Warning: This is a long post! I promise not all my posts will be essays as long as this.
Friday 5th June
Having not attended the first UKRunChat training weekend in Anglesey in April, I’d read the tweets and pictures from those who were there with envy. They were clearly having a great time and had built obvious camaraderie and lasting friendships. Still, getting away for the Eastbourne weekend would be difficult due to a variety of convoluted prior, longstanding arrangements at work and at home (which had already prevented me from entering the Edinburgh marathon the previous weekend). It would mean a long drive to the south coast after an extremely early start and an extremely busy day, and at one point I tweeted Howard, who was organising the event, to say I just couldn’t make it.
But the nagging sense of just how much I would miss out eventually overrode this, and – thankfully – I signed up.
After my usual Friday early morning start to get to the gym at 06:00, the day itself was as frantically busy as I expected, with both school runs to do (morning and afternoon), a sixty mile round-trip commute for a half-day at work, my manager away, and my wife being on a training course. And packing, of course. However, with all this complete I left home at 17:30 and had a mostly straightforward journey down to the coast.
As well as the running, one of the biggest draws of the trip for me was the chance to meet in person some of the great UKRunChat folk whose running and other updates I’ve kept up with, and been inspired and motivated by, for a while now. UKRunChat is as extremely friendly, welcoming, encouraging, supportive, knowledgeable, inspirational and motivational an online community as I anticipate could be found – and in person, just the same. That Friday night I was one of the last to arrive, not reaching The Lamb Inn in Eastbourne until 21:30, when pretty much everyone else had already met and got to know each other, yet I felt instantly welcome and at ease. Which I thought was rather special.
Soon after, we left the Lamb to head for the youth hostel accommodation which was our base for the weekend. I was pleased to be rooming with David P, a fast runner whose times I’d admired/envied on Twitter. Amy showed us around, and there was a spacious communal dining/lounge main hall area where everyone sat talking. A great start to the weekend.
Saturday 6th June
We awoke to spectacular weather. The forecast predicted and duly delivered a mini-heatwave especially for us in the south east. After a light breakfast we set out for Eastbourne ParkRun. Demonstrating the inclusivity which was a theme of the weekend, there were various combinations of folk running there, being driven there, running back (with a choice of six or ten mile runs) or being driven back. In order to be fresh for ParkRun and a shot at a PB, I opted for a lift – many thanks to Gill for driving myself and others.
Having only previously been to Cannon Hill ParkRun at home in Birmingham, I was looking forward to my first spot of ParkRun tourism. And in addition, I was hunting for a sub-21 PB to take down my previous unrepresentative ParkRun best of 21:16 and overall 5K of 21:04. With a flat course promised, a much smaller field than Cannon Hill, and pacers from local running clubs being available, I was fired up. I was coming to the end of a ten-week training cycle and had already set a 10K PB of 43:46 during the week, and I felt great. Unaware that I was missing a group photo, I did a small progressive warm-up, going up and down ‘through the gears’. Surrounded by other runners, immersed in running, with the sun beating down, it felt fantastic.
We assembled at the start, with various visiting groups including UKRunChat being called out and giving a cheer. The pacers were introduced, Garmins attaining signal bleeped all around, and the tension (for me) built. Then we were off.
I love the challenge of running and chasing a time – even if the times I’m chasing are a little pedestrian compared to others. I love the now-or-never, do-or-die pressure. Standing at the start, having committed to the target by declaring it to others. And then from the off, actually running it, being on the spot, in the moment, having to deliver, no choice, no backing out, pushing, chasing, racing… it stirs the blood!
I’d never run with pacers before, and also I’d never run on grass, which is how the run started before moving onto concrete paths. Knowing I’d have to push the pace from the off to get my sub-21, I found myself towards the front of the field (this never happens at Cannon Hill) and went through my first mile in 06:25, ahead of the sub-21 pacer and a nine second mile PB. My second mile dropped to 06:34, but I usually find this the hardest point of a 5K anyway and it still equalled my previous mile best. By the end of this I’d dropped back to the sub-21 pacer (from Polegate Plodders running club) and he did a superb job of calling out updates and encouragement. From the pace on my Garmin and from his updates, I knew we were ahead of time and just had to maintain this pace and bring it home, rather than keep pushing. The third mile dropped to 06:44 which made the finish a little more tense than I expected and meant I had to push again at the end. But it was worth it: I came in at 00:20:40, having achieved the PB and sub-21 time I’d wanted so badly.
And with the target achieved, the pressure was off. Ahead of me, David P had already finished in a PB time of his own at 00:20:23, and we watched out for fellow UKRunChat runners coming in, hoping to give some support and encouragement. There were more PBs, some great times recorded, some first-time ParkRunners and veteran ParkRunners, and aside from battling the heat all seemed to have enjoyed it. There were more group photos and we set about heading back to the accommodation.
