Sunday, 18 January 2015

I Climbed a Mountain!

I haven’t blogged for a while. Maybe it’s a good idea to fill y’all in.

Some time during spring 2013, I sat on the sofa in my tiny apartment in Gothenburg, where I was studying at the time, and had a Skype interview to be an Adventure Leader for Student Adventures. I awkwardly rambled on about a school trip to Malawi in 2009 and a 10k race I’d recently stumbled through. For some reason they gave me a shot and the next thing I knew I was in charge of recruiting and coordinating the participants for a charity trek to Everest Base Camp. 

I returned to Plymouth that autumn and felt slightly crazed with motivation. I was out of the house at 6.30am each day and not returning until midnight - cooped up in the library writing letters, spamming social media, putting up posters, handing out fliers. We had an Adventure Leader training weekend somewhere in the shropshire countryside and as well as walking away with a raging hangover wearing odd shoes, I felt so inspired that I didn’t know what to do with myself. 

To some extent that continued. In April 2014, I was invited to the Plymouth University Societies and Volunteering Awards where I was awarded Highly Commended for Dedication to Volunteering. It was, without being too cheesy, the happiest night of my life and suddenly all the early mornings and late nights felt worthwhile. 

However, largely, dissertations and part time jobs and general apathy got in the way. I let things slip and I felt that I was letting my team down. Instead of doing something about this, I just buried my head in the sand. I spent months changing my mind on a daily basis about whether I would or wouldn’t be going on the trek. 

I won’t bore you with the details of the teary phone calls to my father, the financial meltdowns or even the heartbreak that came along the way. The important thing is that on July 7th, I was sitting at Heathrow airport and I had my passport and my walking boots and I was ready to board a flight. I had rearranged my flights dates so was doing a couple of weeks volunteering in Nepal and a month travelling around India before returning to Nepal to complete the trek. 

There’s a lot more on what happened during those two months to come - a hell of a lot more - and it wasn’t all sunshine and roses. However, I learnt during that time, and especially during the trek itself, that I would never be happy if I wasn’t regularly exhausted, covered in the grime of the outdoors and sporting a sunburnt nose.

So here I am - doing something about it and trying to make everyday an adventure of sorts.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Falmouth Half Marathon 2014 Review

Prior to committing to the Falmouth Half marathon, I did some research. Various accounts of previous years led me to develop two firm expectations of the race:
1) There would be hills. 

2) A pasty and a pint would be waiting on the finish line.

The promise of the latter was so appealing that I thrust the threat of hills to the back of my mind, went straight back to the Cornwall Hospice Care website and paid my entrance fee. I convinced my Dad to do the same, luring him with the promise of finish line treats, and we started to get excited.

At 05:50am on Sunday 16th March, my alarm went off, and it was race day. I drank a cup of coffee and ate the same breakfast that I do every single other day (wholemeal muffin, peanut butter, banana - a creature of habit if there ever was one) and got into the car to head to Cornwall. It was early, too early, but the sun was bright and we were hopeful. 

On arrival in Falmouth, we headed to the Wetherspoon’s pub where registration was apparently taking place. Sure enough, the pub was full of lingering runners, drinking water and stretching and fiddling with safety pins to attach their numbers. It was a rather different scene to how a Wetherspoon’s usually looks on a Sunday morning, full of the hungover masses devouring fried breakfasts and clutching pints of water.

Soon enough, we were told to head to what was referred to as ‘the moor’. Not being familiar with Falmouth, my Dad and I wandered in circles for a while before realising that the moor was in fact the concrete square in the centre of the town. We were told that, unfortunately, due to technical difficulties that there would be no official warm up, and to get ready to start. We headed to the start line and, after a couple of minutes of hopping from one leg to another to keep warm, we were off.

Here is where I realised I had made my first mistake. Being a small race of under 500 competitors, everybody started together, rather than in time-based waves. Almost by accident, simply because we happened to be standing close by, myself and my Dad started the race right at the front of the pack, with only one row of other runners in front of us. I am by no means a fast runner, and this meant that I spent almost the entire race just being overtaken, only falling into a group with those running at a similar pace at the very end. Although not a huge issue – indeed, at least for the first few miles, this probably encouraged me to run faster than I would have otherwise – it was slightly demoralising.

The beginning of the race took us around by the coast on a reasonably flat path. As somebody in the midst of a lengthy and intense love affair with the sea, I enjoyed this section of the race. The sun was out, it was scenic, and it felt like it might all be okay. However, I have to admit that this was probably the only part that I enjoyed in any way. From here on in, it became a battle of wills and nothing more.

We soon left the sea behind us and moved onto the road, and the rest of the race continued in this way, running along the edge of country lanes and avoiding being run over by the meandering Cornish road dwellers. And, as we headed onto the road, we started to encounter the hills – the ones which had been warned of, but I’d chosen to forget all about. The course was almost completely undulating, and after every stretch of downhill recovery came another daunting uphill gradient to tackle.

