How is it that I came to be running in the park late one January evening? With temperatures hitting sub zero and badly lit streets, at first it seems quite unfeasible, except I’m not running outside, I’m running indoors, in my own living room!
Yes, probably for the first time since the 90s aerobics class I went to as a teenager with my Mum, I’m actually jogging on the spot. And I’m enjoying it too!
It started at the in-laws house, where after a delicious Sunday Roast, someone decided it was time to get the X Box Kinnect out and have a go at some sports. For the uninitiated, this is essentially a computer game where a camera watches the position of your arms and legs, as you flail about trying to mimic some sporting activity, and thereby a computer version of you (your avitar), actually does the sport on the screen.
First up was bowling – fairly gentle – where astoundingly I turned out to be quite good and won! Next was a football shoot out game. This time my talent seemed to be more enthusiasm than skill, but I was still able to win the day. Finally we had a go at javelin throwing. It became rapidly apparent that co-ordinating legs, arms and timing was a bit too much multi-tasking for me. My final throw was ruled out as a ‘foul throw’. I was just pleased I’d not hit the crowd.
Apart from being lots of fun, these types of indoor activities can also genuinely get your heart rate going, and are a great family entertainment.
I was so enthusiastic that when we got home that evening, we decided it was time for the annual outing of our Wii Fit! (A rival and predecessor of the X Box Kinnect which has been gathering dust in our home for many years).
We loaded it up and were gleefully informed that we had been missed since the 350 days since the last time we used it! Obviously January is a popular month for indoor computer fitness! At first the intention was to encourage my son to have a go. He watched us for a while and then decided he would attempt some Yoga poses. Then it was his bedtime, and I was left on my own. ‘I’ll just have one more go’ I thought.
20 minutes later I was jogging through a park, up and down hills, and suddenly realised I was working up a sweat! It was cold and dark outside, but here I was jogging in the sunshine past animated green grass and blue waterfalls. In the end, through a variety of exercises (“catching fish dressed as a penguin” is my favorite) I did 30 minutes exercise on the Wii Fit, and now of course I have plans it will be out every day and there won’t be an excuse to not exercise ever again!
Well, that might be stretching it, but I did manage to get a lot of fun activity into a day where I might have otherwise just sat around after Sunday lunch, driven home, and then sat around all evening. Maybe indoor computer games aren’t the answer to all our exercise needs, but they certainly add some variety and a flexibility. Maybe you have one gaining dust in your cupboard? Why not get it out and have a go? You might enjoy it. You could even be the next “catching fish dressed as a penguin” champion. Maybe they’ll include it in the Olympics soon!
It’s been a bit of a gap since my last blog post, but finally I’m getting started again. I’d like to share with you a bit of my own story, and why exercise is so important to me.
There are actually a lot of different tales to tell, but I’m going to begin with what was probably the most dramatic of all. This is the story of how, at the age of 30, I got a big message from the Universe to get my act together.
I thought I was doing everything right. I’d studies hard at school, got loads of qualifications, landed a job at a big multi-national firm and was living a jet-setting life flying around Europe every week to run workshops and train sales people. I’d even had a lovely boyfriend, and although we had to do the long distance thing, we met up most weekends and had a great time eating out and socialising.
The problem was, I wasn’t doing enough to take care of my health. All the eating out, and drinking too much (especially on expenses paid business trips), meant I’d gained a lot of weight. On and off, through my 20s, I’d tried to tackle it. Occasionally I’d try to start running again but often did too much too soon and got injured. This was a particular problem for me as I was a half decent runner as a kid, and so I expected high standards from myself. I basically pushed myself too hard. Of course I tried a variety of diets, some worked, some didn’t, but all were short term fixes and got swept away when I went back to old routines. The thing I probably did best was when I started cycling to work every day. 2 miles there, 2 miles back, on a little fold up Brompton. I loved it! I wasn’t even put off when I randomly fell off in the middle of Newcastle-Gateshead’s Millenium Bridge! Still it wasn’t quite enough to compensate for the heavy drinking sessions with the Sales teams. I knew I was quite overweight, and not very fit, but as I was 30 I just assumed I had loads of time to sort it out later – when I’m less busy!
