Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Unspecial Day

This morning I woke up, had a cup of tea, a bowl of cereal, a hot shower, settled down to the paper and enjoyed the rhythmic pattering sound of the rain against the paving stones.

I'd done my long run yesterday, giving me that deep sense of relaxation, of earned rest and lingering pride, enhanced by the tiniest niggling ache in my thigh and a dull pain in my second toe – the nail of which slowly turning a deep (and triumphant!) shade of purple.

Later, when the rain eased, I bundled up against the December chill and braved the shops of west London. Just ten sleeps until Christmas after all. Let’s get down to business.

I felt as if my skin fitted my body snug like a glove, my joints felt oiled, bones strong, muscles relaxed, and I was inwardly applauding my decision to take off no special Monday, for no special reason.

I floated along High Street Kensington, sauntering in to shops seeing price tags and darting out, chuckling in a slightly mad way, sipping tea in a takeaway cup, smiling at pram-pushing women, folder-schlepping students, winking construction workers and all the other souls, fortunate enough to be enjoying this morning; this no special Monday.

CARPE DIEM

At the weekend I saw one of my closest friends, bearing the news that in January, she will be undergoing some medical tests to rule out a potentially serious – and life-threatening if not treated - health condition.
 

Her personality is like sunshine and she has an infectious smile, and even though I'm convinced all the tests will come back clear, her news reminded me of just how vulnerable we are and how important it is to savour every day - however ordinary, however mundane, however unspecial.

So that's what I did today: I sat in a cafe and watched the wealthy waft from boutique to boutique, I gave money to a Big Issue seller, picked up a toddler's dropped glove and handed it back to his stressed mother before starting conversation with somebody’s grandmother in the queue at the post office.
 

If she were to send the parcel first class, I assured her, it was most likely to reach her granddaughter by Christmas Day.
 And yes, I am sure she will like the socks, I do know how awfully cold it can get in University accommodation at this time of year.

Later - chased by the rain - I returned home, lit candles, chatted to my mother on the phone, wrapped presents, sang along to Christmas songs, drank more tea, ate biscuits and revelled in the thought of my sister’s eyes when she unwraps the new *deleted* I’ve bought her.

When the playlist ended and the wrapping paper ran out, I headed out again, armed this time with an umbrella.

I meandered along the streets, completely dark now, catching glimpses of sparkling Christmas trees in cosy sitting rooms, children playing with nannies or finishing up homework, pots of goodness bubbling on stoves and cats sleeping next to radiators. Good evening London.

WARM INSIDE

As I write, I'm sitting on a couch, in a local coffee shop/lounge/bar, Amy Winehouse on the stereo. Scattered around the room are couples and groups of twos and threes, some talking in measured voices – “Oh really? I love running too!” – others dissecting deeper issues about life and love – “I can’t believe he didn’t call? What was he thinking?”

It’s lashing now, droplets hammering against the window pane and puddles splashing onto the pavements as cars pass. Outside people are bundled under umbrellas, ducking into doorways and trying to hail cabs, even though none seem to have their lights on.

Seeing the stiletto clad girls’ contorted face as a passing van drenches her toes, make mine feel all the more dry and warm in their ski socks and chunky boots.

It’s been a blissful rest day, for both my tired body and worn out mind and as I sink a little deeper into the couch, pour a last cup of tea, see a couple embracing beneath the street lamp and a spirited shorts-and-T-shirt-wearing runner brace the elements, I realise that unspecial days, in their own special way, really are the most special of all.

May 2014 bring plenty more special unspecial days to all my running and non-running friends.


Merry Christmas. 

Friday, 6 December 2013

Thank you, Nelson

When I was 16 I went to South Africa on an educational trip and spent two weeks exploring the culture, mingling with local youngsters - both human and animal - and learning how fortunate I am to have been born into such a privileged community.

In the lead up to the trip, and in an effort to prove to my co-travelers just how committed - not to mention educated - I was, I sauntered off to the library, checked out Nelson Mandela's autobiographical epos, and immersed myself in the story of his legendary life for the next few weeks.

A few months ago I published a post about heroes. Nelson Mandela, I can tell you now, was one of my first.

In my naive teenage eyes, Nelson had all the makings of a truly cool idol. An ethnic minority, a contested freedom fighter, one of those rare politicians who was popular in office and subsequently proved able to withstand the test of time, obviously a joker with a fine sense of humour and an appreciation for music, art and sport, but also a fierce freedom fighter and trained lawyer against whom you'd unlikely want to stand.


History books taught me that he is the Rainbow Nation's grandfather. I remember disagreeing. In my eyes he was everyone’s grandfather.


When our itinerary took us to Robben Island, I remember sobbing at the sight of his cell; his cubic cage for almost two decades.


Perhaps pubescent hormones had something to do with my tears, but I do remember feeling a deep-rooted grief in the pit of my belly. How can you lock up someone for such along time solely for expressing his beliefs, for fighting for democracy, for being black?


