Running & fatherhood

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One of the reasons I started running: it turned out to be one of the easiest and cheapest options for staying fit and healthy after welcoming children into my life.  Prior to that, I focused on swimming.  I’m an average runner.  Objectively speaking, I’m much better at swimming.  In the Great Scottish Swim I regularly place in the top-10 of my age group and have finished in the 10% of swimmers overall over 1, 2, and 3 mile distances.  While I still love swimming, it can be a faff.  Getting in 20min of decent exercise can take over an hour when you factor in changing, showering, and the über-complex lane availability system at my local leisure centre.  Outdoor swimming is wonderful, but there’s that frustration of driving hours to a loch and then seeing blue-green algae.

I ran my first 10k when my daughter was still in the pram.  I was still focusing on swimming then, but turned to running as something that I fit in-between trips to the pool. I didn’t particularly enjoy running, but endured it because, like leafy veg, it was supposed good for me.

It was after my son was born that running because the most practical option.  Any baby will turn your life upside down, even if it’s a fairly “easy” baby (in other words, one who sleeps).  My daughter was, after some initial difficulties with a strange transient protein allergy, a pretty chilled out kid.  She loved sleeping.

My son, however, was a different story.  He was born with a cleft palate, was colic, and had a host of other dietary issues.  Even before his cleft repair surgery, we were in the children’s hospital more often than I like to remember (being in a children’s hospital is a terrible, wonderful, and draining experience; you see some tragic things, but I was continually amazed by how helpful, strong, and resilient people can be).  I seldom got out to the pool for my weekly swims because there simply wasn’t time.  The stress combined with fatigue led to some poor health choices.  Too much coffee, sugary junk, and even though I hate the stuff, regular trips to the McDonalds drive-through.  I think what lay behind theses uncharacteristic fast food binges was a psychological attempt to feel in control of something when life was so hectic.  Many days, I had no idea what was wrong with my son, but he kept screaming in pain and would never sleep despite our best efforts.  There was some comfort in buying some horrid apple pie, McFlurry, and a coffee because it became everything that life wasn’t: predictable, controllable, with the promise of instant gratification.

It wasn’t anything drastic.  I didn’t gain a huge amount of weight or anything, but my health was on a downward curve.  In reality, the mental effect of the junk food was worse than anything physical.  The reliance on pure sugar and caffeine to created this awful jittery and often incoherent vigilance.

Then I started running.  The benefits of running are well documented.  It goes without saying that running is no miracle cure or a magical solution to life’s problems.  Everything didn’t change overnight and I still didn’t particularly enjoy it at first.  But it was the most simple way to get myself out the door (be that my house or the hospital) and it afforded me some headspace for 20 minutes.  It was also a much healthier way to deal with that feeling of overwhelming chaos that comes with having a very ill kid.  As Clare Allan puts it:

“Running is the most brilliant way of showing the mind who’s boss. Your brain may be screaming at you to stop, telling you you can’t keep going, you’re not fit enough, you look pathetic, and still you just keep on running.”

Running helped me to manage the chaos in a healthier way.  Fast food offers the semblance of control and predictability, but nothing of value.  You have to keep returning for the sugar high and hit of predictability.  It might be comforting, but if offers no way out.  We really don’t have much control.  Running helped me deal with that fact.

On a run, things change and it seldom goes exactly to plan.  Your legs get tired, but you press on.  You get a stitch, so you breathe with a different rhythm to alleviate the pain.  There’s a tree that has fallen across the trail, so you need to jump over it or double back.  Sometimes a pavement is so icy you have to change your route.  In running, it’s necessary to shift and adapt goals on the fly.  In running, you have to be present in a world in flux, but learn that you can – most of the time – deal with the ebb and flow.  Sometimes a run goes to plan, sometimes it doesn’t, but you have the small victory that you were able to get out the door and do something positive.

I eventually fell in love with running.  It helped me get into a better frame of mind.  It helped me develop resilience. I became an all-round healthier person.

