Running a half marathon

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A year ago today I ran the Hackney Half Marathon – my first race at that distance (actually only my second true race at any distance). I was fit – a week before I’d done the Finsbury Park Parkrun in 23 minutes and 17 seconds, a PB I am yet to beat. I felt great at the start and ran fast – too fast, as I even knew at the time but couldn’t get myself to slow down properly. I ran the first 10km in what was, until a month ago, my PB. If I had kept that up I’d have finished somewhere at around 1 hour 50 minutes.

By 15km I was slowly badly, by 17km I was desperate. By 19km I could run no more and was walking. I did run most of the last 1000 metres and I certainly ran over the line, but I was in a terrible state and nearly fainted. The finishing time – 2 hours 15 minutes – was a real disappointment, but at least I had done it. But never again, surely.

My second run at this distance was the Royal Parks Half Marathon last October. For the first 10km I followed the 1 hour 55 minutes pacer but after that I couldn’t keep up – I had not prepared as well for this race as the Hackney half and that fundamental lack of fitness had let me down, but still I wasn’t doing too badly.

Coming into the final mile both my legs buckled. I knew I had to walk. After a few hundred metres I tried running again only to get a very painful attack of cramp. I walked to about the 800 metres-to-go mark and started running again, slowly. I made it over the line. But whereas I’d got to 20k in 2 hours and a minute, it was 2 hours and 12 minutes before I finished.

And now I had really injured myself quite badly. Not badly as in get to hospital but badly as in blisters on both feet (don’t rely on Nike’s running socks), bad chafing – something like this – fixes that and most seriously of all, I had very painful Achilles’s Tendons. I didn’t run again at all for two weeks and, effectively, my 2014 running season was over.

Roll around 2015 and two big pieces of technology come into my life. Firstly the Garmin Forerunner 10 – a simple but very easy to use runners’ watch which meant I could really judge my pace properly and then, perhaps even more importantly, a Karrimor Roller which has worked wonders on my legs and hence my Achilles’s Tendons.

So, last week I ran the St. Albans Half Marathon. I had a realistic target – a 5′ 50″ per kilometre pace – and a means to judge whether I was hitting it or not. That wouldn’t take me under two hours, but it would take me close and it was realistic and achievable on what was a very tough course. I prepared properly – tapering even when I wanted to run. And I did it: 2 hours, 3 minutes and 34 seconds – a 5′ 50″ pace.

I still made mistakes – too fast (about 5′ 40″ pace) for much of the start and running the end in a semi-zombified state due to, fundamentally, mental weakness. But it was good.

Even better – I’ve run 30km in the last week – so no injuries.

Struggling to return to form

Last October I ran in the Royal Parks Half Marathon – with the aim of finishing in under two hours. By the time I got to the final mile it was obvious I was not going to make that, but I was actually doing quite well – and then my legs buckled and I sort of walked, ran and hobbled my way to a 2 hours 12 minutes finish (I was at 20k at about 2 hours and 1 minute).

My injuries weren’t that serious but I did have problems walking without painful calves for more than a few weeks, and my Achilles’s Tendons were sore for longer. All-in-all a bit of a disaster. Running all but stopped and even though I was still going to the gym I managed to put on about 7kg in weight (not helped by Christmas excesses – and US portions).

I did not really help myself – I refused to rest the injury properly and kept trying to run – which usually resulted in poor performance and renewed inflammation.

But by the turn of this year I thought I was in a good enough place to really try again. And I am back running…

….but I am still struggling with it.

Last spring, in the run up to my first half marathon I was running close to 50k a week and I remember thinking I could manage running 10k every day. All that feels like a very long time ago.

Since 1 January I have gone out a few times with the intention of running 10k but have yet to manage it – the latest failure was today when a blister (wrong socks) combined with willpower failure to make me stop at 7k (if I had worn the correct socks maybe I would have made it – and stopping was the right thing to do, but it also felt like a good excuse).

To be sure, the cold weather (this winter is colder than last, though today, at last, had an air of spring about it) doesn’t help, but getting that extra 1, 2 or 3 k in seems like a very tall order just now.

I am turning in decent pace, though – at least for training runs (I’m never going to trouble any leader board). But I haven’t made much progress in shifting the weight – I’ve knocked about 2 kilos off from the very worst, but I am still a fair bit heavier than a year ago.

It’s all a bit disappointing really. Perhaps I was too optimistic about how quickly I could recover and should just keep plugging away?


All in the mind?

