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Playing with my food

GFF.Go Faster Book

How to eat like a jolly good sport

It occurs to me, in my more embittered moments, that my decision last year to get serious about correct nutrition for the marathon runner on a PB mission, rather than just eating well and hoping for the best, coincided with a noticeable downturn in running success.

I bought a book (rather different to the one pictured above), on the recommendation of a hard-core runner in my club, all about the rules of marathon nutrition. I followed the advice on fat loading, carbohydrate and caffeine depletion, then judiciously timed carbo loading with a race-day caffeine hit throughout my weeks of training for last September’s Berlin marathon. The result? An uncomfortable race, fraught with gut issues and accompanying mental stress, and, ultimately, a disappointing time.

Berlin 2017 wasn’t my first brush with the fabled runners’ trots. I’d had a stinker (literally!) of a Beachy Head Marathon the autumn before, with many desperate dives into bushes to, er, unburden myself, finishing weak and nauseated, much later than I’d planned.

This spring, I’ve been persuaded to eschew all the science bits and get back to basics. I’m one of Kate Percy’s team of Naturally Fuelled Runners, training and racing on additive free wholefoods, and the recipes built around them, contained in the excellent cookbook Go Faster Food for your Active Family.

Kate Percy and her family are the very model of a sporty, energetic, multi-faceted team. Kate’s a sports nutritionist and a runner, Good For Age and fleet of foot. Her husband, a rugby chap, ran the New York City in an enviable time, using Go Faster foods in training and racing. Her daughter rows, sprints and hurdles for Cambridge University, her two sons are all about rugby and kayaking.

When I met Kate, and had bored her sufficiently with my catalogue of racing woes, we had a fascinating chat about harnessing energy from our food and whether gels really work as rocket fuel for tired runners.

When I described the deleterious effect a couple of caffeinated gels had had on my bowel during my most recent marathon, Kate was sympathetic, and described the positive results her athletes had experienced when refuelling with the little power packs she’s created for runners: Go Bites are made with energy-dense dates, apricots, nuts and seeds. They’re delicious, not gloopy, and their effect is a slower but lasting power hit, a far cry from the glucose surge delivered by gels whose intensely sweet ingredients – maltodextrin and sucralose – can have the unhappy consequence of upsetting an already stressed gut.

Despite being anxious – on my gut’s behalf – about putting all my faith in dried fruit and nuts, I’m curious. Will a concerted effort to eat wholesome, additive free diet in the weeks prior to the Virgin Money London Marathon, which I’m running for the fifth time this April, do anything for my speed and stamina in the long run? I’ve committed to making my meals from scratch, basing most of them on Kate’s recipes. As a rookie vegan runner, I’ll have to adapt her ingredients, replacing the meaty elements with tofu and beans, and the dairy with all things coconut, but that shouldn’t be too difficult. The challenge, for me, is convincing my inner sceptic that the presumed rocket propulsion I associate with gels with highbrow names like Science in Sport, can be achieved with three little balls made rather festive (and somewhat chewier) store-cupboard ingredients.

This is quite a common conundrum, in fact. It seems that many athlete studies have found that jolly confectionery like Percy Pigs, candy shrimps and jelly babies do much the same job as gels, and taste much better. Those foamy candy bananas we used to buy with our pennies as kids melt in the mouth and deliver a similar saccharine hit to gels. However, many athletes dare not leave it to Percy Pig and his ilk to power them through the magic 26.2 miles, so they tear into their gels and decide the isotonic ingredients equate to a stronger, fleeter finish and a triumphant swerve around the dreaded Wall.

There’s no doubt that swallowing a couple of mouthfuls of gloop while running near exhaustion is much easier than chewing through a handful of jelly sweets, but if the apparently instantaneous effect of gel has the side effect of stomach issues, its quick-acting consistency may be more of a hindrance than a help.

In my case, a longstanding Achilles problem has meant, once again, that I’m facing a marathon chronically undertrained, so I may as well spend the time I am not running preparing delicious food under the auspices of Kate Percy’s Go Faster banner, and do my poor, wrung out digestive system a favour.



Blog V55 pic

Could do better. See me, please

Last month I turned 55, which puts me in a new age category, for parkrun at least. Three days after my 55th party I went to stay with friends who do the Peterborough parkrun, and ran I with them.

It’s a popular parkrun, Peterborough, which usually attracts a big field, although on Saturday 4 November the incessant rain kept many fair-weather runners away. Even so, I did my best, but my sadly untrained legs weren’t able to manage anything near a PB- still three minutes off that – but I was first woman in my V55 category, and seventh overall. Those stats mollified me a little, but I wonder now how long I can stand being semi crocked with this Achilles problem. It has been a year now, and in darker moments I wonder if I’ll ever run well again.

