Stick With It

Starting to run is so hard I often wonder why persist? I do not just mean when you have never run before and you are starting out, I also mean when even experienced runners lace up and get going. It can hard to see the light ahead.

Those first few hundred metres or few miles are a fiesta for the protesting body. These can be the times when everything hurts. My lungs, my legs, my knees, my calves, my ankles, my knees, my shins, my toes, my neck, my arms. A chorus of cries to stop, to give up, to rest those aching bones and tight muscles.

It is as if your physical self is engaged in a battle royal with your mental self – each with diametrically opposite requirements. One to thrown in the towel and get back to the house, the other to drive you on further away from the comforts of your sofa or your bed.

“those early agonies”

It is about pushing through those times and actually convincing yourself that those early agonies are going to be a distant memory once you get going. Now, of course, there are times when your body genuinely is telling the truth and not just faking it for the sake of a moan. Knowing when to rest is as important as knowing when to run. But if I am fit and healthy, then it is about my mind winning that early cat and mouse battle with my body and keeping going.

It would be easy to say that – as someone who has been running for a few years now – that this is just what everyone needs to do. You have to force yourself. You have to persist. You have to keep going. But that denies the reality of our experience. None of this is straightforward. It is a learned behaviour. It is firstly about believing, then later, knowing that regardless of how hard those starting miles feel, it will get better. Most of the time.

“I was genuinely fearful”

This is also where you need to believe in yourself. I fully realise that the last few months have motivated some and de-motivated others. I have had low times, no doubt. There have been times I have felt anxious and worried. There have times I have eaten too much. There have been times I have probably drank too much. There were times I was genuinely fearful for what was going to happen. I am still concerned for what the future holds. But running has helped me cope.

Finding that same mental strength which lets me deal with the opening strides of a run has also got me through the last few months. This is not the same for everyone. I am not preaching anything here. All I would do is just urge everyone to have belief, have faith in themselves of what they are capable of. Because I can guarantee, you are far more capable than you think you are.

“Trust yourself, it will get better”

So when you do start your run and your body is protesting, trust yourself, it will get better. And when you get through that initial stage, the rewards can be great. Now getting to this point may take a long time. It is not going to happen overnight and it is definitely not going to happen if you let the doubting voices win. The only thing I can say is persevere.

This was brought home to me last weekend, when I had decided I would go for a long run on my own on Sunday morning. I wanted to run in some places in the city where I had not been running for months because of the lockdown restrictions to exercise close to home.

It was really hard going to start with. The wind was from the south so pretty much straight into my face for most of the first seven and a half miles. At loads of stages I wanted to stop, of course I did, particularly when the weather forecast lied to me again and the rain, which was not due to arrive until after I had finished, actually began after only about twenty minutes of the run.

But as the run went on – pace-wise I was taking it nice and easy, this was about distance and nothing else – those early struggles became a distant memory; left far behind as the miles ticked over. And then by the time I reached the city centre about ten miles in, I reached that part of of a run which makes it all worthwhile.

Everything felt good. My breathing was easy. My body was strong. Nothing was aching. Mentally my thoughts were clear. I was relaxed. Now this feeling does not last forever – I truly wish it did – but when it happens it is transformational. It justifies all the other stuff I go through to get to this point. It erases the pain of those early miles and convinces me I can go further.

This point of run does not happen on every one – in fact, it occurs on very few. On some distances, particularly shorter ones, it never happens. For them it is a case of sucking it up, pulling up my big boy pants and just getting on with it, knowing that when I finish, the endorphins which will be flowing through me at that point will give me the physical and mental strength to justify why I went out in the first place. And why I will go out again.

On the way home, about twelve miles in, five miles to home

Sunday’s run ended up being seventeen miles (27km), probably the longest run I have done since the Barcelona Marathon in March last year. It was hard, of course, but it felt great to get there and also to feel that I had the strength and motivation to go further if I had wanted.

My round the city route

Seventeen was more than enough though, but it has made me think that perhaps I could run another marathon. Who knows when that would be though, as I am very sceptical about racing at all this year, given the current situation. But the important point for me was the sense that the fight through those early metres and miles was so worth it for the benefits it brought. And then there was also this.

Our daughter’s home made Victoria Sponge

Who needs any other motivation than a nice slice of cake at the end? Persevere and there will be rewards – maybe not cake of course but you know what I mean. So if you have never run before, or you have but the motivation has seeped out of you through these last few months and you are going back to the start once more, just keep going. Take it easy. Stick with it.

And for those experienced runners that you see and you think they have it easy because they are always out pounding out the miles? Just know that your struggles are also their struggles. We all start from the same place. Those first few paces are the worst. Get through them and who knows how far we can all go.

Hello Again

Saturday morning. Bright sunshine. Gentle breeze. And three friends meeting up for the simple pleasure of a run together. For the first time in months.

Since the middle of March, the requirements of lockdown have ensured that I have run alone. Sixty five times since then, I laced up, got out and pounded the streets and, occasionally, the trails on my own. I found new routes. I ran in rain. I ran in the dark. I ran in the wind. I ran in the sun. I ran short distances. I ran long distances. I passed four hundred miles for the year, then five hundred, then six hundred. But every single one was done solo.

“No one needs to justify what they have done”

For me, running on my own was ok. It was something I had done for a long time when I first started running so it was not a huge sacrifice to go back to it. Others I know will have run more, others less, some not at all through this period. But all of that is irrelevant. No one needs to justify what they have done, or not done, in term of excercising or running over the recent months. It has to be about coping with how things have gone and making the choices that are right for you.

In Scotland, the restrictions on running with someone from one other household were lifted a few weeks ago, but even then I was still nervous about running with others again. As someone who is asthmatic, I wanted to do all I can to minimise the risk to me and my family from Covid-19. Equally, if I was to have the disease and be unaware I did, then the last thing I wanted to do was run the risk of spreading it unknowingly.

“I felt it was the right time”

But the country has made progress and the number of new cases has continued to fall – with numbers in recent weeks in the region where I live down to single figures per day. Therefore when the announcement was made that the restrictions were being further lifted and it would be possible to run with people from two other households, I felt it was the right time to cross the hurdle and run again with friends.

Running socially has been a strong motivator for me over the past couple of years. It was an unexpected bonus for me from running. I had always gone on my own and it took quite a bit of a push to force myself to sign up to my local JogScotland group back in November, 2018, to help with my training for the Barcelona Marathon.

