Running History

This series of posts is really an attempt to bring you, the reader, up to speed with me and my running to date. It won’t contain everything, but it will cover the highlights. Running has transformed my life and it’s also given me a focus and a place to find peace in recent years, but more about that in a minute! I’ve tried to separate these out as they are kinda separate from the main blog.

Part 1 – Life before running

For a great number of years if you had asked me whether I wanted to go for a run or what I thought about running in general I probably would have replied that I thought it was “morally wrong”. As with many things in life… how wrong I was! This lighthearted comment would have gone along with a decade in my life where I stopped doing exercise of any sort. It wasn’t a conscious decision, I just kinda sleepwalked myself into inaction.

Having been a competitive swimmer up until I was about 13 years of age I pretty much woke up one morning and decided I’d had enough. I had no social life, primarily because I would be at training nine times per week and then at a gala most weekends. I just lost my swimming mojo, but I always loved the outdoors and I took up kayaking and various other outdoor pursuits. Being a strong swimmer always made this easy. Having spent my formative years pickled in chlorine in what is a very solitary sport I never really got started with the more traditional team sports. If I have a sporting regret it’s not playing rugby, but that just means I get to pretend I know everything about the sport and shout at the telly a lot.

I arrived at Uni, Kayak under my arm and pretty proficient, but the lad that ran the kayak club was a bit of an idiot. Okay, so he wasn’t a bit of an idiot he as full blown, but unfortunately the club was his life and it appeared to be either his way or no way, so that was it really. I enjoyed the other things Uni had to offer and drifted into inaction. It was ten years before a rather heavier CBH found himself lacing up a pair of trainers in desperation.

Part 2 – Kick start/ kick up the backside!

So we’ve fast forwarded on a decade and I’m probably 3 stone overweight following too many nights spent in hotels on business and too many beers. I’d curbed the beers significantly but still over indulging in that area of life and I’m stressed at work. A bullying account manager and a sprinkling of soul destroying client work colleagues mean that things come to a head. I’d taken the abuse from the account manager in my stride for 18+ months, but the combination meant something had to give. In what felt like an insane moment I decided a bit of exercise would be a good distraction.

As usual with me I think the trigger was a challenge which sounded like a good idea at the time. My memory is hazy now (more about that later) but I think the trigger was an invite to do the swimming leg of the London Triathlon. Confident I could still cut it in the water I said why not and then promptly realised that (a) it was effectively in the Thames, and (b) the other two team members were of a pretty impressive calibre! One Olympian (ok, so he was a Cox, but surely he’d still have the Olympic work ethic and spirit) and a man I hardly knew, but moments after I had agreed his name and the words “legendary” and “fitness” were used in the same sentence. I needed to do some prep!

Part 3 – The competitive spirit returns!

The embarrassment of failure loomed along with the tales of being kicked and punched underwater at the start of the race. I figured I needed to get fit and start out quickly to beat the watery scrum/ battle. I laced up my trainers and hit the streets of London. 30 minutes later I panted to a finish and was hooked. I had a high that lasted me days. The triathlon* went well (we won the corporate cup and came somewhere in the top 5 overall) and I was looking for a challenge. I signed up for a Nike 10K race and my fun run career started. Along with all the other weekend warriors I went from 5K to 10K to the Great North Run and then got a charity place in the London Marathon.

* It wasn’t so funny at the time, well certainly not for at least an hour an a half, but the London Tri presented an unexpected challenge. Blasé as always… okay, disorganised as always I found myself on the day before the race thinking… “so what am I going to wear under this wetsuit?” I figured that boardies were a bad idea as I’d be fighting the whole way to retrieve them from my bottom so I popped to Lillywhites and bought the cheapest pair of skimps I could find. These “budgie smugglers” were so cheap they didn’t even have a draw string, but in my view I was never going to wear them ever again so why pay more.

I arrived at the Triathlon and went for the race briefing expected to be told that I swim, get out the water and hand on the timing chip to the next person. Oh no, no, no. Following the swim I was told I’d need to take off my wetsuit and then run with it in a bag for a good 400 metres including a huge set of stairs. All I could think was, “Hang on, you want me to get out of the wetsuit in front of a huge crowd in a pair of Speedos which are going to get suctioned off by the wetsuit I’m wearing as I strip it off? Then you want me to run past this crowd to lose any final bits of dignity I had left?” I have to be honest, I felt sick! Luckily an hour or so later with just moments to spare I was saved by a friend who had a tri-suit.

