Monday, 29 June 2015

What have I been up to?

My apologies for neglecting my blog a little lately.  Here's a few things keeping me well occupied:

My work in the criminal justice system has always been demanding and it never seems to let up.  I do like the variety and I like doing little projects in addition to having responsibility for a small team of fantastic colleagues.  I feel privileged.

Alas times are changing.  The profession is almost unrecognisable when compared to my entry as an assistant way back in 1992.  The prison population has almost doubled, I have seen first hand the impact of a succession of very different Home Secretaries, the Ministry of Justice has been formed and the Transforming Rehabilitation agenda has torn my profession apart.  Legislation has had huge impacts on the justice system as well as creating thousands of additional new laws for people to break.  Huge staff reductions have taken place since 2010 and an eye-watering number are still to go in the foreseeable future.

The chance of these staff reductions affecting me are high.  As you can imagine that has caused me to consider, reconsider and consider my future direction. As I seem to have a naturally optimistic outlook for the most part, I am almost looking forward to seeing what doors could open ahead of me. And then I think of all those bills to pay.  At that point it looks scary.

As a family we are incredibly blessed and I am sure the right things will happen, although these aren't always what we expect or want.  We cannot see ahead, although it is wise to plan ahead as best we can.  I will keep you posted as things unfold.

Yes Running!  The focus of this blog.  I'm not sure if I mentioned or not, I have given myself a little target for the year and this is to run 1000 miles in 2015.  At the time of writing I have just passed the 500 mile mark, so nicely on track.

My running pattern seems to have changed over the last year or so.  Instead of running early in the mornings for most of my runs, I find I'm now running after work on a couple of days each week.  As you know I'm based in Stevenage and I will either have a run there, or I might drive part of the way home and then run (having changed into my running gear before leaving the office).

The area I have explored in terms of running is around Preston, just outside Hitchin in Hertfordshire. Preston is a little pretty village on the top of a hill with a network of footpaths, bridleways and lanes around.  All very scenic and as an added bonus some of the hills are great to get my heart beating at a fairly high rate (I should say these are short bursts for a couple of minutes and I have been used to doing this for the last few years).  According to Strava I am 14th out of 84 runners on this short steep hill.  My time is 2:31 (which coincidentally I have hit twice now) and I know I can do better.  I'm already looking forward to the next time.

My long runs remain along the tow path of the Grand Union canal, while my youngest daughter is kayaking.  This gives me a 90 minute window to do roughly 10 miles.  It is a real joy seeing the canal through the different seasons now that we have reached summer: I enjoy them all, even the winter!

A while back I blogged about running up Bison Hill and increasing my lead in the Strava course record.  More recently I was beaten by another athlete and it was by quite a margin.  Although I can't recall the new time, I do remember thinking there was no way I could beat it.  Having checked it again I see that new time has disappeared and perhaps I'm back in holding the course record.

Another course record which I have held since December in along the Busway and a flat 0.6 mile sprint.  I can see others are closing in on me and it is only a matter of time before I'm beaten.  One of my friends, Joe C is the one to watch as he has youth on his side and there's less than 10 seconds between us!

Earlier this year I picked up an over-use injury which is completely healed.  That's good.  What isn't so good is that I think I ran slightly differently and consequently "transferred" the problem to my left hip.  It's not too bad and once again it's about keeping the right balance between keeping some running going and resting.  This is a tricky balance!

Haven't done much, to be honest, just a few leisure rides.  I have, however, been able to encourage a couple of my friends in taking to two wheels and that has been great to see.  This has involved advising on pedals, what kind of bike to buy etc.

We did get the opportunity to see the Women's Tour of Britain flash past at Ashridge a couple of weeks ago.  That was fun, although it has to be said, road cycling is not really a spectator sport.

Back to blogging
I must blog more.  Partly as a personal journal of things that happen and also the interaction with readers out there which brings the world of blogging to life.  It seems the more I blog, the higher the stats go each day.  If I go through a quiet patch, the daily hit rate falls.

If you want to get in touch at all, please either leave a comment below or email me at

Saturday, 20 June 2015

And now a photoshoot!

I love running and cycling as you already know.  I also love it when unexpected things happen - sometimes product reviews, writing for someone else and now I can add a photoshoot to the list.  You know, I've never been in a photoshoot before, or be a model, or be a film extra, or...... anything.  So with the invitation to be included in this photoshoot,  I was happy to volunteer for as it sounded fun as well as supporting Amy at the kayaking club.