I wrote to Nelson a few times too, digging up various addresses from websites and agencies and once I got a reply. I remember my heart leaping into my mouth when I saw Pretoria as the return address on the back of the envelope. Inside was a photograph of the man himself, an autograph scrawled across his already then frail chest.


I bought a wooden frame for the shot, mounting it on my bedroom wall and boasting about it to anyone who would listen. Like a messiah, he'd look over me with those glassy eyes as I did my homework, read trashy magazines, gossiped with girlfriends and suffered teenage woes.


When I graduated from school and stumbled into my first bout of eating disorders, I propped the photograph on the table next to my bed at the hospital, scoffing internally when people asked why.


He was whatever I wanted him to be. A godfather, a mentor, a guardian, a hero and most importantly, he was mine.


I went off to university, leaving the photograph behind, but Nelson still crept back into my life every now and then.


I bought a copy of his autobiography in a charity shop and would reread chapters sporadically - recognising their significance to so many different aspects of my life - as a runner, a student, a human.


That book was also one of the few that travelled with me when I moved to Berlin, and later to Frankfurt and London. It was a staple in the way that Great Expectation and even the Oxford English Dictionary never was.

Recently I was trying to decide what to write in someone's birthday card and stumbled across some of Nelson's quotes while surfing the internet. 


"It always seems impossible until it's done," applies to everything from completing any half marathon I've ever mastered to ending my last relationship. Nelson knows.


And as I embark on training for my first full marathon in spring next year, his words seem more relevant than ever.


I found out about his passing through the New York Times website late last night.


I'd always wondered whether I'd cry when he died, but I didn't. I got that sinking sensation in my chest that you get when you realise you've come shopping without your wallet or locked yourself out of your flat without a key, but it wasn't grief.


I read the obituary and then felt an overwhelming sense of relief that Madiba - as his countrymen affectionately call him - has finally been given peace. 


He'll always be a hero in my eyes - and a cool one at that - and I hope that teenage girls continue to read about him, look up to him and learn from him.


His resolve to change the world was one of his most admirable assets but perhaps more so, was his ability to forgive and bear no grudges for the hardship the world had challenged him with. 


Let's not forget about Madiba. Neither as athletes, nor as humans.

Thank you, Nelson. 
(Image courtesy http://www.knowledgeoverflow.com)

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Running with a Stranger

On Friday night my boyfriend and I went out for dinner. It had been a long week. Neither of us have had a holiday since August and work has been manic to say the least.

He chose a pleasant Italian, with an obscure enough wine list and a specials board that made me think of my mum’s cooking, and as if the waiter could read my mind, he showed us to a table in the furthest corner – away from the hustle and bustle of birthday meals and first dates.

The food came swiftly and after a post-work speed session the energy gratefully flowed into every corner and cell of my body. He sipped his wine, I stretched my achy legs under the table, and even without words both of us knew just how glad the other was that the seemingly endless week had finally succumbed to the weekend.

It was one of those moments of pure bliss. Ripples of relief wash over you, and every exhalation rids a little bit more pent up stress, until only the bare dregs remain and silently settle for two glorious days of peace.
Just as our plates were being cleared away though, that deep inner tranquilly, nestled in the pit of my stomach, suddenly awoke from its slumber. At the next table - up until now unoccupied - a young woman, barely older than me, had just taken a seat opposite a faceless gentleman.

I’ve always been an observer, naturally curious, eyeing up people from across the room just to see what clothes they’re wearing, company they’re enjoying or book they’re reading, but unusually, my eyes were quite literally fixated on this woman, glued to her.

Her lean legs were clad in what I can only describe as metallic leggings, hugging her toned derriere. Despite the winter chill, she wore a silvery silk vest top, against which the colour or her tanned arms radiated, and her long blond locks shone. Her face was glowing, and she radiated an aura of prestige, punctuated with a Colgate smile. For want of better word, she was stunning.

I glanced from her exquisite stilettos to my worn out winter boots, then caught myself cringing at my jeans, polo neck and ponytail.

“Have you seen that girl?” I enunciated almost inaudibly across the table, quite obviously squirming and pointing awkwardly.  My boyfriend just shrugged nonchalantly, sipped some more wine, gave me a confused grin and offered me the last complementary biscuit.

My appetite, though, had vanished without a trace.

WORLDS APART

On the way home I replayed the scene in my head.

The precision of her make-up, her gait in those five-inch heels, the way her hair didn’t look frizzy when she came in from the drizzle - all those things made her appear larger-than-life. There was something superhuman about her that had hit a nerve deep within me and almost made me angry. Or sad? Perhaps embarrassed? 
Maybe even jealous?  Either way, she made me feel incredibly uncomfortable in a very unusual way.

