Monday, December 29, 2008

Last race for 2008 and surviving the off-season

The 2007 Central Coast Half Marathon was the first time that I'd run 21km and I remember feeling apprehensive at the start, wondering whether I would be able to make it to the finish. I did, and enjoyed the event thoroughly.

Now, a year later, I once again stood at the start in my customary back-of-the-pack position. I not only felt more confident now, having five half-marathons under my belt, but even harboured a secret hope of finishing in under two hours for the first time. The course, starting from The Entrance and running along a bike path around Tuggerah Lake (google map), is almost monotonously flat so it's a good event for those seeking a fast time - or in my case a relatively fast time.

It's an out and back race and I reached the turn-around in about an hour feeling quite pleased with myself. Ah yes, pride comes before a fall... Just after starting the return leg I started to feel the first signs of an unhappy tum which rapidly grew into an urgent and unignorable demand to get to the nearest loo pronto. Luckily for me this course is especially well serviced with toilet blocks and I darted into the nearest one for a prolong pit-stop.

I completed the rest of the race but at a very subdued pace, even by my standards. Perhaps there was something wrong with my pre-race banana ? Or perhaps my body, alarmed at being asked to go (sort of) fast for the first time ever, was sending me a reality check.

And so endeth the 2008 fun run season...

The off-season

My next event will be in March 2009 at the earliest. As someone who runs for mental and emotional health as much as physical health, and who begins to flounder very quickly without regular goals to train for, this seems like a worryingly long off-season.

The solution ? Aim for something big enough to need a long training program - the sort that says: it's week X, day Y, do this. Goodbye off-season blues, hello Canberra Marathon / 50km ultra double, April 2009.

As I write I am just starting week 3 of one of Hal Higdon's 18 week marathon training programs - slightly modified by extending a couple of the longest runs with the aim of completing the 50km ultra. My logic is that since I failed in my first marathon attempt in Sydney this year, I'll make it easier for myself in Canberra by aiming past the marathon finish line. Cunning eh ?

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Centennial Park sexxi cross-country

The title of this post may require some explanation...

Some time ago, CoolRunning Australia member ShanksPony complained about the term half-marathon thus...
I think we need a new word for a half-marathon. The word 'half' is misleadingly diminutive, and this distance deserves better.

21 is also XXI, and i would like to propose that the half-marathon becomes the 'Standard Entry' for race meetings. Therefore the half-marathon could be renamed the SEXXI. This in turn would lead to an obvious re-classification of the other distances:

10km: Ain't half sexxi
marathon: 2sexxi
ultra: far2sexxi

This is such an obviously sensible and empowering suggestion that it's amazing that no one had thought of it before now.

The final Sri Chinmoy event for the 2008 Sydney series was a sexxi cross-country in beautiful Centennial Park. For those looking for faster fulfillment there were also 4km and 7km races.

I'd like to say at this point that I'd been training well leading up to this event and felt in tip-top shape and supremely confident - but I won't because it's not true. I arrived at the race feeling sluggish and nursing a sore achilles which I had somehow managed to provoke despite doing almost no running. Is it possible that you can strain your achilles while sitting down ?

The morning was unseasonally cold for spring time in Sydney, with occasional light showers and gusts of wind, but this made for quite nice running conditions, and anyway, nothing can dent the pleasure of running in Centennial Park. It's very easy to forget that you're just a stone's throw from the city as you jog past lakes and playing fields, through pine glades and over rolling grassy hills. I had chosen to wear my FiveFingers, thinking that they would be better than sandals if the course was muddy, and they felt very comfy on the grass and dirt trails.

For the first part of the race I ran and chatted with my friend Crabby (seen here rehydrating while I strike a fashionable pose) until she got into her stride and disappeared over the horizon as she is wont to do, as well as other CoolRunners MichaelG, Bert and RunningAngel. But after a while I found myself running alone and tried to get into a steady chug that I hoped would hold up for the 21.1km.

As it turned out I made it to the finish comfortably, having taken a bit over two hours for the run - a much better time than I deserved given my lack of preparation.

Many thanks to Prachar and the wonderfully friendly and encouraging Sri Chinmoy folk for another great event. If you're in or near Sydney, visit the Sri Chinmoy web site for details of the 2009 race series.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Slow by name...

...and slow by nature, especially when it comes to keeping a blog up to date.

I don't know how the rest of the universe does it: all those organized souls who keep the world posted on the minutiae of their daily lives. Where do they find the time ? Don't they ever sleep or go to the toilet or just sit for long periods staring blankly into space like... well... like me ?

Sri Chinmoy Triathlon Festival 25-26th October - Canberra

Each year in October, the Sri Chinmoy folk put on a fantastically packed weekend of triathlon events in Canberra. There are events for all ages and abilities and quite a few folk, fired with enthusiasm or perhaps just paralysed by choice, compete in more than one.

Last year, feeling the need for a life-affirming challenge, I did the Classic event. This is the Olympic distance: 1500m swim; 40km cycle; and 10km run. I completed it and finished feeling good, but it was certainly challenging - especially the cycle that included a steep climb.

The original plan for this year was to do the Classic again, aiming to finish it in a shorter time.

Yeah, well... there's planning and then there's real life. And this year real life for me meant a serious dose of couchitis after my Sydney Marathon attempt.

As the day of the triathlon drew closer I began to feel less and less confident about my ability to survive the swim, or ride a bike up that big Coppins Crossing hill, or stand up after the cycle, let alone run. So finally, after a lot of um-ing'n'rrr-ing, I landed back on planet reality and downgraded my entry to the Sprint event: 500m swim; 20km cycle; 5km run.

