Saturday, 24 October 2015

I am so blessed

On Tuesday I had the most incredible run, perhaps the most fantastic run of my running life and I must tell you about it.  I am so blessed.  It was so uplifting as a run and yet it was also was a run about faith and trust.

To begin with, let me tell you a little about the day.  At my work, there has been a restructure brewing since March (officially) and for several months before that (unofficially).  It has been a horrible ordeal, already with so many great colleagues taking voluntary severance deal and leaving over the last two months.  For those of us who are left in corporate services things are coming to a bit of a head and Tuesday was a critical day for me.

While I cannot share the details yet, let me tell you I have complete faith and peace about the situation.  Whether I am to stay or leave soon, I can be assured everything will work out well in the end.  I say that as I have my strong faith as a Christian, plus I am a naturally optimistic person and I often turn various situations around in a positive way.

And so on Tuesday at around 5pm, I changed into my running gear at the office, jumped into my car and drove up to Preston, the small pretty village in Hertfordshire.   When I got there it was already dusk and getting dark so I wasted no time and got going.  As the light was fading so quickly I decided to stick to the roads and do a circular run which I'd done before.  It was a typical route, the kind of thing I can reasonably do on my way home from work and without upsetting our evening routine at home.

Here's my run in numbers:

Distance: 6.7miles
Time: 46:12
Average pace: 6:52/mile

And the splits:    

Mile      Time/mile   Feet
1            7:29            -69
2            6:44            -114
3            6:10            -13
4            5:47            -31
5            7:50            +158
6            6:59            +75
0.7         7:10            -7

I can tell you I was pleased with these times, especially as I hadn't set out to achieve any personal bests at all.  Within those times is my personal best 10k of 42:11.

As I ran I felt so alive, my mind was full of thankfulness and joy in spite of all the uncertainties around.  I ran to enjoy the run, not to beat any records and yet my mind was on God in wondering what this was all about, what was he trying to say to me.  I ran through the remnants of the daylight with a very low sun skimming across the fields before it was dark.  As I ran up the steep part of Charlton Hill and the wooded part, I could barely see where I was going let alone see how steep it was.  I knew my strides were longer than usual as I could feel my quads pulling a little tight and my breathing was a shade deeper than normal.  And yet it felt so good.

When I got back home and looked at the stats, I was surprised by some of those times, much faster than normal.  Most importantly was that feeling of being tested and now blessed in such a spectacular way.  I have thought about this run quite a lot since and the significance of the day.  God's mercy, his undeserved grace, seems to be the main reminder when I ask what it was all about.  As I said earlier, I don't know the outcome of the restructure at work and how it will affect me - but I do have that complete trust and faith things will work out.

I think this beautiful rendition of Psalm 23 sums it up, especially the phrase "And I will trust in you alone, for your endless mercy follows me, your goodness will lead me home".  Take a listen:

We have been in tight situations with work a number of times before, either for Rachel or myself.  Often unexpected things happen at precisely the right moment and this cannot be by chance.  Somethings happen which aren't what I wanted to happen and yet, looking back, I can see now why things did go the way they went and how it is for the best.

I have run twice since then, each time that Tuesday run was on my mind so much, still wondering what lies ahead....

Running up Charlton Road, Hitchin

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Ridgeway Run 2015 - tattooed legs and heavy feet

Never enough Portaloos!
Here's my race report from the truly excellent Ridgeway Run on 11th October 2015.  As usual race HQ is at the cricket ground in Tring, Hertfordshire.  It was a cool and delightful morning to arrive early enough to sign in and collect my race number.  Helpfully there were a good supply of safety pins!

All of the officials were welcoming, friendly and chatty.  There was a really nice atmosphere as runners prepared themselves for the race, plenty of high spirits and laughter going on.  It looked as if the majority of runners were with club mates or with friends and I think this adds to the event in having someone to share it with.  I find with almost every race, there is always a lengthy que for the Portaloos; it does matter how many have been supplied, there will never be enough for the 15 minute window in which they'll be fully used.

It was great chatting to the two officials on the left, in between checking in on-the-day bookings.  He thought I looked like Edward Fox and I think he looks like my daughter's physics teacher.  We got talking about blogs (naturally mentioning this blog!) and how Mr M wants to set his own up about the history if Rock & Roll so please do get in touch if you'd like some help.  In fact I think I could do a workshop for budding bloggers - let me know if you're interested - I'll cover all the basics in three hours giving enough practical guidance to have your own blog up and running in that time.  Just let me know.  Back to running now.

