Brighton rocked

Thanks, Brighton Marathon. I came, I’m sore and I conquered!

Well thanks, Brighton Marathon. I came, I’m sore and I sort-of conquered. Not the time I was hoping to run when I mounted my marathon comeback in December, but given the lost month of training, I think that my finish time – 3.45.17 – was pretty much what I was capable of on the day. It places me comfortably inside the Good for Age category for London, should I consider putting myself through all this again, for marathon number 19!

So, Brighton, what did you have for us? A glorious morning of blue sky with air lightly chilled. A well-organised start. An interesting, lively course with enough runners to make it feel like a big race without congestion and bottlenecks. You had friendly marshals and fantastic crowds, with high fives, jelly babies and orange segments at the ready. Oh, and some great race signs! (Is that a gel in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?) You had rousing drumming bands and storming DJs. And you didn’t have plastic bottles – all credit to you.

But, oh, you also gave us a stiff breeze along that seafront! Manageable on the initial eastward stretch, but by the time it came to those last four miles, I was practically weeping. And, I have to say, you dished out quite a few hills, too. I logged 665 feet of ascent! Barely worth mentioning in a gnarly trail race, but you certainly feel them in a marathon.

The overall verdict? You did yourself proud. I almost – but not quite – did the same.

 

The marathon taper caper

Doing next-to-nothing is harder than it looks…

It’s less than 72 hours until race morning! The trepidation has been building steadily, in the face of the great unknown that awaits on Sunday. Will I be able to sustain my goal pace? Will the wind on the Brighton seafront scupper my plans? Will my stomach behave? Will an old injury rear its ugly head, or a new one emerge? Will I hit the wall? The weird thing about the marathon is that these questions are no more answerable on your 5th or 15th marathon than they were ahead of your first. When you’re out there for three hours or more, elements of chance and luck come into play…

Following a race build-up with more ups and downs than a Garmin heart rate profile, I’ve adjusted my finish time goal by 10 minutes – and shortened my taper to two weeks. (The less you’ve done, the less you need to recover from.)  But it’s harder than it looks, this taper caper. As a coach, I know that it takes around 14 days for the adaptations resulting from a specific workout to assimilate. Therefore, there’s little point doing anything beyond then to try to ‘get fitter’ for marathon day. But that doesn’t stop many runners trying (to the detriment of their race-day performance).

The aim is to hold on to what you’ve got – not just in terms of aerobic fitness but ‘neuromuscular’ fitness too: this refers to the efficiency of the communication pathways between the nervous system and the muscles, which plays a role in important things like running economy, muscle recruitment and sense of effort. Most experts recommend that you drop volume significantly during the taper, but maintain a degree of intensity. For example, if you were doing a speed session, you wouldn’t skip it altogether, but you might only do a half or a quarter of what you were doing pre-taper.

Less volume means more time on your hands. More time to stress over whether you’ve done enough mileage, whether that’s a cold you’ve got coming, or whether your knee is feeling slightly niggly… No wonder so many of us fall into the trap of doing things we don’t normally do to fill in the spare hours. Take Tuesday. I was having a rest day, but I found myself thinking ‘I know, I’ll do half an hour of drills, to keep my neuromuscular pathways firing.’ I almost did, but remembered the golden rule of marathon week just in time. DON’T TRY ANYTHING NEW OR UNFAMILIAR! That goes for shoes, stretches, gels, massage tools and yes, drills. And then today, when wheeling the just-emptied garden bin round to the back garden, I almost got to work chopping up the pile of branches we cut down the other weekend. Step inside, Sam Murphy, I ordered myself.

How to fill taper time, then? Well, there’s your feet to sort out. Cut toenails short and straight across, file away any hard ridges of skin and moisturise. Check – and recheck – your race instructions. Pack – and repack – your bag. (My book Marathon and Half Marathon From Start to Finish has a handy packing checklist.) Tell your supporters and spectators where you want them to be around the course and roughly what time to expect you. And, if you haven’t already done so, write your name on the front of your top in thick, black marker pen. Then it’s just a matter of putting your feet up and working your way through all those lovely carbs…

7661GE Marathon Course map 2019

 

A Beachy Head Trail Adventure

It’s when the Seven Sisters first appear that the wowing starts. The whiteness of the vertical cliffs, the jaggedy ins-and-outs of the headlands, as if great bites have been taken out of them… It’s breathtaking, literally and figuratively. You puff up each of the seven peaks, thinking bad thoughts about running and scolding yourself for not finding a more relaxing way of spending a day off – until you reach the top, gasp at the view and gallop gleefully down the other side.