I pondered for a while, hating the fact that I cared so much and struggling to come up with a rationale for being so preoccupied with. Everyone is different, I kept telling myself, but somehow that didn’t help.
It wasn’t until we passed Hyde Park that I was able to start shrugging off the discomfort and confusion.
I looked out onto the dark field, silhouettes of trees flanking the running track.

When I head out in old shorts and a washed out t-shirt, I thought, every runner I pass is the same. Young or old, rich or poor, ugly or beautiful, intelligent or stupid, we’re all using our bodies to boost our minds and reach a personal goal – whether that be weight-loss, fitness or something far more sublime.

While some of us run faster or further than others, we’re all athletes with a shared passion, nodding as we go in a sign of unique camaraderie as if to say “keep going, you’re doing great”.

The girl in the restaurant may have been different, slimmer, sexier, smarter, but perhaps she runs too, and when she does, I’m sure she too would smile as we pass each other, send me unvocalised cheers of encouragement, even though we couldn’t have been more different back in the restaurant.

Life is not about comparing everything, but about accepting that some things simply cannot be compared.
On Friday I would have hated hobbling around in stilettos, she no doubt would’ve have shunned the prospects of teaming her leggings with battered winter boots, but on Saturday, if she’d like to, I’d gladly meet her at Hyde Park corner and invite her to join me on a brisk 10k.

Yes, we may be chalk and cheese but that doesn’t mean we can’t be two of a kind as well.
 And when we’re done, panting and stretching, feeling proud and strong, I’d even go as far as to say that I’d share with her that last complimentary biscuit.

Now my appetite’s been restored, I could really do with some sugar. 

(Images courtesy www.rapgenius.com)

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Naked Fascination: Barefoot Running

The further we climb into the 21st century, the more size is starting to matter and – unfortunate for some – the smaller, generally means the better.

For years I’ve been condemning vanishing waistlines, but think about smartphones that are becoming slimmer, outfits that are becoming skimpier, and in the world of running? Well the clunky Reeboks I wore as a teenager would certainly not grace the glossy pages of today’s Runner’s World magazine. 

In fact, as I pound through the parks of London, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to make out what shoes fellow runners are donning. In some cases, that’s because they’re not, in fact, wearing any. 

So-called minimal or barefoot running is a trend that has grown faster than you can say pronation support, but just like a teeny-weeny phone that you might drop through a drain or - god forbid - even swallow if you’re not used to its svelte form, running without familiar and trusted support could actually leave you limping with pain rather than leaping with pleasure.

If you’re a regular runner with developed leg, ankle and foot muscles though, barefoot running can actually correct your form and foster a forefoot strike, which can result in fewer running injuries than those who run with a heel-strike. (Click here for a blog on reengaging and realigning).

Thousands of people have converted to the natural way already so why not give it a go?

BARE HISTORY


Ethiopia's Abebe Bikila, widely praised as the greatest Olympic marathoner of all time, is arguably the pioneer of modern day barefoot running. In 1960, he won his first gold medal running the 26 and a bit miles in a world record time of 2:15:17 - shoeless. 


Over in the UK, meanwhile, Bruce Tulloh was becoming a poster boy for barefoot running, clocking 13 minutes 12 seconds for a three miler on grass, and 27 minutes 23 seconds for a six miler on cinders, all bare-soled. Later Tulloh ran across America. But he indulged in a pair of shoes for that one. After all, it was 2,876 miles. 


Other notable proponents of barefoot running include Charlie Robbins and Zola Budd. Robbins won two USA National Marathon Championships in the late 1940s and completed 50 straight Thanksgiving Day Road Races in Connecticut – most shoeless with just a pair of socks to keep warm if necessary.
South African Budd, meanwhile, set a track world record at the tender age of 16 in January 1984, blasting 5k in 15:01.83, more than six seconds under Mary Decker's existing record with nude feet being her secret weapon.


More recently, Christopher McDougall's 2009 book “Born to Run” – which explores the roots of barefoot running among the Tarahumara people of Mexico - has revived interest in barefoot running, especially fuelled by his conclusion that pricey high-tech shoes have done virtually nothing to keep injuries at bay.  


Thousands of runners are now, abandoning their shoes altogether. An article published in the New York Times in 2010, described how trainers were no longer a staple item of running gear for many participants in the New York Marathon. 


In the US, the Barefoot Runners Society was founded in November 2009 and just a year later the organization claimed 1,345 members, nearly double the 680 members it had when it was founded.


WATCH YOUR STEP


As an urbanite, who spends most of her runs dodging cars, commuters and all kinds of rubbish, not to mention shards of glass and potholes, I’ve yet to test barefoot running.  I have, however, sampled the minimal approach. 


Dozens of apparel manufactures now sell shoes with very thin soles which promote a similar gait as barefoot running and weigh close to nothing.


The Mexican Tarahumara, for example, wear sandals known as huaraches that have a single long lace and a sole often made from recycled tires or leather. 


