London marathon 2019 - race report

2 May 2019, 16:34

Last year I got sick for 5 months with multiple viral infections and needed chemo to get rid of the last one, and then it took another 6 months to rebuild my immune system after the chemo. As a result, I couldn’t really stand up for more than a few minutes during that time, let alone run, so I had to DNS or defer every race I cared about.

I started off this year with a sold two months of training in attempt to rebuild what I’d lost in 2018, but then I got ill again for the whole of March. So I was left yet again having to DNS The Big Half, and cram the rest of London Marathon training into the 4 weeks I had left, which I absolutely couldn’t have done without my long-time coach, Barbara at Energy Lab. Even with her expert guidance, however, I was nowhere near back to my usual fitness level come race day so I knew that this year would be my slowest marathon ever. But it was also oddly freeing as I’d never run any of my six previous marathons without chasing some sort of time or qualification.

I also did some soul-searching from my sickbed and realised that being ill every Spring was something I can no longer avoid (despite my best “crazy germ lady” efforts!) and I needed to change my life to work around being ill every Spring rather than being frustrated and disappointed every time my body let me down and got in the way of my ambitions. So this London marathon would be my last for a long time, and I’ll be concentrating on Fall marathons in the future, since I can quite reliably train over the Summer. And if this is the price for being alive the past ten years since my bone marrow transplant, then I have to accept that.

VLM kit flatlay

If this was going to be my last London, then by god I was going to enjoy every second of it. This was my only goal for this race, and I achieved this and then some. I can honestly say that I enjoyed EVERY single step of this race.

I ran with a massive grin on my face from start to finish.

Unlike my other marathons, this never got tough, and I never had to “dig deep”. I ran easy and chatty up to 25k with a friend I made along the way (Hi Mark!), stopped to soak up EVERYTHING at Run dem Crew‘s cheer point at Mile 21 as I knew it’d be my last chance to feel the energy and love, and I even picked up the pace for the Embankment, passing everyone in the last few kilometers to sprint across the line.

Tower Bridge selfie with Mark
My new friend, Mark, and I at Tower Bridge

I ran this marathon, like all my previous marathons, in gear I’d made myself. Specially, I used the Active Leggings design from my “Sew Your Own Activewear” book, shortened to above the knee with an added back waistband pocket to bring the pocket count up to a whopping FIVE POCKETS! I had plenty of room for my phone and battery pack, Gu and Torq gels, Shot Bloks, and chewable SaltStick Tablets (I’m a very salty sweater and I find the salt helps me even more than the gels!). I finally ditched my hated Brooks Pure Flow shoes for distance running (good riddance!) and a month before I’d bought some Merrell Bare Access Flex shoes to use instead, and I adore them! It’s really difficult to find a barefoot-friendly shoe (wide toe-box, lightweight, zero-drop) with just a little bit of cushioning for longer distances on the road, but these have really ticked all the boxes for me.

High five at Mile 21
Photo credit: Rich Williamson

I also had the pleasure of trying out a new product, ChafeX, which I’d ordered from the States after I’d seen it mentioned in ultrarunner Stephanie Case’s brilliant Barkley Marathons race report. It claims to change the outer layer of skin to prevent chafing and blisters, which intrigued me. I’ve always struggled with blisters on the balls of my feet and big toes, and it’s been especially bad this year for a variety of reasons, meaning I’d get horrific blood blisters (and regular blisters) in much shorter training runs, even through KP tape or Body Glide. Even though I only got to apply ChafeX the day before and the morning of the race, it worked like a freaking dream (they recommend starting three days before your event, but it only arrived in the post the day before)! Honestly, I’m so impressed and so pleased I took the risk of trying it out anyway, as I didn’t get a single blister or hot spot on the bottoms of my feet, which is as close to a miracle as I’ll ever see! I only ended up with a blister on the upper inside edge of each big toe, which is entirely my fault as I forget to apply it there!

Hug with Charlie at Mile 21
Photo credit: Simon Roberts

But seriously, not having pain from hotspots or blisters was such a contributing factor of my enjoyment of the race – it meant I wasn’t wincing at the impact or rough road surfaces later on in the race, and it meant I wasn’t changing the way I ran to make landing on blisters less painful, meaning I had absolutely no muscular niggles or pulls or cramps, either. Happy feet, happy Melissa!

Confetti at Mile21
Photo credit: Annie Clarke

I had an absolute BLAST, and it was the happiest I’ve felt in a long, long time. My body may have been through the unimaginable, and it may let me down more often than I’d like, but my body is meant to be running long. This may be the last you’ll see me on the other side of the barrier at Mile 21, but it won’t be the last you’ll see me with a big grin on my face and a marathon medal around my neck.

Virgin Money London Marathon, 28 April 2019, 4:11:15 (Personal Worst and PROUD!)

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Croydon Half - race report

12 April 2019, 09:37

Last year I was ill for 5 months and needed chemo to get rid of the final viral infection. As a result I had to DNS The Big Half and defer my London marathon place due to being ill last year. It’s been two years since I’ve run half marathon distance.

I got ill again at the start of March this year and had to DNS The Big Half yet again…. So I signed up for the Croydon Half, hoping I’d feel better by the end of March (I was, but only just!).

I was back to feeling about 85% better on Sunday but I’d literally missed all of marathon training in March and had no idea how my lungs and legs would cope after a month of sinus and lung infections and three courses of antibiotics!

But I set out to run the first ten miles easy, then try to amp it up for the final three. I knew I’d be running this slower than my usual marathon pace but I settled in around 5:20/km which felt easy despite my elevated heart rate. This was an undulating, two lap course through suburban back streets and the other runners and marshals were super friendly and encouraging so the two times I had to walk short distances uphill to bring my HR down, people asked to make sure I was ok. :)

It turns out that not running for a month turns you into That Person, running with a massive grin and thanking every marshal! Things got hard about Mile 11 but I finished stronger than I was expecting in 1:56. This is a full 20min slower than my PB, but considering all my body has been through in the past 13 months, I’ll take this. London marathon is in 4 weeks and it will be slow, hard, and painful, but I need to say goodbye to spring marathons for a while so I intend to run it again with a huge grin on my face for as long as I can.

Croydon Half Marathon, 31 March 2019, 1:56:24

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DNS / Defer

20 July 2018, 15:18

I had one goal for 2018 – qualify for Boston again so I could run it next spring to celebrate my 40th birthday.

I’ve qualified a few times already, but never quite had the chance to actually run it, but with it being an off-year for the World Transplant Games and my marathon PB sitting untouched for the past 4(!) years, this was going to be my Year of the Marathon.

And my training was going really well right up until mid February, too – good strength training, I was fitting in run commutes to work, and I even got down to my target race weight a few months early, too.

And then I got sick.

At first, it was just the seasonal flu that went around my office. Seasonal flu, but one that multiple people told me was the worst they’d had in decades. So with my medical history, I determined that I’d probably be laid low for 3-4 weeks since it was taking normal people out for a week to ten days. Six weeks later, and I was finally starting to feel about 75% recovered, but missing six weeks at the height of marathon training meant that I’d now have to defer my London marathon place (having already DNSed the Big Half during the height of my flu) and I started looking around for other options over the summer to qualify before the Boston cutoff in mid-September.

And I’d just signed up to run Reykjavik marathon in August when I started to feel very, very unwell all over again. This time, it turned out, I’d come down with three other viruses simultaneously, all three of them very long-lingering and particularly nasty.

Culprit one – Parainfluenza. Despite the name, it’s not actually a type of flu, it can hang around for months, and knock you absolutely flat. And there’s no treatment.

