A long run on the North Downs Way

25 May 2016, 15:44

Marathon training has been short and sharp this year thanks to my several-month-long illness this winter, but now I’m finally feeling back on track and back to full strength, and the training plan from Coach Babs is reaching its crescendo. Last week my plan called for a 3hr run that would mimic conditions for my upcoming Transylvanian Bear Race. I could just run around the Thames again, or pop down to Richmond Park and run around that for a while, but my recent travels to Istanbul gave me an itch to explore a bit closer to home.

My first thought was to go to the South Downs Way, but then I remembered the North Downs Way is both closer and mostly in woodland, and would be even better. The North Downs Way is one of the long distance trails that England excels at: 153 miles of well-marked trails running roughly East to West south of London in Surrey and Kent.

Start of the NDW run
Selfie when I started my run…

This ticked all my boxes: trail, hilly, and unfamiliar! It’s marked well enough with signs, but not so well that I didn’t have to think, and it gave me a great “dress rehearsal” to test out my trail shoes, backpack (with CamelBak bladder inside), and homemade flax gels. But most important of all was the mental training – namely, practising walking when the terrain demands it rather than just forging my way ahead up steep hills, rocky descents, and gullied narrow paths that I really shouldn’t be wasting my energy on.

I had a rough look at distances on a map before I started and reckoned that Guildford would be a good starting point. But it’s also a little hike between the train station and the NDW itself, and not signposted from the station or town centre at all! Thankfully, I anticipated this and printed out the instructions for the beginning of a Guildford walk in book 2 of the Time Out Book of Country Walks. I honestly think I would’ve struggled to find the trail on my own if I didn’t have these (or a good map!) to follow. Since I was checking the directions every few seconds, I didn’t start running (and my GPS tracker) til I reached the North Downs Way proper.

Trail heaven

I’d forgotten from my weekend trail runs in Hampstead Heath in years past how much better I respond to running on soft surfaces! It’s been a while, but it was obvious to me during the brief paved section near Denbies how much kinder the trails and grass were to my feet and joints than the hard pavements. Thankfully 95% of the NDW (or at least the portion I covered) is trail, varying in width from bridleways and logging trails down to a few overgrown portions requiring nimble feet to avoid nettle stings from both sides.

One main advantage of the North Downs Way over the South Downs Way IMHO is that the North is almost entirely in woodland. I love running in the woods, but it’s also preferable on sunny or windy days, as you’ve got a lot more shelter from the elements.

A video posted by Melissa Fehr (@fehrtrade) on



Video of the solitude…

Buuuuuuuut, the downside is that the entire NDW route is hilly. Like, really hilly! Box Hill has the reputation for being one of the biggest, steepest hills in the South East, and the road up it is absolutely covered in cyclists at the weekend. The pedestrian route is less crowded, but also has steps cut in to the trail that are so steep you could practically climb up with your hands. I’d run up these steps before at the start of the Three Molehills race a few years ago, but my legs were fresh then instead of having run for over two hours already so they were a bit of a surprise!

Box Hill steps

If you’re thinking of hiking or running the NDW on your own, I’d highly recommend bringing along a good map, either a printed Ordinance Survey (OS) map or a digital one like the RouteBuddy offline trailhead map I used – well worth the fiver I paid! On the left is the general map my running app gives me (about the same info as Apple or Google Maps) – it’s fine for cities, but I was running blind in the woods – compare that to the map in Route Buddy on the right! (The NDW path is marked by a series of red dots.)

Map comparison

Even though there are signposts everywhere for the NDW, there were still several points where I wasn’t entirely sure which way to go, and also it was useful for checking my progress – like a big “You Are Here!” on an OS map. And also it worked in those places where I had no mobile signal, too.

Sometimes with these long runs, you can build up the scale of it in your head so much that you get overly focused on the amount of running ahead of you and forget to enjoy the experience. But with this run, I thoroughly enjoyed the woodland solitude. I thought I’d want some music or podcasts after a few hours, but as it turns out, saying hello to dog walkers, watching where I was going, and listening to the birds and my internal monologue kept me occupied enough for the entire run without bothering to get my headphones out.

North Downs Way selfie after 3hrs
Selfie taken after over 3hrs of running!

When I originally looked at the map to plan this run, I thought I’d run from Guildford to Redhill, but with all the little twists and turns, by the time I got to Reigate I was already over the 30km and 3 hour mark so I grabbed two bottles of water at the concession stand (the only one along the way!! Take note and bring more water than I did!) and walked the 2km down the hill(!!) to Reigate station, where I grabbed a direct train back to London.

Elevation of NDW run
Elevation profile of the run, with Box Hill approximately in the middle

I haven’t harped on about it much here, but I’m actually doing a bit of fundraising in conjunction with the Transylvanian Bear Race. The official charity of the race is The European Nature Trust (TENT), a small charity who work with local schools to educate children in Romania about the importance of preserving the forests I’ll be running 49km through in (eep!) 10 days.

I even recorded a little video on the trail to tell you about it!

A video posted by Melissa Fehr (@fehrtrade) on


If you’d like to donate a bit of spare cash to TENT, I (and the bears and wolves*) would really appreciate it!

* not the vampires though, those guys are jerks.

