By Team Marchant athlete Carole Jackson
It’s All in The Mind
I have somewhat of a love/hate relationship with running, as I’m sure do many others. Love it for the challenge, and for getting me out exploring the trails whether they are minutes from the doorstep or further afield, for the physical fitness and mental health benefits, as a solo activity or to share with long-suffering partner Peter, and not forgetting the race bling of course.
Hate it? Yes, because it’s hard!!! And because I’m rubbish at it. And because I’m so slow and I can’t run up hills for toffee. And because when I enter a race what seems like the whole world goes past me within 30 seconds of the start. And because I’m a 48-year-old cyclist with fluctuating weight and too old to be taking up running and will never be any good. Blah di blah, moaning, whinging, self-indulgent, negative humbug.
Here I will briefly confess to a lifelong battle with depression, anxiety and pernicious perfectionism that will likely never be won. For me it is a persistent struggle to avoid slithering down another snake and to reject those kinds of negative thoughts and feelings, not just in running but in everything I do. Constant reminders to think rationally, that you cannot control life and events, just your reaction to them. On a testing day I would wonder why on earth I bothered running if it made me feel that bad.
Time for a rethink. Maybe I am not as good a runner or as fast as I want to be, but neither am I as bad as I think I am. Struggle on hills? Run up a few more of them. Want to run faster? Mix in some intervals or head down to the club sessions. Passed by everyone in a race? So what kind of a race is it…have you actually done any speed training? If it’s a parkrun or a 10k and you’re training for a marathon you will be lacking speed. Want to make significant improvements? Join a running club or get yourself a coach.
Most importantly just try to actually enjoy your runs…so put one foot in front of the other, look around and enjoy the sunshine or rain or snow, count the number of wild bunnies or deer or foxes you’ve spotted, laugh when you’ve been nettled or got your foot trapped in the mud. Enter a race if you feel like it. Or don’t. Just never think you’re not good enough or you can’t do it because I am telling you now as many people have been telling me…Yes, We Can (apologies to Barack Obama).
Eighteen months ago I ran my first 10k (road, flat as a pancake back in Cheshire). Two weeks ago, I ran the Scott Snowdonia Trail Marathon. In a little under three months I will be attempting my first Ultra. Eighteen months ago, none would have been on my wish list or deemed possible.
Today, blisters healing and five toenails lighter, I am just back from the first run of my new training plan. I’ve filled in my training log like the dutiful student I am, although Mark will think I’ve been cloned by aliens as my entry is entirely devoid of moans and whinges. I would like to say it will remain that way for the next three months to my second big event under his tutelage, but alas the probability of that is extremely low!
Today was a good day, but that will, no doubt, not always be the case. It will require commitment and hard work and a little bit of self-belief that I have not always found easy to come by. Yet I can say with absolute confidence that I will be on that start line, trotting around for 38 miles and grabbing my finisher’s medal several hours later. I may not be first, or second, or third, or even 250th, but if I can get round without too many blisters and still be standing at the end that will do me… until the next challenge.
So here is the story of how I took up running and eventually began to believe in myself with a little help from Peter, DVRC and #teammarchant.
Beginnings: two wheels good, two legs??
My first running event was a 5k as part of a sprint distance triathlon in my home town of Nantwich (Cheshire) back in 2013. Here I will also confess to being a cyclist, and when riding past people out for a run I would laugh and wonder why on earth anyone would struggle along on two legs when two wheels were available. 2013 was somewhat of an annus mirabilis for me on two wheels as I spent the year clocking up thousands of miles doing one cycling related challenge after another (including Land’s End to John O’Groats) and, in doing so, raising a few thousand pounds for my local RSPCA branch. In short, I was awesome.
However, at this point I had zero running miles in my legs. I had not run anywhere since school some 30 years ago. Even this merely involved being sent out to trot round the fields on rainy days when the teacher didn’t want to get wet. As a conscientious student I did at least attempt to run, although most of the other girls seemed to take this as an opportunity for a giggly walk discussing the latest Smash Hits sensation. I entered the triathlon regardless: as usual for me the harder the challenge the more the satisfaction on completion. Just 5k then I could hang up my running shoes and get back to the bike.
So, how to run? After my usual thorough research, I discovered and downloaded the NHS Couch to 5k podcast. I would recommend this to anyone starting to run from scratch: if you commit to following it over the nine weeks you will progress from walk/run intervals to running non-stop for 30 minutes.
