Unaccustomed As I Am

I’ve been in an unusual position for me recently: the front. Well, sort of. At the race on Sunday, the organisers had laid out starting pens. We were asked to segregate ourselves with the quicker towards the front and the slower towards the rear. I was going for my sub-45 so I went to the front of the 40:00-45:00 pen. There weren’t that many people in front of me. I looked behind and there was a wall of people starting at 50:00-55:00. I thought “That can’t possibly be right. There must be more people in front of me than this” I’d been at the front of a start pen before, in Edinburgh and that didn’t end well.We all moved forward for the start and when the gun went I was overtaken by a few runners but I wasn’t swamped. The race leaders were still in sight at the 2k marker and I haven’t been in that situation before. They were gone by 3k after some twists and turns and dips and climbs but it was exhilarating to have been so close to the leaders for so long. I finished in 51st place. Had I known I was that far up the order, I would have pushed just a little harder to stay ahead of the last guy.

Then yesterday evening I had a night of fartlek fun at the C&C Tuesday night training. I was in with the speedy boys (and girl) for the first time and I wasn’t completely left for dead. Yes, I was coming in at the back of the group but I wasn’t hopelessly off the pace and I would have been off the front of the slower group. I’ve noticed that I’ve been moving up the pace groups as time has gone on but this is the first time I’ve been playing with the big boys.

There is more to my step up in performance than my nice new shoes. (Sorry, inov-8.) That I’ve been working hard on becoming fitter, running with Coach B more regularly, I’m doing more core work and Helen Hall’s efficient running programme have all played their part too. It’s left me wondering how much faster I can go. If I’m another five minutes quicker at the same race next year, I’ll be knocking on the door of the top 20 and that’s where the serious people hang out. I am inspired to do well by my friends and clubmates all of whom are putting in excellent performances and setting PBs too. I just can’t just sit back when everybody else is doing so well. I feel left out.

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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.


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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