Receiving the Finisher results package from Berlin Marathon in the post yesterday intensified the gloom I feel about my abandoned training. Seeing that time in black and white – the stark reminder that I’ll lose my GFA status if I don’t run sub-four hours in April’s London Marathon – has given me the kick up the backside I need to go through my physiotherapy exercise daily, work on my cardio vascular fitness with spinning and swimming, and strength train as much as I can.

My marathon running buddy Sarah and I have vowed to train as seriously and intensively as we can for the next four months or so. As 50-something runners, we’ve both agreed to take part in a veteran athletes’ heart study , which involves VO2 Max measurement, a CT scan, blood tests and further tests in the New Year.

Sarah, on doing the VO2 max was told her measurement was ‘off the scale’

I was told mine was ‘top of the range’

We’re extremely competitive. I have to admit that her superlative sounds more super than mine.

Nonetheless, I’ll take top of the range. Meanwhile, there are further exciting developments to report, and too much work occupying me at the moment to fully blog on about them here. I’ll just keep away from hard training for a couple more weeks, try to manage this injury, do a bit more (paid) writing and check in again when marathon training is underway.



Sense of humour

Berlin blog kit shot

Too many gels in that belt. Next time, stick to bananas


A ponderous performance in last month’s Berlin marathon has left me pondering my relationship with that particular distance. Some bodies are not cut out for it. Have I been deluding myself these past eight years that my uncomplaining knees and natural stamina will yield ever more encouraging times over the 26.2 miles, despite my advancing years?

Perhaps, though, it’s not just somatic disorders that scuppered the run. Sure, a dodgy ankle and attendant Achilles pain, coupled with ferocious runner’s trots (after four Immodium!) and incipient nausea didn’t help, but perhaps everything, mentally and physically was out of kilter that day.

Every body strives for balance: this has been the overriding principle of physicians throughout history. The lure of over-the-counter quick fixes and received dietary opinion had me eschewing, then quaffing, caffeine, popping gut pluggers and ibuprofen, enduring fat-then-carbo loading, sucking on high carb gels…and the results of my preparations and race strategy were not pretty. I was, in retrospect, profoundly unbalanced in my approach, and my bowels told me so, in no uncertain terms.

Mentally, I was no better prepared. Weeks of unfinished scheduled runs, resentful episodes on elliptical trainers and fretting over a puffball of an ankle had made a moaner of me. After the race, my responses to well-meaning running friends who WhatsApped their congratulations were an outpouring of self-loathing, self-loving bile.

When I’d got over myself, debriefing in my training diary about the various bodily functions that had created such distress, I was reminded of the medieval literature I’d studied back in the Dark Ages. The Greeks established that the body has many humours – liquids that either give us life (blood, water) or rear their ugly heads when we’re ill (diarrhoea, mucus). Galen (the Roman Empire’s celebrity doctor) identified the four main humours that gave us various characteristics. They are:

  • Blood, the humour of happiness, youth, springtime and lollipops
  • Yellow bile, a more summery, humour but apt to make us hotheaded and sometimes tetchy
  • Black bile, the autumnal, sluggish humour that makes grumpy, curmudgeonly tossers of us
  • Phlegm, associated with winter, old age and melancholy, the moany humour

Recognition of an excess of one type of humour dominating the body, at the expense of other, led to treatments such a bloodletting, purging and the laying of leaves and leeches on the area that’s giving you gyp.

These days we’re sceptical about the benefits of leeches, favouring statins, antibiotics and 26p packs of ibuprofen if we cannot see a doctor for the next three weeks (ah, Lewisham surgeries, you’re breeding us tough!), but many people are aware of medicine’s humoral roots, and see the logic behind it.

As the bad race receded into the past, my choleric yellow bile of bitterness drained out to its rightful place in my gallbladder, and a melancholic, phlegmatic sense of doom washed over me. I talked of hanging up my trainers and changing this blog name to Granny’s Gentle Ramblings or somesuch.

A load of high-fiving on my Twitter feed, from those who bagged PBs at Berlin and Chicago, contributed to a wave of despondence and hopelessness as black bile engulfed my sense of reason.

Yes, my humours were out of kilter, and producing unseemly symptoms and disobliging thoughts, but there was one that could save the day, lift me out of my slough of self absorption and bring some balance. About bloody time.

