Begin at the Beginning

Since the last time I wrote in this blog, I’ve been thinking about writing again in this blog. For one reason or another I made  the decision not to. Mostly, I think, the decision not to write has been linked to the fact that I no longer feel like a runner. I know that many runners will say something like “once a runner always a runner” or “if you want to be a runner, just run”. But, the truth is that this doesn’t help. Rightly or wrongly, I’ve gradually almost stopped thinking of myself as a runner at all. Despite running a marathon in sub 4 hours, running numerous half marathons and gaining my Leadership in Running Fitness (LIRF) licence; I’ve noticed that I now hesitate to even talk to others about running and find it difficult to offer any advice or tips to newer runners. With all this in mind, I have felt almost unqualified to write in my own blog!

 

Since my last blog entry I have, on countless occasions tried to get back into running. I’d even managed to get up to about 7 miles…with a lot of effort and discomfort…but each time, something has come up and consistency has been sorely lacking. I’ve even written in here, but then just couldn’t bring myself to publish it. And, the truth is, all of this feels like a huge loss. Unless you already know what it feels like, it’s hard to explain the pain, frustration and even sadness felt by someone who could run 26.2 miles, and could routinely run 10+ miles, to now genuinely struggle to run 1 mile. It’s demoralising and demotivating…which doesn’t help when you’re struggling for motivation!

So, here’s  the deal… I started again on Monday (2 days ago). I feel totally unfit, fat and unhealthy. My Achilles and calf still give me discomfort when I’m running but I’ve registered for the Waterside Half Marathon in Derry in September, and I’m determined to run it. To help me with that process, I’m going to try and write something in here every Monday as a way of tracking my progress and to try and help my own motivation. If anyone else actually reads this and finds it interesting or useful, so much the better.

Where am I?

At this stage, it feels like I’m right back at the beginning of my running journey. I’ve just run a 5k…but I had to stop at least 5 times. I currently weigh 15st 2lbs and have a belly  (that shakes when I laugh, like a bowl full of jelly). My diet is unfettered by regulation and beer is one of my favourite methods of rehydration. Since Monday though, I’ve started to make changes. I’m trying to stick to a slimming world type diet, increase exercise and limit beer to one night per/week only. I’m going to try and get out for a “long” run on a Friday evening and/or Saturday morning and dig my bike out of the garage again. I intend to try and be as honest as I can on here concerning progress, backward steps and struggles (of which I’m sure there will be plenty). Some of it might be a bit boring – I plan to post my weight each week, my exercise progress and goals…now that I think about it, all of it might be a bit boring!!

 

This evening’s run…a slow and unsteady 5k

So…I’ll be back on Monday- hopefully 4 stone lighter, light of foot and maybe my hair will even grow back by then!!

 

Down and Out in Ebrington Square

On the 12th June 2017 I turned forty. The BIG 40…and this was going to be my year. I’d set myself three main goals for my 40th year….1. Run a  sub 3:45 marathon (my PB is 3:51)…2. Run a sub 1:45 half marathon  (my PB is 1:47)…and 3, lose 2 stone and get back to the weight that I was when I got those PBs. I decided to keep these goals relatively quiet and just chip away through training and entering more half marathons and 5Ks. I’d eaten, drank and celebrated my way through the month of June and it was now time to start taking this running malarkey seriously again! Well…relatively serious…serious but, you know, still in an enjoyable way…

During July and August I slowly and quietly started to get back in form. I’d kinda lost focus during June and maybe a bit before that, but I could feel myself starting to get back on form. I’d lost a couple of lbs, not much, but was definitely moving in the right direction. Come September things were starting to get busier as far as running was concerned. On the 3rd September I ran the “Waterside Half Marathon” in my hometown of Derry (now famous for that hit Channel 4 show “Derry Girls”. If you haven’t seen it yet check it out, it’s hilarious). Not a particularly good run for me (2:04), but that was OK. I was just treating this as a training run and was starting to get in shape for that sub 1:45. I started fine and was feeling strong at the halfway point, but after that I slowed up, started walking and just didn’t have it in my legs. But I knew what I needed to do…focus on the second half, maybe start trying to run the last 4/5 miles of my long runs closer to race pace and build in some hill sessions to increase stamina and power. Also, this was my wife’s first ever half marathon which was so emotional for her and I was so proud and happy that she’d finished that I really wasn’t too bothered about how I’d done.

