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A friend in need…

marathon hand in hand

Just so happens that was my PB year; the 2015 finishers’ T-shirt honoured the inspirational Inge Simonsen and Dick Beardsley, who caught each other’s eye as they raced their last few metres in the first ever London marathon in 1981 and held hands over the finish line, both recording a time of 2:11:48

My friend indeed during this year’s Virgin Money London Marathon – my PW year – was Siggy.

After marathon 2018

That’s Siggy, on the right. We held hands for the last few metres of the 2018 London Marathon, and were just euphoric to reach the finish line relatively unscathed.

Both of us were sorely undertrained because of long-term injury when we lined up together on 22 April. We had made a vow to see the race through together, and we did, every single stride of the way. It was the best time I’ve ever had while running 26.2 miles.

The heat was an extra challenge, but it made it easier for us to run without the pressure, and just bask in the sun-warmed high spirits of the rowdy, euphoric crowd.

I first met Siggy when she and her husband were helping to set up our local parkrun (Hillyfields, in Lewisham)  and we hit it off immediately. She was born on the same date as me (one year later) and we quickly settled into friendly rivalry over parkrun PBs. When I turned 50, I crowed over my status as first V50, until Siggy hit her half century and we sparred over who was going to wear the V50 parkrun tiara (an imaginary tiara) every Saturday.

When injury struck, and volunteering was all we could do (Siggy’s, more serious, skiing accident saw her toiling up to Hillyfields on crutches every Saturday, so I tended to pipe down about my Achilles problems in the light of such heroism), we moaned, commiserated, made plans for future glory and fretted about losing Good For Age status.

And we lost it in style. Finishing 27 minutes after the Good For Age time (for women in their 50s) of four hours meant that we both kissed goodbye to our hard-won GFA status together on 22 April this year, and we had an absolute ball while doing so.

Setting off sedately, and never really speeding up, we stuck together and looked out for each other, matching each other stride for stride, chatting until we became too fatigued to talk and just repeated, dazedly, the mantra we’d settled on (having tried out several for size – a recommended diversionary tactic).

‘we’re small but strong….we’re small but strong’

By mile 23 I was feeling heavy but weak, and could scarcely shuffle.  I felt so sick I thought I was going to pass out. Siggy had far more strength and energy than me, but stuck with me, gently checking I wasn’t losing consciousness by pointing out people in the crowd, or among the runners…anything to keep me from walking (or indeed keeling over onto the hot tarmac). My abiding memory, as we rounded the corner by the gilded statue of Queen Victoria presiding over Buckingham Palace, was being overtaken by a woman who looked to be in her 70s:

‘That,’ I slurred bitterly to Siggy,  ‘is the real Marathon Gran.’

 

Hand in hand we jogged in granny’s wake, and hand in hand we crossed the finish line, Siggy practically holding me up as I threatened to hit the deck once that medal was safely round my neck.

Thank you Siggy.

We were small, but strong, we learned how to get along, and we survived.

I could not have done it without you.

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Deep pockets

kit shot

Kit shot. Look at all the food I have to fit into those pockets

It’s 12 hours until the Queen, from her vantage point in Windsor (great views of Greenwich Park from there!) sets us running in a generally Woolwich direction, dreaming of getting to The Mall by lunch-time.

My kit’s ready. I am, as has been frequently hinted on Twitter and to my longsuffering friends, going to wear mufti. That means I shan’t be wending my inevitably slow and painful way to the finish in my club’s colours.  My hastily daubed Marathon Gran lettering onto a lightweight vest (temperatures are predicted to be unseasonably high tomorrow) will emphasise the FUN in funrunning. No Garmin, either. I do not want to be constantly reminded of just how far off a Good For Age time I will be.

My leisurewear shorts (bought as hiking wear from Decathlon in the days before I ran) have capacious pockets, for my little stash of GoBites and bananas. Because I am a Naturally Fuelled Runner.

I have consumed a very large plate of pasta, made to a GoFaster Food recipe I tweaked to make vegan. I processed a lot of toasted walnuts, spinach, garlic and oil to make a very green sauce for my pasta. I have also eaten malt loaf, porridge and a great deal of toast and peanut butter throughout the day.

