A Beachy Head Trail Adventure

It’s when the Seven Sisters first appear that the wowing starts. The whiteness of the vertical cliffs, the jaggedy ins-and-outs of the headlands, as if great bites have been taken out of them… It’s breathtaking, literally and figuratively. You puff up each of the seven peaks, thinking bad thoughts about running and scolding yourself for not finding a more relaxing way of spending a day off – until you reach the top, gasp at the view and gallop gleefully down the other side.

We’re standing at the foot of the South Downs in Eastbourne, where a post marks the start of the 100-mile South Downs Way, which rollercoasters all the way to Winchester.

IMG_8431This hill will be familiar to anyone who’s taken part in or watched the infamous Beachy Head Marathon as it’s the first – and last – thing the runners encounter. Up it goes, at a merciless angle, sending your heart rate into the red before your Garmin’s barely locked on to satellites – and keeping it there for much of the punishingly precipitous race.

But on this particular crisp winter morning, we have something a lot more leisurely planned. A 20-mile loop taking in the villages of Jevington and Alfriston before swooping round to climb the Seven Sisters, pausing for tea and cake at Birling Gap, then scaling Beachy Head and careening back down the hill for home before dusk.

We set off at a jog-walk (aware of the need not to peak too soon) and when we reach the top, look back on Eastbourne laid out in miniature beside a sheet of grey-blue sea. The gorse-clad downs feel springy underfoot and it’s a minefield of shallow rabbit scrapes.

We follow the path inland taking the same northwesterly direction as the race route. With Jeff being a former winner of Beachy Head marathon, I’d assumed I couldn’t be in better company for today’s adventure, but it is soon apparent that my husband is suffering from route amnesia – ‘this next bit’s all flat,’ he says, just as the path takes yet another upward curve before finally descending to Jevington, home to the 300-year old Eight Bells pub and St Andrew’s Church, where the Saxon tower, built of flint and local sandstone, is over 1000 years old.

It’s a bit early for a drink so we press on, winding through Friston Forest to reach a well-groomed path on the roof of the downs, with 360-degree views. Below, the 235ft Long Man of Wilmington is etched on the hillside.

Three or so miles and one tricky descent later, we hit the road and cross the Cuckmere River, following it into the picture-postcard village of Alfriston. It’s definitely time for some sustenance now and we’re spoilt for choice – but the window display of freshly-baked scones in The Singing Kettle wins out. Rested and revived, we retrace our steps back across the bridge, this time heading south towards Litlington before the inevitable climb, which rewards us with views of Cuckmere Haven and the sea.

It’s when the Seven Sisters first appear that the wowing starts. The whiteness of the vertical cliffs, the jaggedy ins-and-outs of the headlands, as if great bites have been taken out of them… It’s breathtaking, literally and figuratively. You puff up each of the seven peaks, thinking bad thoughts about running and scolding yourself for not finding a more relaxing way of spending a day off – until you reach the top, gasp at the view and gallop gleefully down the other side.

IMG_8458

When the cottages, car park and decommissioned Belle Tout lighthouse at Birling Gap come into sight, we’re ready for more refuelling – and who can resist a National Trust café? The Gap is one of the few places along this part of the coast that you can actually get down to the beach – via a steep metal staircase. It’s not a day for a dip, but it’s worth the descent to see the chalky cliffs close up.

Now it’s ‘just’ Beachy Head to conquer before we fasten our seatbelts for the descent into Eastbourne. This is some climb, but the surface is good – the grass so short, it’s as if it has been trimmed with nail scissors. Below the vivid green downs, the sea swirls around the jaunty red and white striped Beachy Head lighthouse. It’s a wonder the cliff edge isn’t fenced off – at 531 feet, this is the highest chalk sea cliff in Britain – but the views are all the more wondrous for this openness.

By now I’m weary, and as we reach the top of the hill we climbed out of Eastbourne this morning, I marvel at the breakneck speed Jeff – and other Beachy Head marathoners – manage once they get a whiff of the finish line at its foot. I’m quite seriously considering sliding down it on my bottom.

Jeff-Pyrah-winning-marathon

By the time we reach the trail post, we’ve clocked up a tad over 20 miles and the daylight is just beginning to fade. It’s definitely time for that drink now…

Want to come on our Beachy Head Trail Adventure? Our next trip is on Sunday, June 16th 2019, just a few places left.

Details at https://www.facebook.com/wearerunningforever under ‘Events’.

 

 

A race against time to get back to fitness

After being felled for nine days by a brutal virus, my marathon is hanging in the balance…

I’m facing the situation with equanimity and I’m not sure if this signifies a new maturity and perspective or suggests I don’t care as much as I used to about my running goals. As a dedicated over-analyser, the fact that I don’t have the energy for such navel gazing right now is a clear sign that I’m not fully recovered. For the moment, it simply feels good to be upright again.