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Running in Istanbul

23 May 2016, 13:45

Out of the blue, a few weeks ago I got the opportunity to travel to Istanbul. My husband was speaking at a conference there with his flights and hotel provided, and I was able to come along for just the price of my own flights. For £100 on BA I got a very nice short break!

Having never been to the city before, of course the first thing I did was Google “running crew Istanbul” to see if Run Dem Crew equivalents were there, and it turns out Istanbul Kosu Kuvvetleri (“Istanbul Run Force”) have been going strong since 2012! So I popped a quick email to them and within hours their captain, Ruya, had invited me down to one of their Thursday night sessions in Maçka Park.

IKK flag

Most of IKK were running a big race later that weekend so I was told this would be an easy shakeout run, but seeing as how I had a long run in my training plan the next day, this was perfect for me! So about 20 of us left our belongings in the park (along with a someone to watch it!) and we split up into two groups, one running 5km and the other 8km (I went with the former for the above reasons!).

IKK with their flag

I found myself near the front, going at a nice clip but not so fast that I couldn’t have a good chat with the guys around me, talking about running in the city, how they fit it into their lives, and how we shout out all the hazard in RDC – they’ve now added “bollard!” to their vocabulary!!

IKK - with me afterwards

We ran mostly downhill to the waterfront to a pre-designated turnaround spot, then it was back up the hill to our starting point. It may not have been the steepest hill, but it was a long one, and made me appreciate how fit the IKK runners are from running these hills all the time!

We then regrouped for a special yoga session led by an American expat, and afterwards we headed off to a nearby bar for burgers and beers with a few of the guys. It was so great to be able to chat with them about running and life and global politics and everything in between, and IKK made me feel so welcome! I was nervous before heading to the park as I didn’t know anyone and I feel really awkward in social interactions like that, but Ruya and the others really made me feel right at home. And now I’ve got an exclusive Run Force shirt to show off in London, too!

The next morning, however, my alarm went off and I did. not. want. to. run.

Honestly, 99% of the time, my alarm goes off, and I’m up. But that morning, I procrastinated and whinged for 90min before actually getting my kit on and heading out the door. I’d packed biker length shorts and a teeshirt, knowing it’d be hot but wanting to wear as much as I could get away with, but I honestly got stares (full on stares) from the hotel staff before I’d even left the lobby, so I knew it was going to be a tough old slog.

My training plan said 2hr45 at easy pace, but I just had so much to battle besides the running – it was hot, humid, and hilly (though mostly downhill, which has its own dangers!), the roads were full of cobbles, plus I got more stares AND honks than I have in my entire life combined. It’s probably good that my Turkish only extends to the basics!

Istanbul selfie at top of hill

Because I was running from the hotel through a residential district, then down to the Bosphorus and along the water, I had to keep stopping to check my offline map, too, and the waterside was more often than not closed to pedestrians by fences and industrial yards, so I had to run on pavements alongside busy roads, dodging other pedestrians (the IKK guys told me later that the waterfront going north is much better!) and constantly checking my footing for trip hazards.

Istanbul - steep cobbled street
A steep, cobbled street

When I reached the Bosphorus, though, I was greeted by an utterly beautiful seaside scene, so you can keep thinking it was all this sublime, even though I had to dodge a million fishermen’s wayward hooks about 5 feet to the right!

Istanbul - Bosphorus and boats

In the end, I only managed about 2hr15 but I’d run the coast down over the bridge into Sultanahmet, and figured that the point would be a good turnaround spot, then heading back to a metro station at the next bridge down the Golden Horn.

Istanbul - selfie at Sultanahmet point
Selfie with a Sultanahmet flag and statue

I really try to stick to my training plan as much as possible, but in this case I also knew when to call it quits! It may look like I didn’t cover the time or distance on paper, but considering the stress and elements I battled, the effort level probably exceeded what I needed out of the session!

Istanbul run map

But there was also a bonus at the end of all my hard work – our hotel had a reeeeeeeeeally nice spa!

Istanbul - spa after run

I love it when a masseuse actually gives me firm pressure when I ask for it, and this lady did a great job! Next time I’ll go for an authentic Turkish hammam, but I was too knackered to search one out this time around. And we loved our short break here so much that there will definitely be a “next time”!!

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Homemade flax gels recipe

11 May 2016, 15:37

This post will not be for everyone, but if you’re trying to cut down on the amount of refined sugar you eat and really don’t like the idea that you can only run long distances by sucking down sugary gels, well, then hear me out…

I’ve experimented over the years with various cakes, cookies, and tiny pies to eat while on long trail runs (the Feed Zone Portables book is ACE for this!), but these give more of a slow release burn rather than a sharp uptake in energy needed for racing, so I’d begrudgingly gone back to gels (my favourites being Torq and Shot Bloks, which my stomach tolerates just fine). I ran into a friend of mine, Lauren, after London marathon and she was telling me about the homemade flax gels she’d made to get her through the race and that they actually gave her a boost, so I was intrigued enough to give it a try myself.

Homemade flax gel recipe
Ingredients:

  • 1 ripe banana

  • 1 cup oats

  • 1/2 cup ground flax seeds

  • 1 tablespoon chia seeds

  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon

  • 1 tablespoon honey

  • 1 tablespoon coarse salt

  • boiling water

To make: mash up the banana in a bowl with a fork until it’s no longer chunky. Add all the dry ingredients and the honey, and stir together. Add boiling water to the mix, stir well, and let cool. Note that both the flax and chia will naturally make it thicken, so you probably want to make it runnier than you’d expect. The above fills 4-5 of the below pouches, so is plenty enough for a few runs.