The next weekend was the Great North Run. I had run this the year before in over 2 hours and thought I might better that this year. I did. 1:58… and that felt like a big improvement from the week before. I still faltered a bit towards the end, but didn’t stop. At the end of this run I felt strong…strong enough to dander down to the beer tent, grab two pints and head back to the finish line to wait for my wife, who was also running this. In light of where this story goes, it might sound like I’m using some creative licence to make this more dramatic and it might sound a bit cheesy; but, as far as running is concerned, the time I spent at the finish line watching runners cross, is amongst my very favourite memories. I saw people break down and cry, hug each other, help each other, and it highlighted to me what running is all about. It highlighted the sense of commitment and achievement, the camaraderie and the emotional rollercoaster that running can be….bloody brilliant! And I started to fall back in love with running all over again.

On the evening of Tuesday 19th September I was training with my running club and, as I was trying to do with every training session, I was putting in “one million percent” (Louis Walsh, X Factor, 2014). I had warmed up, we were well into the session, and in fact I think we had about 5 minutes left to go. We were doing this drill thing that involved star jumps and sprints. I was moving from a star jump into a sprint and it happened. I heard it before I felt it… a noise kind of like a popping, ripping, snapping sound. And then the pain hit. And I hit the ground. And running stopped.

I’m a bit hazy concerning the details after that. I remember trying to get up, and that didn’t work. I thought that maybe if I just stayed down for a while the pain would stop and then I could get back to the car and get some ice on it. I wasn’t too disheartened at the time, in fact there was lots of joking around (see attached photograph). The next thing I knew I was being put into an ambulance and given gas and air (awesome by the way!).

 

I was taken to hospital in the ambulance (where else I suppose!), but I was still in denial. I was convinced that I had pulled my calf, would be told to take a week or two off, ice it and get back to training. But, unfortunately, that wasn’t the case . I had ruptured my Achilles and would be out for a while. At the time of posting, it’s been somewhere between 4-5 months. I’m not there yet, but I’m getting there (slowly) which is why I’ve been able to face this blog again. The hardest part was yet to come, but I’ll get to that another day. For now I think I’ll have a beer…after all, there have to be some upsides to not being able to train!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reasons for Running – Part 1…What do we run away from?

 

I’ve been debating with myself over the past few weeks as to what the subject of this particular entry would be. I’ve got a few ideas rattling round that I’ll hopefully explore over future entries, but I noticed that there were particular areas that I wanted to reflect on as part of this blog thing, but was holding back from. The reasons why I was holding back can basically be summed up in the question, “what might other people think”? In fact, by the time I’ve made this public, I’m pretty sure I’ll have edited and re-edited over and over.

In my last blog, you might remember that I wrote about our “values” relating to running. One of the basic premises being that if we run according to our running-based values, we tend to enjoy our running more. Behind this, then, is the necessity to know our reasons for running. What is it that drives us to get out the door, to pound the pavements (or track, or field) for mile, after mile, after mile…

For me (and hopefully others can relate to this too), my reasons for running can be broadly broken down into two categories: things I run to get away from; and things I run to move towards. This week, I thought I’d write about the first of these. The things I run away from. To give you a fuller sense of this it’s probably worth telling you a wee bit about me… (this is the “what might other people think part”).

So, I started running to get fitter to be able to play football and so forth with my then, soon to be born, son (who is now 7 years old and also has a 5 year old brother). But, really, if that was the case, getting to the point were I could run a mile or two would have been adequate. Something else that was going on while I was beginning my running journey was my father’s illness. Running became a great distraction, and helped cope with the emotional pain. So I ran further and further and pushed myself harder and harder. Physical pain is much easier to bear than emotional pain.

My Dad, Denis, was a smoker all his life and developed COPD. At the time that I started running his health was really starting to go downhill. He was frequently struggling to just breathe, was taking oxygen and his life was severely limited. He could no longer go to his local pub for a pint, couldn’t go for a walk. Actually, he couldn’t leave the house. Probably not coincidental (although I hadn’t consciously considered it) that at this point I started to take part in an activity that would improve my lung functioning, fitness and ability not only to get out, but to go far. I remember really struggling to breathe while running and thinking, “I wonder if this is what my Da feels like” (I still think about this sometimes when I’m struggling to breathe when running).