Culprit two – Adenovirus. Apparently there is a treatment for this one, but you’ve got to test positive for it in more than one area of the body to qualify, and I (only) had it in my nose/throat/lungs, which count as one place.

Culprit three – my old pal the Epstein Barr Virus, aka mono, aka glandular fever. Nearly everyone has EBV laying dormant inside them at all times, but only special, immunosuppressed flowers like myself get to experience the joys of multiple EBV reactivations (for long-time followers, this is what took me out of action for 3 months in 2016).

So if you’ve ever had, or known anyone who’s had mono/glandular fever, imagine having that for, ooh, three months on top of two other nasty viral infections, after six weeks of horrific flu, and that’s been pretty much the whole of my 2018. I literally couldn’t get out of bed for days at a time, let alone go to work or anything social, and even just walking to the corner shop took an extreme amount of effort that would leave me in bed for the rest of the day. It was so bad that I had to get a “Please Offer Me a Seat” badge for the bus, as I couldn’t stand up for more than about ten minutes. I was beyoooooooooooond bored, beyond frustrated, and literally so jealous of everyone who was simply getting on with their life that I felt angry all the time, too.

Eventually, after being monitored, swabbed, tested, and spending days in hospital (having to fight not to be admitted at one point!), I eventually convinced them to give me the treatment for EBV, because I was simply not getting better on my own, and I had waited more than long enough.

The treatment for EBV is Rituximab, which is actually a pretty cool piece of bioengineering – they take mouse cells and graft human receptors onto the outside, which then bind to your lymphocytes, which are then targetted and killed by your immune system. Rituximab is given for a wide variety of auto-immune disorders, but since EBV lives inside your lymphocytes, it also works for that, too. And by “works”, I mean, it kills off half your immune system while also killing the virus. Yay. But at this point I would’ve drunken yak vomit if someone had said it’d make me feel better, so off to the chemo day unit I went, every Tuesday in June (and then into July, after the parainfluenza came back for a week and they postponed a treatment).

Oh yes, they can give you chemo for a viral infection! Rituximab may not make your hair fall out, but seeing as how they’re pumping animal cells all around your veins, people have a tendency to react badly to it the first time. I thought I’d be safe, since I was given it for my first EBV reactivation right after my transplant, but no, four hours into the first dose, and I started to feel the cotton ears, dizziness, and weird vision that I recognised from my years of reacting to platelet transfusions, so I slammed my hand on the nurse call button. The nurses paused the treatment, gave me two lots of IV piriton while they watched my blood pressure recover from a low of 80/40 (no, that’s not a typo). After an hour’s break, they restarted it, and another four hours later I could finally go home.

Luckily the other three doses were uneventful, and by the start of July, I actually started to feel a bit more energetic! Like, I could walk places and not need a lie down, and I could finally do a full day’s work, and I could cycle commute without feeling utterly awful (as an aside, taking it really slowly on the bike was WAY less energy and stress than taking a rush hour train). But not enough to ride 100 miles on a bike this weekend, so my ballot place for Ride 100 has also been deferred for next year.

So I’m at the point now, in mid-July, that I actually feel about 80% recovered, and I went for my first run back this week – a nice 5km around my local cemetery/park. But this does mean that I’ll be lucky to even run the 10km in Reykjavik next month (they host the marathon, half, 10km, and fun-run on the same day and you can switch between at the expo). And likewise, no British Transplant Games this year for me, as I was too sick during the registration period to have any hope of passing the physical.

And the dream to run Boston next spring is over, as there’s no way I can rebuild from this and qualify in time for September. And more than that, I feel cheated out of 5-6 months of my year. I was sick during the “Beast from the East” blizzard, and I was still sick during the heatwave, for godssake!

And the punchline to all this? I’d actually had the flu jab.

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Embrace the Off-Season

23 October 2017, 18:34

Over the past week, I’ve raised the concept of an “off-season” with three separate running friends, so I’ve decided it’s probably a topic worth discussing a little bit here, especially since many of us will have just finished up our big Fall races and are entering into that familiar post-race comedown…

…And that’s completely natural! If you’ve cared enough about a race to train for it, devote weeks or months of your life to thinking about your training and strategy, and worrying over every little aspect of it, then it makes sense that after it’s finished and the high fades away, you’re left with a bit of a “well what now?” feeling.

So I’m going to first tell you that you need to rest and recover, both physically and mentally. The length of this period will vary based on the length of your race, your age, running experience, and general physiology. In general, after a marathon I’ll take a full month off training before I go back into any serious speedwork or long runs, but equally it may well be less or more for you depending on what your heart rate is telling you (you do keep an eye on your resting heart rate, right??). So take lots of rest days, slob around at the weekends, go for long brunches, and go to bed early to top up on sleep. Take the extra time to do some cross-training if you like – yoga, pilates, and swimming are all good pursuits that you’ve probably neglected while focused on your race, so go and get yourself reacquainted now that you have the time and you feel like it.

But the length of physical recovery may be faster or slower than your mental recovery – the time it takes for you to not only get excited about running again, but actually crave the structure that a training schedule brings. So for me, this means that I’ll step down to a slower group at Run dem Crew and other group runs, both to preserve my legs a bit but also to give back to others and enjoy the process of chatting without struggling for breath. It’s nice to mix with a different set of people, but also to help encourage others who can’t really keep up their side of the conversation without difficulty!

Doggy footprints in the park

But even on my solo runs, I’ll run fewer sessions in the off-season, and frankly, if I get up in the morning and don’t fancy going for a run, I don’t go. It doesn’t happen often, but there’s no point in trying to force the mojo when there’s not even an end goal, and it’s probably my body’s way of telling me I should focus on other things for a while. Even when I do head out for a run, I try not to be too prescriptive with myself on how far or at what pace I’ll run. I like to keep most of my runs at a low heart rate (Maffetone style!), but instead of having the stress of the watch beeping when I go a beat over 140, I instead go for a less precise “mouth closed” approach and choose routes that allow me to vary the length depending on how I feel.

So if you find yourself a bit lacking in running motivation after a big event, learn to embrace the off-season. It’s not smart or advisable to train hard all year long – I can’t think of a better way to encourage injury and burnout. Having these periods of downtime are what allow us to train to our peak during the training phases, and you need both to become a well-balanced runner and person.

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Douro Ultra Trail (25km) - race report

11 October 2017, 13:30

This weekend I flew to northern Portugal to run down a mountain, and it had been three years in the making. You may remember that back in 2014 I ran the entirety of Berlin Marathon with a guy named Luis who I only barely knew at the start, but by the finish line had become my brother. For the past three years he’s been trying to convince me to come and visit him in Porto, and this year I finally made it over, with my friend Alex in tow. I chose the Douro Ultra Trail race from a shortlist of Luis’s suggestions because the scenery looked beautiful, there was a 25km option (as well as 15km, 45km, and 80km) which seemed to be a good distance for having a good chat and not suffering too much. Alex has only been running for about a year and never raced a half marathon before but was keen for an adventure, which seemed to be the right spirit for this race!

Melissa race number selfie

I signed up over the summer, when entries for the 25km were a bargainous €20 (plus an extra €3 as I wanted the long-sleeved race tee). I honestly don’t know how they can put on a race for so cheap, as we ended up with the aforementioned technical tee, huge feed station, decent race medal, and a bottle of local wine, too! Having arrived in Porto on a delayed flight, we only arrived at Regua just as the pre-race briefing was starting, and to our amusement, was entirely in Portuguese! Luis and his friends translated what we needed to know, which was really only that there were some irrigation holes about 4km into our race that we needed to be aware of (in reality, the other runners were great about shouting out and indicating at each of them). Everything else was really already stated on their Facebook page and website, so if you’re travelling to this race in future years, don’t feel like you need to kill yourself to get to the briefing on time.

