Thursday, 23 November 2017

Learning to run without fear

“The longer and farther I ran, the more I realized that what I was often chasing was a state of mind--a place where worries that seemed monumental melted away, where the beauty and timelessness of the universe, of the present moment, came into sharp focus.” 
― Scott Jurek

Run without fear

I'm not a runner.  Not a real runner who races others in the hope of someday winning.  Even Parkrun is a little too competitive for me.  I guess I don't have the killer instinct to chase PB's (personal best) or feel the need beat anyone over a given distance.  Occasionally I'll consider a 5k, 10k or half marathon with the aim to finally break a PB that has been lingering for 2 or 3 years but mostly I brush aside the thought as it doesn't fit into my training schedule.  In the last mile of an ultra I may battle to save my position but at that point, it's more about finishing than final placings.

Over the past few years my legs have become stronger and my pace quicker, surprising even myself as well as others.  I no longer struggle with my breathing or fight to keep going, giving in to my mind when it screams "STOP".  Having a "squaddie" attitude has always helped, being flexible to rapid change, being able to adapt and overcome obstacles, ignoring the elements and knowing that not all pain relevant.  All sounds cliche but that attitude has pushed me on.  Of course, it could be an ounce or two of stubbornness as well.

I grew up, one of four children, on a council estate between Staines and Heathrow I played football with my younger brother and friends, we evenings after school, constantly over the weekends and during holidays, often from after breakfast until the light stopped play.  Even in the pouring rain our faithful band of friends would be willing to take to the "pitch" and play out matches seen on TV over the weekend.  It was the early seventies and there was little on TV and no computers to distract us.  The "pitch" was between two blocks of 3-storey council flats, the high walls were our terraces and sparse saplings either goal posts or defenders to be manoeuvred around.  On occasions, a window would be hit, never broken that I can remember, and we would wait for the occupant to complain or threaten to tell our parents.  The game would continue.  On rare occasions, when we had enough players to make it worthwhile, we would troop half a mile across the village to the "Rec" (council recreational ground) which had standing goal posts.  

When not playing football we would walk miles around the ever decreasing fields and woodlands, or to friend's house, never considering the thought of asking for a lift.  Even bikes were a luxury we could not really afford and so we tended to walk everywhere.  As the fields were replaced with buildings sites we wandered less and got up to more mischief.

My secondary school was a mile walk each way, in all weathers.  There were no coaches, buses or parent drop off's and if it rained we got wet, I would sit steaming in the lessons throughout the day in the hope that I would be dry for the walk home again.  I played rugby for the school and ran a little, the 1500 meters distance is the only race I (nearly) excelled at, but there was always "that kid" that could beat you on your best day, regardless.  At a district sports event I peaked in 3rd place, but was still way behind "that kid", he seemed to run effortlessly, the same effortless running I would later see amongst the elites during ultra races.  I did, however, excel at the assault courses set up by the P.E. teachers in the gymnasium.  I was fast and agile around the course and beat everyone, much to the distaste of the teachers who would be openly encouraging the sports team members.

On occasions, often over the winter months, we would be forced to run the school's cross-country route.  There was no prior notice to these runs so we would be in the same clothing and shoes as we would be for any other PE lesson.  The school had two very playing fields, the upper field would flood over the winter making the rugby pitch something reminiscent of the Somme after a few fixtures.  The route would take in both these fields and then out around the mile or so of gravel pits adjoining the school fields, normally out of bounds by the pain of death.  The fields were often too foggy over the winter for the teachers to see far around the course and many corners were cut, but the end result was still the same - we were caked head to feet in mud and very smelly from stagnant water.  It was character building I guess.

I was a serial underachiever, a goal I set myself and managed to maintain throughout secondary school.  My limited speed did, however, keep me out of trouble when I need to exit the area I was in because I was probably up to no good, whether it be scrumping or setting off fireworks, I could normally exit faster than any of my cohorts.

After leaving school I started work, started smoking (more) and drinking.  I drifted between jobs and at 19 I joined the TA, where I had to maintain a certain level of fitness, but nothing special.  It was at the time of the cold war and we spent a lot of time carrying out infinitary exercises even though we were a logistics unit.  After 3 years in the TA, I joined the regular army.  Even with the prior military knowledge basic training was a shock to the body.   For many of the younger recruits around me, the mental shock was harder and the company reduced in numbers steadily through the 12 weeks training.  But my fitness was adequate and "passed out" at Training Battalion and Depot REME, Arborfield as a trained soldier.  Slightly older and a lot wiser.

My first posting was to a REME Workshop in Catterick, North Yorkshire.  Friday afternoons would regularly involve the officers and soldiers being loaded onto the back of transport vehicles and driven 10 miles or more out onto the hilly training area.  Here we would be unloaded and told that once we got back we were free for the weekend.  The ranges are bleak and the wind, often accompanied by sleet or freezing rain, cut you in half during the winter months and the issued PT kit did little to protect from the elements.  I was still never an exceptionally strong runner, just enough to get me through the annual fitness tests and stop me getting noticed.

