Thursday, 4 September 2014

The Ice Bucket Challenge: I Nominate Modesty

In ten years, when people strain to recall the defining moments and themes of 2014, what will they remember? 

For 2004 it might be the launch of Facebook, the tragedy of the Madrid train bombings or the fact that Ireland became the first county in the world to ban smoking in public places.

For 1994 it might be Steven Spielberg's holocaust drama Schindler's List cleaning up at the Oscars, Richard Nixon's death or the Russian army finally retreating from Estonia and Latvia, marking the end of Eastern Europe's Soviet occupation.

But if we're unlucky, if we don't cure Aids, discover life on Mars or crack global warming in the five remaining months of this year, the annals of 2014 might lead on the strange fad that enticed millions of people to tip a bucket of freezing water over their heads, film the whole thing and post it on the internet. And how would we all feel about that?

Dozens of my friends have risen to the so-called ice bucket challenge, and I don't for a second wish to criticise them for taking part. After all, on the surface, it's a charitable act and all charitable acts are - at least to an extent - commendable.

But beneath the squeals and drenched white t-shirts, beyond the soaked bathroom mats, splashed onlookers, "likes", "tags" and "shares", the trend reveals a deeper, more awkward, and unflattering truth about who and what we have become.

Never has our desire to self-publicise been more palpable: We like to cherry-pick and display the details of our lives that make us look noble, intelligent, valiant and selfless, and document the incidents that inspire sympathy.

Another night shift with no company. Another weekend of studying for exams. Another delayed plane as we dawdle away the hours (and check-in on the free wifi if we’re in the first class lounge).

Sharing it for the world to see makes everything more manageable. Everyone knows how exciting the life is that we lead and no doubt wishes they were just like us. Taking our selfies, listening to our music, tweeting like the world depends on it. Sharing is caring…what everyone else thinks.

But let's get back to buckets of ice and our love of feeling charitable.

What's the only thing that makes us feel better about donating our hard-earned cash? Doing so and then telling people we've done it.

For a few measly minutes (far from fifteen!) we are not only do-gooders, but celebrities in our own right. We're sharing a message with the world of our heroism. Not only that, but we're looking fabulous while doing so and having more fun than ever before. We're changing the world one ice cube at a time, and you should take us by example and do the same.

I know ALS is a devastating disease, but how many of the people who were quickest to fetch the bucket and fill it up can even decipher the acronym? And what's more, once it's done, shared and liked, will they ever spare another thought for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis?

Once again, well done if you have donated; I'm sure every little helps. But let's not sing our praises too loudly. Ice turn to water and water to thin air, but it's not as easy or natural to make a real change and become a real hero.

Even if Facebook likes to makes us feel that way. 


Saturday, 31 May 2014

Bring Back The Pleasure Run

Like watching a movie or reading a book, I’m a firm believer that the type of run you choose to do, has to match the mood you are in.

Since the marathon, I’ve struggled to get back into the habit of running regularly.
The intentions have been there, as has the will, but when it comes to lacing up and heading out, there’s usually something that needs doing urgently.

In the evenings, it’s the unfinished piece of work that keeps me from leaving the office on time, at weekends it’s that coffee date with a friend who I haven’t seen for months, or the appeal of simply spending time lounging around the neighbourhood with my significant other.

Running has crept down my list of priorities and I’m struggling to find a way of hauling it back up.
The crux of the problem – at least I think - is that I’ve lost focus.

I don’t have a particular aim at the moment, and while I am someone who gets a high after pretty much every workout, there’s very little reason why I can’t delay that long run until tomorrow, that speed session until next week, that interval session until the week after that.

After all, there’s no deadline and nothing to which I am committed. I don’t need to lose weight, I don’t need to enhance my cardio capacity, and I’m not striving to score a 10k PB in two weeks time.

Today, while trotting around Hyde Park – my first proper run in six days -  I realised what the problem might be:  In the lead up to my 26 (and a bit) mile feat, every run I did was for a specific reason and with each training element I got that little bit fitter, that little bit more ready for the big day.

If we classified runs by genre, every run I did during that time was a functional run. Of course I mostly enjoyed the runs and mostly found them hugely satisfying, but none were pure enjoyment runs;  none were just-for-fun-runs.

If you’re a creature of habit, like me, then you will know how easy it is to become used to something and how hard it is to break routine. But my aim over the next few weeks is to rediscover the fun of running and to appreciate it for what it is.