Dignity potentially intact, I raced to the start and was one of the last in the water. I headed out and found myself a place at the front but a good 50 metres away from the shortest line. As the gun went off I kicked off and put on a sprint for the first 100 metres or so. I finally got my head out of the water and looked around, thankful that I hadn’t taken a beating, only to find that I was about 75 metres ahead of the people behind me and along side the two front-runners. Sadly I was also 50 metres over so I changed my course and had to cover the extra distance. I think I exited 7th from the water along with three others. I outstripped the 3 and overtook another chap on the run to transition 2nd – more importantly I’d managed not to expose myself or display my moobs to hundreds of people. Job done!

Part 4 – My first Mountain Marathon

Somewhere in this period of time I got challenged to attempt the Saunders Lakeland Mountain Marathon.

Funnily enough this all came about over a pint. Kirk suggested that we all had a go at a mountain marathon and we all said; “why not”. The only real thing I had to go on was the kit list and Kirk telling me to pack 2 plastic bags for the first evening (he didn’t reveal why). So typically under prepared we turned up on the Saturday morning ready to have a go at this mountain marathon lark. We were in the basic walking class as confidence was not high, but we were convinced it would be a laugh.

To be fair the Mountain Marathon was an experience. Nick Johnson and I turned up with what we thought were reasonably light backpacks. How wrong we were. We marvelled at the wiry characters in shorts and battered/ torn trainers, but more than that we marvelled at the few that had managed to get the entire kit list into a 12 litre back pack. I was initially mocked for my Yeti Gators, however as the weather got worse and worse I did get a few envious looks.

Of course I look back now and chuckle at our approach, but I’d recommend  giving a mountain marathon a go, even if you go for the walking class with all the luxuries in a heavy backpack. If you like getting out in the elements and have a sense of adventure Id put a pound to a penny that you’ll love it!

On this occasion the sense of adventure was well and truly tested. After about two hours the wind and rain was like nothing I had ever seen before. The rain was horizontal due to the wind and we battled hard against it armed only with pork pies and mars bars (normally the choice of champions).

Now it’s fair to say that neither Nick nor I would claim to be masters in navigation. For those of you that don’t know the format for mountain marathons I’ll give you a brief summary. You turn up in a mountainous location and get given a map and a set of grid references for the checkpoints along with a cryptic clue (okay, these are standard orienteering descriptions, but to me they are still cryptic clues!). In pairs you then try to get to all these check points as quickly a possible in the right order* whilst carrying your kit, food and water for the two days. On day 2 you get another set of grid references and cryptic clues and do it all again.

You can be as quick as you like, but if your nav’ is bad then you’re going quickly in the wrong direction. To make life more difficult there are lots of different classes so you don’t know who is looking for the same controls as you and so most importantly you can’t assume to just follow others!

So back to the story, Nick and I got to a point where literally everybody was going down the same path. We were convinced we knew where we were and couldn’t fathom why everybody else was going the wrong way – it doesn’t take a genius to see where this is going. Nick and I decided on a short cut which saw us tearing down an extremely steep slope to the road to cross what appeared to be a small stream… well, it looked that way from the top of the mountain!

After wasting 20 minutes looking for a place to cross we finally manned up and waded the stream. Our reward for this epic crossing was nipple high bracken, an extremely steep slope and a full on waterfall to cross. To be fair we were exactly right about where we were on the map when we embarked on this “better” route, but there are times where the path the crow would fly is not the quickest option!

Bedraggled we rounded a series of rock faces and after trying to climb a number of them we finally aw some other people. The first in a good few hours. Our spirits lifted until we heard them cursing as much as us about not being able to find the checkpoint control (a small plastic box which can often be cruelly hidden). After an hour or so of being within a few hundred metres of the control we finally found it. In all honesty I think we had given up just before and were working out our best way back when it appeared.

The rain and the poor visibility continued and after bagging another control or two my knee just gave way. I was in so much pain with it I could only walk backwards downhill and Nick had had enough too. We headed for the camp and booked in having missed the last control. Our first DNF.

We met with Kirk and Eggo (Eric Pye) and realised that we weren’t so badly off after all. Eggo seemed fine, but Kirk had let his machismo loose and decided that the horizontal rain and gale force winds were not going to force him to do something daft like shield his eyes, so he looked like he had gone several rounds with Mike Tyson. Both eyes were puffed over and in his own words he “looked like he had myxomatosis”.

