Reflections on running (metaphors abound)

Lyra waves at daddy running
Early on in my running journey: The Bath Half in 2013

Three years ago I worked out my BMI. I was obese. Standing 6ft5in tall meant the weight I was carrying (over 17 stone) was quite well hidden, but there was no hiding from the truth. Being 32 and a dad of two at the time (now three [crikey – ed]), I figured it would be possible to undo the damage of around 10 years of physical dereliction to provide a good basis for the rest of my 30s and beyond, rather than leave it until too late and only manage a damage limitation exercise.

My approach was two-fold (luckily, I’ve never smoked or been a big drinker). The food part of the equation has been hard (still too much pizza and too big portions), though with some good patches (calorie counters like MyFitnessPal have worked best). The running part, though, has been far more successful.

What’s surprised me about running, though, is how much I’ve learnt. Here, then, are some reflections on running from the last three years (metaphor warning).

  • The first few steps are nearly always the hardest. This is true at the start of any running journey – those first few runs are terrible. It used to also be true most times I went for a run: it may be a bit cold, I may be tired or hungry, or I was sitting on a comfortable sofa. But once out of the door and 10 or 15 steps into a run it was ok – I’d made a start, and the challenge then became a different one.
  • The only time the first few steps aren’t the hardest is when you’re close to breaking through to a next stage of development. This could be increasing distance or running a bit quicker; whichever it is, there will be a period of time when what you’re trying to do will be the hardest thing you can imagine.
  • At these times there is an immediacy to what you’re doing: focus is almost entirely inwards and you can’t think of anything but what’s hurting (your lungs, your legs).
  • These hardest moments pass quite quickly. If you run for 15 minutes longer than you ever have, the pain will be for a maximum of 15 minutes. If you run quicker for short bursts of time over a run, the pain will end after the last burst. In the context of a day or a week, those 15 minutes or short bursts are no time at all (though that doesn’t mean they don’t hurt right there and then).
  • Quite aside from being left with better fitness after these hard bits, I’ve been amazed by the strength of mind I’ve gained from them. I’ve run distances/times I never thought I could, all because I did a bit of hard running every once in a while. This is very closely related to the mindset that knows the first few steps are the hardest.
  • If there’s a chance to be a geek about something, I’ll take it. You should see my notes on training plans, running paces (VO2 max, lactate threshold) and training routines.
  • I really like the running gear. Compression wear (especially socks and tights), wick-away fabrics, accessories (cap, gloves, gels) – I can’t get enough. Funnily enough, the only thing I’m not that fussed by is trainers: I found a good, cheap pair (£35) that work for me and have worn the same make/style ever since – I’m on my third pair.
  • A decent enough pair of trainers will last for around 500 miles.
  • Cold is fine. Wet is also fine. Heat or wind, however, are not.
  • Running up hills or running faster are the same type of hard.
  • Developing an ability to run isn’t just about running: understanding how to run effectively and so strengthening the right muscle groups makes a considerable contribution. Two reflections come from this: (1) the muscles it’s good to strengthen are ones you can’t really see: not biceps or a six pack, but “the core”, calves and things like hip flexors; (2) what’s needed to strengthen these areas is quite simple: it doesn’t require lots of equipment or complicated manoeuvres, but small, consistent, straightforward exercises you can do whilst waiting for the kettle to boil.
  • Pedestrians are generally very annoying – especially the ones who randomly stand still or change which side of the pavement they’re walking on.
  • There is a big community of runners. Each has different reasons for running, not all of them say hello when you pass each other, and some are annoying; but you have a common endeavour and, especially on race days, there is a lot of strength that comes from being part of this community.

It being the time of year, there are lots of people out running at the moment. This brings a smile to my face: if only one or two folks taking up running get the enjoyment and learning from it that I have, they’re in for a treat that will, I firmly believe, shape their life.

(If you use Strava then feel free to add me as a friend: here’s my Strava profile.)


First Bath Half

Seeing your family – which I did around Queen Square and on the way to the finishing line – is a brilliant feeling. Here's Lyra waving at me. Jessie (my wife) has been a star throughout all of this – I couldn’t have done it without her. (Michael Holman took this pic - thanks!)
Seeing your family – which I did around Queen Square and on the way to the finishing line – is a brilliant feeling. Here’s Lyra waving at me. Jessie (my wife) has been a star throughout all of this – I couldn’t have done it without her. (Michael Holman took this pic – thanks!)

Yesterday saw me complete the Bath Half marathon. It was actually my first ever half marathon, and I had such a good time I thought a quick blogpost was in order.

The idea for the run itself came about for two reasons: the first was an email that popped into my inbox suggesting Oscar (my 3-year-old) could do the fun run part of the day on behalf of I CAN, the children’s communications charity. I figured that if Oscar could do the fun run, I might as well do the full run.

The second reason is that I’m a 32-year-old man who had let himself go a bit over the last few years. I realised there was still time to recover some form of health without having done too much damage, and thought a half marathon would be as good an achievement to focus on as any.

From an inauspicious start (think “wheezy two miles with more than the occasional walk / stop”) training had gone well. It included over 30 miles whilst on holiday in Spain a couple of weeks ago (memorable moment: my father-in-law offered me some water after I’d run uphill for the first 4 miles of a 10.5-mile training run behind him on a bike, to which I ungraciously suggested: “I don’t need some water, I need a f*cking flat road”. It was hot, in my defence.) and both my legs and lungs were going to be fine for the Bath Half itself.

I was hopeful of a sub-2 hour time. The slight competition of some friends also running – Phil C, Kev CW and Kev H – also meant I was keen to do as well as possible.

Unfortunately, I felt a tickle in my throat last Wednesday which developed into a stinking cold by race day. Though I took 4 cold tablets in the hour or so before the race, which I don’t think count as performance enhancing drugs, the cold took its toll. After 2 miles I noticed my breathing, which didn’t normally happen until around 7 miles, and at 8 miles (on the second lap of the Bath course) there was an incline that hurt much more than it should. At that point, I knew it was just going to be about getting round rather than the time.

And get round I did. 2.14:53 is well down on what I was hoping for, but I’ll take it given the circumstances. (I’ve said this to a few people since the race, but I don’t really believe it: I’m a competitive soul and I’m actually a bit annoyed with the time. Still, there will be the sub-2 hour mark to aim for next time.) Each of the folks above ran amazing times: Phil C clocked a brilliant 1.59, Kev H did a 2.04 and Kev CW ran a stupendous 1.53 – what a run!

By far the hardest miles of the day for me were the last 2. It was at this point that the wind decided to play its part, and the last bit of the course is slightly uphill anyway.

Cheesy as it sounds, it’s at this point that some motivation came from seeing all of the people around who were running because of various personal or family experiences. There was also the motivation from all the support and sponsorship that people had given over the last few weeks. And there was also the motivation about the charity I was running for, I CAN, and the work it does. I don’t think this translated into me shouting “THINK OF THE CHILDREN” to myself over those last 2 miles, though if it did I apologise to any nearby spectators.

On which, by the way, what an amazing crowd! The people out supporting runners were amazing: every banner, clap and cheer of encouragement was appreciated. The race was also incredibly well organised, and huge thanks must go to the organisers and volunteers for doing such a great job.

Overall, the race was a great experience, which made me feel even happier to now be living in Bath. I’m looking forward to the Bristol Half in September (assuming I stop hobbling in the next few weeks, that is) and will definitely be breaking the two-hour barrier there.