It was not until I was posted to Germany and started to enjoy running that I entered my first half marathon, I realised that distance running is much more enjoyable and suited my build.  The half marathon course was a long flat, straight range roads and you could see the race leaders way out in front, but I plodded on and finished in some unspectacular time.  The next race was along the L├╝bbecke ridge, I am sure the distance was 14 miles and followed a track along a range of hills.  Now, this was more fun! I did a few more distance events but then started having major issues with my knees, due to living most of my life in boots.

One of the few pictures of me in the forces

After returning fun the first Gulf War I stopped smoking and worked on my fitness again, mostly cross country.  But my knees still kept causing issues and finally left the army after 12 years "downgraded" medically.  For years after I would get pains when standing for long periods.  I also started having my first issues with depression, although at the time I didn't really know what it was our how to deal with it.  It just ate into me at times, leaving me numb and without direction.  It has been said many times that exercise is a good way to fight depression and sometimes it is, however, there are times when the fog it creates can blind you from the goal you set out to achieve.

I started work within the IT industry and let my fitness slip, as well as my waistline.  Working in an office for long hours, and often weekends, meant I spent less and less time doing any sort of exercise, eating anything healthy and spending more time watching TV.  I worked away for the best part of a year, living in hotel rooms and eating well from the adequate expenses and become too detached from my wife and daughter.  Months turned into years and slowly I put on more weight, finding the stairs at work harder than a few months previous.  I eventually moved to Devizes in 2000 and started working at Boscombe Down airfield.  My marriage broke up and I got made redundant.  Depression hit me hard and I lost weeks, sleeping occasionally during the day and awake through the nights.

Things moved on and became a dad again.  I still didn't really change my habits until in early 2013, I was about to become a father again at the ripe age of 49 and I decided to do something about my health.  The sleepless nights and chasing of children would need a new level of fitness.  I invested in a pair of running shoes, found an old England top and a pair of tracksuit bottoms and set out to run/walk 3 miles.  The route I chose around the village of Market Lavington had a few inclines but nothing to worry me.  I nearly died.  But a few days later I set out again to beat my original time.  Over the coming weeks and months, I progressed slowly.  I invested in a few pairs of shorts and tops and then went for broke and purchased a Garmin Forerunner 110 GPS watch to record my runs.  I started to push myself a bit harder, using the tracks and paths leading up onto Salisbury Plain, never with the intention of racing but to see how far I could go.

As winter drew on I would stop off in Devizes on the way back from work to run 5k on footpaths with streetlights, something the village lacked.  After a few months of running solo and reading about the benefits of running with groups and clubs, I looked around for a club and found Devizes Running Club.  The small and friendly club ran Tuesday and Thursday from the leisure centre and then longer runs at the weekend.  On a damp, dark, winter's evening a young blonde haired guy turned up at the club for his first night and we started chatting.  Matt Charlton was in his early 20's and was full of the enthusiasm I lacked, but our sense of humour worked and we've not stopped chatting since.  In fact, many of the people I met in the early months at DRC have become extremely close and trusted friends.

As 2013 came to a close I booked my first race for 2nd March 2014, the Devizes 10k organised by DRC, without knowing etiquette that you volunteer to help on races organised by your own club rather than run them.  The route is not forgiving, the first mile being a long slow climb up Etchilhampton Hill before a shorter, steeper, hill at 2 miles before entering the village of Coate and turning onto the Coate Road back to Devizes.  The Coate Road is around 1.5 miles but seems endless due to sections of long straights.  Once back into Devizes, the route turns left and up again along Windsor Drive before finishing at the football club back in the town.  I started out with Matt, both of us well protected from the elements as the temperature hovered around 8 degrees.  Matt had run the Longleat 10k a few weeks before but we were both as nervous as each other as the race started.

Devizes 10k elevation - not a PB course!

We struggled up to the top of the first hill at the back of the race, but slowly edged through the crowd and made a little more progress on the second hill and continued to slowly pass a few along the Coate Road back to Devizes.  Matt stayed with me until mile 5 when he needed to stretch his legs and headed off into the distance, he is half my age.  I eventually finished with a time of 1:02:24.  I was happy with that, but it would take me nearly a year to crack the hour for this distance.  My breathing at this time was all over the place and I constantly battled to keep a steady pace.

Matt and I fighting around Devizes 10k

During May a team of runners from Devizes Running Club took part in a relay race from London to Cardiff.  The 22 teams of runners carried trackers and supporters were able to view the progress of the race live.  The race started in Twickenham and headed 160 miles along canal paths, roads, tracks, and trails to finish in Cardiff.  There are 24 stages, meaning most runners have 2 each, and 3 team stages.  The race was exciting to watch and seeing teams getting lost "live" made it even more interesting.  The DRC team finished a few hours outside the targetted 24 hours but still returned as heroes to the club.  I was hooked on the idea of the race and along with Crazy Sam and Ali Bisatt signed up for the race in 2015, we had a team of 3 up until a few months before the race.