I took the gels out on a few trail runs and I loved the taste – like delicious porridge from my childhood! The gels also gave me a definite boost after I ate them, too, which is fantastic. The only downside was that they were hard to transport – Lauren said she had hers in a ziploc bag she just sort of squeezed into her mouth, but I tried a little tupperware, which I then out to scoop out with my finger. Not great.

Flax gel

But then someone suggested reusable baby food pouches! Not having any children, I literally didn’t know these existed, but they’re brilliant – double ziploc opening on the bottom to spoon the goo in, seal it up, and then you’ve got a secure cap and sucky straw at the top. They’re freezable and dishwasher safe. Even the smallest, 100ml ones are a bit bigger than an iPhone 6+, though, which means they’re a tad awkward to fit into shorts pockets (though fine in backpacks) and of course you need to carry the empties with you rather than bin them along the run, but I’m really happy with this new nutrition strategy for Transylvania now!

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Run Hackney 2016 - race report

9 May 2016, 12:20

When I’d originally signed up to Run Hackney again this year, I was hesitant because, not only was it two weeks after London marathon (same as last year), but it’d also be four weeks before the Transylvanian Bear Race, which would mean I’d be running 2.5 marathons in 6 weeks. This didn’t seem particularly wise for my recovery and ability to run another marathon (a mountainous trail marathon, no less) in quick succession, but then I got offered a place, realised that 150 of my Run dem Crew friends would be running it, plus I really enjoyed it the past two years… and, well, I could always just party pace it, right?

Well, plans changed somewhat when I was so ill for the first three months of the year – I had to cheer the Cardiff World Half Championships instead of trying for a PB (measly goodie bag for £56, and it turned out the weather was comically awful), and I had to defer London marathon to next year, leaving my original plans for Run Hackney a bit up in the air. Should I try for a PB on only a few weeks training? Or just enjoy it and have fun with friends? Or use it as a long run and an excuse to test out some new tactics for Transylvania?

Hackney Half kit

Well, another cold (low level, thankfully!) plus a scorching weather forecast put paid to any hopes of a PB, plus my running hasn’t felt entirely up to my usual standards since I restarted in April. It’s clear I’ve lost fitness while I was ill, and even my former marathon pace is a bit of a struggle, so to be perfectly honest, I didn’t really even have a finishing time in mind. I mostly ended up using the race to help keep others’ spirits up, but also to refresh my race memory ahead of Transylvania, and test out my new homemade flax gels in a race setting, too.

Me at Cheer dem
Photo credit: Caz Craig

Let’s get the obvious out of the way from the start – it was a brutally hot day. Even worse was that we’d been still having freezing temperatures right up until the week before, so it felt even hotter. Last week I ran in a merino long sleeved top and thermo leggings – today it was a skimpy vest and my short shorts. It was so hot that the organisers laid on weather advisory flags throughout the course, and by the time I was leaving, they were actually advising anyone still running to walk instead for safety’s sake. I drank about three times as much water during the race than I normally would (plus 3 bottles of electrolyte, 2 bottles of water, and a recovery shake afterwards, and my pee still told me I was dehydrated!), and the 5 or 6 misting showers on the course were downright compulsory.

The people of Hackney also stepped up, with quite a few hoses and super soakers turned on the runners, in addition to the usual tubs of jelly babies. The crowd support is definitely getting better year on year for this race, too – I remember the first year seeing residents walking down the street looking at us runners like we had three heads like “what in the hell are they doing??”, then last year really getting in the spirit of it, and this year there seemed to be a big step up in the number of crowds. They weren’t the loudest of crowds, mind – in several spots I had to do the universal hand gestures for “Come on and cheer us!!”, but I did get a lot of individual shouts for me in my Run dem Crew vest.

Me and Vicky
Myself and Vicky in the start pens

In terms of how my actual race went – I started out with a group of about 5 ladies from RDC, informally paced to 1:50 finish by my friend Vicky. The first few miles were pretty dense so there was a lot of stressful ducking & diving to keep with the group, and I always knew that the 8:20ish/mi pace was going to be unrealistic for me to maintain in my current state of fitness. So I’d always planned to fall off the group at some point and aimed to probably keep somebody else company who couldn’t maintain that pace in the heat, either. I ended up hanging on until halfway, but then I could feel myself really needing both nutrition and a bit of a cooldown as I could feel my face going hot and then goosebumped, which really wasn’t a good sign. So I opted to walk as I ate my flax gel (like a banana porridge goo – totally delicious, and I’ll share the recipe later this week!) from my baby food pouch and then when I started running again after eating I settled into a more comfortable pace.

Just slowing my pace by a few seconds and taking on nutrition made such a difference – I ended up having the best 3-4 miles of my entire race after the halfway point, really enjoying the atmosphere and feeling alive. It was also around this point, I believe, that I chatted with a guy, Julien, who I’d spotted in the start pens wearing an Anthony Nolan vest, and told him they saved my life 7 years ago. It turns out his mum is having a transplant this week, so I offered him/her all sorts of advice, and even ended up finishing within seconds of him. I like to think that even just seeing a lady like me run a half marathon will give he and his family hope that she can get through this and gain a full and healthy life afterwards.