“a regular appointment to run”

I am not sure what I expected, but what I found was a great bunch of people, an encouraging atmosphere and a good laugh. Tuesdays and Thursdays became a regular appointment to run and that then led to Saturday parkrun and further friendships through that as well. Then all of that came to a halt, until last Saturday morning.

I had, of course, kept in touch with people throughout the last few months, and have even bumped into some when out running or shopping, but no running with anybody. But when the announcement came about the change of the regulations, a couple of friends got in touch and we agreed to meet up and run once more.

Hence the car park on Saturday morning and meeting up with my friends, Susan and Cara. They had been, in fact, the last two people I had run with. Susan at parkrun on a horrible, rainy windy Saturday, then Cara the following day for a long run on a lovely clear Sunday morning.

“less of a chat, more of a shout”

So we meet up, but then we need to figure out how to run. You might think that is daft but with social distancing still paramount, it is not actually that easy to run together. At all times you are thinking about how far apart you are, either to the side on wide pavements or in front and behind. And then, of course, as you are running together. and we had not seen each other for quite a while, you are also trying to have a chat! To be honest, it was less of a chat, more of a shout so all of us could hear.

It was just great to be back together again, enjoying that social contact that has been missing from my running, like so many others, for months. The weather was spectacular, particularly as we ran along Aberdeen beach, one of my favourite places to run. Warm and sunny, not too much breeze and what there was was behind us as we headed back towards the car park.

Susan, Cara and me taking a breather at the beach

Was it the fastest run I have ever done? Was it the furthest run I have ever done? Was it the most scenic? Was it the hilliest? No it was not. It was not any of those things. But was it one of the runs that I enjoyed the most? Most definitely yes.

Does this mean I will only run with company in the future? Definitely not. In fact on Sunday morning I was out in the pouring rain and wind for a ten mile run on my own and my other runs this week have also been by myself. And that is absolutely fine.

Sunday was spectacularly wet…

Running solo is part of who I am as a runner. At its most fundamental level, running is simply you and the distance, no one else is going to do it for you. But running with friends is also part of who I am as a runner. And as that part has been missing for so long, I now feel like I am a more complete runner once again.

Comrades

Every mile in a race is the same distance, but some miles are much further than others.

Sunday mornings are usually my long run days. An early start, quiet streets and lanes and time on my own for a relaxed run of a significant distance. Last Sunday the plan was slightly different and the outcome was a real surprise.

Rather than last Sunday just being another run of anything between eight and fifteen miles, it had a focus. I had signed up to run the Race the Comrades Legends Half Marathon. For anyone who does not know, the Comrades Race is one of the world’s oldest ultramarathons – a 90km (yes 90km!!) run held annually in South Africa. This is a distance which is way beyond my reach but this year, in line with almost everything else, the Comrades Race was cancelled but the organisers devised a virtual event in which runners globally could participate.

A variety of distances were offered – 5km, 10km, 21.1km, 49km and the full 90km – to entice anyone to get involved. I had opted for the 21.1km distance, which is a half marathon of 13.1 miles.

“a very useful source of motivation”

Virtual races are not the same as real races. There is not the atmosphere, the sense of expectation, the crowds, the nerves that get when you turn up on race day, but I have found them a very useful source of motivation through the recent months, and will continue to use them throughout the year. The news this week of further cancellations in the Autumn shows that we are still some way off any major races anytime soon.

But a race is a race, virtual or not, and there was also the prospect of uploading your time and then seeing where you placed in comparison to more than thirty thousand other people who were taking part in the various distances throughout the world. This was something that was more unusual compared to other virtual runs I have done, so I went into it with perhaps more of an eye on time than I would normally do for others.

“My maxim in most things in life is to do my best

In saying that, as I have indicated in recent blogs, I have found it very hard to gauge where my fitness is right now, particularly through lockdown where I have also put on weight. My maxim in most things in life is to do my best, so that was what I was going to do. The other thing was, I could choose my own course.

This involved quite a bit of thought. I am fortunate that I have done a lot of running in my local area and elsewhere in the city so I had a pretty good idea of distances as I began to work out my route. Now yes I now there are apps you can use for that kind of thing, but I was pretty confident that the route I had picked would meet the distance no problem, and would also be fast.

“it would be almost exclusively flat”

This was, in fact, one of the recommendations from the organisers – run on your fastest training course. Challenge accepted, my course would start off flat, head downhill, stay flat, head uphill, back downhill, more uphill, then dowhill and flat. After about the first four miles, it would be almost exclusively flat, something of a rarity for me, and I planned to cross the imaginary line near to where the Aberdeen parkrun finishes at the beach.

The other thing that was going to be in my favour was the weather. Damp, bit drizzly and virtually no wind. Running in Aberdeen, where the setting for wind is “always on” this was a rarity and definitely something to attempt to take advantage of. Let me be clear. My prime aim on Sunday was to finish the race safely. That is always the aim for any race that I do. Time is not everything, it is just about doing your best.

“Running builds confidence, which builds resilience”

But with that in mind, I did go into Sunday hoping to break two hours for the half marathon, something I have done only twice before, but with low expectations. However with favourable weather and a good course, I thought I was in with a chance. Running builds confidence, which builds resilience. Knowing that you can cope with the demands and rigours of a run like a half marathon really only comes from having done it, I believe, so I would give it my best shot.

The other thing I have discovered is that I need to establish a pace early and then aim to hang on if I want to set a fast time. If I get into a fast rhythm I can try to maintain it. If I get into a slow rhythm I find it very difficult to snap out of it and increase speed as I go. A slow start would mean a slow time, so I went out with a definite plan. I have gone into races with a plan before and had to adapt to the conditions and I think it is important to always bear that in mind. When I ran in Barcelona last year at the marathon it was evident early on it was too hot for me to achieve my time so I eased back to make sure I finished.

On Sunday, I got to the end of the first mile in just under nine minutes. This was exactly where I wanted to be. A fast tempo, a quick pace, had been established, but could I maintain it? The first few miles slipped by and not only was my pace on track but so was my estimate of the distance of the course. My planning was also bang on.

“My breathing… was under control”

I got to around 10km, just under halfway, at about fifty three minutes. I was now staying at sub-nine minute mile pace and I felt good. My breathing – something which I struggle with early in a race – was under control. The pace felt demanding but comfortable and by now I was heading towards the city centre on a very long stretch into town.