At the risk of digressing into an overly spiritual psychobabble monologue, running really is a true gift. The ability to exercise outdoors, safely, independently and freely, should be cherished.  And what’s more, we are free to run as slowly or as swiftly as we like, in circles, squares or spirals, on grass, trails or roads, along rivers, over bridges and through trees.

Running is beautiful. It helps our body to pump oxygen into our lungs and to invigorate every cell in our body. It helps us clean out blood and clean our minds, replenish energy and become one with our bodies.

Of course we may choose to train for a major event, run a marathon, complete an Iron Man, climb Mount Everest – and I’m sure my own next challenge is on the not-too-distant horizons -  but for the time being let us not forget that very important genre of running, the one that brought us all here in the first place: The simple, gracious and oh so satisfying Pleasure Run. 

(Image courtesy: http://www.ultrarunningltd.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/jumping.jpg)

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Falling in Love Again

Falling out of love can be sudden and shocking. Often, we don’t notice it's happening until it has, leaving us with an empty feeling in our gut, and lingering questions borne out of guilt and frustration.

Losing the sense of affection for a person can leave you raw, but seeing it fade for anything at all – be it activity, object or something much more abstract – can be devastating too.

I don’t think there was ever a way that my love of running was going to continue seamlessly after the marathon.

Especially in the final months of preparation, I became so enslaved to training, that crossing the finish line was like throwing off the shackles of discipline and regime.  On top of that, my body was screaming for rest and relief. I’d tirelessly tested its tolerance levels, with only intermittent phases of recovery.

I always knew that I would crave a break from pounding the streets, but I didn’t expect it to last this long.
Falling in love again, you know, is no easy feat.   

On Thursday after the marathon - aches and pains subsided and appetite and hydration levels restored to normality – I ventured to the gym.

I had two weeks off work straight after the race – a holiday between finishing my old job and starting my new – and I had vowed that I would use it to recover. I also hoped, though, that the early signs of spring would bring with it invigorating morning jogs through Hyde Park and along the Thames  - gentle workouts, of course, but rewarding nonetheless.

That first session proved to be nothing short of a chore.

Even though I steered clear of the treadmill, conscious that my joints were yet to recover fully, my body seemed off kilter as I laboured away on the bike and stretched afterwards.

By the weekend – encouraged by rising mercury and full of hope that things were “back to normal” – I finally allowed myself to slip back into my running shoes, but a slow slog along the top of the park was all I managed.

Crippled by a stitch, achy feet and – perhaps most painfully - a severely bruised ego, I returned home in a lousy mood, dismissing questions of how the run went. I tried again some days later, but the outcome was equally poor.

So that’s when I went dry, so to speak.

For a week I didn’t run. I barely spoke about running, read about running or thought about running.  I read novels and the news, went for walks, shopping and watched a film or two. But my trainers stayed in the wardrobe – out of sight and out of mind.

Perhaps that’s what did it.

Gradually, something small started growing inside my heart and head, and the stronger and more robust it became, the easier it became to recognize. It was a feeling that something was missing, a desire to run again. And that was delightful.

I waited a few more days, careful not to stifle it, but when I eventually headed out - just last weekend - the running stars seemed to have realigned.

What helped was that a handful of discouraging sessions had lowered my expectations, so I headed out of the door having set myself no standards or goals – except to rediscover my love of running.

I started off steadily, weaving my way through crowds of pedestrians, and adopted a solid rhythm after the first mile.

Five later, I returned home with that familiar and sorely missed feeling of satisfaction, enhanced – very unexpectedly – by finding out that I’d knocked an average of 30 seconds per kilometre  of my usual six mile pace.

I didn’t want to push it, but today, three days later, I carefully laced up again. And this time it had a more tangible purpose.

With London paralysed by a yet another tube strike, a run-commute home seemed infinitely preferable to being packed – like sardines – into a smelly bus.

Initially, I found myself frustrated, my tempo frequently cut by pedestrians, occasional cyclists and other runners, but later I started to enjoy the challenge – a bit like an urban and very human assault course.

The five miles passed quickly and as I turned into my road – rosy cheeked, dry mouthed and pumping with adrenaline – I noticed how beautiful the blossom-covered trees looked in the golden evening sunlight.
I stretched, drank and breathed and then for the first time in over the week - I sat down to do something else 
I’d found myself unable to do for weeks.

It’s now starting to get chilly.