So pleased that I did ! The Sprint event was run on a perfect Saturday afternoon, not too hot, not too breezy. There was a good field and a really friendly and enthusiastic atmosphere. Canberra is a great place for triathlons, and Yarralumla Bay, where the Sri Chinmoy Festival is held, is the perfect venue.

Event summary: I found the swim quite hard - it seemed to take forever and at one point, when the breeze across Lake Burley Griffin picked up enough to generate some head-high chop I had the very strong impression that I was going backwards. The cycle was terrific. Canberra is a great place to ride but it's even better when you have race marshall's holding back the traffic for you as you speed through yet another roundabout. Finally the run, which I did wearing my favourite huarache sandals, was an idyllic jog in the soft light and balminess of the late afternoon.

Secret plan for next year is to attempt the famous Sri Chinmoy Peace triathlon (2.2km/80km/20km)

Iron Cove (The Bay), Sydney, 2nd November

Yet another Sri Chinmoy event, this one being the penultimate race in their 2008 Sydney Series. Great conditions for a run: just a tiny breeze and welcome cloud cover since there's little shade to be had on this course.

I don't know whether it was just my impression, but this seemed to be a especially friendly event. Almost everyone I met on the out-and-back course nodded and smiled or exchanged hellos. Of course, looking forward to an apres-race pancake brekky makes anyone feel cheery.

Early in the race I enjoyed running and chatting with Bert, a fellow CoolRunning member, very experienced runner, and stalwart of Sydney events.

For some reason I chugged along quite a bit faster than my usual pace... so much so that I completed the 16km in under 90 minutes. I usually don't concern myself with my race times but I have to admit I was chuffed.

Of course, this gets put into its proper context when compared to the winning times of 68 minutes (women) and a staggering 55 minutes (men).

But I'm still chuffed :-)

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Vibram FiveFingers vs huarache sandals

I had a nice suprise recently when Max and Sally of OC Fitness sent me a pair of Vibram FiveFingers Classics to try out. I've been wanting to compare FiveFingers with my running sandals for some time and thanks to Max and Sally's generosity I now had the chance.

First impressions: I like them. A lot !

The pair that I have are size 42 and they feel very snug. From measuring my feet and looking at the FiveFingers sizing chart I'm between sizes 42 and 43. The first few times that I put them on it was a time consuming exercise, especially the puzzle of how to convince my little toe to go into its own pocket. After a bit of practise though this got a lot easier.

So far I've worn them for a number of short runs (less than 10km) and one 16km run with substantial hills and lots of puddles. In terms of feeling the ground, the 5Fs are noticeably more cushioned than my thinnest Vibram Cherry sandals but less so than my off-road neoprene sandals. Because I do most of my running with the Cherry sandals the more insulated sensation of the 5Fs was off-putting to begin with, but after a few minutes of running in them I forgot all about that and began to enjoy them more and more.

The thing that appeals to me most is the stability of my foot in the 5Fs. With my sandals I still find my foot slips a little on the footbed, especially in the wet. I'm endlessly experimenting with different lacing patterns and non-slip additions to the footbed to remedy this. It's a very minor point, especially when set against the overall comfort and enjoyment of running with the sandals, but it's one that I'm still trying to improve. In comparison, the 5Fs, with their glove-like fit, free you from worrying about this even on downhill sections in the wet. On the hilly 16km run I found myself seeking out puddles just for the fun of it.

So, will I be switching from sandals to 5Fs for all my running ? No, but they'll definitely be part of my minimalist footwear armoury (footoury ?).

The Cherry sandals provide a closer-to-barefoot feeling of the ground and nothing beats having the tops and sides of your feet in the open air on a warm day. The 5Fs, although super to run in, feel enclosed in comparison, though not when compared to shoes and socks of course, and I notice my feet getting a little hotter and moister. On the other hand, I really appreciate the stability of the 5Fs on steep hills and in the wet and I suspect that they'll be my footwear of choice on cold winter runs too.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

2008 Sydney Marathon

After all the training, the wondering and the worrying, the day had finally arrived.

I caught a train into the city, which was very quiet at 6am, and walked down to Circular Quay and then up onto the Harbour Bridge walkway in time to see the half-marathon cross the bridge. Two police motorbikes, which I guessed would be a little ahead of the lead runners, came into view and stopped in the middle of the road, opposite where I was standing. One rider shouted to the other "you know where we're supposed to go mate ?" to which the other replied "no f***ing idea mate". This got a loud chuckle from everyone on the walkway. Then they set off again, hopefully in the right direction, followed shortly afterwards by the lead runners. It's always exhilarating to see athletes of that standard, but on the Harbour Bridge on such a beautiful morning it was especially good. Next followed the huge half-marathon field which seemed to go on forever. I looked for friends who I knew were in the event and managed to spot MissPinky, though she was too far away to cheer.

I continued on to the northern end of the Bridge and joined the throng of runners heading down to the start area. I was very pleased to see Crabby just ahead of me and caught up with her for a chat. I also met another CoolRunner, Ewoksta, for the first time after chatting to him many times on the forum pages. I got out of my tracksuit pants, laced on my huarache sandals (having chosen the thin Cherry soles for the day) then threw my plastic gear bag up into the back of a large truck where it joined a growing mountain of other bags to be transported to the finish area.

All of the nervousness that I'd felt the evening before had subsided and I was really looking forward to the race. I wandered over to the starting area and was pleased to see that they'd signposted my end of the field (the back) with snail signs ! I strolled down the road a little, taking in the water view and feeling relaxed.

Perhaps it should have occurred to me at this stage that this unaccustomed quiet confidence was a warning sign, but it was only after a few more neurons had switched on that I realized my timing chip wasn't attached to my ankle, instead it was in one of a squillion identical plastic bags in the back of the gear truck...


