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Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Warwick Half Marathon: Don't Panic!

Don't Panic

I’m about 6 miles into the race and my breathing is too fast. I’m not tired, my legs are fine, but my breathing is too shallow, too rapid. This isn’t good. Right, concentrate on something else. Count how many red shirts you can see in front of you, how many 8s you can see in race numbers. Anything to take your mind off your too-rapid breathing.

If I had to stop because I can’t catch my breath would anyone help me? Would they tell a marshal? Or would I sit here in this country lane on my own? Don’t think about that. Don’t stop. Count something, think of something else.

The panic subsides, calmed by the metronomic sound of my feet on the road. Where did that come from? Is it worry about pace? About this being the run I’m basing my marathon time goal on? Wearing my new club vest for the first time – not wanting to let anyone down? Worrying that these first 5 miles aren’t feeling comfortable at all ... and remembering my last half marathon and how bloody tough that had been ….

Parking Well For Less ...

Information on race day parking hadn’t been very clear although it had suggested side streets. Not wishing to come back and find my car had been egged by an annoyed Warwick resident, I’d parked at the local Sainsbury’s – relying on the Sunday opening hours and hoping their traffic warden had decided on a nice weekend lie-in today. It was a bit cheeky, but they seem to be all about the Sports Relief at the moment so couldn’t complain too hard about a cheeky runner using the car park while the store was closed. Plus it was free parking. I wholeheartedly agreed with Living Well For Less. Well Parking For Less anyway.

With my race number pinned to my vest and my coffee money clutched firmly in one sweaty little hand, I decided that it was time to go in search of caffeine and portaloos. Although for the sake of keeping delicate areas and scalding liquid separate, preferably not at the same time. Heading for the great big stands at the racecourse, I was stopped by a helpful marshal who asked me whether I was running today. I looked down at myself, at my nice bright race number and my running kit. Just to check I’d remembered to put them on. I looked at the marshal. Looked at the hordes of runners around me.

“No I’m wearing Lycra to blend in” ... Was what I should have said. Instead, I smiled, confirmed I was a runner and followed her directions to the race track, the start and the coffee vans.

The Unbreakable Race Laws ...

Coffee before a race is the 1st unbreakable law ... as is the 2nd, the portaloo visit. I’d have liked to have had the option to have a coffee first, but as my tummy rumbled, my walk towards the race village became quicker and quicker. What started as an amble became a bit of a sprint. I take my race warm-ups where the opportunities present themselves. And not having stained running shorts is a definite incentive to get a bit of speedwork out of the way.

3rd unbreakable race law. There shalt always be a queue at the portaloos. And some woman who is blatantly not running the race in the queue in front of you. Mutter, grumble. I decided there needed to be a separate portaloo, in the middle of a field, away from runner portaloos. And away from runners worrying about the 2 Poo Rule. People not racing had to go to THAT portaloo. It would be in their best interests as it would probably smell a bit less ‘fragrant’ as there wouldn’t be any nervous runners using it first, it would keep them out of my way AND stop them being in front of me in the queue and subject to my dark stares and muttering.

Tummy settled, caffeine procured, I went to look for the baggage storage ... but found the queue first. Oh. MASSIVE. Never mind, I’m only parked a mile away. Running to the car counts as warming up right?

It sounded like such a good plan but trying to run while holding a massive kit bag which kept swinging around and wrapping around my legs wasn’t a good idea. Also people were running the other way to the start. Not good.

I got to the car, threw the bag in, had a quick traffic warden count (none) and ran back to the race course. The loudspeakers were blaring and people were starting to line up behind the inflatable Start arch.

Cut that a bit finer than I’d meant to. At least my frenzied dash counted as a warm up. Well. A sprint up. However, it seemed very quiet in this pen. There were about 30 of us and that was it. Turned to the bloke next to me. Where’s everyone else? He gestured back at a pen where EVERYONE else was penned up like cattle – a wall of human flesh. “This is the sub 1:30 pen” He said. Ah. Whoops. I looked at the cage of people. There was no space for anyone to squeeze in there. I looked at the chap. We shrugged and made a silent pact to stay at the back of the 1:30 pen.

I was in black, green and gold today - wearing my Northbrook AC club vest for the very first time in a race. I was hoping they were my lucky colours. As I waited in the pen, I spotted another unmistakable vest with the green and black and gold sunburst. I wandered over to introduce myself to Andrew. We wished each other luck and continued pacing the pen.

I had decided on my pacing beforehand and knew exactly what time I should be running each mile. It keeps things easier in my mind this way and it breaks the race into bite sized (or should that be footstep sized?) chunks. However, despite this, it felt as though the entire race pack had streamed past me by mile 3. I was trying to keep my pace consistent and if I kept to my target speed then I should be re-overtaking them before the end. But it’s always a bit worrying. Is my Garmin showing the wrong pace? Have my legs forgotten how to run? Surely I should be in front of that 22 stone man dressed as a chicken?

Maybe Warwick just has some excellent and unlikely-looking runners. Or they’ve shipped some elites in to confuse me and mess up my pacing. Unlikely. Just focus Sarah. But what if they know something I don’t? Like there’s a narrow section coming up and they’re all getting ready. I’m going to get stuck at the back of the pack with the old lady wearing trainers and a tutu and the double-act that decided doing a half marathon in a cow costume was the height of entertainment. Shut up brain.

Find a Good Friend with a Shouty Voice ...

As I ran the first section, I focused on how nice it was to run with so many other people. We might have been focusing on our own races, our own runs and not chatting, but it was nice to run shoulder to shoulder with them. We ran a part of the section that we’d covered in the 12 miles of Christmas and then we were onto a street I recognised from my walks to the pool with Lozza and then there was the lady herself! Waving and cheering! So lovely to see a friend! Especially one with a loud shouty voice who was cheering me on!!

I ran shoulder to shoulder with Northbrook Andrew for the next few miles, I’d see the sunburst vest out of the corner of my eye, lose him on the downhills and pick him up again on the uphills. Like a very slow game of Stalk Your Clubmate.

There were little knots of supporters all around the route and plenty of car drivers irate at having roads closed and being stuck for half an hour while the mass of humanity, dressed in lycra and with our numbers safety-pinned on passed them by. Serves you right, Mr Grumpy Driver, for being up so early without having a good reason like ‘going for a run’ ...

On a nice flat section, we passed the Saxon Mill pub which was one we’d stopped at during the ‘12 Miles of Christmas’ and I made a mental note to nip in again. Not 2 miles into a half marathon though. Besides it was only quarter past 9. They probably wouldn’t be able to serve me anyway ...

Chasing the Satsuma ...

We were spreading out into our pace groups and people became more familiar around me. There’s always a part in a race where you unconsciously choose a run buddy – the point when they go from competitor to run buddy. Well ... until the last half mile anyway ...
I ended up running with a man in an orange Hampton Magma Harriers top. I’d run a lovely long Sunday morning run with his club once and had been impressed with the group leader’s knowledge of the area. It had been mainly on footpaths and trails and was a perfect Sunday morning run. He was also a good person for me to keep pace with as the vest was so bright – I couldn’t lose sight of it! He was moving in my peripheral vision like a person-shaped Satsuma.

He was pushing it on the downhills and would fly off in front of me, but I’d pick him up again on the uphills. I was trying to keep my pace as consistent and metronomic as possible but without tiring myself out on the uphills. Problem was it ALL felt like uphills. Kept telling myself “metronome, metronome, just keep it steady and even.”

Mountainous Warwickshire ….

I knew that the route was mainly uphill until mile 8 but it was a LOT hillier than I’d expected. I’m sure Warwickshire hadn’t been this mountainous last time I’d looked. I was expecting sherpas and mountain goats any minute. A lot of the route was rural and most of it was in the lanes, but there were plenty of supporters. People who had given up their Sunday mornings, their lie-ins and leisurely breakfasts and cups of coffee to cheer on these crazy runners. Thank you. It was very much appreciated. Even if I looked wild-eyed, sweaty and a little bit insane, I was appreciative on the inside. Despite the gurn.