It has become a habit to give blood as soon as possible after running a marathon. It’s a great way to check haemoglobin levels, it depletes your energies long enough to force you take a break from training, you get a free chocolate biscuit and it gives you an enormous sense of wellbeing.

The whole experience makes a sanguine woman of me. My competitive nature is also assuaged, as I Tweet out the time it takes me to give away a pint or so of my finest B- (four minutes 39 seconds this time) and my mate David tries to beat it. It’s all good clean fun.

I come away from my donation session with NHS Blood and Transplant a better person. Not self absorbed, grumpy, bitter or melancholic but wearily heroic, revelling in the knowledge I have helped save a life, happy to rest up, take stock and live to run another day.







Load Star

Blogpicload starMatt Fitzgerald is certainly a guiding light for runners blinded by science. In this book, which I have been poring over these past 10 days, he spells out a pretty tasty dietary plan for the week leading up to The Big Race.

I like Fitzgerald’s guidance. He’s a sports nutritionist and his writing always makes sense. Several of my running buddies are smitten by his advice on eating to prevent hitting the wall.

I’ve met that wall (my first ever London Marathon, 2009, tears at mile 22), and I’ve also swerved the other way in recent events (Beachy Head Marathon, 2016: 4 toilet breaks) by over consuming carbs and ending up in digestive distress. Both eventualities proved disastrous, so I’m hoping that this time round, the Berlin Marathon in four days’ time, I will have at least fuelled up efficiently.

Matt Fitzgerald advocates 10 days of messing around with your diet in various ways, and this year, during my taper, I’ve followed the Fitzgerald protocol. Having been hobbled by injury for much of the 16-week training period, the idea of preparing my body on the inside for Sunday’s physical test seems worth a punt – any port in a storm. I’m also happy to concede that many brilliant runners just carry on eating what they always eat and achieve a good time.

I’m currently in fat loading. This means that 65% of my daily meals have to be high fat. So that’s omelettes for breakfast, avocados and smoked mackerel for lunch, more fish and buttery sauces with green leafy veg for dinner, lots of nuts scattered throughout the day and a small amount of berries in my big fat Greek yogurt. And I cannot have anything lovely like bread, potatoes, pasta or rice to accompany these fat fests.

Tomorrow sees my switch to carb loading, so I dial back on fat and let bagels, bread and all things starchy back into my life. I cannot wait.

All the while, caffeine is not allowed. So it’s herbal teas (and decaffeinated builders’) and chicory based coffee-style beverage all the way.

The fat thing’s nearly over. Just as well because it’s not suiting me. Running feels difficult– everything feels more difficult – I fall asleep every time I sit down and I’m struggling to keep up to the speeds suggested on the 3:40 training plan. More amusingly, my fat load has coincided with east London’s big news: the Fatberg under the streets of Whitechapel.

A mental image of my insides all clogged with fat, just like the Victorian sewers, haunts me as I shovel buttery scrambled egg into my maw, while fantasising about toast. And real coffee.

Friday will be quite a test. That’s when I attempt the ‘Carbo Bang’, as recommended by a fellow Berliner who ran Manchester in 3.03 this year. It’s not as sexy as the name suggests. Basically you run a few fast intervals in a session that lasts about 20 minutes in total, before breakfast. Then you come home and chow down on high-energy treats, such as malt loaf, scones, soft pretzels and other load stars. Then you feel a bit bloated, but, apparently, you’ll be ready for anything come Sunday. Especially if you light the touch paper at breakfast on the Big Morning, by downing your first dose of caffeine in over a week.

Another friend (a doctor) advised Imodium. I see where she’s coming from. It’s packed and ready. Alongside the malt loaf. Berlin here I come.



My word, Hillyfields parkrun, how you’ve grown

Hillyfields parkrun birthday funnel

That finish funnel


When it was born, in 2004, it wasn’t called parkrun. It was the Bushy Park Time Trial (BPTT), a 5km race against the clock. I used to see it listed in Runner’s World and vowed one day to give it a go.

What I did not realise is that this time trial was becoming so popular that runners were fetching up from all over the place to gauge their 5k times. In the end, BPTT’s founder Paul Sinton-Hewitt, had the idea of staging other time trials in parks across the country. The rest, as he says, has made running history (and earned him a CBE for his services to grass roots sports participation):

‘The parkrun brand was conceived late 2009. We then formed the not-for-profit company – parkrun UK limited – which allowed all the events at the time to be rebranded as parkruns.’

It wasn’t until the summer of 2012 that a determined little band of Lewisham folk, who were fed up with having to toil all the way to Bromley for their free Saturday 5k fix, decided to apply to the council for permission to establish parkrun in their local park.

