. I totally get it. But for me, working from home now as I do, virtually the only time I am out of the house is when I go for a bit of exercise. So running itself is motivation enough, even when it is miserable outside.

I have abandoned any idea of pace and try not to push myself too hard. It is more about just making sure I do get out and give myself at least some time outdoors. During the week, I run at night when it is quiet and there are very few people out and about, save for a few other runners or some hardy dog walkers. It is not scenic or special, but it at least means I get out.

At the weekend, I am running a little later than I was before. Normally I run very early, particularly on a Sunday, as I do not want my running to disrupt other things we would be doing as a family. Now that we cannot really go many places outside, there is less pressure to get things done early in the day. As a consequence, I have been lucky enough to enjoy some lovely weather and daylight views.

Sun and snow on a recent run

While there are no real races on the horizon, virtual running races are also helping. I am now down to less than two hundred miles to go on my Land’s End to John O’Groats challenge which I started back in September. If I stay healthy I would hope to complete that within a couple of months. When I began, I had hoped that I would travel to John O’Groats to complete the final miles. Sadly, I do not think that is going to be possible.

As an extra bit of motivation through January, a friend suggested I do the Montane Virtual Spine Event. The real race is a well known ultra challenge, so I chose the 108 mile option to be completed in the month. I am well on my way to completing that and earning my first medal of the year.

Speaking of medals, I have received my first, though it was for an event last year. The Run Up to Christmas challenge kept me going through December so I added it to my collection this week.

Love the Run Up to Christmas design

Speaking of medals, there are still two from events last year which I am still waiting on – the Barcelona Virtual Marathon and the Comrades Race Half Marathon. As the Comrades race was actually completed in June, I am beginning to lose faith on that one ever arriving, but who knows….

I have a feeling that the majority of my medals this year will again come for virtual races. I miss real races so much and I cannot wait until they restart, but unfortunately I fear that it will be some time before the really big events get going again. I got a notification this week that the results for the London Marathon ballot will be released in early February. I have my fingers crossed but no real expectation I will get in. Would it not be amazing if my first race back after Covid could be that one?

Loss

It was when I phoned a friend of mine to tell him that Donald had died that the grief cascaded over me. As he picked up the phone and asked how I was doing, I just could not get the words out. It was as if the shock of the news was strangling me, defiantly preventing me from telling how the whole awfulness of it all. One of my best friends had died. Suddenly. And I was just helpless.

I had had dinner with DJ, as he was known, only a few weeks previously. This came about after a chance encounter in our local supermarket. My wife and I were walking down and aisle and there he came, with his blue mask on, strolling up the aisle pushing his trolley. It had been months since we had seen each other.

Though the Covid crisis meant I spent more time at home this year than in more than a decade, we had just never got round to meeting up. It was just one of these things. Life has a habit of getting in the way like that. You think, “Oh, I should call up so and so and catch up,” but you do not. You just do not get round to it. I really regret that now.

But we had bumped into each other and we had the usual chat between friends. Our relationship was such that, even if we had not seen each other for ages, there was no awkwardness, there was no stumbling to find something to say. It was natural, we talked for about five minutes and agreed we should go out for dinner, as the restrictions in place at that time allowed us to do. And the following day I booked what would be our final dinner together.

I had met DJ when I started a new job at Grampian TV in Aberdeen as a reporter back in 1990. I knew no-one in the city when I moved there as a twenty one year old, and though Donald was a little older (he was thirty) we really quickly hit it off. We had similar interests – news, football, going to the pub – so within weeks we were regularly going out together, or playing five a sides, as well as working in the same newsroom.

Grampian TV had a great social club in those days and we were Friday night regulars. When I started going out with my girlfriend, DJ and his girlfriend then would join us too. We had cocktail nights there, sports nights there, Christmas parties there. And we played football – seven a side, five a side, eleven a side. Games for fun. Games for charity. DJ was a great player, far better than me, just as he was a far better reporter than I ever was.

We just got along. As time moved on, we got promoted together to work on the newsdesk, and it was during this period I had my biggest ever argument with someone I worked with – and it was with him. It was one of these inconsequential, seems huge at the time but in fact is absolutely meaningless in the grand scheme of things, kinds of arguments. As the words of the argument were tumbling from my lips, I was apologising at the same time. It was the kind of argument you have with family. When it’s over, it’s over. And that was how he felt to me, like family.

