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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...and now World Record Holder, too!

7 September 2015, 22:03

In my last post I told you all about my first race of the World Transplant Games, but it’s been over a week now and I’ve been too busy relaxing and recuperating in Iguazu and Buenos Aires to tell you all about my final two days on the track – shame on me! The upside, however, is that I’ve got some great photos to share now that I’m home, though I’ve still not entirely mentally processed the results!

My four track events were nicely split up onto two days – the 1500m and 400m on Friday, and the 800m and 4×400m women’s relay on Saturday afternoon. Having had Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday to recover from the road race was also a good thing, especially since I’d tripped before the race and given myself a stiff and sore knee to contend with too.

Friday morning was uncharacteristically cold and windy down at the track, with everyone in the stands huddling under blankets and heavy coats. Since the forecast was warm, I didn’t bring my Team GB sweatshirt and only had my tracksuit over my running vest and shorts – James was freezing, too, so he went out in search of somewhere to buy a sweatshirt or two, and came back two hours later with some, plus gloves and scarves, too – by which point the sun had finally emerged and the Team GB sports therapy unit had already warmed up my muscles with a dolphin rub down, plus loosened up my knee nicely, ready to race. But the wind was still fierce, especially around the back straight, and while watching Ruth win gold in the ladies Race Walk, I watched in horror as a wheelie bin by the stands blew over! And that was in the sheltered side of the track!

So I wasn’t expecting much in the 1500m, but I hit the start line with the other ladies and immediately made a move for the lead and the inside lane. Truth be told, I was really on my own for the whole race, and ran it more like a time trial than the fun strategy game I had with my “nemesis” in Newcastle a few weeks earlier. And every time I ran the back straight and I ran into the wind, it was so tough it felt like I was running uphill, and I could feel my pace hit a brick wall. So by the time I crossed the finish line, I was so convinced that I ran a slow time that I went through the medal ceremony feeling pleased with my gold, but disappointed I didn’t get a good crack at the world record. That is, until about a half hour after the race, when I went to check the official times, noted it down in my “Times to Beat” file on my phone (into which I’d noted my times from the last two British Transplant Games, the winning time from the last World Transplant Games, and the World Record time). Even writing it down, the penny still hadn’t dropped – it wasn’t until someone else on the British team asked what my time was that I actually looked at the line above it in my file and saw that, at 5:36.41, I’d beaten the world record by 1 second!! And that was even with the fierce wind!!

800m podium

So having had my two best events out of the way and performed better than I had dreamed, I was feeling really relaxed going into the 400m later that afternoon. In the British Games, I run the 200m, but I’m really not as fast across the shorter distances, so I opted to drop it and go for higher quality performances at the World games, but this meant the 400m would now be my shortest, and therefore most brutally fast event. The gun went off, and I basically sprinted this, again dealing with the strong headwind around the back straight finishing first for another gold in 1:09.57 – taking a full 5 seconds off my PB from any of the British games, and only 1 second away from another World Record (damn you, wind!!).

I was initially annoyed that both of my events on the following day were in the late afternoon and only 30 minutes apart(!), but then I’d realised this would allow us to have the first lie-in of our entire trip. So we did just that, and took a taxi to the track from the Games hotel around lunchtime, giving me plenty of time to warm up – only it was hot and sunny and I had to put on sunscreen! I’d say it was the complete opposite to Friday’s weather, but no – that headwind around the back straight was still there, and so again, in the 800m, it was like I was running uphill both times I came around there. I was hoping to have a bit of an opportunity to race with some strategy, but the three other ladies in my age category all pulled out, so I was guaranteed a gold even if I walked it round which of course I’d never do – where’s the fun in that!? So instead I raced the 18-29 year olds, and came in first in 2:42.23, feeling like I’d properly earned it! The 800m is probably the distance I run most often in my track training sessions, and oftentimes I struggle to come in under 3 minutes in practice, so I was really pleased with my time, even if it was essentially just a time trial.