Coming up to the top of one of the hills, I passed a runner walking. He had had a word with the marshal and had removed his t-shirt with his number on and was holding it, walking on. His head down. Patted his shoulder and gave him a sympathetic smile as I passed. I haven’t DNF’d yet. But I will one day. I’ll hope for a smile then from a fellow runner.

The hills seemed endless. I know this course had been described as ‘undulating’, which is a polite way of saying “bloody hilly” but they seemed never ending. My pace was all over the place and it was difficult to find a steady rhythm as I was always having to readjust for the gradient. I checked my Garmin and was concerned to see I’d clocked a really slow mile. I had a moment of rising panic and looked for something to take my attention off of the numbers.

Bleeding Nipples … not mine!

Right. Distractions, distractions. Ah ... red t-shirts. The race organisers had given away free red t-shirts to everyone running today and some of the more optimistic – and probably less experienced runners – were wearing them to run in today. Having experienced the 1-2-3 of horrors that running in cotton t-shirts can bring I can seriously recommend that you don’t run in these.

In case you’re not aware, the 1-2-3 of horrors goes like this.

  1. Cotton doesn’t wick sweat away like synthetic fabrics so you sweat ... and it stays there.
  2. The t-shirt gets wet with sweat ... and cold.
  3. The t-shirt now being wet, cold and heavy with sweat starts to chafe as you run ...
...and as it’s a new T-shirt you didn’t know this and can’t take it off mid-race or dash home early like in a training run.

Plenty of chaps have waved goodbye to their man-nipples as optimistically they’ve donned a new cotton t-shirt for a race and have then had their underarms, nipples and necks sandpapered by an unforgiving fabric. Ouch. At least the shirts were bright red so the bleeding couldn’t be seen. Who likes their man-nipples anyway? At least us girls have an extra layer between us and the shirts but it’s still crazy to wear new kit in a race without testing it first.

Distracted by trying to catch up to people in red tops, I realised that mile 8 had passed and the course gradient was mainly downhill now until the end. It’s amazing what difference this can make to your outlook knowing that you’re practically on the home straight (well ... sort of) and you can roll most of the way to the finish line from here. My legs gained a new lease of life just as a lovely mile of almost all downhill running came. I didn’t know how long this downhill was going to last so I didn’t want to tire my legs out too much if I was about to hit a vertical wall of uphill but I enjoyed it! The lanes here were lined with spectators here too and the cheering gave my feet Hermes wings and I clocked my one of my fastest miles in a half marathon ever at 6:23 min/miles.

Despite passing close to it at the start I didn’t see Warwick Castle at all except at around the 10 mile point where a view over the hedges and fields towards Warwick showed towers rising into the sky. It looked quite close and knowing that there were only 3 miles to go was a further turbo boost.

Don't Choose Your Music at Midnight ...

I’d had a busy day before this race and I’d been up until midnight putting together the perfect marathon playlist which I decided to trial today. I had combined, what had seemed at midnight, the perfect selection of songs to keep me running, to keep me entertained and to fire me towards that PB I wanted so much. However, as the sounds of Motorhead blended (not particularly seamlessly) into Aqua which turned into ELO, it became clear why creating playlists at midnight is never a good idea.

However, as the music jumped from genre to genre like some sort of manic ADHD flea, the uncertainty kept my mind off of the panic. And the running. Keep going, the faster you finish, the faster you can turn off this increasingly bizarre playlist.

At Least This is Easier Than Club Night ...

Ahead of me in the distance, I could see two girls. One was wearing a charity top and one much further away with a club vest on. Ok. You two can be my next distractions. Catch the girls! I tried to persuade my legs that I didn’t have far to go. They weren’t convinced although I told them the quicker they ran, the sooner I could sit down.

It seemed to work. I caught up one of the girls and sprinted past to try and break the 30-yard rule. Apparently once you get 30 yards in front of someone in a race it breaks the mental contact they have with you as a competitor. Apparently it’s the point they stop chasing you.

A slight uphill ... really? Not now. Not this close to the end! I rounded the corner and was confronted by a straight road, rolling downill. Perfect. My Garmin was showing just over a third of a mile to go. I urged my legs onwards, overtaking the next girl who chased for a while before dropping back. C’mon legs ... can’t quit now! Close! So close!

I could see the finish arch – bright red, the route lined with spectators. Push! One last push!! Even then, going all out, there was one thought floating in my mind. “It may be mile 13 of a half marathon, you can’t breathe, your legs are about to drop off, but it still doesn’t hurt as much as one of Coach John’s training sessions ...” With that ringing in my mind, I crossed the timing mat, under the finish arch to receive a medal ... and a new best time for a half marathon.


11th woman / 670

… and my favourite part … a negative split.

Monday, April 7, 2014

What I Think About When I Run … Brain Farts

I like running. It clears my mind, gives me a chance to sort everything out in my head and it’s like a Sarah-Brain reset switch. When I’m finished running, I’m far more relaxed and happy than I am if I don’t run.

However, despite really quite liking running, in most of my race photos, I look like I’m not having a particularly nice time. I've run in plenty of races but the pictures fall into distinct categories. There's the 'Competing in a Gurning Contest' picture, the 'Zombie Lurch' (usually complete with a grey face and slack drooling mouth), the 'Fallen Asleep Through Boredom' and the 'Shoot Me Now I Feel Like I'm Dying' photo. However, rarely, VERY rarely a race photographer catches me in a certain way and I look almost pensive. Deep. As though I’m thinking solemn, important thoughts.

So in the spirit of research, I decided to actually make a note of what I think about when I run. You know. In case there's something important and solemn actually going on.

I’m so sorry. So very sorry.

Thought 1
“Only 3 miles then I can have a gel.” (3 miles later ... takes gel.)” That wasn’t very nice.” (Forgets) “Only 3 more miles and I can have a gel.” Repeat thought for duration of long run at 3 mile intervals.

Thought 2
(Knee aches)
“Hope there’s nothing wrong with my knee. Ooh that rhymes with sea. Boat. Sails. Nails. Wonder what my toenails are like. (Psychosomatically toenails start aching) Bet they’re all purple and black. Maybe put some more nail polish on. Polish. Bet my work shoes need polishing. Wonder what everyone’s doing at work. Glad I’m running rather than sitting in an office. Wonder which is worse for my knees?” (knee aches in sympathy to thought) ... and repeat.

Thought 3
“Ooh lambs!” (Calculates how much time it will add onto average pace to stop to take a photo for 30 seconds, gets distracted by maths, lambs recede into distance.)

Thought 4
“Wonder if it’s too soon to stop for a wee.”
“I *really* need a wee. “Brain: You went for a wee before you left. Bladder: But I REALLY want to ... “Oh look grass and daffodils.” Forgets about wee.

Thought 5
“Oh look another runner! Bet they’re marathon training too! They’re going a bit quick. They must be running 400s instead. In the middle of nowhere. With a gel belt on ... “

Thought 6
Jump into your racing car
(These 4 lines loop through my head intermittently for entire run)

Thought 7
If I'm running a flat route. “Flat routes are boring. B.O.R.I.N.G. Why can't there be hills. Hills are fun.” If I'm running hills. “Why did I choose a route with hills. I feel like I'm dying. Like I'm actually going to fall over and die on this hill. Why couldn't I choose a flat route?”