I’m still in my running gear, its pitch dark outside and my tummy is rumbling.


But you know what? Today I fell in love again properly - with both running and writing. And that, I reckon, is one of the very very few things in life that is worth postponing both dinner and a long lingering shower for. 

Friday, 11 April 2014

The Story of the Flying Ice Cream

Training for a marathon is gruelling, testing, punishing, painful and later on, rewarding, triumphant, moving and life-changing, but upon reflection, and amid all the loaded, poignant emotions, it’s easy to forget the downright amusing things that can happen while trudging through the world in pursuit of fitness.

One incident that I’ve been dying to share, but somehow never found time to, happened about a month ago, on one of my final long runs ahead of the Brighton Marathon.

It was one of the first warm Sundays of the year and the fine weather had drawn hordes of people to the streets and parks of London -  to such an extent that the latter part of my workout turned into a veritable assault course, around trundling tourists, warbling babies, flocks of shoppers and fellow frustrated athletes.

I was nearing the end of my run, about to turn into my borough, when suddenly, as if having fallen from the heavens,  a perfect scoop of strawberry ice cream came hurtling towards me and planted itself firmly on my sweaty collarbone, narrowly missing my perplexed  face.

Any distance runner will know that towards the end of a long session, your mind can become absent. Often I find myself in nearly meditating as I conquer the final kilometres. Obviously, in any situation, a lump of ice cream landing on you out of the blue would come as a surprise, but in my oblivious and self-involved state, almost hypnotized by the rhythm of my gait and the music from my headphones, I was so stunned, that all I could do was stop dead in my tracks and laugh.

Now there are few things that are funnier than the bewildered look on someone’s face when they’ve unexpectedly had a scoop of ice cream catapulted at them, but one thing that has an edge on that, is if that face happens to be sweaty and as red as a tomato and laughing hysterically in a sort of possessed I’ve-got-no-idea-what’s-going-on-so-all-I-can-do-is-laugh-about-it way.

I would have felt more comfortable had I known someone to share this bizarre joke with, but I was alone in a throng of shoppers, who’d now inevitably labelled me as a madwoman. Mothers were probably tugging at their children’s hands. “Walk on this side of me darling, stay away from that crazy lady.”

A few seconds later I caught the mischievous eye of a young boy in the crowd, with a mix of guilt, amusement and intrigue plastered upon his angelic face and a tell-tale empty cup in one hand, a plastic spoon in the other.

I could tell he was weighing up his options. “Do I run for dear life? Do I apologies profusely?” But a split second later, a cheeky grin curled its way across his lips, quickly transforming into an infectious and face-splitting smirk. I gave him a mock look of disapproval, but with strawberry ice cream now dripping off my chest, I could hardly sustain it for long.

I gave him one last shake of my head, tried to flick a drop or two of the gluey mass in his direction, before resuming my run, a little stickier but certainly more flavoursome than before.

And the moral of the story?

Well as runners, we should always expect the unexpected, and as humans? Perhaps just try to learn to live with whatever life throws at you.

Be it a set-back, a challenge, or a defeat, if you can’t laugh it off, at least wipe it off. And if it makes your hair and skin smell of berries, sugar and cream, then it can’t really be that bad after all, can it? 

(Image courtesy www.sodahead.com)

Monday, 7 April 2014

26 (and a lot more) miles

Four hours and fifty-six minutes is the approximate time I spent wondering yesterday how to put my emotions into words. I changed my mind about 26 times and reached a grand total of zero conclusions, but perhaps that’s the beauty of it. Perhaps running a marathon has the unparalleled power of rendering even a garbler like me speechless.

It’s just too soaring. The grafting and expectations, followed by the most overwhelming sense of relief is enough to reduce a warrior to tears, so what chance to do I have? And when I finally crossed the finishing line, anything I had previously decided to put on paper seemed ridiculously inadequate and trivial.
In the end, Brighton ended up being so much more than a debut marathon.  It was a weekend of families meeting, of revisiting the past - metaphorically and physically - and a celebration of friendship, love, recovery, health and life.

You may have read my blog post about my battles with depression and its ugly off-shoots, and yes, those wars are buried under oodles of happy memories and experiences, but yesterday marked yet another milestone in my voyage away from that past.