Hackney Half cheer dem
Photo credit: Melany Rose

But back to the race – I felt my gel starting to wear off around Mile 10 or so, and I wished I’d either packed another or thrown in some shot bloks from my backpack, so it was absolutely perfect timing that Run dem Crew’s cheer point appeared in front of me! I’ve witnessed the power of “Cheer dem” at Mile 21 of London Marathon, and this was like its little sister – just as powerful, but in a shorter stretch of road. Honestly, this was such a needed boost – lots of cheers, high fives, and shouts of encouragement were just what I needed! I knew from running the course previously that the last few miles through the Olympic Park were the hardest of the whole race due to the lack of shade and crowd support, and the cheers from my friends were what powered me through.

I say “powered”, but really those last few miles were just a slog to the finish! It was a tradeoff between pushing myself to “just get it done”, and holding back to keep from getting heatstroke. Heatstroke was a very real possibility – I saw another runner collapse just in front of me at Mile 11 and, after myself and another runner helped him onto his feet, he couldn’t stand up on his own and we helped him to the curb where a group of spectators took over. While the casualties were in no way as bad as the 2014 race, St Johns Ambulance were certainly kept on their toes today and I wanted to avoid becoming a statistic.

Post Hackney Half

But eventually I saw Hackney Marshes and the finishing straight, and I even managed to pick up the pace a bit when I saw the gun time clock read “1:58:something”. Even though I knew I could subtract 6 minutes from that, there’s nothing more like a red rag to a bull for a runner than to see a clock so close to an hour like that! Then it was a matter of collecting my goodies (Hackney always lays on a decent goodie bag – this year it was cola bottles, beetroot shot, popcorn, yoghurt raisins, oystercard holder, bananas, flapjacks, water, and nice tech tee), and then collecting my bag from the bag check, where I had my own goodies in store. You see, I got the grand idea that since everyone tends to laze around in the sun afterwards, it’d be awfully nice to have some chilled fizz to celebrate. So I took a bottle of sparkling rosé from the fridge, inserted it in one of of those bottle-wrap frozen gel things, placed a frozen bottle of electrolyte next to it (another stroke of genius, I might add!) and wrapped them up in a chill bag and put it in my backpack.

Wine bottle post race

So after the race, after I’d had my recovery shake, done some stretching, and downed a few bottles of electrolyte, I opened up a cold bottle of fizz and shared it round! And yes, I’m pretty proud of Previous Me for both thinking of it and remembering to pack it all at 6am! It really helped to add to the celebration atmosphere in the race village afterwards, with the bhangra bands, group photos, hugs, and congratulations.

The founder of Run dem Crew, Charlie Dark, often says that race day is a celebration of all the hard work you’ve put into training, but as I ran around the streets of Hackney today, I realised more that for me, today’s race was a celebration of health and happiness. I didn’t get the opportunity to really train for this race, but instead I was just thankful to be healthy enough to run it at all.

Run Hackney, 8 May 2016, 1:52:21

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Holiday running and clawing my way back

6 May 2016, 15:36

Well, it’s been quite a year so far. As I said last time, I was ill from January through to the beginning of April, when I finally just started to feel a little bit better. This coincided nicely with a short trip we’d booked back to the States to see friends and attend a family wedding, so it meant I could make those first few tough runs back a bit more interesting since they were in novel places.

Running in PA

The weather was very wet when we were in Baltimore, so my first run ended up being up in Pennsylvania, where one of my best friends from Penn State, Brian, took me on a nice 10km tour of the country roads around Lewisburg, PA.

selfie with Brian

It was so nice to finally run with him – neither of us ran when we were at university, only picking it up later, and I often read about his crazy mountain running exploits on social media. Considering my illness and his looking after a toddler full time, we kept the pace easy and I really enjoyed it!

feet at Rock Creek

My next two runs ended up being in DC, where I saw on the map that Rock Creek Park wasn’t too far away from where we were staying. The first attempt to run there was cut short by wasting literally an hour trying to get into the damned thing on foot (only in America would they design a park to be driven through!!), but the second time I broke away onto some truly lovely mountain, woodland trails. I also found a few secluded roads with only myself, the black squirrels, and the odd cyclist or two.

Strenuous of course! Rock Creek Park
I even had a bit of fun on some “technical” bits of trail – by “strenuous”, they just meant “rocky”, okay!

My final run of the holiday was on a hotel treadmill, with piped jazz being blasted through the speakers (WHY???), purely so I’d be tired enough to sleep on my overnight flight. So it wasn’t all scenic surroundings, honest!

run selfie

Since I’ve returned home, I’ve been trying to get back into a steady training rhythm, seeing my coach on alternate Tuesday mornings, running with Run dem Crew on Tuesday nights, cycle commuting (11km each way) on Monday, Wednesday, and Thursdays, doing some short and sharp runs on Thursday and Sunday mornings, and a long run with some trail elements on Friday mornings. But I’m getting tired a lot more quickly (a 2hr run wipes me out like a 3hr run would) and my tempo runs are way off (my “fast” pace is at last year’s “marathon pace”!), which I know is a sign I’ve lost some fitness while I was battling all those viruses.