Miles seven and eight felt ok and at that point I took the gel I had taken with me to give me a boost, psychologically as well as physically, for the miles ahead. Gels do not suddenly kick in for me. I find their effects are felt a few miles after I have taken them so this was to keep me going for the finish.

“it is the last thing that you want”

As I got to mile ten I was almost at the beach, slightly under what I had expected, so a half mile detour around the edge of the harbour area got me back on track and I turned for the long straight right along the beachfront. As I turned, I realised that, for the only time in the entire run I would be running straight into the wind. It was not strong by Aberdeen standards, but when you get to the final few kilometres of run where you are pushing yourself quite hard, then I can assure you, it is the last thing that you want.

I was now checking distance on my watch quite regularly – a bad sign that I was looking for the finish – but I could see I was still on for a good time. In my head I was thinking, “even if I blow up now, my time will still be under two hours”. My own view is that, for me, anything under ten minute miles is good going, so that was how I was rationalising it at that point. A couple of ten minute miles and I would still be under the two.

“the watch was ticking over agonisingly slowly”

Usually I love the views at the beach to distract me from the pain of a run but on Sunday the mist had closed in and there were virtually no views to be had other than cars with lights on emerging from the fog. This part was hard. My legs were feeling it, the wind was in my face, the watch was ticking over agonisingly slowly. There was nothing to indicate the distance. Every mile in a race is the same distance, but some miles are much further than others.

Finally I turned down off the beachfront and I had only a few hundred metres to go. No crowds. No banners. No finish line to aim for. Just me, in my head, trying to push on. Every glance at my watch now seemed to just inch me forward. “How long is this going to take?” I thought. On and on I seemed to have to keep going. And then I was done. I past thirteen point one miles (I actually waited until I got to thirteen point thirteen miles before stopping my watch just in case it had measured incorrectly) and I stopped. One hour fifty one minutes and forty two seconds.

I was on my own, there was no one with me. There was no one around. There was no one to put a medal around my neck. There was no one to say well done. There were no cheers. It was pretty deserted. A quiet, foggy, damp morning. And even with all of that and at the risk of looking like a total idiot, I raised my arms and punched the air. I was in my own bubble and I did not really care. Running is you against the distance. Pure and simple. And on this day, I felt like I had won the battle.

That finish line feeling….

Now came the hard bit. I had finished down at the beach. I still had to make my way home. After thirteen and a bit miles of hard graft, I now faced two and a half miles of pretty solid uphill climbing to get back to the house. I was sorely tempted to phone my wife, but no, I ran and walked my way home. It was torture.

This was not fun

I then uploaded my time to the official website and received my finisher’s certificate and virtual medal. I definitely found knowing that I was part of a bigger event that was being done by thousands of others across not just the UK but in many countries across the world acted to spur me on.

The virtual medal and finisher’s certificate

Running is such an individual thing. The challenge is for you and you alone and you should never compare yourself to anyone else. However, when I looked at my result, I was even more amazed to see how I finished overall. My rankings in each of the categories far exceeded my expectations.

Finishing high in each category was a real bonus

Now, a few caveats about all of this. I know that this is not an official time. This is not something measured by a chip on a course which is of a verified distance. This is why I think I will look on this as an unofficial PB. The other thing, of course, is that I chose the course very much to suit me (as per the organiser’s instructions) so I also have to bear that in mind.

But in saying all of that, I am still really pleased with the effort, even more so when I began to break down the run and looked at my splits. There was a consistency of effort across the entire race. As I mentioned earlier, establishing that pace and rhythm early was what set up everything else. I think what also helped was that I had low expectations and did not put too much pressure on myself before the run. Sometimes yjust surprise yourself

It is likely to be some time before I receive my medal for real from this race – probably a few months – but I will look forward to getting it for the memories it someyi LG.will evoke. Running is about many things. It is about fitness and it is about friendship. It is about challenging yourself. But I also believe that running (and life) is also about creating great memories. Sunday provided me with another one of them.

Unsteady

Discovering new routes has been one of the unexpected benefits of the past few months, but it has also convinced me of something else. I really do not ever think I will be a confident trail runner.

The vast majority of my running has been on the road and it is only really in the last year or so that I have ran on anything remotely like a trail. This started with my JogScotland group last Spring and Summer as we took advantage of the light nights and the better weather to run along the riverside and through the forests and moors close to where I live.

Do not get me wrong, I love the views and the experience that you get from running in some beautiful places, but unfortunately therein lies the problem. I feel so unsure of my footing that I seem to spend the entire time looking down at my feet so I can avoid the next rabbit hole, tree root, stone or any other of the myriad things which could so easily trip me up, thereby missing the self-same views I should be enjoying.

A beautiful trail path but with hidden dangers

So rather than that exhilaration which I get when I run along the beachfront in Aberdeen and enjoy looking out to sea and the boats which are sitting just off the coast, I tend to feel anxious, worried that I am going to go head over heels at any given moment. I just cannot seem to relax.

The other thing is, that while I am spending all of my time concentrating my hardest at not breaking my ankle any time soon, I also run at an absolute snail’s pace. Take this breakdown of a run this week for example. No prizes for guessing which of the parts of the run were on the road and which were not.

A mixed road and trail run

I realise that I should not necessarily expect my pace to be the same between the two surfaces, but on this run my fastest mile was actually on the section coming back up the hill, including the steepest section of all. If that does not tell you something about how gingerly I tackle trails then I do not know what will.

A lot of this stems back to when I injured myself falling a couple of years ago. Now this fall was in a car park when I tripped over a kerbstone while running, so nothing to do with trails, but I think it has given me a bit of a phobia about falling when I am out. I also think the way I run is not ideal for trails as I do not have a particularly high knee lift so I think I am susceptible to tripping on tree roots which stick out from the ground.

A lot of this is probably just in my head – like a lot of things to do with running I suppose – but try as I might, I just cannot seem to find it within me to run fast when I am off road, even when I am going downhill. It is just a constant battle to stay upright. Maybe I should just persevere but for the moment at least, I definitely continue to favour running on the road.