The day before the virus struck, I ran 9 miles, 6 of them a tad faster than marathon pace. It felt unreasonably hard, and I should have suspected something was amiss. The next morning – Saturday – it was too late to cancel my coaching duties and I muddled through two hour-long sessions before heading home and climbing straight into bed, fully clothed and shivering. When I woke up, feverish, late in the night, I still had a stopwatch and whistle around my neck.

 

I didn’t get back out of bed again until the following Saturday and it took me a further two days to put on my running shoes to see if I had anything to give. Not much, it turned out. But two miles is better than being stationary and whatever panic my mind conjures up about how little time I have left and that 20-miler I missed on Sunday, my body knows that it needs to ease back in gently, deadline or no deadline.

Detraining

I’m thankful to my dear Garmin for notifying me at regular intervals that I am DETRAINING. No shit, Sherlock! But the scientific research makes for dispiriting reading. Studies suggest that fitness declines are sharpest in the first 12-14 days of inactivity, levelling off thereafter. One study of trained athletes found that levels of enzymes associated with endurance performance halved in 12 days, while VO2 max dropped by 7%. Another study showed a rapid reduction in blood volume, a lowering of lactate threshold and a greater reliance on carbohydrate metabolism (instead of fat). But on the brighter side, the research suggests it doesn’t take as long to regain recently-lost fitness attributes as it did to earn them in the first place.

I just have to hope I still have time to make the start line at Brighton.

 

 

Listening to your running body

If you listen to your body, what do you do when you hear a red flag flapping in the breeze between your ears?

‘Listen to your body.’ You’ve heard it a million times if you’re a runner, and you know that it means you have to pay attention to those warning signs of forthcoming doom in the guise of injury, pain, illness or temporary burnout.

But it’s not always that easy to tell exactly where these warning signs are coming from. Are they kosher? Have they been issued by the central governor in your brain (who I like to think of as my inbuilt hard-hat-wearing health and safety officer)? Or are they from a different place in your mind – perhaps a region of the brain concerned with motivation or emotions?

The reason it matters is that it might affect what you do when you ‘listen in’ and hear a red flag of some kind flapping in the breeze between your ears. Is it the rational, if somewhat over-zealous governor speaking? Or is the ancient reptilian part of your brain trying to protect you from attempting something that might cause you discomfort or that you might not succeed at – like an 18-mile long run with the last four miles at goal marathon pace?

Yesterday, my plan was exactly that run. But I woke up under a dark cloud and the idea of surmounting such a session felt almost impossible. My muscles ached as if I’d already done the bloody thing, and I was devoid of bounce. Aah, I thought. Better listen to my body. It’s definitely saying ‘no thanks.’

Decision made, my mood brightened and I got on with other things. Physical stuff, like digging in the garden and chopping wood. By late afternoon I was so energised I felt inclined to do the run – but knew there wasn’t enough daylight left to fit it in.  Tomorrow, then.

That is, today. It loomed large in my mind from the moment I woke up. My calf felt tight. My stomach felt a bit funny. My socks didn’t seem to fit right when I put them on, making me worry about chafing and blisters. But this time, I acknowledged the alerts and carried on with my run preparation regardless. This, I decided, is not physical, it’s mental.

The run started off feeling harder than it should. ‘WE FEEL TERRIBLE!’ my body told my central governor in a panic (it’s always shouting). ‘HOW WILL WE MANAGE 18 MILES? WE’VE ONLY DONE TWO AND WE’RE EXHAUSTED!’ ‘We’ll be OK,’ replied the guvnor. ‘We’ve got plenty of water and energy gels and it’s a beautiful day. Only seven more miles till we turn for home…’

I shaped my face into a smile (making sure to include my eyes in this forced expression of joy) and carried on. I took in the vivid blues of the sea, lakes and sky, and the yellows and greens of the fields. I listened to the birds singing, ate my energy gels, turned at 9 miles and sped up at 14. And I made it home without my calf (or indeed, anything else) hurting, my stomach exploding or my socks chafing.

Listening to your body is good advice, but knowing whether it’s got something worthwhile to say can be a tricky business.

 

Nifty fifty? Sub 3.30 or bust at Brighton marathon

I’ve got a big birthday coming up this year. I’ve set myself a challenge to attempt before it arrives – a sub-3.30 marathon. I last achieved the heady heights of a sub-3.30 ten years ago, and thought I’d packed away my PB-chasing shoes over the distance (my only two marathons since then have been as a London Marathon sub-4.30 pacer and a windswept hilly affair in Orkney). But I’ve surprised myself with a hankering to know where I stand against the 26.2-mile beast as I approach my half-century. So, on April 14th I’ll be toeing the line of the Brighton Marathon.