The crunch point came when I was on holiday. 3 weeks in New Zealand. I’d been looking forward to it for ages. We were trying to be quite active and we’d planned to go Sea Kayaking with a group in the beautiful Doubtful Sound on the South Island. The day itself was amazing. When I woke up the next morning – I couldn’t move! I had terrible pain in my back, and when I finally begged my way into an emergency appointment with a Physiotherapist about 5 days later, he demonstrated that my spine was crooked, and diagnosed a slipped disc. Apart from the excrutiating pain which I endured for the last stages of the holiday, and the 24 hour journey home, I then also spent the next 6 months in pain, unable to walk properly and unable to sit at my work desk (I would kneel down in front of my desk as it was more comfortable).
Finally it was a suggestion that I had a steroid injection in my spine, that prompted my to take matters into my own hands. I wasn’t a medical expert but I knew I needed to do two things 1) Lose some weight so that my back would be under less pressure and 2) Strengthen my body so my muscles could help hold me upright. Maybe it was risky, and I probably should have checked my plan with my GP, but I started going to the gym, doing gentle cardio, strength training and stretching and also had a wake up call on my food habits and began to automatically pick up better options at the supermarket, and make better decisions when eating out.
I did lose a lot of weight, but it was the fact that I was focusing on taking a positive action, through exercise, that really motivated me. I don’t think I would have lost the weight without having got more active at the same time. Also, I was being realistic with what I could do. I couldn’t just put on my trainers and go for a 5k run with a back injury. I had to be gentle. I started with the cross trainer, then I’s do short burst on the treadmill. I never did more than 10 mins of one exercise in the early days, so I could keep things varied and see how I felt afterwards.
A few months in I saw a headline in a magazine that grabbed my attention “Train for your first triathlon in 6 weeks!” OK, I thought, I will! I found the shortest race I could that was 6 weeks away, and followed the basic training plan. That event is a story in itself, which I shall tell next time, but, *spoiler alert* I did it!
That first triathlon, which took place one year after I first injured my back, was my signal that I had made a full recovery. I was no longer in pain, but it went beyond that, I had taken control of my health and in the process taking control of my life.
Many people see exercise as a burden, as something to be suffered, the old “no pain, no gain” mantra. I don’t see it that way. Exercise is life giving. It builds strength, it builds confidence and it thrives on hope. Getting active gave me my life back and opened up my world to new friends, hopes and dreams. It’s a lesson I carry through life, and has helped me many times in other stories….. which I will tell, on another day.
This week I had a photoshoot done (very glamorous – I know!). I thought that whilst it’s great to have photos on my FitBee website of me taking part in triathlons and running events, it might be nice for people to see what I look like without the Lycra. After all, I’m pretty normal really. So we took a walk around the beautiful Homestead Park in York and got a few shots done. I’m pleased to report it was a much less painful experience than most wedding photo shoots I’ve been involved in (excepting my own which was clearly marvellous …. I digress)
One of my favourite pictures that came out was of me walking down a footpath. It captures for me both the wonderful aspects of being outdoors, with all that greenery around, but also that exercise doesn’t have to be complicated. You don’t need fancy clothes, equipment and training plans. Those things are great if you enjoy them, but actually just getting outside and moving is enough. In fact, sometimes, staying inside and moving is enough – but I do love the greenery.
Increasingly, studies are finding more evidence to back up what we sort of instinctively know. Being outside, and being in daylight, has amazing positive benefits for our mental health and wellbeing. So if the thought of dressing up in workout gear to go to a class, or the gym, or for a jog, leaves you cold, try this instead. Put on some comfy shoes, a warm coat, and have a little walk outside. 2 minutes, 5 minutes, 10 minutes or whatever you feel like. Walk as fast or slow as you like, and see how you feel when you get back.
Walking groups are becoming increasingly popular and easy to access, and walking is a great way to get fit. So if you discover it’s something you like, and you like to walk with others, why not look up a group near you? And best of all…. no Lycra required.
The 15th July was super sport Sunday: the cobbled Roubaix stage of the men’s Tour de France, the men’s final of Wimbledon, the men’s football World Cup final and I lined up with 153 other women to compete in the York Sprint Distance Triathlon.
