Read That Run

It’s Saturday, it’s a cold, crisp, dry winter’s day; perfect conditions for a long trail run but instead I am lying in bed with a chronic dose of ManFlu. For those of you not familiar with this term I’ve asked my wife for a definition:

“Oh he’s fine, really, ignore him. He has a head cold that’s all, a bit of a sniffle, not even sure he even has a sore throat. A lot of fuss and drama. Suck it up and stop being such a big baby!”

So there you have it, I really am quite ill, practically at death’s door in fact. Certainly no running for me today, I am barely able to get out of bed. Which is all rather frustrating to be honest; 11 weeks tomorrow I will be running the Virgin London Marathon and preparation for this should be well under way by now. Doubly frustrating as this week I received my personalised training plan prepared by Full Potential. The plan is a fresh approach for me based around time duration of training runs rather than distance and ‘threshold’ sessions. It is a far more comprehensive plan than any I have followed before and best of all the coaches at Full Potential, who prepared the plan for me are on hand throughout if I need advice, and they can even modify the plan if I am struggling or pick up an injury. I was really excited to get stuck into the first sessions this weekend but I’ve been scuppered by this malady. I have been rendered bedridden so rather than getting outside into the fresh air I have to console myself with flicking through my stack of running magazines and reading kit reviews online, or “looking at shoe-porn” as Mrs M puts it!

So a day lazing about, catching up on my reading and never ending kit research. Things could be worse, ManFlu is not an injury, I will be out and running again in a day or so, an injury could keep me on the bench for much longer.

I enjoy reading about running, and monthly mags are all well and good, but you can’t beat a good running book. So while I’m lying here I thought I might jot down a few of my favourite running reads, not reviews exactly, just books I’ve enjoyed and recommend you take a look at.

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‘Born To Run’ by Christopher McDougall

Should be sub-headed ‘A Brief History of Running’, this book begins with a question when the author asks “Why does my foot hurt?” Trying to find the answer leads him on rip roaring adventures and an exploration of running history from Adam’s early jogs through Eden to the present day. Along the way we meet a fascinating array of experts, heroes and colourful characters. This book is renowned for its investigation and endorsement of barefoot running, and while this is certainly a focus and a subject that Christopher forensically unpacks, he also imparts a mass of knowledge and information about the evolution of our sport as well as the human race! Not to mention research into nutrition and health.
If you call yourself a runner and haven’t read this book I would be surprised, and would probably say “shame on you!”

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‘Eat and Run’ by Scott Jurek

Essentially an autobiography, Scott’s honest narrative charts the story of how a small town American boy becomes one the world’s most extraordinary ultra runners. A riveting story in itself and one sensitively recounted with heart and soul. But what gives this story an extra dimension is Scott’s decision to become a vegan and so answer the question whether it is possible to sustainably remain a world class endurance athlete while pursuing a wholly plant based diet? I think we all know the answer to that by now, well in Scott’s case certainly. Throughout the book Scott takes time to explain his diet from both a nutritional fact basis and his clear passion for food. Chapters begin with recipes and food punctuates the story and life he recounts. I’ve tried some of the recipes, they are amazing.

As well as nosh there are great descriptions of some heroic running achievements too, told from the perspective of the front runner – a viewpoint we mere mortals never experience.

He’s a complex soul is Scott Jurek, clearly a thoughtful, spiritual guy who is at the same time fiercely competitive. I can’t help but think though that the real competition will always be with himself.

Part sporting anthology, part gastronomic lexicon you gain rare insights into the life and mind of an incredible athlete and a nourishing post run dinner into the bargain!

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‘The Long Run’ by Mishka Shubaly

Mishka is not a world class athlete, hasn’t won any ultras or broken any records. A recovering alcoholic and habitual drug user, he tells the story of how running played a key role in his recovery and of his transformation from addict to ultra runner. This book is short, pacey but no less compelling than any of the champion runner stories. Mishka’s recount is as candid as his journey is hardcore and it is the honesty in his storytelling that helps you empathise with experiences we might normally struggle to relate with.

It’s well documented that ultra marathon running seems a draw for recovering addicts and I wonder there’s a belief that endurance running is simply some form of substance replacement. Timothy Olsen, one of the elite, is open about his own past and through Mishka’s story we begin to understand how there is a transitional process perhaps that runs so much deeper than simply replacement.

Mishka is funny and endearing, a guy you’d want to run the trails with and then hang out after.

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‘Running on Empty’ by Marshall Ulrich

Marshall ran from San Fransisco to New York, he ran 3,063 miles in 52 days, he was 57. If that isn’t enough to send you clicking madly to Amazon I don’t know what is! Well that synopsis is just the tip of the iceberg and this story is actually about much more than just a very long run.