And running on the road does not mean just venturing around the same routes. Last weekend I fancied doing about ten miles on Sunday morning so I spoke to some friends and explored a route which they had run before, taking me out on some quiet country roads. I am still not sure if this is purely to do with the lockdown but thankfully there was no traffic as these are roads with no pavements. The route took my up to cross over the relatively new bypass which was opened last year around Aberdeen.

There is always something to enjoy when you take on a new route – whether it is the scenery or the simple joy of not knowing what the route is going to be like. That feeling of experiencing the unfamiliar for the first time is hard to beat. Part of the reason I wanted to do this route was also that on Sunday morning the forecast was for it to be quite windy, coming from the north. This route took me out to the north, so I ended up with a tailwind coming back in. Thank goodness I did, as the course, was, shall we say, a tad undulating.

The course elevation

None of the hills were massive – I know people run way tougher routes than this – but it did make me think at times that there are virtually no flat places anywhere around where I live. I think that is another reason why I like the beachfront so much. It is flat as a pancake.

Otherwise, it has just been another week of pounding out the miles on the start of my journey to complete the challenge to run the distance to the International Space Station. My running at the moment is solid, if not spectacular, but that is good enough for me.

My focus is on the virtual Comrades Half Marathon I have planned for Sunday. The Comrades Race is usually held in South Africa and is the world’s oldest ultramarathon – a 90km annual race. I will never be a good enough runner to compete in it, but as it has been cancelled this year, a virtual event has been set up with various distances available, not just the full 90km.

My bib for the race

I am very unsure about what kind of shape I am in at the moment, for all the reasons I outlined in my blog last week so I am not sure how things will go in the event. I would love to get close to two hours for the half but we shall see. At least I can plan my own course, and that is not going to involve anything that remotely resembles off-road.

Bodytalk

This is a blog that I have wanted to write for a long time, but for a variety of reasons I could never find the right time to do it. Now, maybe, is the right time. The subject? I want to talk about male body image.

In the early days of lockdown a friend of mine told me that he had seen something online that at “at the end of this, we are all going to come out of lockdown as one of three things. A hunk, a chunk or a drunk.” Like everybody else when I heard that for the first time I burst out laughing. It was so true and it set out one of the challenges we have all faced over the past few months. How to stay healthy when life has been turned upside down?

“more likely to be a chunk than a hunk”

While his story was light-hearted banter, it also set me thinking, about who would I emerge as. I did not think I would come out as a drunk (though I have had a few more glasses of wine during the week than I would normally) but more likely to be a chunk than a hunk. You see, I have struggled with my weight for most of my life. I have always been tall and was big for my age, but you do not get a nickname at primary school of “Tubby” unless you are used to putting away a few good puddings.

As I went through my teenage years I thinned out. I grew taller, my weight stayed the same, I played a lot of sport – five a side football, basketball, badminton – so I was pretty fit. That stayed the same until I got into my twenties then for various reasons the weight started to creep up once more. Life changed, lifestyle changed. Pounds were added.

“no desire to keep on going”

In my early thirties I did a bit more exercise, I began running, culminating in a few 10ks and the Great North Run in 2003 which, ironically, probably put me off running for the next fifteen years or so. Not because it was such a horrible experience, but more that it was the culmination of a goal and after doing that, there was definitely no desire to keep on going or to achieve something else. I really had not trained properly for it so while I went in thinking that this might be the stepping stone on to running a marathon, when I got to the end the prospect of turning around and running back put me right off. The habit of regular exercise faded away as it had in my twenties.

Into my late thirties and forties and a job where I traveled internationally almost every week so staying in hotels, eating out, enjoying the delights of airline lounges and before I knew it I was the heaviest I had ever been, was heading toward fifty and there seemed to be nothing I could do to stop it.

“it has transformed my life”

Thankfully, about four and a half years now I resolved to make a change. I lost weight, I began running again and this time I believe it has transformed my life. In the last couple of years I have become fitter than I have ever been in my life and all of my best times for running distances were all set last year. Times far quicker than anything I achieved when I ran previously.

But even after all of this, whenever I look in the mirror, I still see a fat guy staring back at me. You may think this is stupid. I have managed, since 2016, to keep fit and healthy. Yes my weight has gone up and down a bit since I got to my lowest weight in around June of that year, but it is nowhere near where it was at the end of 2015.

So why then am I talking about it now? I think there is a huge – and totally unnecessary – focus on the issue of weight and body image in women, but I think there is similar, yet understated, pressure on men. It is less obvious, particularly for middle aged men, yet as important. This recent period has seen a huge focus on mental health issues and for me, this is about self-esteem.

I am never going to be a guy with a six pack or bulging muscles from doing the weights at the gym, and to be honest, I do not want to be that guy either. I just want to feel healthy and fit. I think, in my case, it is pressure from within.

“it is a fear”

It is a desire not to go back to being that guy who could barely walk up a couple of flights of stairs without feeling seriously out of breath. It is a fear of returning to the days when I would be embarrassed to try on clothes in case they did not fit me. It is not wanting to turn down invitations for events because I am worried that I will meet someone who knew me before I got fat.

Now I know full well that in comparison to where I was in 2015 I am not fat, but I equally know that I am not as thin as I was at this point last year. Since lockdown I have continued to run regularly, usually five times a week, but I fear that is masking the additional eating and drinking that I have done while in the house. The temptations are always there – peanuts, biscuits and cakes are my big downfall – and ironically NOT being away has meant that there have been no breaks from the routine. Usually when I travel, I am really strict about what I eat and drink but that is, of course, not happening, and there is no short-term prospect of that changing either.

“Does that really matter?”

So all of this has made me worried, I am not going to lie. That is why, on top of my usual running routine, I feel the need to re-focus on my diet and my weight once more. Because if I am lighter than I will be quicker, right? And if I am lighter than my running will be easier, right? Does that really matter? I realise people are much more occupied with their own health worries and concerns than about what I look like or how fast I run so if no-one else cares why should I?

Well it’s because I do not want that fat guy that I see staring out at me when I look at the mirror to actually be the guy who is staring in. I think I will always feel like I am that fat guy, I do not know if that will ever change. What can change is that I can know that I have done all I can to be the healthy and happy guy that I hope others see. And if I know that, then what others think is irrelevant. It is about the inner voice, the voice that can bolster you up or take you down. It is about being positive about who I am and what I have, and can, achieve.