This felt a lot more familiar. I bolted back to the truck and, with the amused permission of one of the race officials, climbed up the bars on the side and frantically started digging into the pile of bags. A voice on the PA asked runners to make their way to the start area. I burrowed even more frantically. There it was ! A bag with my number 5976. Yes! No... it was 5967... aaaarrrgghhh!!! Finally I found my bag and recovered the timing chip. With a huge sense of relief, and after spending a minute unwedging myself from the side bars of the truck, I thanked the grinning race official and headed back to the snail section with the chip firmly velcroed to my ankle.

The race

There were still a couple of minutes to go until the race so I did my best to calm down. I hadn't yet seen my brother Paul who was going to run the marathon with me, generously sacrificing his own record of sub-4 hour finishes by doing so. But I was very pleased to be joined by a CoolRunning friend Emjay and shortly after that by Paul who reminded me that I had been supposed to meet him at the Black Dog Institute stall near the start (another neuron that hadn't switched on). Then, all of a sudden, the race began and we shuffled forwards, then walked, then slowly jogged onto the Bridge.

I loved the first half of the marathon: running across the Harbour Bridge, along Mrs Macquaries Rd, Oxford St, around Centennial Park... I met lots of CoolRunning folk, including UpAndAtom for the first time, and the number of "Go slowmo" greetings that I got was overwhelming. With the warm weather I wasn't wearing my habitual fancy pants - instead I had a brand new pair of loud, Circus pattern shorts from RunningFunky to add a spot of colour to the event and symbolize stepping out of the shadow of the Black Dog. The huarache sandals felt perfect and with the heat I was pleased to have my feet free of shoes and socks.

The course headed back towards the city and it was at about this time that I started feeling a bit light-headed. I put this down to the warm conditions and perhaps needing a bit more sugar. I had a cache of honey sachets and apricot chews in the pockets of my tri top. I'd been careful to drink a cup of water at each aid station so dehydration didn't seem like a worry.

We continued on, across the old Glebe Island Bridge and onto an unfortunately boring and uninspiring section of the course - the Westlink Road, a barren wasteland of bitumen and concrete sidings. I had been walking the uphill sections, trying to get rid of the increasingly woozy feeling within but just before the 33km point, I started to see white fog and decided to sit down for a couple of minutes until I felt better. Paul stopped with me and many passing runners asked if I needed help. One very nice fellow thought I must need a little more sugar and gave me some jelly beans. I nibbled a red one and then spent a minute emptying my stomach contents, as neatly as I could, into a road-side drain. After that my head felt much clearer but I couldn't stand up and Paul summoned the first aid folks. My race was over.

A wonderfully friendly paramedic came and found that my blood sugar was fine but that my blood pressure was low from dehydration. She and Paul stayed with me until an ambulance arrived and I was put on IV fluids and taken to hospital. The two ambulance paramedics were terrific and had an endless stream of jokes while they were fixing me up. They had a great time making comments about my sandals and pointing them out to everyone at the hospital - "look what this guy has on his feet !!!". With some extra fluids in my system I felt much better physically, but I couldn't help being disappointed and embarrassed about my race ending like this.

After a couple of hours at the hospital for some more checks, Paul joined me again and drove me home. He had run the rest of the marathon, but had had his timing chip confiscated by a stern and unrelenting race official at the 34km point, despite only being a minute over the cut-off and having one of the first-aid people confirm his explanation that he had been helping me just down the road and could easily finish the race inside the cut-off time (which he did).

I slept like a log overnight and woke the next morning feeling more at peace with myself than I had the day before. My barefoot-running friend Sharene (Runbare on CoolRunning) had left a phone message the night before and called again in the morning to see how I was. I appreciated this a great deal and was very cheered by her advice that you're not a real runner until you've got a DNF. She also suggested I could count the kilometres I did in the ambulance and chalk it up as an ultra :-)

Shortly afterwards I spoke to Paul who reminded me that my legs had still been working well at the end and this showed that the training had built up my strength and fitness. On the computer I had a swag of messages from CoolRunning friends checking to see if I was OK and encouraging me not to let this experience put me off.

Most of all, my wonderful partner Annie told me to remember that it had been my longest run so far and that I'd raised a lot more money for the Black Dog Institute than I ever expected to.

And the moral of the story ?

Numerous studies confirm that physical activity can help many people to recover from depression and either prevent its recurrence or at least lessen its impact. Running has certainly done this for me, but I've discovered that it's racing that has been the biggest help. Even for a slow, non-competitive runner such as myself, races provide challenge, force me to get my act together enough to prepare properly, and give me the opportunity to do more than I ever thought I could. Until recently I never imagined that I would attempt to run a marathon. The fact that I bombed out, probably because I neglected to drink enough fluids before the race, just means that I will be that bit more experienced at my next attempt. If the marathon was easy it wouldn't be worth doing.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Taper worms

I picked up my race number yesterday and, as soon as got home, pinned it to the top that I've chosen to wear for the marathon. This is not typical behaviour for me. I'm usually pinning my number on just before, or sometimes even just after, the start of a race. No, this is a symptom of taper worms - an infection that can beset runners in the days leading up to a big event, giving rise to an uncomfortable squirming sensation in the bowels and a host of nervous ticks and twitches.

I've been thinking about the words running to help manage depression. I've often told people that that is why I began running last year, but now I wonder if I haven't so much used running to manage depression but rather channelled the search for meaning, the overwhelming obsessiveness and the needs for structure, achievement and catharsis into running rather than into other forms of eccentric behaviour. To put it another way, perhaps running has become my craziness of choice.

