It’s Not That Easy, Really

I’ve had a few problems in the last week in my transition. It’s not been all bad but I’ve been struggling to reconcile my coaches’ different emphases on how to run more efficiently. Coach B (not his real name) thinks that you’ll save energy if you take fewer strides and has been encouraging his athletes to extend their stride slightly on each step. Coach Helen is firmly of the opinion that a high cadence and short strides are the most efficient way to cover the ground. I’ve been working with Coach B for almost a year and I’ve made huge progress under his tutelage. I’ve only been working with Helen since we started the 8 Weeks to Natural programme but in that time, I’ve seen the benefits of her approach too. The truth of the matter is that I’m now very confused.

I thought my form had improved markedly but some photographs and film taken at the weekend have changed that. You can see the worst of the photographs below. (Thanks to Paul Homewood for the picture.)

And I thought it was going so well. Photograph © Paul Homewood, 2012

I’m just bimbling along here. There is no pressure so I should be able to run very nicely. This photo would suggest that I’m not actually doing that. My left heel is about to touch down first. I thought that I was landing nicely on my midfoot, allowing my heel just to touch the earth, gathering the energy in my foot and feeding that energy back into the next stride. The photo would suggest that here at least I’m landing on my heel.

The film Martyn Brearley shot shows that my feet were landing better but that I’m not really moving my left arm. That feeds through to my right leg which is imbalanced as a result. There is a difference in that I’m running barefoot in the video. Most people automatically assume a better posture when they take their shoes and socks off to run. You get that light, quick step thing going easily when you don’t have rubber and plastic surrounding your foot.

In spite of my dodgy form, I managed a nice, 75 second PB at the Bourn to Run 10k yesterday and posted a sub-45:00 time for the first time ever. It felt surprisingly easy. I haven’t run at that pace for such a long time in ages. I’ve been able to cane it over 800m, 1km or a mile but the more measured but still brisk pace I hit yesterday felt a lot more relaxed than I thought it would. I had a couple of wobbles around 4km when I just wanted to step off the course and drink beer until I felt better. My mood at that point wasn’t improved by a runner whose choice of music was more than obvious to everyone within six feet of him. I hope his ears were bleeding from the over-pressure in his eardrums by the end. I dropped him between 4 and 5km only to have him overtake me just after 8km. He slowed down after he passed me so I took the place back and pressed on. I dropped him easily between there and the finishing line.

Hills weren’t a problem. I kept my stride short and my cadence up and was taking yards out of the competition on each climb. I strode out as much as I could on the way down the hill but kept my cadence high too. There was a nice downhill stretch from 8km to the finish so I was able to dispatch the noisy young man easily enough. I tried to make up another place. There was a runner about seven or eight yards ahead of me and I made ground on him until we entered the park where the finish was held. My adversary ducked through into the park only three or four strides ahead of me. I burst through to see him vanishing into the distance. I kicked as hard as I could but I wasn’t going to make up that ground in only 80m.

My 44:25 chip time is almost five minutes faster than last year. That’s the difference that working with Coach B has made. It’s why I want to reconcile the new techniques I’m learning from Helen with his approach. I’d be foolish to do anything else.

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A Mile And A Mile And A Bit

I’ve had a bit of a thrash this week and sort of enjoyed it. Hard running doesn’t scare me when I don’t know how hard to run. Hard running when I do know in advance just how much it’s going to hurt gives me the complete, nightmare, screaming heebie-jeebies.I finally ran my Magic Mile on Friday lunchtime. I met Diane who was going to pace me on her bike after I’d done a brief warm-up and caned it for a time of 6:16 over an out-and-back course. The weather was blustery and I had a headwind on the outward leg which which was also ever so slightly downhill. My splits were remarkably palindromic. I logged 1:30.8, 1:36.3, 1:36.8 and 1:31.3 for each quarter-mile. I felt okay in the first quarter but came out of shelter and into the wind in the second. The lactic built horribly in the third and the last quarter was just clinging on.Diane had placed an orange plastic bag of sand at the finishing line and I could see it from about 200m out. There is an odd effect in racing. Time shrinks but distance increases. This is especially true when you’re going for a time. The time you have available runs out much more quickly than you are able to cover the ground between you and the finishing line. That little orange bag of sand sat there in the distance while I could hear the second hand screaming round the watch faster and faster.

