Exclusion zone

261®Fearless_credit_Horst_von_Bohlen

These women can (photo by Horst von Bohlen)

Last week I wrote for  The Guardian running blog about the inaugural 261 Fearless marathon on 28 May 2017, in Tipton St John, a beautiful corner of Devon. In it, the connection between the second all-women marathon to take place in this country, and the woman who changed the face of distance running for women, Kathrine Switzer, is explained.

The illustration that always accompanies any piece of writing about the great Ms Switzer (marathon PB, 2 hours 51 minutes) is a three-part black and white sequence of the then 20-year old, wearing a delightfully baggy grey tracksuit with the number 261 pinned to it. The year was 1967. At that time women were not allowed to run further than 1500 metres because they were considered too delicate for the task. Kathrine and her indomitable coach, Arnie the postman, both decided to enter the all-male Boston Marathon (the most prestigious road marathon, then and now). Registered as K Switzer, and with no question asked on her form about her gender, Kathrine got to the starting line on time, but was almost manhandled off the course a few miles in. Fortunately, she was also running with her husky young hammer-thrower of a boyfriend, who barged harder into the official barging Kathrine, resulting in his exclusion from the Amateur Athletic Union.

Researching the piece was a perfect excuse to re-read one of my favourite books about running – Marathon Woman – by Kathrine Switzer. I love the description of her training regimes, workload, and her honest, if disappointing in these enlightened times, recollection of the way she needed to seek approval from men, or at least work along the line of least resistance, to make things happen. Sometimes it’s hilarious, such as her brilliant description of putting together running outfits for her marathon appearances (she lost about 10 minutes during one hot Boston, having to perform urgent costume changes in some public lavatories, but she still ran the race in around three hours).

Another reason I am still reading inspiring books about running, when I should be out there running, is because I am still grounded by Achilles/shin inflammation and unable to run three miles without pain.

So that’s my 2017 London Marathon dream over. I am reading my fellow runners’ social media posts about their long runs, intervals, training race triumphs and disasters, massages and mileage and unable to join in. Soon I will pull mysef together, but not until I’ve re-read Kathrine’s 6-month training plan that constituted her campaign for a sub- three-hour in Boston, 1975.

I have six months to heal, rehab and prepare for my putative sub 3.40 Berlin Marathon.

 

 

 

 

 

Gran, interrupted

gran-interrupted

Greenwich Park. Where I go to avoid interruptions

 

On the last day of January the most famous run streak in the world came to an end with (I imagine) a bit of a whimper.

The streaker who stopped streaker was Ron Hill. His streak lasted 52 years and 39 days.

He kept his clothes on. A run streak (for those unfamiliar with the term) is the act of running at least a mile every day, no excuses. They’re often held up as challenges on Strava and other public declarations of personal running greatness.

Ron Hill (78) is a fantastic athlete and veteran of 115 marathons. He was the first British runner to win the Boston marathon and competed in three Olympics. His running every day was not even interrupted by crises of ill health and car accidents, until this year, when the pain in his chest warned him that all was not well, and he felt a duty to his family to back off.

I’ve toyed with the idea of daily running a mile before breakfast. I managed that for a while. Not an especially impressive streak, but even that resolution, one of many listed in my (thankfully very private) diary proved too much for me.

I’ve been running, but not well enough, often enough or, indeed, happily enough since then. After last November’s salutary first lesson in fell running various muscle-and-tendon niggles all seemed to gang up on me and make every run a pain. My parkrun times plummeted. I did a couple of cross country runs with my club but felt off-form, so decided to give blood, rest up and stay away from track and road running for a couple of weeks.

Coming back to it in December, I could still feel trouble brewing in my Achilles tendon but, of course, ignored it. It refused to be sidelined, however, and eventually drove me to the physiotherapist.

Since then I have spent a lot of time on my yoga mat, and doing many heel dips a day and, after another 10-day lay off at the beginning of January caused by a bout of bronchitis, I am gradually seeing improvements. I am still a lumbering parkrunner compared to the granny that scorched round and earned her PB in 2015, but I no longer feel hopeless about my running.

Best of all, I am really enjoying my running, and now mornings and evenings are lighter, am happily stuck into training for the London Marathon.

I’m on day 53 of 116 days of marathon training. All those 116 will not be running days, though. I don’t think I’m Marathon Gran enough to streak.