We went through very stressful times together – certainly through work we had very difficult periods where we implemented change and had to make unpopular decisions and we, and only we, knew how much each other was hurting because of it. To the outside world we were a unified front, but inside we were both struggling to get through the days. But we did and we came out the other end, and for me, that ultimately meant I moved away from the newsroom to another career.

That career meant I traveled, almost every week, but that did not diminish our friendship, it simply moved it to another position. We would catch up when we could, meet each other for lunch or go for a drink to watch the football when I was back. Every year we would have a Christmas party at our house and DJ would be there, regailing us with his great stories, joining in the fun of our quizzes, telling us how good the buffet was, and enjoying a beer, a red wine and a whisky or two along the way.

When he had a heart attack a number of years ago, we had him over to the house for dinner afterwards and we spoke about what this meant for him and his future lifestyle. Within months, he made a full recovery, was regularly out on his bike and back to living an adjusted life to the full. There was the sadness when his dog, Pepper, passed away, and then in recent months, the joy of a new dog in his life, Breagha, and when we met for dinner he told me how much she had helped him through lockdown. You could feel the joy in him whenever he posted on Facebook about his lovely little dog.

At dinner we talked about a lot of things. Work, family life, the football – he as a beloved Celtic fan so talking about them always came into the conversation – and we also talked about our careers. As DJ was now sixty and I am fifty one, we were both talking about what younger people think of us, about what retirement might mean. We talked about some of the stories we had covered, the places we had been, the things we had done, the people we had met. We both agreed that if our careers were to end tomorrow, what amazing careers we had had. But we still had more we wanted to do. He was like a dog with a bone when a good story was there to be told. And with DJ there were always stories. So much so, when we had dinner, we could only have a drink when eating, so we ordered ice cream and a couple of extra pints so we could keep on talking. We had so much fun.

Our final pint together

Donald was immensely proud of his son, Ben, and everything he has done. He was also passionate about his newsroom and his team, not just the stories they covered, but how they covered them, who each individual was as a person, the values they lived up to. Because they were his values – dogged, determined, enthusiastic – and he passed on to everyone who was around him. His manner was infectious, yes he could be infuriating, but he knew his way round a story like few others and he drove others to become better reporters and better people as a result.

When someone dies young, I always feel that they are cheated. Cheated out of the things they had yet to do, the experiences they were yet to enjoy, the people they were yet to meet. And I feel that for DJ, but I also feel that for everyone who knew him, because we will not get the chance again to experience the laughs, the stories, the songs that he brought with him any time we met him.

I still cannot really believe he is gone. I keep thinking I am going to bump into him, particularly when I went for a run around various places in the city I associated with him. I find it hard when I realise he is no longer around. It comes in streams of sadness, but those streams are diverted by the happy memories.

For now, it is hard to see a world without him, but I know this is what the future holds. We need to hold on to those treasured times together, look at old photos and laugh at the memories. It will be some time before we can gather as a group in person to remember him, but when we do, what fun we will have. But we will never have as much fun as we would have if he was there with us.

Us

Facts and figures spell out one element of my running life and they do mean something to me. But other things mean much more,

The end of the year in running is usually accompanied by a whole bunch of facts and figures. How far you have run, how fast you have run, where you have run, where you have run the most, how much elevation you have run up, how many miles you have run in your shoes and so the list goes on.

But what this deluge of digits fails to illustrate is what the year has meant to you in terms of running. One thing about numbers is that if you analyse them you can always find someone who ran further or faster or any of the other measures you want to place on those bald facts and figures. However, no-one else has had the same running experience as you, and it is that experience which I think is so important to hold on to, to focus on, much more than what your watch or running app tells you.

In order to explain more of what I mean, I am going to use some photographs and only one statistic. The number sixty five. But I will come back to that in a bit. If this year has taught me anything, it is about valuing what I have and recognising what I miss.

“I just miss things being boring”

I value my friends and family more than ever. I miss them more than anything. But it is more than that. I also miss so many things which seemed so ordinary; the ability to just go and do something without really thinking about it, or having to take some many factors into consideration. I just miss things being boring and normal.

One thing that has not changed this year has been the beauty of nature, and in January I was treated to the most spectacular sunrise I have ever had the pleasure to enjoy, while running early one Sunday.