I’m excited rather than scared. OK, I’m a little scared (any goal that’s worthy of your pursuit should send at least a tiny shiver down your spine) – but unlike in my younger years, the fear isn’t of failure, it’s a healthy dread of the hard work and discipline I’ll be putting in over the coming weeks.

Being the wise elder that I now am (!) and with ten more years’ experience of coaching runners, I’m fully aware that there’s a lot more to attaining a goal than picking one off the shelf and doing what it says on the tin in order to achieve it. When runners approach me about coaching, they often say ‘I’d like to go for the sub-4 [or sub-3 or sub-whatever] please,’ as if they were picking something off a menu. The assumption is that providing they do everything the programme says, they’ll get there. But it’s not that simple. You and I could follow the exact same training plan and run the same race but get totally different results because we’re bringing two completely different bodies, sets of genes, experiences, mindsets, strengths and weakness to the table. There is no set formula – for example, 40 miles a week, or three 20-milers – that everyone gunning for sub-3.30 must follow. Some will do far less and still get there – others could tick all the right boxes but fall short, or end up injured and not even make the start line. The truth is that coaching doesn’t start with the programme, it starts with the person. And if there’s any runner’s strengths and weaknesses I know inside out, it’s surely my own.

“Coaching doesn’t start with the programme, it starts with the person.”

I view putting a training programme together the same way I do cooking. At first, you follow a recipe to create the desired dish. But over the years, you become more like the Swedish Chef in The Muppets – omitting certain ingredients while adding a sprinkling of this and a dash of that to tailor it to your own requirements and preferences.

Given what I’ve said about individuality, it would be foolish to share my marathon plan with you, even if you, too, are 49½ years old and looking to relive your glory days. But I will tell you that it is built around a fortnightly cycle, rather than a weekly one, in order to fit in a range of different training intensities without overloading myself or omitting those all-important easy runs. And that I’ll be hitting my peak weekly mileage earlier – and staying there for longer – than I used to, allowing me to focus on increasing pace and leaving space for cutback weeks before a taper.

There are no guarantees, of course. It’s an experiment – an educated guess based on what I’ve learned about myself as a runner over three decades but especially the most recent one, in which I’ve come to accept that you can’t simply bend the body to fit the mind’s will. But perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned thus far is that while having goals adds purpose, structure and excitement to your life, it’s the pursuit that provides these, not the attainment. And on that, there is no age limit.

Sam VLM hi res
Pacing VLM – a fun and rewarding day out!
This article appears in my Murphy’s Lore column in Runner’s World magazine’s March 2019 issue.

 

 

 

Turning over a new… calendar

There are 364 other days of the year in which you can make a smarter or healthier choice – why pick a January day…

When I was in my twenties and thirties, the ebbing away of the old year and the looming of a new one always drove me to my diary, where I’d cram the final pages with my tight, sloping handwriting, casting a critical eye on what I’d achieved over the past 12 months. The verdict could always be summed up with the phrase ‘must do better’ – so every diary ended with a list of all the ways in which I would do – and be – better in the next year. I’d lose weight, get fitter, be more positive, drink less wine and coffee, read more classics, take better care of my skin, stop falling for unsuitable men, call my mum more, spend less money, eat more vegetables…

Somewhere along the line, I stopped keeping a diary (other than a training journal). And though it took a little longer, I also stopped falling for the allure of the ‘new year, new you’ myth too. There are 364 other days of the year in which you can make a smarter or healthier choice – why pick a January day that falls hot on the heels of what is, for many, a hectic and stressful period?

And anyway, the key to lasting life change isn’t to make a decision once (a resolution, if you like) but to make that decision every day. Getting up today and going running doesn’t make you a runner – it’s getting up next week, next month, next year that turns a decision into a choice. A choice that has a meaningful impact on your life, simply through repeated practice.

That’s why any decisions you make about how you’re going to live in 2019 should give you a good feeling – make you smile – give you butterflies – not reek of punishment or denial. Whatever changes you’re going to make, start when you’re ready – and enjoy the journey. Happy New Year.

IMG_6941

 

Sick note

It’s Friday night and I’m sitting here with a Lemsip, thinking about when life gets in the way of the best laid running plans. It’s week three of being ‘under the weather’ – week three of no running other than my coaching commitments and, more worryingly, week five of the 16-week marathon training plan that had started off so well…

Much as we might do all we can to optimise our performances, it’s a reminder that we are not ultimately in control of everything. There’s little to be done to hurry illness along – and the same goes for injury. You simply have to sit it out and do what you can to make your return a smooth one.