Running the Hackney half marathonFor the last 14 months running has been a big thing in my life – with the pinnacle (in distance, if not speed) being my completion of the Hackney half marathon in June (the picture is of me struggling to get through the 10th mile).

The core run each week has been the Finsbury (or occasionally some other) parkrun – an approximate 5km timed run.

The Finsbury Park course is famously tough – two laps of one long, relatively  gentle climb and one short, relatively steep hill.

Back in June, in heavy training for the Hackney half, I got my PB down to 23 minutes and 17 seconds on that course. Since then I have run it three times – every time worst than the last and every time above 25 minutes (today’s was a very bad 25’59”).

Training runs, too, have not been distinguished by speed (though I am gradually returning to longer distances as I train for the Royal Parks half marathon in October – sponsor me (for Oxfam) here) and two 10k races have shown me post times that were slower than the first 10k race I ran (which was in May).

What’s gone wrong? Running performance is pretty much all in the mind or at least it is about the mind’s tolerance of pain and discomfort – and I just do not want it badly enough, I think. Today I did a pretty decent first lap – the GPS on the phone is a bit iffy, typically reporting too fast a time/over-reporting the distance run, but I managed the first 2.5km in about 11’50” – not brilliant but not a million miles from that PB time, but then I effectively decided I didn’t like the discomfort much and so the second lap was in around 14’08”.

The thing is, I had gone out this morning with the intention of ending my run of worsening performances, but in the end just didn’t want that enough. I can try again next week, I suppose.


A vision in yellow

Some locations in the London Borough of Hackney.
Some locations in the London Borough of Hackney. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yesterday I ran in the Hackney Half Marathon – my first ever race at that distance. It was a very hot day and I ran a poor race – I had aimed to keep a 5’30” pace per kilometre but in fact ran the first 7km faster than that and ran the first 10km three seconds faster than the 10km I ran last month: not very clever.

I ended up paying the price – going into meltdown at about 11 miles, though I did finish and that’s something to be proud of.

But it is fair to say I was in something of a state by the time I crossed the line, in 2:15:45 (my hope had been for something around 1:55).

Desperate for some sort of energy restoring drink (I missed the energy drink handout on the way round, possibly because by that point – at 8 miles – I was already approaching zombie runner state) I flopped to the ground and drank the “energy” drink I’d been given (actually I think it had little calorific value and the energy it claimed verged on new age mysticism).

Only feeling slightly better I decided to head off to the bag collection point, knowing I had two genuinely sugary Lucozade bottles in my bag.

As I stood up I seemed to get cramp in every muscle in both legs and then – strangely – my vision was washed a sort of sepia yellow.

I didn’t feel faint – particularly (though it’s fair to say I wasn’t fully compos mentis either) – but I did think, “oh here we go”. But the moment passed quite quickly – especially as I knew I had to complete standing up to end the pain in the legs – and I staggered off.

Since then I have read that this is quite likely to be caused by low blood pressure – or, less likelier, by hypoglycaemia. Low blood pressure might seem an odd cause in that I’d just undertaken some extremely strenuous exercise – but I dare say blood pressure in my brain was quite low, with blood diverted to my limbs, and suddenly lowered further by the effort of standing.

It was a stark reminder, though, of the way that our vision of the world is completely internally created. “Colours” are purely perceptional, not real.

Time to improve the image of non-drinkers

Drinks (Photo credit: nathanmac87)


“Never trust a man who doesn’t drink,” runs the saying and it is certainly true that I find myself thinking people who come to boozy social occasions and who don’t partake are slightly “odd”.


Or, at least, I used to. For the last two and a half years I have significantly cut down my drinking – mainly because I have found that a large volume of exercise takes away the need to “self medicate” in this way (eg., by leaving more relaxed).


As a result I now find myself sometimes turning down the opportunity to go to social events because I don’t want to drink (not least because it makes going for a run or to the gym more or less impossible – drunk running might not be an offence but it’s not fun).


There just is not enough alternatives to alcohol available – not least because sugar-filled soft drinks are not much of a step up in health terms.


And then there is the social stigma – why be the one you “don’t trust”?


Dominic Conroy and Richard De Visser at the University of Sussex have written about the social stigma of not drinking alcohol and have found that changing attitudes could make a significant difference in young people’s alcohol consumption.


So maybe all those public service ads that emphasise the negative consequences of drinking need to be balanced by both new drinks and new images for “non-drinkers”?


Though, it has to be said, a cold beer on a hot summer’s night is hard to beat.



