8. Changes

This week, my twin daughters started school. Any parent will know how big an occasion this is. When your children are born, the thoughts of them in school are seemingly distant until, of course, the day arrives upon you like a freight train. The expense of the uniform, the constant checklists, the ironing of labels, the piles and piles of uniform – all multiplied when you have twins. It really dawned last Sunday night, two days before they started. The day itself would turn out to be fine, but it seems that this family milestone wouldn’t be the only thing to be disrupting my psyche, indeed, something was casting over me like some sort of malaise.

Truth be told, the weekend of running that I recently undertook seemed to take a lot out of me. There’s running on tired legs, and then there’s tired. As I walked around on Monday, feeling like I’d run a marathon, my right hamstring seemingly weighing a tonne, I couldn’t help contemplating if I’d overcooked things last week. I worked on my lower leg fitness on Monday night, foam rolling, stretching and using a resistance band trying to get some feeling back into it, some weight off it. I’ve always had powerful quads and hamstrings, just when they get tight, damn, they let me know. Even as my swimming lesson approached on Tuesday, I still felt a bit like something wasn’t right. I was glad for the day off to walk my kids up for their first day at school, and to collect them a few hours later, not to mention a walk to collect a parcel, which at least finally loosened things up a bit.

Still, that didn’t prepare me for the news that would be delivered shortly after 8pm, having completed my warm up for the swimming lesson. My coach, Judy, is leaving the set up at Halifax in three weeks. Now, I did imagine that one day I would fly the Adult Improvers nest, but never did I imagine I would be pushed. Or in fact, imagine Judy leaving. At this point I don’t know why. She is offering classes in a 25 metre pool in Rishworth on Thursdays, but that’s too far away for me to get to from Leeds and it would interfere with my family’s fitness activities – even the kids are getting into kickboxing now. Suffice to say, I made the most of the session, and Judy did notice the improvements I’d made, particularly the front crawl. We had 10 minutes of diving, my current mental block in the water, but in any event, her knowledge and application are second to none.

I left the lesson that night for my run home. I took it easy for the most part but I couldn’t do much but contemplate my next move. It felt as though the suggestion to move on to a Stroke Skills class was a bit of a nudge, and not just because I’ve been doing the Improvers class for over a year. It did take the mind off my running haze, but it didn’t feel fun.

I’ve already booked on to a Stroke Skills class at my local pool next Friday, and I’ll be continuing at Improvers until Judy leaves. Which as you read this, is three weeks from now. And what I’ll gain in a 20 metre teaching pool – more skills, better stamina – I’ll probably lose in terms of the application, the nous, the actual coaching. I’m fairly certain Judy is (or was) the only coach they have who actually gets in the water and shows everyone what they should be doing. Her methods are firm, but fair, and she transformed me from someone who couldn’t even stick their head under water to breathe into someone who is, at least, a bit of a fish now and one with a platform to maybe take things up a level. For that, I’ll always remember what an excellent coach Judy is and credit her greatly with bringing back my confidence in the water, and actually enjoying it again.

I did the now customary early night/early rise on Wednesday/Thursday, and got out at 4:20am to run 8.5 miles in the morning darkness. My last run as a 31 year old. I still felt a bit unsure, like I still wasn’t fully over running myself ragged that weekend before. I didn’t know if it was fatigue, or something else. In any event, running at this hour was a good source of therapy. Now the schools are back, there’s one or two more cars on the road at this hour, but its still fairly safe going and all in all, quiet. It turned out to be what I needed. I just got up, got out the door and got on with it. The route was at times hilly (when it is not?, I ask) but I did get the simple satisfaction of enjoying ny progression through the miles, and in the end, it seemed to unlock whatever spell I was under, and all seemed right again. I had three days to prepare now for a big 19 mile run to Ripponden and back again, giving myself the grace of a mild hangover (from birthday ale) and my mother-in-law’s birthday to get the necessary rest.

Morning, world!

Sunday came, and again I was up sharp at 4am. I had porridge with chia seeds and peanut butter for breakfast. I did wonder if I’d overdone the protein but heck, I got my drink together, a mini Chia Charge bar and wedged the bar with my phone and key in the back pocket of my shorts. I jogged down to the same start point for all my runs along the Calder Hebble Navigation – the Lüdenscheid Link, started the watch and I was away, now officially another year older.

The Calder Hebble Navigation, 5:45am, 11/09/2016

The light on the towpath was dim, and at one point I had my early progress interrupted by a couple of ‘playful’ dogs. Well, they didn’t bite, they were a bit of a hindrance but at least the owner gave a hoot. On I went, taking in the morning darkness, leaving the ravaged Elland Bridge behind and heading up Saddleworth Road, taking the long road to Barkisland. The street lights were switching off as I progressed, and the sky was turning a beautiful fire orange, overlapping the hills of Barkisland. A photographer with a real camera was roadside, taking in the opportunity. It wasn’t until I looked back I noticed what a great sunrise this was. 

