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Slow down

April 6, 2020

If nothing else, maybe this strange time is an opportunity to slow down, notice details.

The luminous sheen of sun through new leaves; the hard edges cut by the light of bright spring days that feel like early summer; the unfurling of buds and tight fists of foliage. The roof tiles like Shreddies lined with ring-necked doves; the keystones and cornicing, the patterns of brickwork; the age-warped glass and flaked paint of an open sash window, framing a Tiffany lamp and writing desk.

All the stuff we take for granted, lost amongst the rush to run some errand, be somewhere else, do something else, worry about missing out on the thing that’s happening somewhere else, with someone else, that maybe we missed the email, or WhatsApp, or tweet for.

Nothing else is happening.

There’s nowhere to go.

Everything is cancelled.

Except this, here, which has been under your nose the whole time.

Playing while the ship sinks

April 2, 2020

Famously, the band on the Titanic played while the legendarily ill-fated ocean liner sank to calm the guests. While we’re in extraordinary times – social distancing, one form of lock-down or another, schools closed, working from home, furloughed, or worse – hobbies and pastimes can seem like frivolities from another era, but they’re more needed than ever.

I rediscovered running, what, some fifteen years ago after a period of exceptional busyness at work. Work was thankless, relentless, and multiplied like topsy. Running was something I could control, a pressure valve.

Now, working from home, only discipline can create a proper barrier between work time and home time. There’s even a (slightly crappy) meme doing the rounds at work:

In 1665, the University of Cambridge temporarily closed due to the Bubonic Plague, forcing Isaac Newton to work from home. During that time he developed calculus and the theory of gravity. It was his annus mirabilis! What are you planning to do?

Shitty work inspo meme

Sure, Newton might have made hay while the sun shone, but did he have a thousand-and-one back-to-back Skype, Zoom, GoToMeeting, and Teams meetings? Did he have to homeschool his kids? Did he have the lurching existential dread of the daily death toll and a news update every thirty minutes and the endless churn of doom prophets on social media? Did he have to craft some less-glib form of words than ‘Dear so-and-so, I hope you’re not ill so I can chase you for that thing I asked you for in the absolute eternity ago that was last Tuesday’?

The idea that whatever you’re doing – be it work or home – has to be some kind of great magnum opus of monumental significance is hugely harmful. Now more than ever we should be embracing the little things that we enjoy, whether they’re going to revolutionise the world, or just kill a little of this strange time and give us back a little control.

I’ve been enjoying running for the sake of getting into the fresh air and getting away from my desk. I’ve finally sorted through a box of wires I’ve been carting around for ever, and in the process established the kind of retro video game set-up that would have had my circa-2001 self in awe. I’ve started writing again – a handwritten journal to process all the dark stuff, this long-neglected blog, and an utterly inconsequential fiction about a cafe. I’ve made some time for sketching and doodling.

None of this is groundbreaking; none of this is going to change the world. Probably very little of it will see the light of day. But while the boat’s sinking, the most the majority of us can do is stay safe, stay sane, and play on.

Social distance

March 22, 2020

If anything’s clear at the moment, it’s that we’re going to have to learn to live our day-to-day lives differently. Covid-19 is going to change how we think about things we’ve taken for granted for years.

After much internal wrangling about whether it was socially responsible, I went for a run today. There are mixed message online about whether you should stay at home under all circumstances, or the degree of risk involved in going outside.

As of today, 22 March 2020, the UK government’s guidance to physical exercise is as follows:

At times like these, it can be easy to fall into unhealthy patterns of behaviour which in turn can make you feel worse. There are simple things you can do that may help, to stay mentally and physically active during this time such as:

* look for ideas of exercises you can do at home on the NHS website

* spend time doing things you enjoy – this might include reading, cooking, other indoor hobbies or listening to the radio or watching TV programmes

* try to eat healthy, well-balanced meals, drink enough water and try to avoid smoking, alcohol and drugs

* keep your windows open to let in fresh air, get some natural sunlight if you can, or get outside into the garden

You can also go for a walk or exercise outdoors if you stay more than 2 metres from others.

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/covid-19-guidance-on-social-distancing-and-for-vulnerable-people/guidance-on-social-distancing-for-everyone-in-the-uk-and-protecting-older-people-and-vulnerable-adults

The guidelines are light on detail for those who go outside to exercise. I thought about this while I was out, and here are some more detailed (probably more runner-specific) guidelines that I followed:

  1. Stick to wide pavements wherever possible. Some of my preferred routes have narrow sections, which mean close passes whenever you meet someone.
  2. Move proactively. Signal your intent to give someone a wider berth early to avoid uncertainty. It feels weird, like you’re worried they’re going to lunge at you, but it avoids anyone thinking you’re putting them at risk.
  3. Time and distance don’t matter. If you’re practising social distancing effectively, your path is going to meander as you avoid people. Maybe just leave your watch at home and enjoy the fresh air.
  4. Pick at time of day that’s likely to be quiet. I went for lunchtime. Mornings or evenings may also be good, but this is mostly guesswork, and probably depends on route.
  5. Don’t take water or fuel, they’ll only lead to you touching your face.
  6. Don’t spit. This shouldn’t be a special guideline for this time of crisis, but especially now, just don’t. If you have a rattle in your chest, just go for a walk. No one needs coughing runners right now.
  7. Be respectful to others. Wave or nod or say ‘Hi’ if you want, but don’t necessarily expect a response. The runners I saw out today all looked like they wanted some headspace, myself included.