More rabbit from the Catford bunnery

lovely-lewisham-blythe-hill-fields

Blythe Hill Fields, looking at Hillyfields, having run through Ladywell Fields…bucolic Lewisham

It’s time you got it off your chest….

The biggest gift that running has given me is a whole new circle of friends, who, like me, love the social benefits of the sport just as much as the fitness ones. Running for the good of your mental health, therefore is the perfect combination of two wonderful things.

Being appointed one of Sport England’s volunteer Mental Health Ambassadors has given me the opportunity to write about how exercising outside has made me feel better inside; I’ve also talked about this new role with my club, Kent AC , fellow parkrunners and various clients and runners (including those at Greenwich Runners, Buggy Runners) I’ve had the pleasure to meet in the course of my work as a personal trainer and running coach.

I hope that I can inspire as many of you as possible to join me on Monday 10 October, which is World Mental Health Day, for a nice, easy social run, taking in the full gorgeousness of the leafy London borough of Lewisham.

The week from 8-14 October has been designated Run and Talk week by England Athletics and Mind, the mental health charity. Anyone who has ever been for a run with me will know I love both activities dearly. Hind legs and donkeys spring to mind.

Of course, there’s a serious side to all this. There are any number of people out there who struggle with anxiety and depression, and have learned that they feel so much better if they get out into the parks and jog around a bit. Many of these people learn to love running so much they start entering races and training for marathons. Other just prefer to run socially.

Yet for all the people who have read and absorbed the theory about this therapeutic aspect of running, there are many that feel that the whole pavement pounding thing is too daunting. And the running track? That’s just downright intimidating.

I’d really like to welcome people who are nervous about getting started as runners, to show them that it doesn’t have to be about racing and pacing and sprinting and negative splits (which aren’t as painful as they sound). Running can be about jogging along at the speed of chat, admiring the scenery, thrashing through a few issues, whether it’s Helen in the Archers or why your boss is a tosser.

Me? I’m qualified to talk about anything. Don’t get me started on particle physics.

The run I am organising will be the Lovely Lewisham Hills Dusk Run (working title). We will meet at Ladywell running track at 6pm on Monday 10 October and head over the curly bridge, on through Ladywell Fields and Blythe Hill Fields, then up One Tree Hill to be inspired by the view and stretch a little, then down again, through Honor Oak recreation ground past Brockley Cemetery to Hillyfields. It’s about 4 miles, or nearly 5 if you run back to the track at Ladywell with me.

Does that sound long? Don’t worry.

We will run at the speed of the chattiest, not at the speed of the speediest. No-one will be left behind.

And if anyone fancies a pint afterwards, I’ll be up for that, too.

 

What I Read About When I Read About Running

Blog What I....

My first running reader

 

Apologies to Haruki Murakami , whose bestseller What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is my comfort read of choice, for swiping his title format. In this book Murakami talks about combining writing with running, his ‘deficiencies’ as a physical specimen and his disappointments, as well as his extraordinary triumphs. It isn’t all plain sailing, he writes, (as well we all know).

‘When we set off to write a novel, when we use writing to create a story, like it or not, a kind of toxin that lies deep down in all humanity rises to the surface…’

‘I’d like to postpone, for as long as I possibly can, the point where my vitality is defeated and surpassed by the toxin. That’s my aim as a novelist…Which is exactly why even though people say, “He’s no artist,” I keep on running.

I have many books about running. Unlike Murakami, I have not yet written one, but many ideas whirl around my head, usually when I’m out running. And, like him, I keep on running.

The books about running I love the best are old school.

I dip into Running, The Women’s Handbook regularly. This solemn little tome, published in 1985 and sparsely adorned with groovy hand drawings, saw me through bouts of self doubt and long-running loneliness when I first bought a pair of budget trainers and crept out to run while the family slept.

The writers, Liz Sloan and Ann Kramer, address all the beginner’s (particularly the beginner woman’s) worries about breathlessness, achiness and fear of becoming a laughing stock. Even though the book was 20 years old when I first picked it up, I preferred its tone to glossier, ‘latest research’ based ones. I suppose, because it dated from my era (I was a young woman in the 1980s) it was bathed in a rosy nostalgia. I find myself wondering about the case-studies within its pages, The 47-year-old who attempted her first 10 mile race…is she dead or alive? She may still be running. I hope so.

