Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Running Scared

So my little boy, Jackson, got himself a 'boo boo' the other day (I know, I know, the Americanisms are infiltrating the vocabulary of our household at a rate of knots). He was running down the street on his way back from the park and he fell, grazing his knee. After the obligatory "Up you get then!" style encouragement from me wasn't working, I resorted to cuddles and a liberal smear of 'magic cream' for his knee, which seemed to do the trick.

After his nap, we decided to go to the park again (when it's on your doorstep you've got to make the most of it). As we were getting ready he said "I'm not running anymore, Mama".

"Why not?' I said, 'Because you got a boo boo?".
"Yes", he said, "I'm scared of running".

Now this is coming from the boy who runs EVERYWHERE.
He's a toddler.
Toddlers LOVE running.

With this in mind, I asked him "Do you remember when Mummy went running and she fell down and got a boo boo?" (I fell flat on my face a little while ago. It was neither pleasant, nor pretty).

"Yes", he said cautiously.
"Well, I didn't get scared of running. I love running. It's so much fun. Don't be scared, everybody falls down sometimes".

And with that, the subject was dropped and we carried on getting ready to go out.

When I started this blog, I asked a few of my friends for their feedback. Many obliged, and I found it incredibly useful, not least because one of the comments got me thinking about writing this post.

My friend Sarah was really sweet about the blog and told me it had really struck a chord with her. She explained why:
'I really think I want to get into running more. My fear is that I won't enjoy it enough and I will hate it once I start - I think the thought of failing scares me a little!!'
So here's what I think about that:


The trick is not letting your fear prevent you from trying something you may grow to love. Oh, the things I wish I'd done in my pre-child life, when I didn't have to juggle babysitters and maternal guilt just to get my legs waxed (but let's not go there). At the end of the day, if you don't try, you can't fail and I think that's why many people, me included, put off things that scare them, because they don't want to feel a failure.

If you're reading this and thinking, "look I like the sentiment here, but running's just not for me", then find out what is for you. Find something that you're scared of and give it a go. Blogging is something that I've always wanted to do, but it scares me silly to actually put anything out there. If you had any idea how petrified I get when I'm about to publish a post, you'd wonder why I bother. And while I'm sure there are some readers who wish I hadn't bothered, at least I'm trying. At least I'm exploring the new despite my fear.

But back to Jackson, as he has some advice for Sarah, and anyone else thinking about taking up running, too. There we were, on our way home from the park for the second time that day, when Jackson announced that he wanted to get out of his pushchair. To run. As he climbed out he said

'I'm not scared of running, Mama. Running's good.'

And off he went. Flying down the street, arms out to the side like an aeroplane, laughing his little head off.

Jackson has a point. Running is good. It's not meant to make you feel like a failure or like you're not doing it right. It's meant to make you feel free, like a toddler does running down the street. When Jackson gets out of breath he stops for a little while until he's ready to run again. He doesn't push himself to the point of exhaustion or frustration, because that wouldn't be good. Or fun. Jackson loves running because he likes how his body can make him go fast. He likes putting his arms out to the sides and pretending to fly.

Seriously, would you take advice from this lunatic?

Now I'm not suggesting that you impersonate an aeroplane when you run (unless of course you want to). Nor am I implying that running is effortless. It's hard to begin with, and you have to put a fair bit of effort in to start seeing results. If you haven't run for a long time (since toddlerhood maybe?), you'll need to give your body a chance to catch up to what you want it to do too. So take it slowly - not too fast, not to far - and give it time.

'They say' that 21 days is long enough for something to become a habit. Well 'I say' give it 3 miles, rather than 3 weeks. With a good
Couch to 5K running plan under your belt, you'll be running 3 miles in just over 2 months. 2 months. That's a drop in the ocean in the grand scheme of things, and you'll be able to run 3 flippin' miles!

Then just decide. Decide if running(or whatever else you've tried) is good for you. If it's not, that's no failure on your part, because you tried, and you found out. But if you're lucky, by the time you've made your decision you might have experienced moments when you've felt like you're flying too.