Like the government guidelines, I’m sure these will evolve over time. What’s missing? What needs adjusting?

Stay safe. I don’t want to end this with the awful pun ‘we’re in this for the long run’, but ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

Don’t forget your barcode

November 23, 2015

‘Next Saturday, I’m going to get up early and try out the Parkrun,’ I said to my girlfriend as we walked towards town having managed to get out of the house suspiciously early for a weekend.

‘Categorically, definitely, absolutely. No matter what.’

When we lived in London, I’d made it to Finsbury Park Parkrun a few times, using the run to the start line as a warm-up, and the run back as a cool-down. I could do the same here, but with the run to Milton Country Park being a bit longer.

‘Yep,’ I closed confidently, ‘this is happening.’

***

I fumbled with one arm out of the covers to turn off the irritable buzzing alarm. It was 7:30am, and dark.

As if on cue, the wind roared over the roof of our house, pummelling the window with a sharp spray of rain. I could feel the winter chill on my shoulders; I shrugged the covers up to my chin while I stared at the dark ceiling, willing myself to get up.

7:30am on a Saturday is not a time I usually see. There have been occasions where it has made appearances (for example, sitting in an airport tucking into a generally dreadful veggie breakfast with an ineffective stunted cutlery set, while marvelling at the number of people liberally sloshing down a lager or wine since that culturally signifies ‘first day of holiday’), but these are strictly limited. Weekend and lie-in are synonymous.

It’s the best part of five miles to the start line, so I needed to leave maybe 45 minutes to get there. I had to get out the door by 8:15.

Another pebble-dashing of rain blustered against the window.

I needed some breakfast, a hot drink of some sort. I now had 35 minutes to get out the door. The bed was still warm, and comforting, and considerably more inviting than the lashing gale outside.

Barcode, I realised. I’d need to print out a barcode to take with me, have breakfast and a hot beverage. Don’t forget your barcode, hashtag DFYB, and all the other variations you see echo through Twitter on a Friday.

Safe in the knowledge that I would be breaking the cardinal rule of Parkrun, I closed my eyes, settled back in and enjoyed another couple of hours’ sleep.

***

I’m walking towards town with my girlfriend, with the fierce wind dying down and the winter sun setting. ‘Definitely next week. Categorically, absolutely, definitely. No matter what.’

Flow

November 9, 2015
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Setting off for my long Sunday run slightly later than planned, the sun felt unseasonably warm. I padded down Mill Road, quiet still, but the cafes were starting to fill up with brunch-seekers.
It’s maybe a mile and a half to the riverside path, but once you’re on the path the route becomes smooth and flat, the surface tarmac or flagstones, until you’re over Green Dragon bridge and then gravel crunches satisfyingly underfoot. Stourbridge Common and Ditton Meadows stretch beyond the opposite bank, the cool fens shrouded in a thick mist. The temperature drops, and by the first turn of the river it’s possible to convince yourself it’s a smugly satisfying dawn run.
Boat-loads of rowers fade into view through the mist, in pairs or eights, either awaiting orders or pushing their oars against the water in time to the ‘two, three, four and push’ yelled from their coach cycling in parallel on the towpath.
I felt comfortable, but as I picked off the fourth mile, I noticed that my splits were just under 7 minutes per mile; I’d been planning for 20 seconds or so slower per mile. But it felt right, so I kept my pace steady.
My turning point was Waterbeach, just shy of 6.5 miles out, and then the same distance back. It had been a while since I’d done an out-and-back, and I was hoping to keep steady pacing throughout. By the time I turned, my pace had been virtually metronomic, only a couple of seconds difference between my splits.
A couple of miles into the return journey, it became clear I’d picked up the pace. Again, it felt comfortable, so I decided to see how I felt with four miles remaining.
Good, was the answer, so I put in a couple of faster miles, my pace not wildly different from my shorter tempo runs, but feeling much more fluid. The return through the streets of town, once off the towpath, was slower with pedestrians to dodge and roads to cross, but I got home feeling invigorated and satisfied.
Sometimes runs feel clunky and laborious, but other times running feels like the most natural and effortless thing. The feeling of flow is my best indicator of returning form, and was as welcome as the warmth of the sun as I trotted back down Mill Road, the brunch crowd replaced by the early lunch crew.