Thought 8
“Can I fart without anyone hearing me?”
(Strange look from dogwalker)
” Nope. “

Thought 9
“Running in trail shoes is the only real time grownups can jump in puddles. Puddles. Peppa Pig. I *am* peppa pig. “ (Splash)

Thought 10
“Those seagulls are a long way from the sea. Wonder if they like chips more than fish. Wonder why they don’t mob fishmongers.” (Next mile passes with visions of fishmongers being attacked by seagulls and having to beat the birds away by using the contents of fish shop)

Thought 11
“Ooh a canal boat. Must run past and race it! Ha ha! Have beat the silly slow canal boat. Oh bugger. Lace undone. Quick do up lace before canal boats sees I’ve stopped. Brain: it’s a boat. Feet: Doesn’t matter – it’s catching us!”

Thought 12
“Wonder if I can count drinking beer as carb loading?
Surely sitting in a pub counts as resting too. And peanuts have protein in, don’t they? Pork scratching definitely do – they’re pig shavings. Funny how none of those darts players look like runners though as surely they’re eating the right things. They’re like in permanent taper. ... but without actually tapering TO anything …“

Thought 12
“I’ve got a rest day tomorrow. Woo hoo!
Resting apart from cleaning the house, going to softplay, doing the washing, going to town for the shopping and chasing 4 year old on her bike. Oh and running home from school because she wants to be a runner like mummy. Gosh. Sounds exhausting. Maybe I can run instead. “

“A dog. A barky, bitey dog? Playful jumpy-up dog? Chasey dog? Ignored-by-dog ...”

Thought 14
“Is it illegal to run close to ducks so they have to jump in the canal?
Although bet they like it really. It’s just an excuse for a quick swim. They know people don’t hurt them. We give them bread and nice things to eat. They’re probably saying, “Oh look another person. I’ll HAVE to go for a swim now.” Wonder if ducks do swimming drills.”

“Do you reckon that’s why swans chase runners? Maybe they have points to see how many fall in. It’s illegal to eat swans. Wonder what they taste like. I wouldn’t want to have to catch one to try. Maybe sneak up on it when it’s asleep. Bet it tastes like chicken. Everything tastes like chicken.”

Thought 15
Practises running form. Swings arm and knocks out headphones. Retrieves headphones. Tries knee lifts and kicks. Speeds up too much. Goes back into practising-arm-swings-and-retrieving-headphones cycle.

So there you have it. Nothing deep, important OR solemn. This is why I feel all relaxed after a run. It’s basically the equivalent of my brain farting. Well. Mostly my brain. 

Monday, March 31, 2014

Back of The Group: Trying to Speed up my Running

I was puffing and panting like a steam locomotive. I could just see the back of the next runner as he disappeared around the corner. It was dark, I was in Coventry, I couldn’t see any suspicious looking youths wearing hoodies but suspected there would be some lurking in the shadows thinking stabby thoughts. I sped up. Heart hammering and legs rebelling, I tried not to slow down as I weighed up the pros and cons of heart failure Vs stabbing.

It was Wednesday. I was at running club. My aim for this evening had been to not be dead last in the group interval sessions.

I was last.

I rounded the corner of the dark road, the streetlights making orange pools on the pavement. My legs felt heavy as I pounded up the pavements but my rapist-like panting was at least scaring off any potential attackers. Pumping my arms and scanning the street ahead desperately for any signs of the people in my running group, I tried to urge my legs to move quicker.

The session today was 2 x 10 minutes of effort at threshold pace. I strongly suspected I was in the wrong group. Their threshold pace was clearly way above mine. It appeared I'd stumbled into the session for people whose marathon pace was about the same as my 400m pace. I was to be the Wiley Coyote to their Roadrunner but without the Acme bombs or nets to slow them down. I'd better get running then.

I’d known this session would hurt, but I'd still been looking forward to trying it. In a hurty kind of a way. Every time I have to push myself, every time my legs, my lungs, my heart get used to running faster than they’re used to ... next time it will be easier. I can’t expect to get faster, stronger if I’m not willing to work for it, to hurt for it.

I put my head down and pushed on. I’d had 3 minutes of recovery between the sets but the time had disappeared quicker than a crème egg at WeightWatchers. Really? THAT was 3 minutes? I’ve only just finished running. My heart still sounds like Animal from the Muppet Show is on the drums and my knees are still shaking. And you want me to run AGAIN?

I did it. I was last. AGAIN. But I was smiling. It may have looked like a grimace, but it was definitely a smile. Because now I could stop running. Also I had finished the session and NOT DIED. I may have been last, but I’d survived. And next time it would be easier.

One day I won’t be last. Watch your backs, fast people.


Because I’ll be at the back. Behind you. Staring at them.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Running makes me a better person ...

Running is lots of small victories. It’s fighting the little things, the inconveniences, the blisters, the weather and the tough speed session. It’s pushing myself and my boundaries. Showing that I am stronger than I ever thought I could be.

It’s only about proving it to me. A battle to race myself, to go further, faster. But it comes across in little ways. I hold my head higher and am more sure of myself. I know that I am worth something, that I can achieve things. Even if they are the small things, they give me more faith in myself. A sense of strength. A sense of worth.

Plus a freaking AWESOME medal collection and enough race t-shirts to swaddle a baby elephant.

I am an ordinary person who can do extraordinary things. I have run a marathon. 26 miles. And I ran the whole way! I am SO proud of that.

I have gone out in the rain and run 6 hard miles when the wind is blowing so hard it’s bringing tears to my eyes and my ponytail is whipping around. The rain has been hitting my face in cold lines. But I’ve run. I’ve completed my run and returned triumphant. It’s me Vs me. I’m not sure which one won. But I’m a stronger person for the battle.

When I run, the world dances, the sky is bluer.

Everyone is special. But runners are a little more so. 

Monday, March 24, 2014

Big Grovelly Wovelly Post ...

Can't quite believe it but 'Dreaming of Footpaths' has been shortlisted for a running blogs award! (shocked face!!)

It seems that you all enjoy reading about running, poo and mis-adventures more than I thought! Thank you!! If you'd like to add your vote, I'd be really grateful (and I might get a free dinner!)

All you have to do is go to The Running Awards site here http://therunningawards.com
Go to 'Online', 'Blog' and click 'Dreaming of Footpaths.'

Please. Do it for my free dinner.  

Friday, March 21, 2014

The First Rule of Swim Club ...

First rule of swim club is ‘Remember your knickers’. I had. I hadn't yet got into the pool and I was already winning at swimming.

I hadn’t been swimming for years but had been talked into coming to a swim coaching session. Lozza, a good friend and triathlete, was being coached by Dave Akers, an ex-competitive swimmer (his own words!) and the Masters Coach of Long Eaton Swimming Club and someone who swims crazy distances for fun. 40 kilometres in one go, anyone?

Having had no need for a swimsuit before this lesson, the 2 hours prior to getting in the pool saw me dashing around Sports Direct in search of a swimsuit that didn’t make me look as though someone had stuffed a handful of frogs into a condom. Things weren’t going well. Having declined out of hand swimsuits with chains, cut away sections and pictures of animals, I was left with 2 possibles.

One of these possible swimsuits had legs. Actual short-like legs. I was sure that I’d read somewhere that proper swimmers had legs on their swimsuits. However, after a fruitless search for a straw hat and a fake moustache I decided that I may have got this mixed up with photos glimpsed of Victorian gentlemen in their swimsuits.

After the obligatory trying on in changing rooms where the curtains don’t quite reach across and the lighting is strobing akin to that in a school disco, I decided that while swimsuits-with-legs may be good for Victorian gents, they were not my friend. I looked like a cellulitic sealion. I just needed a ball on my nose to complete the look.

Thankfully, the second possible, a purple and black swimsuit appeared to be hiding all my lumps and bumps (or possibly that was just the poor lighting) and I was now a swimmer. Well. I owned a swimsuit.

I’d remembered from when I was younger that it was easier to get changed into your swimsuit before the session but after several hard-learned lessons as a child – one involving a windy day and the forgetting of Swim Club rule 1 – I had also packed underwear and my towel.