As well as those driving and providing lifts, local UKRunChat runners Jon and Karen had kindly volunteered to lead six- and ten-mile runs back. Along with Annabeth, Bozena and Sherie, I opted for the ten-mile LSR. The pace was to be easy ten- or eleven-minute miles, partly because Annabeth was due to be pacing the Liverpool marathon at that speed the following week (and, capable of seven-minute miles or faster, wanted the practice), and partly to allow us to drink in the views. Because, basking in the glorious sunshine, Eastbourne was gorgeous. Karen led on her bike, and the easy pace through the town and along the seafront allowed for much conversation and stopping for photos. With such lovely views and lovely company, I may or may not have gushed several times that running by the seaside, under perfect, clear blue skies, was just not how I usually spend my weekend long runs. Just wonderful. And I may or may not have taken rather a lot of pictures. (I did do all of this.) A large measure of pleasure.
Back at the accommodation, after a shower and bacon and sausage sandwiches for brunch, the afternoon featured some complementary activities. For me, these were as much of a draw for the weekend as the running. Having experienced a noticeable decline in flexibility as I’ve grown older, particularly in my forties, I’d written this off as a natural and inevitable part of aging. The same applied to a couple of running injuries I’d experienced, most notably a rather badly torn gluteus medius in late 2013 which recurred in at the start of this year. But I’m really not so sure any more that this loss of flexibility and function actually is inevitable and irreversible.
At the start of 2015, with my gluteus medius weakening and ready to tear again at any minute, I finally went to see a physio (via recommendations received via UKRunChat). I’d previously always thought myself a Very Good Boy for doing my squats, hamstring curls and calf raises at the gym every week, believing I was hitting every muscle group, but Gerard and Connie at Barefoot Physio in Harborne, Birmingham, gave me a program of rest, massage, acupuncture and exercises that promoted hip mobility, flexibility and strength. This was a world away from the single-plane-of-motion exercises I was used to. Even with bodyweight-only movements I struggled at first. Then I grew stronger and added a resistance band, and struggled with that instead. Then I grew stronger again. And not only did the weakness/discomfort I was experiencing disappear, for the first time my hip actually felt strong. I regained some flexibility. Previously, I’d been shuffling around the house like an old man; now I could move properly again. My running times improved. And I wasn’t even doing my squats any more!
All this came as a revelation to me, and I became rather more open-minded. So the chance to try some yoga – which I hadn’t yet got round to given how hectic everyday life can be – was something I very much looked forward to. As much for the mind as well as the body.
There are, apparently, many different types of yoga. This was ‘Kundalini’ yoga, and as well as breathing exercises which I found quite difficult, it was very physical. Planks, bends, holding positions – I wasn’t strong enough for parts of it. Once again I was struggling with bodyweight resistance movements, which emphasised that restrictive, single-plane-of-movement exercises at the gym don’t train the body as a whole.
It also emphasised how much work I still need to do on my flexibility: I was unable to stretch my feet back in order to sit on them as everyone else was doing, and sitting in the cross-legged ‘resting’ position was painful because it stretched my hips.
But what I found even more telling was my reaction when the instructor gave us a five-minute relaxation/mediation exercise. While being told to lay on our backs while gazing up at the sky, being calm and receptive to the natural world around us, sounded (and was) wonderful, my instinctive, immediate, ingrained reaction was rigid tension that “I don’t have time for this”, “I’m too busy”, “Relaxing is for other people”, “There’s work and too many other things to do.” So apparently I also need to work on relaxing too. It reinforced my interest in the ‘holistic’, whole-body benefits of running and related exercise.
After this we held the bake-off competition, which was fun. Lots of people had baked cakes during the week and brought them to be judged. I’d had a go too on the basis that, never having baked before, my likely spectacular failure could be very funny. But I’d been given some direction by my wife and daughter (between bouts of hysterical laughter at my ham-fisted attempts) and somehow my ‘Cupcakes That Look Like Medals (Sort Of)’ came second.
There then followed a free-for-all on the cake that remained after judging. I ate more cake that afternoon than I had during the rest of the year put together.
Mindfulness and Meditation Running
For the late afternoon/early evening session we walked to a local park where Annabeth led a session on mindfulness and meditation running. Difficult not to be inspired by Annabeth. As well as having a gift for communicating easily with others, I was struck with a sense that she’d long ago figured out the whole-body/holistic/health approach I was just bumbling into. Through various exercises focusing on different senses such as sight, sound and smell; and counting our steps and breathing during short runs; we learned that mindful running concerns internal and external awareness – being aware of our external surroundings while running, and the internal sensations of our body. And in so doing, being able to feel more of the connection between ourselves and the world. We did some more meditation exercises, and I was pleased to find relaxing a little easier this time. Much to take away and apply. And a very enthusiastic dog being taken out on its evening walk came over and made friends with us all. Cute.