At around five and a half miles, having already tackled a number of these beasts, I overheard a man behind me, who had clearly ran the race before, telling his friend, who clearly hadn’t, that the next hill was the last big one, and that it became easier after this. I took this as a sign of huge hope, and started to think that I might actually be able to do it after all. Sure enough, the next hill reared its ugly head, and stretched on for what felt like a horrifying amount of time. It was gruelling and it hurt but, when it was over, I breathed a sigh of relief, think that was the last of the vertical challenges.

It turned out that the man had lied though; to me, to his friend, to himself. Several more uphill stretches awaited us, including a horrifying one at the end that felt almost perpendicular to the ground below it. Many times, whilst tackling these hills, it felt like I was running so slowly that I might as well have been walking. Any vantage I did gain by refusing to walk was also soon made redundant by the runners who overtook me as soon as we hit the flat again, slightly less exhausted as they’d chosen to rest and walk.

Perhaps tactically, I might have benefited from being less stubborn going up those hills, but I’m not sure finishing a race of which I have walked sections is ever going to give me much satisfaction, so I don’t regret my approach for a minute. It was exhausting though. As we looped back into Falmouth, back towards the moor, I was done, completely and utterly done. I didn’t have the energy for any kind of sprint finish and, when I crossed the finish line, I’m not sure I could have ran a single step further.

But, sure enough, as I stepped away from the finish line, shortly after having a medal placed over my head, a pasty was pressed into my hand and, oh my, it was a glorious pasty. I’m not sure if I was just very hungry, or if it was really that delicious, but it was probably the best pasty of my life. Sadly, however, there was no beer this year, but I think I enjoyed the cup of fresh orange juice that I was given even more.

Falmouth proved a tough location for a race, that’s for sure, and I’m not sure anybody who has ran it could disagree. Was it worth it though? Definitely, and not just for the pasty, but for the fact that my faith in my own ability to tackle hills, however slowly, has been utterly cemented. I even managed to get a new PB, knocking ten minutes off my half marathon time, and that’s not something I’m going to complain about on that course.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Clean Apple and Almond Brownies

Today I'm back with yet another recipe.  Whilst back visiting my childhood home over the past week or so, boredom seems to have led me to the pantry, armed with a wooden spoon and a desire to experiment whilst not to falling too far off the wagon.  Today, I concocted these, and finally my belief in fat-free, sugar-free baking is beginning to be cemented.  

125g ground oats 
25g ground almonds
50g cocoa powder
3 small apples, grated
2.5 tsp baking powder
2  - 3 tablespoon chopped nuts
180ml milk
3 tbsp honey
1 egg

1) Preheat oven to 180˚C.  Line a muffin tin with paper cases.

2) Add all ingredients to a large bowl and stir until thoroughly combined.

3) Add one tablespoon to each paper case.

4) Bake for 20 - 25 minutes or until firm and a skewer comes out clean.

And that's it - healthy brownies in just four simple steps.  You can use any nuts you wish (I used sliced almonds but walnuts or pecans would be delicious too) and either buy ground oatmeal or simply blend whole oats yourself.  A word of warning though, these are one of the few baked goods that I think are actually nicer when cooled than they are oven-warm.  A completely guilt free treat to startle your friends and family with.  

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Healthy(ish) Carrot and Oat Muffins

This morning, at 8am, I awoke with an urge to bake.  Having done my long run yesterday (14 beautiful miles in the mud), I guess I was just at a bit of a loose end as to what else to do on a Sunday morning.  I didn't want to make anything deadly though, so I browsed Pinterest and stumbled across a recipe for carrot and oat muffins.  A little adaption later - mostly due to the limitations of my pantry - I had a batch of breakfast muffins which I will definitely be making again.

2 cups wholemeal flour
1 cup oats
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon mixed spice
1/2 teaspoon ginger
2 eggs
1/4 cup coconut oil
1 1/2 cups yoghurt
1 - 2 grated carrots
Handful chopped walnuts

1) Preheat oven to 180ºC/350ºF

2) Combine all dry ingredients in a large bowl (flour, oats, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, salt, sugar, spices).

3) In a separate bowl, whisk eggs then stir in yoghurt and melted oil.

4) Add egg, yoghurt and oil mixture to dry ingredients and mix well.  Stir in grated carrot and walnuts.

5) Line a muffin tray with cake cases and add a level tablespoon of mixture to each.

6) Bake for 20-25 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean.

I ate mine with peanut butter and sliced banana and they were delicious.  Next time I might try an alternative sweetener that's a little healthier but these were a great starting point.  Enjoy!

