Marathoniversary

Dopey 2016 finisher photo

5 years ago we finished our first marathon and our first Dopey Challenge. There’s a string of blog posts about that experience starting with this one. I wasn’t sure how I would feel about the marathoniversary this year. Partly because I am not really running and partly because we were supposed to be there now and should have run the marathon in Florida today. But the universe had other ideas and as things stand I am grateful that we are not there and that I did not have pull out of or cancel the marathon because given the health issues and lack of running I wouldn’t have been able to get ready anyway.

So, all in all it has been a positive day full of happy or at least positive memories and thoughts. Every now and again I have got a bit grumpy or sad. I have felt annoyed at myself for losing fitness and not building on the Dopey and marathon experience but then I reminded myself that I have built on it, that I have learned a lot and that I didn’t lose it all. I completed another 3 marathons after that including another Dopey in 2019. So most of the time I was thinking about the sense of achievement. I still have a sense of wonder at the idea that we ran 48.6 miles over 4 days only about 12 months after not being able to run 100 metres and being so unfit that walking any sort of distance wasn’t really fun. My memories from Dopey 2 are more fun in a way. It was less overwhelming, I was fitter, I knew what was coming, the conditions were better (less hot) and I kept my sense of humour through ESPN Wild World of sport, the sense of achievement from Dopey 1 is something special.

Before Dopey 1 and that marathon I had absolutely no clue whether I could do that distance. In fact the safest assumption based on a year of running, was that I probably couldn’t. When stepping up the distance during that training cycle I had so many fails at the new distance the first time round but on marathon day there was no second chance, no having another go tomorrow. I also never really believed. I didn’t believe I was going to finish, never mind finish within the allowed time for the challenge until I actually did. And on that first attempt I had nothing to draw on. I generally don’t really believe I have done 4 marathons, if you asked me run 5km tomorrow I am not sure I would believe I could do it. Running still very much is something other people do. I am not quite sure what it is I think I do. I just struggle to see myself as a runner, as a marathon finisher, as a Double Dopey. I have to actively remind myself that I did that and that it is a big deal. I have to force myself to remember that I worked for it, that it took lots and lots of little steps that eventually, collectively took me to the finish line. Now, though I have that memory bank. I can force myself to remember what it took to finish the marathon. I can remember that one foot in front of the other really does get you there. I didn’t have that on the first one. It was just step after step into the unknown.

Reflecting on that first marathon today made me realise how often I go back to it, how often I draw on it. Sometimes it isn’t the memory as such but the emotion linked to the achievement. There is something so powerful about knowing that you did something impossible. There is an unshakable calm that comes with knowing that nobody can take that achievement away, that you made a point that wipes out decades of negativity about what your body looks like and can do from others and from yourself. There is something special in knowing that you can just keep going, that it’s ok for things to get tough, for things to hurt and for things to seem impossible. It doesn’t matter. Sometimes it is fun to do the impossible.

And running has felt impossible lately. I really wanted to get going after our run on the 1st January but then it got really icy and I just don’t do ice. I think Covid-19 added another layer of anxiety about the possibility of slipping and hurting myself and putting pressure on medical services. I also didn’t really have any long pants that fit well. So that was another excuse not to go out in the cold. I ordered a bigger pair of Alpkit Koulin Trail tights and they arrived the other day so no excuse there anymore. I’ve been doing my Body Coach App workouts so I wasn’t as worried about not running as I might have been but still, I wanted to be able to go out and enjoy running again. So today, with the ice mostly gone and the roads definitely clear I decided I wanted to try my 2 mile run in spite of not having done any of my runs during the week. Kath came with me. The first mile is all downhill so I decided I would see if I could run it all. I did give myself permission to change my mind though. But I didn’t need to. The first mile felt lovely. I didn’t feel like I was taking it easy as such but I also didn’t feel like I was pushing the pace. I was just running. It was almost exactly a 12 minute mile. It’s been a long time since I have run that mile in that time.