I can’t remember how I learned about these plans afoot, but I was in on the route testing, and came along for a trial run with the Hillyfields parkrun founders one summer evening. That gentle run, with people who would become friends, sticks in my memory for all kinds of reasons, the most significant being the fact that I brought my then 14-year-old daughter with me. She’d spent the past eight months in hospital, but by that time was well enough to come out for home visits. She wasn’t really allowed to exercise, but I sneakily brought her along and she loved it. Five years on, she has her own barcode, a clean bill of health and an ambition to join the runners at Forest Rec, or Beeston, or wherever the closest parkrun to Nottingham University may be when she starts studying there at the end of the month.

That first Hillyfields parkrun comprised about 40 runners. These days about 250 people of all ages, shapes, speeds join the merry throng. It’s not a race. Some people prefer to walk. It’s only nerdy obsessives like me who dream of a miraculous personal best, despite injury, hangover, lack of sleep or all three.

Today there were cakes aplenty and a party atmosphere to celebrate five years of Hillyfields parkrun. I wore my 100-parkrun T-shirt, jogged up the hill with my tin of flapjacks and once again coveted the green 250-parkrun T-shirt modelled so elegantly by one of the founders, Siggy.

Siggy (who shares a birthday with me), her husband Stephen, Sarah, Adele, Eric, Margaret, Andrew, Laura, David, Janette, John, Jen…

…the list goes on – are all friends I’ve made in the past five years, because of Hillyfields parkrun. Before I started jogging up the hill with my barcode every Saturday at 8.45am I had precious few local friends and a solitary weekend running habit. Now, whatever my mood on a Saturday morning, I know I’m going to be a beaming, sweaty bundle of bonhomie by the time I’ve had my barcode scanned.

And that one frabjous day (callooh! callay!) when I thundered down that finishing funnel to earn my (now two-year-old) Hillyfields parkrun PB? Euphoria.

The best thing about Hillyfields parkrun? There’s always next Saturday, and it may be the Saturday when my emailed result includes the longed-for words ‘New PB!’



Nothing like the Dame

Refuelling Gravesend Pier

Half a beer, by the pier. My body being a temple and all


We have this land of plenty to blame for the fact that disordered eating is taking on ever more bizarre and exotic guises. From the now much vilified ‘clean eating’ craze to the sort of food fetishising that has people going into orgasms over a cheese board, the idea of a ‘balanced diet’ seems ever more difficult to pin down.

The running community does not always help matters when it comes to being rational about food. The whole ‘run for cake’ business sweeps away all the joy runners derive from their sport and replaces it with a need for greed, rather than speed.

It may well be that the thickening of girth that occurs after the age of 40 has led many a midlifer (myself included) to try jogging before breakfast. But it takes more than spare-tyre loathing to lead you to join a club, revel in parkrun, exalt in cross country and go all starry eyed wondering if maybe, just maybe, you could run a marathon one day. That’s true love, and has nothing to do with cake.

Cake was an option after last Sunday’s long run, but it wasn’t my choice when it came to the brunch.

For a few weeks now, a few members of our club’s What’s App group have been discussing either cycling or running to Dame Kelly Holmes’s Café 1809 in Gravesend, Kent. Actually that’s what I was discussing. It turns out the other two that agreed to cycle over to join me there were talking about the one in Tonbridge.

And so it was that I ran a surprisingly scenic 19.5 miles from my house to Cyclopark, which takes up 43 hectares of Kentish greensward not far from the thundering A2. There’s a BMX track, mountain biking trails, a road track and all kinds of fitness related activities.

Then there’s the café. Perusing the menu as I waited for the cyclists to arrive (hang on a minute, isn’t a bike supposed to get you there quicker than Shanks’s Pony?) I decided that this was the day to get serious about my blameless runner’s diet, and plumped for the Dame’s Healthy Breakfast.

A few WhatsApp exchanges later, when it transpired I’d be eating alone, I settled down to my healthy option.

The Dame’s Healthy Breakfast (no, I did not photograph it. The reason why is in first paragraph) consists of four egg whites, scrambled with spring onions and chilli, served with griddled field mushrooms and cherry tomatoes. Toast is optional (I opted in). It sounds virtuous, and tastes delicious.

Would Dame Kelly, double Olympic gold medal winner over 800m and 2500m (2004) and 3hours 11 minutes marathoner (2016), have chosen toast? Please let her have chosen toast. I’ve met her on a couple of occasions: she’s radiant, slight and sinewy and looks like a sportswear model. It’s not a body you’d associate with the sort of toast-and-peanut-butter habit I swear I need for fuel.

