They Think It’s All Over

We had the final assessment for 8 Weeks to Natural on Saturday afternoon. Like the first session, it was at the Parliament Hill track on the edge of Hampstead Heath. Once again, Simon from Sponge Marketing was playing host, Tom was taking photographs and Helen was our coach. It was a good session for nearly everyone. Danae wasn’t back from her hols and couldn’t make it which was a shame and Tim arrived near the end of the afternoon straight off the plane to Gatwick. That was commitment!

I struggled to do two or three laps of the track. I could walk reasonably well but even a few hundred metres of drill was enough to set my achilles twanging. I couldn’t do more than shuffle round with little fluency or economy. I just wanted to show willing, really. ActionJen had a mahoosive blister following her half marathon debut and was suffering too. We both dropped out after handful of slow, uncomfortable laps and watched our friends whizz around the track elegantly and with hardly any apparent effort.

Helen said that even over the handful of laps we had managed, she had been able to assess our progress. I was pleased that I had discernable progress to show. She said that we could spend the rest of the time on the track or take to the slopes of Parliament Hill for a hill session. I watched with some jealousy as the others had the hill session to end all hill sessions. I love hills. ActionJen and I stood to one side as under Helen’s careful coaching and incessant encouragement, the group flew up and down Parliament Hill. We’ve decided that when we’re both fit again, we’ll ask Helen for a shared coaching session and do some hills too.Sadly, I don’t know when that’s going to happen. I’m making very slow progress. Even the very little that I did on Saturday has put me back beyond where I was originally.

We still don’t know who has won the competition. That’s really not that important. Each of us has made progress towards a more efficient running style, one which in time will carry us farther and at greater speed than we had been able to maintain before. I think I’m a winner from that point of view. I have a pair of delicately trashed Bare-Xs which I would happily run back into a burning building to save once I was sure wife, step-son, cats and chicken were safe and inov-8 are giving us another pair of shoes each. I’ve chosen the Bare-Grips which I hope will carry me through the latter part of the cross country season.

My thanks go to Simon and the people at Sponge Marketing for organising everything, to inov-8 for the opportunity to do it and all the goodies – buy their stuff! – to my fellow 8 Weeks competitors for their blogs and company and most of all to Helen Hall for her coaching, mentoring, advice and encouragement. I’ve loved every second of it.

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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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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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