After the first mile I was just going to turn round and run/walk back up the hill but the road was quite busy so we kept going to run a loop instead and dropped into run/walk intervals of 30 seconds each. I managed the intervals to the bottom of the proper hill and walked up that while Kath ran up and had a rest at the top and then we ran home on the intervals. The last bit was quite tough but I just kept thinking about that marathon and the fact that I only had another couple of minutes, not another hour or more to go. If I could get myself through ESPN Wide World of Sport and finish from there, I can do another couple of 30 second intervals. It worked and I am very happy to have run today.

West Yorkshire December Outings

Odin hiding

It’s a Sunday in December. It feels cold. It has been grey all day and I am not sure it ever really got light. There’s been wet stuff falling from the sky or just hanging in the air and even our youngest two cats don’t want to go outside. It’s the sort of weather that would usually make me pull the duvet over my head and hide, reach for more mince pies and just alternate mugs of coffee, tea, hot chocolate and hot water until it is time for a hot bath a hot water bottle and bed. In short, it’s a West Yorkshire December Sunday.

A run today certainly would have been, erm, let’s say bracing and actually if fitter I might have quite enjoyed a relatively speedy sheep loop followed by a shower and lounging in front of the fire. But I am not fit and speedy isn’t an option at the moment. But just staying in wasn’t an option either because Kath and I are doing the Lakeland Lapland Festive Virtual Ultra. It started on 7pm on the 10th and runs to the 22nd December and in that time we need to cover a total of 234km between us as Team Double Dopey. It works out at 9.75km each every day for 12 days (with the cushion of a 13th day if we need it because of the activity upload window they allow). My plan was always to walk mostly as I really wasn’t sure how I would be doing at this point. The plan was also for Kath to cover most of the distance and me to contribute as much as I can. And that is pretty much how it is working out.

The challenge has been good for getting us out of the house more than we would have otherwise. We started with a walk round the neighbourhood on the 10th, then we had a run each and a joint walk on the 11th and yesterday we both ran and today we walked together. I spent most of yesterday being disappointed with my run and most of today being quite proud of it. I changed the running intervals from 15 seconds to 30 seconds and thought I would run our sheep loop with an added loop we call the farm loop. It goes along the canal but instead of out and back along the canal it loops round some back streets and through a farm yard.

I managed the intervals quite well. I slowed to slower than slow snail’s pace through the muddy bits down the hills and my feet were getting sore because I tense them too much but it was all fine. I stopped at a canal bridge to chat to one of our friends and while there saw Kath coming back from the farm loop. She stopped too, briefly and then I set off again and she came with me to keep me company on the rest of my run. I’d got cold so getting going again took a bit of effort. I didn’t make the farm loop but did a shorter out and back and kept the intervals going until just after 5km. Then I walked the remaining 2km home to make sure I didn’t injure anything that was niggling. I am happy with that – though I wasn’t yesterday – it’s a good run/walk effort and I keep forgetting just how poorly I was and how much better I am doing. Patience…

We finished yesterday on exactly 50km. Today My legs felt tired but mostly my feet were both quite sore. My right calf muscle also felt tight. That and one look at the weather meant I decided I wasn’t going to run today but would get wrapped up for a walk instead. Kath agreed. So we set off in the grey drizzle that, over the course of our nearly 11km, just got worse and worse. We both grumbled a bit about being cold and my feet were a bit tender in sections but it was also really nice to be outside. Towards the end we started talking about having hot chocolate to warm us up when we got in and somehow just that in itself was lovely. The anticipation of hot chocolate and dry socks is something powerful indeed. The last km or so was quite tough. I was tired. Part of me was grumpy about that. I have no business being tired after a 10km walk that wasn’t even marching or striding out but I am trying to be kind. I am still recovering and slowly slowly building fitness. The last bit was also into a headwind that was driving the now quite heavy rain straight into our faces so it wasn’t much fun. But then we were home and quite soon we were warming up from the inside with hot chocolate (80Noir Ultra of course) and our feet were dry and cozy and the daily distance for the Lakeland Lapland ultra were in the bag. And that feels like a good day.

A minor plod and a major bra malfunction

Late morning today I decided I wanted to head out and add some kms to Team Double Dopey’s efforts in the Lakeland Lapland Festive Ultra which Kath and I signed up to in what must have been a fit of madness. 234km between us over 12 days. Yep fine. Not an issue… aaaargh. Anyway I will do a separate post on that adventure in due course. For now, the plan was simply to add a few miles to our total.

