Feet don’t fail me now, take me to the finish line

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On Sunday morning, following not quite 5 hours of sleep, I woke up and headed to Bath for the Bath Half Marathon. I was incredibly nervous. This was my first ever half marathon and I hadn’t quite hit the distance in training. This was also the biggest race I’ve ever been part of. Sticking to 5ks, 5-milers and 10ks means I’ve never been part of a pack of 15,000 and I’m somewhat claustrophobic. Getting there early meant I was at the front of the final starting pen and had some breathing space for the hour pre-race. The only time the crowds really affected me was on the occasions where I looked back and saw the tide of people behind me, and then feeding back through into the runner’s village to collect medals at the very end. It’s safe to say that I prefer smaller races for my comfort levels but I’m also absolutely sure I wouldn’t have made it to the end had it not been for the crowd support.

12814144_10154063272878307_2090980128523154213_nIt was about 10 degrees and bright sunshine for the duration of the whole race. This isn’t hot weather by any means – it’s actually probably as close to my favoured running conditions as it’s possible to be, but it was decidedly more pleasant than I had been counting on in mid-March. My chest, upper arms and forehead are all showing a touch of sunburn (the perils of being ghostly pale) and plenty of people around the course were commiserating about being warmer than expected. The ultimate way to send my mind spinning off into meltdown? Diverge from my best laid plans.

During last summer’s heatwave in London, I ran 5km on the hottest day of the year when the temperatures hit 36C. I’m not averse to heat. But I wasn’t planning on it, and I’ve just trained through a long rainy winter. I drink a lot of water anyway – a lifetime of migraines has made me live in fear of dehydration – and I don’t even think about water for anything less than a 10km. Even for longer runs, I pop my credit card in my shorts pocket and get a drink if and when I feel I need it. On Sunday, I was unreasonably panicked by how hot I felt after only 3km, a mix of nerves and the glorious weather and at the first water station I practically inhaled a bottle of water I didn’t really need. Rookie error. I knew that. Shortly after the 6km mark, I was sick. Having never had much grace or dignity to start with, my main concern was that if I was seen, someone would tell me I had to stop running.

I picked myself up, cut my pace right down and trudged on. Around the 8km mark, my left hip flexor started to niggle. It’s been playing up a little bit on my longer runs recently but I’ve never known it to hurt so early on before, definitely something I need to address sooner rather than later. I suspect post-sickness my form was really suffering which probably didn’t help matters. By the end of race, picking my left leg up was agony and as soon as I crossed the finish line, I suddenly discovered I could barely walk. Funny what the body forces itself through when it knows it “has” to. It did make 2/3 of the race extremely uncomfortable and I didn’t really need any extra misery!

My 10km time was 1:15:03. I knew then just what dire straits I was in. Even on my long slow runs, I hit 10km at just under the hour mark. Not even halfway through and mentally I was just beaten. From there on, it was only about the very possibility of finishing. Any plans for a time were long destroyed and there was no hope of recovering. I really started to worry that I wouldn’t make it through the race.

At 12km, not long after starting the second loop of Bath, I spotted my friends in the crowd. Slightly over halfway through the worst run of my life, there’s a tiny blip in my Garmin data, where my pace suddenly and briefly hits 4:13/km as I sprinted across the course to high-five them both. The second loop was hard, I ran/walked the entire way. At 18km, I was sick again, I think probably just from exhaustion at that point. At 19km, I sat down at the side of the road and cried for a bit. At that moment, with only 2km left to run, it seemed so impossible that I would actually finish. I dragged my feet, alternating running and walking in about 300m bursts, I didn’t have enough left to manage anything more. As I rounded the corner on to Great Pulteney Street and saw the finish line, my pace climbed and climbed again. I saw my parents in the crowd, I spotted my friends slightly further along the straight and I ran.

After collecting my medal and finisher’s shirt, I phoned my parents and genuinely cried down the phone like a lost child as I tried to find my way back to the Abbey to meet them. I was really truly broken. Yet more proof that I can’t cope with exhaustion.

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Sprinting for the finish (out of sheer relief)

My chip time ended up being 2:38:34, a good 30 minutes slower than I had expected/hoped for. A lot of weaving about meant that I covered more additional distance than I usually manage over the course of a race and the Garmin clocked me hitting half marathon distance at 2:36:18. Either way, the whole thing was a hard knock. As I joked (not at all joking) to several friends yesterday, why be proud of what you’ve achieved when there’s the opportunity to relentlessly punish yourself for not being better? I’ve written before that this is a constant issue in my running (and life), and the worse the day, the harsher I am.