We’re standing at the foot of the South Downs in Eastbourne, where a post marks the start of the 100-mile South Downs Way, which rollercoasters all the way to Winchester.

IMG_8431This hill will be familiar to anyone who’s taken part in or watched the infamous Beachy Head Marathon as it’s the first – and last – thing the runners encounter. Up it goes, at a merciless angle, sending your heart rate into the red before your Garmin’s barely locked on to satellites – and keeping it there for much of the punishingly precipitous race.

But on this particular crisp winter morning, we have something a lot more leisurely planned. A 20-mile loop taking in the villages of Jevington and Alfriston before swooping round to climb the Seven Sisters, pausing for tea and cake at Birling Gap, then scaling Beachy Head and careening back down the hill for home before dusk.

We set off at a jog-walk (aware of the need not to peak too soon) and when we reach the top, look back on Eastbourne laid out in miniature beside a sheet of grey-blue sea. The gorse-clad downs feel springy underfoot and it’s a minefield of shallow rabbit scrapes.

We follow the path inland taking the same northwesterly direction as the race route. With Jeff being a former winner of Beachy Head marathon, I’d assumed I couldn’t be in better company for today’s adventure, but it is soon apparent that my husband is suffering from route amnesia – ‘this next bit’s all flat,’ he says, just as the path takes yet another upward curve before finally descending to Jevington, home to the 300-year old Eight Bells pub and St Andrew’s Church, where the Saxon tower, built of flint and local sandstone, is over 1000 years old.

It’s a bit early for a drink so we press on, winding through Friston Forest to reach a well-groomed path on the roof of the downs, with 360-degree views. Below, the 235ft Long Man of Wilmington is etched on the hillside.

Three or so miles and one tricky descent later, we hit the road and cross the Cuckmere River, following it into the picture-postcard village of Alfriston. It’s definitely time for some sustenance now and we’re spoilt for choice – but the window display of freshly-baked scones in The Singing Kettle wins out. Rested and revived, we retrace our steps back across the bridge, this time heading south towards Litlington before the inevitable climb, which rewards us with views of Cuckmere Haven and the sea.

It’s when the Seven Sisters first appear that the wowing starts. The whiteness of the vertical cliffs, the jaggedy ins-and-outs of the headlands, as if great bites have been taken out of them… It’s breathtaking, literally and figuratively. You puff up each of the seven peaks, thinking bad thoughts about running and scolding yourself for not finding a more relaxing way of spending a day off – until you reach the top, gasp at the view and gallop gleefully down the other side.

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When the cottages, car park and decommissioned Belle Tout lighthouse at Birling Gap come into sight, we’re ready for more refuelling – and who can resist a National Trust café? The Gap is one of the few places along this part of the coast that you can actually get down to the beach – via a steep metal staircase. It’s not a day for a dip, but it’s worth the descent to see the chalky cliffs close up.

Now it’s ‘just’ Beachy Head to conquer before we fasten our seatbelts for the descent into Eastbourne. This is some climb, but the surface is good – the grass so short, it’s as if it has been trimmed with nail scissors. Below the vivid green downs, the sea swirls around the jaunty red and white striped Beachy Head lighthouse. It’s a wonder the cliff edge isn’t fenced off – at 531 feet, this is the highest chalk sea cliff in Britain – but the views are all the more wondrous for this openness.

By now I’m weary, and as we reach the top of the hill we climbed out of Eastbourne this morning, I marvel at the breakneck speed Jeff – and other Beachy Head marathoners – manage once they get a whiff of the finish line at its foot. I’m quite seriously considering sliding down it on my bottom.

Jeff-Pyrah-winning-marathon

By the time we reach the trail post, we’ve clocked up a tad over 20 miles and the daylight is just beginning to fade. It’s definitely time for that drink now…

Want to come on our Beachy Head Trail Adventure? Our next trip is on Sunday, June 16th 2019, just a few places left.

Details at https://www.facebook.com/wearerunningforever under ‘Events’.

 

 

A race against time to get back to fitness

After being felled for nine days by a brutal virus, my marathon is hanging in the balance…

I’m facing the situation with equanimity and I’m not sure if this signifies a new maturity and perspective or suggests I don’t care as much as I used to about my running goals. As a dedicated over-analyser, the fact that I don’t have the energy for such navel gazing right now is a clear sign that I’m not fully recovered. For the moment, it simply feels good to be upright again.