Handing the baton to Emma

I barely had time to collect my medal on the lonely podium before it was time to meet with my teammates for the women’s 4×400m relay – the last event of the day. We had some troubles fielding a team, what with Ruth away playing badminton doubles at the same time, and many of the sprinters unwilling to run a whole 400m, but eventually we pulled a team together… only to find out that none of the other countries did! So for the second time that afternoon, I found myself running unopposed. We tried to persuade the officials to let us “race” against the men, but were denied for some official reason, leaving us with the best view in the house to cheer the GB men on to an extremely close silver finish behind Iran, and then we hit the track all on our own. I persuaded the other ladies (all sprinters) to treat this as a celebration of all our hard work in training, competing, and recovery, as well as the lives we’d been given by our donors, and we did just that. When my turn came, I ran it at “party pace”, with a massive smile on my face, waving the baton to the crowds as they cheered me on. It truly was a victory lap, and the best possible way to complete my first World Transplant Games.

Team GB 4x400m relay team

If you’d like to hear my thoughts about both days of track racing at the end of the second day, you can listen to me speak below:

You can also listen to some of the other Team GB athlete’s stories here

So my total haul for the games was a remarkable six gold medals (four individual and two team), four World Championships, a World Record, and a World’s Best (there are no official world records for the road race due to changing terrain in each host city, but I ran the fastest recorded time of any woman in any year).

Final medal haul

And I got a bouquet of flowers with each gold, so I hope I made the hotel maid (and her mother, sister, friends…) smile, too. It was my first World Transplant Games, and one I’ll always remember – not just for the international friends I made, or the medals I won, or the wonderful people of Argentina, or my chance to finally wear the Team GB vest and represent my country, but because my mom traveled the whole way down from the States and finally got to see me race for the first time. Thanks, Mom.

World Transplant Games, Mar del Plata, Argentina, 23-30 August
5km Road Race, 19:04 – gold, World’s Best time, and team gold
1500m, 5:36.41 – gold and World Record
800m, 2:42.23 – gold
400m, 1:09.57 – gold
4×400m relay – team gold

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World Champion!!

26 August 2015, 22:15

It’s been a surreal few days down here in Argentina, but now that I’ve had a few days’ rest after my first event – the 5km road race – I can finally take a second to catch you up on my triumphant World Transplant Games debut!!

I was the first lady of any age category across the line in a new PB of 19:04, earning myself a gold medal, and to my surprise, helping the Team GB women to earn a team gold, too! So I won two gold medals for one race before 10am on the first day of competition!!

WTG 2015 5k photos

Team GB did amazingly well out of the road race – we earned 7 golds and 3 silvers across the various age categories, plus both the men’s and women’s team golds! The course itself was great – a simple out & back along the Mar del Plata seafront and the sun came out just before the turnaround point so I took the time in amoungst the speed effort to appreciate the sun on my back, waves crashing to my left, and the city in the distance. Epic stuff.

And then the podium experience was some next-level Olympic fantasy wish filfulment – big hefty medals, a kiss on the cheek from an Argentinian official, bouquet of flowers, and people wanting their photograph taken with me (the drone flying overhead getting race footage was an interesting first, too!). And making friends with athletes from all over the world – that was just a bonus.

I recorded the reaction of several of the Team GB runners directly after the race, which you can listen to below:

You can read a bit more about my story in my interview with Runner’s World, which came out two days later!

Or there are loads more personal stories to listen to going up on the Team GB channel throughout the week.

I’ve got another day of rest before the track events start on Friday with the 1500m and 400m, then on Saturday I have the 800m and 4×400m relay. So lots more to play for!!

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Trained and ready

18 August 2015, 16:31

I will be competing for Great Britain at the World Transplant Games in Argentina next week.