I took a little time to recover. I couldn’t just collapse and heave my lungs out onto the pavement. I wanted to. Really wanted to. Firstly, I had to look manly because I had not only Diane as an audience, but there was another young man I’d passed a couple of hundred yards back down the path. He was coming up and it’s never seemly to have someone you have just steamed past step over you a couple of minutes later. You just look like a sad, old man in the throes of a heart attack. I didn’t fall over but I did wobble a bit.

I didn’t do parkrun yesterday. They needed volunteers so I acted as timer instead. It was good to see so many PBs. I don’t think I pushed the button too soon on any of them. I took part instead in the Chariots of Fire relay round the centre of Cambridge and through some of the colleges. Teams of six run the course of 1.7 miles and conditions were good. There was a little rain in the air part-way through the race but it didn’t affect things for me. We were worried that it might be a little slippery over the cobbles in the colleges but in the end, only Ruth found things a little tricky. The rest of us were lucky.

I picked up six places in the first half-mile but lost three between there and the end. I can console myself with the thought that each place was lost to someone much younger than me even if one of them was to a girl: I got chicked. No matter, I had a good battle with one of them for the best part of a mile and we weren’t hanging around. At one point, we passed a slower runner, one on each side, going into a tight turn into one of the colleges. She must have had a bit of a fright, poor thing. He finally kicked harder than me with about 400m to go. I couldn’t quite summon up enough to stay with him with all the lactic my legs had built up but at least I wasn’t overtaken by anyone else from that point to the end. I crossed the line then stopped my watch on 10:59. I was pleased with the time.

The whole race was a bit of a blur. Unlike the Cambridge Half, there just wasn’t time to soak up the atmosphere. It wasn’t until we were heading for the pub after the race that I noticed that we’d run along the side of King’s Chapel. There was still a string of runners on the course. I was pleased for us all as a team. We had all run well. I don’t yet know what our combined time was. We won’t get individual lap times which is a bit of a shame. There is no chip timing. It’s probably just as well. I don’t want to take it too seriously. Honest.

I found Chariots easier than the Mile. That’s not only because I wasn’t running quite so hard. It was a new experience for me; I genuinely didn’t know what to expect. I know that running a Mile is a really stupid thing to do. I’ve done enough of them now to know it hurts. Happily, it doesn’t hurt for long if you can run hard enough. I didn’t really know how hard to run this morning. I was racing other people and picking them off or running only hard enough to stave them off. My time wasn’t important for once. That was fun.

People were asking about my shoes. Once again, I didn’t really notice them. I’m getting used to them now and apart from a little twanging from my calves which disappeared after I’d stretched and rolled them, there were no ill effects. I’ve seen photographs of me in action this morning and I’m almost looking athletic. My head is still too far forward but I’m nicely upright and balanced in most of the pics. I just need to find a way of pulling my head up a bit more. I’m much more vertical than I used to be. I still lean forward when I’m accelerating up to speed but I can cruise quite quickly and keep that upright position. I’m definitely making progress.

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Picking Up The Pace

These new shoes of mine are a bit quick. That sounds a bit odd but runners will know what I mean. Sometimes when you pull on a pair of shoes and go for a first run, they will feel fast. That was the case with my patriotic Green Silences and the Kinvara 3s. A nice, light pair of shoes can do wonders for your self-confidence as a runner. You will suddenly feel 30 seconds a mile faster. I can barely keep up with myself in these inov-8s.

I’m giving the shoes credit because it can’t be me. I haven’t really got The Drill nailed. I don’t have a handle yet on this efficient running lark. It’s all still a work in progress but I am getting quicker again and it feels great. I did the club session of 4 x 6:00 on Tuesday night and managed to nail it. The first rep was horrid and the slowest of the four. The other three felt easier but were actually slightly quicker. I ran 1.38km, 1.45km, 1.39km and 1.42km for each rep. I was tailing off a little towards the end of each rep and I just wanted to die when the second one was not really coming to an end quite quickly enough for me. I had just enough breath to yell at Neil to blow his fucking whistle to bring the rep to an end.

