Running

Technical Notes #2 – The Long Run

Silhouette of a woman running - either dawn or dusk.
Not me but someone cooler via a more ace camera
Photo by Cameron Venti on Unsplash

If you have ever followed a training plan for a race, then it will always have the long run in it. This will be at least one time in the week where essentially you aim to go out slower but farther than the rest of your weekly runs. Apparently, they’re very good for you. I have found out this science bit:

These runs produce more mitochondria and capillaries in your muscle cells, increase your aerobic capacity, improve your cardiovascular system’s efficiency, increase your muscles’ and liver’s ability to store glycogen, strengthen your musculoskeletal system, give you a greater ability to work through muscular fatigue and increase your body’s ability to use fat as fuel.

https://www.runnersworld.com/uk/training/a774616/essential-guide-to-long-runs/

Well that’s absolutely marvellous and I wish I had read this when I’d been training for all those half marathons (and the two marathons) I’ve done in the past, because it sounds to me that if I’d committed to them properly I could have turned into Wonder Woman!

However:

I used to do training plans the way many people do diets, like a yo-yo. I would get a week or two of sticking to it and then miss a crucial couple of days and then it would be binned, before I started another, and another, until I was down to the final ‘Complete the Half Marathon without dying’ training plan, about two weeks before the day. The Long Run was nearly always the spanner in the works.

It has always previously filled me with a bit of a dread, especially when the miles got into the late teens. Wondering whether I had enough gels (slightly sickly carbohydrate gloop in sachets), or water; whether I’d need the loo on the way; whether I would get too tired to finish it. All of the above have floored me at least once (it’s traumatic trying to find a bush sometimes) and that’s when they get into the mind and start whispering to you before you even get out the door.

That sounds slightly dramatic I know, but running is as much a psychological game as well as a physical one. Research has shown that your body can go way further than your mind thinks it can. Your angels and your demons have more space to tussle when you’re monotonously slogging away and it can get schizophrenic.

Monotony is a big problem but there are ways to challenge that. You can run with someone, or if you’re on your own, listen to a podcast or audio book. I find that better than music because you have to concentrate on it more which means you’re thinking less about your legs.  I’ve also been known to map out the super long runs to make sure I include cafes/petrol stations etc. en route for a quick wee. And don’t think you can keep this need at bay by not drinking liquids. As I found out during the London Marathon, that way leg cramps lie.

The absence of races in this last year and a bit has meant my running has been sporadic. But the January kick start has given me a nice foundation to get going again. My long run now is up to 7.5 miles and although that takes me as long as it used to take me to run 10 miles (which I try NOT to dwell on), it’s okay. It’s the furthest I’ve run in one run since the middle of last year.

The plan is (loosely, kind of, in a non-committal manner) to get to about 12 miles or so, and try and maintain that stamina until the races start again. It would be nice to get to a fitness level again where I could rock up to a Half and know I can finish it without too much pain but in the meantime I will just keep repeating the mantra ‘more mitochondria’ and visualise that gold tiara on my head.

Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman
The original Wonder Woman and the best
Warner Bros. Television
Books

The Midnight Library – Matt Haig

Front cover of The Midnight Library

In a nutshell, this is a cross between Quantum Leap and Sliding Doors, with an added sprinkling of It’s a Wonderful Life. And as I enjoyed watching all of these, I really enjoyed reading this book.

It’s not a plot spoiler to reveal that Nora Seed attempts to die. That is explained in the very first sentence. But this book is not a depressing read. It moves along at a decent clip with down to earth, matter of fact language, so when the occasional moments of poetic introspection come along, they stand out more vividly.

The Midnight Library is the place in between. Between life and death; between time; between one’s ‘root’ existence and an infinite amount of others. And when Nora Seed tries to kill herself, she is, instead, blessed with trying on a few of these other existences. She gets to work out whether all her regrets in life are merited. The two catches: she can only pick a path once, and she can only join the action from this moment on instead of when she diverged. And if it’s not the life for her, she will return to the Library.

This second catch causes a number of logistical problems, à la ‘Quantum Leap’. But it also, conveniently for the art of story-telling, speeds up the process of multi-life living, when a book of regrets as heavily weighed down as Nora’s is, needs to be explored. Less sardonically, it makes the point that even though she is stepping into her own life, it is a life that has been lived by a subtly or completely different Nora up to this point , and does she really want to skip those parts?