I’ll let that sink in for a minute, because I can hardly believe it myself. I received my Team GB selection email all the way back in August of last year, coincidentally on the same day I’d just run Berlin marathon and had my legs up a wall recovering. The first Team GB training was in November, and in January I started training in earnest for the Games, seeing my coach Barbara at Energy Lab once a fortnight for a brutal series of core and strength workouts that, quite frankly, left me sore for days afterwards in the beginning.

weight lifting

Then, as time progressed, and London marathon came and went, I stayed focused on this, my “A” race for the year. I saw loads of improvement, being able to do 10-20 reps of difficult moves like side planks with leg lifts, or jackknifes, when I’d struggled to do a handful at the start. We pared down my diet post-marathon training, too, aiming to get me as light as possible to gain a few seconds on the track. I’ve lost about 10kg in the past 3-4 months, and, in combination with the regular running and strength training, I could see distinct muscles I’d literally only seen in books before.

Energy Lab - roller plank

I became kinda fixated on this photo of myself doing a roller plank (where you start in a plank with your ankles on the roller, moving up into an inverted V with your toes on the roller), as I could see every single little muscle in my legs, arms and shoulders. Was that really me? I’m not really an athlete, I just play one on the internet, surely? I started to tell people just snippets of the Friday training session I’d had, like the time I’d done 100 squats… while balancing on a Bosu ball… while raising a weighted bar over my head. And just watched their mouths drop lower and lower while I kept quiet about the other 80% of that particular session.

Team GB shorts

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’ve worked hard. I’ve trained hard for big races before, but never quite to this length of time, or intensity over such a time period. Part of the reason is that track running and speed work really don’t come naturally for me – I’m a distance runner who prefers half- and full-marathons, suddenly faced with performing at an international level in the 400m. I mean, the farthest I’ll be racing in Argentina is the 5km road race, and I haven’t raced anything shorter than a 10km in over 10 years!

track training sprint

If you’re used to distance running, then you likely have a pretty efficient distance running form that will get you through an hour or more of running while using as little effort as possible. Or at least I did – but the past few weeks have been about teaching my legs and body to “un-learn” all those distance tricks and run instead in a way that’s better for speed but feels like I’m running slower, and less coordinated. But I push on, and have faith in my coach that the training will pay off and my body will remember these sessions when I’m toeing the line next week.

Running with the Union Jack

So the Games may be less than a week away, but I’m still hitting the track and trying to lose a second here and a second there in the few days I’ve got left. There’s always room for improvement, even after eight months of dedicated training.

If you’d like to keep up with my progress during the Games, I’ll be posting updates to my Twitter as well as recording audio updates to the Transplant Team GB channel on audioBoom whenever I get a bit of wifi. Or check back here, where new posts will appear below.

My race schedule is 5km road race on Monday 24 August, 1500m & 400m on Friday 28 August, and 800m (& 4×400m relay?) on Saturday 29 August.

I am Melissa Fehr, and I am on Team GB.

Melissa in Tea GB tracksuit

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British Transplant Games: Newcastle 2015

5 August 2015, 13:28

Five races in under 24 hours is enough to make anyone exhausted just thinking about it, let alone racing it! This is my third year competing for Kings College Hospital alongside other British organ and bone marrow transplantees, and with the World Transplant Games only 3 weeks away, this was a good opportunity for a dress rehearsal (well, not literally as I’ll be wearing Team GB kit in Argentina)!

Melissa before the mini marathon start
Repping Run dem Crew in the sunshine before the Mini Marathon start

First up was the 3km “mini marathon” along the Newcastle Quayside and the Millennium Bridge. I led from the start, and it was pretty smooth sailing, aiming to keep my pace as far under 4min/km as I could manage – til the turnaround point, when I suddenly had to fight my way through the slower runners and walkers (and prams, and dogs…) coming the opposite direction.

Mini Marathon start
The official race start photo, while we still had a free path!

I used a lot of lung power shouting “EXCUSE ME PLEASE!” every five feet like it was the Embankment in tourist season, so I didn’t get the time I wanted, but still managed to be the first across the line (male or female) to earn my first gold medal AND retain the trophy for the first female for another year. Even with the lack of a lead sweep bike for the 3km runners (there was one for the 5km route, but since we turned back before them, the bike was well behind most of the 3km runners), having chip timing and separate start for the competitors and fun runners was a massive safety improvement over last year.