“I believe that this is is a dip”

Everything is wrapped up in how I perceive myself, not what anyone else thinks or believes. I have run marathons, I know, really know, deep down, how hard things can be at low times. I hope this is not one of those times. I believe that this is a dip. But it is a dip which has come at a low time for many of us.

For anyone else who thinks that “this is it”. That things are as they are and they cannot change. For anyone who doubts themselves. Know that you are not alone. I have gone through these thoughts so many times in my head over the years. Have the faith and belief in yourself about what you are capable of, because I can assure you, you are capable of far more. I need to find a bit more of that faith right now.

And if we all believe that, then we can all understand the struggles we all go through, the challenges we have to overcome and how much stronger we all will be having emerged to the other side. These are tough days, yes, but these are great days, because these are your days. They are the only days we get.

Feeling

Sometimes I run for pace. Sometimes I run for distance. Sometimes I run for both. And sometimes I run and just see how I feel.

If the first few weeks of lockdown were all about running less, as lockdown restrictions have been eased slightly, the last few weeks have been about slowly building things up once again, adding miles and extending the time spent running once more.

This culminated last week when I decided that I would go for a long Sunday run, really for the first time since the middle of March before the start of the restrictions in the United Kingdom. It was not a decision I had taken lightly and I have had to wrestle with my conscience in recent weeks about the purpose and the reason for running, but I felt that, as the situation is slowly improving that it would be ok to go long once more.

“I did not want to overcook things”

I set out with no specific plan for distance, something between ten miles and thirteen miles would be more than enough. Given that the furthest I had run since March was only eight miles, I did not want to overcook things and push myself too hard, either on pace or on distance. As the weather forecast was good, I was also keen to run early before it became too warm. Running in the heat is not my favourite, so I had to take this into consideration as well.

I am continuing to run on my own at the moment, but I am still retaining my motivation to get out and do it, so it was not too harsh when my alarm went off at 6am and I got up for what used to be a very familiar routine. Up, breakfast of granola and orange juice, back to bed for half an hour, up and out around 7am.

“I struggled to settle”

It was a beautiful morning but it was also one where I was apprehensive. I was very unsure how things would go and as I struggled to settle on the first few miles I was beginning to doubt how far I would actually be able to go. Ironically, what happened to make me feel a bit better and more confident was the first of a couple of hills on the route.

I took it pretty easy up them but what I was happy about was how quickly I was able to recover. I do find that, on long runs, I actually feel more comfortable after getting a hill out of the way. I am not sure if it is because during the hill part my heart rate goes up, and the effort increases, that when I get it done and my heart rate slows, I really “feel” much better. Now, this may be psychosomatic as much as anything else but it has nothing to do with the time or the distance my fitness watch or any app or anything like that. It is purely about how I feel in myself.

As my breathing eases and my muscles relax in the wake of the hill, I seem to get stronger. I begin to convince myself that I can do what I set out to do. I will be able to do the distance I had planned. This physical change prompts a mental change, a positive outlook, an inner determination that this run is not going to defeat me. That this run, on this day, is going to be beneficial to me in every sense – physical and mental.

Passing King’s College Chapel in Old Aberdeen in the early morning

Running through the city down towards the harbour area, those feelings surged through me. While I use a Fitbit for tracking my running, more recently I have been looking at it really just to check on distance, not pace. I think when I cut back on my distance at the start of lockdown I did focus a bit more on pace. Running regular 5kms on a similar route forces you down that way of thinking.

Now it was more about just checking how far I had gone. I have run these routes before so I always had a reasonable idea but it is just good to check. What was also happening though was that the temperature was beginning to rise. There was barely a cloud in the sky as I reached one of my favourite places to run – the beachfront of Aberdeen. This is somewhere that I have not run at for more than two months, so it felt fantastic to get there again and see the stunning view looking north on a picture perfect day.

Aberdeen beach from Footdee

This represented just more than halfway, as I know it is around six miles from this point home. I had also just bumped into another runner from my JogScotland group and it was great to have a chat with him as he set off on his own long run too. At this point I was thinking that I could squeeze out the run to half marathon distance, if I still felt ok. What I also knew was that the last three miles of my run would be uphill back home, and again I had concerns how that would go.

When I got to that point, once again, it was all about just how I felt. And you know what, I eased back the pace, breathed deeply and slowly ploughed up the hill. The further up I got, the less tough it felt. Again, it was all about running for feel, not for pace, not for distance, just about being ok with the effort I was putting my body through. So much so, that as I got towards home I decided to extend my run and went beyond half marathon distance all the way up to fourteen miles. And you know what? I felt like I could have gone further.

“another great motivating force”

I would never have predicted this when I set out, unsure and uncertain about how I would cope with a return to longer distances once again. The fourteen miles also took my weekly mileage up to forty miles, by far the furthest I have run in a good few months. It also capped off my final effort for May’s Miles for Mind charity run, another great motivating force.

I think what the run taught me was the importance of belief and having faith in my own ability to handle long runs and to deal with the mental challenges that it poses. Running distances builds resilience, builds confidence, builds trust in yourself. Simply believing that you can achieve something can get you a long way towards actually achieving it.

This week I also received another charity medal, for a virtual run I did a few weeks ago to raise money for NHS charities. This will also serve as a reminder of this extraordinary period in our lives. I have also signed up to another distance challenge, this one to race the distance to the International Space Station. As this is more than two hundred and fifty miles, it will take me some time to achieve but it is another target to aim for, another motivating goal.

This week I have cut the mileage back a bit and continued to run on my own as I mentioned. Perhaps this week I will arrange a socially distant run with a friend. Who knows? This will be another important step as we hopefully head towards more normality in all of our lives. And I will do it because it feels right.

Reflections

Milestones are usually occasions to celebrate. To reflect on targets reached and mark achievements attained. An opportunity to sit back, look at what you have done, enjoy the reward which you have strived for and assess how far you have come. This week, I reached three separate milestones, but not all of them were ones to shout from the rooftops.

First, the positive ones. Shortly after the start of lockdown I signed up for the Miles for Mind running challenge to run a certain distance through the month of May to raise money for the mental health charity, MIND. I signed up for fifty miles, as I was really unsure what lockdown would mean for my running at that point.