So don't be afraid to fail, or fall (like me and Jackson) and you might just find that you like running so much that frankly, it scares you.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

NYRR Mini 10K - Race Report

After a week of incredibly hot weather that saw temperatures in New York City reach the 100s (and saw me with my head stuck in the freezer), I have to admit, I'd been hoping for rain today. I'll take wet and cool over hot and sticky any day of the week (if we're talking running, that is). So, when I woke to pouring rain I thought my luck was in.

Unfortunately, my luck then decided to go out. By the time I'd reached Central Park the rain had cleared and left in its wake grey skies and humidity of 96%. 96 %! So just a tiny bit sticky then. Fortunately, it wasn't too hot, around 69 degrees (that's 20 centigrade to my metric friends), but the air was heavy and there was only the slightest breeze. Not the best running weather, but hey, at least I wasn't melting.

The race starts at Columbus Circle, at the south west corner of the park, so I made my way to join 4,750 other women in the starting corrals. After speeches from the race organisers and a rendition of the star spangled banner, we were off.

The first mile of the race is run down the middle of Central Park West, the roads having been closed to traffic. It's always difficult to get into a steady pace straight from the off, as you often find yourself caught up behind slower runners who have started closer to the front than their pace allows them. Within around half a mile the congestion eased off a bit and I was getting into a steady, although slowish pace. I've never raced a 10k before, and it's a tricky one for me to pace. You can't just go for it, as you can in a 5K or 4 miler, as you'll burn out too soon. And a half-marathon pace is too slow and considered, so finding a balance somewhere in between was the key, and I didn't want to go out too fast in the first mile.

The first mile marker appeared just after we passed the American Museum of Natural History, and a quick peek at my watch confirmed that I was as slow as I thought: a 9.47 mile. This was good though, the first mile needed to serve as a warm up, so I knew I could pick up some time later in the race. At this point I also had a quick look behind me to see Central Park West absolutely teeming with runners as far as the eye could see. It was an absolutely magnificent sight.

At 90th street we made a right into Central Park and continued in a clockwise direction around the loop. I started to get into my groove only to be met quite quickly by one hill and then just past the 2 mile mark, another, the infamous 'Harlem Hill' . I'd run Harlem Hill twice during the More/Fitness Magazine Half Marathon back in April, albeit from the other direction. It's a bugger of a climb, whichever way you take it on. The only good thing about running up it, is the downhill once you get to the top and with this in mind, I pushed on, trying to maintain my pace. As I reached its peak I was met with a rare, cool breeze on my face, a much welcome downhill stretch and a wicked Radiohead tune on my ipod. Cue me with a big, silly grin on my face as I came flying down the hill, attempting to make up a bit of time.

Unfortunately, my runner's high, was short lived. The course at Central Park is a series of 'rolling' hills, and you're never on the flat for very long. As I saw the next hill approach, my legs started to feel heavy and I toyed with the idea of taking a walk break. But before I had the chance, I was met at the foot of the hill by such a big, enthusiastic group of supporters, that their cheers gave me, and I'm sure many others, a bit of a second wind, and I managed to power up the last of the big hills without too much trouble.

At the peak of the hill we passed the 5k mark. Up until this point, I'd not been taking much notice of my time, and had resigned myself to a 'slow but fun' race, as the humidity was making it all so much more of an effort. However, as I ran past the marker, I realised that my time was around 29 minutes (which isn't bad for me), and I wasn't running as slow as i thought. Having run the park before, I knew that the east side of the course was generally flatter, so, what the hell, I pushed on and decided to go for a decent time.

As I reached the 4 mile mark, I suddenly hit a bit of a wall and my arms and legs felt like they had turned to lead. I just felt like all my energy had gone. I wondered what to do and quickly made an absolutely counter-intuitive decision: I decided that I had to go for it and shock my body back to life, so I picked up the pace and promised my legs a quick break at the 5 mile water station.