The day before the virus struck, I ran 9 miles, 6 of them a tad faster than marathon pace. It felt unreasonably hard, and I should have suspected something was amiss. The next morning – Saturday – it was too late to cancel my coaching duties and I muddled through two hour-long sessions before heading home and climbing straight into bed, fully clothed and shivering. When I woke up, feverish, late in the night, I still had a stopwatch and whistle around my neck.

 

I didn’t get back out of bed again until the following Saturday and it took me a further two days to put on my running shoes to see if I had anything to give. Not much, it turned out. But two miles is better than being stationary and whatever panic my mind conjures up about how little time I have left and that 20-miler I missed on Sunday, my body knows that it needs to ease back in gently, deadline or no deadline.

Detraining

I’m thankful to my dear Garmin for notifying me at regular intervals that I am DETRAINING. No shit, Sherlock! But the scientific research makes for dispiriting reading. Studies suggest that fitness declines are sharpest in the first 12-14 days of inactivity, levelling off thereafter. One study of trained athletes found that levels of enzymes associated with endurance performance halved in 12 days, while VO2 max dropped by 7%. Another study showed a rapid reduction in blood volume, a lowering of lactate threshold and a greater reliance on carbohydrate metabolism (instead of fat). But on the brighter side, the research suggests it doesn’t take as long to regain recently-lost fitness attributes as it did to earn them in the first place.

I just have to hope I still have time to make the start line at Brighton.

 

 

Listening to your running body

If you listen to your body, what do you do when you hear a red flag flapping in the breeze between your ears?

‘Listen to your body.’ You’ve heard it a million times if you’re a runner, and you know that it means you have to pay attention to those warning signs of forthcoming doom in the guise of injury, pain, illness or temporary burnout.

But it’s not always that easy to tell exactly where these warning signs are coming from. Are they kosher? Have they been issued by the central governor in your brain (who I like to think of as my inbuilt hard-hat-wearing health and safety officer)? Or are they from a different place in your mind – perhaps a region of the brain concerned with motivation or emotions?

The reason it matters is that it might affect what you do when you ‘listen in’ and hear a red flag of some kind flapping in the breeze between your ears. Is it the rational, if somewhat over-zealous governor speaking? Or is the ancient reptilian part of your brain trying to protect you from attempting something that might cause you discomfort or that you might not succeed at – like an 18-mile long run with the last four miles at goal marathon pace?

Yesterday, my plan was exactly that run. But I woke up under a dark cloud and the idea of surmounting such a session felt almost impossible. My muscles ached as if I’d already done the bloody thing, and I was devoid of bounce. Aah, I thought. Better listen to my body. It’s definitely saying ‘no thanks.’

Decision made, my mood brightened and I got on with other things. Physical stuff, like digging in the garden and chopping wood. By late afternoon I was so energised I felt inclined to do the run – but knew there wasn’t enough daylight left to fit it in.  Tomorrow, then.

That is, today. It loomed large in my mind from the moment I woke up. My calf felt tight. My stomach felt a bit funny. My socks didn’t seem to fit right when I put them on, making me worry about chafing and blisters. But this time, I acknowledged the alerts and carried on with my run preparation regardless. This, I decided, is not physical, it’s mental.

The run started off feeling harder than it should. ‘WE FEEL TERRIBLE!’ my body told my central governor in a panic (it’s always shouting). ‘HOW WILL WE MANAGE 18 MILES? WE’VE ONLY DONE TWO AND WE’RE EXHAUSTED!’ ‘We’ll be OK,’ replied the guvnor. ‘We’ve got plenty of water and energy gels and it’s a beautiful day. Only seven more miles till we turn for home…’

I shaped my face into a smile (making sure to include my eyes in this forced expression of joy) and carried on. I took in the vivid blues of the sea, lakes and sky, and the yellows and greens of the fields. I listened to the birds singing, ate my energy gels, turned at 9 miles and sped up at 14. And I made it home without my calf (or indeed, anything else) hurting, my stomach exploding or my socks chafing.

Listening to your body is good advice, but knowing whether it’s got something worthwhile to say can be a tricky business.