Alex and Melissa at the start Luis and friends at the start

We then headed downstairs to register, which was super quick and casual – each of us got a bag with our number (& timing chip), race tee, apple, and some local honey boiled sweets (hard candies). Our group then headed to an extremely nice local restaurant for dinner then to our hotel just before their midnight cutoff, ready to wake up at dawn to make the coach to the start in time. The ultra course is circular, beginning and ending in Regua, but the other distances start at other points on the route, with coaches ferrying runners to the start. The coaches for our race were super organised, each setting off once full and taking us up hugely steep and very narrow winding roads to the top of a mountain (making me very glad I didn’t choose the marathon or ultra races!). At the top of the hill was an open area with scenic views, bandstand, toilets (with no queue, omg!!), and two groups of traditional Portuguese drummers giving the whole thing a bit of gravitas. After basking in the morning sunshine for a half hour or so, the starting firecracker was pulled, and we were off downhill!

25km start area

And downhill… and downhill… actually, the first 10km were almost entirely downhill, with a mix of loose rock, scree, pavements, and even thick, fine dust that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Sahara. Alex brought along his gaiters, which I thought were ridiculously overkill but actually worked out great, and I’d recommend them if you have them. The course elevation for the route this year looked to be almost entirely downhill or flat, but in reality there were still a LOT of hills. Not just steep hills, but downright ravines in places – I lost count of the number of times I had to use my hands to steady myself on trees, rocks, and the ground itself to scramble up or down a hillside, with only a few places having stone steps carved into the slope to help us out (and again, glad I wasn’t doing the ultra, where runners would be negotiating these in the dark!).

Melissa in vineyards

The result of the first 10km was to exhaust the brain, having to concentrate continuously on where the next footfall should land as well as attempting not to brake with your quads and knees (spoiler alert: my quads were wrecked anyway!). We went through several small towns along the way, wound through narrow, steep, and terraced vineyards, and absolutely stunning vistas. My photos don’t really capture the full beauty of the Douro Valley – every single scene we saw as we turned a corner could’ve been sold on a postcard or printed in a coffee table book.

Melissa and Luis official photo

Eventually we rounded a playing field and entered a larger town, where crowds of people lined the streets – we’d reached the start of the 15km “hike” option, where we got a boost from the runners waiting to start their race, but apparently missed the water stop that must’ve been there (at least we had our CamelBaks – on such a hot day, many others also missed it and were caught short before the only other pit stop).

Melissa posing

I’ve mentioned the heat, but it’s worth noting that it’s not usually 28C and sunny in October in the Douro – we hit upon a rare heatwave, so slathered ourselves in suncream, ran in our sport sunglasses and caps, and wore shorts and vests as a last celebration of summer. I wore my trusty Vivobarefoot Trail Freak shoes, which I hadn’t race in since the Transylvania Bear Race last year. These served me ridiculously well in the Transylvanian (and English) mud, but on the dry, dusty, and rocky Portuguese trails, something with a sturdier sole would’ve been a bit better (and I know understand why Vivobarefoot now make trail shoes for soft or firm ground!).

Melissa and Luis in vine canopy

In any case, Luis, Alex and I stuck together throughout the race, chatting to ourselves and the other runners throughout the race. I got very good at my two phrases in Portuguese (Hello and Thank you!), and I really liked that even with a small field (350 runners on the 25km, plus some of the faster 15km runners), there were no real stretches where you were alone, and the course was incredibly well marked with plastic tape at regular intervals so you really only just needed to follow the person ahead, or glance to see the next piece of tape. At the start, the three of us decided to take a casual pace, chatting, enjoying ourselves, and taking plenty of photos and GoPro videos to enjoy the day. There were definitely points where things got tough, but never any real low points where we stopped having fun.

Melissa and Alex in tough times Melissa and Alex selfie

When we reached the only feed station at 16km, we filled our CamelBaks and set upon the impressive array of snacks with abandon. As a salty sweater, I went straight in for the crisps, but kept coming back to the watermelon slices, too. I swear watermelon has never tasted so good in my life, so I thank the local boy scouts who spent the whole time chopping up fruit in the feed station building! Feeling fuelled but not full, we set off to conquer the final few kilometers back down into Regua, and seeing the Douro River was a big boost, even though only minutes later the course cut through a large section of vineyards that had recently been burnt by the wildfires that plagued this part of Portugal.

feed station

The whole race was a treat for the senses, but smelling the charred vines were in sharp contrast to the fresh air, flowers, and eucalyptus we’d enjoyed earlier in the day. Several other races in the area had been cancelled due to the wildfires, and indeed, we witnessed a fire with our own eyes on the drive back to Porto, so this part of the race really made us feel thankful for the unspoiled countryside we’d witnessed for the bulk of the race.

As we approached the riverside path, we looked at our GPS for the first time that day and saw we were several kilometers short, and were concerned that, even though we could see the race village, we’d have to loop around the town or something first. On reflection, our GPS measurements came up short because it’s measuring from the top down, as the crow flies. But we’d run through such elevation that the diagonal route we’d taken down and up created a discrepancy to the top-down view, meaning we’d actually run ~3km more than we’d tracked. You can tell I don’t run mountain races often – this is probably obvious to many people!

Luis, Melissa and Alex at the finish

We crossed the line at the race village, were awarded our medals and local wine bottles, and immediately the emcee started interviewing me and asking about my race and my world championships and how my health was! Turns out Luis tipped them off that we were coming and they’d clearly seen my number and put two and two together very swiftly, hahah. The race village itself was quite small, but had a good selection of food and drinks (free) as well as a bar (paid) for anyone who fancied something stronger after their race.

In the tradition of ultras, our race was held on a Saturday, which meant we were able to head back to our hotel to wash the copious dust, sweat, and salt off before heading back to Porto and exploring it the next day. We spent the morning hobbling about, exploring the city, marvelling at the vistas, and drinking or well-earned wine along the same river we’d run to the day before.

Melissa and Alex drinking our race wine

Having never been to Portugal before, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but Alex and I both utterly adored our time there. I’d recommend the Douro Ultra Trail to anyone who’s interested, but do not underestimate the toughness of the course. As someone who can run a 1:45 half marathon without too much effort, I expect to run this 25km downhill in about 2-2:15ish but in reality, we finish in just over 3 hours! I’d imagine if I’d done the 45km it’d probably have taken me around 5 or 6 hours, so be sure you prepare and (if possible) get some trail experience on hard, rocky ground, which I think would’ve really helped me.

In terms of enjoyment, adventure, and value for money, you really can’t beat the Douro Ultra Trail. I’m only sorry it took me three years to actually take Luis up on his offer!

Douro Ultra Trail (25km), 7 October 2017, 3:04:18

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British Transplant Games: North Lanarkshire 2017

11 August 2017, 15:28

Hot on the heels of the World Transplant Games came this year’s British Transplant Games – yet more running around a track! In 2015, the British games came before the Worlds, which made them into a kind of practice-run to check your fitness and make sure that everything’s on track, but having them only a few weeks after the Worlds this time around just made them feel a bit… deflated and overshadowed, which was a shame.

It didn’t help that they were held in North Lanarkshire (“outside Glasgow” to you and me) and were therefore a costly and lengthy journey for quite a lot of people, which meant that a significant proportion of the athletes who’d competed in Malaga weren’t there this year. To be fair, my enthusiasm for these games was at an all-time low, and I’d really only agreed to run after my team manager offered to share her hotel room and drive me around, leaving just the cost of the flight to Glasgow.