Marshall’s story tracks an intensely personal journey while at the same time examines that of the country he is traveling through, his own country, the USA. In the process he explores both his own demons and those of a stressed nation on the verge of economic meltdown, it is autumn 2008 when he takes on this epic venture giving an intense context and backdrop. Marshall’s endeavour is like an incision across America, it physically bisects the U.S. allowing Marshall to get under its skin and examine what lies beneath the surface. Seeing his country from one end to the other at running pace gives him time to breath in and take a long look around, while giving us a unique perspective on US history and present day.

Meanwhile, there is still the matter of an unfeasibly long run and this book documents his monumental challenge practically step by step with all it’s joys and struggles. Marshall runs 20 hours a day, seven days a week with the impact on his body every bit as extreme as you’d expect, not to mention the emotional impact.

One of the most accomplished endurance athletes on the planet, Marshall has many tales to tell and much wisdom to impart – and in his book he is generous with both.

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‘Running Like A Girl’ by Alexandra Heminsley

Alexandra’s account from her first huffing puffing red faced jog, to completing her first marathon is a tale us ‘normals’ can really relate to. In reading Hemmo’s escapades I felt she would empathise as much with my running exploits as I might with hers. Hemmo is honest, very self effacing and very funny. Oh and unlucky too as it turns out – my word how much bad luck can the running gods heap onto one girl during her races??!

Being that I am not a girl though, I must confess there are a few sections in this book I struggled to get with; e.g. the best style of pony tail for running, make up that’s sweat proof, running bras… But Hemmo doesn’t dwell on these and for the most part she speaks to all of us.

I do have a soft spot for this one. My wife handed me this book to read about the same time I was just getting back into running and I found it inspired me to really get going, almost like having a remote running buddy to encourage and compare notes with. As heartfelt as all the other books mentioned here and as I said; very very funny. So thanks Hemmo, you helped motivate me two years ago and I will certainly keep your advice in mind when I attempt my first London Marathon in 11 weeks time.

A common thread that weaves through all of these books is that of soul searching, on one level or other. In the extreme these authors seek redemption, even atonement through running. But all the writers consider in depth that primal urge that drives us forward, the urge that makes us run and keep running even when every fibre in our bodies and every neuron in our brains are screaming for us to to stop. And they all to some extent address the same question; when we run – are we running away from or running toward something?

So next time you are laid up with illness or injury and can’t run… Don’t fret, accept what your body is telling you, curl up with one of these books and get your running fix off the page instead.

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Cloudy with a Chance of Vegan Meatballs

Squelch squelch squelch squelch splosh squelch splosh squelch squelch squelch slip squelch slip squelch splosh… That was the sound of the first 5K of the Trailscape Rail To Trail South half marathon in Ashurst, (Kent/Sussex border) on Saturday January 10. Trailscape had promised “trails, cross-country and tracks” and they certainly delivered. They also delivered what can best be described simply as farmland; no actual cows and sheep but fields with plenty of evidence they’d been there recently, fields with fresh furrows, and a farmyard… not a big one but an actual farmyard nonetheless. And all with one thing in common… MUD!

Once upon a time this part of England had quite a thriving industry making bricks. Why? Because you don’t have to dig very deep here to find perfect clay for bricks, and also perfect, as it turns out for making your feet feel like lead weights and for sucking your runners right off ’em. So no surprise then really, that a trail run here in mid January after a week of heavy rain is a bit claggy.

But after a tough first 5K we got some respite from the mud, to run up a hill instead. Not too long and not too steep thankfully, and we quickly joined the Forest Way; a disused single track railway line now a country path enjoyed by runners, cyclists and walkers. Tree lined, firm under foot and flat; this section provided some well needed respite and a chance to enjoy the moment and the countryside around us. And fitting too that a stage of this run is made up of what was once rail now literally the trail.

I took the opportunity to pick up the pace a bit on this section and take advantage of the firm going. Probably misguided as I should in hindsight have reserved more in the tank for when the terrain became a little boggy again, which it did before too long.

Then, after what seemed an eternity of more slipping, sliding, squelching and splashing we rejoined the Forest Way on our return journey. One last farmland section that was… you guessed – a bit muddy. And then for a grand finale a climb up a steep muddy hill before a nice gentle descent to the finish.

Did I mention the headwind?