Hard running wasn’t actually all that hard. Once again I tried to keep my cadence up and my stride length short. I held my body more upright without my usual forward lean. I would check my form at the end of every straight or whenever I felt myself relax into my old ways. The entire check process is one I call mindful running. I try to be aware of what my body is doing as I run. It’s not easy and I really need to arrange for someone to film me as I run just so that I know that what I’m doing looks right as well as feels right. I also need to send Helen about 30 seconds of film for her to have a look at it. I’ll see if I can arrange that next week.

In the meantime, I have my Magic Mile tomorrow and Chariots of Fire on Sunday. I’m going to wear my fast shoes and do my level best to keep up with them.

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Barefoot Rich

I had an athletics bootcamp this evening with Coach B. He started it six or so weeks ago since when it’s become my usual start to the training week. He sends out a training schedule each weekend which invariably starts with a swimming session at 7:00am. I’ve never made it to that. I don’t think I ever will. Swimming is not something I can face first thing in the morning.

We did our usual warm up followed by quite a strenuous series of dynamic stretches. There were some bodyweight exercises intended to strengthen our glutes, quads and hamstrings. Single leg squats and lowering ourselves from a single leg squat onto a bench were particularly horrid. It’s hard to control the downward movement steady and lower yourself gently onto a bench. You need to make sure that your leg is straight. Try it. It’s really, really vile. The drills and skills were designed to get us used to lifting our knees a little higher when we were running hard.

The run was a quickish set of 5 x c600m which we were supposed to do in the same time on each rep with a variation of no more than 5 seconds on each rep. Mine varied between 2:43 and 2:56. The first rep was the slowest. It usually is when I do these interval sessions with Alan. It takes me a little while to get used to the idea of running that hard. I was chasing Carla on the first four reps and she is much quicker than me. She wasn’t there for the fifth rep and I was leading the group round for most of it. I wasn’t pushing quite as hard without Carla to chase, even though I had Izzie close behind me all the way round.

We did a sixth rep barefoot on a slightly shorter course missing out the really horrible bare ground and keeping to the grass. It’s only the second time I’ve run barefoot and I’m hooked. I don’t force my foot to do any work at all. I can feel it relax into the ground. My foot works as a foot, as Helen would say. I can feel it gather energy and feed it back into the next stride. Even sprinting is suddenly easy, effortless. I can relax into the run from the ground up.

The video at the top of this post is a bit of a giggle but it contains a truth: there is a lot of shit around barefoot running. I enjoy the feeling of freedom and the ease of running I get when I’m barefoot. It probably won’t suit everyone but it’s a reminder that you don’t need to have plastic and rubber around your foot all the time. Even for someone writing a blog for a company selling footwear, that’s a valuable lesson to remember.

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Lost, and Left Behind

I have been banging on on Facebook and Fetch about yesterday’s run so I suppose I ought to write about it here. I’d spent a big chunk of the day running the Fetch Everyone Marathon Talk Busway Purgatory Magic Mile On Tour At The Track In Cambridge Especially For Glenn. For clarity, I organised the event and not the race. It was quite a stressful experience and we were onto the 400m by the time I was calm enough to run. My 400m PB is very soft so I probably would have beaten it even in my current condition. Nevertheless, I chose not to take part in the 400m, the 800m or the final and traditional 100m sprint. I hadn’t warmed up and even on a hot day like it was yesterday, it would have been too much to expect my legs to cope well with caning it round and round the track.

I had a very pleasant run in the evening instead with DeaJay. We met up in a picturesque layby just off the A14 and had a run around Quy, out along a stream towards Lode then looped back to Horningsea. DeaJay was navigating up to this point which was why it was going so well. We could have turned right when we came up onto the road, run up to the bridge and run back down to Cambridge along the towpath. We could have done that, but I suggested turning left and trying to find a footpath down to the river instead.

Mistake.

We found a footpath towards the river which didn’t, in fact, reach the river. There is no footpath on that bank of the river in any case. We had a bit of a stomp through some nettles and thistles and round the edge of a field before we headed back the road. I decided that Diane really ought to navigate from there on. It would be so much easier.

