Runner Paranoia

20140308-114102.jpgI tend to worry too much about a lot of things that don’t really matter. Whenever I’m planning for some work related event at which I will either get the credit or the blame, I usually prepare myself to get the blame when in actual fact things tend to work out well. This then clears the decks for me to start worrying about something else!

I like to think that running provides me with lots of time to forget about the things That are bothering me and have to admit that when I’m out on a long run with my mind wandering, I can generate all I kinds of new solutions to the things I worry about. However, just recently I’ve found myself worrying about things that wouldn’t be an issue if I’d stuck to my guns and remained the non-runner I’d been for most of my life:

1. Injury worries

I’m currently training for the London Marathon, having deferred my place from last year because I had a stress fracture. And now I worry I’m injured again. It’s not a stress fracture, it’s an ache at the top of my leg. I’ve tried stretching, ibuprofen and sports massage. I finally went to see the chiropractor who suggested I should pull out of last year’s marathon. She felt that this year’s injury was not terminal and with a few tweaks I could carry on getting marathon-ready. I did carry on, have done two half marathons at good times including a personal best but I still expect my left leg to drop off at any moment (it still hurts). I think about this more frequently than your average man thinks about sex. I need to deal with it!

2. Fundraising worries

These result from 1. I decided to raise money from my marathon efforts for a charity called CALM. Ironically, one of the reasons this charity exists is because a lot of men don’t deal very well with things they worry about. What I’m worried about here is that I will need to pull out of the marathon because of 1. And then I will need to explain this to the people who have already handed money over. This is stopping me from plugging my fundraising efforts and raising as much as I could. I need to deal with it!

3. Beetroot worries

I have learnt tolove tolerate the earthy taste of beetroot juice, the runner’s ambrosia. If you haven’t read the research then Google it now. But I sometimes forget about my beetroot addiction until I notice its unfortunate side effects. After the Reading Half Marathon last weekend, I think I traumatised a number of men I was sharing the urinal with as the Ribena coloured urine streamed past them in the Madejski Stadium toilets. When this was still happening later that evening I still had the words “internal bleeding” popping into my head until I’d managed to perform a reality check. I need to deal with it!

4. Parkrun volunteering worries

This is a new one. Today I volunteered at parkrun because I didn’t want to aggravate 1. and further jeopardise 2. It also meant I could avoid 3. for once and have a huge coffee before going out instead. I ended up scanning the barcodes as the runners finished, which allowed me to have flashbacks to my time as a checkout operator in Sainsbury’s all those years ago. That was until I realised they didn’t have scanners in Sainsbury’s when I worked there. It was that long ago. There were all kinds of glitches in today’s new role: a dodgy finishing token I had to watch out for and in no circumstances scan, people with barcodes which wouldn’t scan, people without barcodes, a moment when I scanned the finishing token before the runner’s barcode (a serious no-no). I am now worrying that some inadvertent error will mean I have ruined what felt like a really good start to the Saturdays of over 50 people. I will therefore not publish this blog until I see the results have been published. Once this has happened I will have dealt with it (until the next time)!

Tomorrow I aim run 19 miles and hope I make it home with two functioning legs. Beetroot juice will be involved and I wonder if the run will give me enough confidence to go all out to recruit more sponsors. I’m also hoping no disgruntled parkrunners spot me, jumping out of their cars to harangue me about their result or lack of it from today. Whatever happens, I definitely expect to generate more things to worry about, to fuel my Runner Paranoia.


Can parkrun be my religion?

20140201-233306.jpgI’ve resisted organised religion for many years, but towards the end of 2013 I decided that parkrun is the closest I’ve come to filling my spiritual void. I’ve recently found myself heading off for the same natural high at 9 a.m. every Saturday morning for 9 consecutive weeks.

I’ve got some friends who are committed followers of a more commonly accepted religion. Sometimes when we’ve gone away with them for the weekend, they’ve sought out the local church to go to a Sunday morning service. I used to find this odd, but one Saturday last December, I found myself 200 miles away from home and similarly seeking out the local parkrun. It then felt totally right to find myself doing three laps of an unfamiliar park with 280 people I did not know but with whom I shared a common bond.