My son’s health eventually improved and his cleft repair went as well as it possibly could have.  Life once again settled into a nice rhythm.  But running became part of my life and it remains that way.  Along with all the other things I’ve mentioned, running gives me solitude.  It has also introduced me to friends and a supportive community I wouldn’t want to be without.  This dynamic of running being such a personal endeavour within community makes for a fascinating dialectic.

Both of my children see that my wife and I run.  The see us sweaty and striving to the best of our ability for rather average times, not winning races, but still pushing outside our comfort zones.  I hope that sets a good example for them.  The kids love coming along to races and things like parkrun.  My daughter was excited when my running club started a mini-Harriers group that introduces young kids to the simple joy of running, jumping, and throwing.

I’m also delighted that my kids now ask me to take them out on runs as well.  My daughter specifically requests trail runs because she loves the feel of bounding down a hill, darting around trees (child after my own heart!).  It feels like a real adventure.  At the finish of a run, she begs me to stop and get a daft self-timer photo, “To make mummy laugh.”  We run at the camera, jump, or goof off in some other way.  It’s silly and something I’d be too self-conscious to do on my own, but with a kid it feels totally acceptable.  And it is fun and reminds me that while running is a seriously important part of my life, it’s better if I don’t take it too seriously and forget the simple joy of it in the midst of track sessions, training plans, and so on.  I’m sure the kids won’t be terribly keen to run with their naff dad when they get older (even though I hope not!), so I’ll enjoy and relish all this while it lasts…

PJ.

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More than PBs at parkrun

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When I showed up to Springburn parkrun on the 19th of August, I wasn’t planning on attempting to run my best time.  My fuelling the evening before was hardly ideal: fish and chips chased down with a bottle of Lomond Gold.  Despite that, I felt surprisingly sprightly at the starting line.  When Bobby did the countdown and shouted “Go!” I found myself running nearer the front of the pack than usual.  My GPS watch beeped at the first kilometre.  I glanced down and was surprised to see 4:06… it hit me that if I kept up this pace, I’d run well under not only my PB for this course, but my 5k PB as well.  I was surprised because, at this point, that pace was feeling more comfortable than it usually does.

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One of my running goals for this year was to run under 22 minutes at my lovely local parkrun in Springburn.  It’s a fairly modest goal.  Achievable, but one that I thought would push me a bit.  I know that I can run 5k in under 22 minutes on a track, but Springburn’s undulating course with its turns and 53m of gain adds a bit of bite to the challenge.  I also view Springburn parkrun as one of the pivotal things that got me running in the first place, so it has always felt like a good place to mark my progress.

In 2015, I struggled to beat 24min.  In 2016, just nipping in under 23 minutes felt impossible (I remember being totally gutted after pushing as hard as I could and getting a soul destroying 23:01!).  Even though my 22min goal means that I would only sneak slightly above 60% in the WMA age grading, I’ve been fairly surprised by my own progress: dropping about a minute off my 5k time every year.  I have the luxury of being an average athlete, so my goals will always be purely personal.  My 22min 5k will not turn any heads.  That said, going for a personal goal within a supportive community like parkrun adds some extra motivation.  The goals vary widely, but we’re all part of a similar process.  I’m as equally stoked for my friend breaks 18min as he is for me when I get a PB; even better is the huge accomplishment of those who manage to run their first 5k.

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Around the second kilometre, my pace started to slip, but I kept it together.  As it always is, the third and fourth kilometres were the killers.  I saw my PB slipping away.  I was probably looking at my watch too much, wondering why my perceived effort was dropping below the reality of my average pace.

Here’s one of the many great things about Springburn parkrun: as you pass the 4k mark, you reach the top of the penultimate hill and there’s a speedy downhill section.  I glanced at my watch again and knew that if I pushed it, the PB was still on despite my poor pacing on the previous two kilometers.  I picked up the pace downhill trying to psych myself up for the final push.  Notice I said “penultimate hill” earlier.  There’s this long and burning hill that you have to run up three times at Springburn.  Totally runnable, but an energy-sapper.  I tried to focus on my form, not the hill, keeping my legs going at a decent cadence.  Then I went all out on the final sprint.  At this stage, I wasn’t sure if the PB was still on, I was too tried to look at my watch and aware that a glance could rob me of precious second or two (that 23:01 still haunting me).