I set off with my 15 second run/45 walk alert set and in spite of the very grey day it felt nice to be out. Sometimes I really like low visibility – it means I can’t see how far I potentially have to go and it pushes me to just stay in the moment. Right there. Not even thinking about the next step, just this one. As I set off I realised I was bored of 15 seconds. I decided I would just slowly run the first part of the route without walking. It’s all downhill. I thought it might be nice to see if I could manage that without being too knackered later on. I know I have a tendency to go too fast or miss too many walk breaks early on so I agreed with myself (it was a conversation, I’m an awkward sod even with myself) that I would run no further than to the point where my route levels off – probably just over half a mile in. I did as I was told (by me).

It was happy running. I gently made my way down the hill and it actually felt good not to be stop-starting. I went very slowly, conscious that I haven’t run for any length of time for quite a while. It felt good. Comfortable, familiar. I got the the bottom of the hill and levelled off and used the walk breaks. So ok I was breathing a little harder but I was hardly really out of breath. That’s so exciting to write. I was not out of breath! I haven’t been able to say that about walking upstairs for some time! So I was on a happy plod and settling into my intervals. All was good and as I turned a corner and headed for another slight downhill I decided to try another couple of minutes of running. Towards the end of that run something didn’t feel quite right. I couldn’t work out what, took the next walk break and then set off again and then I realised: My boobs were not as contained as they should be. In fact they were well on their way to escaping completely and given the running, not entirely happy with their new found freedom and bounce.

My breasts had been granted their freedom by the zip on my bra most definitely not staying zipped. It was millimetres from coming undone completely. It was not in a place where it could discreetly be pulled back up, no, that would not have been 2020 enough. My route, deserted until this point had of course also become busy. I stopped to walk and smiled at the runner coming towards me. Once he passed there was a short window of opportunity in which I could unzip my jacket, untuck my top, reach under and re-engage and pull up the zip before a dog walker would round the corner and be in full view. If I got this wrong, the dog walker would get rather more than he bargained for when he set off on his walk. I was also banking on the two cyclists behind me staying put and continuing their conversation rather than setting off again and coming past me and on the couple walking in the same direction in front of me not turning round. Operation ‘put breasts back in place’ was a success and I think the only one who got an eye full was the dog running ahead of its human.

Picture from Sainsburys.co.uk

I tried to run a bit more but the zip had clearly had enough of keeping the escapees in and every time I ran more than about 5 steps it gave up a little. So lesson learned: Whatever the marketing crap says – sports bras with a zip at the front should never leave the house. In case you want to know, it was a Sainsbury’s Active Non Wired Sports Bra. I’ve worn it for yoga and for some HIIT workouts too and I actually really liked it before today. It has never shown signs of neglecting its duties before and I haven’t had it long enough or worn it often enough for it to be tired, jaded or bored of its job just yet. I suppose it just doesn’t like running. Well once I have finished sulking with it, it can go on yoga duty. I suppose I should just be grateful that it is December so even if I were the sort of runner who runs in just a sports bra, I wouldn’t have been out in just the bra on a day like today. Although if I had I might have noticed the issue a bit sooner.

Anyway, that didn’t go to plan but the end result is a rather pleasing looking distance.

I ran

I wasn’t really expecting to tell you this again this year! I had moments where I hoped and the odd glimmer of total madness where I dared to plan. But I didn’t really believe I would manage another actual run this year. When I last wrote I was testing the fitness water with some HIIT sessions at home – well parts of HIIT sessions. Well they felt sort of awful and I felt not quite right and weird. And then one day, about 10 days ago I managed all 3 sets, and it didn’t feel weird. It just felt hard. It felt like being unfit and not being used to any of the exercises and like maybe having started on the mince pies just a little too early this year. It felt familiar. My body does unfit really well. It understands what it feels like and what is asked of it. It grumbles in all the usual places and ways when asked to do something about it. It wobbles and creaks a little and grumbles but it also secretly knows which bits will be slightly less wobbly first, which bits need nursing along and which bits just need to get over themselves. It knows my thighs lie when they say ‘can’t’ but that my shoulders know their limitations and ignoring a ‘can’t’ from them is likely to result in a dropped weight or face plant. It also knows that my hips are quite bendy, my hamstrings are not. Being unfit and starting to get fitter is familiar territory, I was beginning to come home.

