Another big one

When I started this blog last year after deciding my old one had come to an end, I thought I’d be writing about running a lot. It’s one of the things that’s most important in my life and I do a lot of it. Because of where I live and the kind of running I do, I get to go to some pretty special places even when I’m just out racking up the miles. I’ve met some brilliant people through running and it’s fair to say I tend to plan my life around what’s coming up next runwise. It has changed my life for the better and when it goes well, I look and feel like this:

Fling 2
Thanks to Nicholas Beckett from Edinburgh Sports Photography for this fab picture from the 2014 Highland Fling Relay

Instead, over the last year this has become a blog about feelings, about change, and about restlessness. A relationship ended last summer, and trying to recover from some of the things that had happened has taken a lot more from me than I expected. I needed to find a way deal with all the feelings, and writing seems to be a way for me to do that.

But now, I think I’m through the worst of it and I’m reflecting on other things. One of them is quite big and looming quite large on the horizon.

I’m a week away from another big race, another big distance that will once again push me to, and probably well past, my limits. I didn’t know these limits could even exist for me but over the last few years I have pushed and pushed myself onto bigger and longer things. I tend to fall apart emotionally every so often but physically I always seem to hang on. I hope that continues next weekend.

I’ll be running the Great Glen Ultramarathon which covers the Great Glen Way, a long distance path that links Fort William to Inverness. The exact distance depends on who you ask but is around 71-73 miles. I have 22 hours to complete this, and my aim is just to finish it within this time.  I’m hoping to take around 20 hours, and I’d be absolutely delighted if it was around that. There’ll be no sleeping, not too much stopping and definitely no falling in the canal.

I started training properly in December last year with the annual Marcothon challenge. I ran for 31 days on the bounce and only really struggled to get out the door on days 3 and 4, a bit unexpected so early on.

And then work craziness kicked in and January, February and half of March were a total training disaster. I was working long hours at the day job and working weekends doing the rounds of wedding fairs with my harp. I was in the midst of a deeply unpleasant working environment and was arriving home emotionally and physically drained. My heart rate was crazy and I just about hung on to my mental health despite not being able to run very much, but it was a pretty close call and I was shocked by how long it took to shake all that off again.

I started a new job in the middle of March and some balance was restored pretty much instantly. My training diary has been much more consistent since then, I’ve banked some good miles and built up as carefully as I could given the mileages I would need to be doing as the weeks went by. I’ve still done nowhere near enough miles, but by the time I get to the start line I will have run almost 700 miles since January. The whole of last year I ran just over 900 miles.

I’ve trudged up big mountains and picked my way carefully down again (including in rather unexpected knee-deep snow one weekend!). I’ve crossed Helvellyn with a wayward husky who I picked up along the way, just chatting to a stranger and sharing the craziness of the conditions. I’ve camped out in the freezing cold in the shadow of a snow covered Skiddaw, waded across icy rivers, been kissed by a big dog, been attacked by a less big dog, got a bit lost on more than one occasion, been rescued by a fisherman, and drunk beer in the sun after 9 hours on my feet. I’ve learned to confidently pitch a tent on my own, put faces to social media profile pictures, boiled in 30 degree heat in Scotland in June, been half frozen in arctic conditions in the Lake District in May and I’ve finally done something that made my mum worry about my safety. And I’ve only lost one toenail along the way.

Running wise I’ve done a few fast sessions, mostly (and very unexpectedly) along the Clyde. I don’t know what it is about running in the city centre but I go faster there and I love running in my lunch breaks. The only thing I can put it down to is to being fresher in the middle of the day than at the end.

But mostly I’ve run a lot of slow miles. I’m not a fast runner at all, I get in a dreadful panic with my breathing if I push too hard. Given what’s been going on emotionally, I’ve kept my running as something that makes me feel good and have paced things according to how I’ve felt at the time.

There have been a couple of unexpected breakthroughs along the way.

The main one has been regarding food. I had a chat with a nutritionist at one of the shows about what I was planning and the worries I had regarding the length of time being such a big increase on what I’d done before.

I faded badly in the 53 mile long Highland Fling last year as my energy levels were so variable. And I have always struggled with not being able to eat much following a big run and then as a result battled with arm-chewing levels hunger for a good few days after.

We spoke about the importance of not just fuelling to the end of a big run, but fuelling for recovery. This was something I hadn’t really thought about before, and he explained the importance of eating during and just after a run in terms of the impact it would have on my training afterwards. Given the step up in mileage I was looking at, this was what made the penny finally drop and I vowed to make some big changes.