I’m running Hackney Half on Sunday again this year, but with the way my running has been, there’s no way I was going to be doing it at anything other than “party pace” — even before the forecasted heat wave! So I really will be just pootling round it in my shades and SPF70, soaking up the steel drums and treating it as a long run. I’ve only got four weeks to go to the Transylvanian Bear Race (omg!) so my focus is really on getting my mileage up and practicing long runs in my trail shoes, backpack, and homemade flax gels. But more on that (and the other posts I promised!) soon.

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Deja Vu

21 February 2016, 14:55

…and not in a good way. 2016 is starting off way too much like 2013 for my liking – that year I got ill in mid January with a horrific case of shingles which left me in constant pain, on an almost incomprehensible amount of painkillers, and pretty much screwed up my entire Spring and Summer of training. Having run Cophenhagen marathon in May 2013 on 6 weeks of training, it’s not something I’d really care to repeat if I can help it!

Without going into too many details, I’ve been ill for over a month now, with no sign of when I might be able to resume training. So at the most basic level it means I’m using up all my energy just to get to work (via my new cycle commute), function at work, ride home, and eat something before falling into bed at 21:30. That’s if I’m lucky – if it’s not a good day, I literally have to spend it entirely in bed, which drives me absolutely crazy because it’s just so much wasted time I should be spending doing things, arrgh!

My race schedule for the first half of 2016 was supposed to be: Cardiff half marathon (26 March), London marathon (24 April), Hackney Half (8 May) and the Transylvania Bear Race marathon (4 June).

I was hoping to train hard and try to go sub-1:30 at Cardiff, and go for a PB at London (sub 3:30), then do Hackney and Transylvania at party pace for the experience. But with missing a month+ in the heart of marathon training, there is now no way I can run London marathon this year, which I’m quite bummed about. Since mine is a GFA entry, I am able to defer it to 2017 at least. So, if I’m able to run at all by the end of March, I’ll now do Cardiff at party pace, cheer at Mile 21 of London marathon instead of running, and train towards a sub-1:30 at Hackney instead. Transylvania is a hilly trail marathon, so there’s no hope of a PB there, but I’d like to focus my training more on hills and getting my distances up again, which should be doable even if I can’t start proper training til April (see above, I have no idea when I’ll be well enough to run again).

And in the meantime, the topics I’d like to blog about keep piling up in my head, without enough energy at the end of the day (or even the beginning) to actually write about them. But you can look forward to the following posts when I’m back in the land of the living:


  • Cycle commuting in London as a complete newbie who would very much not like to die

  • Foam roller smackdown: traditional vs the new travel stick

  • Cycling accessories & gadgets that are actually worth buying

  • Minimalist vs Barefoot running shoes (yes, there is a big difference!)

  • Book reviews (about 5 different running-related novels)

  • How to use your resting heart rate to prevent overtraining


If there’s any of these you’d like to hear about first, leave a comment!

Bike and panniers

Until then, I’ll leave you with a shot of the only way I can actually get to work (so thank god cycling is a lot less effort than running!), my trusty hand-me-down 15 year old heavy-ass bike!

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Marathon Talk interview

22 December 2015, 12:12

If you’re a fan of podcasts and you’re not yet sick of hearing my weird transatlantic accent, then you should have a listen to my recent interview with Marathon Talk! I’m super excited to be included on the podcast, because it’s been a constant companion on my long runs for several years now. Martin and Tom interview Proper Athletes like Olympians and professionals, so I was over the moon that they wanted to talk to me!

My interview starts at 54 minutes 30 seconds in (just after the song) and we talk about the World Transplant Games, my bone marrow transplant and recovery, outlook on training, my bucket list marathon, how to get more women running, and how I have zero athletic prowess in my genes!

There’s lots of links in the show notes for this episode if you’ve been inspired to sign up for the bone marrow donor registry or to become an organ donor!

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Live Beyond podcast interview

11 December 2015, 20:29

Last year my friend and sometimes-running-partner Viv went off and ran across Europe. Like, from Poland to the tip of Spain.

Seriously!

She’s recently started a podcast where she interviews people who’ve done some extraordinary things and I was supremely flattered that she wanted to interview me! We talked about my recent successes in Argentina, my bone marrow transplant and recovery, as well as how my journey has changed my outlook about fitness and keeping things in perspective.

You can listen to the full episode above, but please do also visit LiveBeyond.co to listen to the other episodes, too, as I frankly think Emily, Sorrell, and Viv are more inspiring than I am!

And yes, I’m pretty sure my mother will agree that there isn’t an athletic gene in our family, but the stubbornness one is very strong!

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The art of running slowly

3 November 2015, 14:23

I promised at the end of my last post about the Maffetone Two Week Test that I’d fill you in on the other side of my recovery/rehabilitation/experimentation with the Maffetone Method, and with a full month under my belt I finally feel experienced enough to comment.

Alongside limiting carbohydrates, the Maffetone Method encourages you to run slowly, with a low heart rate, in order to retrain your body to burn fat as fuel. The short explanation is that glycogen (“stored carbs”) is the much easier fuel for your body to use, so if you’ve got it, that’s what you’ll burn when you exercise, until there’s nothing left, and then you switch to burning fat – otherwise known as The Wall. The better adapted you are at burning fat, the less you’ll need to top up with sugar during a race or long workout, and you’ll probably not even encounter The Wall at all, as you more easily switch from one to the other. It also means you can run pretty much indefinitely (as we’ve all got plenty of fat stores), like the Tarahumara, Cretans, and pretty much every marathon runner prior to the 1980s.

