Monday, 5 May 2014

Being a girl: a weight off my mind


The year following university, I moved to Manchester to study a Master’s degree. During that time I was poor in both money and time. I worked evenings and weekends, did three to four full days at university. I lived off tins of lentil soup, and packets of cup-a-soups.

I also walked everywhere.

“You’ve lost a lot of weight;” people would tell me, when I headed home for Xmas the following year.

It became a joke among my friends. It wasn’t a compliment as such, just a random statement. It felt strange to say: thanks, as I seemed to be congratulating them on pointing out the obvious.

Someone once asked me my secret? Stress, I wondered? Walking? Cup-a-soups? Smoking?

They all probably helped. Though, at that time I was at my thinnest; I wasn’t particularly healthy, nor was I unhealthy. I just was.

I relayed this story to some friends some years later: as I had recently trained, and, to my amazement, finished a marathon. It too came with weight loss. It is pretty hard not to lose weight while training for a marathon, though that was never the reason I did it.

The weight-loss ‘compliments’ reared their head again. They were well meaning, there was no cynicism intended. I knew I should take them and smile, but it made me feel uncomfortable. I didn’t like people pointing it out.

It didn’t feel like such a huge victory, maybe because accepting it somehow made me wonder if everything about me prior to the loss was a lie – I must have been ugly, stupid, dorky and clumsy.

In many ways, I am often all of these things whether my jeans fit or not. I am often none of them. My belly never really seemed to have much to do with it.

As I joked about the phrase, my male friend said: “Nobody ever says that as a compliment to me.”

The two females at the table nodded, because weight is a women’s secret code.

It sometimes seems women are in a constant endless loop to lose weight, no matter how much or little they have.

We can’t just exercise; it must be burning calories. We can’t just eat salads; it must be a low carb diet. Chocolate is a guilty pleasure. Forget wine – what a sin! Aren’t we all terribly naughty over Xmas? It makes my head spin.

Forget green energy, we should work out a way to use the Western world’s constant weight loss efforts as a new fuel – we’d power the world for millenniums.

It is a trend that is so ingrained, that sometimes people don’t know how strange it seems. I have known people almost half my size complain about their weight, call themselves fat, and freak out about the scales.

We don’t want to admit these things, but it is there, all around us. Women use weight as a form of communication, we put ourselves down in front of each other to bond on something that fluctuates, and has little or no impact. Why do we care?

And the worst thing is, when you’re too young and dumb to understand any different, it does matter. I agonized over my weight as a teenager, because in my mind, my huge bulbous face and stomach meant I was less female. 

I was less of a women; because I liked food and I wasn’t stick thin. It was crazy and totally irrational, but at the time, very real. 

I wonder how true it was that men don’t receive this 'fat-ly' veiled compliment. The last time I commented on a man’s weight, he had suffered from severe food poisoning abroad, and came back looking practically gaunt. The “you’ve lost weight” was more, “shit, are you ok? Did you not eat?!”

A few months ago I was lucky enough to find a copy of Fat is a Feminist issue in a charity shop for ten pence. It’s funny how some things age, and others don’t. I read it, and realized that it was sad that in many ways, Susie Orbach’s tale of overeating and women’s perceived notions of ‘fat’ still remain in the social consciousness.

We still see it every day, every moment. Lose 15 pounds in a month! Get the perfect beach body! BE AN ATTRACTIVE WOMAN.

I no longer care. I like food; I also like exercise. I eat burgers, but also salad. I like fruit, and chocolate. A bikini body is just a body that a bikini is in.

So now when people say; “You’ve lost weight”, I think yes I have. I lost the weight on my mind that being ‘fat’ brings. I am just as I always was, in a slightly different body and that is ok with me.



Thursday, 10 April 2014

STOP FREAKING OUT and read some books instead (Advice part two)


A side effect to constantly looking up advice on the Internet is an unrelenting sense of fear and anxiety, which is the opposite effect of what I wanted.

You see along with all the friendly happy people telling you how to train, and that missing one long run isn’t such a big deal.

You will read stuff that suggest things like: you haven’t trained enough, you’re really slow, marathons are hard, and you will get injured and your foot will fall off (ok the last one might be a tad of an exaggeration).