We came back into Cambridge through Fen Ditton. Diane took us down a narrow footpath to the river again. It lead to the recreation ground then back to the church. We went through Fen Ditton and along the bike path to the Newmarket Road Park & Ride. From there we picked up the pace a little. We’d been trotting along at a decent pace. DeaJay was easily able to hold a conversation all the way around but I was struggling after the first few kilometers. I have a problem with my endurance in that I don’t really have much. I’m okay over shorter distances up to about 10k. After that, my pace falls off. DeaJay said that I just need more slow miles. She’s probably right. There’s no point in putting in 400m repeats all the time if you want to run a good half marathon.

Anyway, we had about 1km to go as we passed the roundabout at the top of Airport Way. I asked DeaJay if she wanted to push the last stretch and kicked for home before she said yes. Any thoughts I had of dropping her faded quickly as she responded easily. I pushed harder and harder and still couldn’t make any ground on her. She was moving easily and breathing evenly. I was heaving breath again. It wasn’t quite as bad as at the end of the KH 5k on Thursday night because I was moving more easily but I couldn’t get the zoom into my legs I needed. In the end, I applauded as DeaJay left me for dead. Sometimes, there are things which give you too much joy not to respond with happiness.

I was wearing my new inov-8s but the the big story for me was not the shoes but the fun I had on the run. I was practicing the efficient running techniques I’ve been learning and I found a difference in the final burst of speed. It wasn’t as hard to find speed as it usually is, it was just hard to find enough speed to stay with my friend. I didn’t mind in the least. It was a joyful, joyful run and I loved every step of it. Runs like this are why I love running.

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The Tired Hills of Saffron Walden

What’s that thing called? You know, that thing? It’s when you attribute a quality to an inanimate object for poetic reasons but really you’re referring to a person? It’s got a fancy, Greek name like synechtote, democracy or Iannis. Anyway, last night I took my new shoes to the tired hills of Saffron Walden for the last race in the Kevin Henry 5k League series. Two hours of sleep followed by nearly 500 miles of driving isn’t the best possible preparation for a hard 5k but that’s all I had. Bugger it, I thought, run anyway. It’s only 5k.

I arrived fairly early for once. I thought I’d change in the loo in the Swan Meadow car park and have a gentle jog round to warm up. Good plan. Like all good plans, they require good logistical support for them to work. My logistics fell apart when I arrived at the car park and found that they’d removed the loo. The nearest one was only a few minutes walk away but it was a sign of things to come.

I wandered off with my bag and got changed in the alternative loo location. By the way, how often do you get to say “alternative loo location?” Nowhere near often enough, unless you work for a loo removal company. A company called Loobrication, perhaps. Eloosive Loos. Dude, Where’s My Loo?

Sorry, sidetracked.

By the time I got back to the car park, it had filled with runners. There were club-mates and friends from other clubs all over the place. I like the atmosphere at the start of club races. There’s bravado. You find people talking up their prospects. Training has gone well and they’re in form and they’re bouncing around, releasing some nervous energy. Others carry their confidence more quietly. You get the sandbaggers too. They’re talking about their injuries or niggles but you know that they’re going to be caning it and you shouldn’t think for a second that they’ll give up if they think for a second that there’s a chance they’ll come past you. If you need a boost, there’s always someone to lift you. If you want to talk, there’s someone to talk to.

I was wearing the new shoes. I hadn’t done a run in them before last night and I was a little concerned about how hard I’d be able to run in them. They felt slightly odd in comparison to the Green Silence flats I usually race in or the Hattoris I’ve been training in. They feel slightly tight around the middle of my foot but they’re nice and roomy round my toes. They’re incredibly light, each one only about an ounce heavier than the slipper-like Hattoris. They also look more like normal trainers than the Hattoris. After I’d jogged for 500m or so, I forgot about my shoes and started to concentrate on my running. It’s why I’m taking part in the programme after all. Even shoe queens like me want to run more quickly for longer and that’s what efficient running is all about.

