The Uselessness of the Long Distance Runner (with apologies to Alan Sillitoe)

The date is Friday August 13th 2021 and it’s 7.12am. A ridiculous hour of the day, really. Our protagonist (me) is out running and over the course of the next 46 minutes he will run for 5.36 miles before feeling tired, getting confused and heading home. His confusion will haunt him moments after he drinks a chilled bottle of water in his kitchen. Why did he not run the extra 0.85 of a mile which would have led him to a distance of 6.21 miles, otherwise known as 10km? What an absolute knobhead! Never mind, in a few days he’ll go back out and run the full 10km.

Fast forward 22 days. It is Saturday 4th September and our protagonist hasn’t been on a run since the aforementioned Friday 13th August. He’s feeling frustrated. He’s feeling quite angry. He’s not enjoying this period of inactivity. He’s still a knobhead. And he feels useless.

On Friday 13th August, by about 7.15am I was regretting going out on my run. I had a sore shoulder brought on by a ridiculous combination of decorating my kitchen and a brainwave while coaching my Under 13 football team that told me, ‘Yes, Graham, go in goal for the shooting practice! Throw yourself around like a man possessed! Ignore your age and show these young whippersnappers how it’s done!’ Now, with every step taken, pain shudders right up my arm and through my sore shoulder. By the time I’ve registered a couple of miles I have pins and needles in my hand and my index finger has gone very cold. Ignoring the signs that this could be a stroke or the beginnings of a heart attack, I run on. I really am a knobh…well, you know the rest.

For anyone feeling worried, don’t. I didn’t have a stroke or a heart attack. But I did end my run in a lot of pain. But don’t worry, twenty days later I got some help. Between that time and the end of my run I googled the problem and settled on the fact that I’d managed to damage a nerve somewhere between my shoulder and my chest. Despite the intense pain, a bit of self diagnosis told me that it would heal itself and that in the meantime I should just take Ibuprofen. I also decided that continuing to decorate would help.

I realise now that I am still a good 8 years short of qualifying to be a doctor and that as a healer I make a good knobhead.

It has hurt me to have to avoid running and my reluctance to seek medical help – coupled with the amount of time it takes to actually get medical help post Covid and using our surgery’s new phone system – will subsequently cost me more time. I will lose fitness and my burgeoning belly will continue to burge. Or grow.

By the time I got medical help – two days ago at the time of writing – it turned out my diagnosis was right, but that I can’t get a physio appointment for another four days. And that will also be over the phone, so the physio’s healing hands will have to be very special indeed. In the meantime, I feel horrible.

I think I’ve made myself worse with comfort eating too. We went away to Scarborough for a few days and then Newcastle after that meaning five whole days of eating out and I didn’t even attempt to hold back and think healthily. ‘Are you having a pudding?’ quickly became not only a rhetorical question, but a stupid one too.

At home, what with it being the summer holidays, I’ve succumbed to a policy of ‘a beer a night’, which although that’s not heavy drinking, is a lot more than my usual. I’ve also relapsed in my dangerous crisps and chocolate addiction, making any trip to Home Bargains or B&Ms into an actual expedition. While I haven’t exactly piled the weight on – no surprise if you know me – this has still left me out of shape.

Having sought medical help and got my hands on some prescription pain killers and a telephone conversation with a physio, this morning brought another setback. Look away now if you’re young, fit and healthy. The ease with which this type of thing can happen in middle age might be a bit of a shock.

I was out in the supermarket, doing our weekly shop and had crouched down to scrutinise the very bottom row of school shirts. You’d be surprised at the rarity of sized 12-13 short sleeved white shirts in the George at Asda uniform section. Thus, I really had to peer deep and low to find what I wanted. But just before I located it I had an almighty spasm of pain through my lower back. I couldn’t move, was worried I might cry in front of some mums and toddlers – again – and it took my about 10 seconds to realise that I was holding my breath. When I straightened up to a standing position, the pain increased.

This will undoubtedly cost me more time away from running as I’ve struggled with my back for years. It once went completely as I arrived at work and put the handbrake on in the car! However, since getting fitter and stronger with the amount of exercise I got through in lockdown after lockdown after lockdown, it hadn’t been much of a problem at all.

Running has been an excellent help to my somewhat surprisingly fragile mental health over the last year or so. I’ve found this last year tough for a number of reasons, but whenever I’ve been able to go out running I’ve felt focused and free of any number of problems. I’ve also felt fitter and stronger and the distances run and the times achieved have been a real boost, mentally. Like I say, it has hurt not being able to run.

While I’m running I am almost forced to think things through. At my age, this is a good thing as it also allows me to take focus away from how much my body hurts! But it’s also an opportunity that I’m really pleased to be able to take. Other than traffic or people on pavements, I have little else to occupy my mind and I know that I can make decisions during this hour or so; I can solve problems.

Going out for a run means that I can think. I have time to think ‘things’ through, whatever they might be, and often by the time I’m back home I just feel a great deal lighter, so to speak. I head out, fresh faced and often feeling a bit weighed down by what life happens to be throwing at me and by the time I return I’m red-faced and sweaty, but visibly happier, even if I look like I might just be about to collapse.

Three weeks into my enforced rest, and only just back at work for a new academic year, and I’m really feeling tired and more than a little bit troubled by it all. Not being able to run is just horrible. Sometimes, I might allow myself to think that a rest might be nice, but 99% of the time I’ll force myself to get out and go for a run, setting a minimum target and then pushing really hard to eclipse it. I always feel better afterwards. Being injured like this has taken that away and it’s really not pleasant.

I’m hoping that within a fortnight at most I’ll be able to get back out again and I’m hoping that I’ll be able to run far enough and for long enough to have a good old think! In the meantime, I’m looking forward to my telephone physio appointment, which promises to be a whole new experience and hopefully the thing that starts putting stuff right!

The uselessness of the long distance runner is not a feeling I’m enjoying.

Book Review: ‘Why Running Matters’ by Ian Mortimer.

For many of us running really matters. It’s been a lifelong interest for me and something I’ve done with varied levels of success, interest and effort since I was very young indeed. As it stands, I think I’m going through what some might call a slightly evangelical phase with my own running and probably boring most of the people I know in singing its praises. So a book on why we run was a very exciting prospect!

Ian Mortimer isn’t a runner, in that it’s not his profession. In fact, where running’s concerned he’s not unlike myself; middle aged, enthusiastic competitive and probably a bit more injury prone that we’d both like. However, while I’m a humble English teacher Mortimer is a historian and the writer of the best selling Time Traveller’s Guides series.

On approaching his 50th birthday, Mortimer made a series of vows or challenges to himself. In amongst them were taking part in 45 Parkruns and 5 half marathons across the year, producing an album of his own music, seeing a Shakespeare play and organising three concerts by world renowned musicians. In amongst it all, he’d write this book. Phew!

So the book itself is one hell of an achievement. Finding time to write it in amongst all that running and other activity is quite something. By coincidence, I am too approaching my 50th birthday and while Mortimer’s challenges prompted similar thoughts of a series of challenges or ambitions, I was glad I’d picked it up in August when it was far too late to attempt as much as Mortimer did!

The book chronicles Mortimer and his running companions’ performances at the Park Runs and the half marathons, while also attempting to contemplate exactly why it is we run. Because clearly, like the title tells us, running matters, but it’s what it actually means to people that is explored here.

A source of irritation throughout the book was that Mortimer is a really decent runner! Mean spirited I know, but reading about his times and placings in various Park Runs left me feeling quite jealous and more than a little bit irked! But I suppose this is part of what the book is about; we run to be competitive. And the book delves into this in great detail because Mortimer seems incredibly competitive and so while his times were irritating – and accompanied with a smile from this reader too – it left me feeling quite a warmth towards the man himself. His determination was inspirational while remaining quite comforting. Every time he went out to run he was looking to improve on times and performance, which is very much my approach. Sadly, I’m not always successful here!

Reading of Mortimer’s running adventures all over the south west of England was really interesting. HIs descriptions of the various courses, weather conditions etc felt comfortingly familiar, even though I haven’t taken part in any of the races. But his thoughts and theories all held weight with me. And the atmosphere of all those Parkruns did too! Mortimer also wrote a lot about running with his sons and while occasionally the dose of schmaltz involved was a bit much, as someone who occasionally runs with his own son, I could empathise his his pride and enjoyment in doing so.

‘Why Running Matters’ is a really interesting and well-informed book. Mortimer knows his stuff. He’s an experienced runner who has thrown himself into races and challenges of varying levels over many a year. It was this that had me nodding along enthusiastically throughout my time reading. And although it would seem to have a bit of a niche target audience, I would argue that there’s something here for a lot more than just those of us who run. Mortimer’s year is undoubtedly inspiring and the discussions on the competitiveness, camaraderie and the at times almost meditative side of running would hold the interest of many a reader, whether they run or not.

If you’re a runner who wants to read about running, then – obviously – this is the book for you and you’ll certainly get a lot out of reading it. However, even as a non runner, if you’re someone looking for inspiration or even just a gentle push towards the door and searching out something to do with your time, you’ll enjoy ‘Why Running Matters’. And if you’re one of those people who watches runners from the comfort of your car as they pass and just wonders why, then the book will at least help explain what on Earth it is we’re thinking when we leave the house to pound the pavements squeezed into all that lycra!