For example, she walks into her marriage with Dan (who, in her root life, was the fiancé she left just a couple of days before the wedding) many years after making a different decision. Where his dream of owning a pub in a bucolic setting has been realised. Sounds like a nice ready-made life to pick up doesn’t it?

The book lays out the difference between dreams and perceptions and reality. The lives that Nora explores slowly reveal what the most important things are to her, through example and a good dosing of philosophy (it’s made me want to read a bit more about Henry David Thoreau, that’s for sure).

Matt Haig gets the core idea from physics, the many worlds theory. But although he doesn’t bog you down with the science he does throw a few puns in along the way for fun. There is also the amusement of making the connections between disparate parts flung far and wide amongst the pages. Californian fires and blond boys are peripheral but give a demonstration of the interconnectedness in Nora’s many lives.

Initially I thought that Nora was an excessively high achiever: Olympic potential, offered a record contract, academically bright. And I assumed that maybe Haig created her to show that if a person like she can hit rock bottom, then anybody can. But then I realised that he was also suggesting that anybody has ‘potential’. And that was my favourite message in a book that has many really interesting things to reflect upon. Even if most of us don’t follow life’s extreme trajectories, we have the potential to matter, to be significant, to knock against the lives of others and maybe help them on a new direction.

In the words of the great Keanu Reeves, ‘It’s Quantum Baby’!

Books

Bring Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel

Front cover of the paperback version of Bring Up the Bodies - Hilary Mantel

I thought I would start reviewing the books that I read. Partly so that I read them with a little more thought, and partly so that I read them. Because for some reason, although I love books, I don’t sit down with one very much at all.

So we kick off with the middle book in a trilogy, which is a little arse about tit I grant you, but it is the latest book I’ve read and not everything can be planned so neatly.

Bring up the Bodies begins in the middle of Anne Boleyn’s brief time as Queen. Thomas Cromwell has risen up from being a Michael Cohen style fixer and is now fully established as Henry VIII’s right hand man and so far Anne has produced just one more daughter for the Crown. It carries Cromwell’s story on from Mantel’s first book in the trilogy, Wolf Hall, which leaves us with Henry and Anne’s marriage and Thomas More’s execution.

We know how it ends of course, for Anne, but there is a genius in taking a piece of history well trod and documented, and bringing it to life in a whole new way. Mantel keeps the narrative in the present tense, so pushing that idea of ‘History’ back, and makes the language modern enough for our ears. On top of that, the narrator always sits just behind and occasionally inside, Cromwell’s head, so you have access to only one perspective. But that perspective happens to have an increasing reach and knowledge over the dominions of England, especially the lands and lives of the nobility. So, for the reader, this vantage point reveals a lot.

Now it is highly probable that Mantel has taken artistic licence to make this Cromwell more sympathetic than he really was. A reader will be more willingly pulled along if they’re invested in the main protagonist. There are moments, like when he looks at the first queen, Katherine, in her ‘prison’. They’re roughly the same age but he notes that ‘life is harsher for women’, especially if they ‘have been blessed with many children and seen them die’. This level of empathy may occasionally tip the suspension of disbelief a little for some but it didn’t bother me and reminded me that even Himmler loved his family.

Wolf Hall was lambasted by some historians for painting More in a detestable manner and Cromwell so positively1. But, these books from Cromwell’s point of view and they are novels after all and not a history.2 Even bona fide histories will create a ‘narrative’ and make suppositions where there are blank spaces in the facts.

Mantel’s Cromwell comes across as phlegmatic and Machiavellian – at one point it says he’s read The Prince, which in his estimation could be improved upon! He is (in his eyes necessarily) ruthless but not bloodthirsty, highly intelligent, generous and knows when to take his revenge. This book brings his character to the peak of his powers and the height of his wealth with the dissolution of the monasteries filling the coffers of the Crown.

Thomas Cromwell painted by Hans Holbein
Thomas Cromwell, by Hans Holbein the Younger, oil on panel, late 16th century (1533-1534) – ‘When he saw the portrait finished he had said, ‘Christ, I look like a murderer’; and his son Gregory said, didn’t you know?’

I do like history. My A-level English History covered the Tudors and I wish I’d had these books around then. I know this is a fiction but the level of research that Mantel has done to keep on top of who’s who and what their relationships are and who they’ve slept with etc. is excellent. It brings it alive in a way that would have made me want to explore the real stories more.

