Return to the trails

After discovering I had stress-fractured my pelvis during the London Marathon, there was nothing much I could do to help it heal other than rest. Even swimming hurt, so I bought a pull buoy to help my legs to float, and swam arms-only two or three times a week. I minimised even walking for nearly the first five weeks, and didn’t try cycling during the same period.

My patience and good behaviour was rewarded when the x-ray at six and a half weeks showed good healing: callus formation not only on the inferior pubic ramus where there had been a visible fracture line originally, but also on the superior pubic ramus, at the point where I’d felt point pain after the marathon – which explained that pain.

The orthopaedic surgeon cleared me to start running, aiming to return to “a normal amount of running” (not a normal amount for ultrarunning!) over a period of 4-6 weeks. Taking a conservative approach, I first jogged 200 yards gently, barefoot, around the cricket pitch at my running club (nice soft ground, short grass) at 7.5 weeks and only tried a similar five minute barefoot jog on grass that weekend, eight weeks post injury. Over the next eight weeks I very gradually increased my running, to 10 then 15 minutes gentle jogging barefoot on grass, then moving to a 30-minute jog-walk schedule (e.g. seven minutes jog, three walk, x3) before finally reaching 30 minutes of running, then 40, then an hour.

Three runs were particular milestones in my return to running. The first was that initial barefoot jog. The second, seven weeks after re-starting, was running Heaton parkrun while visiting family in Manchester. For the first time, I pushed myself to run faster, not taking my run so easy, and I finished in under 26 minutes (still some way off my PB). More importantly, I was without pain both during and after that faster running.

Then this last weekend I cycled over to the Sandilands clubhouse for the Striders of Croydon Sunday run. Our standard trail run is one that I have literally dreamed about running, both during the period when I was recovering with my broken ankle and more recently with the pelvic stress fracture. The initial section takes us through Lloyd Park, then along Oaks Lane, across Oaks Road and into Addington Hills. Emerging from the woods near the Coombe Road tram stop, it’s a short section on road to Bramble Bank, a lovely undulating section of trail (but watch out for the tree roots!). Then onwards, with several sections of great running, uphill, on the flat and down, on narrow and wide woodland trails through Selsdon Wood Nature Reserve, as well as a testing uphill stretch along Old Farleigh Road before another off-road section through Croham Hurst.

I love that run, all of it, even, in a perverse way, the push up Old Farleigh Road, but in particular the trail sections.

On Sunday the whole run was amazing. I could feel my whole running form changing, becoming both more relaxed and stronger, compared to running on the road or on grass in open parks. On the final woodland downhill stretch I was flying, legs stretching, heart pumping, and a wide grin on my face that kept returning for hours afterwards.

Ninety minutes, nine miles. Still a lot of training to do to get back up to decent distances, but now I can really, truly say that I’m RUNNING again!

Not-running Comrades

At the end of May I flew from the UK to South Africa, via Dubai, to not-run Comrades.

It was a decidedly bitter-sweet experience, given that I had been training for Comrades since November last year, but I’m very glad that I went.

Why was I not running? Injury, or a series of unfortunate events: I broke my left ankle last June, got running again, worked up to a 26-mile run by Christmas and an official marathon, qualifying me for Comrades, in January. Then I got some back pain from too much sitting in a badly-fitting office chair, then a groin niggle, which I thought was referred from my back… but which turned out to be (or at least partially be) from pelvic malalignment related to decreased flexibility in the broken ankle

At 16 miles into the London Marathon I found myself suddenly unable to lift my right leg and run – I walked the remaining 10 miles, slowly and with a heavy limp. An x-ray three days later showed that I had stress-fractured a pubic ramus on my right side, which would mean no running for eight weeks if I was lucky or as long as eight months or more if I was unlucky and/or didn’t rest it properly. Running a 56-mile hilly road ultra five weeks later was not going to happen.