I was also the proud owner of one magic hat. Rach had decided a while ago that swimming was to be something I should try. I had accepted the hat unsure that it would ever be used, but apparently the magic had been working on me. The colours shone like a rainbow and I was resplendent like a swimming-Joseph in my hat of many colours.

Apparently there’s a trick to putting your hat on. Lozza showed me but it was like she was doing some strange hand movement because it didn't get my hat on my head. Putting hands inside and stretching over your head. It was like some strange moist magic that didn’t work for me. I grabbed the edges and stretched it over my head, giving myself a strange Essex facelift when it sprang back. Stupid hats. All my wrinkles were now at the top of my head though.

And goggles. Apparently I had to wear goggles. I had visions of myself looking like a cool swimming Morpheus. I didn't look like a cool swimming Morpheus. I looked like a turtle. A very surprised turtle. With a rainbow coloured head.

However Swim Coach Dave was lovely. He didn’t have a shouty voice OR a whistle. Instead, he gave clear instructions that made sense even to me with my I’d-LIKE-to-have-a-memory-like-a-goldfish-but-my-memory-isn’t-that-good memory.

We swam lengths of front crawl up and down the pool so Dave could make an assessment of us and decide the best way to start making improvements. And possibly check to make sure we didn’t need armbands and a demotion to the kiddy pool.

Quickly he spotted that I was holding my head too high to breathe, which meant that my breathing was awkward and threw the rest of my stroke off balance. To sort this out Dave told me to look down at the bottom of the pool and to try to move my head with my body to breathe. It was such a simple change, but one that immediately made the swimming flow more smoothly.

To correct some further problems, Coach Dave gave me some drills – simple, repetitive exercises which exaggerated how I should be doing things to demonstrate the principles. Great for me with my 5 second memory and exercises I could use if I decided to swim again.

The first drill was to rotate on to one side, kick 4 times, then rotate to the other, take 4 kicks and repeat. As Dave explained it, this encourages a long stroke and getting used to placing your hand as far forward as possible to get the maximum out of your pull.

Picture by Anna Langova

I kept sinking. But I would rather have sunk and bounced gently off the bottom of the pool than fail at my very first drill. I managed a couple of lengths of the pool like this, gaining confidence and trying to remember that even if I DID sink, I was wearing my Hat-of-Many-Colours and someone would be sure to spot me and rescue me.

Dave explained the importance of keeping your elbows high and gave me a second drill to lengthen my stroke that he called 'catch up'. This entailed keeping one hand out in front until you tagged it with the other hand. This was a fun exercise and I was getting more used to being in the water now. I was managing to avoid both sinking and drinking the pool water. Things were looking up.

The next challenge Coach Dave gave me was to put everything I'd learned today together and make it feel fluid. It was great to feel the difference to my swimming from the beginning of the session, now I just had to try and make it natural. More focus, less flailing.

I practised a few lengths and it started to feel much smoother. Dave timed me for 2 lengths while I was concentrating on technique and then again when I was trying to go as quickly as I could. I was surprised to learn there was only 1 second time difference although the effort levels felt very different. It was a good lesson and emphasised the importance of good technique and low effort vs attempted speed and windmilling at the water until you get to the other end of the pool by sheer force.

It was a great coaching session and one I thoroughly enjoyed. I hadn't been to a pool to swim properly for years but I suspect I will be back again … and very soon. With my multicoloured hat and amazing lump-hiding-swimsuit. If you see me sinking, please don't worry, I'm only practising my drills. 

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Full of the Joys of Spring ...

I was full of the joys of sunny Spring days and was off out for a nice muddy lunch time run.

I’d run 22 miles the day before which had been hard. And hungover. But I had a 5 mile run in the training schedule for Saturday which I couldn’t do. So I’d decided to run this lunchtime and had been expecting heavy, sore unresponsive legs.

But rather than the wooden legs and feet of clay, I felt light and bouncy! My body was eager to run!

I ran the roads of Brackmills hopping the kerbs and sprinting the underpasses and into Delapre Woods, jumping the ditches and leaping over tree roots with a big grin on my face. I probably looked completely ridiculous. But I felt AMAZING!

A perfect run, most miles sub-8 despite the mud and having to stop to push an overenthusiastic terrier off my leg. I sprinted the last couple of hundred metres on the pavements back to work, arms out, aeroplane-ing around office workers on their lunch breaks, smiling at everyone. I ran down the grassy slope outside the office, caught my foot in the paving slab at the bottom ...

And faceplanted into the office flower beds. 

Thursday, March 6, 2014

DON’T FOLLOW ME! New Running Routes & Knee Deep Cow Pats

I’d had enough moping around. Flu? Pah! I spit (and snot and cough) on your Max Strength tablets and tissues. Today is the day I get out of bed, put on my shoes and run.

Well. Crawl out of bed, drag self around house in attempt to locate running shoes and crawl wearily out of the door. I was as strong as a week old kitten and had the smooth running gait of a Day of the Dead zombie.

I’d missed 2 races, a week of marathon training and a rock concert. Stupid flu.

Enough was enough. So I decided to try a gentle trot, just to see whether I was up to running again.

A few years ago I’d bought a flimsy paperback book from the library entitled ‘Walks Around Rugby’. I’d always meant to try these walks – but run them of course! - but had never quite got round to it. So today was the day the book was going to earn its 35p outlay.

There was a route in the book that ran within a mile of my house. I knew the first part of the path and it would be good to discover some new footpaths and trails. It would be a nice 5 mile run and I could take it gently as I’d be navigating as I went so there’d be no time pressures or strict paces to maintain.


It's a bit muddier than I'd expected ...

Learning Points
  • Just because someone has written a book about a walk does not mean they have in fact done the walk. Or seen the walk. They may have in fact only been half-listening while someone else told them about *their* walk.
  • The countryside is MUDDY. Ridiculously muddy. I didn’t need trail shoes, I needed wellies. And waders.
  • Sheep chase you.
  • Cowpats are EVERYWHERE.
  • Mud is always deeper than it looks.
  • When an instruction talks a concrete pipe, it does in fact mean you will have to go down a concrete pipe. And this is an ACTUAL footpath.
  • It is possible to cover 3 counties while out for a 9 mile run.
  • My Garmin said 9 miles due to me forgetting to un-pause it after stopping to decipher undeciperable route instructions. It *may* have been 10 miles. It *felt* like 15.
  • After 3 showers and 2 baths I may still smell faintly of cow pats.

Where are my running wellies?

Good points
  • All the mud seems to have scared the remnants of the flu away.
  • Have discovered lots of new footpaths.
  • Have found a route NOT to take my 4 year old daughter.
  • Had quite a lot of fun splashing around in the mud.
  • Sheep don’t know what to do with you when they’ve caught you.

That little circular pipe high on the hill CAN'T be the footpath ...

Oh … it IS the footpath (Note the yellow footpath sign on the right)

Oh GOOD. More mud. 

I'm lost. There is mud surrounding me in EVERY direction. Meh. May as well take a photo.


Saturday, March 1, 2014

10 Reasons Not To Date a Runner

1. Their trainers smell. In fact they smell revolting. It's like roadkill has mated with some Dorset Blue Vinnie and the mutated offspring has sprouted laces and rubber soles.
Solution: Ban them from the house. Ban the trainers too. They'll HAVE to give up running when you won't let them in the house to get at their Garmin charger.

2. They will keep trying to make you run too. And they’ll have had more practise so they’ll probably be quicker.
Solution: Get used to losing. Or hide all their left trainers. You might be able to beat them if they have to hop everywhere.

3. They’ll expect you to inspect their mangled toes, missing toenails and blisters.
Solution: Say you've developed an allergy to toenails and manky feet. Every time they threaten to take a sock off make gagging noises and throw up on the sofa.

4. You’ll find yourself booking your holidays around their races. And their races will take priority.
Solution: Relax. You’ll be able to go exotic places and enjoy them. You'll be at the pool and spending your time in the bar while they're rushing around getting all hot and sweaty. Well done. You've just won at 'holidays'.