As usual there was a 10-15 minute walk from the cricket ground to the start line which is right at the edge of Tring, in a quiet little cul-de-sac and at the start of a bridleway.  Gradually everyone assembles, the Race Director arrived with his airhorn and timing officer, complete with clipboards and stopwatches galore.

Many runners seem to have GPS watches these days and these were all being checked, primed and ready for the press of the start button.  Me?  I have my old fashioned analogue £20 Timex on my wrist and my iPhone with Strava ready to record the run.

Ready, steady, go!
Last year I commented on heavy breathers and fast women: this was based on the first mile or so where we were all tightly packed with each other and the heavy breathing surrounded me.  This year the early stage was pretty much the same with everyone running closely together but this time I became aware of a different breed of runners around me.

The new breed were of the tattooed leg variety, perhaps normally quite rare.  I did notice how I was surrounded by the sound of "heavy feet" landing all around me.

These tattoos included all the latest fashionable swirling designs and also a few (but more discreet) Ironman tattoos on the backs of some runner's legs on the calf muscle.  Interestingly I spotted a number of other discreet tattoos and these also could be a sign of having completed a gruelling sporting event.  Apologies for not knowing what these are, I'm afraid that's not my world but I can understand people wanting some kind of wearable memento which entitles one to a kind of membership into an exclusive club.   Didn't spot any Olympic rings on shoulders though and I suppose it does add to the list of "wearables" we hear much about these days.

I had deliberately positioned myself a little further up the field on the start line for this year.  I dare say there were about 200 runners in front of me, more behind.  So that seemed a good place to start.  Once the race was underway and we had all done the start line shuffle, our pace picked up to one that was just right and we gradually jockeyed for position and started to thin out a little over the first mile or two.

No heavy breathers; instead I was conscious of heavy feet landing all around me. I was trying to listen out for my own but I couldn't quite discern them.  Sometimes when I'm running alone on something like a beach I will close my eyes and listen to my feet, my breathing and so on.  This tightly packed race was hardly the time to start closing my eyes but then I realised I was running lightly i.e. my footfall was light in landing on the ball of my foot i.e. towards the toes.  I often find myself doing this when I'm running quickly over rough ground, it's not a conscious thing, it generally just happens.  It does make running a little more comfortable I find and I like the extra "spring in my step" which it seems to bring.  I guess that landing lightly and in a deliberately controlled way puts less strain and impact on joints.

Howard's intervals
Once the pack had reached and crossed over the main road (and here's a "thank you" to the fabulous marshals) we turned right along the road for a short distance, through a gate and onto a path which was single file.  This was also a little slower for everyone.

Next was a little climb and I found myself tuning into a conversation going on behind me, between a man and a woman.

"You know I feel as if my training is paying off now"


"Oh have you never been on any of Howard's Wednesday night sessions?"


"It's brilliant.  He gets us doing intervals, you know fast and slow, plus running up and down a hill.  Really good and I'm feeling the benefit".

I remember thinking that yes, that did sound like good training by Howard, although I don't believe I know him.  I too have found reps to be beneficial in going to the limit for a couple of minutes and then jogging to allow my heart rate to come back down.  Repeating this many times is tremendous training and if I'm honest, I should do more than simply clocking up the miles as it would make me a better runner.

Going up
I like hills, as you my already know and I can just about remember the time when I used to avoid them like the plague.  I found myself looking for opportunities to over-take some other runners as we climbed through the wooded area to the Monument in the Ashridge Estate.  Gaining some time on these stretches is at least one thing I can do alright.  As I said, I like running up hills!
The first drink station by the Monument was such a welcome site and once again I'm so grateful to the marshals and volunteers for being there.  I made the most of a cup of water, so refreshing.  Then it's a case of turning left and running through the woodland area which is so beautiful at this time of year.  There were plenty of Sunday morning strollers around and everyone was stepping aside, letting us go by.  Before too long the trees thinned out and to the left you could see glimpses of wide open countryside in the soft October sun - really nice.

Going down
As I had gained a few places running up hill, now we were heading down the start of the actual Ridgeway I got over taken by quite a few.  I just don't have the right technique or form to run down hill well.  Something to improve on.

The terrain undulated and before too long another drink station, just before a short uphill slog and a waiting photographer ready to snap these exhausted runners - believe me that was a steep climb!  Next was a hazardous section, twisting and winding through a wooded area with lots of tree roots and rabbit holes.  I took this at a pretty easy pace as I didn't want to risk tripping.  Unsurprisingly I had a runner on my tail before long.  I yelled out asking if he wanted to get by and he said he didn't at all.  It seemed funny having a conversation for a few minutes with someone I could see!