Outfitter XeroShoes, whose motto is “Feel the World”, sells a whole range akin to those worn by the Tarahumara that won’t break the bank and can be worn for strolling around on rest days too. If you’re interested in ordering a pair, send me a Tweet (@26andabitmiles) or click here


While providing all the benefits of true barefoot running, they’ll also keep you injury-free if you do come across a sharp pebble.


So if you love your clunky sneakers, are new to running or a city slicker like me, then minimalist shoes are a great way to start developing your leg muscles to eventually strip off completely. Although you might be shy to admit it, nudity can be wildly exhilarating, why not give it a go? Just one step at a time… 


(Image courtesy jorgbadura.com and http://sw1gym.co.uk)

Monday, 25 November 2013

Why I ran, run and will run


“So what’s your blog about?” a friend recently asked me over dinner. It was loud in the restaurant and I was straining a little to hear him, but because he’s no running enthusiast himself, I wanted to weigh my words carefully and offer him a response that wouldn’t trigger the traditional eye roll and swift subject change.

“It’s called 26 and a bit miles”, I said cautiously. That captured his attention and encouraged me to be brave and push a little harder.  “And on the surface, it’s about...running?” I tested gently.

Like clockwork, and almost imperceptible: the tiniest roll of his eyes before his once piqued interest levels dwindle visibly and his thoughts resettled on the wine list.

“Well, it’s not all about running”, I tried desperately to salvage some of his attention.

 “It’s about life too, and psychology, and sociology and decision-making and identity and...”

But it was too late,  I was starting to sound ridiculous and I’d probably already morphed into a headband wearing gym bunny, clad in nylon leggings and a neon sports bra, yelping about the benefits of physical activity and how wildly awesome working out can be.

Had I treaded a little more carefully, been more tactful and approached him in a more wise manner, I would have perhaps kept the conversation flowing.  Because the truth is that running – without sounding preachy or mad - is actually about so much more than just...well, running.

DIAGNOSIS AND RECOVERY

When I first laced up as a young teenager, striding the rural roads was about discovering my limits and becoming aware of my strengths – both physical and mental.

Personality traits, circumstances and higher powers unfortunately turned what was once my treasured sport into a vicious poison, but despite battling exercise addiction, eating disorders and rock-bottom self-esteem -  much of the blame for which you might be tempted to pin on running - it ironically might have been the key to diagnosis and cure.

Yes, running depleted me emotionally and turned me into a physical, anaemic wreck, a social recluse and a mere shadow of my former bubbly teenage self, but with hindsight, had running not been the catalyst, something else would have brought out the worst in me - perhaps drugs or drink -  and I may not have come back as strongly as I did.

Weak and fragile, I remember writing in a diary, that being able to run again was my ultimate aim, and I’m sure that having a specific goal propelled my recovery. Each gram of weight gained got me that little bit closer to the start line. The stronger my bones became, the closer I got to being allowed to race again. I always had a vision and that spurred my determination.

After years of figthing, I reaped the rewards with glee.

The first half marathon I ran upon my return to health was all I had imagined it to be and more, and gradually the pride and pleasure I was getting from training banished the last remaining dregs of self-hate.

As the needle on the scales settled, my self-confidence cemented itself too. I cherished being able to fuel my body after a tough work out; give it back what it had given me, and became proud of it and grateful for its services to my mind and sanity.

GROWING TOGETHER

It’s been a decade since the trouble began, since I became embroiled in the vicious cycle of guilt, hate, exhaustion, starvation, regret and denial, and the changes I have undergone as a person have consistently been reflected in what running means to me.

These days, going for a run is my indulgence, my therapy, the gift of solitude I present myself with when I feel like throttling my boss, chucking my computer out of the window or smashing up crockery.

Shona Thomson, my remarkable friend who recently became the first Scottish woman to conquer seven marathons on seven continents, said that her Sunday morning run was akin to going to church. (Click here to read more about Shona)

Every Sunday, it will be there for you, like a dependable friend, an island of contemplation, an opportunity to mull, to appreciate and worship – perhaps not necessarily a god or deity – but your own physical power and self.

Running has taught me to priorities, to understand the importance of a healthy body and healthy mind and to appreciate that one cannot exist without the other. If I face a difficult decision, I will go for a run to clear my mind, rid my brain of bothersome detritus and decide what I really want and need.

I admit that the sport may not be to everyone’s taste, and to some it may just be a method for shedding extra lard, giving your canine buddy a workout or checking out the single ladies who frequent the gym. But for others, like me, running is a passion, a therapy and a lifestyle.

At every stage of my life, running has offered me something new and exciting, whether that be clarity, confidence or a new challenge. I’m curious to see what it has in store for the future and where it will take me next.

So yes, of course my blog is about running. On the surface at least.  But it’s also about life, passion, prioritising and decision-making. Now let’s both allow our attention to migrate to the wine list. Because if anything’s worth drinking to, then for me at least, it’s running. 