5. You'll worry yourself frantic when they go missing and then when you're about to phone all the hospitals and check the cemetery plot is still free, they’ll bound through the door saying “I just extended my long run a bit. That’s ok right?”
Solution: Insist on putting them on a retractable dog lead before they go or a run. If they've been longer than they said they would press the 'retract' button. They may complain but their Garmin stats will look amazing and if they don't get a PB from being dragged home on one of these, they never will.

6. You’re always late for things as they tried to squeeze a run in first.
Solution: Tell them you’re going out an hour before you actually are. Then they’ll be ready almost on time. Alternatively lock all the doors and tell them they have to run laps around the living room instead, then when it's time to start getting ready you can tempt them into the shower using a trail of energy gels and jelly babies.

7. Marathon training takes hours and hours. Be used to being on your own.
Solution: Find a new TV series to get into. Or a new partner. Preferably one that doesn't like running.

8. You're pulling your hair out as they want to tell you ALL about their run. In detail. Including mile splits, weather, strange twinges in their knee and whether carrying loo roll should be mandatory on long runs.
Solution: Encourage them to write a blog, then you can lie and say you read it. Alternatively encourage them to tell you at bedtime and say you're listening with your eyes closed.

9. They think it's normal to wear bin bags, carry loo roll everywhere and to have feet which would have the average leper beaming with pride.
Solution: Keep showing them pictures of Mo Farah. Keep saying “I bet HIS toenails don't shed twice a month” and “I don't see Mo running with a roll of loo roll in his running belt.” They'll appreciate your helpful comments and your sudden interest in running. And will definitely not try to smack you over the head with a trainer.

10. The washing basket is never empty. The hall smells permanently of old trainers. There are medals hanging on door handles. The food cupboard holds at least 4 types of different kinds of gels. Every time you open a cupboard a race pack falls out. There is an entire screen on their phone taken up with running app icons.

Solution: Start running. You're not likely to cure them and who knows, you might start enjoying the smell of well-worn trainers ...

Friday, February 14, 2014

Thames Trot 50 Race Report: River Wades & Being Overtaken by a Kayaker

Race Prep
I stare at my toenails. They are coated in a thick layer of goopy purple nail varnish. “Perfect”. I think to myself. “No matter what revolting colours my nails go during the course of my 50 mile race, I won't be able to tell.” I just have to hope that after all my careful painting, they don't detach entirely. Imagine finding that in the end of your sock.

I've made a list of all of the kit I might need and every time I pass the list written on the whiteboard in the hall another item gets added. At this rate I'll be dragging a suitcase around. I just don't know what I'll need. And what if I forget something crucial? At this point, rational thought has fled and I've lost all sense of what is 'crucial' and what is 'irrational'.

I add 'Garmin' to the list. Pause and add 'Spare Garmin'. Then 'Garmin Charger', a thoughtful pause … 'Spare Garmin Charger.' I am NEVER going to get this lot in the car. I look around.
There are piles of kit laid out around the house like neon molehills. There are trainers in piles. There is a veritable supermarket of food on the kitchen counter. I am only going to be running 50 miles. In Oxfordshire.

This is ridiculous.

I remove a protein bar from the pile of food. Panic and put it back again.

Sod it. I'll see what I can ram into the running pack and my pockets and leave the rest behind.

Morning of the Race
After a fitful night’s sleep and finally dozing at 1am, an alarm goes off at 6am. This is not MY alarm. I smack The Mister in the back of the head for forgetting to turn his work alarm off and try to snooze for another half an hour until MY alarm goes off. Not happening.

Casting a baleful look at The Mister, I drag myself into the shower, get into my kit and attempt to pick up my ultra vest which I packed the night before. I need both hands to lift it. Luckily most of the weight is snacks, so I resolve to start eating early on to relieve some of the weight. That's sensible planning, right? There are also 2 crème eggs stashed right at the bottom of the pack, the first to be devoured at mile 30, the 2nd is for the finish line.

We arrive at the start, The Prince of Wales in Iffley, the car park in front of the pub a mass of rucksacks, buffs, nervous farts and enthusiasm. I joined a queue that was already out of the pub door and which wound its way through the pub to the registration table. I was handed a map book, a 'Supplementary Route Diversion Instructions' book (due to the heavy flooding), an envelope containing my number; '122', safety pins, and a handful of leaflets. I also had to pick up my chip but rather than this being attached to my ankle like at road races, this went on my wrist and I had to scan it at checkpoints whereupon it flashed it’s pretty lights and confirmed I wasn't taking any shortcuts.

Tag on wrist … check. Number on ….? Um ....

Normally I'd pin my number to the front of my vest but today I was wearing multiple layers with an ultra vest on top. I looked around. There were multiple variations. A lot of people had them pinned to their legs. Not an option for me. Being so short, it’d come to my knee and I'd look as though I was wearing a pair of strange one-legged Bermuda shorts. Or halfway through constructing an outfit from newspaper.

If I put it on my chest like usual I'd be unable to remove my pack and therefore get at snacks. Not an option. I compromised by putting it on my stomach across the jacket zip. I wouldn't be able to remove the jacket without stopping but it was February. Unless the weather did something REALLY dramatic I wouldn't need to.

I met up with Rod and Paul in the bar of the pub. We'd arranged to start running together and would decide how to play it after the first few miles. Rod was an experienced point-to-point ultra runner (and has a 100 mile race this year!) whereas Paul and I had run lapped courses but this was our first A-to-B ultra so we didn't know what our paces would be like. Or our feet. I was also concerned about my stomach so had a length of loo roll safely and secretly tucked into my pack.

Me, Paul, Rod
The Thames Trot was a brilliant place to catch up with Twitter friends and I was pleased to meet up with Andy who is a very experienced Ultra runner who'd completed #SPW, #TP100, and is running Comrades 2014. He also swapped me a pack of chocolate coffee beans for some Chia Charge flapjacks. Good trade. Another runner who was very pleased to meet with was Taff Tanner who was running TT50 with a friend of his. I completely credit Taff with being the inspiration for me getting into Ultra running. He’s written a brilliant blog post on hitting the 100+ mile mark at Thunder Run 24.

Me, Andy, Paul

A group I belong to on Facebook is the Dirty Daps, Muddy Tracks group and I’m one of the tamest, least experienced members. These guys are ultra marathon, mountain running, crazy people and I was meeting up with Al Davies, Sammi Toop, Gary Broughton and Jackie Hislop before the start of the race. The DDMTers are recognisable by our yellow and purple buffs and today was Jackie’s birthday, so she was celebrating by running 50 miles. See ... Completely mad. But in a good way. A quick hello and a smile for a photo and I was off to find the loos.

The Dirty Daps & Muddy Tracks!

I could follow my nose to the loos as despite the fact that these were in a pub, they had already gained the unmistakeable 'race loo' aroma. However considering my next 10 hours or so was to be on the trails and the next convenience was likely to be a thickly leaved hedgerow I decided to make the most of them. Andrex rather than Big Leaves? Yes please.

The recent heavy floods had meant that a lot of the Thames Path was underwater. Well not just the Thames Path. Most of Oxfordshire and Berkshire was soggy, so this run was no longer the simple 'follow the Thames Path' route I'd hoped for. There were a lot of diversions in place with the start, checkpoints and even the finish being moved. A lot of the race was to be on roads now. This wasn't entirely unexpected as the flooding had been pretty widespread and the Go Beyond Ultra website and Facebook Page had been viewed regularly by the race entrants as there was speculation as to how the organisers Go Beyond would handle this. To their credit, rather than cancelling the race which would have been the easy option, they issued updated maps multiple times as the flooding increased and they even did a course recce on the race morning to check flood levels. So as well as the map book, supplementary map book, there were also additional diversion instructions on race morning.