In order to force your body to burn fat, you need to train at a low, “aerobic” heart rate – exclusively for a few months, and then 80% of the time going forward. To work out your own aerobic threshold, Phil Maffetone has an equation on his website, which is roughly 180 minus your age, and then -5 or +5 depending on how broken you already are. My magic number works out to be 140, so I’ve been running exclusively with my heart rate under 140BPM.

I did my first few runs solo along my normal Thames route so I already knew the distances, and could compare them to past times. My first 10km keeping my heart rate under 140 took me 1hr22. My PB is 43min. To a generally quite speedy runner, this feels excruciatingly slow.

It’s also quite a character-building experience. I didn’t think I had much ego around being passed by other runners, but it’s another level entirely to be passed by absolutely everyone along the riverside. But on a more personal level, it also requires a lot of concentration to keep myself going more slowly than even my “comfortable” pace – for the first few runs, the second my mind would wander, I’d hear a screech to reduce my heart rate. I’ve found a few coping mechanisms, though – the first was to ditch my absolute POS Garmin FR15 (good riddance to an expensive, crappy, huge watch than could never find the freaking satellite in any weather condition, and a special “up yours” to the Garmin support who didn’t even read my emails before copy/pasting token replies. Never buying another one of your crappy products ever again!) and go back to using my phone, my beloved Runmeter app, and a £20 Bluetooth HRM off Amazon (I was skeptical that the Chinese-made “CooSpo” would work, but it seems pretty good so far). Stress levels have gone down significantly since I’ve dropped the Garmin and its frustrating ineptitude.

Garmin HRM
Good riddance to the most frustrating component to my runs!

The second thing that helps is listening to podcasts. Music revs me up, but spoken word content keeps me from getting too bored, but doesn’t encourage any particular pace. It also means that, since my headphones are in to hear the podcasts, my “Reduce heart rate!” prompts are only audible to me, rather than to everyone around me.

The third is harder to achieve, but run with other people. Find friends who are just starting Couch to 5k, find friends who are tapering or recovering, find friends who are bouncing back from injury or are in just need of some mojo – run with them and talk the whole time. It’s more fun, and you can still feel like you’re part of a community and give something back to those in need of a boost, too. I’ve been running with Run dem Crew for 4 years now, and I’d gradually worked my way up the pace groups to regularly run with the second-fastest group (and on occasion, the fastest). But the slowest regular pace group is still faster than I can go and maintain my sub-140HR, so I’ve been leading the “Party Pace” group each Tuesday, bringing along the very people who are in need of a boost, shorter, or slower run. And it’s been fabulous catching up with old friends and meeting loads of new people besides. When you run fast, it’s hard to gasp out the hazards, let alone have any meaningful conversations.

Riverside wharves
A more zen view of the neighbourhood…

The whole theory with the aerobic running is that, over time, you should see your speeds gradually increase while your heart rate remains the same. Already I’ve seen my 10km time drop from 1hr22 to 1hr17 – still nowhere near race pace (not even my marathon pace!), but enough that I feel encouraged that I’m seeing progress. The idea is that on race day, you run 10-15BPM above your aerobic threshold, plus add in a few light carbs, and suddenly you’re supercharged.

It also feels like it’s a good thing to be doing while my foot and knee are still dodgy from all the track training over the summer. This is allowing me to still run (my major stress release as well as weight maintenance), but also recover at the same time. For pretty much my entire run, I breathe through my nose – I don’t know if you’ve ever paid attention to whether you breathe through your mouth or nose when you run, but chances are, you’re a mouth breather. Try closing your mouth on a run and see how much you’ve got to slow down to do that. I’m running even slower. Again, it’s not about whether 1hr22 is a “slow” time or not – it’s about the relative speed and exertion for each person. It’s also not about how “fit” you are, or how low your resting HR is, but more on how well your body already is to burning fat and what sort of cardio base you’ve already got to work with.

My plan is to carry on with only running under 140BPM through to the end of November and see how much progress I can make in 2-odd months. In December I start London marathon training again with my coach, so I’ll get her view on whether she thinks it’s beneficial for me to carry on long-term or not. But I also know that any time spent running slow now is going to help me in the future – I can feel my body adapting to crave fats instead of sugar, and I don’t feel dazed at the end of a long run, even considering the time spent on my feet.

And if nothing else, it’s given me a much-needed wakeup call on the importance of humility and patience in training.

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Maffetone and Recovery

20 October 2015, 13:32

September was not good. Looking back, the entire month was pretty much a blur of exhaustion for me. I’m sure some of it was recovery from Argentina, but on top of that, we were having building work done on the rental cabin on our boat, and we were away every single weekend – first, a sportive in Surrey (much hillier than my first but I gained loads of confidence), then a trip to Southampton for a friend’s 40th, then a crazy long weekend roadtrip through France for a friend’s wedding in Provence. All fantastic reasons to be away, but feeling so utterly shattered left me unable to sleep properly, then unable to get out of bed, unable to think clearly at any times, plus bad skin and even hair loss(!!).