I suppose that it's all in the eye of the beholder. Obsessiveness expressed as, for example, really needing the colours of the pegs to match when you hang your clothes out, is viewed as slightly loopy. But obsessiveness expressed as running through the cold, wet, gusty nighttime weather, as per the training program's dictate for the day, is labelled as commitment. It might cause a few heads to shake and a few comments to be muttered, but it won't get you carted away.

I heard a wonderful interview with the novelist and scriptwriter Hanif Kureishi on ABC Radio National. He talks quite a bit about psychoanalysis and his opinion that therapy isn't so much to do with curing people of their craziness but more about helping them to use their symptoms creatively. This rings true with me, though I'm not sure how creative I'm being adjusting the safety pins on my race number for the hundredth time...

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Sri Chinmoy Cooks River race

Last Sunday (7th September) I took part in a 16km race, held along with 8km and 4km events, in a lovely section of park on Sydney's Cooks River. After heavy rain the previous day it was great to have blue sky and sunshine for the morning, albeit with quite a lot of puddles.

The previous day's weather might have put a few people off because there seemed to be a smaller field than usual, but perhaps that wasn't such a bad thing because runners for all three distances started together and ran the same 4km loop.

I had wondered before the run if four laps of a short loop might be a little monotonous, but with such a pleasant morning, plus the parkland setting and having the river in view most of the time, I needn't have worried. Even better, I got to chat the whole time thanks to having the pleasure of Crabby's company. Normally she'd be way, way ahead of me but on this occasion she was taking it easy as part of her own preparation for the Sydney marathon. Even though I knew this I still felt quite pleased with myself for being able to keep up while gabbling on. My ego was restored to its normal size when Crabby expressed her surprise at being awarded a placegetter's trophy, saying "but that's the slowest race I've ever run !".

The race was followed by a generous and tasty pancake feast at which I carbohydrate loaded very enthusiastically. I doubt that any of those calories will still be available when I'm running the marathon but you never know.

Thanks, as always, to Prachar and the Sri Chinmoy folk for a fun morning.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

It's all downhill from here...

Yesterday I did my last long run prior to the Sydney marathon. It was meant to be 32km, but a dose of some flu-like virus a few days earlier had left me feeling sluggish and lethargic so I only managed 30km, most of which I ran like a lethargic slug.

I don't want to talk about it...

Sutherland Half Marathon

This was a much happier run, a week earlier, in the beautiful surroundings of Royal National Park. It was organized by the Sutherland District Athletics Club, yet another bunch of runners who seem intent on giving everyone the most enjoyable day possible.

The course took in a little tour of the historic Audley picnic area before heading out along Lady Carrington Drive for 9km or so, and then back along the same trail to the finish. Decent rains the night before had left the trail damp and slightly soft underfoot with the occasional muddy puddle to add interest. It was an absolutely lovely run, with the sunshine breaking out from behind the clouds every so often and streaming down through the tree canopy. Bush smells and birdsong...

Being much more organized than the previous weekend I got there in time for the start of this race, complete with a brand new pair of sandals made out of Vibram 6mm neoprene soling material (see below). The only problem was that I was still trying to get them on when the race started. After fumbling my way through tying the laces, I once more found myself starting several minutes after everybody else. Moreover, I'd done such a poor job with the laces that it took another couple of stops to get them adjusted properly, followed by a long wee stop made necessary by having too much coffee before I left home. So much for my competitive edge ! Happily, I caught up to some of the other runners eventually and enjoyed a bit of on-the-hoof conversation. I finished the race feeling strong and full of that particular kind of pleasure that the best runs provide.

Many thanks to the folks from the Sutherland Club for a really wonderful day and for the photo that appears here.

Trail running huaraches

I was fairly sure that my feet were not yet ready to tackle the gravel and rocks of Lady Carrington Drive with only the thin Cherry sandals for protection. So, with a sheet of more substantial (6mm) Vibram neoprene material, which I purchased from Barefoot Ted, I made a pair of trail running huaraches. The neoprene is very slightly spongy with a much more basic and shallow tread pattern than the high-tech Cherry material.

These new sandals turned out to be fantastic for the Sutherland half-marathon. Though I was insulated from the ground much more than with my thinner sandals I still had a definite sense of barefoot-ish running, and not having to monitor the terrain ahead quite so intently made the run much more relaxing.

There's a huarache for all conditions !

Friday, August 22, 2008

Space-age ludditism and the 'Hidden Half'

Running technology revisited

Thanks to Barefoot Ted, who is now selling a new range of running sandal materials on his website, I've now graduated from rubber doormats to the world of high-tech huaraches.

There is something very appealing in bringing together the best of modern materials with the simple practicality of traditional design. Choosing not to wear bulky, expensive, brightly coloured, nylon spaceships on the ends of your legs doesn't have to mean that you've turned your back on technology, even though the spaceship wearers around you generally assume that you must have. In fact it's just the opposite. It's about using modern materials in more subtle ways to make running more pleasurable and more natural.

This is the tread pattern of Vibram 'Cherry' soling. It's a light, flexible material - only 4mm thick. The tread, which resembles a shallow egg-carton pattern overlaid with fine lines, provides amazing grip on smooth surfaces.

The upper surface is very slightly felty, rather than being smooth or tacky like the doormat rubber that I've used previously. It's quite comfy for the foot to sit on directly, so for my first pair of sandals made from this material I chose not to glue the thin foam footbed on to the upper surface as I have previously. This means that making a pair of sandals is a breeze - trace your feet, cut out the shapes, punch three holes in each sandal for the lacing and voila ! Who says high-tech has to be hard ?

The result is a sandal that follows the movements of your own sole without inhibiting them. It gives a very 'close to the ground' feeling - very similar to the sensation of running barefoot, while still providing some protection against sharp objects and abrasive surfaces.