Huge numbers had called it a day before the devilish second check point and Nick and I decided that a warm bed would be a better idea since we were out of the running anyway. We hung up our boots and went to the pub. I called my brother who lives in the lake district to see if he would pick us up. He seemed happy to pick us up so we had a pint and waited… and waited… and waited. I thought he’d just been busy that evening and had set off late, but after we had spent 30 minutes driving I was feeling incredibly guilty. Dave had driven for over 40 minutes to pick us up and it was now rapidly closing in on midnight. I apologised, had one of the best showers I’ve ever experienced and sheepishly went off to bed with the guilt still weighing heavily.

What an experience, I look back with very fond memories and chuckle at my stupidity. I was hooked though and mountain marathons are now a definite highlight of my year. Especially now that I’ve got a solid running team mate. Just the minor point of cracking the navigation and we’ll be contenders

Lessons learned:

  • When over a beer Kirk says it’ll be a laugh, check out what it entails independently before you turn up
  • Weight is not your friend
  • Pork pies and mars bars are not the lightest or best sources of nutrition
  • When it comes to navigation, everybody else won’t be wrong**
  • Don’t add guilt to your shame by not understanding that just because somebody lives in the lake district, it doesn’t mean they are close to where you are!

* There is an alternative style which is known as a ‘score’ class which basically means that all the checkpoints are worth points and you can visit them in any order you please – having recently competed in one of these with Martin Wilcock I can confirm they are far more tactical, but put an excellent twist on the challenge. Sadly the DBR means we won’t be doing the RAB MM again in 2012, but 2013 will see a return.. and by then I will hopefully be able to navigate!

** At the RAB MM this year I found myself uttering the same words. I didn’t learn my lesson well enough. I estimate we lost between 80 and 100 points as a result (about 40% of our first day’s haul).

Part 5 – not built for this!

A DNF (Did not Finish) at the Mountain marathon prompted a trip to see a specialist as it walking in the mountains was a great source of joy and freedom so I didn’t want to give up on it. I had a choice, surgery and physio or physio and see if I need surgery. Worst came to the worst I’d end up with very good pre-hab’ so I went for the physio. It revealed (much to the disbelief of the physio) that I didn’t have a VMO (the muscle on the inside of your thigh that runs down to the patella) and I embarked on a long rehab series. Not having a VMO meant that my ITB (a tendon that runs down the outside of your leg to the patella) was pulling my knee out of alignment so I was damaging the cartilage.

Months of work passed where I spent a lot of time trying to mentally activate a muscle which had switched off. Concentrating on using something you don’t use is really difficult, but thankfully now I don’t have to think about it. I ended up having surgery on one knee and left with it as good as new. Three weeks later I was walking in the Austrian mountains (beautiful, but I was meant to be snowboarding! Grrr)

Six months after I got all that fixed I was back with all sorts of running niggles. I ended up following the text book of running injuries. I tried everything from orthotics to cortisone injections in my hip. I had entered and was fundraising for the London Marathon and ultimately trained so hard for it that I had to pull out 2 weeks before the big day as I had managed to develop a stress fracture in my right leg. I asked if I could just run and put up with the pain only to be told that I’d spend several weeks in a cast if I did. I was heartbroken. I learnt a hard lesson about listening to my body.

During the training I’d found that once my body got over 15 miles the difficulty seemed to increase exponentially… maybe I wasn’t cut out for this distance lark. What was clear to me though was that I hadn’t lost my desire to compete physically, that I knew winning wasn’t everything and that it was really about improving on my times – the only person I was racing was me. The final and dominant element of my motivation was the challenge; if I didn’t sign up to a race then I languished back into inaction. I would binge train based upon what I had signed up for after telling a many people a possible that I was doing it so as to shame myself into training. I also found myself almost permanently asking for sponsorship. Still, my year of travelling was coming up so everybody’s pockets would get a rest.

