Sunday, 27 February 2011

Barefoot Dave's Great North Run

I have run many half-marathons, and I have run a few miles barefoot, in my crazy Vibram FiveFinger shoes. But the 2011 Great North Run will be my first barefoot half marathon; a test of endurance, perseverance and my skills in emergency blister managementLike Barefoot Ted and Barefoot Ken Bob before him, I will be exploring the mysterious and marvellous world of naked-footed running and, unusually, this particular mad project actually has a solid basis of motivation...

Caught between the excitement of running the world’s biggest half marathon and the fear of running a very long way without any cushioning or support, I am absolutely, ridiculously excited about the prospect of reaching South Shields after 13.1 miles of serious barefoot ground pounding. Even more dramatic, of all the races I’ve entered in recent years, this is the only one –to my mind- where just finishing is going to be a genuine trial...

54,000 runners, the Red Arrows and no shoes...
...sounds like an adventure to me.

As you’ll know from the time I ruined more or less all of my toes, I’ve had a crack at barefoot racing before. It went very well on the face of it – a fast time, good feelings in my legs and general excitement all round. But a more pressing issue was the catastrophic blistering of my toes, and later the incredible pain in my calves. Barefoot running means using different muscle groups to running in shoes – in the absence of a thick layer of cushioning and shoe science, your body has to learn to run in a more natural, organic way, tending to land on the midsole rather than the heel. It's a completely different kettle of fish.

And yes, you’ve guessed it – I’ve decided that this is going to be my charity race. I'll be suffering my barefoot half marathon for the sake of the Alzheimer's Society. I've written in a little more detail about my motivation and excitement to be fundraising for the Alzheimer's Society on my justgiving page. Please do take a minute to have a read and think about donating whatever you can.

So what I’m saying is that there’s going to be a lot of training to fit in before I’m ready to toe the line in Newcastle. That barefoot-specific training is going to have to fit in between high-mileage work for San Francisco, hill and mountain work for the Seven Hills and next year’s mad plans, and then some more high-mileage weeks for the next marathon. But it will be worth it if I can know I've made a small difference to a big problem - here's looking forward to the next seven months...

Happy running.


2011 to date - miles: 188.44, parkruns: 3, races: 0

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Mud, sweat and beers - why I love XC

In a road race, you will run exactly the number of miles you signed up for. The course will be smooth and tarmaced and lovely. Everything will be planned down to the last detail and you'll be given the best possible chance of running your best possible race. When you finish you have an isotonic drink and a banana, then go home to calculate your split times.

In a cross-country race the opposite is a true. The distance will be a rough guess, the terrain entirely unpredictable, you might finish the race with fewer shoes than you started with, and you will definitely get muddy. You could get lost, or fall in a river, or trip on a rabbit hole, or be abused by the countryside in any number of exciting ways. When you finish you have beer and cake.

I was reminded of this distinction when I met up with some old friends in St Andrews yesterday, Megan and Chris, who were both kind enough to contribute to the first load of my mates running, and Gardner, these days more of a boxer than a runner, terrifyingly. Our only plan was to run a few miles, but I'm nearly two years out of University now and I had forgotten what this means to members of the Auld Grey Toon's cross country club. We started at a light pace following the Lade Braes, a very well maintained footpath along the Kinnesburn river, until the old, familiar suggestion sneaks in, this time from Chris: 'there's a trail over there...'

We're on a rough trail picking our way through a forest and over loose branches and rocks. The terrain is mad and undulating. Suddenly we're in an open, grassy park, then on a different trail, now crossing a road, a dodgy log bridge, then wading through mud. Bursting into a clearing I realise we're at another road crossing, where I am assured that it's tarmac from here on. Maybe they think I've gone soft?