So if the HIIT sessions just felt hard but not being-poorly-weird then there was no real reason I couldn’t have a go at a run. Running feels scarier simply because I have to leave the house. If I don’t feel well I still have to get home; there might be other people (rude!) and there are other things to think about like traffic, curbs, potholes, dogs, cars, wheelie bins with minds of their own… so I made a very very gentle plan:

  • Week 0: Complete 4 HIIT sessions
  • Week 1 (now): 2 runs of 30 minutes running only 10 seconds of every minute; 1 longer run -same running interval
  • Week 2: 2 runs of 30 minutes running 15 seconds of every minute; 1 longer run using same intervals
  • Week 3: 2 runs of 30 minutes running 20 seconds of every minute; 1 longer run using same intervals
  • Week 4: 2 runs of 30 minutes running 30 seconds walking 30 seconds; 1 longer run 30/30 on Christmas morning

The I panicked about everything and did very little. Out of the 4 sessions I managed 2 and I struggled to get out to run. It’s now Thursday of Week 1 and after a day of pottering about in the kitchen baking I decided it was time. I found a pair of new New Balance long pants I bought a century or so ago (it’s 2020, time is meaningless) and got wrapped up warm. Then I went to set my watch and discovered that I couldn’t set a 10 second/50 second alert – it would have to be 15 /45 seconds or I’d have to set up a new workout to upload first. Hm. Ok well 15 seconds run it had to be then.

Kath came with me and we agreed just to do an out and back to the end of the road section of our sheep loop. It wouldn’t be quite half an hour but it would be a good start. So that’s what we did. 15 seconds of running – really concentrating on running form and going at a decent pace. It was pretty good. It wasn’t easy but my legs remember how to run and actually they weren’t too grumpy about having to move a bit faster and get the knees a bit higher and my lungs didn’t protest too much either. 1.5 miles all in and I am looking forward to the next one. I ran.

Coming Back?

It has been a rough three months since I last posted. I am off work with a mental health blip (I am not going to discuss that directly here) and physically things did not go to plan. The August attempts to get running again failed, I never made it past the 8 minute runs, then I couldn’t even make a minute and eventually I spoke to the doctor. I have had a whole series of tests including detailed blood works, ECG and chest X-ray, I’ve monitored peak flow and been prodded, poked and interrogated. Fundamentally there is nothing physically wrong with me. That’s good of course but it doesn’t explain how I have struggled since the spring to get going again and why everything has just felt so impossibly hard. It also doesn’t explain why my heart rate continues to be stubbornly high when I try even the most gentle exercise or why I get breathless walking upstairs. The doctor’s best guess – post viral something or other. It might not be Covid-19 after effects but it might be – I don’t know whether I have had it or not. Whatever it is, I wanted to try and share with you what it feels like to go from relatively fit and running pretty regularly to barely being able to go for a walk to struggling to get going again…

Some days now I think I am getting better. Other days the tiredness is almost paralysing. Anyway, if you’ve read this blog before you know all about my love/hate relationship with running and all things fitness. You know I have never been super fit, have always been a slow plodder and you know that 2020 has been much much more miss than hit in terms of running. So the reality is that post marathon number 4 in 2019 I lost fitness. But I had a reasonable level of fitness that allowed me to take things for granted. Things I did not have to think or worry about:

  • Running 5km, getting round a parkrun course or similar route
  • run/walking 10km or even 10 miles
  • walking any distance at all really
  • getting to the top of a hill
  • Keeping up with others as I walk
  • Running upstairs
  • Having a go at a strength/conditioning session or gym class
  • Feeling capable and feeling relatively strong
  • getting day to day stuff done