I give ‘Why Running Matters’

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Forget medals at the Olympics, let’s Pontefract 10k!

Facebook memories rarely fail to raise a chuckle from me. Some, I will share, without fail, every year. Others, just gain a laugh and then get scrolled through. Recently, one came up that makes me smile every time. It was the third year anniversary of me and my kids completing a 5km fun run. It made me smile for a number of reasons; firstly because in the three years since it happened my children have grown up so much and secondly because we all look so very pleased with ourselves!

This year though, it made me smile all the more because it came up on the exact same day that I completed a 10km race; the Pontefract 10k. It was the progress that pleased me so much. Not that I was now able to run twice the distance, but because of what this shift represented to me personally. It’s around 3 and a half years since I had to go into hospital for heart surgery, so while completing the 5km fun run was a real boost, this latest run has really cemeneted the feeling that I’m a whole lot better, fitter and healthier these days.

I entered the race partly because it was a goal that I set myself and also because a friend from work invited me to give it a go. He probably won’t remember, but around 3 years ago he asked me if I fancied doing a different 10k and I had to turn him down because I knew there was no way I’d be able to do it; no way that my body would have got through 10 whole kilometres! I felt terrible – like I was just being anti-social and making excuses. But it nagged away at me and then at the turn of this year, with a fair few 10km training runs under my belt, I made it my business to enter an actual race. So thanks Shaun, for the inspiration!

In the run up to August 1st though, I was convinced that I wouldn’t be able to complete the race. My fitness had dropped due to a period of isolation when my son caught Covid and then a series of niggling injuries interrupted my running even more. Self doubt, my old lifelong friend crept in and installed himself on a shoulder so he could readily whisper in my ear. He was there as I walked around the supermarket, there whenever I trained and my legs felt a little tired and more to the point, there when I lined up at the start of the race.

My aforementioned friend actually passed us – me and my family – as we waited by the start. I deliberately stood under a tree and hid a bit, just to avoid having to talk about what the next 55 or so minutes might hold. I was ridiculously nervous. The whole time that we stood there I glanced furtively around, knowing that there were at least two other people I knew, knowing that I didn’t want to talk to anyone. Ridiculous really! As I stood and then stretched and checked that everything was just the way I wanted it to be, I grew more nervous and more grumpy with my family, who had very kindly got up at 6.30am on this particular Sunday in order to be with me at the start line for 9am.

And then, before I knew what to moan about next, we were on the road and the race was starting. A word about a word. When I say ‘race’ please understand that out of the over 800 people who entered the run, only some of us were racing. Probably a few hundred, maybe more. But I’m sure for a lot of people the object was just to get around having had a bit of fun along the way.

It surprised me how quickly my mood changed once I got into my running. The race started in a park, running down the driveway entrance before a sharp right turn took us up what looked like a steady, but never-ending hill. Within a few hundred metres I was running steadily and feeling strong. The run from the Facebook memory had been one of the the last times I’d ran in a field of other runners and it surprised me how quickly I felt comfortable after so many solitary – but never lonely – training runs.

Running up that first climb, with a friend’s description of the course as being ‘undulating’ now ringing in my ears, I felt good. The nerves had settled, the feeling of being some kind of imposter had disappeared and here I was fit, healthy and passing people. Others had the audacity to pass me, but it didn’t feel like it mattered. My plan was for a fast final mile or mile and a half and so I felt sure that my time would come.

I ran wearing a smart watch and also with my Strava app running on my phone and found myself glancing at Strava more than ever before. I think the fact that it informed me I was running at 7.30 per mile pace and at times below alarmed me a little – I’m usually up around 8.30 at this stage of a run – and so I ran while battling to focus on slowing down and not getting carried away and also checking the app to see my progress. I seemed incapable of slowing down for around the first 3km though and was sure that I’d grind to an almighty halt at about 7km! It didn’t get quite that bad though.

The undulating nature of the course would take its toll though. Through 4, 5 and 6 kms, I slowed. I’m aware that we did run down some hills, but it just seemed like the uphill sections kept appearing in front of me, relentlessly. I dug in, tried to relax and just kept running, but it wasn’t long before it occurred to me that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d passed anyone. Runners were passing me though. Not in their droves, but every so often one would glide past and despite my best efforts I just couldn’t keep up! But I wasn’t dropping too far though, so I stayed calm and just relied on the fact that I felt like I could summon some strength up and have a better final few kilometres.

My mind began to wander though and I started to think about my operation three years previously. I thought about being admitted initially and the loneliness of the night in hospital wondering if I might die. I thought about hugging my wife and kids the next day, once I’d finally got home. I thought about waiting to be called on to the ward about a month later when I was operated on and I thought about the operation itself. The last thing I thought about before I snapped myself back to the matter at hand was my cardiologist giving me the all clear about a year later. I began to feel quite emotional, but knew that I had to pull myself together and get back to focusing on the running. Imagine the horror of running past some red-faced, sweaty old bloke who was weeping quietly to himself, snot and tears streaming down his face! Clearly though, this run was more important to me than I’d imagined.

A couple of minutes later, with my legs not feeling too bad – despite my pace slowing – I concentrated on distracting myself and for a few minutes at least, tried to just spot things to look at, like a nice house or the view. I made sure to reply to everyone who was supporting from the side of the road, again in an attempt to stave off mental fatigue and would occasionally take a slog from the water I’d picked up at the last feeding station.

It didn’t take me too long to pull myself together and be able to focus again and when I did, I began looking ahead and trying to focus on people that I might be able to catch and overtake. My legs still felt like they had some life in them and by the time I’d got to the 8km mark I’d been able to progress through the field a little bit. I decided that once I’d got to 8 and a half km I would up my pace some more and that for the final mile I’d be trying to run at something like 7 and a half minute mile pace.

But the hills Just seemed to just keep on coming. I knew I was nearly done though and by this point I was just determined to have a strong finish.

Halfway down the final hill and running fairly strongly, something brilliant happened. As I looked down the road I spotted my wife and children. I think I spotted them before they spotted me and so I gave them a wave. Once they waved back, it was my cue to quicken the pace again. The bottle of water that I was carrying was by now getting on my nerves, so I positioned myself near the kerb and when I passed them made sure to hand it to my daughter. Their whooping and screaming and clapping was brilliant to hear though and really spurred me on. I knew that I was within a few hundred metres of the finish now.

At the bottom of the hill we turned left and were back on the drive of the park with a slightly uphill dash to go until the finish line. Despite a sudden feeling of nausea I began to sprint – as much as a nearly 50-year-old who’s ran almost 10km could sprint – and was soon passing people. I really didn’t feel strong at all and was pretty certain that I was going to be sick, but it was just a case of digging in and getting through it. To my left I could see my wife and kids cutting over the grass from where they’d been on the roadside so that they could get to the finish. My son called out, ‘Go on Dad!’ and coupled with just seeing them there, it was enough to push me over the last few yards.

Me, knackered, attempting to power my way to the finish!

Right on the line, while I was concentrating on not throwing up, two people passed me. I spotted them in my peripheral vision, but it was too late and I didn’t really have the strength to react. I wasn’t particularly bothered though; I’d done what I’d set out to do and when I glanced down at my phone in order to stop Strava, I was thrilled to see that I’d ran the course in a little over 51 minutes, which from memory was one of the best 10km times I’d ever ran.

As I collected my water, medal and t-shirt I was in a bit of a trance. The medal quickly went into a pocket and the t-shirt got draped over my shoulder while I downed the water. I felt exhausted, but thrilled to have finished at the same time.

Within a couple of minutes I’d located my family who greeted me like I was returning from climbing Everest! We stood and chatted for a short while, but then with rain looking absolutely certain, we decided to head for the car and get home. Time to relax, have something to eat and maybe scroll through my phone for Facebook memories!

Later that day I found out that I’d finished in 271st place out of 813 runners and I have to say I was really pleased with that. My official time was 51 minutes and 51 seconds, my second fastest 10km run, so despite my mid-run lull, I’d managed to keep going pretty well.

I’m looking for more races to enter now, although with the football season starting soon, I’ll have to avoid clashes. The race has definitely whetted my appetite for more and I’ll continue going out training and trying to improve both my times and my fitness. I’ll definitely be running the Pontefract 10k next year too!

My Hopes for Summer

It’s been a strange old year. The academic one, that is. I’ve found it a bit of a struggle, but always try to keep stuff to myself – he says, writing a blog that thousands hundreds fourteen or fifteen people will read – and so I don’t think many people would realise. Apart from a few people that I’d class as relatively close to me, who either notice that I’m not myself or that I might just confide in.

It’s cliched, pompous and pretty poor form for me to say that I’ve been to Hell and back, mainly because I haven’t. But I think it’s fair to say that I’ve boarded the bus to there a few times in these last twelve months or so. I just got off a few stops early.

I won’t divulge much by way of detail, but a lot of my problems have been either work related or age related and despite the presence of more than enough good people in my life, I’ve felt very alone at times. If you know me, please don’t mistake this as a cry for help; it’s not. Imagine the mess I’d make of one of those! But, I have felt alone. It’s no one’s fault. Worse things probably do happen at sea, as they say. I mean, imagine who you could get stuck next to on a deckchair on your dream cruise for instance. That’s if cruises even do deckchairs. I’m aware that everyone has their problems though.