September montage

So I hit October feeling like something had to change, and I was feeling so bad that I said to my husband that if I didn’t feel better by the end of the week, I’d email my haematology nurse and arrange for a blood test, just to make sure it wasn’t a bone marrow problem. Yeah, I felt that bad.

But lingering in the back of my mind was also that it might have a nutrition cause – I’d been on my coach’s “no starchy carbs” pre-track competition training diet all summer, so when the competition was all over, we hit Argentina’s dulce de leche reserves with abandon. Then came home to enjoy foods that were previously forbidden (I love you, peanut butter filled pretzel nuggets!), plus weekends away eating in restaurants, and then driving through France, eating pastries for breakfast, enjoying the Jamon Iberico, champagne, and copious amounts of rosé at the wedding, not to mention freebies at the Valhrona chocolate factory on the way home… You get the picture.

So I figured nutrition was the easiest of the possibilities for the root cause of my fatigue to rule out (much easier than track recovery or bone marrow issues), so I went back to my “no starchy carbs” training diet for two days, and then started the Maffetone Two Week Test on the third. And by the end of the week, I felt so significantly better than I didn’t even bother to email my nurse.

So what’s this Two Week Test business? Well, essentially you take away all carbohydrates for two weeks. Everything. No fruit, sugars, oats, beats, pulses, corn, wheat, etc. Even milk is off the menu because its lactose (a sugar) content is too high, so I’ve been having cream in my tea instead. Then, after two weeks you start to add carbs back in one at a time and see how they make you feel. That’s it. No long term “you must follow these rules”, no cheat days, no nothing – mostly because it’s not really a diet, it’s a self-diagnosis tool. Which suits me just fine, because I really don’t like doing diets at all anyway – I’d choose to run an extra hour or two and eat whatever I want any day. I love my food way too much to deny myself for no good reason!

Maffetone foods

But the two weeks hasn’t been too bad – I’ve missed fruit, oats, and dark chocolate more than chips, to be honest, and I’ve managed to eat out, have dinner at friends, get my coworkers to adjust to putting cream in my tea, and generally just adapt. It’s forced my husband and I to expand our cooking repertoire a bit and try new things (like cauliflower “rice”!), but also got me into the habit of eating vegetables and eggs for nearly every breakfast. My own food highlights of the week were the roasted aubergines with homemade pesto and my own chicken satay using almond butter, chillies, garlic, and ginger. When you can’t have anything sugary, carrots start to taste like candy and I found myself eating more spicy and smoky flavours to compensate. And I’ve been eating a lot of nuts and cheese!

Since I’m on Day 14 today, I’m kinda stupidly excited about adding pulses back in tomorrow, and fruits on Thursday (figures my office would get free fruit baskets on my last day of the test)! To be perfectly honest, I have a sneaking suspicion that my problem food is refined sugars, but I’m curious to see if anything else makes me feel equally as bad.

There’s actually a second exercise part to this whole Maffetone thing, which I’m also doing, but I’ll save that for another post and instead leave you with a (quite boring, but probably very interesting to a few people) food log of what I’ve actually eaten during my zero carb fortnight. Minus dinner tonight, as I’ve not worked out what I’m having yet!

My Maffetone Two Week Test Food Log



Day 1 (Wed 7 October)


Breakfast: handful nuts, tea w/cream, 2 eggs scrambled with butter, leek, chia, pumpkin & sunflower seeds
Lunch: cauliflower “rice” with cheese & olive oil, kale, prawns & pat of butter
Dinner: lettuce, chicken breast, mushrooms, homemade salsa & guac, radishes, hot sauce
Snacks: 2 sticks celery with almond butter, tea w/cream x4, handful nuts, triangle of blue cheese

Day 2 – Thurs 8 Oct


Breakfast: 2 egg omelette with pat of butter, 2 mushrooms, leaf of kale & thyme & goats cheese. Tea w/ cream
Lunch: lettuce, radishes, cucumber, tomato, sautéed chicken breast, olive oil, pine nuts
Dinner: block halloumi, 3 mushrooms, kale, sunflower seeds, olive oil, homemade salsa
Snacks: carrot sticks & celery sticks, tea w/cream x3, handful nuts, graze BBQ pistachios, spoonful almond butter, hot lemon & Ginger, handful nuts

Day 3 – Fri 9 Oct


Breakfast: 2 microwaved scrambled eggs eggs w/2 mushrooms, pat of butter & dollop of cream, tea w/cream
Lunch: leftover cauliflower “rice”, sautéed chicken breast, half avocado, hot sauce. Chia seed pudding: almond milk, cream, 1T cocoa, 3T chia seeds & pumpkin pie spice
Dinner: pork chop with smoked Chili paste, kale & sprouting broccoli with butter, wine, cheeseboard
Snacks: 2 celery w/almond butter, handful nuts, assorted mini cheeses, tea w/cream x2

Day 4 – Sat 10 Oct


Breakfast: 2egg omelette with mushrooms, pat butter & goats cheese. Tea w/cream
Lunch: salad with lettuce, radishes, cucumber, pine nuts, half avocado, olive oil & grilled chicken breast. Tea w/cream.
Dinner: stew: onions, pork mince, Hungarian sausage, mushrooms, celery, carrots, courgette, tomatoes, green olives, olive oil, chili. Chia pudding: almond milk, coconut oil, cocoa, chia seeds.
Snacks: handful nuts x2, spoonful almond butter, tea w/cream x2. Ginger tea w/lemon