Tomorrow I’ll have my porridge, banana and toast at about 7.30am to top up the carbs already packed into my system. No Imodium this year. Minimal caffeine.

Let’s see how the digestive system copes with mid-run date-and-walnut snacking.

I made the happy discovery that turning 55 has opened up a new Good For Age category to me: tomorrow I only need run under 4 hours and 5 minutes. A few months ago I would have considered that a highly attainable goal, but the way I feel at the moment, it’s seems as out of my reach as a sub 3.

On the bright side, it’ll be fun to start a marathon not shivering, cold, wet and with the weight of my unreasonable expectations weighing heavy. And if I’m as super slow as I fear I will be, I can blame it on the weight of all the snacks in my pockets.

 

The Galloping Gourmet

full of beans

Full of beans

There’s an obvious reason I call myself Marathon Gran: I am old enough to have grandchildren, and to have been around in the 1970s to watch (on one of three channels) a telly chef called Graham Kerr – the eponymous Galloping Gourmet – show people how to cook (and then be slightly creepy about dragging a woman up from the studio audience afterwards to share the meal). And there’s a reason why I have made a pot of beans my cover photo for this blog: the culinary assistance I have been given this training season with another, very much more sporty, 21st century food guru, galloping Kate Percy.

The title popped into my head when I was marvelling at my speed-cooking prowess while preparing home-made gnocchi and home-made pesto. I kid you not. Not only did I attempt such delights, but they were prepared at a brisk pace. I say this as one who, left to her own devices, prefers to subsist on bread, peanut butter and bananas. And chocolate.

My sudden culinary interest has been set in train following a challenge thrown down by Kate last Christmas, which I have blogged about previously. I am one of her little troupe of marathon hopefuls, who have vowed to train on proper, unprocessed fuel, following Kate’s Go Faster Food recipes. My pledge means that no gels will tamper with my blood sugar, no sports drinks will threaten my tooth enamel, no processed whey protein gloop will be sloshing around in my belly and threatening to move my bowels.

The Go Faster Food for Your Active Family cookbook has brightened what became a bleak spring’s marathon training. The injury that made me defer my place in 2017 hasn’t gone away, despite endless physiotherapy, massage, a steroid injection and rest. A couple of weeks with bronchitis, coupled with the Beast from the East hasn’t done a lot for my lung capacity. Now there’s four weeks to go and it’s too late to ramp up the mileage.

Having made the sensible decision to be as fit as I can be, given these circs, it’ll be really interesting to jog around the marathon course on 22 April, untroubled by PB pressure. I probably won’t even bother with a watch. I’ll carry a couple of packets of Kate Percy’s Go-bites, the refuelling ones, made of apricots and seeds, and I’ll drink water, a beer if I’m offered one in Deptford, and I’ll high-five small children. It’ll be a fun run.

Given the low mileage, I’ve plenty of energy to cook up a storm. This week alone I have toasted jumbo oats with honey, walnuts, sunflower seeds and spices (GoFaster granola); I have boiled up haricot beans with molasses, tomatoes, garlic and paprika (GoFaster baked beans) and I have baked for my grandson’s birthday tea party using all wholesome ingredients (Go Faster carrot cake and Go Faster banana maltloaf).

So, I’m eating well, sleeping well and diligently alternating physio drills with the running ones. There’ll be little need for a three-week taper, since there’s no big mileage to taper from. I feel a bit guilty on Kate Percy’s behalf, because the point of the Naturally Fuelled Runners experiment was to see if I could attain my goal marathon time (3:37) without the use of the usual processed carbohydrate ‘fuelling systems’ that certainly weren’t around when my idol Kathrine Switzer  ran her 2:51 in Boston in 1975. Now that there is no goal (other than to stay conscious, and, I suppose, be home in time for tea), I’m not really a useful study for her. However the other members of the naturally fuelled gang are posting PBs in all the 5ks, 10ks and half-marathons they’ve taken part in since January, when the experiment began, so there’s good news coming through. As for me, the proof’s in the pudding, which I am just about to take out of the oven, and wouldn’t you know, it’s another GoFaster triumph…

 

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.

V55

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.

Seriously.

 

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.