Eleven weeks to the triathlon it was on with the new running shoes, headphones in and time to press play on the podcast. Ready to launch into action I was immediately told by Laura the evil podcast mistress to walk to the beat of the appropriately paced music for five minutes. Easy peasy. At Laura’s prompt I was then to run for 60 seconds. Ready, steady…oh my god this is an absolute nightmare when can I stop I can’t breathe I think I’m having a heart attack. 60 miserable seconds later it was time to walk for 90 seconds. Great! Until the next 60 second run. A full 20 minutes later I had no idea how I was going to survive three runs a week for the next nine weeks. Why could I cycle 100 miles up every hill in the country and be fresh as a daisy, but 60 seconds on two legs was so hard?? Sod this, I’m sticking to two wheels.
Sometimes I have zero mental fortitude in the face of adversity and will crumble like a sand castle at malfunctioning broadband, or if my freesat box recorded a whole series of The Bridge apart from episode three (no way I could miss an episode and watch the others out of sequence – don’t be ridiculous). So here I learnt a valuable lesson about completing physical challenges. It seems that once I have decided to do it, and then I’ve actually paid my money and entered it, and then I’ve told everyone I’m going to do it, and even better if I’m raising money for a charity I don’t want to let down…. well some surprising mental resilience kicks in and I will always finish it no matter the obstacle. Not so for the rest of life’s obstacles, but I’m working on it.
So, I gritted my teeth and kept on running. A minor issue was the nine-week course becoming ten when I had to miss a week due to a mountain bike crash during my South Downs Way challenge. Just as well I had built in a two-week contingency (meticulous planning as ever). And so, I diligently completed every session and eventually ran for a whole 30 minutes without stopping.
The triathlon itself came and went: a fast bike leg made up for shortcomings on the swim and run legs and in the end it was one of the easiest challenges I’ve ever done but also one of the most satisfying. This was an early realisation that the medal is earned from the commitment to taking on the challenge and during the training period. The race is almost incidental – #trainhardraceeasy as Coach Mark likes to say.
So, the annus mirabilis continued with one fabulous ride after another and running shoes put in storage. Cycling from Land’s End to John O’Groats remains one of the best experiences of my life, despite being in excruciating pain every afternoon and having to do glute stretches at random places along the route due to my dodgy left buttock. And still nothing fazed me. Alas, what goes up must eventually come down as Isaac Newton would say. Cue a debilitating depressive episode lasting on and off for two years. After my fabulous year at peak fitness I proceeded to put on weight, lose cycling form, fall out of love with it and every pedal stroke became a grind. I would be in tears on some rides as I remembered my previous ability and current crapness. I became unable to function and sunk into a pattern of being either off work, or returning to work, until I finally had enough and grabbed the chance of redundancy. I am usually hopeless at decision-making, but this was the quickest and best decision I have ever made.
A New Challenge
Skip to 2016, finally a return to some sort of mental health and time for a new challenge. I have concluded that it is good for me to have a physical goal requiring a training process as it brings focus to a brain that is unable to cope with abstraction. Apart from keeping me fit of course. There is a balance to be found though to avoid repetition of the post-euphoric slump of 2013.
My partner Peter is a much better runner than I am: he has thousands of miles in his legs from countless fell races, mountain marathons, Everest Marathons and even a Bob Graham. He had not raced or run properly for several years due to a few niggles and injuries but was keen for me to start so we could head out together as an alternative to cycling. Sometimes it’s easier to just slip your trainers on and head out of the door instead of the usual rigmarole of bike ride preparation.
So, we started to go for a few jogs round the block. I was still down in Nantwich: a lovely place to live, but fairly hopeless for running variation. No hills, no bridleways and minimal linked footpaths so for a run from the doorstep it was either the flat road or the flat canal. Eventually the 30-minute runs stretched to 60, and during the summer I first had the idea of trying a half marathon, with a full marathon the following year. Both were flat, road races. I managed both of them although I would not say my training was particularly effective. I roughly followed a 12-week schedule from a magazine, ignoring any run involving intervals/fartlek/reps as I couldn’t be bothered and incrementally increasing the tedious long weekend runs until the 20-mile mark.
Meantime I had moved with Peter and my two pet bunnies up to the North-East. For him it was a home-coming after 25 years in Carlisle. For me I was certainly a long way from Kansas!
I have dwelt on running beginnings as I cannot emphasise enough how hard it was for me to get my cycling legs to trot for 30 minutes. It is a reminder to myself of how far I have come and that I am capable of far more than I think. I thought I would never be able to run 5k – but I did it. Next I thought I would never be able to run 10k – but I did it. Next I thought I would never be able to run a half marathon – but I did it. Next I thought could I actually run a marathon, perhaps just a flat road one? Yes, why not. Next I thought could I run an off-road marathon with almost 6,000 feet of climbing including an ascent of the highest mountain in Wales? Yes, of course I could, yet not so long ago the prospect of me attempting any of them was absurd.