I found somewhere relatively out of the way and ran through The Drill for a few minutes. Short steps, high cadence, light feet. I wanted to keep that upright posture I’d discovered worked so well for me when I was running scared from the rain in Chicago. It seemed to be working. I could feel my shoulders counter-rotate and I felt my legs swing through from the outside. It wasn’t a long warm up but it was long enough for me to remember what I was doing.

I met some clubmates heading to the startline. ChrisHurk had said earlier he was cruising and aiming for 25:00. I said I was going to go nice and gently for the the first mile and then see what happened. I saw Alex and Glyn ahead of me and decided that they’d be my targets. They’re both much older than me but Glyn regularly hands me my arse at these races. Were I in the shape I was in during March and April, they wouldn’t see which way I went but now it would be a good race for the three of us.

The start was broad but soon funneled onto a narrow footpath up the side of the main road out of Saffron Walden to Cambridge. Last year I was caught behind some slower runners on this climb and I wanted to ensure the same thing didn’t happen again. I ran quite hard for the first hundred metres to the turn onto the footpath. Alex and Glyn were both still just in front of me as we started to climb. It’s only about 400m long but it’s quite a steep climb. We ran up together quite easily. The downhill section which followed was hard on the quads. I was trying to keep as light on my feet as possible and keep my braking to a minimum. We passed the 2k marker and I overtook Glyn and Alex. We had a long, gradual but punishing climb for the next 2k. I was finding it increasingly difficult from the 3k marker. My breathing had gone. I couldn’t find my rhythm. I was trying to keep my steps short and my cadence up but I just didn’t have the energy. My lack of sleep was telling. I died at 4k and first Glyn then another of my clubmates called Ben came past me. I was losing ground on the runners ahead of me.

As ever in a hard 5k, the finish took forever to arrive then suddenly the race was over. My Garmin beeped for the 5k but I couldn’t quite see the turn into the finishing line. I was hauling breath into my lungs like a drunk sailor hauls on a sheet as I desperately lunged over the line. I just wanted to lie down on the ground for about four years until I felt better. I remembered to stop my watch just after I crossed the line this time. It read 23:38. The time was better than last year at the same event but I still felt horrible. Everything had gone wrong in the second half of the race. It was partly a lack of race fitness and partly a lack of confidence. At least I kept going and didn’t quite throw up this time.

When the pressure was on, particularly in the last k, I tried to keep the mantra going. I don’t think I quite managed it. My form as I collapsed over the line must have been woeful. My feet and legs have been fine today apart from the bastard little midgie bites. I definitely attract them. It must be the taste of disappointment in my sweat. I’m more fine about it today. It’s only a race. It was a better time than last year. I was stupified with exhaustion. I’m only just getting back into training after a rough time in August with my foot.

I have a Mile to organise tomorrow. I might even run it. We’ll see.

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Separated By A Common Body Language

I think I was joking when I said in my last post that kilometres were bigger in the US than at home. Now I’m not so sure. I went out again on Saturday because the weather was cooler at last. There was some cloud cover and Chicago was doing its Windy City thing when Anne and I went out for breakfast so I thought I’d fill my boots – or at least my running shoes – with miles. My new inov8s hadn’t arrived in the hotel so I wore my Green Silence racing flats with their Union Jack design all over them. I didn’t look at all like a tourist. No, I had Union Jack shoes and my Thunder Run t-shirt. I was sorted.

I really wasn’t sorted at all. One of the differences between running in Cambridge and running in Chicago is that other runners do not acknowledge you. There are runners out here, ruining their knees, feet, ankles and the Sweet Baby Jesus alone knows what else on some of the least forgiving concrete pavement I have ever come across. They just don’t seem to notice that there is someone else out there with them. I tried nodding. Nothing. Waving. Nada. Saying “Hello!” or “Good morning!” Pointless. The last one especially because everyone had earphones in. I’d have thought you needed all your senses available to you when running around the city but Chicago’s runners evidently think differently. Anne thinks it’s just life in the Big City. You don’t engage with strangers in case you end up stabbed, shot, robbed of your iPod and Garmin and trying to describe your assailant to cynical cops in the back of an ambulance while a paramedic tries to pour some blood back into your body. I really hope that isn’t true. I prefer to think that it just isn’t part of the running culture over here in the same way as it is at home.