The colours of an amazing Aberdeen sunrise

The other thing about that morning, was that I got to share that incredible view with two of my best running friends – Cara and Susan. They are the friends I have run with the most in the course of the year, but even now I cannot run with them both together at the same time due to the Covid restrictions here in Scotland about household mixing.

Me, Cara and Susan

With Cara I got to share the experience of helping her round her first ever half marathon, in Inverness back in March. None of us knew at that point, that that would have been the only real race I would get to do this year. It was an emotional day, for many reasons, but getting Cara to the finish line meant a lot to me, and this image from the finish line I think perfectly sums up just what that kind of achievement can mean for running friends. The time is irrelevant, it is the accomplishment which truly matters, something which can never be taken away from you.

The relief at the finish line in Inverness

The weekend before I had been in Paris for the half marathon there. This was when Covid had its first real impact on me as the race was called off just hours before the start. I was due to run the race with frends from work and disappointing as that was, it did not deter some of us from going out in the morning anyway and running around the city, in fact achieving the half marathon distance. And this is probably my favourite photo of the year.

Jan, David, Rob and me on the run in Paris

I had run with Rob previously, in Phoenix in Arizona in the United States, when we got up hideously early to run up the steepest hill I have ever seen in my life to see the sunrise from the restaurant close to the hotel we were staying at. We were joined there by Jon, another great running friend, and enjoyed the sight together.

Another sunrise shot with Jon and Rob

If all of this is proving anything, it is one simple thing. The need for human contact and the enjoyment of a shared experience. And that then brings me to my statistic. Sixty five. Sixty five is the number of runs I did on my own during the first lockdown in the UK through March, April and into May. Sixty five times I laced up, got out, often in the dark in those early days – dark in terms of daylight, also dark in terms of how things looked – and focused on something else that was not the crisis we were facing or things about work. Running as a break. Running as therapy.

Through the summer I was able to run with Cara and Susan again as some restrictions were lifted – it was with them that I ran after my sixty five solo efforts – and we established a regular Saturday routine of running together. It was with them when I passed one thousand running miles for the year on an absolutely perfect morning. The distance of our weekend runs did not matter. What mattered was just the chance to catch up. The fact that we were doing it and running at the same time was almost coincidental.

Cara, Susan and me on the River Don

As lockdown eased and the weather improved, I then somehow signed up for a virtual marathon. I had no intention of running a marathon this year, but as race after race was first cancelled and then some turned into virtual events, I committed to running the Dublin Marathon. My friend Jeanette was training at that point for the Amsterdam Marathon, so almost by accident we began running long every Sunday morning through late Summer and into Autumn. As Amsterdam then fell by the wayside too, Jeanette also signed up for Dublin, and we completed the race in Aberdeen at the end of October.

The joy of knowing the marathon is finished!

On the outside, if you look at our training, everything went really smoothly and on the day itself, we both got round together. That is what the facts and figures prove. Only Jeanette and I know how it really went. Only we have that shared knowledge of the times we struggled, of the days that were rough, of the runs where the last thing we wanted to do was run up that final hill to get home. Numbers tell you one thing, emotion tells you everything else. And that emotion is yours and yours alone.

This weekend I was out running on my own and I came across Cara and Susan out running together. It was so great to see them both, but it brought home to me how much I miss the three of us being able to run together at the same time. The laughs, the jokes, the swearing going up the hill, the relief of the finish, the chat.

A brief catch up with Susan and Cara

What these images illustrate is not the distances I ran. It is not the time. It is not how fast or how slow I went. It is not what gear I wore. It is the shared spirit we all felt. It is the emotion and experience of being together. Yes, it can be about going through the pain. Yes, it can be hard. But it was more than that. It was about us.

We all have had a shared experience this year, such has been the nature of the past nine months or so, but all of us have had unique experiences too and we all need to recognise that. We cope in our own way. Facts and figures spell out one element of my running life and they do mean something to me. But what means much more is what is summarised in these pictures. Friendship, cameraderie, companionship and caring. That is what gets us through a tough run together. It is also what helps us through life.

Habits

On those rainy, windy days, am I going out to run because I am motivated or am I going out simply because I have got into the habit of doing so?

Someone said something to me this week which really struck home. It was in a discussion around getting up early to run. They said, “habit is stronger than motivation” and that got me thinking.

Motivation is something which is very hard to define. Who has it? How do you get it? How do you maintain it? Why do you lose it? Maybe it is something which is just in you and you can pull it out when you need it, but it is certainly something which is quite difficult to quantify.