(Image courtesy http://img.timeinc.net/time/daily/2009/0912/360_running_joints_1209.jpg) 

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Eat Sleep Run Repeat

My job is to find the right words to communicate ideas in a succinct and intelligent way, so when I struggle to remember a phrase or idiom, I get unbelievably irritated.

It's unfortunate, therefore, that when I'm tired, a little run down, sleep-deprived and stressed perhaps, my brain morphs into a porous mass of grey matter and I've been known to look for needles in hay fields and make mountains out of ant hills.

What is the spice of life? I found myself asking today. Change? Diversity?

I searched everywhere: behind acronyms and between figures of speech, under phrases and mottos, but it was only later in Sainsbury's when a can of Heinz baked beans caught my eye that the penny dropped: 57 varieties. Yes. There we go.

I had to smile at the irony though: I'm a creature of habit, set in my ways and all too often has passion fallen victim to routine without me even noticing.

It's important to remember - but all too easy to forget - that a comfort zone is just a restrictive fish bowl in the exciting fairground of the world. There are magicians and clowns to muse at, gymnasts and fire-throwers to admire and a giant Ferris wheel, bumper cars and candy floss to gobble.

If only someone could teach this old dog new tricks, then perhaps I'd be more willing to join the fun and change my leopardy spots once and for all.

And so, somewhat tediously in a roundabout style I usually strive to avoid, let me introduce my latest post on the risks of routine and why variety really is the spice of life.

DOWN THIS ROAD BEFORE

We all have favourite training routes that we know like the sweaty backs of our hands: this tree marks the first mile, that crossing can be particularly busy during 5pm and 6pm and pacing is of the essence if we want to conserve energy for the final hill.

But just like a schoolboy who will never learn his seven-times-tables if he only ever practices his fours and fives, we will never reach our full potential if we always cover the same ground.

For years, I ran the same circular route around my hometown, but doing it every week eventually became akin to watching paint dry. Like clockwork, my body would navigate the streets as if locked into rails, without my brain having to trigger so much as a single synapse, and eventually I surmised that my swelling boredom must be a sign of my passion for running having died a dull death.

I wasn’t getting fitter and even though there was nothing wrong with plodding along week after week, the post-run rush I had once experienced had gone AWOL. Something had to change; quite literally.

ON YOUR TOES

These days I ensure that no two runs are completely the same. As well as differing route and direction, I play with speed and intensity, and constantly vary shoes, gear and music.

Primarily this is advantageous to sanity of course, but I’ve witnessed the physical advantages of varying my workouts too. I used to think that to be able to run long distances, I’d have to train long distances. Of course there’s truth in that – no one should run a marathon without clocking up a certain distance - but the toughest long-distance runners will have strong muscles from speed and hill work, and pain-free joints thanks to avoiding excessive weekly mileage.

I only do one long run per week these days, keeping my other training sessions for sprints, leg and core work, tempo runs and cross-training. I’ve become faster, enhanced my endurance and suffer less post-run niggles than ever before. My joints feel durable, muscles dependable and perhaps most importantly, I unfailingly look forward to my long weekend run.

Variety should characterize aspects of your life beyond running. The greater the spectrum of colour on your plate, the broader the range of nutrients and minerals you are likely feed your body, keeping deficiencies at bay.

In social circles, travelling to different places will broaden your mind, enhancing your network of friends and acquaintances – a valuable resource as you battle the hurdles of everyday life. Read lots, listen to music, tales, lectures and lessons, visit galleries, exhibitions and shows, shed the blinkers and examine the world in all its radiant glory.

And when you’ve done all that, put on your trainers and run somewhere new: up the hill, into the forest, along the river and over the bridge. Who knows what’s waiting for you over there. It might just change your life but if you never dare to explore, you’ll never know.  

Friday, 15 November 2013

Everyday Running Heroes: Shona Thomson

The power of having a role model can be immense. I’ve had dozens over the years – teachers, relatives and rock stars - and new characters join my cast regularly, often when I least expect it.

On Thursday, I met Shona, albeit virtually. Shona calls herself average, but anyone who has the pleasure of coming across her, knows she is everything but. She is admirable and has done plenty to earn a place on my list of role models. This is her story of how she conquered seven marathons on seven continents:

Well, basically, I’m just a pretty average girl from Scotland who loves running and endurance. I'm probably a crazy running bore to most non-runners. I've always run, never very fast, but I have buckets of slow twitch muscle and a lot of stamina. My PE teacher told me at school that I'd never be a sprinter so I should just stick to the cross country field. Well, I did just that and gradually over the years, the distances increased from 5k, to 10k, to half marathon, to marathon, to ultra-marathon, to stage day events.