BTG17 - Haggi with Ellie and Ruth
Haggi the haggis! With Ellie and Ruth…

In the weeks between Malaga and North Lanarkshire I’d only managed to run a handful of times (and only one speed session), such is the way of post-competition illness and recovery, but I physically felt like I still had the bulk of my speedwork training in my legs. But my motivation and enthusiasm were very low, and the weather for my first event really didn’t help.

The mini marathon was held in the gorgeous Strathclyde Country Park (location of the Commonwealth Games triathlon), but unfortunately it absolutely chucked it down for a good two hours before the start, meaning we were all soaked, shivvering (I could actually see my breath!), and huddled together in the few bits of shelter available to us. So pretty much the polar opposite to the oppressive heat in Malaga!

BTG 17 - poncho

If you’ve ever tried to run in a poncho, I wouldn’t recommend it! You’ve basically got to hold your arms out underneath to keep it from sticking to your legs and ending up around your chest! But it was better than not warming up at all, and after the start was delayed several times, leaving us standing in the starting pen (minus our ponchos) for a further 20min, I was starting to wonder what I was doing there at all, and all the places I’d much rather be.

But eventually we set off, and I took the lead for the women’s 3km circuit along the loch. It was surprisingly hilly, but at least our paths were all paved, leaving only some careful footing on the downhills and around areas full of debris left from the previous heavy rain. Said rain held off for the race itself (I guess it decided we were already wet enough), and apart from having to shout at some marshals who seemed surprised to see me, the race itself went smoothly enough.

I was hoping to have a bit of breathing space the way I had in Malaga, but fellow athletes Nadia and Ellie REALLY kept me on my toes this year! I could hear they were close behind me for pretty much the entire race, and I didn’t get a single second to relax as I gunned it hard for the entire route. I crossed the finish line first, but only just – the difference between myself in first and Ellie in third couldn’t have been more than 10 seconds at most! But it meant I got to retain my “first lady” trophy for another year, and earned my first gold of the games, which always makes me feel a little better (though a hot shower might’ve trumped it this year!)

BTG17 - with Kings teammates
BTG17 - with Ryan, first man

The next day saw us on the track bright and early for the 1500m, traditionally my strongest of the track races. I set off at a fairly aggressive pace, but with my usual competitor, Orla, out of action this year with a stress fracture, I wasn’t quite sure who’d come out to play, so to speak. I knew that Nadia and Ellie were behind me again, but I didn’t allow myself a quick peek backwards on the bend until the second lap, when I saw they were together about 200m behind. I kept up my pace during the third lap, and then, as I rounded into the 4th and final lap, I waited to hear the next bell, which felt quite far behind, enough to give myself a bit of a breather coming into the finish. I hadn’t quite gained my breath when I was able to see Ellie sneak past Nadia right near the end to flip their positions from the night before, with my friend Ruth finishing in 4th. I might add that all of us are in our 30s, too – clearly the toughest age group for female transplant athletes!!

I then had quite a few hours to rest, eat, and cheer on my Kings College Hospital teammates (what little there were this year!) before the 200m after lunchtime. The 200m is traditionally my weakest event, but with so many of the Team GB athletes either absent or injured, it turned out that I was the only one in my age category on the start line. Score! An opportunity to just jog it in, right?

BTG17 - with Emma and Ayesha

Not really – in my same heat were the 20 year olds (Emma and Ayesha, pictured above) but also, strangely, the 12-14 year olds! This was definitely a first, competing against children! And my pride dictated that I couldn’t be beaten by children, and I knew one of the Kings girls was really quick, so I actually had to push myself, finishing second overall in a time less than a second over my PB in Malaga (and yes, I beat all the children).

BTG17 - 200m with Emma
Photo credit: Dave Medcroft

So I enjoyed a very rare lone podium moment to do my best model poses!

BTG17 - lone 200m podium

I then had about a half hour break before the 400m, but I’d clearly given my legs more of a bashing than I’d realised in the 200m, because as I rounded the final curve into the finishing straight, my legs just… died. I mean, it felt like I was swimming in treacle and everything was in slow-motion, disconnected and just awful. I’ve never ever felt this way in any run before of any distance, and to be honest, I’m not even sure what the cause was. But apparently Ellie oddly had the same phenomenon – the way she put it, she hit a wall at that final straight as well, but was perplexed as to why I wasn’t getting any further away from her!

Note: it’s literally only now, two weeks later, as I’m writing up this review that I noticed I actually ran a PB in the 400m! This might be some explanation as to why I felt so bad, as it’s likely my legs started out at 200m pace!

BTG17 - 400m
Photo credit: Dave Medcroft

Just a brief aside at this point to say that this was not only Ellie’s first year at the British Transplant Games, but she had only had her liver transplant 6 months before!! She and her husband are race directors for the Running the Rift marathon in Uganda, and you can read more about her transplant story here (and you should!).

BTG17 - 400m podium with Ellie and Ruth
Photo credit: Dave Medcroft

At this point in the Games I’d normally be pleading with our team captain to please not make me run the mixed 100m relay, but the eclectic scheduling this year (with the 800m being run after the relay, which is traditionally the last event) plus the fact that the only runners on our team this year were all distance runners (and all of us running the 800m), meant that I didn’t even have to plead – no relay for Team Kings, hurrah!

But I was already absolutely shattered, and really I just wanted to get the 800m over and done with and get to the airport to fly home. So when the gun eventually went off, I led a pretty sedate pace around the track – even a bit slower than my 1500m pace, purely because I knew I was knackered and the horrible finishing straight of the 400m was fresh in my mind. Nadia had already headed home by this point so it was just Ellie behind me, and I could hear she was close behind me in Lane 1. She stuck on my tail until the last 200m or so, and I really only saw her make her move in the last 100m, when it was too late to really answer (as if my legs had anything left to give!).

Even though I got silver, I crossed the line with the biggest smile of the day – it felt right that such a strong athlete should get to go home with a gold, and she had certainly earned that!

The final event of the Games actually came as I was boarding my (rather delayed) flight back to London, when my team captain texted me to say that I’d just been jointly awarded Best Senior Female with another athlete! Even though I’ve won lots of medals in my last five years competing at the Games, I’ve never ever come close to the best age group award (across all the sports), and I was chuffed to bits to hear I’d been given this honour!

BTG17 - medal haul

And now, with my track running out of the way, I’m so pleased I can finally head back to some long and hilly trail runs in preparation for a hilly 25km race in Portugal in October – much closer to the running I love the most right now!

British Transplant Games – North Lanarkshire 29-30 July 2017

3k Mini Marathon: 12:42 (gold and trophy)
1500m: 5:41.94 (gold)
800m: 2:54.89 (silver)
400m: 1:09.23 (gold & PB)
200m: 32:95 (gold)
Best Senior Female trophy – tied with Kathryn Glover

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World Transplant Games - Malaga 2017 - race report

7 July 2017, 17:02

I’ve been amiss in posting the past few months, not for lack of running (or even interesting things to say!) but entirely down to lack of time to actually get my thoughts recorded. In May we went to Copenhagen to visit friends I’ve known for years through running, then a few weeks later we visited Southeastern Turkey for a wedding where I ran along the incredible Lycian Way before diving into ice-blue waters.

And 2.5 weeks before the Games, I ran a time-trial 5k with a friend on pacing duties that did not go so well. We were aiming for a 20min 5k, which should’ve been within my skillset, but I made him work harder than I was proud of, I felt like my heart rate was red-lining the entire time, and even though I crossed the finish line as first lady, I didn’t feel proud or triumphant – just shattered and a bit embarrassed.