In any case, it’s not the body shape but the marathon time I’m really interested in. Kelly trained properly for her race, and probably had access to all the physiotherapists and nutritionists she needed, but in the run up to that impressive marathon result she was typically self-deprecating ‘I’m not a marathon runner’ and certainly sends out the message that, yes, she would have chosen toast.

That piece she wrote for The Guardian was a joy to read, and the woman, in the flesh, is a joy to meet. She turns out in all weathers to support runners, particularly charity runners. She gives motivational addresses before firing the starter klaxon at races all over her manor (Kent, Sussex) and is always generous with her time.

After my Dame-inspired brunch there was a walk of a mile or so to the town to catch a train home (no ultra runner, me) so I indulged in a couple of hours’ sightseeing in downtown Gravesend. I had a butcher’s at the pier, the art gallery and the Pocahontas statue, and a beer in the town’s oldest pub, The Three Daws, which, according to the Daily Telegraph ‘conforms to all the requirements of a Proper Pub’. The delighted reviewer goes on in praise of the ‘belly busting Sunday lunch’ served here.

I witnessed the good burghers of Gravesend busting out their bellies and was struck by the contrast between Kelly’s sportive café and this gravy-scented hostelry. It wasn’t just the menu. At both ends of the town on this sweltering late summer Sunday, sweaty folk were refuelling, but almost every pub luncher in the Three Daws was at least twice the size of the handful of lean brunchers I saw in Café 1809. Strolling through the town, it was all too easy to conclude that the default body shape in this land of plenty is, increasingly, obese.

‘Inspirational’ is an adjective often applied to Dame Kelly Holmes, and for good reason, but it seems to me that The Dame is going to have to muster every drop of that famous, infectious enthusiasm to get Gravesend cycling for its supper.


Weekend Worrier

Berlin 2013

Berlin Marathon 2013. Happy days.

Various members of my wider family are fond of yoga and pretty good at it. I sometimes go to a class at the local leisure centre on a rest day, like today. After the weekend’s running it’s all my legs can face. Today, the left one complained bitterly, as it was in a bad way after the long slow run, just like last week. The swelling at the Achilles insertion on the heel makes walking around and down the stairs painful, and that yogi way of sitting down on your heels with the toes curled under you can only be described as excruciating.

While striking a powerful pose in today’s class, trying to free my brain of the shrieking protests of my left ankle and calf I thought about the card I’d sent my yogaphile niece for her last birthday. It pictured a frowning woman in active wear, striking the same pose, with thought bubbles all around her head: ‘did I leave the gas on?’; ‘what did she mean when she said I looked well?’; ‘can I afford to go part time?’…words to that effect.

The title was ‘The worrier position’.

There was plenty to worry about this week: from the sucking of teeth by the sports massage therapist who poked my Haglund’s Deformity (see blogs passim) and advised a few weeks off running, only to be informed I’d no intention of doing any such thing until AFTER 24 September. She also said, interestingly, that the fascia under my foot were very tight and needed kneading with a tennis ball. That very tightness was confirmed when trying to make feet bend in yoga today.

So that was a worry, and then there was Sunday’s long run: 6 miles in the park, slowly. Then six miles on the elliptical cross trainer (I defy anyone to get anywhere near marathon pace on that). Then six miles back in the park, also slowly. So that’s 18 long, slow miles. Better than sitting around weeping over my deformity, but only just.

They felt like the dreaded junk miles, the jogging, slogging nod to training that beginners, who ‘just want to get round’ do. I fear that will be my fate, too. Just getting round, when my heart is set to sub 3:40.

My coach says I should be practising marathon pace on tired legs. So those last six should have been 8:22 m/m, but I could hardly haul my carcass around. It has been thus every time I try to practise that pace. I can just about last through the Tuesday track sessions (fast intervals). I can box and cox the long slow run, but those midweek tempo runs? Too much.

And with just five weeks to go, there’s not much I can do to remedy the situation.

On the bright side, I found kinesiology tape in Aldi for just £2.49, so I’ve been having fun adorning my ankle and calf with vivid blue tape and convincing myself that the injury feels better.

And, I keep reminding myself, although my main purpose for the September Berlin trip is the 26.2 mile run on the Sunday, there’s also the little matter of the two-year-old grandson who’s looking forward to cheering on his ‘Londomi’, personlicher Rekord oder keine personlicher Rekord.

So there’s really no need to worry. Is there?