Running as displacement

October 26, 2015
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Six weeks of regular running. Three, and sometimes four, runs a week. Sunday long runs that can actually be justifiably called ‘long runs’. It may not sound like much, but this has been my first regular structured training for a year (and maybe a bit longer).

The routine – and actually, the pleasure – of getting out regularly has been both a distraction, and an opportunity to focus. The churn of work (the sheer bloody energy required at times to inch projects forwards) had eaten into my running routine to the point where scrappy commuter runs and perfunctory Sunday sessions were all that remained.

And then – with the atomic-clock regularity of publishing, two years after I joined the company in the wake of a restructure – a restructure was announced. I’m fortunate to work in a business where going freelance is comparatively straightforward and established, but even so, awaiting the dread day of trying to spot your name on an org chart gives time for speculation, gallows humour and idle ‘what if’-ing.

When everything’s up in the air, you control the controllable.

A six-mile sunset stretch through the beautiful Grantchester meadows, looping back to the office via the smooth tarmac of the guided busway twice a week. A tempo run over flat ground, run hard.

A languorous Sunday trot either down the river – picking off the rowing coaches on their bikes, calling out to the crews of eights that they need to push through the next bend – or over the Gog Magog hills – dodging loose dogs and small children being supervised by sloe-picking parents.

Occasional recovery runs between mid-week sessions, just stretching the legs, working through any residual stiffness.

Running has been my sanctuary, and if nothing else, this period of uncertainty has been my prompt to fall back in love with running. I’ve had time to decide that if I need to go freelance, I’ll be able to use running to structure my days. Heck, I could perhaps take a Leadership in Running Fitness course and run lunchtime sessions in Cambridge. Or take some time to write a new running book I’ve had in my mind for the last few weeks. Maybe I could even give the blog a proper overhaul, and actually make a real go of it. The opportunities spooled endlessly before me.

And so there was something a bit weirdly deflating about finding out that I still had a job. (Don’t get me wrong – I’m glad to still have a job, and my bank manager is glad I’m in permanent employment, and it makes it easier to sleep at night.) Staying in gainful employment will be significantly helpful with the mortgage payments, but rediscovering running is (like the Barclaycard ad) priceless.

Making adjustments

October 12, 2015

Vertical oscillation over time

One of the things that I’ve noticed about my running data – background here – is that I seem to be an unusually bouncy runner. So, I thought I would experiment with tweaking my running style to see what impact that might have.

For the past week and a bit, I’ve been consciously monitoring my vertical oscillation. (My default running screen shows distance covered and vertical oscillation – I get pace feedback as my Garmin clicks off each mile, but that’s about it.) My approach to this has been as follows:

  • shorter strides, landing my leading foot earlier than I would naturally
  • leaning further forward – moonwalk-style (i.e. angle from the ankle) not hunched over from the hips
  • varying arm swing from minimal to maximal, with little to no clarity on how/whether it affects my gait.

It felt a bit unnatural at first – the motion of running was slightly speeded up, which my body wasn’t used to – and after the first run using this style (potentially a strategic error to introduce on a Sunday long run) I really felt the change in style in my quads for the next couple of days. But I’m coming round to this style, and it seems to be having some advantages. My feet are much less sore in the morning, for one thing, which suggests that I might have been placing too much pressure on them through over-striding.

Anyway, a look at the data from these runs shows a few unsurprising changes in my running form. My cadence has increased, dancing around 180spm (about 10% higher than previously), and my ground contact time has decreased. My stride length on my less bouncy runs has decreased by about 15cm (about 11% shorter than previously).

Based on this, you’d think that the pace wouldn’t be wildly different, and you’d be about right. I was shaving off a second or two per mile from my usual mid-week 6-miler, which was probably more a result of my body adapting to several weeks of consistent training than anything in my running form.

Then, on Friday evening, I needed to get a run out of the way before heading to a work do. Having got changed and about to set off, I bumped into our group director, who wanted to check I was still coming to the pub. I assured him that ‘I will do – I’m just going to knock a quick one out, get changed and head over.’ (Not a brilliant choice of words, as I was reminded by various colleagues who had been informed of my whereabouts.) That aside, I wanted to push on with a decent effort, but couldn’t quite contain the bounciness of my gait.

Pacing trend for 6-miler

Trending faster – but Friday’s effort shows a big jump in pace

While the run was bouncier than I’d been managing for my other runs this week, my cadence wasn’t much slower than for the more controlled runs. So, while this effort may have been more wasteful than my previous runs, a faster turnover (accompanied by a longer stride) massively improved my performance for a pace that felt the same effort as previous runs. Interesting.

However, there’s probably more to this since my VO2 Max has been going through some changes recently.

VO2 Max improvements

Gradual improvement, followed by quite a significant change in the past week

My running VO2 Max reading has gone from 50 four weeks ago, up to 55 by the end of this week. This may well have absolutely nothing to do with my recent tweaks in form, and an awful lot more to do with some – long overdue – consistent training weeks and some focus on effort. Either way, it feels good to be recovering a bit of form.

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