And we’re off ....
It was a friendly start. No people zigzagging, trying to push their way in front of others like in shorter races. It was laid back, friendly and slow. We all knew there would be plenty of time to settle into our pace. No need to twist your ankle or drop your snacks within half a mile of the start.

There was a diversion from the very beginning which set us out onto the roads. After about half a mile we passed a sign for the Thames Path. Looking over the fence as we ran past, we could see the field beyond the sign was a shimmering mass of silver water. Despite running on the road, I was glad to have worn my trail shoes if that was what was waiting for us on the paths ahead.

I was running with Paul and Rod at our 10 min/mile moving pace. To our credit we managed to maintain it for the first 2 miles before lapsing into a much more natural 9 min/mile pace. We exchanged shrugs. We tried it. We would probably be slowing down towards the end whichever pace we ran now. It was how MUCH we slowed down that was the important thing.

Paul being enthusiastic

The miles flew past as we chatted about upcoming races and our training prep. The pretty villages and lanes passed by like a Scooby Doo background. We had a few wondering glances from the car drivers, but most were friendly and we had a few horn toots and waves.


A middle aged woman in a Range Rover was one of the few idiots we encountered while we were running through one of the villages. We were on a wide road with puddles, but she sped up and aimed for the water in an attempt to drench a group of runners. Luckily her shoddy driving extended to control on wet roads and she failed to splash anyone. It was lucky really as large groups of damp runners flinging themselves at your vehicle in a fit of rage tends to offend the occupants.

Still it was the one example of mean spiritedness that I saw on the entire run. The majority of the drivers were courteous and safe, especially considering the roads were being taken over by a group of neon clad lunatics. This woman was the one idiot. Well ... if you exclude the 250 people running 50 miles.

The miles between Oxford and Abingdon disappeared in a blink and we were running over the bridge over the Thames in Abingdon in the morning sunshine early and looking out for the 1st checkpoint in what felt like short minutes. Looking over the stone sides of the bridge, the extent of the flooding was suddenly more apparent, with rows of trees in what appeared to be the middle of the river. Gardens and hedgerows and entire fields had been swallowed by the greedy Thames. It didn't bode well for dry feet in the later miles.

Coming up to checkpoint one at the 8 mile point, there were already lots of people stopped and stretching out their legs and calves. This surprised me. Maybe it's a tactic for maintaining flexibility with 40 miles ahead of you, but it looked to me as though people were preparing to stop. This was all before checkpoint one. I had assumed if you had an injury you wouldn't attempt a 50 mile race. However, this was all new to me. Maybe this is what the experienced guys did. The stretching, not the dropping out. I had practically the entire contents of my kitchen cupboards in my race vest in a fit of newbie enthusiasm. Don't ask me.

Checkpoint 1 - Culham Lock Car Park 7.7 miles
We were getting a bit worried as this was about half a mile past where we'd expected, although Paul with his sharp eyes spotted the 'Go Beyond Ultra' quill flags which were to be our first notice of a checkpoint. We bleeped our wrist chips, took a quick photo and carried on. Running along the pretty streets of the town and looking over the bridge at the flooded river, the photographer snapped a pic of me. I look moody and brooding in the picture, as though I'm thinking deep ultra running thoughts. In fact, I'm actually wondering whether it's too early to start on the crème eggs.

As I came across the bridge and onto the high pavement, I heard a shout! That's my name! I looked around and my Endure 24 teammate Rob was cheering me on! It gave me a big boost! It was lovely to have someone supporting me and was great for morale! I grinned for the next half a mile. Right up until I managed to get my feet wet for the first time.

There were lots of puddles in our path but mainly minor ones. I'd managed – mainly by pure luck – to keep my feet dry until this point but it was time to christen the toes – with their fetching violet toenails – with some Thames river water. Like a cold, muddy ultra running baptism with added Weils Disease.

We were all running well and although we were going for the long haul – to finish, not to place – we were overtaking people steadily. We all felt fresh and full of beans. Or in my case full of yoghurt-covered-banana-coins. I’d decided to go with the Constantly Eating strategy. This wasn’t one I’d heard of previously but it was keeping me happy. Plus every snack I ate lightened the weight of the pack. Sensible, right?

Coming out of the villages, we had a view over the flat fields on either side. Water shone silver and the road had large puddles in it but the morning was bright and clear. It was perfect running weather. I had a chat to a chap running a similar pace who lived along the route at Wallingford. As he was local, he had been running the Thames Path regularly to train but his usual routes were now a couple of feet under water. The scenery was pretty but the area was very flat - just one hill visible in the distance. He mentioned he had to run 2 miles to find any gradient for hill training. Great for speedwork though I imagine. Apart from having to jump the puddles.

The road running didn’t last much longer. We were into rural Oxfordshire now, following a footpath and we found our first section of ankle-deep mud. Paul revealed a hidden talent which was to find the deepest part of any puddle, muddy bog or stream. It was quite handy. You just watched which way Paul went and DIDN’T follow him.

Dirty Dirty-Girl Gaiters

We had a brief detour around a farm followed by about 10 people which was handy when we realised we’d all got lost together. Luckily a villager directed us towards the church which was one of our landmarks. We were so enthusiastic about finding the church we barrelled on past and were redirected by some spectators who helpfully told us “The other lot went THAT way...” Pointing up the only hill in the area.

The hill was a bit mushy, but I made up a bit of time by not following Paul and soon the path led into the woods. It was pretty with a wide path and the bright blue sky made it a lovely day for running. However, all of my attention was taken up by the ankle deep, shoe sucking mud. We sploshed along, running as much as we could and walking when we couldn’t and talking the whole way. Rod kept smiling, his good humour not deterred by the conditions underfoot.

We turned right onto a grassy track up the side of a hill and I slowed to a walk. I had about 40 miles to go, I wasn’t going to tire myself out running up muddy hills, when I could walk up, NOT twist my ankle AND have a snack on the way up.

We caught up the people who had run up the hill at the top and joined in the debate about the correct route. It was unclear on the map. We knew we had to get down to the river but a steep drop, brambles and a lot of trees were blocking our way.

No idea what they're both doing here ...
We chose a route at random and ran along the edge of the field, Rod aeroplaning down the hill with his arms out while Paul tried a speed interval. We traversed a very steep drop down to a lane below which we took at top speed and in fell runner style and arrived breathless and laughing at the bottom of the hill which opened out into a lane and a view of a bridge with high arches.

Henley appears on the signs!

Later, as we ran along the main road, we saw the first mention of our destination, a large road sign with ‘Henley’ clearly marked! Hooray! We were on our way! Then 5 minutes later – and soul-destroyingly - another sign. This one also saying ‘Henley’ but listing the distance as 13 miles. We still had another 30 to run. Darn you, you winding tricksy Thames Path. We put our heads down and concentrated on running on the narrow pavement with the cars whizzing past. Running along the busy road seemed to last for ages, but the miles ticked past and it was easy to get into a running rhythm. Foot, pavement, foot, pavement. Repeat ....

We crossed a busy roundabout and back onto the pavement next to the main road ... then in the distance. Is that a Go Beyond flag? It was! Checkpoint 2 was in sight!

Heard a shout and saw The Mister and Mischief waving madly! Waved back just as enthusiastically and claimed a damp kiss from Mischief and ran on to Checkpoint 2. Mischief shouted something after me which I didn’t catch.

I stopped and turned. ”Pardon?”
“I SAID I’ve got BOGIES, Mummy”.
Ah. The joys of 4 year olds.

Checkpoint 2 - Benson
CP2 was in a layby at the side of a busy road and was at the 16 mile point. (Well actually 18 miles for us. We took the scenic route via ‘Lost in a Field’ ‘aeroplane-ing down hills’ and ‘arguing over maps’....) We had definitely thought we’d missed it but there were runners in the distance in front of us and a herd of runners behind us. “We must be right, they’re following us ...”