Even on my first little run around the block with these sandals I found them to be seriously nice ! The excellent grip of the Cherry soles seems to make my foot strikes feel more definite and secure. I wondered if the hemp laces, as supplied by Barefoot Ted, might be scratchy compared to the soft bootlaces that I've used to date, but they turned out to be quite comfy.

Bankstown 'Hidden Half'

This annual half-marathon is organized by the Western Districts Joggers and Harriers aka the 'Westies'. It was held last Sunday (17th August) in cold conditions - especially with the 7:30am start. Actually that starting time proved to be too much of a challenge for me and I arrived just in time to see everybody else set off while I was still trying to pin my number on and lace up the new sandals !

Once I finally got going I managed to catch up with the back of the pack after a few minutes and settled into what turned out to be a very enjoyable, albeit fairly testing, run. The tests came in the form of some quite sharp hills, several of which had me walking up them.

The course followed bike paths and shorter sections of gravelly trail around a Lake Gillarwina and through the surrounding park land. The Westies did a great job of marshalling us all through the many loops and turns of the course with plenty of encouragement and banter. It was lovely to see Runbare who had come along to cheer us on despite still trying to get over a bout of the flu. All in all, a terrifically friendly and well organised event.

The new huarache sandals were great, especially on the bike paths. On the trail sections the thinness of the soles meant that I felt every rock and managed to pick up a decent bruise in the arch, but there was nothing that could spoil the enjoyment of running with such a close to barefoot feeling.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

A year of running

According to my running diary, a spiral bound notebook with anarchically formatted notes in pencil, I have just reached my initial 1000km of logged runs. I started this diary when I bought my first, and as it's now turned out, my only pair of running shoes at the beginning of October last year.

My very first run was a couple of months earlier, at the start of August, when I set out for an 'easy jog' from which I returned fifteen minutes later, breathless, exhausted and tragically dismayed at how far I'd fallen into sluggish middle age. Through August and September I plodded and gasped my way around the local streets twice a week as part of a beginner's triathlon training program. My mood would swing from doom-laden pessimism, through amused self-ridicule, to occasional short spikes of now or never, who dares wins, stubborn and slightly desperate determination. I was running from the familiar, but no longer bearable shadow of the Black Dog towards some new, better, but as yet wholly unknown way of living life.

I didn't record how far I ran in those first couple of months, partly because my sessions were based on time rather than distance, and partly because my sole focus was the triathlon at the end of October and it didn't really occur to me to think past that. In any event my total distance covered must have been miniscule. But somehow, buying a brand new pair of running shoes seemed to symbolize how important the whole effort had become. It was the beginning of something new. Hence the diary.

For me, reaching the end of my first year of running and my first 1000km, marks something special. It means that for once I've stuck with something long enough to feel that I've truly started.

Monday, August 4, 2008

First of the longer runs

Sri Chinmoy Prospect Creek 24km race

It was a nice coincidence to have this event, part of the Sri Chinmoy Sydney Series, on a day when my training program called for a 24km run. I hadn't run this far before but it seemed only a short step up from the half-marathon distance. More significantly, it represented the beginning of unknown territory in the training program - a series of weeks where the long runs become, well, long.

After some windy, wintery days recently it was lovely to have a still, sunny morning for the race. As well as the 24km race there were also 6km and 12km events, all run on bike paths in a large area of parkland and sports grounds in Greystanes. This was a great place to run, insulated from the busy roads nearby and with some scenic stretches and just enough little ups and downs in the course to keep it interesting.

We set off a little after 8am and it was to be a bit over two and half hours later when I gratefully crossed the finish line. I found the run much harder than I was expecting it to be, though I don't really know why. One of the things that I'm learning about running is to accept and work with how you feel on the day: on some days everything seems just right and running is pure pleasure but on others it's little more than the onerous task of dragging a reluctant body and pessimistic mind from the start to the finish. Several times I found myself thinking how unlikely it seemed that I'd ever be able to run the 42 (and a bit) km of the marathon in September. Luckily for me I had the company of Emjay, another CoolRunning member, for most of the race which made it so much easier than it would have been on my own.

After the run there was the traditional apres-race fruit and pancake brekky laid on by the wonderful Sri Chinmoy folk as well as the opportunity to chat with some of the other CoolRunners there that day. It's terrific to be part of a group that brings together people from right across the running spectrum, from my slow end through to runners who talk modestly and nonchalantly about their sub-4 minute per km pace.

Despite feeling like it had been a hard slog, or maybe even because of that, it was very satisfying to have completed the run and gotten this far with my training. I could also tick off another distance record in the exclusive 'slow guy in fancy pants and funny sandals' category.

Thanks to CR Wildthing for the photo

World Harmony Run

After the race on Sunday I had the chance for a brief chat with Prachar Stegemann about the fantastic stories and photos on the Australian Sri Chinmoy World Harmony Run website. Recently, the runners visited the Devil's Marbles in the Northern Territory. To see some absolutely stunning images of the Marbles, as well as lovely photos of the kids from nearby Tennant Creek, have a look at their blog for that day.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Sutherland to Surf to Sutherland

On Sunday I took part in the Sutherland to Surf race - an annual event that has been running since the 1970s, although this was my first go at it. The course goes from Sutherland to Wanda Beach, 11km of rolling hills with most of the run on main roads, partially closed for the event.

I was gobsmacked by the size of the field when I arrived at the race starting area. It was one of those "one, two, three... lots" moments - a few thousand runners crowded in together. I bunged my timing chip under the lace of my huarache sandal to shuffle across the starting mats, then pocketed it for the run so that it wouldn't irritate my foot.