I’d been looking forward to this race for months. One of my best friends entered it last year as her first triathlon, and I was gutted I couldn’t join her as it clashed with my Edinborough half-ironman attempt. This year we were both entered, with both husbands and small children in tow. This year, I’d decided to concentrate on Sprint distance races for a few reasons: the professional sounding one is that it gave me an opportunity to work on improving my speed; the real one is that it takes a lot less training time and therefore greater opportunity to have a life outside training and work. It was my 3rd triathlon of the season and theoretically my A race. The pool based swim was a bonus with many summer races now being affected with blue-green algae or wet-suit banned swims. It’s also a closed road bike circuit, described by organisers as “technical”, so it should be a lot of fun.
OK so a bit about the organisers. I hadn’t done any “UK Triathlon” events before, but they seemed to have quite a big set up, putting on many races through the year. This is why I was more surprised and disappointed with the following: 1) instructions to rack bike no more than 20 mins before start and be at poolside 15 mins before start (err, pardon?!, don’t you know about laying out transition, checking exit/entry points, and general faffing to calm the nerves? This give just 5 mins to set everything up at be back at the pool – probably less time than my actually race transition) and 2) … no, well, I actually had a long list but I am so blown away by number 1 that I’m going to let it stand alone. In the end I racked my bike early (40 mins before start), and then was still late for poolside briefing due to ridiculous lack of toilets and long queues. Oh wait, I’m back on number 2 after all!
Several organisational annoyances aside the race itself was a lot of fun. I had a fairly steady swim and it was pleasant to exit the pool and be into transition in quite a short distance. I’d skilfully put my bike by the bike exit so I didn’t have to push it far. I hopped on after the mount line and was reminded once again why you should always check the course out “oh it’s cobbles!” The circuit was quite flat and probably fast for anyone with good bike handling skills. It was wide enough for one bike to pass in most places, maybe two bikes if the riders were experienced, but to be fair this was a beginner’s friendly event and I was sharing the circuit with quite a few inexperienced riders. This meant I had to take a lot of care when passing, but also meant I could enjoy over taking people for a change – wheeee!
It was a pretty bumpy ride over the cobbles in a lot of places (I say cobbles, it’s more like block paving, but a lot of it was loose and bumpy), but for me, this just made it more fun. The laps also meant I got to see my family and they got to see me several times in the race. My little boy had even found 2 sticks to bang together so he seemed to be having fun. I counted my 6 laps and then jumped off to get ready for the run.
In T2 I was slowed down by laughing at some guy with his mates taking the mick out of him as he tried to complete his T1. I tried to stay focused but it was too funny. Then I got my race head back on and dashed out of the run exit.
The run is 4 laps of the York Sport Cycle Circuit. It was great that it was a smooth, off road surface, but it was also baking hot. I paced the first lap by letting my legs go as fast as they liked (thinking they were still on the bike), then I settled into the 2nd lap at what I though was a faster pace (turned out mile 2 was a lot slower than mile 1 so that didn’t work). There was a drink station to pass at the end of each lap and by lap 3 they started putting more than one mouthful of water in the cup so that was a bonus. Full marks though for using paper rather than plastic cups. As I completed lap 3 I reflected on the fact that the hardest part of the race probably wasn’t the heat but the amount of counting to be done. 4 laps of each lane in the pool, 6 laps on the bike, 4 laps on the run. If you don’t like laps, don’t do this race. I don’t mind laps, but was finding it harder to keep track as I got more tired.
At the end of lap 3, I saw my friend complete her race just ahead of me. One more to go. I gave it one last push, one more smile at the race photographer, and one more kick up the “I can’t believe this is still uphill” section. I gave a final kick down the finishing straight and, rather like Mark Cavendish, found my legs just weren’t there, so cruised it in instead. I stood for a moment to enjoy the sensation of being still whilst the race commentator tried to work out my club name “Oh, HaTriC – I see what you did there!”, and then it was time for family cuddles, resumption of motherhood duties, and eventually a burger and a beer.
OK, so let’s talk about the title. Yes, everyone got a medal. Quite rightly so. This was an arduous event and not for the faint hearted. And like every other event I’ve taken part in for the last 6 years, my medal went straight to my little boy. He loved wearing it all afternoon, and I’ve even got the chocolate ice-cream smears on the ribbon to prove it. What about 3rd place? Well the thing I love about triathlon is that there is always some way to make yourself look good. Based on last year’s times I thought I had a good chance of making it onto the first page of results, but I missed out making it to the top of page 2. Then I noticed I was 11th in my age group! I should be very proud, but couldn’t help thinking I’d just missed out on a top 10. Then I noticed all the competitors’ ages were listed. I counted down. Yesssss! I was the 3rd place female age 42! What a result! Of course I’m still just 41, but let’s not split hairs.