Melissa and John with trophies
Myself and John – overall winners of the ladies’ and men’s Mini Marathon races

Sunday we moved to Gateshead International Stadium for all the track and field events, starting first with the 1500m. This is my favourite of the track events, and the first time in three years that I finally got to race against my NEMESIS – the lady who won all the running events before I came along. The two of us were neck and neck for the first two laps, her in lane 1 and myself in lane 2.

Myself and Orla racing the 1500m
Myself and Orla (my “nemesis”!), neck and neck in the 1500m. Photo: Dave Medcroft

I’d been reading up on 1500m race strategy though, which said that the race is always won in the 3rd lap. So coming into the 3rd I took the psychological step of accelerating so I could move into lane 1 ahead of her, which apparently just killed her off, as she fell off the back after that, finishing in 3rd about 300m behind me.

Nadia and I on the 1500m podium
Nadia and I on the 1500m podium (Orla was seeing a physio and missed it)

Then it was the 200m, which is my weakest event, as I am in no way a sprinter, but I do it anyway to build “character” (and because my team captain says I must run the maximum 5 events!). I was up against sprinter girls in block starts and I swear worked harder for this bronze than I did the next two golds.

I only had about 30min break before the 400m, which saw my legs really shaking as I pushed across the line for another gold, and by the time I got to the 800m race about an hour after that, I was really running on empty. It’s good that I was able to win that one pretty comfortably as I really don’t think I had any fight left in my legs!!

800m podium
800m podium with my BTGBFF Ruth and a visiting American runner

The good news is that I’m racing these same events (minus the 200m, and possibly adding the 4×400m relay) in Argentina spread out over a whole week, so the extra recovery time should really help shave off those extra few seconds. I’m targeting a gold sweep, of course!!

Total medal haul
The obligatory Mister T shot!

(And having finally met my “nemesis”, she is of course, SUPER lovely and we got on so well and had a right laugh the whole weekend. She was only just out of a plaster cast for a foot injury though, so we’re both looking forward to a proper showdown in Liverpool next year. And she laughed the hardest of all when I told her about being my nemesis!!)

Even though we leave for Mar del Plata in 2.5 weeks, there’s incredibly(!) still time to sponsor me for the World Transplant Games if you haven’t done so already – this helps offset my flights, team hotel, competition insurance, and training costs! And likewise, if you’re not already on the organ donor list or the bone marrow database, please, please consider doing so and telling your friends and family about your wishes.

British Transplant Games, 1-2 August
3km “mini marathon”, 12:54 – gold & trophy
1500m, 5:44 – gold
800m, 2:58 – gold
400m, 1:14 – gold
200m, 0:32 – bronze

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You must respect the spikes

22 July 2015, 15:18 New track spikes

Remember a few weeks ago I told you about the new track spikes I bought? Well, this isn't an issue with these specific spikes, nor how they're suited to my particular feet or gait, but more of a general issue with track spikes that no one ever told me:

You must ease in to running with the spikes (pins) in!*

I've spoken with countless people over the past three weeks, some experts in athletics, others ex-national level athletes, and some coaches and physios, and they've all said the above. Pity no one told me this before I did my warmup, drills, and 4x 800m with my spikes in a few weeks ago, having abruptly ended the session after the 4th when a sharp, shooting pain appeared out of nowhere on the ball of my right foot, just under the big toe joint.

I was smart/experienced enough to stop immediately, unscrew all the pins, and gingerly try another lap with just the plain spikes, but it was clear that nothing, not even going barefoot for a cool down, was going to help the pain. My coach, Barbara, is also a physio, so she had a good poke around the next day and told me to ice, elevate and rest it, but assured me it was not displaying the signs of a stress fracture.

So I grudgingly rested for the week. And the next. I am neither patient, nor good at resting, and it was bad timing that this meant I had to travel all the way out to Coventry for the final Team GB training day, but sit out the actual training. After two weeks of nearly constant, low level pain whenever I stood, walked, or even sat down, my patience was beginning to wear thin, and my ability to cope with stress and sleep properly was also eroding along with my lack of running.