As an aside, it's occurred to me that things would be easier for runners if we were all micro-chipped, like dogs and cats, rather than fussing around with timing chips which are especially cumbersome if you're running sans shoes. I mentioned this on CoolRunning and CR Crabby pointed out that not only could our implanted chips time our runs, but they could also work like an e-tag on the highway, automatically debiting your credit card account for the cost of the event. Remember - you read it here first.

The run was enjoyable - cool conditions, no wind and I was pleased to find that the hills didn't seem too bad at all. Once again I was running in fancy pants which provoked a few cheery comments but, unfortunately, more than the usual number of unfriendly taunts as well. I haven't yet worked out what it is about not wearing regulation black runner's tights or standard shoes that gets up some people's noses so much.

Just before I crossed the finish line I got the timing chip out again and, as gracefully and inconspicuously as I could manage, stooped to wave it over the timing mat. My guide in all things barefoot, Runbare, had advised me to do this, saying "it works well as long as you don't mind looking like a git". Well, when you've just run a race in foot flaps made out of a door mat what have you got to lose ?

To pad out the morning's distance for my marathon training quota I'd arranged to run back to Sutherland after the race with Crabby. I was a bit apprehensive about this because I couldn't quite see how she was going to keep down to my pace, unless perhaps she hopped. As it happened we lost each other in the finish area anyway and so I started my slow jog back to Sutherland alone. It was distressing to find that the hills had grown a lot bigger now and I was reduced to a trudge. Still, I eventually made it back to the start and despite feeling like I must have taken twice as long as I did on the run out, it had actually only been an extra ten or fifteen minutes. Best of all, no achilles problems - yeeessss !!!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Do what you don't do well... the old song doesn't say.

Running is teaching me that there's a lot to be gained from doing something that, not only am I not very good at yet, but most likely I'll never be much good at it. By 'good' I mean able to run like those who are at the front of a race pack, those who run with a fluid grace and poise that is beautiful to see. I'm usually trying to catch up with the back of the pack and I've yet to be accused of running gracefully.

Because I know I'm going to be slow I don't worry about watching the clock. Saying that runners are generally interested in their times is a major understatement. Time, for most runners, is an obsession: time per kilometre, average pace, target time, personal best time... and all this monitored, tabulated, graphed against heart rate and distance data from the well-wired runner's armoury of strapped-on devices.

Don't get me wrong - I can well understand the fascination with time and measurement and I find it easy to relate to running gear-freaks who lust after the latest Garmin. I'm a geek loud and proud in other contexts and I love gadgets. But somehow with running I got onto the Luddite path and discovered that I like it: how it feels and where it takes you.

Time is just one facet of the everyday runner's experience and there's nothing wrong with measuring it, or challenging yourself in terms of it. But, as Kenneth Slessor says in Five Bells...
Time that is moved by little fidget wheels
Is not my time, the flood that does not flow.*
There are so many other facets to running - pleasures and experiences that don't slip away with age, as one's pace inevitably does, but actually come into sharper focus. The simple satisfaction of doing something for its own sake. The vividness of moments. The physicality of movement. The awareness of the natural world as we run through it. The opportunity for child-like joys, such as running through puddles, that most adults bar themselves from. These and many others, some that I would find hard to put into words adequately, are there to be had from running. Even from my slow, chugging version of it.

* For more on this great Australian poem visit ABC Radio National's Book Show web site

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Cross that bridge, and again, and again...

The Sri Chinmoy Doll's Point half marathon

Photograph by J Bar made available under the Gnu Free Documentation License.
Original full resolution photograph available here

It's not the Sydney Harbour Bridge, which I hope to be running across in September, but it's still a significant water-spanning bump to run across... out and back... twice... This is the Captain Cook Bridge and it was part of the course for the Sri Chinmoy half-marathon held last Sunday morning together with 10km and 5km events.

What a great event: cool conditions, no rain, a lovely scenic course on the shores of Botany Bay, a good turn-out and a wonderfully friendly atmosphere. As this was my first lengthy run since annoying my achilles I planned to take it easy and walk at times if I felt that I was stressing my ankle at all. But, as it turned out, I managed to chug along at a comfortable pace over the whole distance. How happy ? Very happy !

As usual at a Sri Chinmoy race, the organizers cooked a fabulous pancake breakfast for all finishers. I also had the pleasure of meeting some other members of the CoolRunning community for the first time: Wildthing, Gadfly, Crabby, TKR and Kyliee, as well as saying hello again to The Keg who is a great supporter of community runs like this one.

Next day my achilles was a bit swollen and I was limping a little, but still smiling !


This week, my Sydney Marathon fundraising page for the Black Dog Institute ticked over to $1170 ! That's about $1160 more than I expected to raise when I began this. Thanks again to everyone who has supported me so generously with their sponsorship and encouragement.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Running technology

When people have asked about the sandals... well, when I say 'asked' what I really mean is that they've pointed at them and said, incredulously, "what are thoooooose ?" ...anyway, when people have asked about the sandals I've experimented with different replies. None of them have worked.

Responses that I've offered include:
  • I'm a beta tester for Nike and these are secret prototypes of the new Nike Free 0.05
  • I like the bondage look
  • I'm a member of the Brotherhood of Huarache, would you like to see some literature ?
  • Sh*t, what's happened to my shoes !!!
  • and even (pathetically) Wanna buy a pair ?
Once, after the Sydney Morning Herald Half-Marathon, a man tapped me on the shoulder and asked "hey mate, where did you get those ?". Wow, I thought, someone's really interested ! But he was actually asking about the two bananas that I was carrying because he hadn't been able to locate the fruit table.