Cdc51bmWoAQkPYOThe key here is that I still ran it. Whilst it wasn’t a good time, it’s a bloody good time considering that it involves stopping to be sick twice, sitting down to cry, and running 15km of it on empty – no fuel, minimal hydration. If I can manage that, I should have no problems running the distance on a better day.

So. Bath was a bad race. They happen; the fact that it was my first half is sad, but they happen. I have 8 weeks until Run Hackney (with a 10km between now and then). Training for a half, from a half, should (theoretically) be reasonably straightforward. I know I can cover that distance now, even when I feel awful. I’ll be factoring in some glute strengthening to try and sort out this hip issue. Lighter, warmer evenings should result in a more positive attitude to training. At Hackney, I’ll be crossing the line in the time I know I’m capable of.

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Medal #2 of 2016

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And I am done with my graceless heart, so tonight I’m going to cut it out and then restart

9 months on and I still can’t walk past your office. I tried today. I went to an interview in the City that I think went well. Spring looked like it might finally be arriving in London and so I walked back to the station. It’s been a while since I enjoyed that walk.

And the second I stepped on to the Millennium Bridge and crossed towards the south bank, I felt sick. It was too close to lunch. The risk of crossing paths with you was too great. I should have got the tube. The entire length of the bank, my eyes darted over every passing stranger, absolutely terrified that eventually I was going to lock eyes with you.

When your office came into sight, I started to run. In 3 inch heels. In my smartest interview dress. Sprinting, the sort of effort I can only keep up for a few hundred metres. Damage limitation, the faster I’m past, the less chance of seeing you. Ridiculous really, you might not even work there now.

I’m done with it. This fear, this misery, it ends here. Today.

The floors are falling out from everybody I know

This morning, I was sat at my desk when the phone rang from a meeting room downstairs. It was the head of our HR team, asking me to pop down. When I got there, I was quickly dismissed. I was still in my probationary period and it has been decided that the role and I are a bad fit. The wording in my explanatory letter is that I don’t exhibit “essential qualities for the role to the extent required”. Or something equally woolly sounding. The most blindsided I have ever felt. At my one month review, everything seemed fine and targets were set for me to work towards by the end of my 6 months probation. Certainly, at no point was I warned that I needed to be doing things so differently that my job was in danger.

4 weeks pay in lieu of notice. HR collected my bag and coat. I was walked out the office without saying goodbye to anyone. That’s that.

I don’t really object to the reasoning. Some matches are wrong. Employee and employer don’t always fit together in terms of culture and this was a total 180 from my previous firms. I do object to the lack of warning. Nothing mentioned was so significant that it couldn’t easily have been remedied if I had actually been made aware of a problem. But oh well, worse things happen at sea. So I’m told.

So what now? I’ve decamped to my parents’ house, for a few days at least. I’ve been in touch with recruiters straight away and the market for what I do seems buoyant. I now have the chance to reassess what I truly want out of my life. It was only very recently that I was wondering if any of this was right for me. The last few days before the Bath Half are now full of rest, of my mother’s cooking, of short runs in the sunshine. I’m reading Rod Junkins’ The Art of Creative Thinking and finally planning some time to invest in personal projects I’ve been talking about for years.

Out of all this, there has been serious positivity. In the most dire of circumstances, there was no panic attack. I sat through the meeting without breaking down. I scratched my arms in a desperate attempt to keep control while waiting for my possessions to be brought down, but recovered and a few hours later there’s no damage to be seen. I left the office, called my parents and walked back to Waterloo. I text and called various friends to try and keep calm; thank you to everyone who rallied in the middle of their working days. Throughout it, I stayed reasonably calm. The panic and the tears were there, looming, but for once they were shut behind a door. The best text in response, “to be honest, you should have quit last week the second you didn’t get the bacon roll you were promised”. I laughed.

It’s February again, we must get older

It’s time for the month in review! What’s been going on inside my head and where have my feet been taking me this month?

The month began on a serious high with my Time To Talk post going the smalltime blogger version of viral. I was asked in advance by the event director at Southwark parkrun if I had anything suitable for them to share as part of the day. I didn’t, but they’re good people so I wrote a piece on how parkrun has been more than just running to me. It ended up being retweeted a ridiculous number of times and being shared by so many parkruns, by parkrunners and by the founder, Paul Sinton-Hewitt. A bizarre day of people sending screenshots of my face as it popped up in their Facebook feeds via parkruns across the country.