Running from the Sole: Slant Boards and Wobble Boards
While walking back to the accommodation I got talking with Andrew of runfromthesole.com. He’d been invited along by Howard to give a demonstration of the slant board and stability board (also known as a wobble board) he sells, modelled on those recommended by Eric Orton in his book The Cool Impossible. Earlier in the day, and entirely separately and independently, Clare had recommended this book to me. Clare had been struggling with shin splints and was in the midst of making a slow, careful transition to zero-drop shoes and a forefoot-strike running style. Anyone who has read Born to Run by Chris McDougall will be familiar with the logic behind why this should help (see below) – and Eric Orton, of course, is the coach whom Chris McDougall used. The slant board and stability board are essential kit for anyone wishing to build the foot strength required to make the transition to barefoot/forefoot/minimalist running.
Which is exactly what I intend to do. I’d long been sceptical about barefoot running but reading Born to Run rebooted my thinking, and I had become fascinated. I realised that I’m a living case study for its arguments that modern running shoes – with a highly cushioned, built-up heel – encourage an unnatural heel-striking and over-striding style of running that actually causes injuries. Barefoot running (people don’t necessarily always mean literally barefoot: it’s a term which can also encompass running with a forefoot strike and/or in minimalist or zero-drop shoes without a built-up, cushioned heel) therefore pretty much eliminates this. After improving my form to a mostly mid-foot strike I completely fixed years of ‘runner’s knee’ pain that I’d previously considered an inevitable and irrevocable consequence of running and aging.
However I still heel-strike far more than I would like, and I believe that poor form was a major contributing factor to my torn gluteus medius. After dinner (lasagne; with veggie, vegan and gluten-free alternatives available too) Andrew gave a talk on the importance of foot strength and freedom of movement (not constraining the toes, the base for all movement, in tight shoes) as the foundation of good running form. We had a chance to try the slant board and stability disc too. I felt the effects of the slant board not just in my feet but firing all the way up my leg: calves, hamstrings, glutes and – importantly for me – in my hips too. Given the muscle imbalances caused by my exclusive use of traditional, restrictive, single-plane-of-movement exercises and neglect of smaller, supporting muscles (such as the gluteus medius), I was excited to buy a set. (Update: Having now read The Cool Impossible, the slant board features very heavily.)
As well as the slant board, the best thing anyone can do straight away, Andrew told us, was to get used to being barefoot as much as possible. Anywhere and everywhere. Build up some strength and thickness in the skin of the feet, get them used to being in contact with the outside world, be aware of how they feel. Mindfulness again. I didn’t put my shoes/sandals on again for the rest of the evening. Or the following morning, until we headed out for a trail run.
Sunday 7th June
After breakfast we were up and out early for a six-mile trail run across the South Downs, another route planned and led by Karen. I’d never done a trail run before, so once again this was the perfect opportunity to try one. Under perfect blue skies and in glorious sunshine we headed out of the accommodation uphill, then left the main road and headed onto the Downs.
This was easily one of my all-time favourite runs. Perfect summer weather, running with friends, with the world laid out before us, out onto a wide headland with the sea either side – I made a very conscious effort to take it all in, to store it away to be replayed on cold, bleak winter days. I was very aware that I was running in the moment of a memory I would treasure. A very happy run.
And the views really were simply incredible. As I’d gushed the day before, I simply don’t get to do this during a normal weekend run in the city. The pace was easy so there were plenty of opportunities for us to run on ahead and stop for more photos. So again, I did.
And then, all too soon, it was over. Time to pack up and vacate the accommodation, to say our goodbyes and to head home.
I left for home feeling inspired, my enthusiasm fired by the impetus to make some changes: to my running, to my overall flexibility and health, and in other ways too. This blog is one change – I’m sticking my head above the parapet, giving it a go, to see where it takes me. I’ve volunteered to co-host UKRunChat hour on Wednesday evenings too, and I’ll see what else I can come up with.
I’d recommend the UKRunChat weekends to everyone. We could run as much or as little as we wanted; all levels of ability were catered for. Everyone was incredibly friendly, welcoming, knowledgeable, supportive and encouraging. The complementary activities were relevant and informative. The bake-off was a bit of fun, and the social side of things was wonderful. I felt there was a strong kinship between us all, and there was something, just something, about being with other runners – somehow we understood each other.
My only regret is that I can’t go to the next one in Dartmoor in October. I love Dartmoor and would dearly love to go – but the training weekend falls on the same date as the NFL at Wembley… and I already have (expensive) Club Wembley tickets. Instead I shall eagerly await the dates of the proposed six(!) UKRunChat weekends next year. Howard has hinted that one or two of these may even be abroad. But I’m going for broke (literally) to get myself to the New York Marathon in 2016 – I’m not sure I can run to another trip (pun intended). Can I get there? I don’t know – watch this space…