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.