Friday, 17 January 2014

Trail Running, or Anti-White Trainer Syndrome

I have been complaining for several weeks that my new trainers, purchased as a treat in the Boxing Day sales, were still too white.  I've taken them for several wet and windy runs through the park, yet they still looked as sparkling as they did the day I brought them home from Sweat Shop.  Today, however, that all changed, as I dipped a toe into the murky waters of trail running for the first time - literally.

Plymouth University offers a free trail running session every Friday morning so, bored with my usual route and at a loose end after my ice skating lesson was cancelled (but that's a story for another day), I decided to go along.  There isn't any coaching involved, although the lead is there to offer guidance, but the main benefit is free transport to destinations which are slightly further afield.  As much as I love running by the sea, something I'll miss hugely when the time comes to leave Devon, it's nice to change things up a little.

This week, we headed to the trails around Saltram park.  Views of the beautiful Devonshire countryside lay either side of the trails but things were slightly less scenic inside the paths, as we slipped around through muddy puddles and scrambled up steps covered in hazardous leaves.  After less than a mile of running, my new trainers were definitely 'worn in', so to speak.

As, I must admit, was I.  Whilst I have certainly ran trails before, I've never done so in wet winter conditions, and a mile of concentrating so hard on your footfall and dodging puddles is very different to a mile on hard ground.  Factor in that I was already extremely sore from a weights class at the gym earlier in the week and it's safe to say my calves were burning.

Yet, despite the trip hazards, the muddy legs and the sodden socks, trail running was the most fun I've had in a long time.  It was the kind of running that makes you feel alive.  I once heard a quote that was something along the lines of 'I don't enjoy running, but running makes me enjoy life', and trail running shed an awful lot of truth on that sentiment.

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Using the 'Impossible' to Eradicate Excuses

On New Year’s Day 2013, my cousin and I sat in my flat in Gothenburg in our pyjamas and compiled a list of resolutions for the new year. I’d never gone in for the whole resolutions malarkey before, at least not properly. Perhaps I had made vague promises in my head and conjured some wild ideas, but never anything set in stone, never anything that I would actually go through with. This year was different though; I made resolutions, I wrote them down and I intended to keep them.

One of these resolutions was that by 2014 I would have ran for two hours continuously. Two weeks later, in the early hours of January 14th, I signed up for the Birmingham half marathon, which was due to take place in the autumn. At that point, I could barely run for 20 minutes without stopping, but I knew that if I paid for something and told people about it, then I’d have to go through with it.

Throughout early 2013, I kept on plugging away. In March, I ran my first 10k with my brother in Sweden. By May, I had ran my second. In June, I took part in the Endure 24 ultra event as part of a team, running 20 miles over a 24 hour period. It was fantastic and I felt alive. I was excited for the challenge of the upcoming half marathon and started to aim for a sub-2 hour time, rather than merely hoping to stumble around the course.

Then the summer happened and I moved to France to work as a Keycamp courier. I was living by a beautiful lake in the mountains but, for some reason, instead of taking advantage of the idyllic terrain and using it as the perfect training canvas, I all but stopped running. Sporadically, I would lace up my trainers, but long hours, too many baguettes and too much red wine seemed to take centre stage. When I returned home, it was straight back to university, and I just never quite got back into the swing of it.

When October 20th rolled around, I was woefully unprepared. The night before race day, I sat and moaned to my father, who was also taking part, that I couldn’t do it, that I wasn’t doing it. Stubbornness got the better of me though and the next morning I found myself on the start line, chip laced to my shoe, ready to go.

I took it steadily, very steadily. I just wanted to finish. One foot in front of another, I made it through the first mile markers - 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Eventually, after several painful hills, we made it to mile 6 and then mile 7. As soon as the half way point had been reached I knew that I could do it, that I wouldn’t stop. Surprisingly quickly, the finish line came into sight, and the clock said 02:19:08.

I thought I’d be disappointed not to have made my sub-2 goal, especially because it was solely the fault of my own laziness. I wasn’t upset though because something clicked and I was happy just to have finished at all. Twelve months before, that wouldn’t have even been an option. It would have been - to finally get to the point of this post - impossible.

However, a little bit of determination made the impossible not only possible, but almost ordinary. The fact that I managed to complete the half marathon on the back of entirely insufficient preparation meant that it wasn’t just on my horizon now, but it was very firmly in the realm of what I could achieve, and that almost makes it worth so much more, at this point. An added bonus was that if I had ran my sub-2 hour race, I probably wouldn’t have ever managed my running for 2 hours new year’s resolution. Peaks and troughs.

The fact that I ran a distance I once would have called ‘impossible’ hasn’t just affected my fitness though; it has opened opportunities in every other area of my life too. Sport has never been my ‘thing’. It has never been my natural vocation. Yet, I managed to achieve something in that area and if that is possible, then what excuses do I have left not to succeed in the area where I do have natural talent, the activities that are my ‘thing’? None, none at all.