The checkpoints seemed to ignite a lemming-like response in some of the participants and they were crossing the roads as though magnetically drawn to the Checkpoint flag rather than keeping an eye out for those high-speed, wheeled metal objects that were whizzing down it in both directions.

As promised, the lovely Mary of A Healthier Moo was marshalling at checkpoint 2 and she had a veritable display of goodies including the famous Go Beyond cake and jelly babies. I had to decline this bounty though as had eaten an entire bag of chocolate bananas and was already halfway through the stash of flapjacks and wasn’t convinced I would be able to eat any more and still keep moving forward.

Me and Mary!

We were sick of running along main roads at this point and I was wearing my trail shoes in expectation of a bit of nice trail .... And soon my optimism was rewarded. We turned into a footpath which turned into a muddy cow path which turned into a muddy bog. With extra puddles. We gave up avoiding the puddles and just ran through them. There were a few close calls, then suddenly we heard a noise and Paul was down. He’d taken a tumble and twisted his knee. He got up, brushed himself off and carried on running, wearing the mud on his clothes and hands as a brown squishy badge of honour.

We passed walkers on the path several times. In heavy jackets and wellies looking at us as though we were completely crazy as we ran past in bright lycra, running vests, shovelling food into our mouths. We were soon gone though, only the footprints in the mud and a dropped yoghurt-covered cranberry to show where we’d been.

It was nice. Muddy, yes. Slippery, yes. But trails and quiet lanes. Much more fun to run than pavements and busy roads and .... we ground to a halt. We’d found a bit of a puddle. Well. Slightly more than a ‘bit’ of a puddle. It was a LOT of a puddle. I was definitely going to get my feet ... and calves ... and knees ... wet in this one.

Slightly Damp Feet

I gritted my teeth and stepped in. It was bloody cold. While running, I’d been nice and warm but after a few hundred metres of wading through chilly water, I was freezing and my feet started to become stiff and painful from the cold. When I managed to escape from the water, the last thing I wanted to do was run but encouraged by Rod and Paul I did and my feet which had felt like ice cubes started to warm up.

We ran on and with the water draining from our shoes and our feet slowly thawing, we realised we’d battled the river – well … a small portion of it – and won through! We’d escaped the Old Man of the Thames. With perfect timing, it started to rain. We sighed. Well, our feet and legs were already wet. May as well completed the drenched look.

Checkpoint 3
CP3 was on the A4009 at Cleeve (Nr Goring) 24.6 miles although due to our scenic route this came at about marathon distance.

We were clapped into the checkpoint by spectators and it was good to hit the marathon mark and still feel so fresh. I was trying not to think I still had to run another one. We had a brief snack at the checkpoint taking a selection of the bounty offered which included the famous cake, cocktail sausages, jelly babies, sausage rolls and scotch eggs. The checkpoints also offered energy drinks, but they were ones I hadn’t tried before and I thought that halfway through a 50 mile race probably not the best time to try something new. Unless I wanted to christen every hedgerow between here and the finish.  

The checkpoint was in a small town at the top of a hill. A railway was running on our right but it was peaceful and quiet. We ran on towards the woods, following the signs for Gatehampton Manor. The muddy path opened out onto fields and then unexpectedly we were running on beautiful undulating trails. The Thames was on our right, far below – a gleam of silver through the trees and we ran through woods with silver birches and high stony hills on our left. The trail was full of small steep hills and the dirt path was soft beneath our feet. The perfect remedy to miles of road running.

We made it to the top of the hill!

Checkpoint 4
CP4 This was in Mapledurham at about 32 miles. Coming around the corner, we saw a crowd of people who cheered us in like we were celebrities. I glanced over my shoulder to check that Dean Karnazes or Scott Jurek weren't running behind us. Nope. This was for us. Wow!

I needed this checkpoint and filled up my water bladder in the ultra vest taking care to drop an electrolyte tablet into it. I know I shouldn’t do this (apparently stains the water bladder) but I don’t want to carry water AND sports drink. It's pure laziness.

We also knew we only had one more checkpoint before the finish line and rather than thinking “We've got 14 miles to go,” we said, “It’s an 8 and a 6 mile run – those are tiny distances! We can run those easily.” It was a lot easier breaking the distances down into bite-sized chunks.

As is typical, the way forward was UP a steep hill. So employing that well known – and cheaty – ultra runner tactic we walked up the hill. The path led through a housing estate and wound up towards a set of steps. It felt like we were climbing towards the sky. We emerged onto a main road and up towards a pub where an elderly man directed us down a set of steps towards a railway bridge. We weren’t sure whether he was a marshal or had wandered out of the nearby pub. However, he seemed pretty sure that this was the way so we decided that we'd go with it.

We crossed the railway bridge just as a train approached and we waved at the train as it passed underneath. We got a big cheery wave from the train driver too. Encouraged by the thought that Midland Rail was clearly on the side of ultrarunning we followed the steps down to the Thames Path proper.

The Thames was now on our left and we just had to follow the path for a few miles now. The path was a gravelled surface with regular puddles. I didn’t want to dodge around avoiding puddles so I tried to pick the path of ‘Least Puddles’. Unfortunately the rest of us were also trying the same so there we were, all bunched in the middle of the path, hopping puddles in unison in an attempt to keep our feet dry without falling in the Thames or knocking a fellow runner in the river. It was like Riverdance but in lycra and trainers.

An finally ... an undodgeable puddle. In fact, the Thames. Everywhere. There was no way of staying on the path without a boat. Or at the very least a armbands.

I know there's a path here somewhere ...

We spotted a ‘Go Beyond’ arrow and followed this to be diverted onto an industrial estate. It was grey sky, grey roads, grey pavements and grey buildings. We were back onto roads and pavements and lines of cars that queued and queued. The occupants staring out of the car windows at us as we passed. Wondering what on earth we were doing with our muddy legs and running packs as we traversed the industrial estates of Reading.

We went past the Rivermead Leisure Centre and memories of a swimming pool like soup on Reading Festival Weekends. Very different to today. Remembering hot summers, mosh pits and living on pot noodles. Today? River wades, 50 mile runs and living on chocolate coffee beans and snacks. A different adventure.

Paul had been doing a brilliant job navigating us and was keeping an eye on our pace. We didn’t want to run too fast but didn’t want to miss Checkpoint cut off times either as we’d automatically be disqualified. He checked the average pace and concluded it seemed a bit slow.

“It’s 11 min /miles” he announced. This was surprising as we’d been running virtually a metronomic pace over the last few miles of Thames Path and industrial estate pavements. Hmmmm. Then it clicked. The pace included checkpoint stops. And the river wades. AND our multiple ‘photo-or-it-didn’t-happen’ stops. Suddenly 11 min/miles sounded very respectable.

The pavements disappeared and we were dodging cars on the road. Under a bridge and out of the other side avoiding traffic and puddles. No other runners had overtaken us for miles and we were reeling people in and overtaking them regularly. Everyone had settled into their paces now and the runners were strung out all along the course. Occasionally we’d see someone in the distance in front of us, we’d run with them for a while or overtake with a greeting and then we’d be alone again. The loneliness of the long distance runner. I was glad to have Rod and Paul running with me. Even if we were silent for periods of time it was nice to know they were at my shoulder. Their pace matching mine and their footsteps echoing mine.

Is she taking pics AGAIN?

Directed by the most well-spoken security guard in Reading, we cut through the industrial estate and back onto the Thames Path. The river was wider than a field and the branches peeking through the surface showed where it had swallowed gardens and parks. We caught a flash of blue and caught up to a girl who was walk-running on her own. We ran with her for a bit but she told us to go on ahead as she was comfortable walk-running. She declined our parting gift of Pick’n’Mix sweeties and we carried on down the path.

The path appeared and disappeared under the water and it was a gamble how deep it was. In the Thames, on the path, in the Thames, splash through the Thames ... In some places it was fine – the water was only an inch or so deep so we ran through it, our feet splashing like children running through puddles. In other sections, it was calf deep and the ground was slippery so we walked, our feet quickly becoming cold from the water of the Thames.