Most Saturdays I meet the rest of the regular local “congregation”, a hard core who come every week along with the parkrun-curious and the recent converts. Parkrun is a highly inclusive religion. The only types of people not represented are those who will never quite be able to imagine themselves being up and out at such a ridiculous time on the first morning of the weekend. There are no expectations that people wear their “Saturday best”. Some are kitted out in state of the art gear but others wear whatever they’ve got to hand. I’ve seen one man photographed finishing a South London parkrun wearing stiff leather shoes and the kind of clothes that gave no indication whatsoever of someone planning to go out for a run.

So how does parkrun measure up when compared to the other great religions?:

Formal ceremonies: Registering and printing out your barcode is the first sign that you are considering heeding the call of parkrun. Then there’s the stages of confirmation that include the award of the 50 run red shirt or even the hallowed 100 run black shirt and jacket. Otherwise it’s all pretty informal.

A recognised leader: Paul Sinton-Hewitt, the founder of parkrun is the closest we have to this. His first event in 2004 included 13 runners. He seems oddly overlooked and low profile given that his initial idea has inspired what is expected to be up to 60,000 people running a UK parkrun every single week by the end of 2014. If he turned up at my local parkrun I doubt anyone would recognise him.

The network of Race Directors are the closest we get to “clergy”. They are distinguished by hi-viz jackets, but this is not usually in recognition of the many sacrifices made in their years of training. You or I could get to wear the garments of the “inner sanctum” just by emailing a race director and offering to scan a few barcodes.

A holy book I don’t believe there is such a thing when it comes to parkrun. No doubt one of the obsessive band of “parkrun tourists” (or should that read “pilgrims”?) who try to visit and run every one of the 200 plus events has something in the pipeline, but the weekly newsletter will have to suffice for now.

Sensitivity to blasphemy: One of the things I like about parkrun is its tolerance. We tolerate the quirky behaviour of other non-parkrunning park-users, even the ones who are clearly outraged that we dare to run in their park. The man who kicked a football smack between my legs during my first ever parkrun was only sworn at and wrestled to the ground in my imagination. The man who insisted on walking very slowly slap bang in the middle of the narrow path at last Saturday’s parkrun was not barged out of the way but politely negotiated by 180 runners wanting to get past him. In fact it’s very hard to upset the parkrun faithful, so long as you don’t ever claim to “win” an event or take to Twitter to berate the race director if the results are taking too long to get published.

Hymns: There is no rousing parkrun song of praise, although this one’s crying out for a rework:

Next Saturday I expect to find myself waking up in a hotel miles away from home after a going to a wedding on Friday (along with all the unathletic activity that’s likely to include). The one bit I was apprehensive about was having to miss my Saturday morning “enrichment”. However, after a quick check of the parkrun website, I was amazed to find out the hotel was 1.7 km away from a…’ve guessed it. As well as packing my suit and tie, my running shoes will be in my bag. It would be rude not to.

5Ks vs Me – An Update

I droned on about running 5Ks over the summer, how much I hated the distance, how little improvement I made, how I’d just run a personal worst, because it was “too hot”. So I resolved to learn to love them, using aversion therapy, otherwise known as doing more of them, more often. And as a bit of a motivator, anyone who’s read this blog before might remember the bottle of beer I was presented with, which I managed to restrain myself from drinking and promised to leave it unopened until I got a new 5k PB.

Two weeks after my personal worst, the new regime kicked in, with a visit to my local Parkrun, a couple of miles downhill bike ride away from home. Since then I’ve done 11 local Parkruns and it’s been a bit of a “journey” (well a 65 km journey if you include the other 2 races I’ve done for a bit of variety). As is the way with Parkrun, I’ve made friends of all ages and abilities and developed a few secret animosities, as people I thought I was on a par with got better and better, while I plateaued and then actually got worse.

Yes, for a period from September to November, my times got slower. The course was mildly challenging and got a bit tougher with the Autumn weather but I think it was reasonable to have assumed that I would slowly get stronger and faster over time.