Since I had paid for my flights months earlier, and wanted to meet a number of people I’d been chatting to online, I decided to go anyway: even if it did mean about 18 hours of travelling in each direction for four days in South Africa. I packed carefully for the trip, including NOT packing my running shoes, so as to avoid any last-minute temptation to actually start the race. Despite knowing that I would not be running, the pre-race excitement on-line in the UK Runner’s World Comrades thread had my heart rate increasing in the days before my flights out.

Travelling to Comrades was an experience in itself: gradually joining up with other runners: first spotting one or two other runners on the flight from Gatwick to Dubai (the running T-shirts gave it away), then many more runners some with running shoes dangling from hand luggage, gradually drifted into the waiting area for the flight from Dubai to Durban. During the flight I decided the passengers probably had the lowest average BMI and highest average fitness level of any set of passengers on an airplane!

I would never have deliberately set out to travel all the way to South Africa to watch other people running Comrades, but I’m very glad I went. I got to meet lots of friends I had previously known only online, as well as make some totally new friends. I got to take part in the record breaking parkrun at North Beach (1,872 finishers), meet Ari Searlis there and get him to sign my copy of my book on the page where he’s mentioned; meet up with Bruce and Gill Fordyce again. I got to enjoy wandering around the expo during Saturday without having to just rest before the race;  I got to experience the start of the race, and learn that a small flashlight (pitch black inside the portaloos!) as well as toilet paper will be important when I finally get to do the Down run. Spending the day in the stadium, watching and taking photos, was fun and I had a further day of enjoyable socialisation with other runners before we all departed.

Leaving South Africa was a reverse of the journey out there, with a multitude of runners, many in their new Comrades T-shirts, on the flight to Dubai, and what felt like a very abrupt parting as we all dispersed through the huge Dubai airport, off to different flights home.

Not-running Comrades was a good experience. But hopefully, with a careful return to running, next year I’ll be having an even better experience, running it.

Best Book – Running Awards 2016

I was amazed and delighted to discover late last night that my book, parkrun: much more than just a run in the park, had won the “Best Book” category at The Running Awards 2016.

I poured my heart and my life into writing this book for a year. I interviewed more than 150 people in person, by telephone and via Skype – not counting the parkrunners who coped with me chatting to them at parkruns then asking them to repeat what they had just said, but this time with my voice recorder running. I gathered about 100 more tales that were sent in by parkrunners after parkrun kindly put out a call for stories. I looked through old parkrun newsletters and run reports, and cross-checked information where stories didn’t quite match (memories can be fallible five or ten years after the event).

I wanted to write a book that would inform people about how parkrun started, how it had developed over the first 10 years, what goes on behind the scenes to make it all work. I wanted to celebrate all the different aspects of parkrun (the working title was parkrun: a celebration, which then got used for the parkrun photo book), and all the different parkrunners, sharing stories of everyday parkrunners as well as some of the pioneers and key people in the organisation.

And I wanted to write an inspirational running book not about running marathons or ultramarathons, but about an event that pretty much everyone can take part in.

Given this award, I think I can say I succeeded.

Thank you to everyone who voted for parkrun: much more than just a run in the park – winning this award means a lot to me.

And thank you to everyone who supported me in writing the book: Paul Sinton-Hewitt who gave me the initial go-ahead and his backing to contact people; Bruce Fordyce for writing his wonderful foreword; Scott Reeves (Chequered Flag Publishing) for publishing it; Shelagh Yospur, Aidan Dixon and Eva Jacobs for commenting on drafts before it went to the publishers; and everyone who contributed their memories, stories, quotes and photos that made this book what it is.

Dymchurch Marathon

Rather than get up at 5.30 and drive down to Dymchurch this morning, we had booked into a B&B and drove down yesterday late afternoon instead. Walking the short distance from the B&B to a pub to eat, the wind was biting and I decided I would definitely be wearing my long-sleeved top and my jacket, as well as gloves and an earwarming-headband.