My running watch doesn’t always correspond with my “official” parkrun time.  But it’s usually accurate within a few seconds.  As I grabbed my finish token, through hyperventilated gasps, I looked down at my watch.  Thankfully, there was no doubt.  I had reached my goal of running under 22 minutes by at least 10 seconds.  It was well within the margin of error!  I went to ring Springburn’s PB bell, hammed it up for a photo, and got high-fives.  It was even more fun to share the moment with my family.  My son was the first to greet me, hilariously only wearing one shoe.  He had lost it while playing in the mud and made the decision that retrieving it was too much of a distraction from whatever mad game he was playing.

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I was absolutely delighted to have achieved my goal, even though in reality, the 22 minute mark is nothing more than an arbitrary number and not — in any objective sense — an impressive or fast time.

Reaching my sub-22 goal early in the year felt great.  I’m in no hurry to set another benchmark.  That can wait until 2018.  Without the self-imposed pressure of an sub-22 minute PB at Springburn, I’ve been enjoying other great aspects of my “free, timed, local run”.  Things like working on pacing negative splits or incorporating parkrun into the middle of a Saturday morning longrun.

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Still, even better than all that is seeing parkrun overlap with “real life.”  I’m a refugee support worker.  Some of my new Syrian friends asked me what “all these brightly dressed running people” were doing across the street every Saturday morning.  I helped them register (the process is straightforward, but less so if you’re struggling with written English) and then paced them around the course.  Because of the problems back home, the joy of simply going for a run in safety is something these guys haven’t had the luxury to do for a long time.  They loved the atmosphere at parkrun.  They appreciated how everybody was so supportive even when they couldn’t understand everything that’s being said.  They’ve become regulars and I’m sure these guys will be lapping me by the end of the year.  The guys have told me that parkrun is “the best start to the weekend ever… and we get to do it every week!”  parkrun was a first step to getting more active, which they  say has also improved their mental health.  Life is still difficult, but since getting out for runs, they’ve told me that they now feel a bit more hopeful and able to confront the inevitable difficulties that arise.  Getting around the course becomes a metaphor for life – “if I can keep myself running up that stupid hill three times, I can push through any problem!”  They also now feel part of a community in a place where they didn’t know anyone.  On top of all that parkrun is free (the cost of sport is a huge barrier for many on extremely limited budgets, parkrun removes that at the outset) and provides a great variety of volunteering opportunities.

I’ll admit that I’m already a big fan of parkrun because of what it has done for me personally.  In seeing some of my refugee friends get involved, I’ve become an even bigger fan of it’s ingeniously simple way of promoting health and fostering community.

Getting a PB at parkrun felt great.  But even better than that has been helping others get involved in parkrun.  Especially seeing how it can be a springboard to steps toward an all-around healthier and happier life.  Pacing my new friends around the course is a genuine joy.  It’s amazing how something as simple as a weekly run, where it’s more about community than egos, can make such a positive impact in people’s lives.

PJ.

running on holiday & parkrun tourism

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No matter where you go, you can always run.  One of the many great things about running is that once you start, there’s always something to do wherever you might find yourself.  It’s a great way to explore a new place, or just appreciate a place in a different way.  Or if it’s a boring place (here’s looking at you, suburban Chicagoland), running can make the stay a bit more interesting.

Our annual family holiday to Northern Ireland is now full of running.  I love it.