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Sporting my parkrun performance shirt. A ginger in apricot. Bold.

That post has now been viewed well over 5000 times, in over 40 countries. Thank you to all who supported, shared and talked about mental health on that day. You know how much the cause means to me and to have had even the tiniest impact was fantastic. The blog will probably never reach such lofty heights again!

Running has been a mixed bag. Again, the month started well. I managed a couple of post-work 5 milers, as opposed to my usual 5km. I’m slowly trying to up my overall mileage and it’s reassuring to have broken the mental block I had of doing more than 5km on a school night. This will seem such a tiny breakthrough to so many of you but my running is plagued with arbitrary and nonsensical negative mental blocks of my own forming and it’s taking a lot of resolve to dismantle them.

The first weekend in February I once again smashed my longest run, taking the distance to 17.1km/10.6 miles. With 5 weeks to go until Bath Half, this was hugely reassuring. Thank you to everyone at #ukrunchat that evening who confirmed that yes, that was indeed completely on track when I was having a wobble! The other bonus of that run was my pacing was almost spot on; a little slower than usual but that led to consistency with a couple of (actually very small) blips that I think correlate to where I paused to stretch my niggling calves.

But then came the dreaded lurgy. Classic February cold/flu/misery had been doing the rounds at the office and I finally succumbed in the second week of February. Coincidentally, also set up to be the toughest week I’ve had at this job yet. Life, oh life.  A week of feeling terrible both physically and mentally and not being able to run at all, so once again a month where my mileage is nowhere near as high as I had hoped. I’ve actually only run about 50km all month which is appalling. I’m frustrated but I know how dangerous for my emotional resilience it is to push myself too hard. A lot of rest, a lot of cups of tea and watching Netflix in leggings and ratty old jumpers, a lot of envying everyone talking about their running. I attempted a long slow run exactly one week after having run 17km. I made it through 3km with legs and a stomach feeling like lead, went home and was promptly sick. Another attempt at 5km in the week was cut short at around the 3km mark again with burning lungs. Super disheartening.

The following weekend I made it out for my long run with minimal confidence after almost 2 weeks off. I put myself through 16km, although with a few short walks thrown in there (at 3km, 10km, 14km). I’ve already written about how negative I felt after that run. I’m trying to be objective about it and be a lot kinder to myself. I was on course to be only about 2-3 minutes slower than my 17km run 2 weeks earlier. Considering that there was a good 5+ minutes of walking involved, I was just coming back from illness, I’d had some time off and it was horrendously windy out there, that’s not at all bad going. Pain and Panic are whispering that I’m making excuses but they can hush. I ran 16km when I wasn’t at my best, having expected to struggle to hit 10km, and I didn’t run them that badly. I didn’t run them anywhere near as well as I would have liked but you can’t always get what you want.

Given the setback of illness, I now won’t run the full half marathon distance until race day but I’ve now comfortably hit 15km+ on several occasions in the past 6 weeks without any real ill effect and I think I could probably have kept going. I think the adrenaline and atmosphere on the day will carry me through without too much fuss. It’s “less than a parkrun” (a well-established unit of distance!) to be added on my longest run and that’s not too terrifying. I’ve just hit the initial fundraising target I set when I signed up for Bath but as I’ve now planned an entire year of running for Mind, I’m hoping to absolutely smash that amount. Anyone feeling kind and inclined to donate, you can do so here and it means the world to me.

I went back to work and had a panicked couple of days trying to progress various matters before putting the out of office on and heading to Iceland.

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Iceland was like Narnia

This actually prompted the biggest meltdown of the month, a severe 2 hour panic attack the night before my holiday and the first serious one I’ve had in a while. I can’t explain the terror that I experience knowing that emails are flooding into my inbox and not being able to deal with them. Holidays are more stress than they’re worth really. Anyway, Iceland. The highlight of my month and you can read about it in a lot more detail here. After recently wondering where I’m going in life, I’ve realised that maybe this is where I’m supposed to be right now, booking holidays on a near-whim with one of my best friends. Now we are home and I am planning our trip to Japan next year.

This morning I turned my work phone back on to be greeted with over 300 emails. I was only out the office for 3 days…A moment of inner panic, a couple of whiny messages to people, a tube journey spent sifting through the noise. By the time I stepped into the office, I knew where I stood, a huge number of emails had been deleted, more had been filed and I could start prioritising the relatively few that required any level of attention. That’s real progress. Once that scenario would have resulted in so much panic that I wouldn’t have made it to the office.