This morning was a little warmer but still a bit chilly. We walked to the race HQ on the promenade at the top of the sea wall, just a few minutes from where we had been staying. Registration was very simple – walk up to the table, give your name, get your number. It took maybe 30 seconds. They had written each person’s name on the number in large letters, which was a nice touch. Quite a few runners were running the double, so already had their numbers from the previous day. Bags could be left next by the wall, just a couple of yards from the registration/aid table. Given the short time from arrival to start, dumping of bags etc., it had a relaxed feel, much more like a parkrun than, for example, a big city marathon. The fact that lots of people knew one other added to the feeling of friendliness and informality.

To avoid getting chilled, I kept my fleece on until the race briefing started, then handed it to my wonderful husband. A short briefing from Traviss, including the vital information about the turn-around points (round a chalk marking at one end, and touching the fence at the other end of the route), and we were off. My ‘A’ goal was sub-3:50; my ‘B’ goal was sub-4:00 and my stretch goal was a PB/sub-3:47.

Traviss also made a presentation to one of the runners, Tiago, from Portugal, who has not only run 400 marathons, but is one of the few people to have run at least 100 marathons in two different countries (in his case Portugal and the UK) and has run 100 road marathons, 100 trail marathons and 100 ultras. He was wearing a Comrades hat, and turns out to be the Comrades Ambassador for Portugal.

We started with a short distance, just a few hundred yards, to the chalk mark, all in a group, then we set off towards the far end of the promenade, with the group quickly stretching out. The running was easy and my Montane Minimus jacket was soon tied around my waist. I tried not to run too fast, but it really felt very comfortable at a good 15-20 seconds/mile faster than my target speed for a 3:50 marathon. Then we reached the far end, touched the fence, turned around – and the wind hit us. Suddenly the temperature dropped 10 degrees and the running got a lot harder. I quickly donned my jacket and had to start pushing in order to keep my pace under 9-minute mileing. Back to the chalk marks, turn around – and it was warm, easy running again. The two directions were so amazingly different it was like two separate races.

Approaching the end of the second lap I dumped my Minimus and grabbed my Montane windproof jacket from my bag instead – it was perfectly adequate to keep the chill wind at bay. Back round the chalk mark, past the aid station/HQ and thankfully there were some 330ml bottles of water as well as the open cups of water and squash, so I took one of those – I’ve always prefered sipping to gulping, while running.

My nutrition strategy was very simple: one green-ear (vegetarian) Percy Pig at nine miles, then another every three miles. Slight variation later with Kendal Mint Cake instead, and I did change to one every two miles after 18 miles. I was also carrying a 25 mL bottle of Elete electrolytes so a few times I squirted a bit of that into my mouth and washed it down with the water.

Because of my speed differential between directions, there were a few runners whom I outpaced when running downwind, but they caught me up and sometimes passed me on the section into the wind. The back-and-forth, multi-lap nature of the course meant that we were all passing and repassing each other anyway, calling out encouragement, greeting people we knew – in my case, the couple who had been at the B&B we stayed at; Mark, a Comrades runner who sometimes runs at Lloyd parkrun; Simon, who I’d run with for quite a long stretch of the very cold, wet and windy SWD50 in 2013. We could also see the really fast guys, the first of whom was clearly heading for sub-3:00. I also realised that apart from a lady called Sunny, who had passed me early on in the second lap and looked very fresh and strong throughout, none of the other women seemed to be ahead of me, making me second woman!

The fourth lap my legs were a little tired but I was still going strong. By this time the air temperature was a bit higher and I’d warmed up enough that I ditched the windproof jacket and the gloves for the final lap. Turning into the fifth lap, I started to feel a bit more tired, and it took me ages to catch up with the guy in front (one of those I’d been leapfrogging with), while on previous laps I’d caught him in the first mile or so. Still, catch him I did, and we reached the fence together and turned for the final push towards home.