When I used to get the bus to school, we often used to pass a physics teacher who was an early adopter, a trendsetter, one of the first ever “run-commuters”. At the time we thought he was deeply uncool and the fact he wore a rucksack on his back, with bricks in it, made us conclude he was probably bordering on insanity. I thought of this teacher from time to time as I toiled up the muddy Parkrun hill for the third and final time each Saturday morning. His logic was that if he learnt to cope while carrying a heavy weight, imagine how fleet footed he’d be when he got to run brick-free. My logic was that if I could gradually learn to cope with this course, then imagine how awesome I’d be when I tackled a flat, paved version.

And yesterday (spurred on by the fact that my unopened beer was “best before 31/12/13) was when I finally put my theory to the test. Putting aside the guilt I felt about “playing away” behind the back of my regular Parkrun, I strayed over to a different park, famous for its flatness. I’d been visualising this run regularly on the days leading up to it. I saw myself unhampered by hills or mud, running with ease, almost flying, with my feet barely touching the ground. In reality it was the usual slog, although a different kind of slog, probably because I assumed I could go just a little bit faster. I set my “virtual partner” on my Garmin to do 5K in the time it would take to equal my PB and although I felt I was giving it my all, it kept showing me tailing the bastard little digital stickman. The last mile was really heavy going, not only was I panting, I was audibly groaning with every breath. Fortunately I wasn’t drafting behind any real runners because they could justifiably have turned around to either check I wasn’t about to keel over and die or simply tell me to shut up.

I have to say that the finish line came into view a little earlier than I was used to but I wasn’t confident I’d made up for the deficit as I stumbled over it. As the faster runners stood around chatting casually as though they’d spectated rather than participated in a timed run, I vaguely remember stopping my watch, then grabbing a bollard to hold me up while I slowly returned to normality. When I thought to check my time, my watch showed 24:37, probably my fastest 5K this year but not the PB I craved. A few minutes later I checked my watch again and the time was now even worse – I clearly hadn’t stopped it properly.

When I got home, the official results were already on the website, and I’ll leave it to you to work out whether or not I’d finally smashed that PB……


Running Slow (on purpose)

imageToday I went running slowly on purpose. By slowly I don’t mean at a pace that many of us might call “easy”. This was on the borderline between “jogging” and “walking”. I was inspired by an article in this month’s Runner’s World, which can also be found at, about training in different heart rate zones and had been planning to give this a try for the past week.

Part One

This took place on Saturday morning when I planned to measure my resting heart rate by firing up the Garmin as soon as I woke up. I’d toyed with putting my heart rate monitor on before going to bed, but decided that despite 16 years of marriage, wearing an elastic strap around my chest under the duvet would take just a little too much explaining.

I think the lowest I managed to get my heart rate down to was about 39bpm but that took some doing after the excitement of the alarm clock going off mixed with the anxiety caused by the prospect of the morning’s Parkrun. I hadn’t worn the HRM for some time and doing it up and adjusting it suddenly put me in mind of Pat Wright and Dave Arrowsmith:

Once I’d finished amusing myself by talking in a poor Middlesborough accent about my “bra”, the next stage was to find out my maximum heart rate. With my 5K complete, as I clung on to a tree trunk until I was able to stand without support (that’s how we all recover from Parkruns right? Right?), I discovered that today’s effort had led to a maximum heart rate of 189bpm. Later on I programmed the Garmin with my personal heart rate zones in anticipation of the fun-packed geeky running activities that lay ahead.

Part Two

Various domestic and work related stresses got in the way of trying my Slow Run until six days later, when working from home gave me the opportunity to do a cheeky lunchtime run in the style of Leonard from Butterflies. Despite the fact it was nearly dark at 2pm and pouring with November rain, I made it out of the door and set out to do about 4 miles in “Zone 2”, which in my case was 110-130 BPM. The point of running at this speed is that apparently you will be fuelling your muscles with fat and oxygen. Therefore you’re tuning up your aerobic system, it improves endurance and uses very little glycogen. Whatever that means.