Clearly, we can all be inspired by something we see or people we know which can then act as a motivating factor in persuading you to do something, but motivation itself is not something you can simply conjure up. Well, not in my experience anyway.

“I am relatively self-motivated”

Now I think I am quite motivated generally, but not for everything. There are some tasks which we all have to do which are just a drudge and no amount of enthusiasm can be drummed up when we are doing something which we dislike. However, in work and life generally, I think I am relatively self-motivated and when it comes to running then yes, I feel very motivated. You do not run marathons or accumulate running medals over various distances without having some kind of inner impetus to do them.

I completely filled my medal hangar which my wife gave me as a Christmas present last year this week. The Great Run Baker’s Dozen Challenge bit of bling – yes, it is a doughnut with a bite out of it – was added to the last available hook on the hangar. Just as well I have asked Santa for a new one.

The medals are tangible proof of my motivation, but also of my habits. I like to think that I achieve things simply by keeping turning up. When it is a day like today where I was lying in bed listening to the rain battering off the window and a gale force blustery wind howling through the tress need my house, it does take a certain get up and go, to get up, lace up and head out the door to get in a few miles.

But this is also where habit comes in and why I found that phrase, “habit is stronger than motivation” so fascinating. Good habits are hard to form. Bad habits are easy to come by. But by establishing a good habit – running regularly for example – then that in itself translates into motivation. So there is a relationship there that I had never really considered before.

On those rainy, windy days, am I going out because I am motivated or am I going out simply because I have got into the habit of doing so?

“a flavour of irregularity”

My running – this year in particular – has become habitual, no doubt about it. While in previous years I did run regularly, because I was used to travelling regularly with work that would always add in a flavour of irregularity to my running schedule. There was no way I could guarantee to run every day if I was going to spend eight, ten, twelve hours travelling to wherever for a work trip. I always had to factor these things in if I was following a training programme for a race and I generally took the view that as long as I did the long run at the weekend, everything else would kind of fall into place.

But this year, of course, because of everything that has happened, I have not travelled for work since early March. While there were some restrictions on exercise in first national lockdown in the United Kingdom, limiting how far you could travel for exercise, I began to run five days a week.

Now I am not saying that you need to run five times a week of course for it to become a habit. Going out twice a week with your mates for a walk or a cycle at the weekend is great; something which just becomes a regular part of your life, something you do without really thinking about it much. It was one of the reasons I enjoyed parkrun. Every Saturday. 9.30am. A 5km run. It was part of the routine.

“That became my routine”

In that first month or so of late March and through April, I was doing 5km five times a week. It was a habit I got into. I varied the course, ran different routes, explored new routes, but this was a way that I got into the habit of running five times a week. During the week I would run at night, at the weekend I would run in the morning. That became the norm.

It also became a bit of a salvation through those dark, early days of the pandemic; a way to switch off from what was going on and to spend half an hour or so out enjoying the fresh air and away from any work or life troubles.

“I did not really think much of it”

From that habit, as restrictions began to ease, I began to run a bit further, slowly building up the distance over time until I got to the point where I was running around the distance of a marathon every week. Not in one go obviously, but through the week, with my five runs, I would get to between twenty five and maybe thirty miles a week. I did not really think much of it, but as I had got into the habit of doing it, I thought I would try and keep that up.

That was back in May, so through June I did the same, beginning to sign up for a few virtual races and distance challenges. These were to motivate me to run, but I got into the habit of looking for races or events to do, including some where I ran (virtually) with friends in other places.

“a bit of post marathon blues”

Since May I have run more than a marathon a week with very few exceptions, even getting as far as fifty two miles in a week at the peak of my marathon training schedule. The only time I have not run the marathon distance was basically when I was tapering for the virtual Dublin Marathon and then the couple of weeks after the race itself. Having gone through a bit of post marathon blues after the race, I fell out of the habit of running five times a week.

On reflection a bit of a break to let my body recover was probably a good thing but the habit of running five times a week kicked in again shortly afterwards and here we are in mid-December and I am still aiming for that marathon distance (and a bit more) every seven days.

At the moment, there are no specific races I am training for. Any real events are months away if not longer, but because I am in the habit of running five days a week, I still want to keep that up. Now to return to my original theme, is that motivation or is it habit? What do you think?