As it has turned out, running has had the added advantage of helping my own mental health through this period and while I reached my initial fifty mile target easily, I have carried on and this week passed the one hundred mile mark for the month. This is a by product of the decision I took a few weeks back to slowly increase the mileage that I am running, both on individual runs and also overall. For the past few weeks this has now crept past marathon distance each week by extending my runs up to six, then seven and now eight miles.

A fist pump to mark one hundred miles in May

All of these things add up. One of my important mantras, not just for running but also in my professional career, is this. Just. Keep. Turning. Up. It is amazing what you can learn and what you can do, simply by doing that. I am a very ordinary runner. Not fast. Not elegant. Not long. But I am pretty consistent and I keep turning up. Simply doing that means my running totals mount up.

Milestone one. More than one hundred miles for the month. Milestone two? My combined running distance for the year passed five hundred miles this week. Last year I ran a total of twelve hundred and fifty miles in the year and this year I set out with an ambition to match that. Given that we have no races to train for, I have certainly gone through phases where I have felt that this is no longer attainable, but who knows? At the moment, I remain on track. Again, just keep turning up, the miles tick away.

I cannot stress enough, particularly to anyone who is new to running or who has maybe done a programme to get to 5k or 10k and wonders about going forward, running is about consistency. It is about just going out and doing it. Yes, you can dress everything up with facts and figures, you can buy all the fancy gear that you like, but when it comes down to it, it is just about lacing up, getting out and doing it. Like most things in life. You can prevaricate all you like about what you want to achieve, it is achieving it that proves you can actually do it.

“not really one that I ever wanted”

And that brings me to my third, and final, milestone. This is not really one that I ever wanted, or even thought, I would reach. After the cancellation of the Paris half marathon at the start of March, we had a couple of weeks where it was still ok to run in groups or races. By the time we got to the middle of March, it was becoming apparent that even that would need to end in order to protect us from the spread of coronavirus.

As someone who is asthmatic, I made the decision to run on my own to protect myself and others from the virus, so on the evening of Tuesday, March 17, I went out on my own for a run and I began tagging my runs on Strava, the running app I use to record my training, as such.

Solo run number one

It was a very ordinary 5k run on a route I had done many, many times before. I guess at that point I did not really know how many solo runs I would do. I probably thought I would do about twenty, maybe thirty at a push, before we would be back together again. Running on my own was nothing new, it was something I did routinely for a long time before joining my JogScotland group and I still often run on my own anyway. However,the cameraderie, friendship, encouragement and just good fun was something I had grown to regard as essential to my running routine.

But here we are, more than two months on and the other milestone I passed this week? I have now passed more than fifty runs on my own. Fifty. In fact, my total now is fifty one. I am not saying that throughout this period every run I would have done would have been with other people, but a fair proportion of them would have been without a doubt.

Solo run number fifty

Now, I realise you could see this as a positive. I found the determination, the drive to get myself out and run at a time when it would have been easy to find excuses not to run, to become demotivated. There have also been other benefits. I have found new running routes, explored trails and parts of the countryside around where we live that I have never discovered before and taken advantage of quiet country roads to find new ways to mix up my running routine.

“all of that lost for now.”

But while I recognise all of that, I really do not think it is a milestone to view in any other way than one which is quite sad. It is one to reflect on the runs in that time I would have enjoyed with my friends, the races I would have taken part in (Liverpool Half Marathon for example), the parkruns at Aberdeen beach that would have kept me onwards toward my goal or reaching fifty parkruns in total, the Sunday morning long runs with my pals. All of that lost for now.

It has also made me think very deeply about how fortunate I have been to have run the races I have done. My two marathons in particular, but every single race in which I have competed. The halfs, the 10ks, the 5ks,the 8ks,. All of them shared experiences. All of them the end result of so much hard work simply to get to the start line.

“waves of emotion”

During the lockdown this week I went through the album my wife gave me for Christmas where I keep all of my running bibs and I wrote out the event, the date, the distance and my time. Waves of emotion washed over me through that as I looked at every bib and recalled the events of each day.

Here we are then, at the end of May and certainly some time away from any kind of group running. Socially isolated runs with people from another household are now being allowed in Scotland, so I hope this week coming will mark the conclusion of my solo runs. It will not end them completely of course, but at least it will break them up and I can run with one friend at a time on occasion.

I do not think any of us know how we will come to reflect and remember this extraordinary period in all of our lives. What I know is that I have a permanent record of my solo runs, a reminder of what we have gone through and some sacrifices made (though I realise my sacrifices are nothing compared to others). And some milestones which highlight the benefits of the mantra. Just. Keep. Turning. Up.

Together Alone

The shared joy of running together, apart. How an international 8k run brought five runners in four countries together.

This weekend should have seen me line up with my friend Rob and thousands of others and take on the Rock n Roll Half Marathon in Liverpoool. Sadly, it is not to be. But if we cannot run together physically, is running together, but apart, any kind of substitute? After my experience last weekend I would argue that it definitely is.

Last Sunday morning, a Scotsman (me), a Welshman (Rob), an Irishman in England (Mike), an Italian (Roberto) and an Englishman (Jon) all laced up at the same time and ran together. It was a special day.

The reason for the run was to raise money for charity. All of us work in the media industry and most of us would normally attend a large trade show in Las Vegas in April. It was, of course, cancelled, but what was also cancelled was the 4k charity run which is a feature of the week. Ironically I am usually too busy with work to make the run but this year the organisers decided to make it a virtual run which anyone could enter.

They offered both a 4k or an 8k option so we plumped for the longer run. We are all very much runners of differing abilities but we all pledged to do the distance and to do it together, while being apart. Jon opted to do the 4k distance and it was great to have him involved too.

Now this whole concept might seem a bit artificial – and you are right, it was – but simply knowing that all of us were going to be running at the same time was enough. While I knew everyone, some of the other guys did not know each other, so we set up a Whatsapp group during the week so we could all do the introductions before the race itself. I have run with all of the guys before with the exception of Roberto – and he and I had provisionally planned to run in Las Vegas before the cancellation took place – so this was a chance to do that in another form.

“A run with other people is always a bit competitive”

We decided to start at 8am UK time (this would be 9am for Roberto in Italy so the heat would be beginning to build for him unfortunately) and we agreed it would not be a race. Now, knowing that we are all a bit competitive some of us took this with a pinch of salt. A run with other people is always a bit competitive now isn’t it? But more of that later.

It could not be a real race, of course, as all of us would be running different courses, different elevation and different weather conditions. What was special about it was simply the spirit which had brought us all together to run.