On the subject of running off this mortal coil, I read an obituary in The Guardian about Sylvester Stein, whose sensible book is another of my comfort reads. It’s called The Running Guide to Keeping Fit, with the comforting cover line Running after 35. Stein should know all about the veteran years. He kept on running competitively way past the age of 80, and only stopped, he said, because there were too few people to race against. Stein’s writing style is chatty. It’s full of conversations between people with names like Charlie and Mavis. He’s also really good on case histories about women I can relate to, like the ‘Flying Scot’ Jenny Wood Allen of Dundee, who started running aged 71, and the absolutely stunning 1985 London Marathon time of a chap called Hugh Currie, aged 62 (2 hours and 48 minutes). Reading about people like this further strengthens my resolve to improve past 50, even unto 60. Yea! And beyond!

These books are a solid presence in my life. I refer to them constantly and they reassure me in a way that running magazines just can’t. As a one-time contributor to Women’s Running magazine I still a copy sent to me every month (I presume at some point I’ll fall off their radar). The constant banging on about weight loss, flattering kit (at eye-popping prices) and fashionable food fetishes (chia seeds, baobab, kale with everything) makes me even more wistful about the cheerfully uncomplicated advice delivered by Sylvester:

‘My advice is to eat what tastes good to you, and ignore the diet plans and commercial recipes offered to distance runners..

…you cannot eat your way to a …personal best. That can only come from training.’

I particularly love the make-do attitude to sportswear I read about in the pages of my old timers. These elites of yesteryear weren’t tricked out in heavily branded technical kit; rather, they selected a suitable outfit for the race in hand from limited resources available to them.

One person who is particularly strong on vintage running kit nostalgia is Kathrine Switzer, whose book Marathon Woman is a relatively newcomer to my venerable running book collection (it was published in 2009). The best bits are her frank and earthy reminiscences about the minutiae of being one of the only women in a male-dominated sporting world. She writes about the bulky grey tracksuit she wore when she was famously elbowed out of the 1967 all-male Boston Marathon. The sweatpants that absorbed all the icy rain that fell during the race and became so heavy Switzer had to jettison them and risk further approbation, are immortalised in the now legendary grainy image of the attempted ejection, reprinted oft in pieces about women’s struggle to be taken seriously as distance runners (women were banned from running anything further than 10K until the 1960s) captured for posterity.

Switzer’s running kit failures are hilarious. On one, particularly hot Boston marathon, she dove into some handy restrooms and adjusted her outfit, which had started out as:

‘…leotard and tights, covered with a sort of Grecian white wrap…’

Can you imagine? Once she’d attacked the tights with a kitchen knife, and thrown away the leotard, she was adorned in skimpy wrap and fraying shorts, her hair flowing free from its ribboned bun

‘…the exact image for women I was trying to avoid.’

They make me laugh, these old running books, and I suppose it is only natural that their old-fashioned ways would appeal to a reader who goes by the name of Marathon Gran, but there’s one thing they have in common with all the other books that have been published in their wake – they all describe running as ‘empowering’ and capable of working wonders on one’s self esteem.

As Liz and Ann so confidently avow in their Handbook, running

‘alters your life, gives you health and confidence, and ultimately changes the very way you think about yourself…’

Why wouldn’t I keep on reading a book that reminds me so confidently why I can, and should, and always will, keep on running?

Social climbers

Kinder scout

Now try running down….

My fell running ambitions are seriously hampered by my remaining a namby-pamby southerner. I try to practise hill training in Greenwich Park (hillier than your average urban park) and have even planned an awayday to Box Hill (Surrey) for bit of a climb, but the fact remains that I need more focused training for this race in October.

Last weekend’s running provided just that. A couple of friends and I travelled up to Stockport to meet another university mate (Sheffield University 1981-1984– yes, medieval times – bear in mind this is a blog called Marathon GRAN), whom I hadn’t seen for 20 years.

At university he was a rather pretty, blonde dopehead, but also a seasoned climber, with steel-cable fingers as accustomed to hanging off rocky crags as rolling spliffs. Twenty years on, and a father of three, he’s still a devoted climber, and has joined the fell running community. He’s not bothering with spliff now, like most of us, he’s settled for endorphins and real ale. Safe to say that unlike many of my old university muckers, he has not run to fat. He has in fact run to a musclebound gazelle.