So here I have collected some books and advice that helped me get through my marathon (and no, none of it is a quote on top of a backdrop of someone running on a beach) without having a total meltdown.

Enjoy!




Reading and running

Books, my friend, are the antidote to internet induced panic. If you can't run, read!


I devoured this book in about two days the week I signed up for my marathon, and it helped a lot.

It is one girls journey from couch potato to runner, with all the glorious good and bad moments that come with it. I actually re-read the chapter where she does her first marathon, and I honestly think it should be required reading for most newbies.

The message is, yes some of this is going to suck, but honestly its all wonderfully glorious at the end. She’s funny too, and it’s a damn easy read. 

Also heed the advice on sports bras women - get a proper bra!


READ BORN TO RUN.

Seriously this book has it all, a secret Mexican tribe who are some of the fastest people in the world, utterly insane ultra-marathon runners and a 50 miles foot race through crazy inhospitable terrain.

It reads like a mystery thriller about running! And it reminds you of three wholly important lessons – humans are capable of some amazing things, sometimes you should just run for the fun of it and some people are totally fucking mental.


This comic strip (ok I cheated, its not a book, yet), is a perfect shout out to all us crazy runners who aren’t temples of health. Who cares if you eat pizza all day and lie in bed watching the whole fifth season of 30 rock?

You’re a runner, you went out and ran! You have beat the Blerch, and defeated the Kraken! You can do what you want. Now pass the ice cream.

This all makes sense if you read the comic. It’s short and sweet, and a little bit magical. Read it, and I swear you’ll be lacing up your shoes in no time.

The book is coming in September!

NEXT part three: Surprisingly nice articles that cheered me up when I was at my lowest

What other book recommendations do you have?

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Advice addiction: stuff I collected on the internet that helped with my first marathon (Part one)


I am an advice addict. There I said it. I am addicted to reading advice on the internet. I spend too much time on the looking stuff up, to bank away in my memory disc (i.e. my mind) for later use.

So as you would imagine, running a marathon put my advice addiction into overdrive and I spent long hours researching literally everything and anything I could about how to train, what to eat, strength exercises, why my hips hurt, how horrible hitting the wall was, what books to read, waaaay too many posts about people’s first marathon – so yeah, everything.

Luckily for other people, I shall put my collected knowledge to good use by sharing it with you all.


Want to go from beginner to marathon? Use all this information to help.

PART ONE: Some handy links to get you started

FIRST the Reddit guide to running is very good, and worth a read.

Getting started – ‘Appily running
Phone apps for beginners

Couch to 5k

I never actually used this to start running, but most people seem to love it. The app uses a walk/run method to teach you how to go from zero to 5k (3.1 miles) in around two months.

Zombies, RUN!

I did use this one, and it is awesome! It’s a zombie video game that you play while you run – seriously why wouldn’t you want that?

You play Runner 5, using only your legs, you must pound the pavements to collect critical supplies and escape the clasps of hoards of zombies. The story plays out in your headphones, so you will itching to go outside again, just to see what happens.

The best part has to be the zombie chases (helping to make dreaded interval training a bit more bearable) – where you can hear the zombies closing in on you if you slow down.

Don’t get bitten, and remember when you hear zombies, RUN!

RunKeeper

I used this, with a combination of MapMyRun, before I got my running watch. It’s your basic GPS running tracker – showing splits, times and distance etc.

There’s not much else to it, but its free and worth using!
Training – Higdon or Galloway?

The two names you will hear over and over when it comes to marathon (or other race) training are Hal Higdon and Jeff Galloway.

Who are these guys you ask?

Well they are basically running trainers (no, not like the ones on your feet), who created free (and good) training guides.

I ended up following the Hal Higdon plan, which slowly builds up your mileage each week (and includes a half marathon in the middle). It is four days a week, and you will end up doing long-ish runs mid week, and with really long ones at the weekend.

He also recommends cross training the day after your long runs. He has several plans ranging from Novice to Advanced, most taking around 18 weeks for a full marathon.

Galloway’s plan is much longer at 32 weeks, and combines a run/walk strategy. It only involves running three times a week, with one additional ‘easy walk’ on Fridays.

Its up to you who you choose, but as beginner’s plans go – these two are probably the most popular out there AND they are free!