Now I do. Worry I mean. About all of those things. I can no longer run. After some vague attempts and frustrating stop starts all year, in August I was trying to build up again. But I got worse rather than better. I was very out of breath, heart rate was high and I felt dizzy and faint just trying to run a minute. When I got home from any sort of exercise – even just a short walk – I was physically so tired I could barely move off the sofa for the rest of the day and the next day I’d wake up aching and sore like I had run a half marathon over tricky terrain. I felt so weak and unfit that I worried about getting round the supermarket doing the food shop. I also felt stupid. And I felt scared. My attempts to go back to basics and failing even at that and feeling so poorly had made me scared to go out and try in case there was something seriously wrong. I also worried about work. To get through a day of work I had to basically not move and hope that at the end of the day I might just have enough energy left to do some gentle yoga. I had to pause chutney making to have a rest because I had been standing for too long. Once I dozed off at my desk.

I have written about the problem of shifting your mindset away from numbers/weight onto focusing what your body can do when you find yourself not being able to do previously I think. This feeling just got worse. It was partly about being concerned about what health issues were causing the symptoms but it was more than that. It is demoralising to suddenly be unable to do things you could easily do before. It made trying feel a bit pointless because I kept failing, kept not managing even silly things or just about managing them and then being out for the rest of the day because I walked 100 metres to the postbox and back. So I spent a little while doing nothing at all.

A series of medical tests later and really I am none the wiser other than that the tests have ruled out anything serious and have confirmed that I am safe to exercise. I am still not right but I am now less scared. But where do you start when you have nothing? I realised that when I previously talked about starting running from no fitness base that wasn’t quite true. When I started running, I could walk. I might have been fat and unfit but not so unfit that I would worry about the idea of going for a walk. I think maybe I am getting a little better, maybe doing nothing for a while was actually needed, maybe it helped. I can now walk on the flat, fairly slowly, without too much concern or worry about distance. I struggle to walk fast and I struggle on hills but I can walk. I am less often out of breath going upstairs, I have managed the first set of 8 exercises of a HIIT class and am working my way up to getting through 2 sets and eventually all 3. I am no longer as fatigued as I was or as tired from just standing. It’s progress of sorts.

It’s hard to untangle the mental health stuff going on. Much of it is caused and shaped by work related stuff I can’t really write about here. And of course these things cannot be separated anyway, I feel worse because I can’t exercise and I can’t exercise as much because I feel worse and round and round we go. But I think there are some things that are specific to the complete loss of fitness. It’s a funny mixture of hope and despair. In some ways building fitness now feels easier than when I started running. I have done it once. More than once. I got myself marathon fit. I can do it again. There’s hope there. If I am not actually ill, if the worst post viral hangover is this fatigue that led to a complete loss of fitness then I am one of the lucky ones, nothing is damaged, fitness can be regained. Hope. But fitness once lost is elusive. Having been fit and losing it is almost worse than never having been fit. It’s not that hard work bothers me, it’s that I know how hard it is mentally to get to from here to a level where exercise slowly begins to be fun again and real progress can be made, where it is more than a chore, more than trying and failing again and again. Getting to that level means lots and lots of work before the improvements start coming, before the weakness turns into strength, before even the modified moves in workouts become possible and I dare dream of the unmodified ones. It is so discouraging, so disheartening and so damn frustrating to fail a beginners workout or run one of couch to 5km.

And don’t give me the ‘it’s not failing’ crap. It is. It is failing. And it is horrible. And I will have to fail and fail again repeatedly until one day I fail at a slightly later point and then maybe a later point again until eventually I finish the workout or the run. It’s hard not to feel that trying is pointless. Results don’t come quickly when I have to go this slowly and gently and carefully. Focusing on what I can do rather than what I look like or what the numbers say is not helpful – the answer is I can’t do anything…but of course ‘anything’ is relative. But try and remember that when your black puppy has grown into a full size giant dog and is slowly pulling you down into darkness with its firm hold on your wonder woman cape. Maybe Edna Mode (The Incredibles) is right and capes are a bad idea. But that’s another story.

So in short, being in this position feels awful, frustrating, disheartening and often pointless. So it can’t be about feeling, it has to be about logic and about experience. And we’re back to trusting a process, trusting a plan and ticking things off until failing outright turns into failing a little less and then turns into completing and then into doing well and eventually into enjoying. I know that’s how it works, I’ve done this before. One day and one step at a time. Hope?