The water cut off the path entirely at some points and we had to divert into ornamental gardens and across temporary bridges erected by the council. Crossing one of these, I was careless with my step and slipped on some mud at the bottom. Splat. My own muddy brown badge of honour on my hands and leg. Rod was now the only one who hadn’t tripped or fallen – a testament to his balance and careful footing. However also the only one now not wearing mud. We threatened to push him in the Thames if he didn’t join the muddy gang.

Back onto the Thames path and past a man teaching his daughter to kayak. He showed us a cut-through on the bank to avoid the flooded path. Back onto the path, the water splashing up around our ankles. We trotted onwards and towards a man and his 5 year old son, on their bicycles waiting for us to pass. The man shouted ‘Ready, Steady ...’ to his son as they cycled towards the innocent-looking puddle. Don’t think they realised quite how deep it was.
Suspected he had a bit of explaining to his wife when he got home and handed over a drenched, bawling child.

One last section of wading, ice cold and toe numbing and we were onto a bridge and back onto a busy main road. There was no pavement and cars were whizzing past. Luckily the majority of the drivers appeared to be runner friendly - or didn’t want to pay the excess on their insurance for dented bodywork - and gave us a wide berth. This was lucky really as by this point we had our heads down, knowing that the next checkpoint was close. Big speeding metal objects on wheels? Meh.

Checkpoint 5
CP5 was on Play Hatch roundabout on the B478 from Sonning. This was the last checkpoint before the finish line and they had a lovely spread of food: cocktail sausages, sausage rolls and The Cake. I wasn’t interested in this though. I asked Paul for a hand and he fished around in my backpack and came up with what I wanted. A purple, red and gold orb. Shining in the evening sunshine, I perceived it with a reverent air. My crème egg. I’d like to say I savoured it, but it’s probably more accurate to say I inhaled it. I had been thinking about this crème egg since about mile 6. Now at the 40 mile point ... it had been worth the wait.

I heard a shout and saw The Mister. Mischief was in the car looking a bit green and wearing her pyjamas. “Pyjamas?” I queried. Apparently she had said she felt a bit sick and wanted a cuddle. The Mister had turned round to give her a cuddle and she had vomited into his outstretched hands. “At least you caught it!” I said helpfully. I gave him and my vomit-smelling daughter a quick kiss and started the trudge up the hill towards the finish line. The final section.

From the checkpoint we were straight up a steep hill. We kept in as much as we could but it was a narrow road without a pavement. The drivers were courteous though and a bus stayed behind us for a while waiting for a safe place to pass. However, the ‘Face of the Day’ award was given to a chap staring through the rear window of the bus. Clutching a McDonalds milkshake in one hand, he glowered at us. How dare we hold up his bus when he had a milkshake to drink. Stupid ultrarunners!

The hill wound onwards and upwards for what felt like miles, then down the other side winding through a village. It was dusk now and lights were starting to appear in the windows. We carried on down the lane and a ‘Go Beyond’ arrow appeared in the hedge. Pointing down a rutted track. The map clearly said not to turn here but who are we to argue with the yellow arrows of obedience? We followed the track and came to a crossroads. Standing looking at the different options as though an arrow would drop from the foliage above our heads, we finally concluded a magical sign wasn’t going to appear and we carried on straight ahead.

As we ran, we chatted to another runner, an experienced ultrarunner called Paul who had run several ultras before and was now looking at doing a few more multistage events. He’d already completed the Marathon de Sables, another desert run and was looking at a race in Andalucia. Wow.

We were running in a pleasant wood now, but the light was fading and the trees were blocking what little light was left. I switched my headtorch on. It was mile 43 – we’d almost made it to the finish line without needing it but the tracks were too broken and potholed to risk it. I’d come this far without damaging myself. It would be a shame to lose all my front teeth 5 miles from the finish.

A nice long downhill and back onto the signposted Thames Path where we caught up a mixed group of runners who were debating the way. We carried straight ahead onto a narrow trail and we all followed on in single file. The ground underneath our shoes was mushy and
sodden and our shoes squelched as we ran. We crossed a bridge and the ground disappeared under about a foot of water.

A meadow, ridiculously flooded. There were clumps of grass sticking up above the water and the ground underneath our feet was unstable and uneven. Miserably we waded and wobbled through the mire. Unable to lift our feet above the water, our toes cold and our clothes sodden. I kept my head up looking for a dry piece of land. The field was deceiving. I kept thinking I could see dry sections, but each time I got there it was as wet and miserable as the last section. It was like the complete reverse of an oasis in the desert.

Finally we got to the field edge. It was mushy but walkable. Then trot-able. And finally ... back to a run. Well a shambling, damp run. Paul, Rod, Paul 2 and I pulled ahead of the others and we finally got running again. We crossed a bridge at the end of the path and stopped. We could see where the Thames Path should be, but in ahead of us was just water, black and dark. The seats and backs of benches stuck up above it and the tops of litter bins but no path was visible.

The bloke running behind us stopped. “F**k this.” He said and retraced his footsteps, sloshing back through the water. We’ll have to turn back. We looked at each other. There were no diversion signs. This is the way the map said. But the flooding has obviously got worse. Do we risk it?

We looked at the blank, black water. We could see where the path WAS judging by the tops of the benches and the bins curving around by the line of the trees. We just couldn’t see the actual path.

F**k it indeed.

We exchanged glances and stepped forward into the dark water.

We realised that we needed to be very sure of our steps. There was grass underfoot on our right and the riverbank dropped away to the bed of the actual Thames next to this. We kept the line of bins and benches on our left and pushed on. The water rose to our calves, then our knees.

Ahead we could see lights on a bridge. On our left and right we could see only stretches of dark water and the outlines of moored boats and dark houses. Out of the 3 of us Twitter buddies, Rod was the only one who hadn’t fallen over in the Thames mud, therefore I had to be content with leading him through the river instead.

We spotted a white light on our left, moving between the trees and the tops of the benches. It slid alongside us smoothly and we realised a kayaker was paddling deftly over the drowned park, where months previously people had been walking their dogs and playing with their children. We waded along. “Seen any other runners coming this way?” He shook his head.

We waded onwards. At this point I started worrying. I was leading the others onwards and there was no sign that the water would recede and reveal the path as we’d hoped. Our legs and feet grew colder and we followed the very tops of the benches. Is the water getting deeper?

More importantly, had I led the others into danger?

Suddenly. “Is that a car?” We looked to our left and like an island in the water, a car. An actual car. In a dry car park. Woo!! We waded towards it, emerging from the water like a herd of Creatures from the Black Lagoon and were standing on a dry tarmac car park.

“Is that a GAZEBO?” Asked Paul. We craned our necks. A gazebo? Like the sort of gazebo that would hold medals? And be standing next to a finish line? It MUST be! What other bloody lunatics would have a gazebo up at this time of year? And next to an entire underwater town?

We sprinted towards it. Well. It felt like sprinting but I imagine it looked a lot like shuffling. We speed-shuffled like a group of eager pensioners spotting the last bingo ticket.

Hang on. Does that say ‘START’??

We looked at the giant inflatable arch. It did indeed say ‘start’. Don’t tell me there are TWO races going on in the dark in Henley-on-Thames? Nope. We’d just appeared from the wrong direction. We shuffled around to the correct side of the inflatable and ran across the line.

I was an ultra runner.

Finish line!!

Miles: 46.75
Additional Miles: 2.25
Time: 8:58:58
Checkpoints: 5
Amount of times I checked my map: 0 (Sorry Paul!)
Loo stops: 0 (in nearly 9 hours!)
Snacks: Dramatic amounts
River wades: Multiple.
Medals: 1 (Massive)
Number of times I told the coffee lady I loved her when she told me there was free coffee: 2