Foot wrapped in tape
Note Barbara's choice of tape to cheer me up, ha!

I saw Barbara again two weeks after the incident, and this time she taped up my foot to hold the tendon a bit more secure - it had hurt the most when I try to raise my big toe (ie: when my foot is behind me while running or walking), so taping it felt a bit like a sports bra for my foot - not holding it rigid, but giving my brain a subtle clue to not bend it quite so much when I walk, and extend my Achilles more instead. To be honest, I've never been a massive believer in kinesio tape, but that day was the first pain-free day I'd had in two weeks, and it gave my foot enough of a break to attempt a short 3km run the following Tuesday.

I can't say that that run was 100% pain-free, but it certainly wasn't an alarm-ringing, "omg you must stop immediately!" sort of pain, either. Considering the detrimental effects Not Running had been having on my stress, anxiety, and sleep levels, I figured it'd be better for me overall to finish the 15min easy run than to stop and feel broken, dejected, and frustrated on a bus instead.

In terms of timing, it's not been great considering I've got the British Transplant Games in Newcastle next weekend (3km road race then 1500m, 800m, 400m, and 200m on the track), and the World Transplant Games in Argentina in four weeks, but now that I'm on the upswing, it feels like both of these are achievable, especially since I've not lost any strength training workouts during my unscheduled rest.

* The consensus seems to be that you should only run the last rep at the end of a session with the spikes (pins) in, and certainly no more than 3-4km even after you've built up over a few weeks. And after a long break (such as winter), you need to build up again. Because, as I can attest, everything feels perfectly fine until it doesn't!

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GPS: app vs watch showdown

30 June 2015, 13:01

This post has been brewing in my mind for possibly longer than anything else I’ve written so far. I’ve been tracking my runs ever since the first Nike+ foot pod came out back in 2006 and my little iPod Nano could suddenly tell me how far I’d run on the gym treadmill. I switched to GPS apps when I restarted running after my bone marrow transplant in 2010, first using Runkeeper for a few years before settling on Runmeter, sharing everything to DailyMile, and recently switching over to Strava.

But there were a few things that bugged me about using my phone to track my runs, and I started to be jealous of my friends’ fancy GPS watches that told them exactly how far they’d been, beeped when they needed to switch up their interval session, and seemed so much more accurate. I was lucky enough to receive one for Christmas last year, and I’ve been running with the watch on pretty much every run for the past six months, including a full marathon, two half marathons, and a handful of shorter races.

Enough people have been asking me how I’m getting on with my watch that I think it’s worth laying out the Pros and Cons of each method, plus what I think will be my ideal solution, even if it’s not quite here yet.

My Garmin FR15
Getting Location…

GPS Watch (specifically, my Garmin FR15)


Pro:

  • I can easily see my current pace any time I want. This is unbelievably useful in races for ensuring I don’t set off too fast, and I’m hitting my target pace.

  • The pace is usually pretty accurate.

  • It integrates with Strava.

  • It integrates with a heart rate monitor chest strap.


Con:

  • It can take forever to find a satellite (15+min about a quarter of the time!), or find it within 10 seconds, and there’s no rhyme or reason or any way to predict which it’ll be.

  • The Auto-Pause feature takes way too long to recognise I’m stopped, so the several seconds of 15min+/km pace really skews my average pace stats.

  • I need a computer with USB to share my run. What year is this again?!?

  • The battery life is pretty poor, considering I’m only going on short (<1hr) runs several times a week. It lasts for a marathon, but not much more.

  • It’s too big and uncomfortable to wear as an everyday watch.

  • At £150, it was a pretty big investment.

Yes, I’m aware there are other brands and models of GPS watches, and that my Forerunner 15 is a fairly low end one. But as my first foray into the format, I didn’t want to spend £££ on a top of the line model in case I didn’t like it, or it was too big or too masculine or indeed still had all of the same Cons as I’ve listed here. I could pay £200 more and get a model that has slightly better ability to find a satellite and has Bluetooth integration, but I’m still left with the other downsides.