I made the 5 mile marker 9 minutes later, so had definitely increased my pace. I had a few gulps of water, dropped my head forward and threw the rest of the cup over the back of my neck. It was just so flippin' humid. At this point the Chemical Brothers had kicked in on my ipod and i ran on, trying to maintain my 9 minute mile pace.

The last mile of a race is always tough and this one was no exception. I was tired, hot and sticky and desperate to finish. I managed to keep my pace steady, but at around .2 of a mile from the finish line, I had to pull back a little, just to get a handle on my breathing. Whilst I was pretty happy with my overall pace, and had managed a negative split, I'd started my push for home too early and was in danger of crashing before I got there. At the '800 meters to go' mark, I'd recovered enough to dig deep one last time and push to the end. I managed to sprint the last 50 meters and it was all I could do not to fall over once I crossed the finish line.

I finished in 58.34 - a good time for me and as it was the first time I'd raced the distance, an automatic personal best! My overall pace was 9.26 per mile, which felt about right considering the distance (and the bloody humidity).

Once I had got my breath (and control of my legs) back, I walked through the throng of finshers to collect my runner's booty - food in the shape of bagels and pears, water, a pink carnation (bless) and a finisher's medal. And then it hit me, the combination of exhaustion, emotion, pride and adrenaline and suddenly I'm quietly crying big, stupid, happy tears (I did tell you I'm a bit of a cryer, right?). But you know what? It really was crying of the very best kind.

Check out the NYRR website for the full race report, winners, results, videos and photos plus more about the great Grete Waitz to whom today's race was dedicated.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Pre-Race Ritual

It's the NYRR Mini 10K race tomorrow morning, so today I made my usual pilgrimage to the New York Road Runner's (NYRR) building on the Upper East Side to pick up my race number.

NYRR opens its doors to the racing public for the two afternoons preceeding the race so that runners can pick up their number in good time, rather than on the morning of the race.

The NYRR building, complete with Mini 10K hopefuls

I've never fancied the last minute, race morning number pick up. As it is, you have to get up at the crack of dawn to eat, drink a ton of water to rehydrate yourself after a night's sleep and give yourself time to pee it all out again. Charming, I know, but rather that than run round the course dying for the toilet. After 2 kids, my pelvic floor isn't up to that, I can tell you. Then there's the small matter of actually getting to the race (the New York subway system has an uncanny ability to disrupt service over the weekend, so that always adds an extra little challenge). You have to drop off your baggage, go to the toilet (again), warm up and get to your starting corral before the race kicks off. The Mini 10K is an all female race too, so god knows what the toilet situation will be like. Imagine thousands of women, all desperate for the loo (as, yes, they too have gulped down their own bodyweight in water), sharing around 30 portable loos. It wasn't pretty at the More/Fitness Magazine Half Marathon back in April, and I'm sure it won't be pretty tomorrow. So stuff trying to pick up my race number in the morning, I was getting it sorted today.

Whilst I don't really appreciate the schlep from Brooklyn to the Upper East Side, I do quite enjoy the whole number pick up ritual. It's always a really buzzy atmosphere, as hundreds of people stream in and out of the building to pick up their race gubbins. It's a people watcher's paradise, and I love checking out the competition, who range in age from teenagers to octogenarians and come from all walks of life.

T-shirt pick up

Number pick up

Plus, picking up my number makes me feel like a real runner and it's at this point that I start to get pretty excited about the race.

Thank you, nice smiley man, for presenting me with my race number.

The free t-shirt is always a bonus too, and this one, although predictably and gender-stereotypically pink, is kind of nice, don't you think?

But it was the slogan on the charity t-shirt that had me welling up (I am known to be a bit of a cryer, but managed to rein it in).

This year's Mini 10K is dedicated to the memory of Grete Waitz, five time winner of the Mini 10K and nine time winner of the NYC Marathon. Tomorrow's race is also the 40th anniversary of the race, so it's a really special year to run it.