Given the age nature of some of my problems, you could be excused for mistaking this for a mid-life crisis. It isn’t. But if it was, I think only I could get it so badly wrong. No Porsche, no ponytail, no piercing or ill judged tattoo and no cringeworthy flirting with younger women as I struggle to cling on to my youth and masculinity. No, if it has been a mid-life crisis, I did it by writing a blog and some poems. Trust me to err on the side of a cautious crisis.

With all of this in mind, my summer break can’t come soon enough. Six weeks of not going to work but getting up in the morning with each day stretching out in front of you and a lot more possibilities than usual. Bliss. I’m even looking forward to the mundanity of jobs around the house and garden. Anything that takes my mind away from the type of things that I find are bugging me on a daily basis at the moment.

So what do I plan to do with my time? I always imagine that the summer holidays is some kind of blank slate upon which I will write a novel, do some sketching, do more running and fitness, watch some football, do some decorating, but in fact life gets in the way. The mundane still needs to be done, so there’s food shopping twice a week, days out to places I don’t really want to head to, but have to in my role as dad and husband, shopping trips for uniform and school shoes and endless talking and planning about jobs that we need to get done, but run out of time to do. So it’s a balancing act between idealism and everyday life.

A friend used to say that, as teachers, our summer holidays were worth £10,000 a year and I have to say that I’ve always agreed. I can live without the extra money, but don’t even think about taking my holidays away.

I imagine that at this time of year every teacher is simply hanging on in there for the end of term. I’m exhausted and I need to know that there’s a block of time when I don’t need to be up and out of the door before 7.30am five days a week, I don’t need to be dealing with the demands of 30 pupils and everything else that comes with working in a modern academy trust.

Most of all I need the time and space to be able to think. I’ve been a teacher for over 20 years now and have found things a little stale this year. At the very least, summer gives me time away form it all, enough to be able to re-charge my batteries, so to speak and to work on regaining some of my old enthusiasm.

I have some serious questions to ask. I need to think about retirement plans because ideally it’s not that far off and I want to be well and truly prepared so that I can spend it doing stuff that makes me, my wife and my family happy.

I also need to give thought to my present role. While I don’t feel tremendously unhappy, I also don’t feel tremendously fulfilled and it’s clear that something needs to change. Whether that’s where I work or just how I go about doing my job, I don’t know, but it needs some serious thinking time. I still have ambitions as a teacher and I think I’ve let things drift a little off course. I love my job, the school that I work at and the people that I work with, but something still doesn’t quite feel right and at least this summer gives me time to figure things out. Summer might just give me time to relax and be able to start all over again in September refreshed and raring to go.

I started writing a novel during lockdown. I know, I know…half of the population started writing novels and screenplays over lockdown. But I genuinely felt that what I was writing was good. It was a fully formed idea, rather than just something half baked that I believed I could make into something as I went, but it got shelved somewhat once I returned to work. It is without doubt something that I’ll be revisiting over summer, with the intention of getting at least a first draft finished. I figure all I’ll need is a typical British summer with just enough rain to keep me indoors for long periods of time and I’ll have the timeframe needed! It’s definitely something that I feel positive about though, and definitely one of the most exciting aspects of my summer.

There are lots of other things that I want to achieve over summer, as well as the kind of things that just need doing and can no longer be avoided when everyone knows you have so much time on your hands!

I’ll be looking to run more and get fitter and I think that will involve as many early mornings as I can manage as I just love the freedom and solitude of being out running at that time of day. I even have a race to take part in in early August and I’m looking forward to testing myself against others again. It’s been such a long time since I ran among lots of people, so it’ll be very strange, but I’m sure hugely exciting too. If nothing else there’s a blog that’ll come out of it! Once I get that out of the way, I’m hoping that there might be the opportunity to compete in at least one more as well. I think I need to get back to fitness workouts too, so if nothing else I’ll be revisiting my old friend Joe Wicks’s YouTube channel and flinging myself into that!

We have a holiday to go to as well. We’ve managed to book a week in North Wales, despite rising costs and demand, post Covid, and it’ll be lovely just to relax on our favourite beach. It’s always a good place to do all of that post work reflection!

I’ve also considered taking in a bit of sport. I don’t think it’ll be football, as I think I fancy something different. Before lockdown I was looking into going to watch our ice hockey team, Leeds Chiefs (now Leeds Knights) but Covid scuttled that plan. I think it’s something I’ll revisit, but the season doesn’t seem to commence until September. I’m considering taking in some games in the upcoming new format of cricket in the UK, The Hundred. We have a team based in Leeds and I reckon that the shorter format might be enough to keep my son’s interest, so I may well have a look.

But it can’t all be exciting over summer. There are a lot of humdrum jobs that need to be caught up on. I have a back garden that resembles a jungle and is in need of major maintenance. My wife seems to have big plans that centre around the movement of some long standing shrubs – and we’re talking plants that are my height and above here – and I would imagine that this will end up being a time consuming job.

Summer always sees decorating rearing it’s ugly head in our house too. My daughter’s bedroom – recently started while she was away on her Duke of Edinburgh expedition – needs to be finished. Our kitchen and dining room still awaits and our bedroom could really do with updating as well. And I see that I’m stretching myself quite a bit here and that there’s quite possible no chance at all that these rooms will all get finished, by the way! But if we can’t be optimistic at this time of year, then when can we be?

I hope to be able to visit my parents for the first time in something like 20 months, but I’m beginning to wonder if it’ll be able to happen. Having spoken to them, they still seem very reticent and fairly paranoid about Covid. Despite us being double jabbed, I think that my mother in particular would rather avoid contact and I have to respect that. There’ll no doubt be conversations to be had, but I’m starting to wonder if the thought of hugging my parents once again will remain just that for a while longer yet. Hopefully I’ll have some nice weather to offer some comfort instead…

So, with a few days still to get through at work, my summer holiday feels like it’s more important than it’s perhaps ever been. Clearly, I’m going to benefit from the time, but hopefully I’ll find lots to do and be able to enjoy lots of it with my family and friends. I’ve no doubt there’ll be a few unexpected surprises; there usually are, but in all, I’m just hoping to feel a lot more settled about everything by the time September rolls around again. I feel that I need to be coming back to work feeling an enthusiasm that not only gets me through the first week, but keeps me going for long enough that I’m not starting to feel restless again.

Whatever form it takes and whatever you’ve got planned, enjoy your Summer everyone!

Running Tips for Beginners and enthusiastic old people alike!

Let me start by pointing out that in no way am I any kind of expert on running. So I’m not claiming that what I write about in this blog is any kind of guarantee of success. There is no way on Earth that reading this blog is going to make you some kind of Olympian! However, as someone who’s ran on and off – more on than off, but a little stop start now and again – for most of his 49 years, I can certainly say that I speak from experience.

Running is something I’ve always loved. It was something that I started at school and success at junior school sports days whetted my appetite. I discovered very early on that I was in possession of a good turn of pace and despite my size, was capable of beating more or less anyone I raced. For a while at least. A heart problem put pay to that and once I recovered I found that I wasn’t the ‘athlete’* I’d once been.

*The term athlete is being used with quite an amount of creative license here by the way. I was a quick kid but that was about the size of it!

With my childhood heart problem taken care of I started running again, albeit not as well as before. But I really wanted to raise money for the heart unit where I’d had my operation and so, to cut a long story short, I started running more regularly and more seriously. I started to do sponsored fun runs and from there graduated to doing the Great North Run, a half marathon, raising money as I went. After that, I just kept on running either for fun or more competitively for clubs. In my time I’ve completed a number of half marathons, but mostly just ran for fun. That said, that’s a lot of running! And in the last few years, following more heart problems, I’ve started running much more regularly. It’s amazing what a health scare can do for you! So you never know, there might just be a bit of common sense in the tips that I can offer! So here we go…

  1. Preparation, preparation, preparation! I can’t lie; there are far too many times that I go out having not prepared properly. If it’s an evening run I tend to make the excuse that I’ve been on my feet all day at work, so I’ll be fully warmed up anyway. But it’s never true and the proof is never more evident in those first couple of miles when I can’t get into my running or afterwards when everything seizes up! So, it’s a little bit of a case of doing what I say and not necessarily what I do here. Take time to warm up. Stretch thoroughly and perhaps even go as far as some running on the spot beforehand. Your body will thank you for it later! Stretching isn’t the only thing you can do though. I always make sure that I’ve had a blast on my inhaler – I’m asthmatic – as I don’t want to be too out of breath too soon. I’ve also started eating a handful of pine nuts and cashews before I head out, just in the hope of a bit of an energy burst. Pine nuts are good in terms of being heart healthy and contain things like iron and magnesium, which can boost energy. Don’t eat so many that you end up running with indigestion, but I always find they help me along the way. Cashew nuts contain healthy fats and again are heart healthy. I can’t claim to be an expert on all things dietary, but even if it’s as a placebo, I find that handfuls of things like this help me out.