I’ve remained positive, up to a point. I thought of the first week as an unscheduled but probably quite welcome rest and took the time to do some extra core training. Week two, I spent some time rejigging and fine-tuning my marathon training plan. Week three, though, and I’m beginning to wonder whether all my recent hard work has gone down the pan. If it was just any race, I wouldn’t worry so much. But I don’t do many marathons these days, and if I’m going to take on the 26.2-mile beast, I want to give it my best.

My mileage has been in single figures this week. But before I panic, and push myself beyond what I’m currently capable of, I remind myself of the sage advice I once received from a fellow coach. What would you advise someone else to do in your position? The thought of telling someone who has been unwell for a fortnight and still feels bunged up and exhausted to get back on track and not risk missing another week’s training is then put into context – and sounds as preposterous as it frankly is. So, I’ll wrap my hands around my steaming mug, settle down with an extra blanket and try my best to be patient.

Lemsip

Surface tension

One of the reasons the anti-road brigade say that trail running is ‘better’, is that it puts less stress on the body. Intuitively, it makes sense (softer surface equals a softer landing, right?) but there has been surprisingly little research to back up the claim…

Are you a road runner or a trail runner? It’s not a question that I could answer definitively – I run where the day’s route takes me, be it through a leaf-carpeted woodland (this morning), along a city street (last week) or across a muddy field (yesterday). Each has its own pleasures and challenges.

But some runners can be very snobby about surface. A trail aficionado recently commented on Twitter that ‘people who do road marathons hate themselves.’  You’ll find similar disparaging remarks about tarmac enthusiasts if you look at trail running forums and specialist publications. The gist of it is that road running is deathly dull/bad for you/a poor substitute and that running off-road is in all ways more fun, healthier and generally superior. I think it’s an unfounded and unwelcome division – like vegans dissing vegetarians – we’re all runners, aren’t we?

IMG_4011

The tweet came to mind at the weekend, when I was toiling along a public footpath bordering a field that the farmer had decided to plough to the very edge of the barbed-wire fence. Each time my foot landed, the clump of earth underneath it would either crumble or roll, creating angles at my ankle and knee joints that would have a biomechanist brandishing their goniometer with alarm. Any views to be appreciated went unnoticed, since I had to keep my eyes firmly on the treacherous trail.

There was little relief to be had when I reached the stile, which was so overgrown with nettles that getting over it could have passed as a ‘I’m a celebrity…get me out of here’-style challenge. ‘Fun, this is not,’ I thought to myself. Fifteen minutes later, the nettle stings fading (the secret is to avoid touching them) I was floating along a blissfully smooth tarmac lane. The ironed-flat surface rendered me surefooted enough to appreciate my surroundings – ripe blackberries in the hedgerow, leaves just turning in the autumn sunshine. My good mood was restored.

Now, I’m not claiming that road running is more enjoyable than trail; nor ‘better’ in any way. I love the ever-changing demands of an off-road run – one minute, mud is sucking at your trainers, the next you’re bounding through knee-high grass, leaping over tangled tree roots or skipping from rock to rock. But it’s hard to find any kind of rhythm – which is why I also relish the clean, rhythmic clip of feet on tarmac and the space that that metronomic movement seems to create in my head.

One of the reasons the anti-road brigade say that trail running is ‘better’, is that it puts less stress on the body. Intuitively, it makes sense (softer surface equals a softer landing, right?) but there has been surprisingly little research to back up the claim. In fact, studies seems to suggest that there’s a complex and entirely subconscious interplay between our limbs and the surfaces we run on: the ‘stiffer’ the surface, the ‘softer’ we make the limbs, and vice versa. It’s known as ‘muscle tuning’. This continual adjustment of limb stiffness to match the surface the brain expects us to land on means that the resultant force is pretty much unchanged regardless of surface.

More recently, researchers have posited the theory that trail running may be healthier (though there is not data to prove that trail runners sustain fewer injuries as yet) because of the variety offered by the mixed terrain and undulations. Each footstep is slightly different from the last one and the next one, so the forces exerted on the body are applied in slightly different ways, reducing the risk of overuse. This makes perfect sense and is probably also why varying your running shoes, rather than wearing the same pair all the time, has been linked to a lower incidence of injury.

Variety is almost always better than doing the same thing all the time – but when it comes to running surfaces there’s no reason why a brightly-lit town pavement or a country B-road should not form part of that variety.

This article previously appeared in my Murphy’s Lore column in Runner’s World magazine