I think Chris took offence to my shiny new shoes.
We enter the next section of footpath - last time I ran here this was a wild, insane bit of trail, muddy and wet and covered in so much interesting debris it looked like something out of the Lord of the Rings. Things are different now - Fife Council has for some reason invested cash in paving remote footpaths rather than filling potholes on busy roads, so this path is now completely accessible, though still outrageously steep. Not sure how I feel about this... We lose Gardner around this point - I think she had to go and punch something - but the three of us continue on our merry way and disgrace one of the golf courses with our muddy presence.

I experience another XC nuance that I had forgotten - whilst I normally do everything I can to run a perfectly even pace for the duration of my session, in XC training we run hard for a couple of miles, take a quick break and a breather, then run some more. The hard runs are hard, too; Megan made her debut for Scotland XC earlier this month, and Chris has legs like a freakin' racehorse. I just about keep up.

We finish after just under an hour; muddy, sweaty, cold and happy. I tracked our route with RunKeeper, and challenged Megan and Chris to guess the distance. They were both badly wrong, which is exactly what XC is about.

Thanks guys, I had a blast. Sign me up for the next mad race...

Happy mud-churning.


2011 to date - miles: 175.49, parkruns: 3, races: 0

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Back on track

Exciting things have happened for my running this week. First, following the saga of ruining all of my toes, I decided it was high time I bought some new running shoes. As always, I insist on having new shoes properly fitted by someone who knows at least a thing or two about running. The bloke who sold me my shoes was actually studying podiatry at University, and as you'd expect, he was pretty clued-up on his feet facts. After trying half a dozen pairs on the treadmill I went for the new version of my outgoing shoes, replacing my Saucony Omni 8s with the creatively-named Omni 9s. 

The only difference I can see is that whilst the 8s inexplicably had glitter in the side panels, the 9s are slightly less, er, sparkly. I also learnt that my running shop of choice (Snowlines/Footworks Edinburgh) will take your old running shoes and send them off to sports projects in developing countries, as long as they're still good for a minimum of 100 miles. Since my 8s have done 550, I reckon they're still usable for another 100-150 miles, and I'll be happy to see them sent somewhere useful - much better than gathering dust at the back of a cupboard.

Omni 8s, below, and the shiny (but not sparkly) new Omni 9s, above
Second, I've had a great mileage week. I'm completely back on track in terms of my planned mileage, logging 33.4 in the past seven days, christening my new shoes pretty thoroughly. I recorded these in 6 outings (2, 3.1, 3.5, 5, 7.2 and 12.6 miles), rather than my targeted 5, which isn't ideal, but the total is all good.

Third, my weekend runs have been superb. Yesterday's parkrun was my fastest ever and first sub-20 minute 5k, recording 19:51.6 on my watch for an official time of 19:53. I crossed the line with a little bit too much self-congratulation, cheering myself in a rather over-the-top fist-pumping display. Particularly awkward as I went to parkrun on my own and didn't actually know anybody else there... But regardless of my various embarrassing behaviours the conclusion is the same; I've reached my goal and run 5k in under 20 minutes. Like all sufferers of wandering-goal syndrome, this means I now have a new goal of sub-19:30. Where will this end!? Olympic gold, probably.

My long run this morning was great too - 12.6 miles around Edinburgh taking in Arthur's Seat, which accounted for most of the 968 feet of climbing (and descent). I went out intending to take it very easy, probably around 9 minutes/mile, but ended up feeling fantastic and on a mission. By the time I got home I had averaged 8:02, including one mile at a rather brisk 7:31. This is great news for the Alloa Half Marathon, one month today, which I had previously thought would be quite a slow one. With this massive hill training at a good clip in the bag, I might get closer to my 1:37:03 PB than I thought...

Last, some other exciting things are happening (more detail to follow), which if they come through will make my race calendar much more exciting. Stay tuned.

Happy running.


2011 to date - miles: 169.86, parkruns: 3, races: 0 

Thursday, 17 February 2011

This is why a lot of people run

Charity running is a sticky subject. Millions, if not billions of pounds are raised every year through sponsored running events, and the knock-on effects for the charity and running sectors (and my facebook feed!) are profound. Like you, I get a lot of requests for sponsorship from people running marathons or other events, and like you, perhaps, I sometimes struggle to find enthusiasm for all of them. So I've had a thought and I think I've worked out my ideal formula for a sponsorship request...