However, like any other innovative trend-setter (or obsessive outlier) my confidence is not at all diminished by the overwhelming lack of interest shown by the high-tech shoe wearing majority... well, maybe a bit, but not enough to put shoes on and get injured again :)

I'm presently running in my second pair of sandals. They clap out fairly early, the first pair after about 100km. This is because of the tradeoff that I adopted for the prototype phase in which I felt it was most probable that the initial design turn-over rate would be high, thus rendering it uneconomic to invest in materials with a longer expected road life. Or, to put it another way, it's been hard to find cheap rubber door mats that last longer when you turn them into sandals.

The Mk II sandals feature non-slip tape as shown in the photo above. This is the same sort of tape that is used on exterior stair edges etc. and it stops the foot slipping fowards or backwards on the sandal, especially in wet conditions. So far it's worked a treat.

The Mk III sandal is already on the drawing board and represents a technological leap in very cheap low-tech running gear. With the help of the friendly folk at the new Australian branch of Algeos, who supply shoe materials, I am getting some proper soling rubber, made by Vibram, that I hope will give the sandals a road life of at least 500km. Stay tuned...

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

On the road again (really, truly this time)

After the buzz of running in the Bay to Bay 12km event I got back into training for the marathon, only to be foiled by achilles soreness after just two runs. Do you ever have the feeling that bits of your body are out to get you ? Just lying in wait, lulling you into a false sense of security, only to leap out... Yes, well perhaps that is a tad paranoid, but I felt dejected about the having to have yet more time off, especially having got the support of so many people who have sponsored me.

There was a topic recently on CoolRunning (Australia): 'what keeps you running now', ie. although you may have started for fitness or weight loss or whatever, what is it that motivates you today ? I posted a completely off-the-cuff contribution which, like spontaneous words sometimes do, expressed things in a way that surprised me, but that seemed right...

to feel part of something

These are my reasons for running. 'Pancakes' refers to the pancake breakfast served up to participants at Sri Chinmoy running events. I guess they also speak of the spirit of generosity that you find in the running community - although to tell you the truth, the only reason I mentioned them was that I really like pancakes. As for the first two reasons, they sum up what running gives me. When I can't run life is harder.

But this week things are looking up. Two days ago I did a very tentative 3km run. The achilles complained a bit at first but not too much and the next day it felt alright. Today I ventured out more confidently for a 5km run, including some gentle long inclines. There was nothing more than a dull ache from the achilles, and that was soon obscured by relief and pure pleasure. I think it's the closest I've got so far to experiencing the fabled runners' high.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Don't have shoes, will travel...

So much has happened since my last post that it's hard to know where to start...

On the road again

Stretching, Tiger Balm and just not doing very much seemed to be the right tonic for my achilles niggle. It improved so much that a week ago I was able to run in the Bay To Bay 12km race. This is organised annually by Terrigal Trotters who seem to have it as their mission to be the friendliest, most encouraging and entertaining bunch of people you're ever likely to meet. The run starts at Woy Woy and follows the edge of Brisbane Waters all the way to Gosford - a very nice course.

It was going to be a cold morning, with a chill wind and drizzle, so I hunted around for something warm to wear. Luckily at the back of a drawer I found a pair of long neglected, slightly-more-colourful-than- usual-for-running, tights that I'd bought years ago for winter cycling.

OK, I admit that they do stand out compared to the standard issue black tights that most runners favour - but I was surprised by just how many comments they provoked. I'd like to send a particular thankyou to the race marshall who shouted out "Now that's style !" as I chugged past.

I did the run with my brother Paul who would usually be light years ahead of me. To help keep down to my pace, he had done a 20km warm-up run prior to the event (really, I'm not joking). Even though we chatted pretty much non-stop for the whole run, thanks to Paul's pacing I finished in a much faster time than I would usually manage, even with intact ankles.

This photo was taken when we were approaching the finish line - Paul looking relaxed and me with my customary expression of surprise at having got to the end. All in all it was a terrific event and highly recommended.

Fundraising for the Black Dog Institute

As I mentioned in my first post, I'd been given a web page so that people could sponsor my marathon attempt to raise money for the Black Dog Institute, but I hadn't been able to get it working. I'm happy to say that all was fixed by the fantastically helpful Alexandra Keating at who not only saw to it that the technical problems got fixed, but even edited the page text and image for me so that I wouldn't have to wait. Thanks Alexandra !

The page, complete with fancy pants photo, is here.

It's only been a week of so since the page went up and I've been absolutely overwhelmed by the support that I've received from work colleagues and members of the CoolRunning community, thanks in no small part to Frank (a friend and CoolRunner in Adelaide) whose true calling is publicity agent ! The level of support has gone way beyond my expectations. Not only have folks been generous with their sponsorhip, but I've received a swag of messages with their encouragement, thoughts and inspiring personal accounts.

It's a privelege to get such support and it gives the whole effort a great sense of purpose. I'm going to be training hard - and leaving the shoes at home from now on !

Monday, June 9, 2008

(Don't) walk a mile in my shoes

Day 6 since my last run (counting the scratch marks in the wall) and my achilles tendon is starting to feel a lot better. My brain, on the other hand, is going spare.

A lot has been written about how the runner's body makes all sorts of pleasure-inducing, pain-inhibiting substances, but I used to think that this only applied to fast runners and that whatever slight dribble of endorphins my body managed to squeeze out while I chugged along would have less mind-altering effect than, say, a good cup of tea. However, I think I was wrong about that because I'm seriously craving a run right now. Even the usually reliable, healthy substitutes, like coffee and chocolate, aren't working.

It's my own fault of course. It was silly enough trying to run those speed intervals in the marathon training program at, well, speed, but on top of that I made the fatal mistake of wearing... shoes.