WHY does (insert body part) hurt? How do I make it stop?

Did you know your shin splints are caused by the fact your calves muscles are too tight? Have you ever heard of the IT band or the gluteus maximus muscles? What exactly is foam rolling?

All these and more can be learnt on the internet. Basically learn to stretch out those muscles, work on your core and for god’s sake rest if you need to.

This reddit wiki has a damn good guide on all those injuries and how to get them to stop hurting.

One of the best things I found was this awesome free yoga website, which has a section dedicated to yoga for runners: Do Yoga With Me.

These two videos saved me: Deep Release for the Hips, Hamstrings and Lower Back and Yoga for Runners: A Stretch Class for the IT Band.

It’s really well done, and as Brussels yoga sessions seem to be like 15 euros a time – this was a good compromise.

Foam rolling is a big foam roller (seriously, I can't describe it any other way) that you use to massage your muscles. And it works a treat, though at the time may cause intermittent swearing when trying to get those tough knots out - OW.

Get yourself some compression socks, they are magical wonderful things. Buy them now, don't look back!

NEXT UP:

Part two: STOP FREAKING out – calming advice to help you get through this

Please share your own advice in the comments!

Monday, 7 April 2014

I DID IT: I am a marathoner

In November last year I ran a 10k in 1 hour 9 minutes and decided to sign up for the Manchester, UK marathon.

Yesterday (6th April) I ran the last 10k of the marathon in 1 hour 7 minutes. In five months, I managed to not only knock minutes off my 10k, but I managed to knock minutes off it after running 20 miles.

Look they gave me a medal and everything.
I always approached the marathon with a sense of caution, I didn’t want to aim for an amazing time and be disappointed when I crossed the line. So it was with great surprise when I found myself sprinting over the finish as the clock read 4 hours 45 minutes.

I would have laughed at you, if you had told me that would be my first marathon time.

And in a way it seemed part happy accident, part stubbornness and partly admitting to myself that maybe I was much fitter than I let on.

I had originally planned to run a 5 hour marathon, by joining a 5 hour pace group. Pace groups for the initiated are basically runners with big flags on their back; who keep you at a steady pace to you finish at the right time.
Before the race: I don't normally look like this at 6:30am.

They are good, because they force you to keep steady and keep you going when it gets rough.

I spent the first few miles running with the 5 hour pace group, made up of jolly Manchester guys who played 80s songs from a speaker on their iPod and kept waving at all the elite runners going past. It was a nice way to start.

However, I decided to speed ahead to find a port-a-loo and catch them up later. This is how I accidentally found myself in the 4:45 pace group, and caught up with my running partner.

I found the pace to pretty good, and managed to catch them up easily after finding a free toilet. We pounded through Altrincham, one of the more picturesque bits of the route. (Better than the bit at mile 23, when all you could see was fields and a sign directing us to the Sewage works - grim.)

We hit the half, and I felt fine. In fact, I felt good! Who have I become?!

I’m not sure at what point it was that I let myself believe I would make it under 5 hours, maybe around 16 miles when I ran past my parents and still felt strong. Or at mile 23 when my pacer told me next time I could do a 4:30 marathon (next goal!)

Finally at mile 24, I hit the wall, my legs hurt and my energy ebbed away. This was the first time I walked in the whole thing. I still cannot get my head around this, I ran consistently for 24 miles (that’s over 4 hours!)

I lost the group at mile 24, and let myself walk a little. Finally, I got to the point where I could see Old Trafford and began plodding down the road. As we turned the corner and I saw the finish, I did something I never thought possible – I sprinted. My pacer was on the line and shouted me in. It was glorious.

And here’s the strangest thing, it was great fun. I genuinely enjoyed it. All the crowds cheering on the sides, and shouting my name! Chatting with random runners along the road.

Feeling strong up until around 20 miles, and only letting it hit me at 23 miles. Seeing my friends standing with a banner, at a point when I was nearing the “god what the hell am I doing” stage. Though all I managed to say to them was: "I am about to fucking die" as I went past.

In five months, I went from running a 10k for the first time, to completing a half marathon to finishing my first full marathon in 4:39:53 (I didn’t go over the start for 5 minutes).

But wait, how the hell did I get there?

In all honesty, I have no idea. And I have a sneaky suspicion if I can do it, anyone can.