The solution was to start eating earlier, to be much more focused on eating regularly and to really think about the required quantities of carbs and protein. I’m still not good with getting enough protein and my diet needs a lot of work but despite that, I’ve had some great results.

I have been rather shocked at how much I’ve eaten on runs compared to last year. I’m a small girl, I weigh really heavy for my actual size and I have battled with my weight since I was very young. I am very, very conscious of how much I eat. I’ve never starved myself as I love my food too much, but we don’t have an easy relationship. However I knew things had changed when after the Helvellyn day, I realised I’d eaten everything in my pack despite taking a bit more than I thought I needed, and I could have eaten even more still. It was a cold day and I was moving more slowly than expected because of the snow but I was still really surprised.

Long runs are now fuelled on an interesting combination of Bountys, digestive biscuit bars, small tins of Coke and marmite sandwiches with a couple of caffeine gels thrown in along with the occasional Snickers bar and bag of Randoms. I tend to feel a bit like a cart horse on long days but the benefits have really been felt.

The other breakthrough has been appreciating how well my body has coped as the mileage has gone up. It seems that long and slow suits me, and I recover well.

My bad leg has complained a couple of times, and the good leg has taken a pasting making up for the weakness. But thanks to my very supportive osteopath Daniel Gerber and knowing/feeling when to stop for a day or two, I have been able to keep going towards the bigger picture. The bad leg has still not quite recovered from the Ben Venue hill race descent last October (warts-and-all race report to follow at some point) and complains firmly at too much steep downhill. I think that will need to be a consideration for a while yet until I get that leg built back up again – I’ve really missed the cycling this year as it helps both legs work together better.

I’ve chosen my kit for the race, and I might even be standing on the start line in shorts since I’ve found some that are long enough for me not to inflict my pasty wobbly thighs and footballer knees on the world.

As has become the pattern since my bike racing days, my kit is a bit battered, well worn (apart from the new shorts) and has seen me through some big adventures. I introduce new kit slowly, one thing at a time and never on race day. It gets tested on a long training run and is then either designated as race-fit or otherwise, in which case it only gets used on short runs.

Running at Tiree last year, I realised too late that I was wearing a stripy long sleeve top and leopard print leggings which clashed somewhat. Tough luck. Both have done many happy miles, they don’t rub or get overly damp or sticky, they’ve survived endless washing very well and I always pull them on with a smile. It might seem daft but having favourite familiar old friends really helps settle my nerves when I’m fretting.

It’s honestly a total coincidence that most of my kit is my favourite colour (blue blue electric blue since you ask) given most of it is bought at heavy discount and/or a couple of years out of date. Thanks to my gran who gives me birthday/Christmas money and a bit of petrol money when I go to visit, I have an escape/adventure fund and this goes towards my running shoes and race entries etc. If ever I get to go bike racing again I shall have a Sponsored By Granny sticker on my bike. In fact maybe I should put one on my running pack. I think she’d quite like it.

There’ll be a small fluffy lion in my pack too, a gift from my Brownie leader days. This was a really happy (and much missed) part of my life, and thinking of that time reminds me to be strong and courageous when I am flagging, as I know I will. This poor wee lion has been rescued from the toothless jaws of my greyhound on more than one occasion, but lives on to fight another day. The words to Rabbit Heart by Florence and the Machine also help explain the significance of lions for me but there’s also another aspect, perhaps a story for another day.

The race starts at 1am on Saturday 2nd July and the cutoff is closing time, 11pm on the Saturday night.

I’ve run in the middle of the night before, supporting Audrey at the West Highland Way race last year, coming over the Devil’s Staircase some time getting on for midnight. It was incredibly special looking out over the mountains around Glencoe and thinking of the rest of the country (apart from a few hardy fellow runners out in the Scottish Highlands!) being tucked up in bed.

But I’ve never run through into the early morning and I have to admit to being rather worried about this.

At 1.40am the other Saturday morning, I opened the kitchen door to let the previously mentioned greyhound out for a visit to the garden. It was totally dark, and I shivered a little as I realised I’d be about 3 miles along the way by this time on race day.

And then a few nights later, said greyhound needed out at 3.30am, and it was light.

I’m desperately excited about seeing the sun rise over the Great Glen as I head east, and I hope I’ll be in a good state and still smiling by the time it goes down again next Saturday night.

There’s one 10 mile run left to do tomorrow morning, and then just a couple of short ones next week. As is normal before a big event, I’m nervous, but as one of my music teachers reminded me a few years back, nerves can come in anticipation of something exciting as well as for negative reasons.

There’ll be packing, and epic levels of faffing, but the race start will be here before I know it and I can’t wait.

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