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.

Monday, 6 May 2013

Running in the Rain: Why I Love It

“But the dark roman wine in our bloodstreams 

Makes the cold just a word, just a sound” 

When it rains in Sweden, it really rains.   None of the steady British drizzle I’ve grown up so accustomed to, no; when it rains here in Scandinavia, it pours.   Such was the case last week when, after several weeks of beautiful early spring sunshine, the heavens opened.  Somewhat unfortunately, this turn in the weather happened to coincide with a mid week 6 mile run that I had planned. 

Some people would have swapped their rest day and stayed indoors with a cup of tea to enjoy the therapeutic sound of rain slashing against the windows.  I, however, am not somebody who can be flexible like that.   If I stop for a torrential downpour today, by tomorrow I’ll be bailing because of a momentary gust of wind or because my favourite sport socks need washing.   I know myself well and I know that I have to be firm because give me an inch and I’ll take a mile and run with it (or, indeed, not run in this case). 

What this meant, on that sodden Wednesday last week, was that I was running for an hour, whether I liked it or not.  I reluctantly laced up my trainers and pulled on my rain coat, for the first time since January when it was worn as protection against the -14ºC air temperature.  Off I went. It didn’t take long for me to remember something though and that something was that I really like running in the rain.  Here’s why: 

Temperature Control 
I find maintaining a good temperature whilst running to be quite challenging. If the air temperature is too cold (anything below 3ºC, roughly) then I find it numbing, making my limbs stiff and it difficult to push hard enough at any speed for any length of time. I then seem to have a bracket of a few degrees above that where I’m quite comfortable, but as soon as it reaches 10ºC, I find myself getting very warm indeed. As you can imagine, summer exercise is a tricky concept for me. The rain, however, solves the problem of my internal climate, acting as a nice refresher when usually I’d be starting to feel a little clammy. When I take feeling like I’m about to overheat out of the equation, I suddenly feel a lot fitter all round. 

Fun Factor 
Galloping around a forest in the rain is, I find at least, a very freeing experience. I suddenly feel five years old again, yet more liberated as this time around I can tread in puddles without anybody telling me off. You already look like a fool, with makeup streaming down your face and a ponytail you could wring out, you may as well go the whole hog and get a little muddy too. It’s fun, trust me. Go wild. Be free. 

General Smugness 
There’s something about running in adverse weather conditions that makes me feel quite smug in the best of ways. Unless you’ve just put in a particularly hefty amount of miles (and even then, in general, I find that non-runners switch off a little as soon as you start reeling off figures to them) nobody is ever very impressed by the fact that you simply “went for a run”. However, add in rain, snow, any temperature below zero or a time before 8am (9am on the weekend) and suddenly you get a little more attention paid to your efforts. Of course, I don’t run to impress other people - limping around post run, blisters aching and face turned an unfortunate shade of red, I barely impress myself - but I don’t think anybody can deny that it’s a nice bonus. I certainly feel like a crazy person when I’m dragging my tired legs around the park when I could be in bed and it’s always reassuring when somebody else acknowledges that. 

The Post-Run Shower
Showering after working out is one of the purest pleasures in life, I think. Peeling off rain-sodden running clothes to step under a flow of steamy water takes things to the next level. It’s funny, really, that the rain water makes shower water so much more pleasing but by jove it does. Wrapping yourself in clean pyjamas afterwards is almost as close to heaven as you can get, alone in bed on a Wednesday evening. I think I wrote an essay after my rainy run last week. It was almost fun.

As I neared the end of last Wednesday's run though, I have to admit that my enthusiasm was wavering.  A Snow Patrol song started playing on my iPod Shuffle.  I hadn’t really been listening to the music up until then but it caught my attention again and I heard the lyrics at the start of this post, “the cold just a word, just a sound”.  It was just one of those moments.  I ran the last mile with a new lease of life, the lyrics resonating deeply. 

Because it’s true.  The cold - or the rain, or any other obstacle you may encounter - is nothing, except something for us to overcome.  Overcome them now and, you never know, you may even enjoy it.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

A Quick Hello and a Dose of Motivation

Before we get started and before I start raving about running (and repeating, hopefully) I feel that I should let you all in on a little secret. 

My name is Elise and I’m a beginner. 

Yes, that’s right, you heard it here first; I’ve only been running for four months. I have dabbled with the sport previously, sporadically lacing up my trainers over the past few years and dragging my legs along for a twenty minute jog every few months, but that’s as far as it got. I’ve always had high hopes for me and running though, a whimsical notion that it’s something I could really commit to, but I’ve just never had the patience to test our relationship until now. 

I heard a few things that spurred me on, mostly in the form of cliched catchphrases, the first of which was “you don’t get better at running by not running”. It’s simple, patronisingly obvious, yet something that we all too often forget nonetheless. I have always known, on some level, that I could run a long distance someday - a half marathon, a full marathon, hell maybe even an ultra. It clicked a few months ago that I was the only one who knew this though, and nobody else would take my blind faith in myself and call it an achievement. As we all know though, actions speak louder than words (and thoughts too) so I got active. 

The second, equally cheesy, motivational line was delivered via a picture on my Tumblr dashboard. “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone”. Again, so very true, because as my father likes to tell me on an almost daily basis, “if you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got.” 

So, that was that. I had to start running, so I did. I stopped making excuses and started making time to run instead. At first, it was painful, mentally as much as physically. It took every ounce of willpower I had to push myself through even fifteen minutes without stopping, and I felt stupid and slow every single minute. I wondered if there was any point to running a single mile, if it was worth getting out of bed for, getting sweaty for. I kept on repeating my mantra though: you don’t get better at running without running. 

That was in January. On March 24th I ran my first race, the Gothenburg 10k. Before that day, my longest runs had been two 50 minute goes and one hour long attempt the week before. My only real hopes were to finish without walking, but secretly I was aiming for 10 minute miles, which would mean a finish time of just 01:02:00. I set off blindly, without even a digital watch to check my progress as I went round. My finish time was 59:02, 9:30 min/mile. I was ecstatic. 

In four months I’ve gone from barely being able run a mile to putting in an easy 7 on my long run Sundays, which I’ll be pushing up to 8 miles this week. I have another 10k in May, during which I really hope I’m able to push my time down to a 9 min/mile pace in order to maybe be able to get a sub 2 hour half marathon in October. I’m aware that this is perhaps a little ambitious but, to quote Captain Sensible, “if you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?” 

My advice for anybody starting out on their running adventure is to find and pay for a race early on. 5k, 10k, a half marathon - it doesn’t matter. I actually signed up for my half marathon in October first and used the 10k as a useful motivation for training. Next, tell everybody you know about your upcoming event. If the motivation not to lose your entry fee doesn’t spur you on, then hopefully the prying questions or doubts of your friends and family will. Furthermore, at the end of most events you receive a medal and/or t shirt. If your running self isn’t motivated, at least your inner collector will be. 

Whilst my running career may still be in its very early days, it’s safe to say I’ve caught the bug. I’m writing this blog to share my enthusiasm and experiences along the way. Welcome onboard and I'll see you at the finish line.