The final thing that I make sure I do is to have a few jelly sweets in a pocket, ready for a quick sugar rush when I feel I might be flagging just a little bit too much. My personal choice are Mike and Ike’s, a nicely sugary coated import from America, available in B&Ms brilliant and strange American Confectionary section. Other jelly based confectionary, American or otherwise, is available. All over the place.

2. Clothing. Unless you’re into naked running, clothing is a vital part of your armour as a runner. Some would say it’s essential. From a personal point of view, having never tried naked running, I’d always go with clothing; no one repeat no one, needs to see me and my middle aged body charging down the road, in the nip as they say.

Silliness aside, good quality running gear is important. But there are levels here. I’m not someone who feels the need to splash ridiculous amounts of cash on what I’m sweating into, but I do want to feel comfortable and at least look the part without it being a case of ‘all the gear, no idea’.

The most important thing – in my humble opinion – is to get a good quality pair of trainers that you’re comfortable in. I used to run in Nike flats, but found that their very thin nature meant that they wore out relatively quickly. So eventually I went for a reasonably priced pair of New Balance 680 v6, which feature a nicely cushioned sole. Game changer! Suddenly I was running faster, going further and more importantly at my age, not suffering with aches and pains for days after. You could say that I’m a convert to cushioning. I’ve since bought a new pair of New Balance, but my 680s are hanging on in there and I’m out running in them regularly. I’ve found that some good quality running socks feel a lot better too.

In terms if what else I wear, I prefer 2in1 shorts, with an inner cycling short lining. I’m all for keeping those hamstrings warm! What I would also advise with running shorts is that you buy something with some kind of pocket. That way, anything light that you need to take can be stored away. My pockets always have a few jelly sweets and I find my door key handy for getting back into the house!

I’d also advise buying specialist running tops. I’m a t-shirt man myself. My build just doesn’t lend itself to vests and no one needs the sight of any more of my body! What I would say is that you should have something bright or even high viz, just for your own safety. It’s surprising how people many just don’t see you coming, so be as visible as possible, especially on more murky days or evenings. With this in mind, I was pleased when my wife bought me a couple of light up bands that I can wear around my upper arms in winter. If it gets too late and the light is cutting in, I just flick a switch and they light up, leaving me to focus on my running rather than whether or not I might get knocked over! They’re lightweight and comfortable too, which is ideal for people like me who hate running with anything annoying attached to me. You can see the kind of thing I mean below, although there are lots of variants on this particular accessory.

3. No excuses. Until the last 18 months or so I’ve always been brilliant at coming up with excuses as to why I shouldn’t go out for a run. And excuses as to why I should come in early from a run. Drizzle, too windy (weather, not me), a niggling and sometimes not real injury, not enough time, too close to lunch, not enough sleep, not in the right frame of mind, too windy (me this time), too sunny…I’ve gone through phases where anything I could tell myself would be enough to stay where I was and not head out for a run.

Don’t do it. Those endorphins won’t release themselves. However tired you think you feel, however bad your day at work was, get out for that run. Keep up the momentum. You’ll feel better for it. You’ll be pleased with yourself. You’ll have improved your fitness, just a little bit. But if you let that excuse keep you in then you’ll find another one the next time and even when you get back out again, you’ll excuse yourself some more, another time.

Once I stopped making excuses and just getting out there, I got fitter, stronger and faster. It’s taken me a long, long time, but nowadays the weather and the niggles don’t get in the way and I’m absolutely loving my running.

4. Plan a route (kind of). Personally, I don’t like to plan a very detailed route, but I like an idea of where I’m going, vaguely which set of streets I’ll be running along and more to the point, where I turn for home. I keep it vague for one reason: if I want to add a chunk of running in, I can and that means that I can feel good about myself once I get home. If I know that where I’m headed will take me say for 5km but I’m feeling good, then I might add a few extra streets in and before I know it I’ve covered an extra kilometre or two. And I can’t pretend that it doesn’t make me feel a whole lot better. Maybe it’s just a me thing, but I’d definitely recommend it. I suppose in a way it means I get to explore little bits of town, rather than just running another circuit of somewhere and I find my way a bit more interesting. Sometimes it’s good to keep my mind distracted from how my legs are doing and heading down a couple of new streets does just that!

5. Recovery. Over the last 18 months I’ve learnt that once I get back in after a run, my next hour or so is really important. I always used to make sure that I had a drink of water, but it was never anywhere near enough. And I’d never stretch.

Nowadays everything has changed. When I remember, I put a bottle of water into the freezer before I head out for my run. I’ll neck that as soon as I get in and then refill and drink slowly for a while. I might even refill again after that. I also make sure I eat a banana as soon as I get in. I might even have more cashews or pine nuts. If I have any pain I have a massage roller ball that I put in the freezer and then massage with when I get home and it works wonders! And I make sure I stretch again. This is usually done while lying or sitting down, touching my toes or painfully pulling my feet back behind my back. Before, I might well have just flopped down in a chair and watched television, then wondered why my muscles just stiffened up half an hour later. I’d wake up next morning and find it difficult to walk, such was the stiffness in my legs and back. And then lockdown happened.

During lockdown I read a lot of things about running and exercise. I also did online workouts and learnt the value of warming down and recovery from this. I can’t recommend it enough. The stretching helps to loosen and lengthen the muscles again and the fruit and snacking helps throw vitamins back into the body, which can only help. The water replaces fluid that you’ve lost while also refreshing you, obviously. It seems obvious now and why I totally ignored recovery for so many years is beyond me, but I would absolutely recommend that you take far better care of yourself after you’ve ran. You’ll feel so much better for it.

I hope these tips – some more obvious than others – will come in handy for you. Like I said before, I’m no expert, but I’ve found that these things have helped my running immeasurably. I’m faster and stronger, but more to the point, I enjoy my running much more than ever.

As usual, feel free to let me know what you think by leaving a comment. Oh, and happy running!

Poetry Blog: ‘I ran’

This is a poem that’s been sat in my notebook for a long time. Months, not years, but a long time all the same. In truth, it’s one that I was a bit unsure of. I didn’t know what to do with it and as such it got a bit lost. Every so often I’d flick through said notebook looking for something else, only to re-discover this forgotten poem. Finally though, after a closer inspection, I’ve decided to give it an airing.

I think the good weather has helped. The poem is about a time when I could exercise a great deal more because for almost the whole time the weather was glorious. Looking out of the window as I write, it’s another glorious evening, much like those of last April and May.

It’s a poem about the pandemic. I don’t know quite when I wrote it, but I know that I took the whole thing deadly seriously once I realised the extent of the devastation that seemed to be going on. I was adamant that I was definitely sticking to lockdown, but determined to take advantage of our daily exercise allowance. And so I did.

The poem is about lockdown in general, but also the fact that I took the opportunity that lockdown presented as a chance to make some changes. I’d have said that I was reasonably fit or even kidded myself about being ‘naturally fit’ when it all started. But as I read more and more reports about coronavirus and took into account my own vulnerability to it, I decided that I was going to have to get much fitter. After all, there was little excuse; I wasn’t at work and all I really had was time. So, as the poem says, I ran.

I ran...

When the danger struck, I ran.
Not away from it, but straight at it,
maybe heroically, possibly naively, 
feigning bravery because I didn't know what else to do.
Such is my way with everything.
Don't think, don't plan, act on instinct, 3 in the morning thinking
and possibly a dash of Dutch courage.

And so, when the unseen, yet definitely alien villain headed our way,
sounding dangerously, almost laughably familiar,
I ran.
Decked out like a skinny, pound shop part time superhero,
I somewhat limped into action, exercising evangelically
in an attempt to out-cardio this beefed up cold.

But while others stockpiled toilet rolls and 
took another paracetamol from their selfish stash,
I got fitter, leaner, stronger.
My thirst for the fight meant I doused my fear in fresh fruit, 
nuts, seeds and an ever present bottle of water,
and I ran.

Thousands perished. Some sought solace in illegal road trips
or standing on doorsteps hypocritically acclaiming those who chose the Hypocratic.
I doused my guilt with physical torture, pushing myself to limits I'd not explored in years,
enjoying the isolation, getting evermore prepared to face what felt inevitable
and hoping that this wasn't all in vain.
I ran.

The effects of lockdown – or lockdowns, plural – can’t be underestimated. I think, more than anything, I benefitted from it, but it was still an awful, scary time. Running got me through the fear. In fact, running quite often dealt with the early mornings, while writing steered me through the late, sleepless nights. So my poem is both about what I did as well as being a direct result of what I did.

I’ve tried to inject a dark humour into parts of this poem. At first, I didn’t really believe the hype about coronavirus. It was the flu, it was a ‘beefed up cold’ and I wasn’t going to lose too much sleep about that. I soon realised the truth though! I’ve attempted a little more dark humour later in the poem too. Although I was fit, I probably didn’t really look it; hence the ‘skinny…superhero’ reference. And let’s face it, not many tall skinny fellas look good in lycra!

The whole pandemic scared me and the best way that I could think of to deal with that fear was just to throw myself into something. Exercise, fitness and in particular, running was that thing. Initially, my thinking was simply that if I was fit, the virus would stand less of a chance against me, so I was exercising in different ways every day. At first the whole family joined in and then, as the world righted itself and people went back to school and work it left me largely on my own in terms of exercising. And this was when the running went into overdrive. I’m guessing that when I wrote the poem I was feeling particularly evangelical about it all!