So off the back of that, I laid everything out to my coach and she formulated what was probably the toughest two weeks of training I’ve had in the entire four years I’ve been with her. It also coincided with a rare heatwave in London, which meant that for the fortnight preceding the Games, I was cycling to my office job (35min, 10k), working a full day, cycling to Regents Park (35min), putting in 90min on the dirt track with my coach, often in 30+C heat, then cycling home (45min), picking up dinner on the way, shoving food in my mouth and falling asleep. Repeat pretty much daily, though sometimes the track session would be replaced by a solo tempo run or an occasional recovery run. But I didn’t have a single rest day in the leadup, and it was really just fine-tuning my formwork and pacing, which saw me shaving 8 seconds off my 800m and 3 seconds off my 400m in the span of two weeks. Note that this is on top of the 6 months of endurance and strength training I’d already been doing – you can’t expect to ONLY train two weeks for events of this calibre!!

So I boarded the flight to Malaga feeling prepared. but definitely guarded. Training in heat wave conditions was definitely helpful to prepare for the 30-35C temps in southern Spain, but mentally I felt a lot of pressure to live up to the 6 gold medals I earned at the previous Games in Argentina, and knowing that I had ten supporters flying in from around the globe to watch me only added to the pressure.

Opening Ceremony

The Opening Ceremony this year was held in the historical bullring, and the athletes parade was a-m-a-z-i-n-g. Definitely a great way to start the Games off right!

Opening Ceremony

My first event of the week was the 5km Road Race, which is my strongest event and one I’m most comfortable with as a distance runner. I’d vastly prefer a 10k or even half marathon, but as far as races go, at least I’m in my element with a mass start and two laps around a closed course.

Road Race

The race looped around the Malaga port, passing by a Picasso Museum, aquarium, several sculptures, and an enormous yacht as well as a historic lighthouse, so at least I had pretty things to look at to distract me from my screaming legs and lungs. Even though the race started at 9am, it was already 29C and several athletes collapsed on the course from heat exhaustion, so I cannot stress enough how tough the conditions were!

Road Race
Photo credit: Dave Medcroft

Road Race
Photo credit: James O’Brien

The two loop course also contained a handy out-and-back section which is always helpful when racing – it means you can see the position of the competitors behind you instead of relying on your spectators to shout out info. It meant I could also tell my teammate Ruth that she was still in silver medal position on the second loop, as the ladies between her and I were in different age categories.

Road Race
Post race selfie – I said it was tough!!

Thankfully, I was able to retain my world championship title by finishing first lady (in any age category), winning gold in the 30-39 age category as well as team gold for women of any age (first 3 females across the line win points for the team), finishing in 18:57! Though take that with a grain of salt, as many athletes’ GPS recorded it as being significantly shorter than 5km (more like 4.5km)!

Road Race podium
Photo credit: Dave Medcroft

Road Race

Then it was (thankfully!) three full days of rest and recovery around Malaga and Torremolinos to prepare for the track events on Friday and Saturday. In Argentina, my events were pretty nicely spread, with one in the morning and another in the afternoon on each day, but the scheduling was… eclectic if I’m being charitable, and ramshackle if I’m not. Schedules were only finalised at 6:30 on the morning of competition, started two hours late, and ended up with my 1500m being raced at 3pm in the sizzling heat of the day, with a mere 10 minutes of rest before the 400m. Many, many expletives were uttered, but there wasn’t anything to be done but trust in my training and know that all the other athletes were in the same boat.

The 1500m is traditionally my strongest track event, and one I enjoy the most at the British Games, where I often have Belfast athlete Orla Smyth to play with. I love competing against her as she’s a super strong runner who always pushes me to do my best and get to put some strategy into play. In short, it’s much more fun when Orla’s running, too.

1500m Orla and I
Photo credit: Dave Medcroft

So as the gun went off, we both broke away from the pack and I settled into Lane 1, with her barely a stride behind me. I could hear her breath so I knew she was close, and she maintained that position for the first two laps.

Photo credit: James O’Brien

Traditionally, I like to make my move and pick up the pace in Lap 3, but I realised during this lap that I couldn’t hear her breath any longer, and by the time we started Lap 4, her bell sounded about 200m behind me so I knew I just had to push on through the heat to the finish and take gold, only 4 seconds slower than my World Record time I set in Argentina. Considering it felt like we were being melted from above as well as the heat coming up from the track itself, I’ll definitely take that!

1500m podium
Photo credit: Dave Medcroft

No sooner had we come off the track from the 1500m, though, and they were already calling for the 400m. In all, we had ten minutes between races, which was in no way enough time to recover, let alone stretch, cool down, and warm back up for the race. But again, there wasn’t anything to be done, so we toed the start line again, with me in Lane 3 and Orla ahead of me in Lane 4, for what’s traditionally her strongest race (she left me in the dust at the British Games last year!).

But it seems that all the intense heat training with an emphasis on 400m and 200m really paid off! I started behind (such is the way of the staggered start), but as we rounded the final curve into the last 100m, I could see her ahead of me and something in my brain said “this is within your grasp, GO FOR IT” and I just pushed it as hard as I could, concentrating on high arms, high knees and gained ground right up to the finish line…

400m Orla and 1
400m Orla and I

…where it was so close that neither she nor I could say who won, and neither could our friends on the line awaiting the next race, nor our friends in the stands. In the end, we had to wait over an hour before the Photo Finish Booth (thank god there was one!) made a decision and we were awarded our medals. In the end it was decided that I won by one one hundredths of a second, possibly the closest finish I’ve ever had in my life. It honestly could’ve gone either way, and I’d initially thought I’d lost it, so it really is a shame that it couldn’t have been awarded as joint gold.

400m podium
Photo credit: Dave Medcroft

After a brutal day on the track, it was back to the hotel for a very welcome dinner and an even more welcome night’s sleep before returning to the stadium for the second day of athletics. Unfortunately the previous days’ racing had aggravated a stress fracture Orla had suffered in the leadup to the competition, meaning she had to pull out of the 800m. This is normally the race where we’re most evenly pitched, so I was gutted for her that she couldn’t put all her hard work into one last race.

Photo credit: Dave Medcroft

As it turned out, the 800m was the closest thing I had to a time trial the whole Games, with quite a bit of breathing room between me and the Iranian lady in silver position. But even so, I remember coming into the finishing straight and hearing the crowd really pick up their cheers and thinking “are they cheering because I’m finishing, or because she’s gaining on me??” and picking up my pace in paranoia that she’d pull out a last second victory over me like I’d just done in the 400!

After the 800m, I had an hour or two to think about whether I wanted to run the 200m race. Now, the 200 is traditionally my weakest event, and the one that takes the most out of me, and I’d really only put my name down thinking it’d be a wildcard and I’d only run it if it was a guaranteed medal. But I was feeling ballsy on the day, and we’d practised the 200m form and pacing so much in training that I decided to run it, even though World Record holder and fellow teammate Emma Wiltshire was also on the starting sheet.

Photo credit: James O’Brien

The other girls were all sprinters and therefore using starting blocks, but I refused to allow myself to be intimidated and just ran as hard as I could with my arms and knees high, pushing, pushing pushing until I crossed the line… for a new PB and bronze! Honestly, I think I was the most chuffed about this bronze than some of the Golds, and it would turn out to be my only PB on the track this year.

200m podium

Finally, the last events of the day were the 4×400m relays, with us ladies up first and the men directly after. With a few runners out for injury or other event conflicts, we fielded a team of myself, Emma Wiltshire, champion 100m sprinter Emma Hilton, and fellow Road Race team winner Marie Devine. Marie set off first, holding her own against the Hungarians and Argentinians, with Emma Hilton gaining ground in her lap to put us in the lead. Emma Wiltshire further strengthened our lead, so by the time I picked up the baton for the anchor leg (they put me on anchor?!!?), I merely had to maintain what we had. In the end, I think I gained a little bit more ground, but was able to finish comfortably for my 6th gold medal of the games.