I’d hoped to pick the running back up tonight but leaving at gone 7pm and having to be back in for 7.30am is making that seem unlikely. Law is all kinds of fun.

That’s February done. On we march to March. In 2 days, I will be 27. In 13 days, I will be running my first half marathon for Mind. Work is set to be very busy (when is it not?). I have two incredibly exciting projects relating to this blog that I’m hoping to announce soon, I’m just waiting for confirmation on some details. It’s going to be a big month.

Hail the winter days after dark

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Iceland. It’s icy.

This isn’t about to become a lifestyle blog.I like this blog having a clear purpose and my life isn’t really one anyone will be aspiring to. But, a lot of factors of my lifestyle do impact on my anxiety and some of the bigger non-running events probably warrant a post. This is part travel write-up of my recent holiday to Iceland, part mini-commentary on how mental health links into that.

At the end of 2015, I convinced my friend Chris that he wanted to go to Iceland with me. Chris has many good qualities as one of my best friends – mostly that he always seems willing to order pizza – but my favourite is that he’s really easy to talk into travelling. The conversation went something like: “Do you want to come to Iceland with me for my birthday?” “Yeah, sure”. Simples. I’ve also played a very similar game about Japan next year which has worked out in the same fashion. And so very hyper and a little drunk at New Year, we booked a holiday for the week before my birthday.

Holidays work nicely for me as a marker. Just as parkrun is a weekly beacon, I need points marked out in the future to be heading towards. Throughout the first couple of months in a new job where I’ve been tired, ill, stressed, I’ve been aiming for Iceland. They also make for a good distraction technique because I can throw myself into research and planning whenever I’m feeling low. The flipside is that a lot of anxiety is derived from not being in control of situations and therefore airports especially are basically hell for me. I’m not relaxed about travelling to places, there’s a plastic wallet of paperwork (boarding passes, hotel reservations, car hire etc), all in chronological order of when it will be required. I presume Chris doesn’t mind my military precision because he keeps agreeing to go on holiday with me and I do calm down a lot once we actually get somewhere. I think he’s relieved someone enjoys organisation.

We flew from London Gatwick to Keflavik, about 50km along the coast from Reykjavik, where we were based. A poor start in that as soon as we went through customs in Iceland, I realised I had left my coat on the plane. It is sub-optimal to be coatless in Iceland. It’s also a particularly nice coat that when bought, I joked that I would have to wear until my 30s to justify the cost. At home, something as simple as this could have induced a bad panic attack but I think this proves that having the right people around me can have a significant effect on my reactions. One of the reasons I suspect this friendship works so well is that Chris absolutely refuses to pander to my anxieties. He’s known me since we were 11 and in that time as part of the Core Alix Support Team has had me wailing down the phone over horrendous breakups, stressful jobs and fights with my parents. He’s supportive but incredibly practical, and if I try to have a breakdown over a lost coat, I know full well he will laugh at me. Sometimes that’s really what I need, to appreciate that I’m being utterly ridiculous.

With me tweeting easyjet for help and the promise from Chris that we would come back to the airport in the morning, we went and collected our jeep and hit the road to Reykjavik. We had booked a room through airbnb (where did we all stay before airbnb?!) in the centre of Reykjavik,IMG_20160226_111936 close to the Hallsgrimkirkja which is one of the few notable landmarks in the city. Handy for us because it meant that whenever we were driving home, we just headed towards it! Come the morning, we drove back to Keflavik and retrieved my coat. This was actually all very painless, we were so quick that we didn’t even have to pay for parking. As we were already on the road, we decided we would do the famous Golden Circle tour that day instead of on Friday as we had planned. With Chris taking on all driving responsibility, it was up to me to navigate using the world’s most unwieldly and oversized map and a bunch of directions I’d hurriedly printed off before leaving for the airport. Apprehension all round.

First stop was Þingvellir (the Þ is like a th). Þingvellir is a national park where Alþingi, the Icelandic parliament was formed in 930. It’s also supposedly very interesting from a geological perspective because there are cracks all over the region where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet.

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Horse whispering

It was hard to see any of this because there was so much snow! Chris read all the information boards and tried to tell me some history. I was too busy jumping in the snow like a small child to listen. We got back on the road to see the geysers of Haukadalur but en route, there were many Icelandic ponies. Chris asked if I wanted to pull over to see them and did so rapidly when he realised I was liable to throw myself from a moving vehicle with excitement. Fun fact, you can’t import animals into Iceland so if an Icelandic pony leaves, it can never go home. Unfortunately you can’t fit a pony in your hand luggage.