That’s certainly why there’s the reference to people stockpiling certain products. I think lockdown saw a lot of people showing their true colours and it angered me that while I was doing my best to stay safe there were others just making sure that they didn’t run out of anything, that they weren’t inconvenienced. I’d see social media posts from people about how they’d joined in the ‘Clap for Carers’ knowing that they’d been visiting friends or family when it just wasn’t allowed. The hypocrisy of that support for the NHS really bothered me when all it seemed to be for some people was a chance to pat themselves on the back and look good. And I watched in horror as various high profile people in the UK were caught out visiting family hundreds of miles from their homes, while I couldn’t head out to visit friends and family myself. In fact, at the time of writing, I still haven’t seen my parents, my sister and some of my best friends and it’s been well over a year.

So there you have it. A poem that may take people back in time a little bit, despite the fact that large parts of the world are still in lockdown and that even here in the UK we’re only just beginning to glimpse the light at the end of the tunnel. As ever, I’d love to hear what people think, so please feel free to leave a comment.

Poetry Blog – ‘Early Morning Run’

If you’ve read the blog before or are a regular reader (I don’t know if I actually have regular readers, but there you go…) you might already know that I’m a big fan of running. I’d been a sporadic runner for most of my life until the first period of lockdown when I found the time to really work on my fitness and found myself running on a far more regular basis.

In the past, I’ve dabbled with early morning runs. I’ve always thought they were a good idea and it doesn’t particularly bother me that I have to get out of bed early. I’ve never been one for having a lie in and although I wouldn’t call myself a morning person, I can just about function at that time of day. However, I’ve never taken early morning running this seriously before. In the past I think I’ve just been of the view that getting out of bed and doing a bit is enough. Nowadays – probably because I’ve got myself a lot fitter – I take things more seriously.

So since early November last year I’ve been getting up before 7am every Sunday and heading out for a run. My wife thinks I might be going mad or perhaps having some kind of mid-life crisis, but I’m definitely not! I’m just enjoying running. I don’t think I’ve ever ran this early before, but it’s enabled me to experience quite a lot of brilliant things. I’ve ran along long straight roads with barely a vehicle in sight and watched as the sun comes up. I’ve been able to start my day in absolute solitude, gathering my thoughts and just feeling completely and utterly relaxed. I’m calm while running, rather than panicking about how I’m feeling, whether I’d be able to finish, the pain in a muscle etc. And I’ve had time to think, which has helped me a lot with things that I want to write about. I’ll be taking a dictaphone out with me soon!

With all the solitude, the calm, the energised feelings I’ve had after running, it felt obvious to write a poem about my early morning runs. I’d even been taking photos to help me remember certain things. And so, I sat down and wrote some notes. Sometimes these turn into lines from a poem, other times they just stay as bullet points, until I get the urge to sit and write the actual poem. In the case of this poem, I wrote minimal notes and spent a chunk of one Sunday morning, post run, just writing the poem. There were a few bits scribbled out, I suppose as part of a drafting process, but in the main this was a poem that was written as a first draft. Maybe that says something about my enthusiasm for the subject matter…

Early Morning Run

Although a pre-7am alarm on a Sunday is very much the stuff of nightmares, it’s done now. There’s no going back. I roll from under the covers and stumble like a broken robot across the blackness of the bedroom to halt the alarm, then, after a brief flirtation with the cold tap to awaken my senses, I’m downstairs, my body protesting as I stretch. Finally, when there’s nothing left to delay me, I leave the relative warmth behind.

Outside, a pattering against nearby leaves alerts me to the drizzle. My heart sinks slightly, but I turn and run. As I climb the first hill, the early morning fog rolls down at me. I push on, my bare arms and legs slowly adjusting to the biting cold and by the top, although catching my breath, I’m into my stride.

The centre of town is a place for ghosts, only the gentle pad of my feet on concrete can be heard and there’s only me to be seen. The sun fights a losing battle with the fog as I plod on and the only light to be seen belongs to the occasional cars of shift workers heading for warmth. I afford myself a few quiet words of encouragement, tell myself it won’t be long before I’m in their shoes.

On the outskirts of town I run on the empty road, giving up my territory every so often as early morning haulage thunders past and shakes the pavement. I relax, the only soul for miles around, alone with my thoughts and the constant voice in my head offering platitudes, encouragement, advice. Shoulders back, straighten out, head up, lengthen your stride, keep going.

Further down the road, as I tire, a shiftworker emerges like a high viz beacon and we exchange nods, perhaps each wondering which of us has made the worse decision on this cold Sunday morning. And then, the long downward stretch that signals my way home claws its way from the grasp of the fog and I quicken my pace, as if acting on instinct.

A lone gull lands upon a lampost above my head, like some kind of vulture, but it’s too late. I’m gritting my teeth, summoning last reserves of strength and fighting fatigue; this scavenger will have to wait. I open up my stride as best I can and drive for my finishing line.

Finally, I’m home and fumbling for a key with which to silently open the door in order not to wake my sleeping loved ones. Inside, I move to the kitchen, gulp down water, gorge on fruit and then stretch, thankful to be back, my body aching, but my mind cleansed.

Just a brief explanation of a few things in the poem. The line about stumbling across our bedroom ‘like a broken robot’ is me trying to communicate just how tired I feel when I wake up. There are days when my legs just don’t seem to work and the stiffness means my steps are ragged to say the least. It fascinates me that within about twenty minutes, I’ll be running at pace up a hill! Later on in the stanza I mention that ‘my body protests’ at stretches. I know I should warm up, but I seriously don’t want anyone to get the idea that I’m some kind of ‘proper’ runner!

In the fourth stanza, I mention the voice in my head. that might not be wholly truthful. Often I’m actually talking to myself while out running. While there are times when I thoroughly enjoy it and feel totally strong, there are more when I can’t work out why I’m working out, so to speak. And so, often I’ll have a little chat to myself and tell myself that things aren’t that bad or try to kid myself on that it’s all in my head and that my legs are, in fact, strong.

In the fifth stanza I mention a long downward stretch. I’d like to point out that while it’s long, it is barely downward at all and that some of it means going back uphill. I almost changed the poem at the point as I couldn’t stand people thinking that a huge chunk of my run is down a big, steep hill. It’s not. But it’s downhill enough for me to pick up the pace!

The gull in the sixth stanza genuinely frightened me. At first, out of the corner of my eye, I genuinely believed that it was a bird of prey and that it might just take a swoop at me. Seeing it was a gull was a relief, but I still looked at its massive beak and felt a bit of trepidation!

Let me know what you think in the comments. I hope you enjoyed the poem as much as I frequently tell myself I like my early morning runs!

Heart ops, Strava groups and 7am starts – how I fell in love with running again.

Looking back, I’ve been a runner most of my life. From scratch races around our estate and school sports days, cross countries and a brief dalliance with a running club I’ve always done it. And I’ve always loved it.

I was born with several heart problems. The main one was a hole in the heart, but there were a few other things that when combined, put my life at risk. As a child, up until the age of about 6 or 7 I spent a lot of time in hospitals and had open heart surgery at a young age when such a thing was very much still in its infancy. I was weak, scrawny and described by my surgeon as “a very poorly little boy”.

I got through, but for a long time I stayed as very much that same scrawny little boy. I don’t know whether my illness contributed, but I took a long time to really grow and always found myself playing catch up with kids of my own age. I was forever skinnier and until I was about 16 years old, I was shorter too. Where any kind of sport was concerned it didn’t bother me a bit. I was always doing some kind of actvity, and while I may not have been the best, I was prepared to put in the hard work in order to improve.

In terms of running, I had a bit of an advantage from quite an early age. I seemed to have decent pace in sprints and about enough stamina to hold my own at longer distances. But I was never quite good enough to make me really happy. I still really enjoyed running though. However, always being not quite good enough began to get to me in the end and I would suffer mentally while running, whether it was a race or I was just out on a training run. Nothing terrible, just a bit of what I saw as a weakness. I’d drift off, losing focus on what I was doing and begin to hear my own voice often telling me I’d done enough, or that I was far too tired and that I should just stop and walk. As time went on I began to just lose interest. In the end on one of the final times that I entered the Great North Run (a famous UK half marathon) I had a bit of a shocker! I had trained sporadically and ended up just putting faith in the fact that I’d done the race enough times before to be able to know what I was doing. It didn’t turn out that way.

To compound my lack of fitness, it was a really sunny day and I got sunstroke. By the time I’d finished I found talking difficult and was slurring my words. I’d arranged to meet my then girlfriend – and now wife – along with, I think my mam and dad, at a certain point away from what would be a crowded finish area once I’d finished. However, by the time I arrived I think they were considering sending out a search party! I vaguely remember asking a man on the baggage bus where our meeting point was but really not understanding his explanation, such was the state I was in. In the end, I gathered my thoughts somewhat and just staggered in the general direction of where I felt it was and finally found my welcoming party. After that, I remember being forced to drink a lot of water and then falling asleep on the back seat of the car, draped across my girlfriend’s lap. I genuinely don’t remember much at all about the actual run.