I know I’ve complained a fair bit about the organisation in this report, but it’s only because it’s so frustrating to see how much better it could be with a few simple changes that other event organisers seem to be able to manage. If you are a triathlon novice this is a great first race, and you won’t notice my minor quibbles as you won’t have other events to compare against. For balance I would like to add that the marshals were brilliant, but especially the lady on the turnaround/lap finish point on the bike. What a superstar!
So it’s now 40 hours since I completed the Haworth Hobble with my Dad, and in doing so finally achieved a childhood dream. Sitting here with my box of chocolates (celebratory) and cup of Yorkshire Tea (mandatory), I’m reflecting on the highs and lows of Saturday, and letting it sink all in – I actually made it to the finish!
In the week before the event the main worry was ice and snow. I’ll admit that it did occur to me that a bad weather cancellation might actually be rather convenient for me. As it turned out there was enough warmer weather and rain to wash the worst of the snow away, leaving us with water, lots of it, come race day.
As is customary when racing with my Dad, we arrived late at the start line. Fortunately the race was late to start anyway so we didn’t miss anything. The start of the Haworth Hobble goes straight up the main street. A steep, cobbled lane, better suited to tourists, than a warm up for a 32 mile off road ultra marathon, but hey it looks good on the photos. Knowing I was out for a full day I set a steady (aka slow) pace early on. I was rather surprised a couple of miles in to find there were still people behind us. In fact for the first 6 miles there was a lot of chatting and laughing (yes, laughing) going on. My Dad, having a talent for using phrases which could be mis-interpreted, told one group of men passing us – “You better get a move on if you’re going to make it to the pub!” – he explained to me a tradition of some runners deliberately taking it easy and spending half an hour at the pub part way round – if you are one of these people, please write in to confirm his story! Anyway, I digress.
By the first checkpoint we had covered 7 miles and made it up, over and down the first big hill. (A proper runner would give you a more accurate location name here, but to me the day was a blur of hills, mud and occasional snow). I felt pretty good, and shortly after we came across the photographer who took the above photo. My Dad shouting, “Swing your arms to make it look like you’re going faster!” – Good tip! By around mile 13 I’d begun to struggle. It was really tough going with such deep mud everywhere. Often the choice was to either run off the path risking knee deep mud (I succumbed twice), or run straight down the centre of the path through several inches of freezing snowmelt river. As the day wore on I chose the second option more often. The certainty of cold, wet feet being preferable to the uncertainty of not knowing at which moment I was going to lose half my leg – again. At this stage it was not the physical toughness that was the issue but the negative thoughts which began to spring up. ‘If it’s this tough going at 13 miles, how on earth will I do another 19 miles like this?! etc. etc.’ One thing I’d learned it my training though is that it is possible the feel rubbish one minute, and then fine a few miles later. So I ignore the sinking feeling (excuse the pun) and kept going. The next major blow came at the 15 mile checkpoint – they’d run out of hot dogs!
This was not good. The moment was then salvaged by the discovery of a plentiful supply of sausage rolls. I had 2. And a hot coffee, and 2 buns, and a Jaffa cake. And I encouraged my Dad to stop chatting to everyone at the checkpoint and keep moving. We walked a while with our coffees, and in doing so passed about 5 people. Just because I’m slow does not mean I’m not competitive 🙂
The next breakthrough came at 17 miles. I was now past the distance of my longest training run. Everything from here was an unknown in terms of how well I could keep the pace up (we were averaging 16 minute miles), and if my legs could make it to the end. I thinking we were approaching the 20 mile checkpoint when I caught my foot in a bramble and came crashing to the ground. Luckily, thanks to the mud, it was more of a squelch than a crash. I’d got my hands out in front of me and they went wrist deep into the mud. I joked with my Dad that you would pay good money for mud like that at the spa, and we ran on. We got to the famous whiskey checkpoint to find a tiny dribble of whiskey left in a glass. I claimed it on the back of my “traumatic” fall, but couldn’t face the jam doughnuts. Just another bun for me please. We overtook some more people at the checkpoint (perhaps my triathlon training makes me uncomfortable staying stationary too long) and we were off to the approach to Stoodley Pike, the one name I can remember, as it marked yet another steep hill climb. “This is the last hill right?!” I said to my Dad. “Err…” he said.