After a very long illness which really took it’s toll on him, my Dad died in November 2011. My running at this stage was on/off, up/down and “up the left” (is this an Irish saying?). But I was trying to keep active and push on. One day, maybe two or three weeks after my Dad had died I went to the gym to run on the treadmill for a half hour (this would have been relatively easy for me at this point). I stopped after five minutes because of chest pains. I thought I was having a heart attack…genuinely. I rang my GP and got an emergency appointment for an hour later. By then the pain had stopped but I got an ECG, was sent to hospital for a chest X-ray and had some blood tests. Everything was clear. But, this was to be the start of my ongoing relationship with issues related to health anxiety.

To Make Matters Worse…

Less than a year after my dad died, my Mum passed away. Totally unexpected and after being diagnosed with cancer about two weeks beforehand.  Totally out of the blue.  It’ll be five years now in October and it still breaks my heart. I don’t think I can bring myself to write much more about this part of my story. For anyone reading this who may not know me – I come from a city in Ireland called Derry. Derry mothers (Mammies) are famous for being the best mothers in the world and very protective of their sons. And Derry sons are known for their idealisation of their mothers (“Mammy’s boys”). I am (I deliberately use the present tense) most definitely, a Mammy’s boy. In fact, to anyone who would listen, I’d make a pretty good case for the reason why my mum (Sylvia) should be made a saint! The death of St. Sylvia of Derry broke my heart in two…and I am literally running from it till this day.

So…One set of reasons for my running is to try to out run grief, pain and anxiety. To be clear, running has not cured any of these issues. I still struggle with the loss of my parents quite a bit and I still struggle with anxiety at times. In fact, anxiety sometimes interferes with my running. I’ve found that I’ll hold back and maybe not push myself as hard as I could because I’m scared! And it’s getting to the stage with my GP that I feel like taking some wine, candles and Barry White to every appointment because the nature of the examinations has become so intimate (no details necessary, you all have imaginations!).

Sometimes…maybe more than I’d care to admit, some of these issues get into my head too much. I’ve found myself on a long run, just giving up. Just stopping and saying to myself : “what’s the point”; “I can’t do this”; “You’ll never be good enough/ fast enough/fit enough”… For me, these are all related in one way or another to anxiety and fear. Fear that I can’t do it; fear of not being good enough; fear of being miles from home and really having to do a poo… When this happens it’s like there’s a battle going on in my head:

“I’m beat”

“No you’re not, you’re grand… come on, keep going”

“No honestly, I’m buggered…I’m just going to stop here”

“Will ye wise up! You’ve only run a mile”

“No, I think I need to poo”

“You do not need to poo – you went before you came out…and you’ve 14 Imodium in you”

“Well… fair point, but I can’t do it…I may as well just give up”…

Sometimes I win, sometimes I don’t… I think I win more times than not… I think. And, at times, running can help me to connect with my parents and with myself in a beneficial way. Running can help me feel accepting and provide me with space to consider and connect with the memory of my parents in a nice way…it’s not all bad!

And, I’m very lucky…not only do I have running, but I have the support of a loving wife, two great children and an amazing, amazing (I’ll say it a third time for emphasis), AMAZING running club full of supportive, kind and caring people. STARS…each and every one!! And this links into the topic of my next blog…what we run towards (it’s not all doom and glum!).

We cannot outrun our pain or our demons. But with the help of running, our running partners and running clubs, maybe we can learn to look our demons in the eye and let them know that they will not defeat us. That we are tough, strong and determined. And if we have to…we’ll run 26.2 miles just to show the bastards!!

The Values of Running

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When I’m not running, I spend a lot of my time thinking about running – I guess that’s one of the reasons I started this blog. One of the things that I struggle most with running is the psychological aspect. There are times when my head just isn’t in it and I find that it’s a struggle to run a mile, let alone a half or full marathon. Recently, I’ve started to think about applying some of the models and theories used within clinical psychology to running. One particular psychological model that is of interest is called Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT for short). This model has a number of different aspects, but the one that I’m most interested in as I write this is related to what ACT practitioners would refer to as value-guided action.

Basically, ACT suggests that if we can identify our true values, and then act in accordance with those values, then we tend to have a more meaningful experience. So, if I have a value that’s based around health and fitness, and I get out running 5 days a week, then I tend to be more content and feel more fulfilled – at least as far as my value of health and fitness is concerned. Make sense? The flipside would also be true. If I have a value around health and fitness, but am not able to get out running, then I may start to feel frustrated, tense, and maybe a whole range of emotions related to that. An important point here is to know what our values behind running are… this sounds simple, but might be something that we easily lose track of and may benefit from tuning into every so often.