Amy has already produced some lovely images of kayakers paddling with LEDs attached at dusk, just after sunset.  Taking it a little further Amy was wanting to do exactly the same with some runners and cyclists.  So last week I met up with Amy, her two assistants and alongside Jacqui and Beth.  Having been asked to wear dark clothing, we were fitted with LED lights - only on our left hand side.  I pointed out that I was wearing my dirtiest running shoes especially for the evening and I think that was appreciated (they really were horrible). There was one LED on the side of my head, elbow, wrist, knee and foot.  The colours were gradually changing, adding to the interest.

The first few shots proved it was still a little too light as Amy was needing to shoot the photos with long exposure times - I think 4 or 6 seconds were being used.  Eventually it was sufficiently dark and we could move across the shot at normal speeds with the LEDs being picked up by the camera.  We took it in turn to run or cycle singly through the shot and we also ran a few times together and I think these work best of all.

The resulting images are, in my view, really fascinating with an interesting quality through being shot at twilight.  This strikes me as being an interesting time to photograph things in, especially now in mid summer with long, slow sunsets.  Somehow trees and the countryside take on a different appearance with dark, shadow areas growing to engulf everything for the brief night ahead.  Just as you see this taking place, the LED trails waft through the scene and show the incredible movements made by the human frame in doing what it is designed to do.

This, quite literally, puts a different light on seeing the human frame at work. Seeing, for instance, how our feet move from one stride to another appears completely different and unexpected through these images.  Absolutely fascinating and with an unusual beauty.

Thank you goes to Amy for asking me to help with this for allowing me to share your images.  Thanks also to Jacqui and Beth who made it such fun.  I enjoyed it and look forward to seeing even more of these in the future.

For Amy's website - click here

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Running Bison Hill, again

Harry, myself, Andrew

After my last attempt at running up Bison Hill, I couldn't resist another go as I was determined to improve my time.  I could go on about increasing my lead on the Strava course record; that would be bragging as there's only a handful of runners that have done it and I know there's some faster ones around here.

I had talked to my good friends Harry and Andrew about escorting me up as a kind of pace setters as I knew this might make all the difference.  Besides, it's fun.  We had a vague arrangement for Wednesday last week which I then forgot about (on this occasion I will blame my day job and the demands of that).  I got reminded via a text message while I was out having a post-work run somewhere else, also involving running up a steep hill.  I drove as fast as I could, grabbing a sports drink on the way, and arrived at Whipsnade Zoo at about the right time.  The arrangement was I'd leave my car there (at the segment finish) and run down the hill to meet Harry and Andrew.  This all worked fine.

Tackling Bison Hill

I've mentioned before, this climb is on the road and 0.8 miles.  Three sections: a) approach with a gentle slope b) main steep climb at 1:5 followed by c) final flat run to the finish.

We planned it so Andrew would lead the way just in front.  Harry would ride alongside me giving me a running commentary about speed etc.  On this occasion I gave him permission to yell at me using whatever language he thought was appropriate.

I can tell you, I really appreciated the running commentary with my speed - that was reassuring on the step bits and towards the end when "you're in double figures" as I ran as fast as I could towards the end.  I hoped he was talking about my speed and not my time!

I found I could happily talk as I started on the approach slope and we chatted.  As this was the first time we'd done this,  Andrew and Harry were keen to make sure their pace was right and took care to avoid shooting ahead.  Once I'd turned the first corner and the gradient increased my conversation dried up apart from the odd gasped word.  Like before I found getting into a good rhythm of swaying my arms from side to side was helpful and I was almost on tip-toes as I ran the steep part.  At this point I remember feeling really good and I had a pretty good idea my time would improve.

Once we passed the Bison Hill car park on the left the road levelled out ahead of a gentle turn to the left and then a final sprint to the end.  Although it was on this final sprint I was over 10mph and at full speed, I knew I should be able to go faster.

My time was 7:02, some 13 seconds faster than before.  Wow.  We stopped, I took the above photo by the zoo entrance.  We talked about bikes, running and bike rides.  I was coughing quite a bit, not sure why and so without hesitation Andrew offered me his water bottle.  Excellent, thank you.  As a teenager Harry is so keen and increasing his strength and speed all the time and coming on nicely.  Andrew is a quiet but highly disciplined cyclist with considerable endurance and speed; far more than myself.   I couldn't wish to have a better pair of pace setters on that climb, so a big 'thank you' to both.