Home straight
Once back down on the flat and onto the bridleway which runs straight back to Tring, I attempted to increase my speed in trying to estimate how further with the pace I would maintain.  Unfortunately for most of this straight section I was on my own.  It was so welcome getting back to the start line and knowing there was about half a mile (maximum) to go.  I gave it my all, which didn't really amount to much of an increased speed although I did feel a bit mean overtaking another runner within yards of the finish line!

My result was 1:16, about 5 minutes faster than last year.  Chuffed.  This places me at 149 out of 564 runners.

Again I find myself asking "if I lost a little more weight, trained better, did Howard's intervals, how much faster could I go?

I felt so good, having a generous dose of the Runner's High.  This was a brilliant reminder of why I run, or at least one of the many reasons.

Serious side
My running form has changed over the years and there was a definite shift earlier this year when I had a bit of an injury.  Now that I'm running with a lighter, softer footfall using more of the central part of my foot and the ball of my foot, I can feel it is better somehow.  It feels just as natural as it was before when I was a bit of a heel striker sometimes.

Once again this was a lovely race.  I like it for not being a big event.  I'd say the number of runners this year - well over 600 - was probably about the maximum for this course towards the start.  It is a tricky balance as it wouldn't be a nice race if there were only 50 runners and we became too spread out.  No, it's nice to run in the company of others and I find I enjoy running a little faster this way.
Speaking of other competitors, my admiration for the winner and other prize winners.  My admiration goes especially to those who are in their 60s who beat me (I'm 53).  You give me something to aim for!

I like also having a technical teeshirt instead of a useless medal and it's always nice wondering what it will look like.  It's nice being handed a bottle of water and a flapjack instead of the carrier bag of rubbish you get at some races. Well done to Tring Running Club!

I love the course being virtually all off road on lovely tracks in wonderful countryside.  I like the hills, even though I need to get better at running down hill.  As races go, this is extremely good value and I'm already looking forward to another go in 2016.

My thanks to Tring Running Club for the friendly welcome, great organisation (inc perfect weather conditions) and everything else which made this a great race.

No, I'm not having a tattoo, ever. Even I ever do something where I'm "entitled to" I simply won't be having one.  Not my cup of tea, sorry.

Here's a few snaps from the day:

Marshals getting ready

First aiders having their briefing

Race numbers being pinned on.  Note watercress tee shirt.

Race numbers being pinned on.

Post race drinks handed out!

More drinks!

Clubs enjoy a social side too

Lovely first aiders, they said they weren't needed

Made it!

This is a muddy splash on my leg, not a tattoo


Thursday, 8 October 2015

Strokes in middle age

At forty three years old Simon Hall was not exactly a candidate for having a stroke.  Far from it as he was a non-smoker, sensible weight, he took regular exercise as a kayaker and enjoyed good all-round health.  And yet this all changed one ordinary morning in 2013 when, completely unexpectedly and without any warning, he had a stroke.   Happily Simon Hall has recovered and it appears has been helped through regular kayaking.

“It was an ordinary day when I was getting ready for work and I simply dropped my socks on the floor.  My arm started flapping around uncontrollably and I had no idea what was happening” explained Simon.  

He quickly found himself in hospital.  Although he was initially sent home as they’d believed he’s simply had a “minor” stroke, he was rushed back a couple of hours later as it was clear the stroke was far from being minor.  

“The NHS treatment then was brilliant.  They invested a great deal in trying to find out why the stroke had happened but concluded it was ‘cryptic’ which means there is no obvious reason.  They did all sorts of tests on me to try and find out why I’d had a stroke.  This included looking at my heart to see if there was anything abnormal like a wide opening in the heart or an area where the blood is pooling but nothing was found; there was no reason why I’d had a stroke".

"Having a stroke was incredibly debilitating for me, I had almost three months off work.  The immediate impact on me was chronic tiredness and fatigue.  The Doctor I saw at the hospital recommended I sat at home, rested and pottered around”.    This is exactly what Simon did but soon became restless.

"After being in the house for a week or so, I leapt at the opportunity to go shopping with my wife Elizabeth to nearby Milton Keynes.  When we got there we went to a cafe which was only 50 years away, I couldn’t even make it that far and had to go back to the car for a sleep.  This is because my brain was working so hard to repair itself, that is why I was so exhausted. People tend to look at the physical effects but it is actually a brain injury and it takes a long time to heal".