It was hard. Having the wind in your face when you’re trying to push the last two and a bit miles home is not easy. Having someone to run with/chase did help, and I kept reminding myself that I had less than a parkrun to go… then it was less than a mile to go. My legs were tightening up a bit now and my running partner, Keith, managed to pull away from me, but I chased him as strongly as I could (it didn’t feel very strong by then), managed one final burst of faster running for the last 100 yards… and it was done. My Garmin showed 26.3 miles and 3:49, so I’d succeeded in my ‘A’ goal if not my stretch goal. Not bad for a little more than seven months out from breaking my ankle. [Official results give me 3:49:29].

Travis gave me my medal – quite the largest I’ve ever earned – and handed me my goody bag. Keith and I congratulated each other. My wonderful husband gave me my warm clothes and a flask of hot drink (very welcome). He had also taken photos as I approached the finish line – but when I checked them I discovered I’d forgotten to put the memory card back into the camera, so no picture had been saved! He did take a couple of me with my enormous medal, using my phone.

I then made him hang around as I wanted to see Mark and Simon finish; Mark was shepherding another runner to qualify for Comrades. Meanwhile I chatted about Comrades and training with Tiago and one of the other runners. Finally Simon and Mark came in, very close together, and after a bit of chat we headed off.

Oh – and it turned out Sunny had started even later than I’d thought and was a lap behind, so I seem to have been first woman. [And official results put me 12th of 94 runners – although I haven’t counted how many of those ran it Saturday as well]

So, that’s my qualifying race done. Tiago suggested I should push on at London, try to go sub-3:40 and gain C pen, so I’ll have to make a decision about that – the alternative being to just treat it as a training run and aim for sub-4:00.

Now I’ll run easy for a few days, then from next week start pushing the mileage up. Onwards to Comrades!

Finally, 50 parkruns!

Yesterday, 10th October, 2015, at the 265th Lloyd parkrun, I finally ran my 50th parkrun.

I had originally planned to run this at Lloyd parkrun’s 250th event, back in June, which would have given me an average of one event run for every five we’d held – not a surprising average given my role as Event Director and Volunteer Coordinator – but then I broke my ankle. It’s now 16 weeks since that simple slip on a grassy bank which caused the injury, and it’s only in the last few weeks that I’ve started, very gradually, to run. First a few paces barefoot on grass, then jogging a bit on a 0.5 mile walk to the railway station, when I was slightly late for the train, working up to jogging all the way to or from a railway station 1.5 miles from home, and then during this last week, some longer runs, reaching about parkrun distance.

Putting myself down to be Tail Runner was one way (many might say the only way) to make sure I wouldn’t try to run too fast on this first parkrun back after so long. It felt really, really good to line up with the other runners, to jog along the track, including large parts of the course that I have not seen in four months, to thank the marshals as I passed them, to watch all the runners ahead of me and cheer on the faster runners as they overtook me during the second lap. I even managed to pick up a few bits of litter along the way and deposit them in the bin just before the bowling green, and collect a few route marker arrows to help the marshals (who bring back the arrows once the last runner has passed them).

I finished in a Personal Worst Time of 47:44, but that didn’t matter. It felt FANTASTIC to be running, and it’s wonderful to have finally made it to the 50-club. Of course, now that I’ve seen the new colour for the 250-club T-shirt is a really nice green, I’ve got motivation to run a bit more often. Volunteering-wise, I’ll be at 250 separate occasions before the end of 2015, earning my 25-club volunteering T-shirt ten times over, but it’s taken me since January 2011 to reach 50 parkruns, so it’s going to be a loooong time before I earn a black 100-club T-shirt, never mind a green 250-club shirt to go with the red 50-club shirt and the purple (NOT my favourite colour – I voted for the bright yellow) volunteering T-shirt.

Never mind – I’m running – and parkrunning – again. That’s what’s important.