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Two years in the gym

parkrun logo
parkrun logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This morning, running in the regular 5km “Parkrun” in Finsbury Park (just around the corner) I picked up a (rather sore) thigh strain – so it feels like an odd time to write a piece about how great it is to exercise – but I want to write this piece because I feel I have something important to say.

Two years ago this week, on a foreign assignment, I decided to fill some of the time on a quiet afternoon by going to the hotel gym. I discovered I quite liked it, and kept going back. By the time I got back to the UK, some weeks later, I decided I had to join a gym.

I had been in gyms before – in my mid-20s I worked above – quite literally – Camden council’s “Oasis” gym in Covent Garden and used to go to classes there quite regularly with my work colleague Darra Singh (now a partner at Ernst and Young, having been a senior civil servant). But Darra got a new job, the first on his well-deserved rise, my employers moved office and I stopped going. More than that – I started putting on weight.

But even then I found a way of losing it. My employers’ new offices were in Camden Town and I usually got the bus back home. But one winter’s evening the typical London thing happened – there was a little bit of snow and the public transport system fell into chaos. So I walked the four miles back home. And I liked it, so I kept doing it. By the time the weather got better I was walking back over longer, more challenging routes – up Dartmouth Park Hill to Highgate, or even up Swain’s Lane – and I was both fit and (very) thin.

But then I got another job – my dream job, really – working for the Labour Party. Hours were long, stress was high but it was great fun. But the weight came back on. And it never really went off again. In fact it really kept going back on.

By 2011, many jobs later, I was weighing in at 99 kilos, pretty seriously obese with a BMI of over 33. And fitness was pretty poor – I still liked walking and would regularly walk several miles at a stretch, but if I stopped that for a while then I had to push myself to get back into it. More than that – though I wasn’t fully conscious of doing this at the time – I avoided long or steep staircases and in lots of other ways, reinforced my poor lifestyle.

Today, I am still overweight, but at 79 kilos and a BMI of 26 – 27, it is a lot better. I am pretty fit – I managed that 5k – which involves twice climbing a steep hill – in 25 minutes and 34 seconds, not a personal best, but not awful either. I still have far too big a paunch on the stomach but it is (slowly) reducing: I actually have a “six pack”, it is just that it is floating on top of a lot of subcutaneous fat!

Why am I writing this? Just to show off? OK, I admit I am a little proud of what I have achieved, especially because I have essentially done it by exercise and not through a dieting regime (I eat more healthy now but I am not dieting). But that is not the main reason I am putting this down – instead I want to offer hope and inspiration to others – if I can do it, so can you.

My father died of heart disease when he was 44. For a long time I regarded that as some sort of likely measure of my own lifespan. By 2010 – when I passed it -I began to understand that it need not be that. At the same time, I went back to education, studying for the MSc at Birkbeck and realising that, actually, I wasn’t past it after all.

What was really stopping me was a mental block – nothing physical. Breaking through that because I was bored one afternoon did not feel like much at the time, but it has literally changed my life.

Weight loss: all gone wrong?

weight 22 augustSo, I go on holiday, hire a bike and cycle a lot for the fortnight I am away: regularly burning (according to online assessments) over one thousand calories a day.

And then I come back and find (see the graph) that my weight has risen by five pounds. Too much drinking, fatty foods and so on? I don’t think so, though plainly something is up.

(In the graph the green line is the 90 day moving average, the blue the 30 day and the red the 14 day – I smoothed the weight gain over the two weeks I was away across that period – as I didn’t have access to scales then).

Weight gain and loss continues to be a mystery to me – I am “training” as hard as ever but weight has gone up even though I don’t think I have changed my diet.

I am going to go for heavier weights (necessarily with lower repetitions) now to see if that makes any difference (this is generally combined with a fair amount of cardio too).

My aim is to get to 168 pounds by the end of the year – still overweight incidentally – but that looks quite remote now.

Two things I can be certain about though, given the difficulties I have had with running since coming back from holiday are: cycling is a poor way to train to run – very different muscles used (and not just in the legs – I never realised ho important my arms were in running for instance) and I really ought to invest in a runner’s watch.

Which VO2Max figure is correct? (The perils of relying on the Internet)

I have just run 2.42km in 11 minutes and 17 seconds.

According to this site that means I have a VO2Max of 46.3 and I am in the top 10% of 47-year-olds. Seems unlikely, but I would not complain if it were true.

According to this site, though, I have a Vo2Max of 39.4 and this site rates that as (roughly) the 58th centile – better than average but not massively so.

Any expert care to comment?