I used to live in Belfast and had a brief flirtation with running during that time.  My wife started running and I would accompany her on some runs, not particularly enjoying it.  But not unlike kale, I knew it was good for me and hoped that I would acquire a taste for it.  We walk-ran until we could run a whole 5k loop without stopping.  At the time, it felt like a massive distance.  And, looking back, it was an achievement.  But I didn’t keep with it.  Studies, work, and moving to Greece to work with an NGO got in the way (I did try running in Athens, but that was horrible misadventure… more on that another time).  Running, not unlike my current car, started okay then sputtered out.

Now when we return to Northern Ireland, I love running there. Especially on the stunning north coast.  I somehow feel closer to everything while running.  The wind, constantly changing weather, amazing views… it’s an exhilarating way to experience and already beautiful place.  The Causeway Coast Way and the endless golden sand and dunes of Portstewart Strand are highlights.  Oh, and the “edge of the world” feeling you get on Ramore Head.

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I also enjoyed a bit of parkrun tourism.  I’ve done a couple in NI: the undulations of Wallace Park in Lisburn and the pancake loops at Victoria Park. This time I was able to make it to Portrush, which is a unique in being the only parkrun on a beach.

Portrush is a stunning course that goes along the “blue flagged” East Strand out to Whiterocks and back.  It’s an out-n-back, but a lovely one.  I had a fairly quick time (for me) with a 22:23.  We had lovely firm sand to run on because the tide was out, but I bet this is a dozy when it’s high tide and runners have go on the soft sand.  Must be a quad killer!

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[Image credit to the Portrush parkrun FB page]
I also had anther go at Wallace Park parkrun and scored a course PB.  One of the tougher parkrun courses I’ve done.  Think I did a bit better at pacing myself this time, with the exception of going out to fast and fooling myself that I could maintain the sub-22 pace!

I also did two junior parkruns with my daughter — Ormeau and Portrush.  Both events were well organised with an infectious enthusiasm.  My daughter loved getting applause when she stuck her hand up when the RD asked, “Any visitors today?”  All the way from glam Glasgow!  Even though we didn’t know anybody, everyone was friendly and made the tourists feel welcome at both events.  Great craic.

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[Image credit to the RD at Ormeau Jr parkrun]
It was all great fun.  Running only enriches what was already great holiday.  On my fortnight away, I clocked up 75km.  If anything, it means that I feel a bit less guilty about eating all those Tayto crisps by the bucket-load and over indigence in the Hilden Brewery’s many delights… I’m sure that I read somewhere that beer is a good recovery drink, right?

PJ.

rebuilding to 50k

I’ve been encouraged by my running the past couple weeks.  Though my legs felt leaden and my lung capacity well short of 100%, I still got out for a couple social runs with the Carron Valley Trail Runners and (just about) kept up.  Each run felt better than the previous one.  It was a satisfyingly progressive recovery arc and I feel pretty lucky that this all coincided with these rare and amazing long spring days with bluebird skies.

At parkrun last Saturday, the weather resumed its normal service and the familiar puddles were returning to the Springburn course (though it wasn’t at full steeplechase level yet).  That said, I don’t mind a run in the rain.  And if you have to run in the rain, it’s more fun if there’s loads of people sharing in the almost perverse joy of it.

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As per usual, I forgot to turn off my watch when I crossed the finish line, so I didn’t know what my time was. After I got the text from parkrun, I was pleased to learn I ran the 5k route in 22:46.  Considering that I spend most of 2016 just trying to break 23:00, I’m happy that I’m getting back to my normal speed (or lack thereof, ‘speed’ is a purely personal thing, right?).  That 5k felt tougher than it usually does, but… feel like I’m getting there.

I’m off to run the ATRX tonight — that is, the Antonine Trail 10k Race.  I’ll put up a race report once that’s done and dusted.  Then it’s off to Inversnaid to run the 50k Great Tartan Skidaddle route as a solo effort this coming Saturday.  I trained for that thing for so long, I feel like it’s something I need to do.  Maybe I’m just stubborn?

It’s great to have my health back, even if I feel a bit more sluggish than usual, but I don’t want to complain.  Having been in hospital and then being sedentary for weeks really makes one appreciate how brilliant it is to be, literally, up and running.

PJ.