4x400m relay
Photo credit: Dave Medcroft

After a quick closing ceremony, it was back to the hotel to shower and change before the Gala Dinner, where Team GB were awarded the team prize, which wasn’t much of a surprise considering we absolutely dominated the medal table from start to finish, earning more gold medals than the second place team (Team USA) had total medals.

As I like to tell people, the World Transplant Games are as much a reflection of the nation’s health service as they are the athlete’s abilities. And as every single athlete who competed had to cheat death just to get to the start line, it really is the most inspiring week of athletics you’ll ever experience. The addition of events for donors this year made it even more special, from the standing ovation received by the donors in the opening ceremony right down to the special medals awarded for the different donor events. You could feel the gratitude not just from the athletes but also from the supporters like my family and friends, who wouldn’t have me around if it wasn’t for my donor.

Team Fehr
Team Fehr, minus Paul and Claire who joined later in the week!

Looking at the medal result between Argentina and Malaga, you may be forgiven for assuming that this year’s haul was inevitable, but it absolutely wasn’t. I was hoping to maybe win gold in the Road Race and 1500m again, but these Games have absolutely exceeded my expectations. The competition was fierce this year, and there were some incredible feats of athleticism on display, truly showing what is possible post-transplant. As it turns out, my 8th rebirthday of my own bone marrow transplant is tomorrow, a timely reminder of the day that my life began again, a life I wouldn’t have if it weren’t for my donor.

All the medals

World Transplant Games – Malaga 25 June – 2 July 2017

5k Road Race: 18:57 (gold) & women’s team (gold)
1500m: 5:40 (gold)
800m: 2:48:74 (gold)
400m: 1:11:39 (gold)
200m: 32:07 (bronze) (PB)
Women’s 4×400m relay: (gold)

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London Marathon 2017 - race report

25 April 2017, 11:27

Having been seriously ill for the first third of last year, I had to defer my London Marathon place to this year. Beyond giving me a sense of humility, perspective, and appreciation for my health, it also gave me the renewed vigour in my training to not take this opportunity for granted. It took pretty much all of 2016 for my body to recover (both from the illness and my first ultra on an accelerated training schedule) and my training since January has also been a bit more experimental than usual.

On my request, I’ve been doing a lot more low carb, fat-adapted cardio training, plus my coach Barbara has been working a lot with me on muscle activation and running form. Cue lots of targeted strength training (hello Monday night 500x park bench stepups!), and my longest runs were only barely 3hrs this time around. But I felt like my previous years’ marathon pace of 5min/km (8min/mi) was still a good bet, so I set off with the mindset to try and “tickle my PB” of 3:30 by keeping a relaxed and controlled first half.

A 20min wait for a bus followed by a further 10min wait for a train (then the 15min walk from Maze Hill to the Green Start!) left me entering the start zone just as the last calls for the baggage trucks were being announced. From there I joined one of the enormous toilet queues, finally getting to the front at 9:58! It meant I didn’t get to meet up with my friend Steph (we had a loose plan to run together since we were going for the same time and in the same pen), and I don’t even know where my start pen was meant to be, but I crossed the line at 10:02 determined to not let it stress me. I opted for my usual road marathon choice of one headphone only with my carefully curated marathon playlist – easy, chilled songs at the start, getting gradually more intense throughout the race when I need the boost. Having one ear free means I can hear the crowd shout my name, or equally, try to tune out the screaming and focus on my music instead when I need to.

London marathon 2017 - mile 12 London marathon 2017 - mile 12
Looking fresh at Mile 12

This was my first big race using my AppleWatch (running the brilliant Runmeter app) as my GPS/pace watch, and I freaking loved it. I set up a custom screen on Runmeter that just shows me my elapsed time and current pace in a large font, so I did a lot of checking my pace in the first half and adjusting my legs faster or slower as needed to stay on that 5:00 target. I was toying with turning off the heart rate monitoring during the race to save battery, but in the end I kept it on more for the record of it than anything else, and it seemed to stay in the mid-170s throughout (Zone 3 for me). The AppleWatch battery itself is brilliant, but I will say that being connected to the phone through bluetooth for extended periods of time absolutely kills my phone’s (5S) battery, so I needed to run with that in a battery case. But considering I threw my Garmin in the bin after near-continuous “Finding satellite” failures plus a typeface I could barely read at a glance, I am all aboard the AppleWatch-for-running train!

For some people, running with a phone, battery, multiple gels, headphones, and salt caps might be an issue, but hey, that’s why I design activewear! With my “sew your own activewear” book deadline being the day after the marathon, my publishers asked if I could run it in designs from the book to help with marketing down the line. I’ve run all 6 of my previous marathons in me-made gear, but I usually wear a Run dem Crew shirt or vest on top. This time I wanted to both rep my crew AND show off my book designs, so I made my shorts and vest from modified designs which will appear in my book (coming out early 2018), and took the vest up to Big Teezar in Camden to get the RDC logo and my name vinyl printed onto the front. The shorts are actually a leggings design from my book chopped off above the knee (which unfortunately cuts out a lot of the design interest!) with an additional back waistband pocket bringing the pocket total up to FIVE. FIVE BIG POCKETS, PEOPLE. My vest takes the offset side seams of one design in the book, but uses the neckline and armholes of a different vest design from the book, and I tweaked the ease to be somewhere between close- and loose-fitting. I know what I like for racing, and I wanted it to be perfect!

London marathon 2017
Running through Mile 21, photo by Simon Roberts

The colour scheme started with the flame-print lycra I got printed at FunkiFabrics, using rust supplex, red supplex, and yellow chitosante down the side pockets, and reusing the red and yellow in the vest top. I was trying not to see it as McDonalds (or Serpentine!), but a friend said I was channelling Baywatch and Hulk Hogan, so I’m going to go with that!!

But back to the race – in a marathon my goal is to reach the first half as controlled and relaxed as possible, having spent minimal energy. So I settled into my marathon pace, kept things relaxed, and kept an eye out for my husband at Mile 12 in our old neighbourhood. Seeing Princes Harry, William, and Kate cheering at maritime Greenwich was more than a little surreal, and running into my 2014 #ExtraMile buddy Ibi on the course at Mile 3 was kinda crazy, but for the most part south London was just a chillaxed blur.

One thing I love about the London course is that, if you run around a 3:30 pace, you get to see the Elites coming down The Highway around their KM35 as you’re going up the opposite side of the road approaching the halfway point. This means I got to see Wanjiru, Bekele and the others in full form from only a few metres away, but also cheer on my amaaaaaazing friend Tom Payn repping his RDC vest on his way to a 2:22 finish! I crossed halfway bang on schedule at 1:46, and it was shortly after this that my first muscle issue began to appear – a curious pain on the top of my left ankle. It got bad enough that at one point I actually stopped to loosen my shoelace, but I’m still not sure what the issue was, as I’ve never had a pain there before in my life (and post-race it was definitely red and angry).