One of my all-time great runs

In my mind I have some specific runs filed away of all-time great runs.  They tend to be long runs which are often early in the morning and always on my own.  This run, which MUST be in those all-time great runs, was completely the opposite: short, fast, with others and in the evening.

Harry and Andrew cycled back home, while I felt a fraud by driving.  I did comfort myself as I'd come straight from work and I had already had another run that evening (Charlton Hill Road, near Hitchin, Hertfordshire) which I will blog about another time.

I felt on top of the world, elated and thankful.  My worries from the day in the office were blown away and once again I could feel my mind and body buzzing with the endorphins and that Runner's High feeling.

Definitely, without question, a great run.  Trouble is, 7:02 simply begs to be beaten and complete the run in under 7:00 seems an obvious target for another time.....

Once again, thank you Harry and Andrew.  I'm so thankful I have been blessed with a good pair of lungs and legs.  Praise the Lord!

Harry, Whipsnade Zoo entrance

Saturday, 13 June 2015

Review - Avantree Jogger Bluetooth Headset

Mobile Fun kindly sent me one of these Avantree Jogger Bluetooth headsets to review.  When they arrived in the post I was excited and keen to try them out as I've not had anything like this before.  Mind you, my excitement was curtailed as I needed to charge them up first.  So I put my frustration aside and patiently waited - but not for long!

As a man, I know I'm not meant to read the instructions but on this occasion I thought I should.  As I did read through them I smiled as firstly they were in English (YAY!) and secondly written by a human being.  This was shown by phrases like "It has a trendy, fashionable sports design and is splash proof".  Now whether you think it is "trendy" is up to you but I still smiled at this.  Written in an understandable way, the instructions are easy to follow and highlight the need to get to grips with the features.  These include the volume controls on the left ear piece and the right ear piece has buttons for next and previous tracks and a multi function button.  Combined all of these enable you to use your phone on-the-go which could be either a good or a bad thing - your choice!

First steps
Firstly I tested them around the house and out into our garden, it was fun to see how far I could stray from my iPhone (as the transmitting base) before the signal broke up.  Impressively it was further than the suggested 10 metres in the specification.

The proper test was a run after work a few days ago.  It takes a couple of minutes to get them ready, so they aren't quite ready for an instant start.  You turn them on by pressing the centre button on the right hand ear piece, next you link your smart phone to the headset.  I have an iPhone and it was pretty straight forward and there was no need to enter a PIN, although other phones might require you to do this.  Once you've done that, you're ready to go!

In use and where the heck is that music coming from?
My after work run in which I tried these out was pretty straight forward having done this run before.  It was all on road and in the countryside with virtually no traffic.

There was a little bit of trial-and-error going on with wearing them to begin with (having not had this type of headphone before) but got the hang of it alright.  I soon got used to the feeling of wearing them pretty quickly.  After a while I hardly knew I had them on and at one point I found myself asking "where the heck is all that music coming from?".

The Avantree headset certainly is lightweight and the springiness in the connecting strap is just right, in fact the instructions include a diagram showing how best to wear the headset.  They stay perfectly in place and there's no way they'll wobble out of your ears.  Likewise they're not pressing in so hard the blood supply to your brain is being squeezed out and I find this quite helpful.

In terms of the actual sound that comes out, this is quite good and very adequate for my kind of use.  By this I mean they are brilliant for listening to music, pod casts etc while you're on the move or in the gym.  Hi-fi buffs might go for something costing two or three times the cost of these but the Avantree isn't pretending to be anything too high end.

Avantree supply some little foam ear pieces, which fit over the speaker part that fits in your ear.  These are nice and comfy.  As an alternative, rubbery ear buds are also supplied, if that's what you prefer.  Also supplied is a little pouch to keep them in, together with a short USB charging cable.  As I mentioned already, get some clear instructions as well.

Wrapping up
At £29.99 these seem a pretty fair price for a Bluetooth headset which works well and is a decent quality.  Straight forward to use and very comfortable.  Happy to recommend.

Mobile Fun: click here for website

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

"I've got a cold" says New Runner

Healthy food is always important
A new runner I have coached and continued encouraging is fantastic with keeping myself and a few others up to date with his new found fitness.  He uses Facebook to feed us almost daily updates, covering the highs and lows of becoming fit.  I love getting this news as I can see myself there when I became a runner myself.

The latest Facebook message stated "Not feeling like a runner at the moment! Have come down with a cold?! Plus stiff and ache from yesterday's running."

My response?