In a deeply satisfying way, I was able to give something back by raising money for the mental health charity Mind, proudly drenching their logo, printed on the front of my running shirt, in sweat and, a little later, tears. But I also felt like I was gifting something to myself. The honour of being able to run 26 (and a bit) miles, finishing with a smile, is a sort of prize for clearing all the hurdles – even the highest - with nothing but a few scratches and scars.

Don’t get me wrong, it was not all pretty, I didn't love every minute of it, and during one fleeting moment after hitting the dreaded Wall, I did contemplate stealing a small child’s push bike. But would I sign up for another? In a flash.

Last year, I never thought that my journey from sign-up to finish line would influence so many far-flung corners of my life. Of course I learned how to truly appreciate my body and all its physical needs, but my long training runs also served as oases of calm in my otherwise hectic life. It was after returning from one long run that I decided it was time to move on professionally, and it was after yet another that I knew I would accept an offer and quit my old job. Training helped to pin down what I want in life, namely to invest all my heart and soul in the most precious of relationships and friendships.

And speaking of friendships, my training yielded some of those too. My running mentor and, in some ways role model, has become very dear to me. I’ve met incredible people, who have demonstrated bravery, courage and strength, who have helped me reassess my own priorities in life and re-examine my own values.

And lastly, but for me certainly not least, training for a marathon has provided impetus and inspiration to write. Yes, I am a journalist and therefore writing is my profession – I have to write to earn a living, but there is a world of difference between stringing words together to create a compelling overview of a financial market, and doing so to share your thoughts and perhaps – if I’m lucky - even inspire emotion in others.

I’ve learned the world, built precious friendships and made decisions that have flipped my life by 180 degrees for the better. If there is a god of running, I’m sending him my heartfelt thanks here and now, for over the last twelve months, he’s worked overtime and taught me a lesson that will remain etched in my mind for good.  26 (and a bit miles) is so much more than just a marathon. 

Friday, 21 March 2014

Taming The Taper Worm

Training for a marathon is like riding a train. When you embark at the station, a suitcase brimming with confidence and determination in tow, you’re energised and fresh, oblivious to the hardship ahead.

Slowly the locomotive chugs out of the station, easing into the tracks as it picks up pace. Very gradually at first, it weaves through the inner-city buildings, stopping quite frequently, but as it travels beyond the urban borders, spills into the outskirts and eventually over the rolling rural fields, the wheels start rotating more smoothly, in perfect harmony.  Faster and faster, what was once a spluttering irregular chug becomes a dependably accelerating rhythm, like the heartbeat of a giant animal, galloping across terrain, in pursuit of its prey.

The faster this train travels, the more fuel is pumped through its roaring engine, but it’s ok – because the tank is still almost full and every time the tempo is notched up, it adapts and stabilises, ensuring a smooth ride for all aboard.

That train has just reached peak performance.

Last week I finally clocked my longest run – a slow and steady 19 miler. Sticking with my metaphor, I was roaring through the country side, hurtling past trees, fields, abandoned farms and hamlets, the sun pounding down on me and every cog, every screw, every bolt and every lever perfectly in sync.

I never thought it would, but my body has acclimatised to the rhythm of gradual increase and progressive overload. An extra mile each week? I’ve taken it in my stride.

So studying my training schedule after that long run, it really comes as no surprise that I feel a little knocked off kilter this week. The tracks are starting to feel a little wobbly, almost as if one my carriages might fall over if we slow down any more.  

STOP SHOCK

For weeks I’ve been craving a Sunday evening without aching limbs, raw toes and hunger raising its cheeky head every hour. But now that I’ve finally reached the “taper phase”, I’m finding it quite tough to adapt.

It’s just not natural for a train to cut from 100mph to 20mph in the space of a few fleeting seconds.

I’m used to the pre-fuel, and then the long hours of trudging through lifeless London, sending intermittent progress texts to the sofa at home, where my yawning boyfriend has just started his second cup of tea and is poring over the weekend papers.

I’m used to hobbling up the stairs three hours later, and lying down on the carpet, propping my legs against the wall as my quivering fingers unwrap a protein bar. Then wallowing in a hot bath, before wrapping up in a sweatshirt and pyjama bottoms and then eating. Everything. In. Sight.

But I have to get used to it. This weekend I’ll “only” be running a half marathon. Yes, that’s still 21 kilometres, but it is also eleven less than I ran last weekend.

It will feel short, and I might have a niggling voice in my head telling me that I haven’t run as far as I should have, but habits can be broken and I have a feeling that doing so will be a lot easier with the help of a great big lazy breakfast and the splndid spring sunshine.