After larking about with the ponies for a bit, taking a few selfies and several attempts by ponies to eat my mittens, we finally carried on to the geysers. We watched Strokkur, the most reliable of the geysers erupt a few times; every 5-10 minutes it shoots about 20m of water into the air and it really is spectacular.

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I’m battling adverse weather

There are a number of tiny hot springs in the same area so we wandered around a bit while I concentrated very hard on not falling over and breaking a leg so close to Bath Half when I’ve been fundraising. After lunch, we drove the 10 minutes up the road to the (mostly frozen) Gullfoss waterfall. I have honestly never experienced weather conditions like it. It was so windy that we couldn’t walk in a straight line, I was being blown almost a metre sideways with every couple of steps and the cold meant that taking photos left my hands in pain for minutes afterwards. It was entirely worth it for the absolutely staggering views which I’m still amazed are real because every perspective looked like something out of a fantasy film. You’ll be pleased to know that my day of navigation was on the whole, very successful.

The next morning, we walked around Reykjavik. It had snowed quite a lot in the night so I was once again living in fear of falling over, an activity I manage frequently in far less perilous conditions back home.

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Sun Voyager

We headed down towards the harbour, slowed by my inability to not take photos of the sea every 30 seconds. Iceland still permits commercial whaling and it was quite unsettling to walk through the harbour and have whaling boats on one side of us, with whale watching boats on the other!

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Snowbathing on the beach

There wasn’t a huge amount to do in Reykjavik so after stopping in a cafe for a while, we decided to head back up the hill and take the car to the outskirts of the city to an observation deck with 360 degree views and then on to the geothermal beach which was a really good afternoon considering it was a whim, rather than something we had intended to do. That evening we boarded a coach and headed out into the wild in the hope of seeing the Northern Lights, after it had been cancelled the night before due to the snowy conditions. 5.5 hours on a coach. The things we put ourselves through. Sadly, most of western Iceland seemed to be covered in a thick blanket of cloud so there was nothing to be seen but we actually had a fairly amusing night due to our guide telling us a lot of odd stories about his childhood and the region. It’s a shame we didn’t get to see the lights but the rest of the trip was so spectacular that it didn’t really diminish it.

After getting home at about 2am, we set the alarm for a little after 7am. Oof. Neither of us are morning people at the best of times but I had insisted on booking our trip to the Blue Lagoon for 9am so that we had masses of time before the airport. The joys of being an anxious traveller. Although my main worry was obviously that I was missing parkrun at that time. IMG_20160227_120108.jpgThe Blue Lagoon is actually a manmade geothermal spa but it’s similar to the natural hot pools that can be found across the country. The minerals in the water are supposedly very good for you, although as Chris learnt, they are less beneficial if you get them in your eye! In hindsight, going early was probably the right thing to do because it was much quieter than when we left at lunchtime. With a few hours left, we drove along the coast to Keflavik, then on to Gardur, for the sake of something to do. Turns out, there is not much to do at all but we wandered about on the coast and drove along to a lighthouse. Chris learnt some more facts that I’m sure were very interesting but I promptly forgot them as soon as he told me. The lighthouse was built in 1897 and somebody had to live in it to wind the light. Something like that. After that, we dropped the jeep back and went to the airport to come back to London. Birthday trip over, Iceland crossed off the travel bucketlist, a lot more silly in-jokes and memories created with my best friend.

Despite loving holidays and them being very good for me, they are still a challenge with anxiety. Most things I love in this world are. As an only child, I find sharing my space very difficult, I’m used to being alone. Much as I adore Chris, being around someone near constantly for 4 days is really tough but I’m very lucky that we have the sort of friendship where we don’t feel compelled to talk. After 15 years, I’m comfortable to be around him and not have the pressure of making conversation the entire time which makes it a lot easier for me to cope. The key factor in my resilience is my energy levels and as I get further into a holiday like this, the more tired I get and the more I start to struggle. We structured the trip quite well so we got the most tiring bits out the way early on and Chris is very relaxed and knows I don’t cope brilliantly (or at all) with exhaustion so although I was a bit delirious by the journey home, I managed to stay in fairly good spirits throughout.

If you’re still wanting more photos, I posted far too many on Instagram. Now, if anyone wants me, I’ll be distracting myself from a horrendous week at work by planning our holiday to Japan.