If history is not your bag, you may find it a little unwieldy. There are a lot of characters. Mantel does give a helpful list at the beginning but it can still get confusing sometimes. However, I wouldn’t let the details bog you down. Just sit back and let it carry you along.


1 In defence of Thomas More https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2015/jan/29/wolf-hall-wrong-thomas-more-was-funny-feminist

2 https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/may/31/students-take-hilary-mantels-tudor-novels-as-fact-hay-festival

Life, Running

February Blues

Snowdrops surrounded by dead leaves.
Tentative snowdrops

A slippage has occurred.

After the success of my January goals I am feeling a little adrift and rudderless. I guess you can’t always be fired up and raring to go, and as my downswing is in the worst month of the year (according to all the polls1) it is probably inevitable that I feel this way.

How do you get yourself out of the rut?

I’m suddenly reminded of an animated film I saw when I was very young, called The Phantom Tollbooth2. The only thing I recall is that the boy, Milo, goes into the land of the Doldrums and lounges around lethargically, killing time until he’s eventually pulled out by a friend. Well that is what February feels like right now. An in between depressing month where the edges of the day may be getting slightly wider but it won’t be really felt until March. Where each little delicate snowdrop that manages to push out of the cold brown ground is crushed again by repeating waves of frost and snow. Where an ex-President is acquitted by spineless, avaricious cohorts even though the evidence against him is incontrovertible. Where our washing machine has stopped working because the water pipes have frozen up. Where …

I need to be pulled out.

I’m currently watching the wind doing a whirling dervish dance with the snowflakes acting as a visibility cloak. The few birds out are clinging on to the branches while this squall plays out. It could be quite pretty really, if I change my frame of mind.

It’s been three days since my last run and my yoga and Italian have gone out the window for the moment. I’ve done so little cycling that my buttocks are still complaining when I try. I think this slippage has created a space. A space to make excuses, and this year, like last year we’ve got the best excuse of all. All the races are still called off and the gyms are still closed.

What can I focus on?

I think good health and mental wellbeing are sometimes difficult, intangible goals to strive for but I have made a little start with the up perking. I listened to a BBC podcast the other day called ‘People Fixing the World’.3 The episodes aren’t long and they’re quite varied but each one sets out a particular problem that is being solved by ingenious people. For example ‘The breath of life’ looks at ways of creating and storing oxygen (for use in hospitals) without electricity for those places in the world that don’t have a ready supply, of either oxygen or electricity. If you have a short attention span and want a bit of happy nerdery, then this is for you.

The winds are still whipping up a hooley but invisibly as the snow has nearly melted. Tomorrow (as I’m not quite ready today) I will lace up. Bev has tasked me with training her for the Great North Run in September. During normal times, it is the UK’s largest half marathon race with well over 50,000 people running it.  It might not take place this year, but then again it might, and September is far enough away to keep the hope alive. Having responsibility for someone else’s fitness seems like a thing I can grasp more easily right now than thinking about my own. But that’s okay. It’s still a reason to get out and sometimes, if you can just get your trainers on, the rest will come.

  1. I only looked at one poll but I’m sure they all agree: (https://www.buzzfeed.com/leonoraepstein/all-the-months-ranked-from-worst-to-best)
  2. The Phantom Tollbooth:   https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0064806/
  3. People Fixing the World Podcast: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04grdbc

Running

Technical Notes #1 – Chi Running

In the UK, back in the halcyon days of the first lockdown, when the weather was warm and Spring was in full bloom and we were all amazed at how quiet it all felt without the cars and everybody who wasn’t harassed by having the kids at home tried a new hobby like baking or macrame, I did a little online course about Chi Running.

I’d heard of it as a thing, but I didn’t really know the nuts and bolts and I just assumed that it was some western attempt at applying eastern hippy dippy terms to running in order to make a load of money from people (okay, as much as I attempt to be non-judgemental and open, the snark does rear its ugly head from time to time).

So in the spirit of exploration and re-evaluation I signed up.

What is Chi?

According to Google, Chi is the 22nd letter of the Greek Alphabet and is pronounced ‘Khi’.

It is also, when I scrolled down further, ‘the circulating life force whose existence and properties are the basis of much Chinese philosophy and medicine’.