The race organisers had put race bibs online that you could download to wear on the day and even signs for the course and the finish line. While we did not go that far, most of us had our bibs with our names on as we prepared to start. Chip timing was not involved….

The difference in weather conditions was pretty stark – in Italy Roberto would have to contend with temperatures already in the mid 20sC (mid 70sF), while in England and Wales conditions were ideal and for me in Scotland? Well, for me in Scotland, it was pouring with rain. Qu’elle surprise, eh? I actually like running in the rain and thankfully the wind which had plagued my running recently had died down so this was almost ideal for me as well.

“Not quite the same sense of excitement.. of a real race

As the clock approached 8am, on the WhatsApp group I gave a two minute, then a one minute countdown, before saying “Go!!” as the clocked ticked to 8am. Then it was a case of fumbling to get my phone in my pocket, start my watch then off we went. Not quite the same sense of excitement, the bustle of the crowd, the walk to the start line of a real race but it was good enough. And let’s be honest, it was nice to do a race with no queue for the toilets!

Of course, we were alone, but none of us were truly by ourselves. I definitely found as I ran that I was thinking of the other guys and wondering what they were seeing and doing at that point. What was Rob’s course like, how was Mike feeling feeling, how hot it was for Roberto, how was Jon getting on? For me, I was just thinking about whether the rain would stop!

How wet it was for me was driven home as I passed a couple out walking their dog on the moors as I headed up the hill at about the 5k mark. As I ran by them I looked down and realised that my bib had pretty much fallen apart in the deluge and was hanging on by a thread. I ripped it off but kept it in my hand. Well, there was no bin to put it was there? Any analogies about my running falling apart like my bib at around the 5k mark were pretty much bang on as well!!

On we ploughed – me through the rain which was now starting to ease off thankfully, Roberto in the heat, Jon, Rob and Mike on a perfect day for running – and a few minutes later we were done and began messaging each other to say that we had finished. Within a few minutes Mike, myself, Rob and Roberto all messaged in and sent pictures from our various finish finish lines.

Naturally, the first reaction was to find out who had been fastest? Yes, we said it was not a race but you know, we are all a bit competitive. So Mike took that honour with a great time, but the truth is, this genuinely was a race where time was irrelevant. What was important was the spirit which brought us together.

And talking of spirit, nothing encapsulated that better than Jon messaging us to let us know that he had finished – and he had run the 8k as well!! Double what he had planned and one of his longest runs ever. In terms of achievement, this was fantastic and really summed up how important and motivating running with friends can be, even when we cannot run together.

Jon celebrating the end of his run

We are all very different people. We all live in different places. We all have different interests. But we were brought together by a love of running and a wish to do something to help others. When this is all over, I am sure we will run together and then we can do the one other thing that you cannot do when doing a virtual race. At the end we will sit down and we will talk and joke and laugh about our runs and have a beer together to celebrate. Cheers!

Turn it up

I know this time will end, we just do not know when yet, and until it does, I think it is important we all do what we feel is right to help us to get through it.

I went out for a run this week and I thought, “screw it, I have not been with these people for a long time, I am going to get them to come with me.”

At the start of the covid crisis in the UK, I began to log all of the runs I was doing as solo runs on Strava, the running app I use to track my training and races. As of now I am now up to forty two runs on my own with no prospect of that changing any time soon. But that does not mean that runs need to be lonely.

So this week, I started off and Hannah and Jo and some of their friends were with me for a few minutes. After they faded, then I was joined by Bryan and Mel. I love Bryan and Mel, such good company, but only for a few minutes. After they left, then it was time for Florence to make an appearance. Now I can only take Florence in short bursts but thankfully she came along with her mate Calvin so that made it all the more bearable.

“Could I recall her name?”

The run was flying by at this point, all of them adding to the enjoyment and by then I was on a downhill part of the course I had planned out before I went. Time to step things up then, and then there was this bunch who joined me, but for the life of me I could remember the girl’s name. I knew her mum. Her mum was an actress in The Bill. Could I recall her name though? I was feeling embarrassed by this stage but, like the rest, she was only with me for about four minutes before she had to go too.

I was really hoping that Dave and Taylor and their pals would make an appearance at this point but no, there was no sign of them sadly. However Katie showed up and that kept my spirits up as we all moved through mile two and onto mile three. Now in the third mile there was a bit of a hill coming up, so who would step up the plate and help me get through this? Would it be Michael, Bill, Peter and Mike? Would it be Taylor on her own? Would it be Bernard and Pete from Manchester? Or even Johnnie and his mates?

“we dug in against the wind”

As it turned out it was a girl from New Zealand who suddenly arrived and together we dug in against the wind and pushed our way up the hill, over the speed bumps in the road, fighting against the wind all the way before reaching the crest and turning, wind behind, towards the final stretch and back home. Running with her always takes me back to running in Dublin when I ran in the park in the early morning and we enjoyed our brief spell together there.

The only problem at this point was that it was becoming increasingly difficult to hear what she was staying. So I paused, readjusted my headphones and we carried on, with Lorde’s voice clear as crystal and “Green Light” kept me on track as I struck out on those final few hundred metres. It has been ages since I have run with music on. What a pleasure it was to be joined by them all once more.

“a break from the monotony, something different”

Now you did not think I was ACTUALLY running with people now did you? Lockdown in Scotland still bans things like that and I am still strictly following the rules but running with music gave me a bit of a boost, a break from the monotony, something different, to keep me going this week.

I used to run with music all the time, but switched to running without headphones a couple of years ago. It took a while to get used to but I much prefer it now, I am much more attuned to my body and the surroundings and I can think a lot more clearly without headphones in now when I am running. But I have not heard much music during these past few weeks – I usually listen when I am travelling and there is nothing like that going on right now – so I thought I would change things up and stick my earbuds in once more.

My run was quite short, around three and half miles, so I only got through a few songs. There was no Stone Roses, no The Las, no REM, no New Order. All of them can be saved for another day, another run, when I feel like I need some company but no company can come with me.

“it is important we all do what we feel is right…”

Music has helped me get through a lot in life, particularly when I have been away from family and friends for long periods of time through work. I think it can now help me continue to get through this bizarre period in all of our lives. I know this time will end, we just do not know when yet, and until it does, I think it is important we all do what we feel is right to help us to get through it.