If the whiskey made me feel a little drunk climbing Stoodley Pike, then I had a hangover as I came down the other side. We were being closely followed by several people we’d overtaken only by my speediness through checkpoints. I could here them laughing and having fun in the distance (yes laughing!..I know!). Around here you’ll have to forgive that the sequence of events becomes blurry. I remember still feeling good at 24 miles. I remember passing the marathon point (my second ever marathon and now I was on for the longest run of my life), I remember a very steep road descent into Hebden Bridge and wondering if those blokes made it to the pub, and I remember climbing steps sideways as going straight up had become too painful. At the top of the steps we kept going up, climbing more up the road, seemingly forever. Then we reached the top. This should have been great. Lots of flats and downhills now. Not far to go. Just 2 problems. 1) My legs were no longer working properly, 2) My brain had gone into some kind of delirium mode around mile 28. Now when you do an ironman (which I have) and you start to feel a bit funny in the head, you are generally on a flat tarmac road. You keep putting one foot in front of the other and you’ll get there. I was 4 miles from the finish on a muddy, rocky trail high in the moors. It was raining, it was foggy, it was starting to go dark. My biggest fear now was that if my eyes, to brain, to feet signalling was not quick enough I could trip on a rock and it would be game over. I decided to walk down the hill.
We reached the last checkpoint in pouring torrential rain. I somehow managed another 2 sausage rolls, but I was pretty sick of the sight of them. We were around 9 hours in, and learned that the winner had come past this checkpoint after 4 hours! He was probably fed, showered and wrapped up warm by now. We were still out on the moors in torrential rain with probably at least another hour the get to the finish. I know I’m biased, but I still maintain that it is the back markers that have the toughest time at these events. Not only do we push our bodies beyond usual limits (as does everyone in the race), but we do so for longer, and under constant threat of missing a cut off and not being allowed to continue. Well, I’d made the final checkpoint before the cut off. Now I just had to get to the end.
I’d imagined the last few miles as a gentle downhill run into Haworth, but this is where we hit the worst of the snow! Yes some how sheltered on the north side of this particular were snow drifts, several feet deep, and blocking the path in places. This is where the ladies I’d been trying to stay ahead of were able to pass us with there walking poles making it much easier for them to get across the snow and ice. I took it carefully (aka slowly) and finally got to the other side. Now the last sausage rolls had kicked in and I was able to manage a slow jog down the steep, rocky descent to the reservoir, passing people again. Once on the flat at the bottom however (and on the road), about 8 or 10 people seemed to whizz past “Where did they come from?”. My Dad patiently walked beside me, and I varied between walking and hobbling, just trying to keep inching forward. After hours being in isolation we seemed to amongst a big group of runners and walkers again. We chatted to one fellow who had set off one hour before us as part of the “walking” group. He’d had a tough day, but he was going to make it.
With one mile to go, it was obvious my legs had checked out. It was rapidly getting dark but we thought we could make it back before needing to stop and get torches out. We now seemed to be on a local walking path and people were out walking their dogs and going for training runs. To me it seemed that everyone was moving at the speed of light.
Before setting out I had dreamed of being able to finish, which requires beating the 11 hours cut off. In my best case estimates I had thought I might manage 10 hours. As we turned down a narrow lane to approach Haworth, my Dad told me we should be able to beat 10 hours. There were about 8 minutes left and he thought we were 4 minutes away. Time to pick up the pace, for one last push. Through the church yard, down the steps, down the cobbled lane, round the corner, across the road and back to Haworth Primary School: 9 hours and 56 minutes: Finished!
I had expected to feel emotional, elated, and excited. What I mainly felt was very, very tired. But underneath that, very, very happy. It’s now 42 hours later, and it’s still sinking in. It hurts when I stand up, it hurts when I walk, it hurts when I try and straighten my legs, but I did it. I finally did it! And I did it with my Dad who is an inspiration and a legend, who never gives up (even when he has to give up) and who has always encouraged me, without pressuring me, to push myself a bit further. We can all achieve more than we think we can.
Dedicated to my Dad, Gordon Stone, Fell Running Legend and 20+ times finisher of the Haworth Hobble.