The kind of speed I think I go when recovering from fast intervals turned out to be too fast. The Garmin kept shrieking at me: “Heart Rate Too High”, making the blood pump around my veins even faster with irritation. I started to run almost as if in slow motion. After about a mile I finally got into the Zone 2 Groove, possibly because I was now more relaxed and breathing more efficiently in classic, slow running style.

However this was soon undermined by a very gentle hill which got the heart rate up and my Garmin wailing again. Crossing the road, being close to lots of traffic, the sight of other human beings, wiping the rain drops off the end of my nose all seemed to increase the BPMs. Runners of various speeds overtook me, probably wondering why someone going so slowly could be so interested in his Garmin. Every time this happened I unconsciously sped up to try and catch them, only to be chastised by the “Heart Rate Too High” alarm.

I felt like I could have kept going all day but it all felt a bit pointless and the scenery wasn’t changing fast enough. I’d run at my slowest speed ever and it hadn’t been slow enough. My average BPM was 10 beats above target. What a failure!

After 3.5 miles I’d had enough. I pressed “Stop” and ran the mile or so back home at a “normal” speed, oblivious to what my heart was up to. A “junk mile” that felt so much better.

Alternative Running Role Models #5: Steve Austin – The Six Million Dollar Man

20131026-003427.jpgThe Six Million Dollar Man was a tv series in the late 1970s which never failed to disappoint. Those in the know knew that there was no point bothering watching the programme – this followed Steve Austin’s bionic lifestyle which basically entailed being able to jump any height (in slow motion), look at distant objects close-up (using the zoom lens in his bionic eye), and run as fast as he liked (again in slow motion).

We used to play at being Steve Austin in the school playground, which coincidentally involved running (in slow motion), using our bionic eye (which entailed staring hard at somebody and making an “eh-eh eh-eh-eh” sound) and to give things a bit of a twist, fighting (yes, you guessed it, in slow motion). I don’t remember any story lines in the Six Million Dollar Man. I do remember the introduction of a Bionic Dog (an Alsatian which ran and jumped, in slow motion), and a Bionic Woman. I can’t remember if the bionic man and woman were a bionic item or whether Lindsay Wagner was the star of a bionic spin-off

The programme was never as good as the opening credits which showed Lee Majors trapped in a space rocket, crashing, and then being rebuilt as a bionic man, presumably for something close to $6 million. This was the only part of the show where we saw Steve Austin show us what he was really capable of. In the clip, at about 1:15 you can see Steve running very fast indeed in a nice, red, old-school track suit.

Some people at my school thought that the programme’s director had simply sped up the film for dramatic effect but since having taken up running I know different. I am now convinced that they’d taken Steve to a race and filmed his last minute sprint when he’d noticed that someone on the finishing line had a camera. I know this because I like to think I look just like the Six Million Dollar Man when I turn up the pace and almost catch up with a nine year old in the last 100 metres of my local Parkrun.

Next time I’m lying on the grass, head spinning, “a man barely alive” after yet another failed attempt at finish line glory, hopefully a passing scientist will offer to rebuild me.

5Ks vs Me – the battle continues

20130807-095755.jpgA few weeks ago I registered my slowest ever 5K time on a hot Sunday morning in East London. Chastened, I resolved to learn to love the distance using aversion therapy, turning up at races at a moment’s notice and trying to find a strategy to enjoy what thousands of others do every Saturday at their local Parkrun. As a little incentive, I stashed away the bottle of beer I received for finishing the 5K on that fateful day, not to open it until I I improved upon the best time I’d set in April 2013.
Since then it’s been a matter of two mid foot struck steps forward, three heel struck steps back with two local Parkruns completed in quick succession. My nearest Parkrun is a comparative toughy, three laps around a grassy playing field with a moderate hill on each lap. I figured that if I could slowly improve my times there, I could then show up at an otherwise “easier” course, smash that PB and open that beer bottle.

After a saintly Friday night with plenty of “helpful” rather than “ironic” hydration, I decided to cycle the couple of miles to the park in an attempt to warm up those weakened weekend limbs. I also tried the last minute caffeine hit tactic, downing a double espresso an hour before the start following the wholemeal toast and honey strategy an hour before that. It was a warm summer’s morning but not as hot as it had been a fortnight before so conditions were ok but not perfect. And progress was made – 20 seconds faster than the “personal worst”!