Needless to say, the whole experience put me off running for quite a while and it was a long time before I found the motivation to start running seriously again. However, to cut a long story short, I got motivated enough to do one final Great North Run (my 6th) in order to exorcise those particular demons, ran it in a decent time, proved a point to myself and then more or less gave up running for a number of years.

Until my mid to late 40s I didn’t really run again much at all. And then – as has been documented in a few previous blogs – heart problems struck again and I decided that I needed to get fit. As far as I was concerned I’d had a gentle brush with death and wasn’t prepared to sit around and allow my body to go to seed any longer. So I ran for my life.

Even then my running was relatively sporadic. I’ve always been particularly prone to niggling injuries and sadly it’s always been something that I’ve allowed to put me off. I think as I’ve got older I’ve got mentally weaker in terms of levels of determination and used small injuries, colds etc. as a good enough excuse to duck out of a run or two. But then something else happened that completely changed my outlook and fortunately allowed me to make my body a great deal fitter and stronger.

When Coronavirus struck, I ran. Simple as that. Being told that I was particularly vulnerable to the virus and then watching how dangerous it could be, made me think. I needed to be as fit and as strong as possible. I had to be prepared to fight. So I fought. And this time I fought properly.

By March of this year I was in lockdown and unable to work. I genuinely didn’t know what I’d do to get through the initial four weeks that I was going to be away from work. So when schools closed and Joe Wicks decided that he’d run a live family fitness class every morning of lockdown, I jumped on it.

Initially it was our whole family. But when my four weeks turned into 6 months, things got busier for the rest of the family. My kids were being schooled remotely (until my then Year 6 son went back to actual school) and my wife was working from home. This left me, pig-headedly doing a Joe Wicks workout every morning at 9am and without realising it for a while, getting much fitter and stronger into the bargain. Suddenly one morning while having a shave I noticed the appearance of actual muscles on my arms, across my shoulders and chest and thought, well this is a bit different!

After a few weeks I felt fitter than I had in years and so started getting into the habit of finishing a workout and then heading out for a run on at least a couple of occasions in a week. And what a difference a bit of strength makes! A couple of weeks later and I was beating personal bests every time that I went out. If I ran 3km on the Tuesday, then I’d run 3.5km on the Thursday, until I was regularly running a 5k after a couple of workouts per week. Just over a year ago, I started to do Park Run and after a couple recorded a 5km personal best of 28 minutes and 56 seconds. That was enough to give me an excuse to stop again! Now, after a few months of going out running, that personal best has been broken several times and now stands at 24.48. Who knew that being actually, properly fit could make such a difference!

Clearly, taking fitness seriously has really worked for me. As someone who’s thought of himself as a runner for years, I’ve now realised that this is actually the fittest I’ve been in probably 25 years and at the same time, the best I’ve been at running! Other commitments mean that I have to limit my running to twice a week, but I find myself getting quite giddy in the lead up to a run. I can’t wait to leave work on a Thursday so that I can get home, stretch and then go for a run with my son. I wouldn’t say I was obsessed, but it’s definitely a mild addiction.

Recently, because of new lockdown rules, grassroots sport was cancelled and I usually coach an Under 12s football team. Armed with the knowledge of what the last lockdown did to my team, I was quick to put in a plan. And armed with a new fitness regime, it was always going to involve running!

The last lockdown meant that the only contact I had with many of my players was via a parents WhatsApp group and all that I could really do was check how they were. It also meant that by the time they returned to football, months later, many of them were really out of shape. So this time I had a plan.

We’ve set a 5km challenge, meaning that we’re trying to get every kid in a squad of 14 to run at least 5km per week. This will hopefully keep them fit. We’ve formed a club on the Strava app, meaning that we can all check each other’s progress, the kids are getting respect from each other and there’s a good level of challenge as they can see each other’s efforts in the app. As a coach I can keep an eye on who’s doing what and it’s definitely going to help me to pick a team when we’re all back together as, apart from anything else, I’ll know who should have the fitness to last an hour of playing time! While there are some who’ve avoided it, the majority have taken up the challenge and I know that they’ll be in better shape than last time when we finally play again. The whole thing seems to have kept spirits up within the team too and it’s been brilliant to see each of them trying to improve on their efforts. It’s also been a brilliant way for me to test myself and set a good example to my team too. We’ve even got one or two of the mums and dads joining in too, so running has been a bit of a saviour over the last month or so!

Yes, of course I chose my longest run to screenshot!

So where am I at with my running currently then? Well, given everything in my life – and I’ll be honest, my age – I’ve made sure that I only go out and run twice a week. I run on a Thursday evening with my son, simply because that’s when he should have his football training. I also get up ridiculously early on a Sunday morning and go out for a long solo run, while there’s hardly anyone around.

Fitness-wise, this is great. I’ve been out on the last four Sundays and starting with a 5 miler, have progressed up to my latest effort of 8 miles. This is the furthest I’ve probably run in at least 10 years! I have to say, I love it. There’s nothing quite like running through a foggy Yorkshire town at 7am, knowing that it’s more or less just you for streets and streets around! I’m alone with my thoughts, watching day break (sometimes I even see the sun come up, but this is northern England, so it’s a rarity) and just completely relaxed. It hurts, I must admit, but it doesn’t really matter. As I’ve previously explained, I’m much fitter and stronger and so feel that I can recover fairly quickly, where before it might have taken me days of walking like I’d had a blunt object inserted somewhere unpleasant before I was back to feeling even remotely normal. Like I say, it’s amazing what being properly fit will do for you!

The start of a beautiful sunrise during one of my early morning runs.
But sadly, it’s not always as lovely!

If the pandemic allows I plan to run at least one race for charity in 2021, partly to raise money for a heart fund, but also in memory of a couple of friends who we’ve lost this year. It’s been a tough time and I’d really like to be able to give a little bit back. And now I have a way of doing that again.

It feels like a bit of a success story. I’ve rediscovered something that I really loved and feel that I’ve become much, much better at it too. And for a man of my advancing years it’s been a real boost. Given the context of things with a global pandemic, lockdowns, normality being taken away and the fact that we’re unable to see family and friends, I think we all need a bit of a boost. Perhaps, if you feel like having one too, you might go out for a little run and see how it feels? I’d definitely recommend it!

Ten Things that Lockdown Exercise Has Taught Me

Photo by Philip Ackermann on Pexels.com

It’s safe to say that 2020 has been a remarkable year so far. Sure, its story can be summed up neatly with just two chapter headings – COVID-19 and Lockdown – but really that’s what has made it so remarkable.

Courtesy of a global pandemic lots of us have been given a time to reflect and learn. To slow down. I’ve written about the positive side of lockdown before and, as such acknowledged the tragedy of the losses suffered around the globe. While we’ve been locked down, people have fallen victim to a silent killer, while others have put their own lives on the line in order to help. We’ve been living through life-changing times, that’s for sure.

For me, despite finding the threat of the virus quite terrifying and finding the isolation from work both heart-breaking and mind numbingly dull, lockdown has been a positive process. The fear I’ve felt has made me spend more time in touch with my family – I have rung my elderly parents every few days, a great improvement on my usual shameful record of keeping in touch. I’ve been in regular touch with my sister and I’ve been forced to spend more quality time with my immediate family and in turn thoroughly enjoyed it. Furthermore, I’ve written more, connected with friends, relaxed more and frankly, transformed my garden!

By far my favourite pastime in lockdown has been exercising. From the off I’d decided that if there was a likelihood of contracting the virus, I was going to be as fit and strong as possible in order to fight it. A combination of asthma and a heart problem left me vulnerable to COVID and having spent time in hospital in the recent past frightened that this was it, I wasn’t going to go and die from what some were describing as the flu! So I began to exercise.

I’ve learnt a lot about myself over these lockdown months. Exercise has changed me. Don’t get me wrong, I was fit enough to begin with, especially for a man of my vintage, but now, I’m very much Middleagefanclub 2.0!

Here are ten things I’ve learnt about myself via lockdown exercise.