Training wise I would go through phases of either evening or morning runs. The evenings were up through crouch end to Highgate, then onto Muswell Hill and Alli Palli. The mornings would be running to work via Camden. I was also putting in a cheeky 5K in around Regents Park at lunch time here and there, but  mileage was not high overall – I wouldn’t do more than one session per day and I probably only managed three per week. I had also devised a beautiful 17 mile route around 4 of London’s royal parks and most of the tourist attractions which I loved and still do any time I get a chance to. It felt like I was doing real mileage at the time even though I really wasn’t, but I guess it was all relative; i.e., all my other mates weren’t really doing anything so I felt like I was on the right side of action! I’d have to describe myself as a casual runner. I’ve always been good at talking a good game and I mostly do that because then I have to do it or answer to the people that I’ve told – the pain I feel as I have to admit to not doing what I said I would motivates me to just do it. In reality I was just doing a bit of it. J

I was preparing for the trip of a lifetime to Whistler – 2 months in the snow and I didn’t want to miss a second, but fate was to deal a final card!

Part 6 – Life as I know it ceases

So I was getting in shape, had a few races under my belt and was loving the endorphins, but I wasn’t hooked like I am now. I was about to go away for a year and I wasn’t taking my runners or anything like that. Then in December 2006 I had a bit of an accident. Van reverses out of a side street into the main road at speed, doesn’t see me and I get the pleasure of the back door in my head at 30mph.

It’ been interesting writing this history as I’ve realised jut how jumbled it all is in my head. What was first, did I do the Great North Run before I went travelling or after? I sit here typing and I genuinely don’t know. I’ve be wracking my brains and trying to think where I trained for it and it’s all just a muddle. Until I started this blog I thought I had just lost patches and chunks, but really it’s all just a muddle with islands of memory missing.

Suffice to say I thought I knew what was going on at the time. I won’t bore you all with the details, but lets just say my head hurt and I knew there was something seriously wrong, but I kept getting told it would be ok. So I threw myself back into work to try and get back to normality in the hope that I’d be able to pull it together before I left. We’d spent so long saving, dreaming and planning for the trip that I just couldn’t think of not going… besides, section of it were all booked and paid for.

The trip was incredible. A year with Laura seeing and doing what we’d talked about for so long. I have firm memories of some bits of it and the rest I’ve worked hard to maintain, re-reading my blog from the time and talking through sections with Laura to try to form the memories. I’ve looked at the photos countless times and it all helps, but it’s all affected by the bang. This is the reason why I’m writing this blog o I have something to remember this journey by – whilst I think I’ll be able to remember it clearly I know it will all jumble again…. hmm, better take some photos!

I didn’t realise it so much at the time, but when I got back home it all started to unravel. I returned to work and to cut a long story short I was slowly… ok, quite rapidly losing it. I was crazily irritable and was struggling with just basic stuff at work. I’d be totally wiped out when I returned home and lost it a few times. I was suffering from headaches all day and just trying to battle through it. It was a constant state of confusion and this lead to extreme irritability, headaches and rage. I started running again and it really helped, but the situation was so bad that it only did so much.

When I returned I had planned to put myself forward for a huge physical and mental challenge, but I slowly realised that I just wasn’t right. I thought I had residual anger issues over the functions that I started to realise I had lost. I remember the first time when I realised I was having a problem with names. I found myself in a lift with a 6ft 2in blond Swedish girl that I knew from my old consulting days. I went to get her name from my memory and the only way I can describe it is to say it was as if I opened a door and on the other side was a black hole; literally nothing. Not only was there nothing there but it felt like I was looking at myself mesmerised by what was on the other side of the door. I remember feeling like I grabbed the person by the collar and pulled them back before they dropped into oblivion. Suddenly I was back in the lift, confused as hell and totally shell shocked. I just didn’t know what to do. It’s like somebody opens a trap door and you’re falling. I was desperately trying to grab hold of the sides and pull myself back up… still falling.

Other brain functions didn’t work as they did – I used to have a photographic memory for conversation and speech (really annoying for my wife), but I found myself not even remembering the reason why I had started the sentence just three words in. I would (and still do) babble on trying to remember my point a it seems less embarrassing than admitting you have forgotten what the remaining 10 words you were going to say were and all the time the confusion grows and the confidence plummets like a boulder in a cartoon. I couldn’t even remember that I had met somebody two days previously let alone what they had said. I’m in my thirties and trying to learn how to make note and review them efficiently for the first time. World crumbling.

I got angry. Ferociously angry. Everything got worse and I was spiraling and desperate; I thought I’d try counselling. We didn’t gel, but she did suggest I went to see my GP and I was referred to the Aquired Brain Injury team at the local hospital. It changed my life.