It's hard to explain why I love running. If you run, you'll understand. It's that "me" time where you can put on your headphones, not listen to anyone, not speak to anyone and let your body take over. Ok, well, that's a very good run and most runs are not quite like that. More often than not, there is a little voice chirping away telling you to stop. However, when it comes together, and it feels effortless, the feeling is immense. Mother Nature really does reward with a euphoric runners high. I challenge anyone who says it's not worth the discomfort. It is. It’s that simple.

People often ask me why I decided I wanted to run a marathon on every continent. I don’t think I was even drunk when I came up with the idea. I suppose there are a number of reasons but the simple answer is I need a challenge. Without something to aim for in life, I tend to get myself into a bit of a negative state. I don't think I'm different from everyone else. We all need something to drive us forward, and for me, running provides direction, as well as that euphoric "runners high".

I want to start by saying that I actually felt a little awkward writing about my experience. I don't think what I've done is terribly special. Lots of people run marathons raising millions for charities and in much quicker times. Many people have overcome significant hardships in life and gone on to accomplish amazing feats. In fact, one of the most humbling parts of this journey, has been meeting some truly inspirational and remarkable characters.  

North America – New York (Nov 2010)

In November 2010, I ran my first marathon in New York, and despite vomiting and a fairly high degree of pain at mile 23, I really enjoyed it and I was buzzing for about a week afterwards. At that time, I thought I would only ever run one marathon. I thought it would just be something to tick off the life bucket list, but by the middle of 2011, I was suffering from a very bad case of post marathon blues. I was still running but with no real direction and I needed a challenge, or more truthfully, I needed to give myself a massive kick up the butt!

I started to look into other races but nothing was really exciting me. Picking a race is a lot like picking a puppy in my opinion. It chooses you, and not the other way round. You go looking for a black lab dog and then a little bitch turns round, wags its tail, grabs your shoe lace and the decision is made for you. For me, Comrades ultra was that “little bitch” that grabbed the laces of my trainers and challenged me to run it. Comrades is a very famous ultra marathon in South Africa. It's 90k (56 miles) and runs from Pietermaritzburg to Durban.  I read an article in Runners World about the race and within a few seconds of reading it, I knew I had to do it.

"Every run is a new adventure, and every race serves only to expose some piece of us. The greater the race distance, the deeper the unpeeling. This makes South Africa's 55-mile Comrades Marathon a long and probing quest. The distance alone makes the Comrades intimidating. The infamous climbs make it torturous. Midway, the course snakes upward through the Valley of a Thousand Hills, an English appellation as accurate as it is terrifying".

It sounded brutal but perversely that made me want to do it all the more. In order to run Comrades, I needed to run a qualifying marathon. I did some further research on potential qualifiers. It was at this time that I stumbled across the Antarctic Ice Marathon and the Seven Continents Marathon Club. This club is run by Richard Donovan and in order to be eligible to join it, you have to complete the Antarctic Ice Marathon, the only marathon run on the interior of the Antarctic, as well as a marathon on all the other six continents. This completely resonated with me. There are less than 100 members of the Seven Continents Marathon Club and Ranulph Fiennes is one of them. There are fewer than twenty woman and, at that time, no Scottish women had ever done it. Well, I decided that I needed to sort that out for Scotland!

Europe – London (April 2012)

My original plan was to run the remaining six continents in one year. However, the small matter of a full time career in an Investment Bank meant that, with North America already in the bag, it seemed more realistic to run three marathons in 2012 and three in 2013. Comrades was on the list for 2012, as was the Antarctic Ice marathon. The third would be the Comrades qualifier. I had planned to run Xiamen in Asia in January 2012 but a thigh and foot strain soon put a stop to that! You could say that things didn't always go according to plan!

One thing that running marathons teaches you is to be resilient and adaptable. It's fine to change your plan, just don't change your goal. I went back to the drawing board and decided to keep the Comrades qualifier simple and tick off Europe by running London in April 2012. If I trained properly and kept out the wars, I would run Europe, Africa and Antarctica in 2012, leaving South America, Australia and Asia for 2013.

Well, again, things didn't quite go as scheduled! Ten days before London, I strained my right thigh and it hurt to walk; not a good position to be in - if London was out, then so was Comrades. Looking back, getting through those ten days was pretty tough. It felt like taper and injury psychosis combined. All I could do was rest, foam roll and ice. Ten days felt like a decade but luck must have been with me as I made it round London in a safe qualifying time. Continent two was ticked off. Next stop was Comrades in early June 2012, less than six weeks away.

By this point in the training, I was getting tired and it required a lot of inner strength to get up and run into work, and do the long weekend runs. I had been training since October 2011. Thankfully, I had a great personal trainer at this time, who helped me with basic running conditioning, as well as providing support when I needed it. Those six weeks were hard, but I got through them and was soon on a plane to South Africa.