This second definition is, I suspect, closer to the purpose of this running method but it still felt a little bit ‘what?’.

So let’s just sack off the name for a minute and look at the things that I learnt. In succinct bullet point form they are:

  • Nose Breathing
  • 80/20 Rule
  • Use Gravity
  • Small Strides
  • Tempo

Nose Breathing

The thinking behind this is that you get more oxygen through your nose, the air is cleaner as your nose filters it better and it builds up your respiratory strength.

This is something that I struggled with and have attempted on and off. Off at the moment because in the winter when I run my nose is a dripping tap and it just would not be pretty. I know that it requires patience and practice and apparently you can build up your speed and still keep your gob shut. But patience is not something I’m liberally endowed with.

However, when I was doing the course, I did have more of a go and found that when I went super slowly, as in a pace only slightly faster than walking, I could keep my gob shut for at least the first ten minutes. This did force me to slow right down and actually made the rest of the run more enjoyable, let me go further, and helped me stick to the 80/20 rule.

80/20 Rule

This is their recommended ratio of how to pace your runs. So 80% of your miles in a week should be at a slow, thoroughly comfortable pace, and only 20% should be juiced up. That  doesn’t have to be sprinting all the time. It’s anywhere between breakneck and raising the heat so you can’t talk more than the odd word or phrase while you’re pumping the legs.

So if, for example, you did 10 miles a week you can either have one 2 miler at a gallop or tag on a fast bit at the end of each run. I preferred this second way as I felt fully warmed up to get cracking for a sprint finish.

The reason for generally keeping it slow is to build your muscles and other internal body bits up more gradually before you start tear-arsing it and causing yourself an injury. This rule suits me down to the ground because I am a slow plodder rather than a speed freak and I prefer to enjoy the scenery.

A faraway sparrowhawk in the sky
Always stop to watch the sparrowhawk hunt (i think it was a sparrowhawk!)

However, I have read that even short distance runners advocate doing the majority of runs at a really slow pace for that physical strength building and injury reduction. And apparently the great man Eliud Kipchoge runs most of his weekly miles at more than half of his race pace, which is still faster than my best. So if it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for me, I think.

Use Gravity

This one sounds like ‘use the force Luke’ and it kind of is.

You know when a baby learns to walk they’re basically sussing getting that leg out in time will stop them leaning over and falling. This is what the ideal Chi runner does. Okay, hopefully we’re at a slightly more sophisticated level of bipedal locomotion but the essential idea is the same. From a tall standing position lean your whole body forward until one of your legs comes out to catch you. That lean, which is a straight line from your head to your ankles, is around the position you want to be in so that you’re tapping into gravity to help the momentum.

 Small Strides

Which leads very neatly on to small strides because you want to land your feet beneath you. If you start doing a Penelope Pitstop you’re then having to pull your whole body forward to catch up and so you’re working against the force and the jedi master unhappy is. But if you keep it small then it feels like gravity is doing the pulling. It will also mean that you’re more likely to land on the middle of your foot instead of the heel which is loads better coz all the little bones in your toes help to dissipate the impact instead of it shooting up the leg and causing all kinds of dodgy stuff. My anatomical knowledge is very sparse and I may have made that last bit up but it totally makes sense to me so I’m sticking with it.

Tempo

Chi Running reckons you should aim for about 180 strides per minute which on the metronome sounds like a clip. 

I wouldn’t worry about counting really, if you have a running app it does a good guesstimate for you. But if you practise that short stride thingamabob then you’ll naturally be quite quick.

He-man runs on the spot

Well how do you get faster or slower if you’re always keeping the 180 tempo? It’s apparently to do with that ‘lean’ again. If you lean more your leg stride will be a bit longer and therefore you’ll go further, and conversely, the slower plodders like me will be a teeny bit more upright. I’m not talking horizontal like He-Man up above, just a gentle incline. We can see Eliud here, (coz who better to get running tips from, than the master), doing a little one step. Because his legs are in motion you see the lean from his back knee to his head and his front foot lands beneath him.

One step of Eliud's running form

So that, basically, is Chi Running in a nutshell. Or, more specifically, the bits that I remembered from my course, which I actually really enjoyed. So if this is interesting, it may well be worth reading more on the subject, or taking one of their courses, as they did seem like nice people.

Some more visual tips via Eliud