Most runners wear running shoes. You go to a race and you see a lot of colourful, expensive, very high-tech running shoes. A pair of running shoes might last 600-1000km which, even for a newbie runner like me, doesn't take that long to do. So the average runner spends quite a lot of money on shoes each year. But it's worth it, we are told, to protect our feet, our joints, our muscles and tendons from the pounding that they would otherwise get when we run, especially on hard surfaces.

There have always been a few mavericks who choose not to wear running shoes; who argue that humans evolved to walk and run barefoot; that modern, cushioned shoes distort the running gait and can actually increase the risk of injury. These people are generally treated in much the same way as an Australopithecine would be if it turned up for a fun run: interesting, amusing, out of the ordinary, but definitely a different species. However, barefoot runners have refused to go extinct and hang on stubbornly, albeit as lonely individuals or in small remnant populations.

Despite living in Australia for most of my life, I have English feet: soft, sensitive, delicate... in other words, pathetic, especially for walking on rough, hard surfaces. Barefoot running held about as much attraction to me as fire walking. So when I began running last year I invested in a pair of moderately expensive running shoes based on the good advice of a specialist running shop. And very comfortable they were too compared to the ancient, clapped-out objects that I'd previously worn for my rare, athletic activity. But after a few months of running I started to get knee pain, and this gradually worsened until it stopped me running altogether. Some visits to a good sports physiotherapist helped a lot. I learned that the root cause of my problem was that my running style was not entirely optimal. It was crap in fact. My right leg had a strange tendency to buckle at the knee, as if it was trying to swap places with my left leg. The ungainly action that resulted put all sorts of damaging stress on my joints and tendons, eventually causing them to complain painfully.

I needed to learn how to run better, and I got interested in the claim of people like Barefoot Ken that running without shoes can improve your action and reduce the risk of injury. I started out with a little barefoot walking, gradually working up to 1-2km runs on concrete and bitumen. But my wimpy English feet didn't enjoy the abrasion or the frequent punctures from pieces of broken glass that seem to litter every stretch of local footpath. I looked around for some sort of minimal protective footwear and found Nike Frees and Vibram Fivefingers. The Frees seemed a bit too much like shoes. The Fivefingers looked interesting but, locally, cost more than I could afford. Then I found Barefoot Ted's running sandals. These looked like just the thing: minimal, cheap and with traditional cred. But I couldn't get Barefoot Ted to reply to my emails so I decided to make my own. About $5, a rubber doormat, some foamy stuff and a tube of glue later...

I christened them Slowmo's Cheap As Chips Running Sandals and they worked a treat ! It took a while to get used to running in them (which I'll talk about another time) but I found that they made me feel lighter, surer, like a runner in fact... And, no more aches and pains !

So why was I misguided enough to go back to shoes to run my first speed interval session ? Fear I think, an irrational regression to the belief that it would be better to wear shoes for this new exercise.

Ah well, despite the achilles tenderness, the self-criticism and the endorphin withdrawal, at least I have the perverse satisfaction of knowing that it was running shoes, and not my barefoot(-ish) sandals, that caused the problem.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Sydney Marathon 2008 - off to a slightly ordinary start

This year I have set myself the goal of running my first marathon. Yes (sigh) I know the rest of the universe has already done one and it's no quite like climbing Everest any more (yes [sigh] I know the rest of the universe has already climbed Everest and... <continue ad nauseum>). But since I only began my running career last August, and my longest run so far has been a half-marathon, the goal of being able to run 42km (26 miles) seems like a biggie.

The event in question is the Sydney Marathon 2008 on September 21st. This is a charity fund-raising event and I'm going to try to raise some money for The Black Dog Institute. To help galvanize myself into action I entered (and paid - ouch) a few days ago. I will be running in Bib Number 05976.

Sufficiently galvanized, committed, determined etc. I have launched myself into a program of intensive training. Unfortunately things haven't quite gotten off to a dream start on either the training or the fund-raising front.

I selected one of the training programs available on the Sydney Marathon web site and, being realistic about my abilities, decided to start a few weeks early and double up on the first part of the program. Now, my running style is characterized by a stately pace - a pace appropriate to someone whose interests lie in the higher, mental and spiritual aspects of running rather than base athleticism and competitiveness. To put it another way, I'm slow. Really slow. So when I saw that the training program included speed work from the very first week I was a little apprehensive. That was mistake. It would have been far better to be very apprehensive and thus a little more cautious...

My first and, to date, only speed session consisted of six one minute intervals. One minute at full pelt is about 200m for me. I threw myself into it and was rewarded with breathless nausea followed the next day by an uncomfortable twinge in my right achilles tendon. Bah ! I thought: athletic competitive runners such as me aren't troubled by pifling little aches and pains. So, I went for a medium length slightly painful run, followed a couple of days later by a shorter, more painful, limping jog. It then began to dawn on me that the achilles pain wasn't succumbing to my steely indifference as it was supposed to. In fact, by yesterday it had developed into a quite convincing running injury, complete with swelling and more pain, and leaving me limping around the house ridiculously. Ah well... better to get the injuries out of the way early rather than just before the event !

On the fund-raising front things haven't got very far. All event entrants who nominate to raise funds for charity are given a fund-raising web page which they can customize with their own text and images. Well, that's what the email from the organizers promises but, despite several attempts, I haven't managed to customize, or even slightly dent, my page. The pages are hosted at and they provide a simple on-line template editor which, for me, generates screens full of xml error complaints when I try to do anything. Teething troubles I thought, and logged a help request with the gofundraise folk via their help page. Their system assured me that:
"our technical staff will response to you shortly"

It's been about 24 hours but they haven't responsed to me yet.