It happens.  Being a runner does not make you immune from illness and we remain every much a human being.  However, I think there are some changes which can take place and I say this in the most general of ways as clearly it won't apply to everyone.  When we gain fitness, through running or a number of other sports, our general health can improve in a number of different ways.  This includes immunity and resistance to colds, viruses etc.  

This will only take place if a new runner combines increased fitness with making sure other parts of his life are going well.  This includes having a healthy diet (a huge subject on its own), having sufficient rest and sleep together with some other points.

However, doing too much running will not improve general health, in fact the opposite can be true.  If we push ourselves too hard and demand too much from our bodies on a day to day basis, well our immunity can drop.  In fact it can drop dramatically if too many miles are run without sufficient rest.  

Being stiff is a sure sign of having run too far the previous day.  Now it might not be a big deal, depending on how far etc. and it is a sure sign the body is repairing itself and becoming stronger. Nevertheless too far is too far.  It is best to increase the mileage of a long run gradually, perhaps by a mile or two each week and supplement this by shorter runs in between.  Generally the long run is done once a week.

Monday, 1 June 2015

Caffeine withdrawal

Caffeine withdrawal and how it started…..
Eager beaver readers will know I like to have a check-up at the Doctors once a year.  This appears to be one of the benefits of being in my age group as potentially serious health conditions can be picked up early and dealt with while there is time to benefit from early treatment. I dutifully took in my ‘specimen’ when I arrived for my 12 hour fasting blood test which includes:
  • Blood count (which I imagine to be haemoglobin / anaemia)
  • Glucose levels
  • Cholesterol
  • Liver function
  • Kidney function
  • PSA (checking for prostate cancer)
  • and three others which I can’t quite remember
When I went to see the Doctor for the results she said “well done, they’re all fine” followed by “is there anything else?”.  I then explained I had occasionally found bladder control more difficult these days.
“Well” she explained “you can expect this kind of thing, it is a common middle age problem for men and women.  At least we can rule out prostate cancer or anything like that”.
Naturally that was good to hear, so the next part of the conversation was being asked a few more details and then being offered a prescription.
“But I like to avoid medication” and I pointed out I’ve really only had the occasional antibiotic every few years for some kind of infection I might have picked up.  I went onto explain that I’d prefer to avoid medication if I possibly can for as long as possible as I think of it as being a slippery slope.  This was dismissed as being silly.  “Take it or leave it” the Doctor said in a slightly stern way.
“Is there any other solution?”
“No not really, besides the side effects aren’t bad with this and we can always switch you to something else”
“How long will I have to take them for?”
“For the rest of your life but don’t worry, once we know they suit you I’ll prescribe a larger supply for you, so they won’t be too expensive”.
This was all sounding awful and the conversation was not going the way I wanted it to go! “Is there really no other solution?” I asked again.
She went onto say there wasn’t, although she did say “lifestyle” to which I stopped her and asked what she meant.  I was concerned as she had just congratulated me on my excellent blood test results.  The word caffeine got mentioned and explored no further, not wanting to ask me how many cups of tea or coffee I get through in a day.
I had the prescription made up and started taking my two tablets a day.  The first night I had a terrible dream and in the morning I was wracking my brains trying to remember if the Doctor had said anything about dreams being in the side effects.  I couldn’t remember anything but when I read the Patient Information leaflet it mentioned nightmares, along with a whole load of other possible side effects.
Over the next few days I grew increasingly uncomfortable with taking these tablets, even with them being low dose.  I decided to quit tea and coffee to see if that made a difference.  Well I can tell you I certainly missed a regular cuppa at various times of the day and for the first 24 hours I was feeling slightly light-headed and yearning for a nice coffee.  I knew I was withdrawing.
Now a week later I’m not taking the tablets, avoiding all caffeine and doing fine. I have solved the problem.  Yippee, so to speak.
Follow up appointment with the Doctor 
Now at this point I am due to make a follow up appointment with my Doctor.  She will be expecting me to say that I have been fine with the tablets and take up the offer of a longer term prescription which will be repeated of the rest of my days.  After all, I haven’t been back sooner to complain of horrible side effects.
Instead I’m going to report that I have solved the problem through avoiding caffeine but this now gives me a dilemma.  I really do like a nice cup of tea, or a cup of ground filter coffee of some description.  Should I abstain completely from tea or coffee?  Switch to de-caff?  Isn’t tea and coffee de-caffed through some horrible chemical process?  Have the occasional coffee, to be polite etc?
Decisions, decisions……