We went for two runs. On Saturday morning he ate a banana, flew out of the front door, then went haring up the hill behind his house at a brisk 5k pace with me, mewling pitifully about warming up properly, in his wake. Fortunately, a few miles in, the pace slackened and I was able to match him on the flat. Downhill, though, was another story.

Fellrunners plummet down hills like, yes, gazelles, or indeed mountain goats. On the Sunday we shot up Kinder Scout, a gritstone plateau a couple of miles beyond his house in the beautiful Derbyshire peaks. I haven’t run up a mountain since my Three Peaks Challenge in 2012 (a boast: I did it in 19hours, in the company of an ex-marine – another mountain goat, who, happily, drove like a maniac). I loved running up this little mountain, and indeed trotting along the plateau admiring the views.

It was the downhill that floored me. Literally.

I know all the theory, about letting gravity help you down, using your core to stabilise you, not overthinking the foot placement. I am still a wuss, though. I prink down mountains at lady jog pace. Its shaming. My friend waited for me, tapping his Innov8 at the base of each descent.

He was very nice about running with a complete pansy, however. And I am supremely grateful to him for having the patience to wait.

So more fell-running practice may be in order. As a Londoner, I learn I may have to throw in my lot with one of my club’s great rivals, Serpentine Running Club, which, rather wonderfully, has its own fell running section. Or maybe I should just organise more northerly university reunions, and open it out to those members of the class of ’84 who might fancy running off their beer bellies.

 

Sprogging & jogging, or walking & talking

Blog Sprogging and jogging

Buggy Runners, sign of a gentrified Peckham Rye 

Sometimes I feel like Old Mother Time. I find myself talking about ‘young mothers today’ and marvelling at modern pram set ups, even reminiscing about terry nappies (the original old hippy, I was green and impoverished enough in 1989, when I had my first child, to be on familiar terms with the nappy bucket, despite the ready availability, I hasten to add, of Pampers).

The reason I have so much to say about Bringing up Baby in 2016 compared to way back when is not because I am once more cast into babycare duties, despite my Marathon Gran moniker. My grandson lives in Berlin, so I don’t spend that much time changing his nappies or dandling him on my runner’s knee. It’s because my work schedule as a running coach and personal trainer includes two sessions of Buggy Running, ‘a fitness session where baby comes too.’

Many of the young parents I train are politely interested in my tales of pre-millennial child rearing, and the dearth of worthwhile activities in those unenlightened days to help p/maternity leave go with a swing.

In my day (here we go) there were playgroups in church halls, where you sat around drinking tea with fellow inmates, occasionally advising toddlers rampant to ‘share, darling,’ or the One O’clock Club in the park, very little running about on the part of the parents.

It would never have occurred to me to run with a push-chair although I remember jogging across Burgess Park to try to strike up conversation with another young woman pushing a pram on the path ahead of me. I was so desperate to make friends I was prepared to chase other mothers down.

If there had been such a thing as Buggy Running when I was a lonely young mother, roaming pitifully around the mean, as yet ungentrified, streets of Peckham, I’d have joined it like a shot.

Still, better late than ever, and at the grand old age of 53 I am meeting fellow mums on the run, talking about my baby (once removed) and his funny little ways. I also try to inspire my merry band of Buggy Runners with tales of women athletes who have come back to training post babies to find they are fitter, faster and stronger. Jo Pavey springs to mind, and, even more apposite, the Guinness World Record Breaking Buggy Runner I interviewed last year, Jessica Bruce

As any new parent knows, however, sometimes just getting outside (or even out of your pyjamas) after having a baby seems like a major achievement, so being expected to run around in trainers and Lycra would be a step too far.

So here comes Mummy Walk & Talk to bridge the gap between full-on Pavey ambitions and sitting around with the fellow NCT members eating cake. It’s an outdoor walking social group dreamed up by my friend Ellie Brown, the indomitable founder of Greenwich Fitness & Pilates ‘And who better,’ says Ellie,

‘than a woman who calls herself Marathon Gran and has signed up as a Mental Health Ambassador for England Athletics, to lead it?’

She’s persuasive, Ellie. Like me, she has struggled a bit with post-natal depression in the past, and would have welcomed, in its bleak aftermath, a chance to meet other outdoorsy people, who feel (guiltily) their wings have been clipped since having a baby.