Here is a collection of injuries I collected over the course of my training (some not even running related):
  • Spin splints
  • Weird hip pain (I think its basically sore IT band)
  • Ripped the skin of both knees when falling over while running
  • Fell out of a loft onto my elbow
  • Fell over on some ice bruising my knees at NYE
  • Random ankle pain
  • Some lovely chaffing in my armpits during the marathon

Mmmmm chaffing. 


I missed some long runs, neglected my strength training and did lots of unhealthy things to my body. So yeah, no one is more surprised than me at that time!

But the main thing is – would I do it again?

I’m already trying to organise one for 2015.

Berlin marathon anyone?

(And yes my legs hurt today).

Apparently I picked up a men's t-shirt, I don't really care. 

A MASSIVE THANKS TO:

EVERYONE who sponsored us! You’re all legends. We’ve made £1,202 so far.

My Brussels (and Maastricht) buddies for pretending to be interested in me talking about this, and letting me make terrible training decisions without too much judgement (another beer anyone?)

My Manchester friends for coming out on race day (with a Bruce Springsteen related sign!), and bringing me food while I lay mildly comatose afterwards.

My dad for passing on the wisdom of a former runner.

AND FINALLY the most important two people:

My mum, for being awesome during a pretty rubbish time. For listening to me doubt myself constantly and for being there on the day to shout support.

Gerrie Evans, my running buddy and constant support throughout this whole ordeal/journey.

For any running people (non runners might get bored now):

I drank water at every stop, and carried it with me until the next one – swapping it at each one. It worked well.

I had three energy gels with me, and ate all the ones along the track (six Clif bar shot gels). First one mile 6, mile 12, and then anytime I could my body dropping after that. I think this helped me stay running for such a long time. No stomach problems at all!

Breakfast: Toast, peanut butter and jam. Banana and some beetroot juice. 500ml of water with Nuun hydration mixed in.

Pace: 10:45.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

The last leg of the journey

Here I am, sat in my pyjamas only a week away from my first marathon.

I don’t know how to feel anymore, my mind jumps between all encompassing fear to giddy excitement. I have started dreaming about the marathon, and they are nearly always nightmares. I accidentally do the half, instead of the full and end up hours later than everyone else. I forget all my water and energy gels, and just have to hope that I can finish without collapsing.

The thing about marathon training is, that as it creeps closer and closer, it becomes the thing everyone wants to talk to me about and the thing I want to talk about the least. I suddenly feel embarrassed when I have to tell people my longest run was 18 miles, and they suck in their teeth as a sign of respect.

I want to grab them and say, seriously it isn’t that great – I say ran, but most of it was me cursing at trees and at my own legs. Some of it definitely wasn’t even running; it was tired walking hoping it would all end.

I guess that is where the terror comes from, the feeling of pure inadequacy!

On the other hand, there is something wonderful about it all. I can run 10 miles, and say, that was just a 10 miler. As if 10 miles was a normal distance to spend pummelling pavements. I am now fit enough that most runs under 8 miles, just feel kind of boring, my body itches for me to grab onto that runners high from when I first began.

Even just completing a simple 5k is an achievement (finally under 30 minutes!).

I now have a strange relationship with my running gear. And as cheesy as it sounds, when I put on my striders and trainers, I feel strangely empowered. These are the clothes I wear to break down personal barriers, to go beyond anything I could have imagined. It feels good.

And on the day, I get to see my friends and my family. I get to be cheered on by random strangers, meet others who have been working as hard as me.

In many ways my training didn’t really go as planned, I missed countless long runs due to various illnesses and injuries, and in the last month became quite slack. I drank too much, ate badly, choose the pub over the gym, smoked when I should have quit, basically lots of bad things.

BUT here’s a little secret that the running community sometimes don’t reveal to you – its ok, because despite all that I am still running. Look up running on the Internet and too much of it seems made to make you stop. People can be snobby, and cruel. Not all of them of course, there is a great camaraderie in running. 

However, sometimes there are snobs, and those snobs can make you feel bad. They moan about slow runners, they berate those attempting 5 hour marathons, and they pretty much have a go at those who don’t fit the healthy standard for a ‘runner’. (As I said, not all, there are plenty of lovely encouraging people out there too!)