I ran out south again, this time along the path on the lake front. There is a marina with some large boats in it. There were some parties happening on a few of the boats. Northern Illinois were playing Iowa at Soldier Field and you’d have thought it was a home game for Iowa. Maybe it was. There were yellow shirts everywhere while I only saw about a dozen red NI shirts all day. I ran beside the lake down past the Field Museum, the aquarium and the Adler Planetarium. I was slow again. The atmosphere was quite humid. All I could really feel was the sweat in my hair and on my skin. My breathing was fine but I couldn’t get my legs to turn over. I was doing better than most of the others I saw out there. I was continually passing men and women taking walking breaks. There was one young man with cyclist’s calves who was running quite hard with a rucksack for about 500m at a time. He would come past me at a hell of a lick then stop and walk for a bit during which time I would catch and pass him again. He did this three or four times before our paths diverted and he headed away from the lake and into the city. He was wearing headphones and didn’t acknowledge my wave.

It’s my custom to ask runners who are walking or who have stopped if they are okay. Judging from the reactions of those I asked on Saturday, this doesn’t happen often here. I tended to get a look of either mild surprise or complete incredulity followed by a muttered “Yeah, fine” for the most part. One woman who had stopped to stretch out her hamstring by the pavement in Grant Park gave me a big smile and a wave in return. Must have been a tourist.

It started to rain just as I passed Soldier Field. I’d only done a little over three miles and I was bumping along at about 8:30 per mile. It was under marathon pace but well over the 7:45 per mile I’d been aiming at. I didn’t want to get caught out in the open in a thunderstorm so I turned and headed back to the hotel much more quickly. Suddenly, I had speedy legs. I tried to keep Helen’s words in my head as a kind of mantra: light feet, high cadence, counter-rotation, upright stance. I found my feet kissing the concrete as I kicked on for home. I abandoned my usual lean forward and felt myself stand more upright. I relaxed a little more and allowed my shoulders to counter-rotate the way they wanted to. I landed on my mid-step on each stride, allowed the foot to relax into the ground until my heel just touched down then felt the energy my foot had gathered push me back. In spite of the horribly surface, I hardly heard my footsteps. There was a light psh, psh, psh, psh instead of a heavy slap of rubber and plastic on concrete.

When I went to see Helen last week, she said that I could be a speedy runner. Now I know what she meant. I wasn’t suddenly running at 5:00 per mile pace but I was cracking along at less than 6:30 and feeling effortless. I know what it’s about now. I want to have this feeling each and every time I run. I just need more time, more coaching, more practice and the fear of being struck by lightning.

Oh, and the temperature at the end of my run? 27 degrees. No wonder I was sluggish on the way out.

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The Restorative Powers of Cricket

Last night’s run was a bit of a shocker. I’d waited until after seven to head out, partly because I thought I would be a bit cooler by then but I admit it was mostly because I was watching Step Brothers on television. I am supposed to be on holiday after all. It might have been a little cooler but it the air still wrapped itself around me like a hot towel in a barber’s shop as soon as I stepped out of the hotel.

Now, I know that everything in America seems just a little larger than necessary. Portion sizes are generous to the point of profligate in some places. Anne’s pancakes at breakfast yesterday morning were tremendous but even Desperate Dan would have struggled to finish them. Cars are vast. Cities sprawl. Personalities expand to fill even the largest venues. I wouldn’t have thought that something as foreign as a kilometre would also increase in size but it seemed to do just that last night. I set off at what felt like my usual warm-up pace of 5:30 per k down the slope towards Grant Park. I checked my Garmin after I’d been running steadily along the dreadful pavement for a few minutes. The watch said my pace was over 6:30 per k. I didn’t really feel that slow. I know it was hot and I was just jogging along but I thought I was quicker than that.