So while thousands of women go through their own pre-race rituals tonight, wish us all luck and think of us tomorrow morning as we run for Grete, for ourselves and for the sheer bloody thrill of it.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

From Zero to 9 + 1

So the next thing I know I've signed up for a 4 mile race. Then a few weeks later a half-marathon. And then I found out something REALLY interesting. One way to guarantee entry to the 2012 New York City Marathon is to do the following 3 things:

1. Join New York Road Runners (NYRR) before 31st Jan 2011.
2. Run 9 qualifying NYRR races during 2011.
3. Volunteer to work 1 NYRR race during 2011.

Simple, eh? It's called the NYRR 9+1 guaranteed entry program.

So, I thought, how hard can it be? Or rather I thought, I bet it's bloody exhausting, but what a challenge! What a great way to get fit, push myself, and potentially completely change my perception of myself and what I'm capable of. If I do this, if I finish the races, and qualify just doing that would be AMAZING. I mean, I've never run a race in my life (except for school sports day), I've never been really fit and up until I made the decision to do this, I'd never run more than 5K. I wanted this. I wanted to show myself that I could set my mind to something and achieve it.

At this point I wasn't even considering what would happen if I actually registered for the 2012 marathon. Because then I'd actually have to consider running that too.

So why blog about it? Well, I'm under no illusion that I'm going to gain thousands of followers and achieve blog super stardom. But I figured that there might be other lunatics like me out there, who have set themselves this challenge, and that they might find it interesting. Plus, the more I let it all out there, the more it motivates me to keep going and not to give up. Because I don't want to give up. I don't want this to be another 'exercise phase', that I drop when it gets too boring. I want to run these races and I want to qualify for the marathon. And ok, let's go there: I want to run the marathon too. I'm a total cliche. I'll turn 40 in December 2012. If I can complete a marathon before I hit the big 4-0, well that would be bleedin' amazeballs.

I decided on a training plan, which I hoped would get me around the first half marathon (oh did I mention that I signed up for two? No?). I figured that the half marathon training would get me more than ready for the first race, the 4 miler a few weeks later. And let me tell you, if you want to stick to a training plan, there's nothing like the a looming half-marathon to motivate you to get out there and run. Snow, rain, sleet, cold you name it, I ran it, because frankly, I thought that if I didn't, I had no chance of finishing the half-marathon.

So did I finish?

Oh yes I bloody well did.

As I write this I've completed 4 of the 9 races. The next is the NYRR New York Mini 10K this Saturday morning, which I'm pretty excited about. There's proper job elite runners running it and it's a special one too, as it's the 40th anniversary of the race. I'll let you know how it goes. If you want to follow my progress through the 9 races (plus any others I'm crazy enough to sign up for) you can do that by checking out my Races page, where I'll post race dates, finishing times etc.

Finally, if you're a novice runner like me and thinking of signing up for your first race, my advice would be this: go for it. It's a fantastic motivator for your training, and the experience of running in a big race is just electric. Plus, I guarantee you, however slow you think you are...

you. will. not. finish. last.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Finding My Feet

It's taken years for me to become a runner. 38 of them to be precise. Running is one of those things that I always wanted to get into, but never seemed to, well, get into. In my twenties I couldn't manage much more than a block, thanks to my 20-a-day Marlboro Lights habit. In my early thirties, a brief flirtation with jogging around the park came to an abrupt halt when a knee injury made any further attempts agonizing. So that was it. No more running for me.

But then something happened. Well, actually two somethings happened. A girl and then 2 years later a boy. My babies. Like most women, my life changed completely when I had children. Everything suddenly revolved around these two small humans who called me mum. Becoming a mother was in turns the most wonderful and amazing thing that has ever happened to me and the most overwhelming, bewildering and downright exhausting experience I have ever had. Motherhood consumed my mind and my body. It changed me and somewhere along the way, although I gained the most precious gifts I could ever wish for I lost a big part of my identity. Needless to say, I also lost my waistline, my stomach muscles and the ability to say no to a slice of cake.

When my second child was 7 months old, I went to a christmas party and was asked twice within the space of about 20 minutes if I was pregnant again. Funnily enough, I didn't particularly enjoy the party. On the way home, I decided I needed to do something and the next day I started saying no to the cake. That week I started running.