My Runmeter app

GPS App (specifically, Runmeter on iOS)


Pro:

  • It tweets/posts/shares when I start a run so anyone can reply and have their message spoken into my ear. AFAIK this is the only app that does this and it’s a killer feature – I cannot stress enough how motivating this is in races.

  • My run can be shared the second I’m done.

  • It integrates with Strava and DailyMile.

  • After the first kilometer, the pace is pretty accurate.

  • It’s very cheap (presuming you’ve already got a phone).

  • It integrates with several heart rate monitor chest straps.


Con:

  • I can only check my pace (via spoken commands) every 1min maximum, though I have it set for every kilometer (~4 or 5min).

  • I have to carry my phone with me, either in an arm strap, pocket, or backpack.

  • It’s difficult to hear notifications in noisy or “no headphones” races.

  • Often the first kilometer is wildly inaccurate (telling me I’ve literally run faster than Mo Farah’s race pace), which skews my average pace for the rest of the run.

  • It requires data for many functions, which limits its usefulness abroad.

Yes, I’m aware there are plenty of apps out there. I’ve even tried a lot of them, but ultimately I feel that Runmeter has more Pros than the other apps, and in general, the Cons are the same for all GPS apps seeings as how they’re all using the same phone chipset. Plus I’ve had over the top fantastic support from the developers there whenever I’ve had issues or questions, which counts for a lot in my book.

As you can see from my lists, neither of these are perfect. But if I could somehow merge the two, and have the features and reliability of the app but with the ability to check my pace on my wrist whenever I want, then I honestly think I could overlook the crazy first kilometer pace (which is likely to be diminished with a better built-in GPS chipset on future iPhones anyway).

Which brings us to the Apple Watch. We’ve got one for testing purposes at my office, and honestly, I’m waiting for Apple to release the next version before I test my theory that this might be my perfect solution. I never, ever buy Rev A hardware, as the first version always has too many bugs to be entirely worthwhile (and besides, I need for Apple to release an updated, smaller phone since my 4S isn’t compatible with the Watch right now anyway), but I think this could be just the solution I’m after. I’ll get all the Pros of my favourite app, but also the Pros of the watch, too. Plus it’s something I can wear when I’m not running, too.

Or at least that’s the theory.

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Nike Women's 10k #WeRunLondon race report

27 June 2015, 12:42

Despite the name change, this is essentially the same race as last year’s “We Own the Night”, but shifted to the usual Sunday morning time slot instead (I guess “We Own the Morning” doesn’t sound as good?). In any case, I had a surprisingly good time last year, and apart from some issues with the timing of the start waves, it was well organised enough for me to want to run it again this year.

If you’re not familiar with this race series – it’s a women-only 10k (two laps around Victoria Park) with a big race village in the center for freebies and pampering before and after should you wish. This year saw 10,000 women running round Victoria Park on a Sunday morning – 60% of whom had never run a 10k race before, which is a mind-blowing statistic and really shows the sort of reach Nike have to get new women into the sport. This was a fantastic race for beginners, and since it’s in a park rather than closed roads, there was a generous 3hr cut off time, too (which works out to 18min per kilometer!).

One of my major problems with last year’s race was the lavish overindulgance of a few select princess bloggers leading up to the event, which I’m pleased to report that Nike really toned down this year. It makes for a much more inclusive race feel when you don’t see a few people getting hundreds of pounds of freebies while others struggle to pay the race fee, arrange a babysitter, take the day off work, etc (in other words, real life demands!). There was a strong emphasis on crew love in the pre-race pep talks, encouraging us to give others encouragement and a pat on the back if we saw anyone struggling or in trouble, which was really nice.

I had an awful time actually getting to the start, with planned engineering works taking out my preferred route, and then finding the Overground down once I got to Stratford, so I ended up just walking the 32 minutes from there rather than waiting 29min(!!) for a bus. But I still had plenty of time to pootle round the race village in the sun, check out the decent array of freebies from various stalls, and use the loo and bag drop without any queues whatsoever (nice one!).