London marathon 2017 - mile 23
Looking decidedly more haggard at Mile 23…

But soon I had bigger issues to worry about, as I began to get some very tight cramps/knots in both quads at the same place – inner thigh a few inches above the knee – again, a strange place and a first for me in any run. This tightness started around the Isle of Dogs and slowed my pace by a few seconds per km. I stopped to stretch out my quads at one point to try and shift it, as well as a quick thumb-massage, but to no avail. It gradually got worse, and by Canary Wharf and Poplar it felt like I had a fist-sized rock in each thigh, making every step painful and making maintaining pace difficult. I kept telling myself “Just make it to Mile 21 [where the RDC cheer station is] and maybe Barbara [my coach] can massage it out…” Mile 21 is incredibly motivating at the best of times, but when you’re suffering, the boost it gives is immeasurable. Hell, even just knowing that it’s coming up will push you to carry on, and when I arrived to a million familiar smiles, high fives, confetti cannon, and hugs, it was just the boost I needed. I found out that Barbara wasn’t there, though (having had to cover a class that day) so I resigned myself to a painful last five miles.

The theme for this year’s London marathon was “Reason to Run”, and to be honest, I was struggling with this in the leadup. I mean, I wasn’t running for a charity, or in the memory of someone, or even a particular time. But in those last few miles, when the pain in my legs was screaming at me to “JUST WALK”, I found my reason to run. My mind fought back, and its ammunition was the mantra “You are alive, and you can run.”

London marathon 2017

The pain in my legs and ankle got worse, plus somewhere along the Embankment the back of my knee started to pop, leading me to try to stretch out my quads again after my leg nearly gave out entirely a few times (apologies to the spectators who got to hear a string of continuous F-bombs…), and finally I just realised that I needed to put my head down and push through whatever else was coming, even if it meant falling flat on my face. So I sucked it up, willed myself forward, and remembered that I was privileged not only to be alive, but to be running again. And despite all the above, I managed to pick up the pace in the last mile for a final finish time of 3:38:58 – not quite tickling my PB as I’d hoped, but still a GFA (guaranteed entry for next year) and a Boston Qualifier, so ultimately worth the pain.

London marathon 2017

So what went wrong this time around? Well, I always say that I learn something from every single marathon, and the take-home lessons for me this time around were:

  1. Pre-race massages are NOT optional. A yoga session the day before helped, but I know that tightness in my hamstrings and hip flexors was likely the cause of my quad distress. I was lax on my massages this year, and I need to do better in future.

  2. I need to increase my Magnesium levels during marathon training. I’ve known for years that I’m a “salty sweater” and a routine blood test a few weeks before the race revealed my Magnesium levels were low, but I found out too late to do much about it. I took two salt caps during the race, but it’s no replacement for regular stores and likely caused the cramping issues.

London marathon 2017

But it wasn’t all bad, and I really do take on board lessons I’ve learned in previous marathons, too. I’m particularly proud of my rock-solid pacing this year, holding back and staying strictly on target marathon pace, especially in the first 10k when it’s tempting to go faster because you feel fine and easy (learnt in London marathon 2014).

London marathon 2017 splits
Check out dem splits! (the min/km column)

I was also absolutely on-point with my nutrition, taking either a gel or two ShotBloks every 5km up to 35 (I brought one for 40km, but I hardly ever take it, and this year was no different) even when I was zero desire to shove another down my face and I don’t feel like I need it and salt caps at halfway and again at Canary Wharf (30km). I also did a great job at staying relaxed in the first half, sticking to my aim of using as little energy as possible to reach halfway. In past years I get overexcited, weave around people too much, and high five too many kids (sorry kids, but that takes energy!), and it really comes back to bite me later in the race. And finally, in the latter stages, I walked through the water stations (learnt in Berlin 2014), and stopped to stretch out my legs when something was tight (it didn’t actually fix it this time, but I learnt in Copenhagen 2013 that a few shorts stops and walking breaks only adds a negligible amount of time).

London marathon 2017

Marathons are an interesting challenge. You can do everything right in training, have perfect weather (albeit a bit too sunny for my liking), the right mindset, but still have things go wrong. You just have to learn from them, come back stronger, and try again next time. I think it’s part of the reason why I keep coming back to the marathon distance – I know I have a sub-3:30 in me – I just have to get all the little pieces in place (plus have some luck with the weather) and have the right day. But there’s no rush – I know my day will come.

London marathon 2017

Virgin Money London Marathon, 23 April 2017, 3:38:58

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Surrey Badger half marathon - race report

22 March 2017, 09:57

I didn’t mean to run this race.

When Events to Live made an announcement a month or so ago that, after ten years of putting on races, this race would be their last, I was really quite sad. ETL are one of the very few events companies that I would go and enter races from specifically because they were putting them on. They always chose fantastic, interesting routes around the Surrey Hills, yes, but you could just tell that the organisers cared deeply about the people running it and there was always a family feel to each one. Their best known race is undoubtedly Bacchus (which I’ve run twice and will carry on, organised by Denbies Winery in the future), but their smaller races have been just as enjoyable for me, and I know that I will have a fabulously good time whenever I sign up to an ETL race. I just thought I’d have years to try them all!

When they announced that Surrey Badger half would be their last, I didn’t think I’d be able to run it, as it was only a few weeks after Cambridge Half and the day after a big Team GB training session in Coventry, where I’d be running a hard track session. But as it turned out, I just ended up doing some easy miles on the track with my teammate Ruth instead (another trail runner and Bacchus alumni), and after I got home that evening I was still feeling good, but unsure about where I fancied heading for my planned “two hour trail, HR zone 2” run in the morning.

Badger selfie

And then I saw ETL tweet that on-the-day entries would be available for the Badger. And miraculously, engineering works had spared the Waterloo-Dorking line so I could get down there for the start. It seemed like the Universe was pointing towards me moving my planned trail run to the Surrey Hills instead, and so I got up early and hopped on a train for the second day in a row.

Usually I race in a Run dem Crew tee to pay back my crew for everything they’ve done for me, my health, and my running, but this time around I wanted to run as a celebration for everything ETL had done for the running community and my growing love of long trail runs (if it wasn’t for their runs, I doubt I would’ve signed up for Transylvania, for instance!). So instead I wore my Bacchus 2013 tee, paired with my Steeplechase capris made in fabric designed by Laurie King, who designs all the medals and shirts for the ETL races and is well known in the area (prompting lots of compliments from other runners!).

Melissa and Laurie at the Badger half
Myself and Laurie King, who designed both my capri fabric and my Bacchus race tee!

I’d never run this particular course before, but, having studied the route on the train ride down, it appeared to be fairly similar to the 2nd lap of their Three Molehills race, which I’d run a few years back in biblical weather. The Badger takes a nice loop around the vineyards to thin out the field, then a few straight miles on a tarmac path along the motorway – easily the most boring part of the race, but it meant I was able to get some decent speed in and also meet a nice chap named David, who was running it for the third time and hoping to break 2 hours. That’s the other thing – I always end up chatting to people more in trail races than road, and I kept catching up with David throughout the race and saying hello.

As I meant to treat this as a training run rather than a race, I set off thinking I’d keep the pace relaxed and just enjoy myself and the gorgeous scenery and spring flowers. I wasn’t vigilant about staying in heart rate Zone 2, but I didn’t want it to go too high either, mind. Once the route finally left the motorway, it was all trail and logging roads, and a ton of hills!

Badger elevation

Now, I’ll take an undulating course over a flat one any day as I just think the variation is more interesting, but in the spirit of keeping my heart rate down, I opted to walk up nearly all of the hills. This meant that I was passed by a few stalwarts chugging away up the hill, but in every single occasion, once I reached the top of the hill feeling fresh as a daisy, I’d blow past them and never see them again. So what started off as a “preserve the HR” strategy actually ended up being a speed strategy! For years I was that runner who thought that walking was giving up, but seriously, I’m won over to the ultra mindset now – walking up hills frees you up to be able to run harder on the flats and downhills, plus gives you an opportunity to eat or drink and actually get it down. It just makes sense.