At the time, we were living in Dubai in the UAE. It has to be said that running in the heat of the Middle Eastern climate is akin to running through treacle. I started off, therefore, slowly. I got very pink and I tried not to fall over from heat exhaustion. I would get up at 6am, quickly breastfeed my son, and be out of the house by 6.10am just to beat the heat of the rising sun. I dutifully followed a beginner's walk/run program , never pushing too hard too soon, mindful of my old, nagging knee injury. Before long I was able to run for around 30 minutes without stopping. And then the 6 am temperature started to hit 40 degrees centigrade, running outside became impossible and we were on the move again. This time to New York, where we relocated to in August of last year.

Moving your family and possessions to a new country is pretty stressful. Doing it twice within the space of a year with two very young kids in tow made it even more challenging. Living out of suitcases for the first 3 months of living in New York just added a certain 'je ne sais quoi'. Not surprisingly, the running kind of tapered off. And then stopped. Completely.

But we finally started to get settled. We found an apartment, some friends and I developed a new found love of pancakes. And ice cream. And.... you guessed it, in times of stress I turned to my old friend chocolate. By the end of the year, I'd piled a load of weight back on and was looking to make a change.

So rekindling my running routine was, at this point, motivated completely by vanity. By wanting to loose weight and get in shape. I'm lucky to live less than a block away from the beautiful Prospect Park in Brooklyn, one of the best places to run in New York City. So I invested in some cold weather running gear and a new pair of trainers and set my alarm clock to EARLY. The first time I ran in the park, I managed 10 minutes before my knee started aching. So I stopped. The next time I managed 15, and then 20 and so on, until I was managing a full loop of the park. In contrast to the heat of Dubai, my runs now took place in the winter wonderland and sub zero temperatures of the park, but strangely, that's what started to hook me. I'd be out there at 7am, pounding the pavement in the freezing cold, getting nowhere fast. But however slow I was I'd think 'I'm here. I'm doing this. I haven't given up'. The quiet and the beauty of the park gave me time to clear my head, to complete a thought and then another, the rhythm of my breathing became almost meditative. My thinking was this: if I can fall in love with running during one of the longest coldest winters I've ever experienced, then maybe I have a chance of making this a habit for life.

This precious, solitary time, this time away from all things mum, had added benefits. I started to get stronger and faster. I started to lose weight. This had a domino effect on my eating habits. I didn't want to eat a load of crap anymore. I wanted to eat good food that would fuel my runs rather than negate any good they had done my body. I started to feel comfortable in my skin.

Although, moving to New York was a really positive thing for our family, it also meant that I was unable to work as my visa status didn't allow it. So, for the time being I was a fully fledged stay at home mum, which frankly I had been since my youngest was born. Whilst I know how lucky I am to be able to stay at home with my kids, I was missing work. I missed the autonomy it afforded me, the opportunity to connect with other adults in a realm outside of child-rearing, and the ability to focus my mind on something other than the washing and what we were having for tea. So, only two weeks in to my new running routine, I decided that while I was unable to work, I needed a project outside of my family life, something that I could focus on and that would provide me with tangible goals and achievements. And that's when I realised that running could be just that project. That if I got serious about running, I could challenge not only my body but all my preconceptions about myself. That I could push myself to a point where I could achieve things I never thought possible.

I've never really been the sporty one. I've never been particularly fit, and I've battled with my weight for years. I suddenly realised that I had the opportunity to go for it. To see where running could take me and how far I could take it. I also realised that by embracing running, by making it part of my life, it had the potential to influence and inspire the most important people in my life. My kids. If their mummy's running was 'normal' to them, then maybe I could bring them up in an environment where exercising, challenging yourself and looking after yourself was 'normal' too. Maybe, I could point my kids in the direction of a healthy and happy lifestyle, just by going out and getting one for myself. And that got me excited. So much so, that I dived straight in, and before long I'd signed up for my first race, then another, and then, well......9 of them.

But that's another story.