This week I have done a virtual 10k race where I pushed myself pretty hard. I have often wanted to run in one of the RunThrough events in London – particularly the one in the Olympic Park as that place holds very special memories of when I worked there during the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics. As all events are cancelled, they are doing virtual events so I ran 10k for the Virtual Olympic Park run they held this week. It has been a long time since I pushed hard on a run so it was good to know that I have not lost all of my pace over the past few months.

It was not the same as running past the stadium, the swimming arena, the velodrome of course, but I live in a lovely part of the world so that was compensation enough.

I also arranged a virtual run with a couple of friends, Susan and Cara, from my running group. We were not going to run together, or do the same course or even the same distance. Just three of us running at the same time as a way of encouraging each other out. As it happened I bumped into one of my friends, Cara, on the run and it was so lovely to have a brief, socially distant chat with her for the first time in a couple of months.

This confirmed to me again what a supportive bunch runners are – always there to cheer others on – and that has also continued on Twitter with the Miles for Mind challenge I am doing throughout the month. I have already passed the target of 50 miles that I set a few weeks back so any extra miles I do will be donated to others who perhaps cannot get out as much. I even saw some other local wildlife when I was out this week.

Another virtual run beckons tomorrow, but more of that next week. For the moment, I have my virtual musical friends still ringing in my ears and my other running friends very much with me in spirit too. We will get through this.

Liberating

I had bottled things up for a few weeks and had begun to view it as unhealthy. but now my mind is at ease and I can enjoy the physical and mental benefits of running once more.

Last week I was full of angst and anxiety about my running. Balancing the desire to run further with the need to stay safe and to remain within the lockdown rules was really getting to me. And it would appear I was not alone, judging by the reaction to my blog.

A number of people contacted me to say they felt the same, that what I was doing was sensible and proportionate and that I should not feel guilty about running a bit further. As a consequence, I have had such a positive week.

I have not gone crazy with my distance. I have not suddenly decided I am going to go out and bang in a half marathon or even get into double figures with my runs. I am still being sensible, but I have upped my distance on some of my runs to around the 10km mark. I can do this and still stay relatively close to home – one of my prime objectives at the moment – and that is important to me.

“I had bottled things up… and begun to view it as unhealthy”

If I am totally honest, just writing down how I was feeling was liberating. I had bottled things up for a few weeks and had begun to view it as unhealthy. I needed to have that release to express how things were, though I was very nervous about publishing the post at all. I always think when you write something, you are giving away a piece of yourself, revealing a bit about who you really are and that can be difficult at times to deal with.

It is my choice to write the blog. No one is forcing me to do it, but I enjoy the creative challenge it poses and it gives me another outlet and interest beyond work and running. But whenever I write, there is always that slight hesitance to hit the publish button. Last week, I was more hesitant than ever. But I am so glad that I did.

“I have signed up to a variety of virtual races..”

The weather this week has remained generally good so that has also helped – not that weather in Aberdeen is anything to be relied on and I have run in all kinds – but getting things off my chest and seeing the reaction to it has made me much more positive about what lies ahead. So much so that I have signed up to a variety of virtual races, something I often use as a source of motivation.

I had previously signed up to a couple of events – Miles for Mind, which is a month long distance challenge raising money for a mental health charity, and the Cinco de Mayo challenge, this was to run either a 5k in May. The reason I had signed up to that one was because my wife really liked the medal. Well last weekend I ran the 5k distance and to my surprise the medal arrived during the week. It really is a cracker!

While this was a bit of fun, the Miles for Mind Challenge has a more serious aim -as I mentioned to raise money but also awareness of mental health issues – and this runs for the whole month. I am part of a virtual team on Twitter (twittarunrs) who are all motivating each other through the month and it is incredible how great that can be. These are people whom I have never met and only know through social media but everyone is cheering each other on. I know Twitter in particular gets a lot of deserved criticism at times, but I have found the running community there to be enormously positive and supportive throughout all my challenges and issues.

As it is a distance challenge, I signed up to do 50 miles as I joined in the middle of the lockdown but I now hope to run more than this and to donate any extra miles to other members of the team who perhaps struggle to get out or do not hit their own goal. We are all in this together and it is great to help others, even in a virtual way.

“an unintended bonus…”

Normally in April I attend a large trade show in Las Vegas, but this year, of course, it was cancelled. At the trade show there is always a 4k charity run but unfortunately because of my work schedule I can never actually run in it. This year, the organisers have made this a virtual charity race – either for 4k or for 8k – so one unintended bonus of the cancellation is that for the first time I can actually take part.

I have signed up for the 8k, as have a couple of friends, so we are going to work out a date and time and we are going to run it together – virtually. One friend is in Italy, another is in Wales and I am in Scotland. We will work out a date and time and then head out. Another great way to keep motivated and support each other. While I am sure runners everywhere are missing their running buddies just now and that common sense of fun and enjoyment that comes from the shared pain (and joy) of running together, this lets us recreate it in another way. Not saying it is the same, but it is, at least, one way of getting together. I have also signed up to a short challenge to raise money for National Health Service charities here in the UK and another distance challenge in July.

“important to build things up slowly..”

One thing about upping my mileage this week has been that, for the first time in quite a while, my legs have felt pretty tired. It is a good tired though, and one that I am sure I will quickly overcome. It has also reminded me that it will be important to build things up slowly when I feel ready to run long distances again and not go crazy with an immediate desire to bash out Sunday morning long run once again of maybe ten plus miles.

Along with the nice weather there have been great views again for me to enjoy. My longer runs take me over to the other set of moors not far from my house and the colours there at this time of year, particularly the vivid yellow of the gorse at the moment is something to savour. I am not sure if it is just the current circumstances of what is going on in the wider society but I feel quite aware of everything when I am out running at the moment, realising how fortunate I am to have what I have in general and the sights and feelings I experience when I am outside in particular.

In total this week, I will have run more than twenty miles. Not a big total for me in the grand scheme of things but quite a bit further than I have been running for the previous six weeks of the lockdown. I am still staying safe. I am still running solo. I am still following all the rules of social distancing and limiting myself to going out only once a day. But that extra bit of mileage has set my mind at ease and allowed me to enjoy the benefits to my physical and mental health that running can bring. Thanks to everyone who responded last week. It truly does mean a lot.