With the target just a little closer, I had to capitalise so last Saturday I returned to the starting line, making it two consecutive Parkruns in a fortnight. I’d even done some tfast intervals on the preceding Monday and a challenging club run on the Wednesday. However, the night before, I allowed some complacency to creep in, fuelling up on Nando’s and craft beer followed by a late night sleeping on a sofa bed with what felt like an iron bar sticking into my back.

Otherwise the preparation was the same: toast, caffeine, bike, gentle start, “sprint” finish. The result? 9 seconds slower than my personal worst. Back to the drawing board.

I think I need a new strategy and have been dipping into a comprehensive list of ideas on the 5krunner blog which could have been written especially for me. After a couple of weeks of taking it easy I’m going to launch into half marathon training, following a programme rather than the makingitupasIgoalong approach of the past few months. This will mean regular speedwork rather than the less reliable “do a bit of panting a few days before, that’s bound to make me faster” approach. I’m also going to try to keep turning up at random Parkruns but also trying some of the following to see if they help me to get that beer bottle open before its sell-by date:

– Mini-tapers
– Proper warming up
– Pay more attention to what my Garmin is telling me
– Get some lighter shoes
– Get to a race on a cooler day
– Beetroot shots?

Watch this space

Alternative Running Role Models #1 – Leonard out of Butterflies

This month’s Runner’s World has a feature on “running heroes”, but for some reason, there was no mention of Leonard from Butterflies. Leonard was the first amateur runner I can remember appearing on TV. This was in an era when families regularly crowded around their televisions to watch duels between the likes of Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe. “Runners” were super-human, people that you were astounded by, not people you ever thought you might be able to emulate.

Butterflies was a BBC sitcom starring Wendy Craig as Ria, who juggled her role as a suburban housewife with a nagging feeling that maybe she was destined for a life less mundane. She lived with her dentist husband (played by Geoffrey Palmer, one of very few celebrities I’ve seen travelling on the London Underground) and two half-heartedly rebellious teenage sons. Ria spends two series contemplating the idea of having an affair with Leonard, a recently separated businessman, but as far as I can remember, never quite goes that far (hang on, I’ve got a vague recollection of a scene involving Wendy Craig, away from home, looking guilty, wearing nothing but a dressing gown…..quick, get on with the running related bit…)

You can find whole episodes of Butterflies on YouTube and fast forwarding through a few programmes, I can’t imagine the BBC will ever bother doing a re-run. The reason I was browsing Butterflies was because I was trying to find out how my hazy memory of Leonard running around the park compared with how he really appeared “back in the day”. There are no Google images of actor Bruce Montague plodding around, just a few latter day publicity shots and an ancient signed photo someone had offloaded on eBay.

My memory was of a podgy middle-aged man, huffing and puffing in a baggy shell-suit. The reality was that he was probably 5 years younger than I am now (everyone aged over 30 looked on the verge of retirement to me back in the 1970s and 80s). The podginess was imagined although he was certainly no beanpole. Leonard was also able to put on a burst of speed – check out how he zooms up the hill at 13:02 in this clip:

It was probably (thankfully) a pre-shell-suit era. Leonard actually had a nice line in (flared) Adidas tracksuits, slightly let-down by his failure to wear anything underneath – Leonard probably ran naked from the waist up on a hot sunny day.

His unique selling point as a runner was how he got to the park for his lunchtime workouts/failed seductions of Ria. He didn’t jog there gently as a warm up, he didn’t get the bus or drive. No, Leonard got his chauffeur to drop him off, who then had to wait (in the kind of vehicle you wouldn’t expect to be driven by a chauffeur) until his boss flopped back into the car, his fartlek ticked off on the training programme. You can see Leonard being delivered at the park gates by Thomas the chauffeur, as well as probably predating the concept of the “Santa run” at 0:58 here:

Leonard (surname unknown), chauffeur-driven park running pioneer, Alternative Running Role Model #1, we salute you.