  1. I have abs, I want better abs and I finally understand the fuss about abs! That’s a lot of abs! I can’t help feeling enthusiastic about this though. I’ve spent my whole life learning to be comfortable with my slim build; perilously thin arms and pipe cleaner legs, not to mention my pot belly, developed over the last few years of my forties. And when my wife unearthed a picture of me in my twenties, emerging from a loch in Scotland a la a skinny, lanky Daniel Craig in just swimming shorts but sporting an actual six pack I realised that I’d been taking little or no care of my body for years. Now though, via a daily exercise workout with Joe Wicks on Youtube (70+ workouts and counting) and daily walks (sometimes more than one) I’ve found that, at the grand old age of 48, my body has changed. As well as the abs, I have muscles in my legs (visible ones), pecs (that’s a chest to the uninitiated) and discernable biceps! In short, I’ve learnt that with dedication and hard work my body is far, far stronger than ever before! Don’t get me wrong, I’m still slim, but I’m no longer a stick insect with a belly!
  2. I can exercise through the pain. I’ve always been injury prone. I think being tall and thin has made me fairly fragile, although I’ve never actually broken a bone, and so I’ve always picked up niggling muscle injuries quite easily. I’ve had a couple of serious ligament injuries to my knee and ankle along the way and they say that your body is never quite the same after that type of thing. So it was almost inevitable that when I began to exercise seriously, that something had to give. Needless to say that after a few weeks there was a ‘pop’ in my groin, followed by a bit of a tear in my thigh a week later and then about 5 weeks in my back went. However, I’ve never enjoyed exercising as much as I have during lockdown and so, I was determined to carry on. I was doing the #PEWithJoe workouts as provided every morning of lockdown by Joe Wicks and as such was just determined to carry on, such was my enthusiasm for being there and doing every workout, every morning. It’s meant applying a great deal of Voltarol to my back and mainlining Ibuprofen (other ailment treatments are available) but I’ve managed to just keep going. I’ve even found that whatever pain I’m in when I wake up, once I’m exercising and properly stretched it eases. I might not seem much, but after a lifetime of feeling like I should rest up because of injury, I’m now completely attuned to simply working through the pain.
  3. I have little shame and a lot less ago. For far too long in my life I’ve been too cool for school. When others have dived in and enjoyed themselves immensely, I’ve backed off for fear of losing face. Well, not any more…at least where exercise is concerned anyway. There’s still no chance of me doing dressing up, regardless of the charity or acting in any staff plays – work colleagues, Laura, Gemma, Emmas, et al take note! However, while exercising in lockdown I have found myself doing all sorts of ridiculous things in the name of fitness. I’ve walked like a duck to exercise my quads, done bunny hops, Pikachus and Joeys for cardio and frog jumps and bear crawls just because someone has told me it’ll do me good! And when Joe Wicks has told me to put my hands up like I’ve got bunny ears or to imagine I’m a kangaroo holding a joey in my pouch, I’ve done it and not worried a jot about who might be able to see. My neighbours and postman may well have seen a very different side to me at some point and I have to say that I don’t care!
  4. I still don’t like fancy dress. A man has limits! Friday is Fancy Dress day in my new exercise world and while thousands across the world have joined in, I haven’t budged. While Joe Wicks jumps around dressed as a panda or Spiderman, I’m keeping up my own good work in shorts and a t-shirt. I’m happy to run around the town I live with a face resembling a damp plum tomato, but there’s no chance that I’ll be dressing up like one. I even considered an alice band when my hair was particularly long, knowing full well that any number of friends could walk or drive past, but it’s a long stretch from that to running 5km dressed like a superhero! However evangelical I might get about exercise, there’s a very slim chance that I’ll ever resort to fancy dress. Fitness is important, but dignity more so!
  5. There’s no shame in running downhill! I’ve lived in my present home for over 20 years now and tried to go out running at times times during many of those years. However, where we live is quite hilly. Indeed at the end of my street there’s a main road up a big hill. For years I told myself that I always had to start my runs by heading up the hill. And for years I wondered why my first kilometre of those runs was invariably slow! I’d dread running up the hill, knowing that by the time I reached the top my legs would be like jelly and I’d only really be starting my run. That’s all changed during lockdown. I’ve taken to doing a workout and then heading out for a run a couple of times a week. But I decided to be fair to myself. Thus, on my first run, I ignored heading upwards and ran a little way down the hill, through a local park until I reached a nice flat stretch. It meant that by the time I’d reached my first climb I’d already ran a kilometre and was completely into my rhythm and feeling good. Lo and behold, it’s really helped! I’ve found that I’m steadily building up my distance and retaining some speed, while getting ever fitter and really enjoying my running. There really is no shame in running down the hill – even if it is for a few hundred yards. I only wish I hadn’t been so stubborn and learnt this twenty years ago!
  6. I really like order. In order to give a sense of variation to his workouts, Mr. Wicks has introduced a few gimmicks. The intention here is to add an element of chance or jeopardy if you like, to the workouts. Personally, I have all the jeopardy I need with the fact that my back might just ‘ping’ at any moment, but given that over 100,000 households are listening most days, I’m guessing any complaint would fall on deaf ears! So, rather than letting us know exactly what we’re going to be subjected to, he’s added in a sense of the unknown. The unknown has so far come in the form of a spinning wheel that contains the name of lots of exercises that we could do, two giant dice and also some over-sized playing cards that are used in a game of higher or lower. If I’m honest, I don’t mind the cards at all, simply because there’s always a visible list of the exercise options, so I sort of know what’s coming. There’s order. I despise the wheel. Hate it with a passion. It never seems to roll true and is forever landing on the same exercise, meaning that whatever part of my body is taking the strain will be a quivering wreck by the time the wheel has spun and landed on the same thing three times in succession. Without a doubt, I’m far, far happier when Joe just tells me what’s coming next!
  7. Daily family walks will inevitably be punctuated by arguments. On all but about five days since the start of lockdown, we’ve been out for a walk around our local area, as a family. We’ve walked for miles and miles, which to us adults seems like a thing of wonder. However, to our children, it’s the dullest thing ever. It’s guaranteed to sour at least one of their moods and, given that my children are very much of the opinion that we all need to hear what they’re feeling at any given time, their disapproval will be voiced. Cue arguments! I’ve often said that we provide a traveling soap opera for anyone within hearing distance when we’re out and about, but I daresay there are people in houses around where we live who have counted down the minutes until we pass again in the early evening. It seems to be a tailor-made opportunity for my children to have a good moan or offer an unwanted opinion. Me? I tend to just walk at the back, lips firmly shut, but even then there have been times when I can’t help but join in. Who knew a walk could be so eventful?
  8. I still prefer to exercise without a soundtrack. While I’ve experimented with running with my iPod on, I’ve never really found it adds anything to the way I feel. More than anything, I worry about not hearing traffic and crossing a road where I then get knocked over! While I’m out running I like my wits about me and I find I can concentrate and focus a great deal better without music in my ears. I wouldn’t say that there’s any kind of zen thing going on, but I find the silence helps me to think. And while I’m thinking – maybe weighing up a decision that’s got to be made – I’m not feeling the heaviness in my legs or the tightness in my chest. My thoughts don’t wander, so there’s no danger of worrying about anything asthma-related and more to the point, I’m no longer prone to the little voice in my head telling me I’ve gone far enough and should stop! I think even with music on I’d be telling myself just to get to the end of a particular song and then turn round and walk home! I’m definitely mentally stronger when it’s just me and the outdoors. I’ve found the same with working out. While using YouTube to exercise there are mornings where the instructor plays music and I’m never at my best when it’s being played. Just tell me what to do, let me watch the clock and I’ll be fine!
  9. I’ll get stuck in, whatever the weather. Just this morning, post-workout, I was out for the walk that serves as a warm down. It was fairly cold and the drizzle was relentless. But we were still out and about. And this has been the case throughout lockdown. While in the past I might not have gone out for a run because it was blowing a gale or raining, nowadays I don’t give it a second thought. Similarly, when it’s been very hot, I’ve made the effort to get out and run. It’s definitely the right approach and it’s definitely making me fitter, stronger, and healthier.
  10. I’m a terrible judge of people. I owe Joe Wicks an apology. For years he’s just been a bloke with silly hair and I mildly amusing voice. Then, when I joined in with his workouts I initially found myself judging him a bit more. Now, 15 weeks or so in, I’ve come to realise that he’s alright. He seems to have similar sense of humour to me – he’s a big fan of Alan Partridge – and like me he’s devoted to his family. I still can’t live his lack of taste in music, but I’ve learnt a valuable lesson. Just because you’re regularly clad in lycra, are unashamed about showing off your sculpted body and are vocal about your love of exercise and healthy eating, it doesn’t make you a bad person. Sorry Joe. And apologies to every runner or gym goer I’ve ever sneered at around where we live.

So there we go. Not only have I got fitter, but I’ve learnt a few things about myself. I’d love to know how others have filled their time during lockdown or maybe even what you feel you’ve learnt about yourself. Let me know in the comments.

Legs like jelly and lungs fit to burst, but crossing the line with a smile – my experience at Parkrun.

As some of you know, for the last 18 months or so I’ve been on a bit of a quest to stay fit. And for those of you who didn’t know, well…how to put this? For the last 18 months or so I’ve been on a bit of a quest to stay fit. So now you know.

The quest came as part of a reaction to a health scare. In April 2018 I was admitted to hospital with quite severe heart palpitations and about a month later had to have an operation called a boob job. Just kidding, it was a cardiac ablation. Basically they destroy the bit of your heart that’s causing the problem by inserting catheters through your blood vessels and blasting the affected area with radio waves to create scar tissue that doesn’t conduct the electricity that is reaching your heart and causing the problem. Basically.

My reaction to this was to be a little bit frightened. On the whole it wasn’t a pleasant experience and it left me feeling quite worried that I might be a lot closer to death than I’d ever imagined. And so, as part of a lifestyle change, I began to exercise again. I began to run. Because, baby, we were born to run.

For the most part this has been a very solitary activity. Apart from a few early runs when my son would come with me, I’ve been out running alone. Having discovered X-Box though, my son has decided that he no longer cares about his dad’s health and thus I have no running partner and a son that couldn’t care less whether I live or die. And of course, I jest there. Dark humour and all that. Of course he cares. The whole family does. I mean, who would put the bins out if I keeled over?