"Then there was a period of recovery and it was the canoeing which I missed so desperately.  Even when I was in hospital I remember thinking how I’d miss canoeing for my own sanity and sense of well-being.  I became despondent after a couple of months, I was wondering if I’d ever be able to go canoeing again".  

The Doctors couldn't tell Simon how precisely his recovery would go as the impact of every stroke is different.  After three months there was enough improvement to allow Simon to return to work on a part time basis.  The turning point was when his own GP recommended he continued kayaking having recognised the benefits (other health professionals had suggested exchanging his canoe for a set of golf clubs).  Something like kayaking his a non-contact sport and therefore relatively safe for someone in Simon’s position.

Simon was greatly encouraged by one of the other club members to pick up kayaking again in a K2.  This was a helpful way of easing back into the sport and it was reassuring to know someone was always close at hand for Simon.  Gradually Simon regained some of his strength and fitness.   He believes the regular pattern of paddling as been helpful in his recovery, having to co-ordinate the left-right-left-right rhythm.  

Now it is three years on from his stroke.  Simon describes his recovery as being almost complete.  He says the grip in his left hand is not being quite as strong but otherwise he’s regained his strength, fitness and confidence.   Although very modest and unassuming, Simon is clear that he owes so much to kayaking.  His stroke could not have been predicted; he was fit, healthy and ordinarily far too young for a stroke.   Simon believes it was his underlying all round level of fitness that helped him recover and, most importantly, provide a focus for his rehabilitation.  

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Review - High 5 energy gel

I have used various High 5 products on and off for several years and have mostly found them to be fairly good.  Following an approach by ProBikeHut I am giving the High 5 energy gels a good road test and in my review below reflect on their usefulness for cyclists and runners alike.

The range
High 5 produce a comprehensive range of sports nutrition products including energy, hydration, recovery and these come in various options (trial packs, singles, bulk packs etc).  The range is pretty comprehensive in my view and is suitable for quite a wide range of sports, not just running and cycling.  The High 5 range claims to be suitable for "beginner to pro" and I reckon they're spot on with this.

Energy gels
My first experience with energy gels was in training for my first half marathon, some years ago.  The advice given by those "in the know" was always to try out these things in training ahead of a race: the last thing you want to do is use something new the day before a race and find it doesn't agree with you, worse still in the race itself.  Happily I have never had any bad reactions myself.

The energy gels come in a 40g (32ml) sachet and has a squishy feel to it.  The top is secure so it won't leak and yet very easy to rip open while you're on the go.  Once open simply stick it in your mouth and squeeze the energy gel.  These are not particularly sticky, perhaps just a little, as it is almost inevitable you'll get some on your hand if running and taking these gels in at the same time.  

They are caffeine free (which is a must for me now) and each contains 23g of carbohydrates.  The recommended dose if one every 20 minutes and this should be sufficient for anyone taking part in an endurance sport.

High 5 say these energy gels do not contain any ingredients with gluten.  There are no artificial sweeteners and the sweetness is from real fruit juices.

How I get on with these
Now I am used to these energy gels, I quite like to use them from time to time.  Normally I don't bother if it's just a shortish run of less than one hour.  I do find that when I'm running or cycling for 90 minutes I am starting to run a little dry so these energy gels come into their own then.  The beauty of these, of course, is that they're so easy to carry in a pocket or in one of the specially designed race belts where runners often have 6 - 10 gels ready for use.

As you can see from the above photo, I keep a supply of these in my car!  This is one of those cup holders in my Honda's dashboard.  Most people use these for drinks.  Some use these for sunglasses, hairbrushes and the like.  Me?  Energy gels!  This is so I am stocked up for an after-work-stress-busting-run and it's always nice to know they are there.

Sometimes the effect of these is subtle, other times I know I'm getting a real energy boost, almost as if someone has flicked a switch or pressed the turbo button.  It seems to take a good 15 to 20 minutes before these take effect, so it's worth bearing this in mind.  Being a gel, they are very easy to digest and I never feel as if I am full in any way.  When I did my last Marathon, I settled on about 2 each hour as a good balance but it's good to know I could take more if I needed to.  

There's a number of different flavours and the samples I received were lemon.  The taste isn't strong at all, quite subtle and fairly pleasant; there's nothing to dislike.

Wrapping up
These are great for using on-the-go in cycle or running events.  I don't tend to use them if I'm running or cycling for under 90 minutes; after this point they are useful for an easily digestable boost of energy.

Thanks to Adam Lowe of ProBikeHut for asking me to review these.  A pleasure.

Click for the ProBikeHut webpage.