Day 5 – Sun 11 Oct


Breakfast: handful nuts, spoon almond butter, scrambled eggs with mushrooms, cheddar & pat butter. Tea w/cream
Lunch: salad with lettuce, half avocado, pine nuts, pumpkin & sunflower seeds, pinch of ground flax seed, grilled chicken, tahini & lemon dressing
Dinner: 2 roast pork slices, roast fennel with olive oil, steamed carrot, courgette & peas with salted butter. Cheeseboard.
Snacks: handful nuts, almond butter with coconut, piece Edam cheese, tea w/cream x1

Day 6 – Mon 12 Oct


Breakfast: 2 eggs scrambled with a leek, goats cheese & pat butter. Tea w/cream
Lunch: stew: onions, pork mince, Hungarian sausage, mushrooms, celery, carrots, courgette, tomatoes, green olives, olive oil, chili.
Dinner: chowder with smoked haddock, leek, butter, cream, mushrooms, 4 carrots
Snacks: almond butter with coconut, pumpkin, sunflower & ground flax seeds. Mixed nuts x2. Edam cheese. Tea w/cream x2

Day 7 – Tues 13 Oct


Breakfast: 2 eggs scrambled with pat butter, 3 mushrooms & goats cheese. Tea w/cream.
Lunch: salad with lettuce, cucumber, radish, pine nuts, grilled chicken, half avocado & tahini lemon dressing
Dinner: pork medallions with butter, mushrooms, aubergine, tinned tomatoes, fresh basil. Tea w/cream.
Snacks: kale crisps w/olive oil. Carrot sticks. Piece Edam cheese. Handful nuts. Tea w/cream x3

Day 8 – Wed 14 oct


Breakfast: scrambled eggs with pat butter, 2 mushrooms, courgette & chia seeds. Tea w/cream.
Lunch: salad with lettuce, carrot, cucumber, half avocado & pine nuts, drizzle olive oil.
Dinner: slow cooker pork ragout with onions, garlic, olive oil, mushrooms, carrots, peas, sour cream, cream, fresh tarragon.
Snacks: carrot sticks. Piece Edam cheese. Tea w/cream x3. Handful nuts

Day 9 – Thur 15 Oct


Breakfast: 2 eggs scrambled with pat of butter, courgette, fresh tarragon & goats cheese. Tea w/cream
Lunch: slow cooker pork ragout with onions, garlic, olive oil, mushrooms, carrots, peas, sour cream, cream, fresh tarragon. Half a hard boiled egg.
Dinner: roast aubergines with olive oil & homemade pesto: cashews, garlic, chili, fresh basil, feta cheese & olive oil. Lemon & Ginger “tea”.
Snacks: piece Edam cheese. Radishes. Tea w/cream x3. Handful mixed nuts.

Day 10 – Fri 16 Oct


Breakfast: handful nuts. 2 scrambled eggs with pat butter, mushroom, leek & grated parmaggiano. Tea w/cream.
Lunch: salad with lettuce, radishes, half avocado & pesto: cashews, garlic, chili, fresh basil, feta cheese & olive oil.
Dinner: curry: onions, garlic, chili, olive oil, ginger, mushrooms, carrots, courgette, yellow pepper, coconut milk, coconut, prawns. Polar bear tea.
Snacks: mixed nuts, almond butter. Carrot. Tea w/cream x2

Day 11 – Sat 17 Oct


Breakfast: 2 dippy eggs with kale, butter & olive oil. Tea w/cream
Lunch: leftover curry: onions, garlic, chili, olive oil, ginger, mushrooms, carrots, courgette, yellow pepper, coconut milk, coconut, prawns.
Dinner: chicken breast with satay sauce: almond butter, garlic, ginger, chilies, lime juice. Bok choy, carrots, courgette & olive oil. Dry white wine++
Snacks: mixed nuts. Tea w/cream.

Day 12 – Sun 18 Oct


Breakfast: tea w/cream x2. 2 eggs with kale & olive oil.
Lunch: cheeseboard, jambon & olives
Dinner: roast chicken with herbs, roast fennel w/olive oil. Steamed bok choy & carrots with butter. Polar bear tea.
Snacks: smoked almonds & cashews. Tea w/cream x2. Handful mixed nuts.

Day 13 – Mon 19 Oct


Breakfast: 2 eggs scrambled with pat butter, mushroom, courgette. Tea w/cream.
Lunch: salad with lettuce, radishes, mushrooms, goats cheese, pine nuts & satay marinated grilled chicken (see Sat)
Dinner: green tea, salmon & scallop sashimi, miso roast aubergine, stir fried bok choy, miso soup.
Snacks: mixed nuts. Carrot sticks. Smoked almonds & cashews. More mixed nuts. Tea w/cream x3

Day 14 – Tues 20 Oct


Breakfast: 2 eggs scrambled with pat of butter, leek, courgette & smoked cheddar. Tea w/cream.
Lunch: lettuce, courgette, radishes, pine nuts, goats cheese
Dinner: TBC?
Snacks: olives. Mixed nuts. Tea w/cream x2.

Stay tuned for part two, in which I run literally twice as slowly as my “comfortable” pace. Over and over…

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