 

Nifty fifty? Sub 3.30 or bust at Brighton marathon

I’ve got a big birthday coming up this year. I’ve set myself a challenge to attempt before it arrives – a sub-3.30 marathon. I last achieved the heady heights of a sub-3.30 ten years ago, and thought I’d packed away my PB-chasing shoes over the distance (my only two marathons since then have been as a London Marathon sub-4.30 pacer and a windswept hilly affair in Orkney). But I’ve surprised myself with a hankering to know where I stand against the 26.2-mile beast as I approach my half-century. So, on April 14th I’ll be toeing the line of the Brighton Marathon.

I’m excited rather than scared. OK, I’m a little scared (any goal that’s worthy of your pursuit should send at least a tiny shiver down your spine) – but unlike in my younger years, the fear isn’t of failure, it’s a healthy dread of the hard work and discipline I’ll be putting in over the coming weeks.

Being the wise elder that I now am (!) and with ten more years’ experience of coaching runners, I’m fully aware that there’s a lot more to attaining a goal than picking one off the shelf and doing what it says on the tin in order to achieve it. When runners approach me about coaching, they often say ‘I’d like to go for the sub-4 [or sub-3 or sub-whatever] please,’ as if they were picking something off a menu. The assumption is that providing they do everything the programme says, they’ll get there. But it’s not that simple. You and I could follow the exact same training plan and run the same race but get totally different results because we’re bringing two completely different bodies, sets of genes, experiences, mindsets, strengths and weakness to the table. There is no set formula – for example, 40 miles a week, or three 20-milers – that everyone gunning for sub-3.30 must follow. Some will do far less and still get there – others could tick all the right boxes but fall short, or end up injured and not even make the start line. The truth is that coaching doesn’t start with the programme, it starts with the person. And if there’s any runner’s strengths and weaknesses I know inside out, it’s surely my own.

“Coaching doesn’t start with the programme, it starts with the person.”

I view putting a training programme together the same way I do cooking. At first, you follow a recipe to create the desired dish. But over the years, you become more like the Swedish Chef in The Muppets – omitting certain ingredients while adding a sprinkling of this and a dash of that to tailor it to your own requirements and preferences.

Given what I’ve said about individuality, it would be foolish to share my marathon plan with you, even if you, too, are 49½ years old and looking to relive your glory days. But I will tell you that it is built around a fortnightly cycle, rather than a weekly one, in order to fit in a range of different training intensities without overloading myself or omitting those all-important easy runs. And that I’ll be hitting my peak weekly mileage earlier – and staying there for longer – than I used to, allowing me to focus on increasing pace and leaving space for cutback weeks before a taper.

There are no guarantees, of course. It’s an experiment – an educated guess based on what I’ve learned about myself as a runner over three decades but especially the most recent one, in which I’ve come to accept that you can’t simply bend the body to fit the mind’s will. But perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned thus far is that while having goals adds purpose, structure and excitement to your life, it’s the pursuit that provides these, not the attainment. And on that, there is no age limit.

Sam VLM hi res
Pacing VLM – a fun and rewarding day out!
This article appears in my Murphy’s Lore column in Runner’s World magazine’s March 2019 issue.

 

 

 

Turning over a new… calendar

There are 364 other days of the year in which you can make a smarter or healthier choice – why pick a January day…

When I was in my twenties and thirties, the ebbing away of the old year and the looming of a new one always drove me to my diary, where I’d cram the final pages with my tight, sloping handwriting, casting a critical eye on what I’d achieved over the past 12 months. The verdict could always be summed up with the phrase ‘must do better’ – so every diary ended with a list of all the ways in which I would do – and be – better in the next year. I’d lose weight, get fitter, be more positive, drink less wine and coffee, read more classics, take better care of my skin, stop falling for unsuitable men, call my mum more, spend less money, eat more vegetables…

Somewhere along the line, I stopped keeping a diary (other than a training journal). And though it took a little longer, I also stopped falling for the allure of the ‘new year, new you’ myth too. There are 364 other days of the year in which you can make a smarter or healthier choice – why pick a January day that falls hot on the heels of what is, for many, a hectic and stressful period?

And anyway, the key to lasting life change isn’t to make a decision once (a resolution, if you like) but to make that decision every day. Getting up today and going running doesn’t make you a runner – it’s getting up next week, next month, next year that turns a decision into a choice. A choice that has a meaningful impact on your life, simply through repeated practice.

That’s why any decisions you make about how you’re going to live in 2019 should give you a good feeling – make you smile – give you butterflies – not reek of punishment or denial. Whatever changes you’re going to make, start when you’re ready – and enjoy the journey. Happy New Year.

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