I learnt to not let it get to me, because the simple fact is, I am running – even if my training went askew, even if I am not the healthiest person, or my mile times are just faster than walking – I am running. I hate the idea that people are put off, thinking they need to be the picture of health before they start, when really you can do it whatever your habits!

So here I am, on the final stretch! I have no more aspiration than to cross the finish line. I am hoping my stubbornness will force me to keep up with my 5 hour pace group and that someone will be waiting with food and a beer at the end (or a coke, I always crave coca cola after doing long runs).

Let’s hope I can hobble away from this experience, with a tiny feeling that I might do this all again sometime.

Until race day… WISH ME LUCK.

Also we have made over £1,000 in sponsorship, which is bloody awesome :D




Friday, 21 March 2014

Run forest run


I have been awful at updating this blog recently, pretty much like the running itself once you stop its hard to keep going.

So here’s what has been happening.

Halfway to victory

I ran a half marathon in 2 hours 15 minutes. When my friend told me that was the time we were aiming for, I laughed heartily for a bit and said: “No chance.”

But due to stubbornness on my part, and refusing to get left behind I diligently followed at a pace of just over 10 minute miles for the whole thing.

It was a strange experience. First off it was on a motor racetrack, and you had to loop it six times before you were allowed to finish. The crowd of cheering families and supporters was less of a crowd and more a collection of people in coats wondering why they were spending their Sunday afternoon watching someone pass them 6 times in the freezing cold over 2 hours.

I learnt some valuable lessons that day, namely:

The less clothes, the more serious the runner. If someone is wearing tiny running shorts and a vest, they are planning on going FAST. If they’re in a fleece, probably slow. 

WIND is EVIL. There was so much wind, blasting itself uncomfortably into my face for half of every lap. Note – swearing at the wind doesn’t make it go away, but does make you feel better. 

I am faster than I thought – due to always running alone, I tend to go on the slow side, mainly due to a fear of not being able to finish and having to just give up and die on the side of a road somewhere in Brussels. 

I can run 5k under 30 minutes (FINALLY). 

Running fast makes my legs sad – despite the happiness from running much faster than I thought, I now have a perpetual problem in my left ankle – that does not seem best pleased, which led to 2 weeks off.

Energy gels are awesome. 

People definitely shouldn’t take pictures of you when you’re running.

RUN FOREST RUN

As I said, due to problems in my left ankle, followed by genuine fears I’d never even get to the starting line of the marathon, I had to take two weeks off. I therefore set myself a goal, if I could do 18 miles before the race, I’d run, if not I’d sack it off.

Good news, I ran (or at least propelled myself forwards for 18 miles) at the weekend and man was it hard.

I rather stupidly thought I’d mix things up and try running in the forest, it’ll be lovely, I thought naively.

First off Brussels has a big ol’ forest at the bottom of the city, and it has three routes marked out for runners: 5k, 10k, 20k. My idea was to do the 20k, then the 10k, which I did (I also walked back to the metro station, so in fact I did more than 30k).

BUT Jesus effing Christ was I not prepared for off road running. Normally, when you run you go in a straight line and you look down at your running watch – and you can see the miles tick by.

Not on off road! Due to winding paths, and steep hills, and gangs of elderly Nordic walkers (watch our for those sticks) – every time I looked at my watch, I seemed to have barely gone half the distance I thought I had.

At one point I ran up a massive hill, ended up in a car park, realized I was terribly lost, and had to take a minute to compose myself – and basically think, do I have to start a new life living in the forest with only running gear for company? Luckily, I found my path and started up again.

By 16 miles, I had run out of water, my legs were complaining loudly. I pathetically tried running for 30 seconds at a time, then went back to walking. It was at that moment; I could have given up. I seriously would have given anything right there to just stop, but I didn’t. I soldiered on.

AND my watch died. So I never found out how far I really went, taking into account getting lost, it must have been about 19 miles! Bloody hell.

My foot is now back to niggling away at me, but I read something recently that stuck with me.

Running a marathon isn’t about the day, that’s just one day of your life. It’s about the months of sweat, swearing and sucking it up you have to do beforehand.

So yeah – I just need to get through one day and its done.

2 weeks to go.