Part 7 – A new life begins

I remember Dr. Newby and Bernie (from the ABI team) coming to the house, me blurting out a load of stuff, desperately trying to piece it together, make it coherent and not forget anything. At the end they said, something along the lines of needing to set up another appointment and I felt a huge relief come over me. I wept. I realised that something was wrong and that I had people to help me. I just can’t describe the relief or the way I felt that day. It was the start of a very long journey – one that is still ongoing, but I think I owe my life and sanity to the ABI team. I can’t bear to think what would have happened otherwise.

Throughout this I had found a sense of peace as I ran. It stopped the noise. It was just me and the trail/ road. All the inputs ceased and the problems could be solved; the mess untangled. I was identifiable different when I got home. Laura could instantly tell if I had been running and the least obvious clues where the 70′s style skimpy shorts, red face and sweat dripping off my chin!

I’m still under the care of the ABI team some three years on and a lot has happened. I suffer from horrendous head pain and migraines for which I’m on pain modifying mediation for the rest of my life, but running can have a similar/ complementary effect. I get my sparkle back when I run.

I sincerely believe running is the best medicine for mental health. There is no problem a run can’t solve – if you get home and find you haven’t solved it then you haven’t run far enough; eventually you will devise a way forward or you will realise that it just doesn’t matter because you’re too knackered to care anymore.

Combined with the medication, regular running helped me to move from sleeping 12-14 hours per night and a migraine almost every evening, to sleeping 8-9 hours per night and a significant reduction in the migraines. The sceptical among you will put it all down to the medication, but running was making a difference way before I agreed to go on the medication. so you see, it’s more than just fitness and a goal for me. Running has now become key to my well being a place to shut everything out and just be part of the moment. Key to me being a better husband and father. Running for me is essential.

Part 8 – Running man to Helsby fell running man

So I was now running. I took on the Marathon challenge up in Edinburgh (on the hottest day of the year) and got very burnt. The night after the marathon I struggled to sleep, not because my legs were sore, but because my sunburn was killing me!

To keep motivation I was searching for a running club and I stumbled upon Helsby. An excellent bunch with the right outlook for me. On some fronts it would be nice to have more structured training, but on many others I just prefer the opportunity to catch up with some like minded people and get a nice run in. Then there’s the competition!

As with any running club there is some friendly competition. A number of trophies each year and a series of races for the various disciplines. My first night at the club happened to be on the day of the summer handicap race. I didn’t win, but I put in a reasonable showing. Adair breezed past me on the second lap as I was breathless. He didn’t seem to be breathing hard at all and gave me a cheery “good running” as he past. That day a number of friendly rivalries formed which exist to this day. Steve, Ian, Jimmy and Adair are my main rivals and Danny (who no longer runs with us as he now lives in Sheffield) was too far ahead to be considered a rival…. more of an aspiration!

The first night I went to the club was not only the summer handicap, but it was also the birth day we had been given for Rhys. Rhys seemed happy where he was so I’d gone to the club to try it out along with a mobile. Not for the first time was it noted that Laura is a saint. The arrival of Rhys a few days later did mean that my running with the club was sporadic, and it wasn’t until the following year that I got out in the fells.

Fell racing and trail racing are now the only things I really consider. The sense of freedom experienced in the fells is like nothing else. I’ve always loved being up in the mountains, so the opportunity to see more of them in one go mead perfect sense. I also love the relaxed sub-culture that exists on the fell racing circuit. There are no pretensions, lots of typically British mumbles about how they are not looking forward to the race, but every person comes off the mountain with an inner smile (sometimes even one on their faces) and a secret desire to get home as quickly as possible to find out where the next race is.

In fell racing one goes through real hardship that ensures that one feels alive. Snatching a moment to take in the view as your lungs feel like they are bleeding and trying to get back into a run at that crucial top of the hill section are feelings that one comes to love and crave. A fell run is so tactical and can take so many different formats that there is something for everybody in there. From short sharp lung busters to tactical navigational two day events there is no time to worry about responsibilities or problems. Couple that with the breathtaking scenery this island has to offer and you’ve got a perfect sense of freedom.

I immediately found myself in a tussle for second Helsby male. Jimmy and me would battle it out at every race. My competitive spirit and fear of a loss drove me on to take runner up at the club awards. Loads of banter and excellent competition… what more could I ask for? Adair would always ease into first by some considerable distance, but he’s always a target. A fantastic servant of the club and a real face on the running scene in the north west. Now if only I could run like he could I’d be getting somewhere!

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