(Image courtesy http://livelikeavip.com) 

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I'll be running the Brigthon Marathon on April 6th and raising money for Mind, the mental health charity. To sponsor me, please click here. 

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Anorexic to Athlete: Eating Disorder Awareness Week

Not every day, but often enough, I look at myself in the mirror and am reminded of how far I’ve come. 

Quite literally, I’ve moved 600 miles from the quaint Swiss village of Himmelried, to the bustling streets of London – where cows are rarer than flying pigs – but more metaphorically, I’ve finally found comfort within the confines of my own skin and bones. The latter journey, let me assure you, was a thousand times more arduous than the former.


I’ve never been fitter than now. Five weeks until my marathon debut and my metabolism is in overdrive, tirelessly burning the calories I consume and converting them into precious energy to power me through training sessions and equally laborious days in the office alike.

My muscles are firm and my body and I are in harmony,  for I am giving my physical exactly what it needs, and in return, my physical is giving me performance, endurance and priceless pride.

It’s National Eating Disorder Awareness Week and for me an apt opportunity to reflect and share my story of suffering and - underneath it all - survival.

I was first diagnosed with anorexia nervosa at the age of 17, in the throes of high school stresses: boys, exams, hormones, fashion, excess. I developed obsessive compulsive habits of weighing everything that I consumed and recording every calorie I expended. Hunger made me feel like I was punishing myself and that in turn gave me a perverse sense of satisfaction. 

Why, you may ask, did I torture myself so?

Amid the agony of my first heartbreak, fears of failing academically and the prospect of being thrust into the quite frankly petrifying Real World, it seemed to be the last things I could control; the only constant in the terrifying world of high-speed change. On top of that, my self-worth had taken a battering meaning that starving myself was a means of self-harming.

FITTING IN

During the first bout my weight never dropped to a critical level, but endless sit-ups and daily runs on a few paltry sticks of celery, culminating in my first half marathon, sent my BMI tumbling to well below “healthy”. It’s a vigilant GP and on-the-ball parents who I have to thank for averting a much more serious crisis, but the situation was grim nonetheless.

While my school chums gallivanted around Europe, sampled the world of work, or simply partied into the wee hours of every morning, I was all but locked up on the children’s ward the summer after leaving school. For ten weeks, I shared a sterile room with five other teenage girls; eating disorders being our common denominator.We cried, and screamed and bickered our way through the days and nights, all of us certain that food would be our mortal enemy for life and that our future would be a bleak fight.

When summer turned to autumn I managed to prop my weight up temporarily, just enough to get me off to university, but I lacked the strength to independently hoist myself out of the horrible disease for good.

A year of forcefully trying to fit in, be a “normal” fresher while constantly trying to silence a sick and vicious alter ego, eventually resulted in a messy relapse. My weight dropped lower than ever, sapping every ounce of personality and life out of me. I shunned company, clambered to my regime of library-gym-library-sleep, until I hit a concrete wall and couldn't go on.

Once again, a scorching summer was spent indoors, this time though, I sat in group therapy sessions shoulder-to-shoulder with all different kinds of patients: drug addicts, those suffering post traumatic stress disorders, borderline patients and manic depressives.

It was there that I realised that the weight-loss was nothing but a symptom and that the illness had much deeper, more stubborn roots. I was treated for depression and felt comforted by finally being able to put a label on my emotions. I learned to put my feelings into words - both written and spoken - and respond to thoughts and impulses sensibly.

Those twelve weeks - my personal Renaissance – were seven years ago this summer.

STREGTH TO STRENGTH

Since then it’s been a bumpy ride, but none of the damage incurred has been lasting. I finished university, conceded that graduating without a first did not mean the world would stop turning, and followed my dream of writing for a living.

For many years I was plagued by an uneasy relationship with my body, but that too improved with every day.

Last year, I qualified as a personal trainer. My motivation was not so much obtaining a certificate to hang on the wall, but much more the opportunity to discover more about the amazing processes that occur beneath our skins - every second of our lives. It made me appreciate my body in all its guises. Naturally, the knowledge I accumulated helped me prepare for the marathon too.

For more than half a decade I was hesitant to talk to about my experiences with an eating disorder, but in recent months I've had an itch to share, hoping that my knowledge will contribute to some sort of healing process within those who are suffering. And unfortunately, if that sufferer is not you, then it’s most likely to be your friend, your sister, your daughter or your son.