Go out there and do something you think you can’t because, after that, there’ll be nothing in the world that can stop you doing what you know you can.

Friday, 17 May 2013

Vår Ruset 10k Gothenburg

At 6:30 on Monday evening, the clock started and my second ever 10k - my second ever race full stop - began. It had been raining for an hour or so already and showed no signs of stopping. As you’ll know if you read my last post though, I quite like running in the rain, so I set off, pounding through the puddles and the mud, feeling like a warrior. 

I wasn’t wearing a watch and I didn’t have my phone, so I was just running by instinct. Moving through the body of sodden runners, I felt good. I knew that I was moving more quickly than I had been in my last race so I just enjoyed it. I was a lot more prepared this time and I’d almost taken it for granted that I would be running more quickly. The 2k sign came around alarmingly quickly, and before I knew it we were back in the race park and heading back out for lap two. From the clock, I guessed I was on about 24 minutes at this point, which seemed far quicker than I’d ever hoped for, so I mistrusted my guess and carried on. 

I play mental games when I run which involves splitting the run into sections and telling myself that a quarter is gone, a third is gone, only an eighth to go, etc etc. The halfway point is always the turning point of this game, the point where I know that I can do it, finding it endlessly reassuring that there is less to come than has been already. Yes, it was still raining but I was still running. I knew where to anticipate the hills this time (and oh my the hills - there were very few flat parts in the course) and I was still feeling quite good. 

I began to climb the final hill, the longest stretch of gradient, and this is where things started to go wrong and surprisingly not because of my waning fitness, but because of the confusing course layout. Having survived this last hill, I let my legs stretch out down the other side (one good thing about hilly courses: what goes up must come down) as we headed towards the race park for the second time and, I thought, towards the finish line. However, as we got there, I saw that there was still a sign directing 10k runners to the left and that people were still following it. Evidently, the race was not over. Being the racing sheep that I apparently am, I followed the crowd. 

I was confused though. In my confusion, I spent a lot of time looking around trying to see what was going on and eventually resorted to asking a marshal. Unfortunately, the first person I asked was only the second person I’ve encountered in my whole 9 month stay in Sweden who didn’t speak English. Having already wasted time with her, I then jogged along to the second who I think told me that yes this was the right way. On I went. 

Prior to the event, I had been very much under the impression that the 10k course was simply two laps of the 5k course and my exertions had been thus planned. However, I have later come to realise that the 5k was actually a 4.5k, meaning that when I thought I was approaching the finish line, I actually had another 1k loop to complete. Of course, 1k is no great distance. However, tacked onto the end of a very soggy 10k, following your sprint finish? It felt like the length of the earth, especially as at this point I had no idea how far I had left to run. It is very hard to motivate your legs to sustain any kind of pace when there is seemingly no end in sight. 

Now comes my confession: I walked. For me this is a huge racing failure as a big thing for me, the thing that makes me want to run, is to acquire the ability to run far. I know that for some people a walk-run technique works well, right up to a fairly experienced level, but it’s just not in line with what I want to get out of running. I couldn’t keep going though and for maybe a minute, maybe two, I walked. It’s my dirty little secret that I haven’t told anybody else, but there we go, that’s the truth. 

I did pick myself back up and I did run again but my heart wasn’t in it. I just couldn’t make myself move above snail pace. In some kind of jog-cum-crawl I ventured towards the finish line. When I got there, I stopped again to ask the marshal holding the “10k/5k” sign if this was also the 10k finish line as only her 5k sign pointed towards it. She told me that yes, this was the finish line if I’d done 3 laps. Still confused, but with zero desire, or ability, to run a single step more, I panted through the finish line. 

I was soaked to the skin. I was grumpy. I had no idea how far I’d just ran or how long it had taken me. I took my post-race pack (including a strange assortment of gifts such as one Lindt chocolate, some Dove cosmetics samples and a single panty liner), collected my sodden possessions and marched off towards the tram stop. It was still raining and now my muscles were cramping too. 

Later that evening, I checked the results online. My chip time was listed as 59:28, nearly half a minute slower than my first attempt which had been 59:02. Given how much my fitness has improved over the last two months (prior to the first 10k, I had only ran for an hour once before in my life. I am on a pretty comfortable and regular eighty minutes now) this was a bit of a blow. However, I guess that given the time it took to stop and ask questions, the walk break and the eventual collapse of all will power, on top of the hideous weather and the hilly course, it wasn’t too bad after all. 

Onwards and upwards though. My next race is Endure24, a 24 hour 5 mile relay which I’m entering as part of a team of 8, on June 8th-9th. I plan to complete a trial run this weekend so wish me luck.