I tried pushing along a bit but my pace hardly increased at all according to the GPS. In the end, I only got as far as the southern end of the park before I headed back towards the hotel, rather demoralised. My mood lifted hugely when I spotted some young Indian men playing cricket on what appeard to be a completely trashed baseball diamond in the middle of the park. The wicket must have been an utter sod and they seemed to be using a tennis ball instead of a cricket ball. Nevertheless, they were giving it a good go. The bowler was what Blowers would have called “military medium” but the batsmen were having real problems dealing with the uneven bounce. I watched a couple of overs and the ball did everything other than go straight on. It kept down, stopped dead, popped up begging to be hit and the poor man at the crease didn’t know whether it was Thursday or kippers. One finally got some bat on the ball only to see it rocket skywards on a ballistic trajectory over the bowler’s head. He was easily caught by a fielder running in from long on.

Having been cheered by this reminder of home, I found a nice, shady slope of about 60 or 70 metres and did some reduced recovery hill reps. There were two lampposts on it dividing it nicely into thirds. I sprinted to the first, turned and jogged back down, then again sprinted to the second and jogged back to the bottom before a final hard sprint to the top of the slope. I jogged to the bottom again and repeated the drill after three minutes recovery and then again after 60 seconds. I would usually call that one set and do three or four sets. It was still hot, darkness was falling, I was getting increasingly strange looks and I needed to eat so I called it a day and jogged the half mile back to the hotel immediately after the final rep.

I was trying to apply Helen’s efficient running principles during the hill sprints. It wasn’t easy. I try to maintain good form when I’m sprinting. I think about increased cadence, light steps and balance and poise. I had the quick cadence thing but I felt each step quite heavily as I sprinted further up the slope. It was effective but not particularly efficient. I wasn’t going to worry the juniors at the Cambridge track with my abilities but I came home feeling better about the session than I thought I would when nothing was going right for me.

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The Past Is Another Country, They Have Morton’s Foot There

It seems so long ago, it could be another country. It’s not that long ago; it was only Tuesday. It was another country. I’m now sitting on the 24th floor of the Hyatt in Chicago and I very deliberately have my back to the window. It wouldn’t be completely fair to say that I have a fear of heights but only because you would miss an ideal opportunity to say that I am completely petrified of them. The only reason I don’t have the curtains closed is that the room is quite dark enough as it is. We’re not even close to the top of this tower and there is another one, even taller just across the road. The room faces north west and never sees direct sunlight. It’s a vampire’s wet dream. My poor, old laptop needs to be charged more frequently than a fat bloke in a marathon so I can’t take it out and use the WiFi downstairs yet. (28% battery, and climbing!) Here I sit, shivering with the combination of over-powerful air-conditioning and abject terror just to write you a blog post. I should have been a war correspondent. It would have been easier on the nerves.

So, after all that pre-amble…

I went to see Helen Hall on Tuesday so she could help me address the inadequacies of my Morton’s foot. She has a completely brilliant shop in Amersham where she stocks minimal shoes for efficient running and bike frames and where I would spend stupid, stupid amounts of money on shiny things for triathlons were I to forget that I need to pay for sensible things like food and my mortgage. My Dearly Beloved would probably complain – with some justification – were I to bring home a carbon-fibre time trial bike frame when all I went out for was some coaching, assessment and a roll of kinesio tape.

I was sensible enough to turn up dressed and equipped to run. Helen popped me on her treadmill having first checked that I was happy on them. I’m not, not really. I hate them but this was the easiest way for her to assess what was going on with my feet. She had me walk at a very steady pace and watched my feet intently. It was quite strange to have someone pay such close attention to me but that was what I was there for. I forgot the weirdness after a couple of minutes and just go on with the business of walking barefoot on a treadmill without falling off.

Helen began cutting strips of kinesio tape which she placed on the ball of each foot, one layer at a time. She would have me walk at the same steady pace after each strip went on until she was happy with what she saw. She wouldn’t immediately tell me what she was looking for because she didn’t want me to change what I was doing consciously. Instead, she wanted my feet and brain to work together without my conscious self getting in the way. She was happy when we reached six layers of tape on each foot. She said that at that point my little toe touched the ground for the first time. That was enough.

She had me step off the treadmill and walk across the floor of the shop. I did and I was struck by a sudden giddiness. It wasn’t because I’d been on the treadmill for the best part of 25 minutes at this point. Rather it was was because my body position had changed just enough for my balance organs in my ears to pick it up. The feeling only lasted a few moments but it was enough for me to remark on it. Helen then asked if I noticed any other changes. I did. My toes – especially the big toes – were touching the ground on each step now. I hadn’t noticed them do that before, even when I had been walking around in bare feet.