  • To my mind people should only really request sponsorship for events where their own input, in terms of training, dedication, sacrifice, perseverance, bravery and other great abstract nouns, is equivalent to the amount of cash they’re trying to raise. Essentially, it has to be a challenge.
  • A sense of scale is important. I probably won’t give you money for a 5k if you’re an experienced half-marathoner, for instance. But if you’ve never run before and have worked hard to run a 5k time you can be proud of, then you definitely deserve a few quid. 
  • Like many people, I prefer to see requests from people who’ve chosen charities which mean something to them, and will really motivate them to achieve their goal. 
  • And lastly, I love to see requests where people have personalised the challenge, or somehow made it harder. Like running in an enormous costume, running in a ludicrously heavy costume, or running in not very much costume at all...

I would sponsor this guy. I wouldn't run behind him, though...
When a friend of mine entered an 18-mile race to raise money for a hospice which cared for his nephew, sponsoring him made perfect sense, particularly since a) he’d never run more than 7 miles, despite being an excellent track athlete, and b) he was pushing his 10-year-old nephew the entire distance in his wheelchair. The event had two categories of entrant: 'ordinary' runners and runners pushing wheelchairs. It wasn't until some time after the event - and well after I'd sponsored him - that my friend told me that he'd actually won the wheelchair event. Absolutely worth my cash, no doubt.

When a colleague asked for sponsorship for his kilomathon, I was initially sceptical. Though not a runner, he is clearly an athlete, with a rugby player's frame. Probably a second row. Maybe even number eight. Then I learnt that he’d never run more than 12k in his life, and that the kilomathon (26k) was only the start. Two weeks later he would enter ‘Survival of the Fittest’, a 10k urban obstacle course, and two weeks after that, he would climb Ben Nevis. He completed the last task of his ‘month of pain’ with his knee strapped up, feet ruined and physio exasperated. Unsatisfied with his kilomathon time over what was a truly brutal course, he immediately registered to do it again. Doubtless worth a few quid.

When another friend who had already completed a number of distance events was seeking sponsorship for her Land’s End to John O’ Groats cycle, again I was more than happy to put my hand in my pocket. Particularly since she was a) doing it unsupported, b) doing it for a charity she loved, Childreach, and c) was also going to summit 10 hills, tors or munros whose first letters spelled out C-H-I-L-D-R-E-A-C-H, in the correct order, along the route, on her bike. Here’s my cash, no trouble at all. Childreach wrote about her on their website, check it out here.

So when, in a few days or possibly next week, I post about a charity fundraising race that I’m planning, it would be hypocritical of me to do anything but something pretty special. Watch this space.

Happy running


2011 to date
 - miles: 150.64, parkruns: 2, races: 0 

Sunday, 13 February 2011

How I ruined more or less all of my toes

Good news! On Thursday, on a whim, I called my GP's surgery to ask whether my X-ray results were available. I only had the scan on Monday, and everyone had insisted it would take 7-10 days before they would have any news for me, but I thought I'd give them a call on the off-chance and it paid off. The result - 'normal'. One word.

'Does this mean I don't have pleuirsy?' ... 'You have pleuritic symptoms.' Right.

Annoyed at the inefficacy of the health service, whose crowning achievement in treating me was an instruction to take a lot of painkillers and wait until I was better, I did what I always do when I need to let off some steam and do some thinking. I went for a run.

Yeah, yeah, I should have been resting and relaxing and waiting until I got better, but that just doesn't seem to work for me. I took four days off running and whilst the pain in my chest was fairly constant, I was getting grumpy, lethargic and cramp because I wasn't running. So I went for a run. There's still a little pain in my chest, but to be honest, otherwise I feel fantastic.