So, let’s try and relate this specifically to running. If my value concerning running is to be as fast as I can be, then I will tend to feel more content and fulfilled if I am running speed sessions, getting my long runs in and steadily improving my times towards a chosen goal (actions that move me towards my value). However, if my values related to running are around making friends, socialising, losing weight or just getting a bit fitter, then I might not necessarily get the same sense of purpose from speed sessions, long miles and time-related goals. In fact, the aforementioned aspects of running might actually interfere with my running-based values. The connotation would be that if I get hooked up in trying to get faster, run further and all that, but my running related values are about friendships, then I might actually get put off running because I may no longer be acting according to my values. I might get more out of running slower, supporting others, and focusing on relating to other runners/club members while running.

In considering these ideas I’m perhaps being a bit looser with some of the concepts of ACT than I would be if considering it from a more scientific perspective, but I find it useful to think about our running related values in this way – to help us keep in touch with why we run and how we can best approach our training and club runs to get the most out of them. We don’t need to be fast or run far…we’re still runners and we may have different values related to running.

Of course, it’s not always as simple as that. We might have different values related to why we run- we might want to be faster and make friends or improve our mental health for example. But, so long as we are aware of which values is guiding each running session and train accordingly, the theory would suggest that we will enjoy our running more and get more out of it.

A Case in Point – Omagh Half Marathon

So I recently ran the Omagh Half Marathon here in Northern Ireland in a time of 1:56 and so many seconds. My PB for the half marathon distance is 1:47:25. I’d been getting hooked up recently with trying to improve my times and have been struggling with running. To be honest, there have been times recently when I’ve considered just giving it up. My theory is that this is related to the points above. I’d become caught up in values related to speed and performance and lost sight of values related to other important areas of running – friendships, feeling connected and self-care. At some point during the Omagh Half Marathon I managed to reconnect with some of these and really enjoyed the run. I had the same time as a half marathon I had run two weeks beforehand, and which I had hated, but had experienced a different type of run. I felt much more present in Omagh and “in the moment”. I used more mindfulness and let go of the vice like grip that trying to attain a particular target can bring with it. My favourite parts of the Omagh Marathon were when I was supporting others, and allowing myself to be supported in return. I still have my targets, but I’ll also be keeping an eye towards other, maybe more important, values of running.

 

PS- I’m new to this blogging thingy and I’d love any thoughts/suggestions- so please feel free to make a comment.

In the Beginning…well, not quite the beginning…

IMG_1175So, I’ve decided to take the plunge and begin a running blog. Ultimately, it’ll be about running…I make that point for me as much as anyone else as I can have a tendency to waffle at times. I started a blog about a year ago, wrote one entry, got some views (over 100 I think – which I was happy with), and then promptly stopped writing!

My motivation for this is pretty much the same as it was back then. To have a space to think about and communicate about all things running. To think about what motivates us to start running, carry on running, stop running, then start running again…and probably repeat this cycle ad infinitum. I’ll probably write less  concerning the technical aspects of running – I’m not an expert and know very little about running form etc. I am, however, a psychologist and know a bit more about the application of psychology to some aspects of running – I’ve even completed a doctorate looking at improving sports performance. Ok, none of the sports I explored was running, and I didn’t even run back then, but some of it is bound to be relevant right?

I’m immensely interested in how our heads affect our running – why at times we could run forever and why on other occasions we can’t even get out the door. I’m also interested in things like mindfulness, meditation and visualisation and how these might help us as we carry on running!

 

In the Beginning

So, a little bit about my running then… I started running about 7 years ago, just before my first son was born. I was incredibly unfit and didn’t want to be a dad who couldn’t play football and run around with my kids so I took the notion one evening to go for a run. I had the route planned – I’d run about one mile, just to get me started and decided I’ll build up from there to 5 miles over the next weeks and months. I started off on my running and felt great…for about 30 seconds…then I couldn’t breathe and started to get a stitch. I stopped, got my breath back, and started running again. I managed another minute or so, decided that was enough for one night…walked back to the car and headed home.

I turned up again the next night, and the next, and the next and slowly but surely worked up to a mile, then two, then three, then hurt my knees and didn’t run for weeks! Damn it! Just when this was all starting to go well! Anyway…a few weeks rest and a trip to have a gait analysis and get a proper pair of running shoes got me back on the road and I’ve been at it ever since…well, off and on, and off again…and then on… you get the picture! Anyway, I’ve plugged away at it and managed to get a few half marathons and marathons under my belt. I’m hoping for many more, and hoping that this wee blog might help me carry on with it….might even help one or two readers along the way!!