I don’t mind the solitary side of things. I like running alone. It leaves me free with my thoughts – I don’t tend to listen to music – and since the operation I feel like I’ve become mentally a lot stronger too. So while as a young man I’d readily give in to the little voice telling me to stop, nowadays I’m made of sterner stuff. I’ll battle on when I feel tired and I’ll run through the periods when I feel like I might be sick. That solitary half hour or hour is more like a break – no one to engage with, nothing to bother me, except tired legs and lungs.

Recently though, my daughter had begun her bronze award in the Duke of Edinburgh scheme. As part of it she has to volunteer for anything up to six months and so, when she was struggling to find somewhere to do this, my wife intervened and contacted the people at our local Parkrun. The organiser, Michelle, couldn’t have been more helpful and agreed instantly to take on my daughter and her friend as volunteers. And this is how I found myself on a narrow lane in Oakwell Hall, West Yorkshire stood in a crowd of people buzzing with anticipation.

In truth Parkrun has been on my radar for ages. It appealed as soon as I read about it, but there was always something stopping me doing it. There are several local to me so I wasn’t short of options and wouldn’t have to travel too far, but that final push to take myself along had always eluded me. But then, with my daughter needing a lift to Oakwell Hall and there being nothing to do but hang around when I got there, I decided to take the plunge. And so I found myself standing on the aforementioned narrow lane in a country park in West Yorkshire wondering what I’d let myself in for one Saturday morning in late August.

It had been a couple of weeks since I’d last run and so my head was full of doubts. And there seemed to be hundreds of others here too. Most were fellow runners – I optimistically classed myself as a runner, despite my feeling that the last bit of today’s run might well be crawled – and then there were quite a few others either volunteering in some capacity or spectating. For a few minutes I was convinced I’d made a big mistake and wondered if anyone would notice if I simply wandered off in the direction of my car. But then I looked over to where a group of volunteers were standing, getting ready to head off to their marshalling points, and spotted my daughter and her best friend. Both were here as part of their Duke of Edinburgh bronze award…I couldn’t let them down. I couldn’t face explaining why I’d done the wrong kind of runner. So I pushed the positives.

One of the moments that I was dreading was the guidance for new Parkrunners. I’d got it into my head that I was sure to be the only one and that while someone lectured me about running, a whole load of Saucony clad young folk would be standing around eyeing me up and tutting at my inexperience.

Unsurprisingly, it was nothing of the sort. Firstly, there were around a dozen of us new to the run, so I could hide in company. Secondly, the talk was enthusiastic and good humoured; it was clear that everyone wanted us to do well. And finally, a quick glance around told me that there was no difference between us newbies and the veterans that we stood amongst – everyone was just here for a run.

Following the briefing of the virgins, I decided to head down to the start of the run. Still suffering from nerves and a little bit of self-doubt I headed towards the back of the ever growing group. Looking around it didn’t take long for me to notice that everyone seemed happy. There was a selection of ages and body shapes, the weather was good and it was the very start of the weekend. Amazingly, it didn’t take long for this Parkrun ‘vibe’ to take hold of me. While normally I’m cynical and quite resistant to smiling, I found myself gradually relaxing. Positive thoughts seeped into my mind and it wasn’t long before I was telling myself that not only could I actually do this, but that I could enjoy it and perhaps even do it well. Such is the atmosphere at Parkrun.

It wasn’t long before I was joined in the starting area by a lot more runners. A check of my watch revealed that it was a few minutes to the 9am start time. And then, at the head of the pack, sans megaphone, appeared race director Michelle. At first I struggled to hear precisely what she was saying, such was the noise of dogs around me. Actual dogs…that’s not me turning all pirate on you. But occasionally people would clap, so dutiful as ever, I clapped along, not sure whether I was feeling positive or not. Slowly but surely though I got to hear what she was saying and basically Michelle was being a one-woman motivational/relaxation tool. She also seemed to be a dog whisperer too, as the more she shouted, the quieter the hounds became. By the time she began asking whether there were any tourists or first timers I was relaxed and ready to run. I secretly hoped that the dogs had fell asleep – surely even I couldn’t finish last if the saying about letting sleeping dogs lie was going to be adhered to. And then, before I knew it, we were off!

At the back of the field we shuffle awkwardly forward, occasionally breaking into a jog, before slowing again as the road narrows. Luckily, by the time I pass my daughter for the first time, I’m doing something that resembles running. Despite the uphill start and the fact that the lane narrows to a path within a couple of hundred yards, I’m feeling fine as we reach the first turn onto a track I know well from family walks around the park.

For a short while I jog steadily along, sort of stuck behind people, but also running on auto-pilot and not particularly interested in upping the pace. And then, as the track widens enough a couple of runners pass me and it snaps me into some sort of action. I kick on a few times and get round some of the runners around me, picking up a comfortable pace and stretching my legs a little.

Soon, we hit the first downhill stretch and I negotiate this fairly carefully, aware of the fact that if anyone’s going to take a tumble, it’s going to be me. Then the track narrows again and the pace is back to a crawl, but I’m feeling relatively good.

As the track opens out we face a short, energy sapping uphill climb over some cobbles – well we are in deepest Yorkshire – through the car park and we’re about halfway around our first lap of the park. I’m suddenly aware of clapping and some shouting and when I look up I’m greeted by the sight of several high-viz jackets adorning a group of volunteers who proceed to do a wonderful job of congratulating everyone that passes on their progress, however slow we may be, or in my case how much our face resembles a plum tomato. And this is one of the many great things about Parkrun; everyone is so supportive and positive. At various points around the 5 kilometre course they stand and congratulate you or tell you what a great job you’re doing. And in the spirit of the whole thing you find yourself thanking them right back. As a veteran of 6 Great North Runs I know that I react well to such encouragement and crowd participation and although it’s on a much smaller scale here, it’s no less welcome.

We crest the hill and across the road from me is my daughter and her friend. Again, despite my embarrassment, it’s a boost and I lengthen my stride ahead of another downhill section. Another bit of a kick and I’m feeling pretty good – *coughs* for a man of my age – and I manage to pass a few people on the way down the hill. Near the bottom though comes a bit of a test. Oakwell Hall features a path that zig-zags down towards the stream at quite a severe angle, so you’re going back on yourself and taking some rather sharp turns. My legs are tiring and by the time I’ve hit the bottom of the hill and crossed the bridge over the stream I’m blowing a bit. In what I’m rapidly finding out is true Parkrun fashion there’s another volunteer twist as a female marshall stands shouting encouragement while shaking maracas at us at the bottom of the hill. Strange, but brilliant and the kind of thing that takes my mind of my aching body and makes me laugh in spite of it.

But there’s no let-up as we hit another steep uphill section. I make the mistake of running up the stairs and have legs like jelly at the top. Within a few minutes there’s another steep uphill climb, but by the top we’re heading towards halfway and as the trail opens up I realise there’s more people to be passed. By the time we hit halfway I feel a strange mix of being full of running and absolutely knackered! I’m feeling OK though and more to the point, I’m enjoying myself. There are more marshalls encouraging us, more downhill sections and, sadly, more uphills too, but before I know it I’m heading along the final few hundred metres of trail and powering -sort of – for the finish line. I have no idea whatsoever of how I’m doing or of what my time might be, but I’m enjoying myself and I know that I need to open up my stride and try to have a big finish. Just before we turn right into the final straight I’m passed by a couple of runners. I tell myself that it’s OK, they’re both a lot younger than me, but I try to respond and catch them. There’s nothing left in my legs though. Still, I spot a woman in colourful leggings ahead of me running with a dog. I’ve enjoyed my run, but I can’t get beaten by a lass in fancy dress. I summon up one last kick and seem to be catching her up, but it’s too late. As much as my mind wants to sprint, my legs have had enough. I’m making no more ground up today, so with my time in mind, I keep up my middle-aged sprint and try to pass the finish line with a tiny bit of style and probably slightly less dignity.

Whatever I might look like though, I’m done. And I think I’ve done OK. Parkrun may not be a marathon or any kind of huge test, but it’s a lot of fun. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my morning. Everyone’s been welcoming and the runners come in all shapes, sizes and approaches, which is comforting when your legs are like pipe cleaners and as your body heats up it all goes to your face, making sure you look like the aforementioned tomato after about 500 yards.

It’s not really a race, but you’ll be informed of your position in the field and your time, so there’s always going to be that competitive edge. As it turns out, shortly after I get home I’m informed by email that I managed to drag myself around the 5km course in just over 31 minutes. It’s an automatic personal best too, due to the fact that I’ve never done Parkrun before!

As a result of the run I have to give myself a couple of weeks rest as my back reacts badly to the trail running. However, within a fortnight I’m back and this time I manage to take almost a minute off my personal best. Then, a week later when I’ve clearly caught the Parkrun bug I manage to get round in 29 minutes and 3 seconds. My third Parkrun and my third personal best!

I hope that I can go on and complete many more. For now I’ll stick to Oakwell Hall, but I have it in my mind to sample the atmosphere at others as well, because that amount of encouragement is strangely addictive. And maybe that’s the thing about Parkrun – a non-threatening, friendly, positive place where everyone – even your competitors – want you to do well. Who could ask for anything more while dragging their middle aged, lycra-clad body round a park?

Create your website with WordPress.com
Get started