As my runs lengthened I began to head off-road. Back in Nantwich this meant a drive to Peckforton and the splendid Sandstone Trail. After my big move I was able to explore fresh running routes in the North East with multi-terrain trails from the door. Avoiding the roads is thankfully easily done here, but not so avoiding the hills which are everywhere the eye can see, particularly as our house is at the top of a rather large one. Thankfully I see this as a positive for both running and cycling and is an area I hope to significantly improve on. Let’s face it, I need to! So, I decided to stick to trails, ditched the road shoes and signed up for the Snowdonia Trail Marathon: a ridiculous challenge but one I hoped would be achievable with seven months to play with.
To make the improvements I considered necessary I realised that joining a running club could prove beneficial. I had survived solo to this point but felt my running was stagnating. Social anxiety led to an avoidance of any group scenario, and it took lots of dithering and refusals before I eventually contacted Derwent Valley (DVRC). I managed to attend a few sessions, but because I am lucky enough to be able to run in the day I found that more often than not I could not be bothered to wait all day before heading out at 7pm. The winter therefore became a missed opportunity for speed, endurance or hill sessions. Instead Peter and I pottered around either cycling or knocking out easy 10k to 10-mile trail runs a few times a week.
Miles in Your Legs
With the usual marathon training period approaching I spotted Mark’s post about coaching club members. More hesitation and indecision and I missed the first intake, but thankfully a spot became available and I was welcomed to #teammarchant. Obviously, I cannot now say how I would have got on without my coaching, but to my mind it has suited me perfectly. Instead of vaguely following, or rather ignoring, a generic plan I had my own, tailored schedule. I do love a good spreadsheet, and welcomed the discipline of knowing exactly what to do every day.
So, runs of different lengths, climbing and effort, drills, or strength and conditioning exercises, and not forgetting the all-important rest day. No decisions required, apart from which direction to run in. Although to be fair, sometimes Mark helped me with that too. I was also required to complete the training log following each activity for Mark to read and feedback on. This I did assiduously, feeling a responsibility towards Mark for the time and effort he had freely donated. The log should be completed honestly, there is no point lying about whether or not you have completed a session or how you felt during it as it helps no one.
Mark will also be flexible if you are struggling, whether it be for time or form. Thinking back on my log entries I feel some sympathy for Mark – the incessant moaning about how useless my legs were, what was the point of the speed work when I was running a marathon and so on (see paragraph one!). I believe his most often used phrase was ‘stop being so hard on yourself’.
Eventually I began to believe that I finally had enough miles in my legs. In the last ten weeks of my training I ran 300 miles with 36,000 feet of climbing. Unlike the road marathon they were not just junk miles, but miles with a purpose and some science behind them. There were highs (my Cross Fell training run remains a favourite) and lows (having a tantrum because my race pack was annoying me was particularly ludicrous) as with anyone’s training but I made it to the start line. This is more than some could say given the amount of Facebook posts selling entries in the weeks leading up to the event. I managed to avoid major injury, with just my usual glute and hamstring niggles requiring additional warm ups and stretching routines. As it generally takes me an hour to get my running legs going anyway I was not particularly concerned, rather thankful that my goal was a marathon and not to break any 10k race records.
And so, the big day dawned. I was quite nervous during the last week leading up to it as by this point I was tapering and actually yearning for the previous heavy training load. I just wanted to get on with it. My race report is below so here I will just say that it was a good day. I made a conscious effort to enjoy the fabulous Snowdonia scenery and to just keep plodding along to the finish. Job done! I will never be a super athlete challenging for podiums but can still have demanding goals, as this marathon certainly was.
What next? Well I’m currently back on two wheels looking forward to a well-deserved holiday. Although as this will involve cycling all over the Alps and Mont Ventoux it may not be everyone’s idea of a relaxing break! Poor Mark has had to come up with an experimental training plan to enable me to reclaim my cycling legs for a few weeks and yet still be ready to run the Jedburgh Three Peaks Ultra in October. It seemed like a good idea when I entered, to not waste my marathon legs and tick the Ultra box rather than start from scratch next year. Oh well, here we go again.
Race Report – Snowdonia Trail Marathon 2018 – Carole Jackson
For anyone silly enough to fancy a go, this will either put you off or send you rushing to enter.
Race: Scott Snowdonia Trail Marathon 2018
Race Date: 15/07/2018
Statistics: 27.3 miles, 5,800 ft (? watch could be wrong)
Official Time: 07:13:29
Position: Overall 486/697; Gender 124/203; FV40 53/91
Almost a game of two halves! First 15 miles went as well as could be expected, then hit some very difficult terrain and tough Snowdon climb. Descent and finish fine apart from blister issues.