A short outing on Friday night after work, then a well overdue return to parkrun on Saturday morning. Then another run on Saturday afternoon. And a long run this morning (Sunday). OK, might have overdone it slightly.

There are two main indicators that I ran too much in too short a time this weekend - first, my calves are tight and tough, and second, I've ruined most of my toes. This is because, on a whim, I decided that yesterday's parkrun was going to be my first 'barefoot' race. Barefoot in inverted commas, because I ran in my Vibram FiveFinger shoes, which look like this:

My Vibram FiveFingers, which evoke an interesting range of responses, from fear and distrust to a weird state of near-arousal...
I went for the Vibrams over my normal road shoes because the Sauconys I usually run in are on their last legs - after 551 miles they're ready to be replaced, and there's so little cushioning left in them that I may as well be running barefoot anyway. So I thought I'd use the Vibrams, guarantee myself a new, barefoot PB, and I ended up having a fantastic race.

I ran much of the course on the soft grass verges rather than the tarmac, and apart from the pain of stepping on a few broken sea shells which had washed up on Cramond promenade, I had a great race. Conscious of the dodgy state of my respiratory system, I wasn't gunning for a particular or fast time, but when I glanced at my watch at the 2km mark I was amazed to see it showing just over 8 minutes. Feeling on top of the world, I pushed on and overtook a ton of people, much more aware of the optimum racing line as I was looking for the soft verges to run on. I finished in 20:34, just 5 seconds off my shoe-wearing PB, looking rather like this:

Photo credit (and with apologies to!) Ron Russell. I'm not on the grass because I'm just about to enter the finish 'chute'.
As you can see from the photo, the barefoot experience doesn't seem to be improving my running style - I'm still a heavy heel striker. When I got home and peeled off the Vibrams, I discovered the full horror caused by my indiscipline: two major blisters on the underside of both big toes. I lanced them, then patched my feet up as best I could, but really I was just wildly delighted with the endorphin hit that I've been missing this week.

Since my barefoot parkrun I've run 12 miles in my knackered Sauconys, and the blisters have got much worse, as well as having been joined by new ones on both little toes as well. The worst one, under the big toe of my left foot, has been drained four times already. Meanwhile, the pain in my calves is a bit of a disaster, and there's an interesting complaint coming from my hip. I can barely walk.

I am a runner again.


2011 to date - miles: 136.46, parkruns: 2, races: 0 

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Running, to me, looks like this

To cheer myself up in the non-running lull, here's something different. I thought I'd post some of my favourite running-related images - the iconic, the inspirational and the downright awesome. Some of them you'll have seen before, but hopefully one or two might be new to you. Click an image to see a larger version in a new window/tab. Enjoy.

Roger Bannister running the world's first sub-4:00 minute mile at the Iffley Road track in Oxford in 1954. He spent two years working incessantly to achieve it, and ran the mile in 3:59.4. Before his achievement popular opinion agreed that it was impossible - Bannister proved the doubters wrong, and suddenly it was like a dam had broken. 46 days later his world record was broken by John Landy, and the mile record has been broken 18 times since that windy day in Oxford. This is the immense power of believing that impossible is nothing.

Rod Dixon (NZ) after winning the NYC Marathon in 1983. Geoff Smith (GBR), on the ground behind him, was ahead by 14 seconds at the 25 mile mark. Dixon mercilessly reeled him in and took the win in 2:08:59, with Smith's second place 2:09:06 still one of the fastest debuts of all time. Dixon's triumph is immense, Smith's defeat is absolute.

Dorando Pietri finishing first in the 1908 Olympic Games. Iconic for two reasons - first, this was the first marathon run at what we would now recognise as the standard marathon distance: 26 miles, 385 yards. Second, Dorando collapsed inside the stadium, just yards from the finish line. Two officials took him by the arms and helped him over the line, causing him to be disqualified, presumably by some other, less charitable officials. The medal went to American Johnny Hayes who crossed the line second, but Pietri's is the name that endures.