Eating disorders affect 1.6 million people in the UK alone and often go hand-in-hand with exercise addictions and obsessive compulsive disorders.  I’m under no illusion that I - on my own – can make a change, but even if my story provides food for thought for a single sufferer, a loved one or a friend, if it encourages just one person to reach out, seek a dialogue and get help, then it was worth sharing. 

It's never too late to seek help. And never to earlier, for that matter, either.

For more information on Eating Disorder Awareness Week or Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia or other eating dsorders click here to access the website of beat, a national UK charity which provides support and help for your people suffering. 

(Image courtesy http://www.mjog.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/Eating-Disorders-Week.jpg) 

Monday, 24 February 2014

This Is Your Six-Week Warning


In a sudden flash everything has become very real.

Forty-one days to go and I’m starting to forecast what the weather might be like and what kit I should wear. I’ve devised a fuelling plan – before, after and during - and have spent this morning browsing the internet for affordable post-marathon deep tissue massages.

This weekend’s training run was 16 miles, and as I trotted across the virtual finish line a terrifying thought dawned upon. I’m going to run a marathon. There’s no way back. 5.8 weeks to go. That's forty-one days; only 980 hours; a mere 59,040 minutes.

So far my trek to the starting line has been littered with obstacles.Both of my illiotibial bands suffered stubborn inflammations almost as soon as I commenced training last autumn, and as they recovered, my right sciatic nerve flared up, turning even sitting still into an arduous and painful ordeal.

As that eased, and I delved into training anew, soft tissue in my right foot swelled up and bruised unexpectedly, stalling my regime once again and restricting my training plan to cycling and swimming. But the last few weeks have finally brought some relief.

I’ve clocked up 90 kilometres over the last four weekends, and - coupled with my shorter runs and hill intervals - I’ve hit around 150 kilometres. That’s equivalent to the distance between London and Bournemouth, a third of the distance between London and Dublin!

I’m doing well to balance my calorific intake – and when I say balance, I mean eat enough to satisfy a lion’s appetite.

One of my colleagues is torturing through the faddy 5:2 diet, and when I realised that the energy I burn on one long run is equal to three times what she eats in one day, I didn’t think twice about eating both brownies...and another for good measure.

I was afraid that at this point I might start to get bored. I’ve read about training fatigue and the mental hardship of lacing up every weekend and not coming back until three hours later, but – touch wood – my mind’s still feels fresh.

The secret, I've learned, is to keep routes varied.

This Saturday I chose a circular, starting with a loop of Hyde Park. Then I picked my way from Chelsea all along the Embankment, through a dormant concrete-kingdom City and across Tower Bridge onto the bustling Southbank where I navigated an assault course of gormless tourists and toddlers.

The previous weekend, I headed to Richmond Park – deserted but for runners, cyclists and rollerbladers – and completed at least half of the 25 kilometre workout without so much as touching a slab of concrete, just squirrels and trees for company.

I’m still savouring each run. Often I’ll set aside Sunday for the long one. Come Friday evening, though, I’ll be so keen to head out that I end up running on Saturday instead, and then basking in post-workout bliss for the lazy remainder of the weekend.

I enjoy it so much, that a number of times I’ve caught myself wondering what it will be like once The Marathon experience is over.

It’s been such a dominant project – a hobby if you may – over the last weeks and months, that I’m sure there will be a void when I cross the finish line. I’ve developed training routines and habits that I’ll no longer have to stick to, freeing up weeknight evenings and Saturday morning.

Deep down inside though, I know how I will fill that void: I’ll choose my next challenge. Another marathon? Perhaps. But maybe I’ll turn to triathlon or opt for another avenue all together: learn a language, write a book.

Either way, in six weeks time, when my weary toe finally crosses the finish line, pulling a battered and bruised body behind it, I will inevitably be crossing a starting line too;  a new chapter, a new challenge, and a whole endless score of new exciting opportunities - further even than 26 and a bit miles.  

(Image courtesy https://fisher.osu.edu/blogs/gradlife/files/finish-line.jpg) 

Monday, 17 February 2014

Higher Powers: How Altitude Training Works

Even for the most avid runner, a week of skiing in the French Alps should conjure up images of ankle deep powder snow, miles of untouched piste and cups of steaming hot chocolate.