- Initial 3.5-mile climb was ok, no blasting off far too fast just stuck to steady pace. As usual passed by lots of people and climbing is still area for improvement but was nowhere near last!
- Next bit was possibly my favourite: flew down the descent to Rhyd Ddu (6 miles) passing loads. Mix of bumpy grassy moorland, some bog, some rocky at top. Only issue was the stile bottleneck part way down: big queue with long wait and of course everyone I’d passed caught up! Apparently, the farmer won’t allow any temporary structures over the wall. Water station here and had to go to toilet.
- Mix of terrain then undulating on forest tracks through to Beddgelert (11 miles). Another water station and trip to the public toilets. Also had some refreshing bits of orange. At this point I was feeling good, sticking to a steady pace and time wise still way up. Had settled into a position where you start to see the same people around you, apart from slipping back with the toilet breaks!
- On to next water station at 15-mile point, and yet another toilet trip. This section was along easy tracks skirting side of reservoirs but I don’t think I was running as well now. Slowed down and wasn’t happy with fuelling intake. It was another hot day and I’d had a steady intake of gels, Clif Shot Bloks, water and High 5 electrolyte tab drink and the bits of orange at Beddgelert. Did not want to eat any ‘proper’ food. Didn’t feel low on energy, just feeling a bit yucky. Apart from that I was still having a good day.
- Now it became slower than expected a lot earlier than expected with some difficult terrain and the climb up to Pen-y-Pass at 18.8-mile cut-off point. Alas this was far steeper than I thought with lots of clambering over rocks. Everyone was walking and it seemed to take forever to get to Pen-y-Pass. At this point I’d lost over an hour off my earlier projected time to get to cut-off.
- Onwards and upwards to the summit! It was 22 miles at the water station just off the top of the Pyg Track and by now I was realising that those 3 miles or so were going to take forever and be an absolute bastard. I managed to run a few bits but found it impossible to even get a power walk on: not because my legs were too tired but because of massive bits of rock and boulders most of way up. I was having to use hands to clamber up and over and with my short legs it was a nightmare! Took 1hr 38 so excruciatingly slow. This is not actually a moan by the way: everyone else around me was exactly the same and I think I actually passed more people than came by me. Some people’s muscles were popping and cramping. Lots of walkers on the track shouting encouragement which was nice. I had never been up the Pyg Track before and perhaps I’m exaggerating for dramatic effect or misremembering, who knows. Having been on the Rhyd Ddu path up, the Rangers Path down previously and now Llanberis Path down I reckon I’d have been able to move a lot quicker on any of those.
- And finally, the descent and five miles to finish. Fine running down although did not go as fast as I wanted because of blisters. Felt a couple of painful rips on way up so obviously going down not ideal, especially at steeper top bit. Still managed to overtake quite a few. There was a final mile through some woods and round the back of fields and I just slowly trotted to finish. I presume the route went that way to avoid the centre of Llanberis (busy with tourists) but it did mean a total distance of 27.3 miles instead of 26.2.
Overall, I think I’ve got to be happy with that. The miles up Snowdon really slowed me down. I guess the Snowdon tag on makes it quite different to normal trail races and without that I’d have been fine ha ha. Targets were to finish without being wrecked, and avoid blisters and excessive toilet stops. I managed one out of three at least. Plenty of people didn’t finish or took a lot longer than I did and so not bad for a 48-year-old hobbit with cycling legs.
Race vest – not too annoying thankfully. During training wearing the vest became a bête noire that resulted in several tantrums. It just did not seem to fit properly over my rather large chest and took an age to find an equilibrium of being too slack but letting me breathe, or too tight but minimal movement and therefore chafing. The perils of womanhood!
Shoes/Blisters – alas major blistering which caused some discomfort on the Snowdon descent. Tried Blistershield powder, Sportshield on end of toes, Hilly twinskin socks and every other remedy you can think of but am now not convinced the Salomon Speedcross is the shoe for me. Already sized up but they are quite narrow fitting. Now trying the Inov-8 Trail Talon 290.
Post-race – physically fine when finished but struggled to eat a selection of my usual post-run food. Think all the gels and drinks were just too much for my system and ended up being sick a few times on the way home. I knew that would happen when I couldn’t get the appropriate recovery fuel in!! Know all about fuelling from cycling but running puts more pressure on digestive systems I guess. Was fine later, but would like to be able to eat ‘normal’ food during a race rather than relying on sickly substitutes.