Dean Karnazes, American ultramarathon legend, displaying the kind of crazy calf muscles you get if you run 5000 miles a year and crosstrain like a lunatic... I mean seriously... I've written about him in a little detail in I need goals.

Usain Bolt winning the Olympic 100m final in Beijing in 2008. It's not the winning I love, or the crazy speed,  or the four and a half miles between him and second place, it's the smile on his face. That man loves to run, and loves to race, and loves to win.

Happy running.


2011 to date - miles: 117.25, parkruns: 1, races: 0 

Monday, 7 February 2011

Bad news for the mileage log

Oh bloody hell. Not again. Chest pain, short of breath, appointment with the GP, referral for a chest X-ray, antibiotics, painkillers, morose tone of self pity. Yes, that’s right, all signs point to pleurisy again, and this is bad news for the mileage log...

As regular readers of this blog will know (having read this and that), I have had my running disrupted by this particular ailment before, last time in spectacular fashion just days before a marathon, ending in a couple of trips to A&E and one severely unimpressed brother toeing a start line all by himself.

This time is different. The pleurisy now is a much milder case, with less acute pain and the underlying symptoms having more or less already cleared. I took myself to the doctor this morning after conceding that I was in too much pain during my runs over the weekend (a pleasing 10 miles on Saturday and another 5.5 on Sunday), and that the chest pain was disrupting my sleep, which is much better than being taken to hospital in an ambulance having fainted into one's breakfast. I’ve no races planned until the Alloa Half Marathon on March 20th, so no-one's going to be disappointed that I’ll miss anything. In short, I can afford to take it easy for a week or so.

But one pseudo-important thing will suffer: the stats. I’ve been holding back from telling you about how pleased I am with my training so far in 2011 because I didn’t want to jinx it, and more to the point, I wanted to get a good couple of months done before I started bragging about how well I was doing. But here we are, five weeks into the year, and already I’ve been derailed by forces beyond my control. So we’ll have to celebrate just these slightly-above-average five weeks, as follows:

Week one: 11 miles (still easing back in after Christmas, New Year etc)
Week two: 22 miles (and a ski session!)
Week three: 26 miles (looking good!)
Week four: 28 miles (great trend!)
Week five: 30 miles (first 30 mile week since August! Wahey!)

As you can imagine, the first five figures produce an extremely pleasing graph which was promising for the weeks ahead. My weekly average currently projects that I would total 1219 miles this year, a solid 368 more than in 2010, with an upward trend indicating that much more was to come. Things were looking rosy...

Week six: 10 antibiotics and a million painkillers, please

Now I know that this shouldn’t matter – a week off or with only a few miles in it isn’t the end of the world. But I love my stats and I love logging the miles, and I hate seeing that pleasing graph assaulted by the banalities of illness and injury. So for the next few days, I will mostly be on the sofa (when not at work) and giving my running shoes a break. Sigh. If you're lucky enough to be fit, well and healthy, then do me a favour: go out for a run this week, just because you can.

Happy running


P.S. - I think I might start signing off with a Bridget Jones-style summary to my posts, rather like this:
2011 to date - miles: 117.25, parkruns: 1, races: 0 

(NB My running year started on the first Monday in 2011, which was January 3rd)

Friday, 4 February 2011

Transcontinental travel, Karnazes style

Not content with running to the South Pole, running 350 miles non-stop, or running on a treadmill for 48 hours, Dean Karnazes is taking on probably his biggest challenge yet - running across the USA, to raise cash and awareness in the fight against childhood obesity and inactivity. (Something we could take note of in the UK as we slash funding for sports in schools and hand over our Olympic athletics stadium to a football club). See the website here. I love that his goal is 'to inspire a nation'. Who else has the confidence and ability to set that kind of goal?

Dean will be running 40-50 miles a day from February 25th, and a series of 5k events are being planned to coincide with his schedule. If you live in the US and can take advantage of Dean's offer of joining him somewhere on the route, then go and do it! I'd love to hear how you got on (and will be seething with jealous rage!)

Happy running.