(In addition I have started having constant nightmares about the marathon itself - hurrah!)

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Cancer is bitch - why I am not giving up

Me and my parents at Salford Quays. 
I woke up and I was hungover, not just hungover but completely sleep deprived. It was one of those nights that started, and didn't seem to end. Another bar, another drink, bleary eyes and stumbling out into the bright blinding morning sunshine.

I slept for most of the day, a comatose state of drunken revelry.

I stared at my phone, there were three missed calls, and messages from my parents. Ugh, I thought, what do they want? I finally dragged myself to a computer and called them.

No-one really knows how they will react to bad news, not really. We think we know how we are, we understand our own emotions, but truly we don't.

And as I sat listening to my parents, tears just came, rushing out of me. I couldn't stop.

My mum had been diagnosed from a rare form of breast cancer: inflammatory breast cancer. So rare it only affects 1 - 4% of all breast cancer suffers.

At that moment, I shattered. I lost my mind. I was only a month into a new job, in a new strange city, away from my closest friends and family, and I cried. I have never cried like that before, a wave of unrelenting emotion just searing through me. I didn't do anything else, I just lay in bed and soaked the sheets with tears - I was by all accounts an absolute mess. 

I started to research the disease, every post made my cry harder. A word of advice, never look it up if this happens, no matter how much you want to - it is a spiral of pointless fear mongering.

This was in May last year.

I immediately thought I should move home, but that was ridiculous. My mum had worked too hard to give me the opportunities I had now, putting me through university and an MA. Helping me when I felt like I couldn't go on. Supporting my decision to move abroad.

At home, I would have been an inconvenient nuisance, an overgrown unemployed teenager taking up valuable space in a two bed terrace house. In a way, I helped by being in Belgium, and getting on with my life. 

Cancer, cancer everywhere

Cancer is a cluster bomb, it explodes in the centre and crashes through everyone close by. The circle is wide, people around feel the cuts and bruises, the emotional scars, the shrapnel piercing through their skin. And in the centre, there is one person.

It is a nasty, horrible, terrifying thing.

Because cancer is everywhere, it is used to scare us, the big unknown of disease. People fight cancer, they survive it, they exist in it. We all know about it, it is the big C. The treatment is just as bad, the equivalent of giving your computer a virus to fix itself and never being sure if it will work again.

BUT, we did survive it, all of us. We stood up, brushed ourselves off, and got on with it. Because there is nothing you can do, not really, except stand up and take each day as it comes.

My mum, in the centre of the explosion, was in no uncertain terms incredible. She would joke about it - she described her mastectomy as joining the lopsided ladies league, and the radiotherapy treatment like being in a sci film.

She looked brilliant bald, a feat that most of us would find hard to pull off. 

She discovered the delights of an iPad, read more books than I probably read in a year, and just you know, got on with it.

There are many things I am entirely grateful for. The GP who knew something was wrong and sent her to specialist, pretty much the whole of the NHS who are utterly superb people, who I will hear nothing against.

All the people who could be around her when I couldn't, because no-one tells you how hard it is to see your own mother suffer when you live in another country. The friends who I confided in (both in Belgium and beyond), who accepted when I really didn't want to talk about it, or let me make jokes instead of being serious. 

To my dad who was there the whole time, and saw everything I missed - the good and the bad.

The diagnosis of No Evidence of Disease - a wondrous thing we received recently.

And of course to my mum, who stood like a rock in the middle and who didn't let it waver her sense of humour. Who constantly complained about being stuck in the house all the day (something I do out of choice sometimes). 

I honestly couldn't be prouder, and more amazed (and believe me, I find this sort of emotional stuff hard to say).

Turn that sympathy into sponsorship

Now it is February, almost eight months after the diagnosis and I am running a marathon. I am running a marathon for Breast Cancer Campaign, a charity dedicated to research into breast cancer.

I really don't want anyone's sympathy, it you want to be sympathetic to me, then stop and donate money to my fundraising page instead here.

Because cancer is a bitch, and every year we are getting better and better at treating it, and if by finishing this marathon I can even do one thing to help that, then that is amazing.

So I won't give up, even when I want to.

----

Next week, more funny blogs about my terrible running, I promise. Believe me if this has taught me anything, it is that humour is the greatest thing in the world.