Africa – Comrades Ultra (June 2012)

Comrades was everything I expected it to be and more. Nothing comes close to the support and encouragement given by the South Africans that lined every kilometre of the route. Few other races in the world reflect the courage, endurance, stamina, determination and the human spirit more than the Comrades ultra. The rules of the race are brutal. It is run 'gun to gun' with a 12 hour cut off. Anyone who does not complete the 90km course in 12 hours is not allowed to finish, they are removed from the course, no medal, no recognition for the months training. To add to this, 'gun to gun' means that the clock starts ticking immediately and the cut off time includes the ten minutes it can take to cross the start line. Cruel perhaps, but it added to the tension and intensified the challenge. 

It was a long tough route to do in under 12 hours. Out of all the races, I was the most apprehensive about this one. I didn't fear the heat, the distance or the hills. It was the brutal cut offs that caused anxiety. Would I be the one who was stopped from crossing the finish after 12 hours and 1 second? To my delight, the race went exactly according to plan and I passed each major distance marker at the intended time. I knew by the time I reached half way that I was going to make it within the cut off time. I was then able to relax, settle down and enjoy the home run.

It was at the 70km mark that I began to feel I needed to dig deep. I had heard that you run the last 20km of this race with your heart and this was true. I passed bleeding runners, limping runners, runners lying on the edge of the road, grown men crying, people vomiting and lengthy queues outside the physio tents. Despite the tiredness, the thought of stopping didn't even enter my mind. I knew that I still had more than enough strength in me to get me through the last 20km to the end. I just kept going and gradually the time and distance passed. After over eleven hours of running, I entered the Kingsmead Sahara stadium, where the race finished. Tired but happy, continent three was ticked off.

Antarctica – November 2012

After Comrades, I took the summer off. I had a couple of non sporting medical issues so I was in and out of hospital. It felt odd pitching up at London Bridge hospital without a crutch heading for the Sports Injury clinic, as that was my usual reason for going there. By late August, I was ready to start preparing for the race in Antarctica, which was in November 2012. Unfortunately, having rested for most of the summer, my fitness level had dropped quite considerably. However, I wasn't too worried. For me, running a marathon near the South Pole was far more about the experience, than winning. I knew I would be mentally tough enough to get round, and that would be more than half the battle in those conditions.

Running in Antarctica is an experience that is hard to put into words. Not fazed by the pre race briefing that centred around warnings of frost bite, lost fingers, hypothermia, snow blindness and crevasses, we were piled onto a Soviet war plane, complete with paratrooper ropes, to fly from Punta Arenas in Southern most Chile to Union Glacier Camp. Punta Arenas is literally the end of the earth. Don't forget anything if you go there - you'll need a new credit card limit to pay for it! The flight took around four hours and the ice landing was well, I didn't think we were going to stop!

There were only sixty runners and we stayed in tents at Union Glacier Camp. It was 24 hour daylight and unbelievably cold at night, falling to minus 40 degrees. We had five days there and spent much of the time waiting for the perfect running conditions. We were lucky and got to run only one day later than planned. We also got out safely, unlike runners in a previous year who were still there at Christmas!
With such a small race field on such a vast landscape, it was a very isolating experience. There were no crowds to cheer you on. The field spread out quickly so the nearest runner was merely a black dot against an immeasurable expanse of ice. It was just the endless sound of my feet crunching on the snow, step after step, and thousands of pristine white miles. It was just me alone running on some of the harshest conditions on earth. However, this only added to the magic of the experience. It was a truly memorable run and continent number four was now ticked off.

South America – Rio (July 2013)

I arrived back from Antarctica and entered the busiest period at work. This made keeping fitness up very challenging. When we reached February 2013, I knew it was time to start making plans for the 2013 races. After going round in circles a number of times, I picked Rio for South America in July 2013, Perth for Australia in August 2013 and the inaugural marathon in Da Nang, Vietnam in September 2013. This would mean that Australia and Asia would be run consecutively.

Rio was in early July and was a stunning course along the coast, taking in Leblon, Ipanema and Copacabana. However, despite being winter in the Southern Hemisphere, the conditions were pretty gruesome for running. It was over 30 degrees and very humid, which made it hard to get oxygen into my lungs. I don't think I will ever forget the last two miles of that course. I had well and truly hit the wall. In fact, I think I had crashed into several walls from mile 20 onwards. I remember passing a fellow runner who looked like he was closer to death than me. He muttered something in Portuguese. I had no idea what it meant but it sounded like encouragement. It was this small gesture, as well as the sight of hundreds of other depleted and exhausted runners, that spurred me on to the end. I didn't think running could get much more unpleasant than those last few miles of Rio but Vietnam was to provide me with a special final Continent surprise.

The week after Rio, I took a few days to recover but I only had seven weeks until I flew to Australia to run Perth, and eight weeks until I ran in Vietnam. Training recommenced as soon as I got home. As with training in 2012, it became a mental battle towards the end, as much as a physical one. There were times that I just couldn't face another long run when I woke up on a Saturday. However, I knew that by the time I had a coffee, got my trainers on and got out the house, I'd be fine. 