What the six little strips of tape do is very subtly change the way my foot works. Helen says that my foot now has the chance to be a foot: that is to allow the complex of muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones to act as shock absorbers and an energy recovery system. They will feed some of the energy they take in on each stride into the next one, if I allow them to work.

Having established that each foot now had the chance to work properly, Helen had me pay attention to my posture. I have to confess that I am a lazy, slouchy excuse for a man. I have read somewhere a Chinese saying that sitting is better than standing, but lying down is bes of all. I would prefer to slump, round-shouldered and hump-backed even over lying down. That is not good enough for Helen. She had me standing up more straightly and walking with my head up, my shoulders back a little and with my weight more on my heels on each step. I should imagine a plumbline down through my body and keep it as straight as possible. I said that I felt about an inch and a half taller just because of paying more attention to my posture as I walked.

She then had me run on the treadmill in the Hattori shoes I brought with me. She gave me even more to think about. She said I should allow my feet to become less rigid by imagining the shoes giving the soles of my feet a massage on every step. She had me exaggerate various parts of my gait to check if I could see any difference in how each move felt to me. I had to allow the angle between the top of my foot and my shin to decrease, or to flick up my heels. Each time she asked me to do something differently, she checked whether I felt a difference. Most of the time I did, but occasionally I could feel no difference at all.

She gave me what an actor would call “notes.” My ankles are very rigid, apparently and my right foot doesn’t pronate at all. My ankles are only hinges and my feet are stiff little levers. It means that my calves end up doing an awful lot of work getting my feet and ankles to move instead of just acting as postural control mechanisms. My bum and thighs do much less work than they should in powering my motion.

It seems that every time I speak to Helen, I have my head completely filled with new things to think about. That is brilliant in some ways but I need to break down what she says into manageable chunks. I am a runner of very little brain so I like to have just one or at most two things to do at once. My body has spent the last forty six years learning to move the way it does and I’m trying to change some of what it likes doing in eight weeks. Well, six and a bit now. I’m off to do The Drill in Grant Park followed by a speed session if the weather ever cools down enough.

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I’m Going To Be A Natural

I’m going to be a blogger for inov-8 and I’m quite excited! They asked for applications on their Facebook page a while back and I applied and then promptly did what I always do and forgot about it. What I should have remembered was this: they wanted people interested in transitioning from cushioned running shoes to less cushioned, more natural-feeling shoes to go through the process with a coach and blog about it. Well, you know me and shoes…

In days gone by, a gentleman needed no more than one pair of black shoes for smart, one pair of brown shoes for casual, sandals for the summer, a stout pair of boots for the country and Wellingtons, puddles, for the jumping in. Sandshoes or jimmies were an optional extra. I have so many pairs of running shoes now that whatever claims I may have had to gentlemanly status have been thrown out. I shall never gain admittance to The Drones. The current list includes but is not necessarily limited to three pairs of road training shoes, one pair of cross-country spikes, one pair of trail shoes, one pair of racing flats, two pairs of silly racing slippers in different colours so I don’t get them mixed up and one pair of trainers which I could use as racers in a pinch. That doesn’t include the cycling shoes I bought with the cleats in the bottom which nearly always come undone from the pedals when I ask them to. They live and perhaps breed in the bottom of my wardrobe. For all I know, they gang up on my sensible work shoes in the dark and call them names. You know how cruel shoes can be. I don’t think they’d take on my DM boots but the brown brogues are sensitive and probably wouldn’t cope well with being bullied.

I might have been on the cheese again. I’ll stop this train of thought before the spikes do anything unseemly with MrsHL’s new Vibrobarefoots.

I have to go to London on Saturday afternoon now for an assessment session. I don’t know what that involves but I’m looking forward to it. Running around, I suppose, under the watchful gaze of Helen Hall. I really hope it’s Helen Hall, the triathlete and running coach and not Helen Hall, the piano teacher who I’m sure is a lovely person in many ways but not necessarily for advice about running.

More on the Saturday session afterwards, of course.

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