What started off as a training run mindset gradually ended up morphing into “just let the legs do what they want to do” run instead, so at times that meant walking, but at other times it meant just letting loose like a Kenyan. I think this freedom from a set pace goal plus the gorgeous woodland scenery went a long way towards this being one of my most enjoyable runs for ages. I also noticed that, just like in Cambridge, I caught a second wind around Mile 10 or so and just flew, really easy strides, passing people left and right (including David, who I’d been just behind for most of the race) and just feeling like it had all come together. I continued that streak into a sprint across the finish line with 1:56 on the clock, then turned around to cheer rather than join the teeshirt queue just to see if my new friend would make it in time. I waited what felt like an eternity, cheered in a few more runners, and there he was, finishing in 1:58 with a massive grin on his face.

Badger tee and beer

There weren’t any medals for this race, but instead we got a lovely teeshirt (which I’ll actually wear and cherish!), plus a bottle of beer and chocolate and biscuits galore (not seen in photo – already eaten!). Which isn’t quite the post-race hog roast and wine that Bacchus delivers, but an awfully fine end to a fine, fine race.

Badger beer selfie

And if Events to Live had to pick a final race in order to move on to new things, then they couldn’t have gone out on a bigger high. They’ve created quite a legacy in the Surrey trail running world, and they will be sorely missed.

Post-race Badger pose

Spring Surrey Badger, 19 March 2017, 1:56:26

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Cambridge Half Marathon 2017 - race report

8 March 2017, 10:52

I never quite got around to giving you all a winter training update (what can I say, running your own business whilst marathon training really leaves little time for anything else!), but the short version is that it’s been going well. After putting on a few extra pounds over Christmas and generally feeling “blah”, I returned to my good friend Maffetone in a big way. Low-carb isn’t the enemy of endurance training, it turns out, and I highly recommend the book Primal Endurance as a good blueprint for how to maximise training gains while eating low-carb. I even bought a copy of it for my coach so she can adjust my marathon training plan a bit, as I’ve been struggling with interval work in the meantime.

I only mention this as it’s tangentially important to lessons learned during the Cambridge half. Much more relevant, though, is my medical history, as I’ve had two separate illnesses during training – a head cold in January that miraculously only lasted a week (since my transplant, I’m lucky if I’m over a bug in 3 weeks!), and a sinus infection that left me in bed and hopped up on Night Nurse the week leading up to this race.

Granted, I did start to feel a bit perkier on Friday and Saturday, but earlier in the week it was looking like I’d not even be able to party pace it, let alone gun for the PB as I’d hoped. But with my energy levels back up to about 80% and some well-planned nose blowing the morning of the race, I had re-aligned my expectations again to try and treat it as a solid training run. The weather forecast deteriorated as my health improved, however, leaving us with freezing temperatures (6C), pouring rain, and high winds on race morning. Luckily I came prepared – full leggings, thermal long-sleeved top (with hand mitts!), and RDC shirt to run in, plus a sacrificial jumper and hat for the start as well as the ever-chic binbag to keep the wind and rain off (don’t knock it til you’ve tried it!).

Binbag at the start

A sub-1:45 predicted finish placed me in the fastest start pen with the bulk of the club runners, so I positioned myself near the back and mentally prepared myself to be overtaken a lot. The rain came lashing down almost the second we started, which helped to keep me from getting too excited in the first few miles, as did the general crowding through the one-lane sections through the city centre. Since my AppleWatch (running Runmeter) was under my long sleeve, I generally ran this race on feel for “comfortably hard”/tempo pace, and only pulled up my sleeve to check my actual pace a handful of times (and was generally pleased that I was going faster than I’d thought).

When I previously ran this race in 2015 it was comprised of two loops, mostly through town, but last year they switched to a single-loop course to increase the numbers (as single loops can take the full width of road instead of splitting in half for Lap One / Lap Two runners). The route now starts and ends on Midsummer Common, goes through the city centre and past Kings College, then heads out into the countryside to Trumpington and back around before taking some nice twisty-turny bits through town and then repeating the first 2-3 miles of the race to finish at Midsummer Common again.

I personally give the new route two thumbs up – I really like two lap courses in unfamiliar towns as I visually know how far I’ve got to go the second time around, but repeating the first/last few miles of the course serves the same purpose for me, and I quite liked seeing a bit of countryside and fields, even if they were really windy and sparsely supported. Speaking of support, my favourite cheerer of the day was a little dog riding in its owner’s front bike basket, barking support as his owner rode alongside the runners! Very Cambridge.

As for my race, I continued along at my “comfortably hard” pace for the first 7 miles with no real issues. I ran into my friend Ben from RDC just before Mile 6 and ran with him for a few minutes before he needed to stop and stretch out his ankle, but I was otherwise on my own and without headphones (as per race rules). I only grabbed a few sips of water at the stations at Miles 2 and 6, but when I hit Mile 7 I could feel myself dimming and knew I’d need to grab a gel at the Mile 8 station (thankfully they were High 5 isotonic, a brand I’d tried and liked in the past). My months of training under my cardio heart rate threshold had done wonders for my fat-burning ability, but at the pace I was going I know my body would be consuming a mix of fat and glycogen, and at Mile 7 the glycogen stores were just a bit too low. But the gel at Mile 8 (and half of another at Mile 10) really did the trick, gave me a sugar high (it’s been so long since I’ve eaten anything sugar that carrots honestly taste sweet!), and helped me to glide on through to the finish maintaining that same pace. So now I know that I can easily go a good 6 miles at slightly-faster-than-marathon-pace without the need for fuelling, so I can plan my nutrition for London marathon accordingly.

Cambridge Half medal

Even though I was overtaken quite a bit at the start of the race (and the 1:45 pacers when I stopped to open my gel packet at Mile 10), I ended up passing a ton of people in the last few miles, as normally happens when you pace a race well. This is always a terrific boost no matter what the distance, and I sprinted the last few hundred meters to eek out a time of 1:45:59. Now, this is a full 9 minutes slower than my PB (set at Bath Half in 2014), but considering I was still nursing a sinus infection and fiddling with low carb training, I feel that’s a time I can really be proud of. Coming into the race, I’d felt that my planned marathon pace of 5:00/km (8min/mi) was still nowhere near comfortable, yet during this race I maintained an average 4:50/km and felt good. So on top of the nutritional lessons, I’m feeling much more confident that I can maintain my planned marathon pace, especially with another month and a half of training, strength work, and a bit of weight loss, besides.

In fact, the only downside to the entire race was after it ended. The race numbers were allocated based on estimated finish time (so low numbers = faster runners) and the baggage tents were organised based on race number… meaning that everyone finishing at the same time had to join a massive queue for one or two handlers, while the rest sat empty. This would’ve been merely frustrating if not for the fact that it was freezing, we were all wet, not given space blankets, and the VIP area placement made it impossible to distinguish any of the queues from each other. A whippet-thin runner in front of me was literally convulsing with cold and everyone was getting numb in the 30-50min wait to get to whatever dry clothes they’d packed in their kit bags. I don’t know how the organisers could’ve done the bag check so brilliantly in the past yet made such a stupid mistake this year, but seriously guys – BAGGAGE CHECK BASED ON SURNAME. Or assign race numbers randomly. One of the two – it’s not difficult.

Cambridge Half medal

It’s a real shame that the frankly dangerous baggage chaos put a downer on an otherwise excellent race. Assuming they’ll take my advice above for next year, it’s a race I can definitely recommend. It’s great timing for spring marathon training, close to London, cheap (so long as you can snag a place the second they go on sale!), well organised, with a hefty medal, and great pubs nearby to warm up in afterwards.

Cambridge Half Marathon, 5 March 2017, 1:45:59

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