Australia – Perth (August 2013)

Before I knew it, I was on my way to Perth. This was one of my favourite races ever. The conditions were perfect - about 16 degrees, slight drizzle and a cool breeze. The first half was along the beautiful Swan River. The second half went through Kings Park and over to Ocean Beach. The race atmosphere was superb and very friendly. I knew it wasn't a flat course but I wasn't expecting the second half to be quite so hilly. It almost rivalled Comrades. I finished Perth feeling strong, which was just as well really as I was about to face the most challenging conditions yet on the last leg of this journey in Vietnam.

Asia – Vietnam (September 2013)

I flew to Vietnam a few days later. I knew it was hot and humid there but really nothing could've prepared me. I've been to lots of Asian countries before so I knew what I was letting myself in for, the difference was that on previous occasions, I hadn't tried to run a marathon. The race started at 5am to avoid the heat of the afternoon. At that time, it was already over 27 degrees and the air was very muggy. I knew this was going to be brutal. In fact, when the race director announced at the start that he would encourage marathon competitors to stop after the first lap and just complete the half marathon, I sensed that hell awaited. I mean, it must be bad if we're being encouraged to stop!

Anyway, stopping before the end was not up for discussion. I would crawl round before I quit. Acutely aware of the risks of heat stroke and heat exhaustion, my plan was to take it really steadily and take fluid on board at every water station. I wasn't going to be precious about the time - the goal was to complete it and complete the last continent. There was no way I was getting on the plane back home without that 7th medal. After a gruesome 5 hours out in 36 degrees and over 80% humidity, I crossed the finish line. The seven continents were ticked off:

What have been the hardest parts?

Well, I'm not going to lie. It's not been a walk in the park. I haven't had it easy all the way. As I mentioned I wanted to run Xiamen marathon in China in January 2012 as the Comrades qualifier. However, a foot and thigh strain ended that. It was upsetting pulling out after months of training but you've just got to accept it and move on. The lead up to London wasn't easy either as I didn’t know if I would be able to run it - if I couldn’t run London, Comrades would be out the question.
I've had a few cases of nasty shin splints. Of course, as most runners ignore medical advice, I carried on running and put myself on crutches for a month! I’ve had Osgood-schlatters disease and bone bruises and been written off for months. I’ve lost most of my toenails, which is the ultimate running badge of honour. I’ve had nosebleeds on runs. I’ve fainted and vomited yet I still go back for more because I absolutely love it. I don’t call it crazy, I call it passion.

What have been the highlights?

Running in Antarctica was a very special experience so would definitely be up there. In fact, there is barely a day that passes that I don’t think about that race, which speaks volumes and is more than I can say about most things in life. The absolute unconditional support and spirit of the supporters on the Comrades route was very moving. Crossing the finish line in Vietnam was a pretty special feeling too.

This experience hasn't just been about running in some amazing places, challenging myself in cold, heat, humidity and altitude. Some of the people I have met along the way have overcome some truly remarkable feats. It has genuinely been an extremely humbling experience. I feel lucky to have been able to run all the places that I have, and felt privileged to have met so many interesting characters.

What have I learned through this experience?

I think the key to everything is not being afraid to fail. No one ever gets anywhere if they sit in their comfort zone. It's also important to find a goal you're passionate about and commit to it. Life is not linear and the chances are you'll have a lot of rough times too, but so does everyone. I have learned to be more patient and flexible, you have to be in order to deal with injury, setback, mid race cramps and nausea! Stubbornness, or I prefer to call it determination, is also critical if you want to do something. I think a short memory (to forget the pain), a sense of humour, persistence and tenacity are also key qualities. You’ve also got to learn to be resilient to bounce back from bad runs and disappointing performance. Most of all, you just need the ability to handle pain and keep going!

A strong support network is also important. I’ve been lucky to have had the amazing support of friends and family, and an amazing coach, David Arnot. Ultimately, no one can achieve your goals for you but having a positive and supportive network really helps. Listening to the advice of others is really helpful. You don’t have to take it but I have certainly found that I’ve learned a lot by sharing war stories with other runners.

So what's next? 

I am running the North Pole marathon in April 2014. I also want to try to encourage more people to take up running and get the message of the importance of exercise into schools, especially for girls. I am no one special, maybe a little more stubborn than most, but I honestly believe that with the right support and mind set, anyone can achieve what they want to achieve in life.
I would love to use my experience to work with other individuals who would like to take up running. If your goal is a marathon or to be able to run round the block, I would love to hear from you and mentor you.
I am also available to speak in schools, workplaces, or other functions about my experiences to try to inspire and motivate others. If you would like to get in touch or follow my North Pole preparation, please follow me on Twitter at shona_d_thomson.



(PS: Next week I’m meeting up with Shona to share more running tales, so watch this space for my account of that!)