Through the summer of 2014, I progressed a little with speed, lost a little weight, sprained my ankle on hill reps and signed up for the Chippenham Half marathon.  I ran regularly with Matt, (Crazy) Sam Hooper-Browning and (Sensible) Sam Walters on longer and longer weekend runs using the canal towpath and the hills of Salisbury Plain to build up stamina and strength.  In the June I ran the (hot and hilly) Frome 10K and completed it in 1:01:23.  I was getting closer.  Work took me to Barrow-in-Furness for a few weeks in July and the early finishes allowed me to run around the town, seeing the wonderful sights of the surrounding countryside.  Back home I entered a few races over the summer, including the Headington 5k, a fast PB potential race with a downhill start, and Chippenham 5 mile, with no redeeming features I can think of.

Chippenham Half route

Chippenham Half - don't laugh!!

Eventually, 7th September arrived and I lined up at the start with Sensible Sam.  We both felt out of our depth but we just laughed it off.  The race started at 9:30 and we headed through the town towards Abbeyfield Secondary School and then out towards Stanley and Tytherton Lucas.  At 3 miles we checked our pace and were surprised that we had averaged 9 min miles, although this unstaggering feat is not much to boast about both of us had been training for 9:30/10 min mile fastest.  The race is predominantly flat and winds its way through the countryside around Chippenham, competing with farm traffic and Chelsea tractors in a hurry for lunch at Fortnum & Mason.  Sam and I stayed together until about the 7 miles, where the race turns back towards the town, I could see her in front but couldn't quite catch her.  I eventually caught up around 9 miles but she caught up and overtook me in the last few miles as we entered the town.  Sam crossed the line at 2:09:12 and I finished in 2:09:43, but we both felt we had achieved something.  Over the years I have known and adored Sam this is one of the few races we have both run together.

One week later I lined-up with Matt again from the Melksham 10k, the route loops around a new housing estate back through part of the town twice.  It's a fast course but lacking any inspiration and although at the time I took a few minutes off my PB I think the pace was more to do with getting the race finished as soon as possible.  Less than a month passed and I was at Cardiff Half with Matt and Ross Davis from DRC.  I had been suffering from gastric problems in the week preceding but still turned up 85% fit.  The race starts by the castle and loops out to Grangetown and then around the Bay, through Butetown before heading north and looping Roath Park.  The final stage is back down to Bute Park and finishes by the university.

Cardiff Half

Even though I was not fully fit and had to walk on a few occasions, my time for the race was awful, the race itself was outstanding.  The race was a mass start, and although there were thousands of runners there seemed to be not bottlenecks once the start line was crossed.  The course was wide and crowds lined the route from start to finish, often 3 or 4 deep.  A perfect road runner's half marathon.

In October 2014 I moved from Market Lavington to Trowbridge, and for a time tried to keep attending Devizes Running Club (DRC), but the travel made it hard.  I decided I would move clubs to Avon Valley Runners (AVR) based at Trowbridge's new rugby club with changing rooms and showers - a total luxury.  My last two races with DRC were the Clock Change Challenge, an out and back circuit near Calne, and the Bromham Pudding Run.  The Pudding Run attracts a lot of publicity amongst local runners as it's fast, flat, and with PB potential, but I found it extremely dull running twice around a rural village and being handed a mini Christmas pudding at the end as the medal.  After finishing I removed my number and went back onto the course to encourage in other club runners.

Struggling around one of my few Parkrun's in October 2014

Over the winter my running went well with regular weekend runs of 10 or more miles around Trowbridge and Bradford-on-Avon, discovering for the first time Avoncliffe and Dundas aqueducts, and extensive miles along the Kennett and Avon canal footpath.  Leaving early and in the dark, I would climb up into the hills to watch the sunrise over Wiltshire before returning, caked in mud and soaking wet from running the waterlogged canal paths, much to the bemusement of the canal boat owners staring out of their windows into the gloomy morning.  I was getting fitter and my breathing improving, but still carrying too much weight.

In early 2015 I competed in the Longleat 10k, Wiltshire 10 miles and ran the Devizes Half marathon, as a pacer for a friend Gemma Weston from DRC, who was running her first half marathon.  The Devizes Half is a hilly, exposed course, with a sting in the tail at 12 miles.  It is a good rural half but lacks any real support other than the first and last mile.  Not one I have felt the need to revisit.

Finishing the Wiltshire 10 in Feb 2015

With spring approaching and the London to Cardiff relay looming, somewhere in my mind, I had decided that I wanted to try running a marathon. 

To be continued...

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