And sure enough, as I ascended higher, the sun began to rise, absolutely wide open and beaming across the sky.

I know you shouldn’t stare at the sun, but it was impossible not to! Here I was, on this stretch of road for a second time, still as distracted by my surroundings as the first. Well, I had work to do, so it was time to knuckle down. I followed the signposts for Ripponden, and headed down Ripponden Old Bank, which was steep, cambered, a bit dicy at times, and completely understandable as to why Google couldn’t get a vehicle down there to Streetview an image. The purpose of this descent was effectively to take a long run back up. A quick hello and goodbye to Ripponden, I’d soon swung back onto Elland Road and headed back up the New Bank.

Here, I lost time on the hill, owing to my phone map confusing the heck out of me, pointing me back towards a turning I didn’t need, and had already passed. All I needed to do was keep going. And so I did. I’d been going to right way all along. Turning onto Fiddle Lane, this was one of the toughest, steepest parts of the course, not just for gradient, but sheer length of the hill. I really felt the lactic building in my quads, but I made it to the top, and made it gradually up the next, less severe hill up towards Ringstone Edge Reservoir. The view on the way up, mind, was just as spectacular as the sunrise. Rolling hills and the views of the land beyond, the cloud smattering the peaks in the distance.

That beautiful sunshine would now prove to be a nemesis. Of course it seems daft to wear sunglasses at 5:30am on a September morning, but the sun was now full bore on the hills surrounding Krumlin and beyond. It was just as well the roads were quiet as I occasionally had to look down to avoid the glare in my glasses. 

I nibbled down the mini Chia Charge bar I brought out. I have to say, that was far more enjoyable and palatable than any energy gel. I was interested to see if this would keep me going. Moving on, I decided that I would have to attempt running a few miles at ‘marathon pace’. Or at least, a bit faster. Now I aim to run marathons at 6:50 mile pace, but Snowdonia will be a much more conservative effort. Hopefully. So I initially aimed for about 7:15 mile pace, starting from about mile 13 – this, however, coincided with the 10% gradient of Beestonley Lane, a winding road leading to Stainland. I spent a good proportion of the 13th mile tackling the hill, and eventually it went for 9:04. I wrote that one off, and then went to move on. The road down into Holywell Green was mostly downhill – a 7:17. It turned out that by heading on to the village of Broad Carr I’d chucked in another short, steep hill. This time, I pushed on, even quickening the pace on the climb, and clocked a 7:55 mile. Four miles left. Into Elland, through the town centre, and down towards the Lowfields industrial estate, to rejoin the Calder Hebble Navigation. A 7:28. I was feeling strong. Onto the relative flat of the Navigation. I was on sub-7:00 pace and went through mile 17 at 6:51! I surprised myself. I’d never felt this good at this stage of a long run. The pacing was just right again. Keep it going, I urged myself. I arrived at a cobbled bridge right at the end of the 18th mile. This slowed me down slightly, but the watch beeped shortly after – a 6:57!

I arrived back into Brighouse a bit tired, nearly three hours after setting off. The run was more 2:32:something (I’m typing out with one free hand and no room to move on a bus – I can’t reach my Garmin and can’t be bothered right now!), but staring at the sun and that brief letdown in navigational trust will do things to you. Quite pleasingly though, I had lasted the distance, and the brutality of those hills, quite well. And it got me thinking about another change. One that hadn’t sunk in, even though I’ve been following it for weeks now. 

I run less. Not necessarily over less distance, just fewer days a week. I’ve stuck to the Brooks Snowdonia Marathon training program and modified it slightly to suit my own needs. The result is that I’m running no more than four days a week, sometimes only three days. Other than the mishap in York, which cost me a weekend earlier in the cycle, and one Tuesday after walking across the Pennine Way and racing in the same weekend, I’ve not really missed too many sessions out. I take or leave the Sunday recovery run, and the remaining runs on Tuesday, Thursday and long run Saturdays are what’s left. I used to run five days a week, occasionally more. The result? Fewer injuries. Ok, so I’ll always have creaky knees and tightness here and there, but throughout the cycle, nothing that stretching, alternative exercise, and physio/strengthening work hasn’t taken care of. And the majority of those runs can be deemed a success, with no troublesome issues presenting themselves, allowing focus on the next run. Quality over quantity.

The first of my big long runs is finished. The second is this coming Saturday, around Marsden and the Oldham Way, which will at times become a scramblefest. I’m not overly accustomed to scrambling, but I’m reasonably sure that I’m not putting myself in too deep and I’m keen to run and scamper up a few hills and tick off a few monuments along the way. Its been a good week for reflection, with change happening around me, but if there is one constant to remain, its that 32 isn’t that different to 31. Right now, my training is at the business end. And its business as usual. But not without seeing what absurdity I can put myself through for doing this thing that I love, and what’s more, in a positive frame of mind. Because this happy train I’m riding has to make it all the way to Llanberis.