Stepping out

For the last two weeks I’ve been back at the office rather than working from home, as I am now capable of making the journey in, and I don’t need to keep the bad leg elevated all the time. However, normally I would cycle in, and I’m not yet capable of six miles each way, half of it uphill, so I have to take public transport. Trams and trains, and 50-60 minutes rather than 35-40 minutes door to door, but at least I do have that option. Initially I was taking one crutch, as I was worried that my ankle might get suddenly tired on the journey home (and it did once or twice in the first week), but now I’ve ditched that. My ability to walk has definitely improved, both distance and speed. Additionally, I’ve taken the first tentative steps back towards running.

My first gentle jogging steps were around the edge of the cricket pitch outside the Striders of Croydon clubhouse. First, I walked round it, wearing my ‘Invisible Shoes’ – basically a 4 mm Vibram sole held on with a piece of cord. Then I decided to walk a lap barefoot – it feels so good underfoot, with the closely-mown grass, and there had been a bit of rain so there was a little give in the ground. Part way round I gave into temptation and jogged 20 steps (10 on each foot). It felt great! I walked a bit then jogged the same again. No pain. Twice more I jogged, 20 steps on each foot and still no pain. Grinning, I made myself walk the rest of the way round the pitch and stop.

A week or so later, worried that I was going to miss my train, I found myself jogging a little as I hurried along the pavement. A bit of a shuffling jog, perhaps, but thankfully pain-free.

Saturday morning, after the parkrun results were all sorted, I went for a gentle jog on the sports field. First, three minutes shod (VivoBarefoot Neo – my usual running shoe) then just under two minutes barefoot, stopping the moment I felt a twinge of discomfort in the area around the break.

Today, I walked to and around South Norwood Country Park, with a few short spells of jogging – about 50 paces per leg each time. Although I walked on the grass where I could, quite a bit was on the stony paths, and the sole of my left foot has definitely been a bit uncomfortable during the afternoon, but I’m very pleased to have walked more than two miles – a distance that was totally beyond consideration even a week ago.

Still a long way to go to regain strength, mobility and proprioception, and a lot of foot and leg muscle to re-grow, but hopefully in a few weeks I will be able to walk/jog a parkrun!

Standing on my own two feet

One of the aspects of breaking an ankle which you don’t realise until it happens to you is how much independence you lose. Breaking my ankle didn’t just mean I couldn’t run (incredibly frustrating though that aspect was). It also meant I couldn’t walk; couldn’t carry anything from place A to place B; couldn’t get from my house to anywhere, pretty much, without assistance, as I couldn’t get very far on crutches, couldn’t cycle and couldn’t drive. Simply fetching something from the other side of the room became a major, and painful, undertaking. If I’d left something upstairs and was alone in the house, I had to think seriously about how important it was, whether it was worth the expedition up the stairs and down again – and whether I would be able to carry it anyway.

By 10 weeks post-op, I was able to walk around the house, and even outside, without crutches, and with that increased mobility I gradually regained my ability to do things for myself. I could carry mugs, plates of food etc. across or between rooms without the laborious method of “lean down and place mug on the floor in front of you, use crutches to move past the mug, reach down and pick up the mug, turn and place it down in front of you… repeat until you arrive at your destination”. I could even walk, slowly and with one crutch for increased comfort, to the local supermarket and carry some items (not too many) back again in a small backpack.

I started being much more able to do my fair share of the household chores, from cooking to washing up, feeding the cat to hanging out the washing. And I’m very aware how much harder these last weeks would have been without my husband, and without my in-laws taking me to hospital appointments.

Three months post-op and I’ve finally been able to let my husband have a lie in on a Saturday morning. Ever since the day after the accident, he’s been driving me to Lloyd Park for 8am on Saturday for Lloyd parkrun, carried equipment and water bottles from the car to our registration area, sorted me out with chairs to sit on and rest my injured leg on… generally enabled me to continue in my Lloyd parkrun volunteering. He’s been wonderful, but it’s great that I can now get to the park and do everything I need to do without that extra help – and he can get an extra hour or two in bed!