It should not, by any means, inspire a fear of falling fitness levels due to a week of missed training sessions, cheese and chocolate binges and perhaps one or two après-ski sessions which were not, let’s face it, necessary.

In fact, if you’re preparing for a marathon or a similarly gruelling physical feat, the benefits of an Alpine getaway could actually span far beyond mogle-toned thighs and a sun-kissed complexion. The explanation is a little tricky and technical, but bear with me on this one!

The higher up the mountain you go, the lower the barometric pressure in the atmosphere drops.

What this means in plain English, is that it becomes more difficult for blood cells to bind and carry oxygen to the tissues that make up our organs and muscles. Experts refer to it as a decrease in hemoglobin saturation - or the percentage of hemoglobin molecules able to bind to each oxygen molecule – which in turn inhibits performance, reducing muscular strength, energy and endurance.

Doesn’t sound particularly great, I know, but fear not, for as I have written time and time again, the human body is a remarkable machine and our kidneys are masters of monitoring even the slightest change in chemical composition.

As soon as oxygen delivery falls, specialised cells within the kidney release a substance called erythropoietin which crucially triggers bone marrow to hike production of red blood cells.

This facilitates greater hemoglobin saturation, delivering the necessary amount of oxygen to organs and tissues, enhancing performance, endurance and strength and putting us back on track.

All still sounding a bit technical? What I’m really trying to say is that spending time up a mountain makes our body more efficient.  Mitochondria, the energy source in our cells, become more efficient and studies have also shown that high altitude training can lead to an improvement in the in the ability of muscles to tolerate lactic acid - the byproduct of anaerobic metabolism – too.

It’s no coincidence that 95% of all medalists at the world championships and the Olympic Games since 1968 have either lived or trained at altitude, according to Runner’s World.

So next time you clip into those bindings, strap on your helmet (because I know you wear one!) and soak up the gorgeous view, please take a minute to banish any thoughts of missed training sessions for good. For what altitude alone is doing to your body, is – in my eyes – far more impressive than anything a spinning class, treadmill or energy drink will ever be able to achieve.

Happy skiing!

Thursday, 30 January 2014

You Don't Have To Run


Running, dear reader, is something that we do to unwind, to rest our souls, disentangle our thoughts, indulge and meditate. It's a means of oxygenating our cells, stretching our limbs, cleansing our minds and flooding our systems with blissful hormones.

We do it because we enjoy it, because it’s wellness, pleasure, a treat, and not - by any measure - because we have to.

It’s a simple truism but one that’s easily forgotten: you don’t have to run. Even if you’ve signed up for a race, committed to a training programme, told friends, family and colleagues about your targeted feat, bought the kit, set aside the time and collaborated with a charity, it’s never too late to change your mind. Take a step back, breath, rest and reconsider.

However tough a challenge might be, you should never emerge from it mentally or physically weaker than when you embarked. Your body is your only assets that no one can take away from you so treat it kindly, use it wisely, listen to its signals and don’t let it go to waste.

Unless you’re a professional athlete, it’s unlikely that running is an integral part of your profession, and while all of us sit at our desks, wishing we could spend the morning running rather than navigating spreadsheets or fending off emails, there is something beautiful about it being a treat.

TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING

When I was a young girl I read a story about a man who wished every day were Christmas. He dreamed of waking up each morning to piles of gifts, a beautiful tree, family, friends, excessive amounts of food, wine and sweets and the luxury of lounging around and playing games all day long.

When his wish came true, he initially couldn’t believe his luck, embracing each day as if it were his last, but as days turned into weeks and weeks into months, he grew tired of all the commotion. He became bored of all the gifts, tired of his friends and family always being there, sick of all of food and drink and started craving his former mundane life.

If we were experience fabulous long runs every day, they too would become banal. Running should never become monotonous and never ever become a chore.

Being able to look forward to a weekend run, anticipate a gym session after a tough day at the office, thrive off the post-workout high and revel in that cloud of pride, is a wonderful thing but should remain a treat.

Think of that first good run after a tedious stint of injury, of lacing up after a taxing business trip, that deep sense of satisfaction of having spent time with your own body and own thoughts.

Let’s try to savour each run, accept the way it unfolds and embrace it with all its challenges and rewards. If running feels like a mandatory task, perhaps it’s time to take a break.

Absence, as the well known saying goes, is one sure fire way of making your legs grow stronger ;-) 

(Image courtesy mfg.regionaldirectory.us)