On Thursdays, then, I stroll happily around the park with new mothers and their babies, listening to birth stories, hearing how they’re coping on reduced sleep and an imposed career break, advising about fitness post partum and generally acting as a facilitator for mothers to get to know each other.

It’s fun, but truth to tell, it makes me feel even more Babushka. One woman told me, earnestly, that she was missing her mother, who’d had to go back to Sheffield after staying for a while, so it was good to talk to me. That was sweet, although it could have been taken as less than complimentary if she’d been an older new parent. I’d have bridled a little at being replacement mum for a woman in her forties. Even Marathon Gran has her limits.

‘Oh vanity of age, untoward!

Ever spleeny, ever froward!’

(William Hogarth)

Consolation prize

Blog Hackney Half

Borderline smug middle-aged woman with cat and medal

Veteran runners are supposed to lavish far more time on recovery than springier chickens. It would have been sensible, therefore, after running the London Marathon, to pack away the road shoes for a while and re-acquaint myself with the swimming pool.

In the diary, however, were two little bumps on the downhill race to recovery: a 5km Assembly league race with my club in Hackney’s Victoria Park and two days after that, the Hackney Half

Down among the hipsters

It’s fashionable, Hackney, and a great place to run. I like the cut of Victoria Park Harriers’ jib – I’ve always enjoyed club running in their handsome east London stomping ground – it’s on my list of training runs in marathon build up. This half marathon, though, is something else.

The Vitality series of half marathons and 10ks make full use of the old cliché ‘iconic’ to drum up interest. The last one I did, back in March, finished in the ‘iconic Wembley Stadium’ and this one, Hackney takes a route through the ‘iconic Olympic Park’. What with April’s little trot taking in sundry London landmarks including The Cutty Sark, Tower Bridge, Buckingham Palace, I’m all iconed out.

Still, for all its overwrought, cliché ridden publicity material, the Hackney Half is as good for jolly crowd support and noisy atmosphere as its big 26.2-mile sister a couple of weeks earlier. The largely residential route guarantees a huge, trendy crowd of good-natured Hackney folk sitting on their stoops and proffering vegetarian Haribo or artisan ale, or lovingly chopped Fairtrade bananas. It also gives its participants a carnival atmosphere on Hackney Marshes before and after the race, a generous goody bag and fine T-shirt, and gallons of water and isotonic jollop along the way.

Hackney was so hot this year. On the hottest day of the year. Air quality gave cause for concern, and the message, repeated over the tannoys at the start, was ‘this is not a day to chase that PB.’ That was me off the hook, then, although, in retrospect, I should have been a little more reckless.

Thrown into panic about overheating, I had to keep dousing the back of my neck with the bottled water given every few miles. I’m not in the habit of throwing water about, in case it runs out, but I could see pallets loaded up water bottles everywhere, and there were no instructions to conserve water, so picked up a bottle at every station. I even forced down sickly Lucozade to counteract the ominous ringing in my ears that has once before given rise to total blackout.

This gran can (usually)

In the event I was five minutes off my half-marathon PB. Walking through the funnel to pick up assorted goodies I felt sweaty and spent, but compos mentis enough to inwardly crow over beating the (male) acquaintance I’d started the race with, who overtook me at mile eight. I’d sailed past him at mile 12.

You can be cosily competitive as a veteran ‘old bird running’. The older you get, the more the little victories accrue. However slow we run, post 50, we are in a small elite class of our own, because we are faster than the millions of others who believe they can’t, because they might do themselves a mischief.

There is no health risk to getting sweaty, feeling breathless, feeling your bingo wings flap and your mum tum wobble as you push yourself out of your comfort zone. All those minor embarrassments are familiar to me but they are as nothing compared to the joy of running. Self-consciousness about your ageing body should not prevent you trying your very hardest in a race situation, and loving the buzz that effort engenders.

So, I was delighted I beat my running mate, who is about 10 years younger than me, and a bloke. Even more so when I checked the results and found I’d come fourth in my age group, and if I’d run my normal pace I would have been second woman in that group of 136 wonderwomen.

The moral of that experience, I suppose, is that I should find more hipster races like this one, which attracts a huge, young crowd (there were 11,772 runners) and is largely avoided by gnarly old clubrunners like me.

If I play my age cards right, I might even win a prize.