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Looks quite civilised as we set off…

The Trailscape ‘South’ HM was a small-ish field of 92 runners and a crowd that looked like it meant business. There were not too many club shirts and nobody was dressed as a giant kebab which I always think says a lot about a race’s character. There were also lots of lovely woofers running in both the 1/2 and 10K. This is the second Trailscape race I have done in this series (the other being ‘East’ in Cuxton, Kent) and if I had to sum them up in 3 words, I would say:

Fun
Tough
Friendly

The whole event was well organised, and the Trailscape team really find a nice balance between efficient and informal. The course was clearly marked, there were cheery marshalls at key points, no mile markers, and the first fuel station was at 11K; so you needed to plan to look after yourself – which I quite like actually as it feels just a little bit more of an adventure somehow.

Did I mention the mud?

There was a warm welcome on finishing; the Ashurst Village Hall as race HQ had tea and coffee on sale with a wide range of cake. And if you needed something more substantial to refuel there was a ‘Rupert’s Street’ food truck on site selling delicious vegan grub. (which is amazing by the way, check them out here)

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All finishers were awarded a medal and a nice goodie bag with locally sourced treats and a tech T-shirt (for once a contemporary design and a choice of colour!)

Race Directors Hannah and John are evangelists about the joys of trail running and their mission is to share this, spread the word and design races that encourage more people to try trail running by increasing its accessibility. Admirable ambition indeed, one which I believe they will fulfil if my experience is anything to go on. The two Trailscape races I have done both had a really nice vibe about them, which I think will prove a great basis for success. I hope that as they grow in popularity, which they undoubtedly will, they don’t loose this essence which so far makes them a bit special.

A trail run should make you explore and discover; at Trailscape South I discovered new places practically on my own doorstep which is great. And if the first 5K leave you feeling “utterly ruined” as one fellow runner described it, well that’s just a bonus!

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Did I mention the mud?

In the middle

This is the inaugural post of my blog about running, health and good food. I hope it will beĀ about the things I love, things I find interesting, the positive directions I am attempting to follow in life, and how these are perhaps connected.

Early one morning in June last year, I signed up to run a 1/2 marathon. Not a wholly random act, I had been toying with the idea for a while. But it wasn’t particularly high on my agenda and I wasn’t a regular runner then. I was living in Singapore and the ‘race’ I had opted for was the Standard Chartered Singapore 1/2 Marathon.

This triggered a new obsession, one that might well be some kind of midlife crisis. Not the classic cringeworthy kind; no new sports car, no hair dye, no mutton dressed as lamb. Just lots of pairs of running shoes, running magazines and brightly coloured ‘technical fabric’. My own midlife crisis seems to be manifesting as a need to feel fit and healthy.

So I trained for that 1/2 marathon in Singapore, and I completed it. I ran alongside 12,000 other people, most of them seemed to have only put on running shoes for the first time that morning, but that’s another story. I finished 1,565th, hardly amongst the elite hardcore at the front but neither along side the stragglers at the back of the pack.

My latest craze has taken hold, over the last 6 months or so I’ve trained for and taken part in three 10km races and 2 half marathons. And now I have a compelling urge to run further, to run long distance, long distance through woods, across fields, over hills, along riverbanks, maybe up and down mountains one day.

This is not simply about vanity; getting fit to lose weight, look slimmer or younger (ok maybe a little!), this is about how I feel. I’m tired of feeling tired, of feeling sluggish, stressed, anxious, addled and a little bit beaten. If I am lucky I might be at ( or just over) the half way point, if I am very lucky I might know my children into their middle age. But, slightly morose reflections aside, more than anything I am no longer content with just being alive – I want to feel alive, to feel alive! I want to feel fit, healthy, alert, clear and energised.

I’ve had an on-off affair with running for most of my life; school cross country teams hacking across the dales and valleys of the Lancashire countryside, Hash Harrier runs over desert wadis of the UAE in my twenties, and most recently dripping along jungle trails in Asia. Running always felt like a kind of freedom, now it is that and much more; it is meditation, it is achievement, it is connecting with the ground beneath my feet and the world around me. I have never won a single race, that’s fine, for me it’s more about enjoying the trip than simply getting there first.

Food is the stuff of life; eating out, cooking in, reading about food, growing food and most of all sharing a meal. Breaking bread with friends plays a central role in our family life. All of my childhood memories involve good food, my mother was a foodie long before the term was ever invented, she instilled that passion in me. I am lucky to have traveled and lived abroad, I’ve tasted local food across Europe, the US, Asia and West Africa. One of the joys of travel and my favorite way to experience different cultures.

Recently I have started to think more about food as fuel, and about the effects the stuff I put into my body has on it. I am increasingly intrigued by how the food I eat affects the way I feel generally. I know if I want to run further I must have the right nutrition to support training and provide energy to go the distance. But I also believe that aside from providing nutrition, food must nourish; it should always feed the soul and raise the spirit.

Eat right and run free might not be the whole answer to unwavering vitality, but maybe it’s a good place to start. Let’s see where it leads….