Then it was off to the start, where my 44min PB put me in the fastest (black) starting pen. But like last year, they actually mashed together the first two pens, so everyone thinking they could run a sub50 (purple) were also there. But I’d learned my lesson and walked right up to the starting line behind the ladies wearing race panties (seriously?) and after a 20min delay, got to watch Ellie Goulding sound the starting horn from about 3 feet away.

No really, I was right at the front, as you can see in the official start photo!

Nike Women's 10k starting line

Thankfully, unlike last year, there were no princess bloggers to trip over at the start (who thought it’d be a good idea to put them before the speed demons anyway?!), and I pretty much kept RDC’s fastest lady, Sorrel, within sight for the first lap (she ended up finishing in 6th pace, which is awesome especially since she’s training for a 100k race in a few weeks!). After about 3km I came across another RDC lady, Jules, who had started with Sorrel but couldn’t keep up, so I convinced her to stay with me instead and kept her legs going when she kept complaining there was nothing left.

Nike Women's 10k - photos from David Gardiner
Photo credit: David Gardiner

I didn’t really have any expectations for this race, but like in Bupa, I wanted to test my 5k time in advance of the World Transplant Games so I pushed it really hard throughout, and a look at my stats afterwards showed my slowest kilometer split was 4:37 (that’s 7:26min/mi), which I’m really proud of. The general race atmosphere was fun, with several bands along the route, lots of banners and motivational signs in the pastel-fluorescent colour scheme of this year’s race, and, despite my speed, I still managed to high five a trumpeter in a band on the side. I’m not sure which was more impressive – that I could swerve over to high five him at speed, or that he carried on playing with his other hand!

With so many RDC ladies taking part, the RDC men stepped up to the challenged and manned (so to speak!) the cheer dem crew duties. Despite there being a fair amount of spectators along the route, the RDC guys were the only ones making any noise, which was just weird. I mean, why go to a race and just stand there and stare? My husband James took advantage of the nice weather to cycle up and join the cheer dem point – he even got to let off a confetti cannon in my honour on each of my laps around, too (facing the correct way round, too, I might add!).

So back to those start waves – it’s not difficult to look at the lap times of the fastest pens, see when they hit the second lap, and ensure that the bulk of the slowest pen has already started by that point. Or perhaps it is, because yet again, when we came around to start lap two, the entire width of the course was taken up by ladies walking round! So for the second year in a row, my second lap was mostly a trail run – running entirely along the path, behind the bins and benches, swerving around spectators. The only real improvements made this year were marshals and signs encouraging people to “keep left and overtake on the right”.

This would’ve been much better in reverse (keep right and overtake left) for two reasons – one, the course is counterclockwise so the fastest runners (ie: those who actually care about a few seconds) had to run a wide perimeter of all the corners rather than the shortest distance, and two, when we got the the lap changeover point, the guidance changed to “keep left for finish and keep right for the second lap” which meant all the fastest runners had to suddenly cut diagonally through the crowd and vice versa. Carnage! So a consistent message to keep faster runners to the left would’ve solved both these issues.

Nike Women's 10k finish with champagne

Some might say that the finish time is the least interesting part of a race, but considering I pushed myself hard throughout, I actually do care about my times. I finished the first 5k in 21:28 (several minutes faster than the gold medal time at the previous World Transplant Games!), and crossed the line in… 43:28. Yes, I missed a PB (earned last month at Bupa) by 1 measly second!

Since I spent around 10 seconds stopped, trying to convince Jules to carry on and not DNF after the first lap, I’m going to count this as a PB no matter what the official clock said! And really, it just proves that I can consistently race at a sustained pace and pain level over the distance, which is good knowledge indeed.

Nike Women's 10k - selfie and necklace

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – Nike races are unmatched in terms of swag, and you will always get your money’s worth. For the £28 entry fee we got a really nice tech tee or vest (I personally loved the colour and design this year!), two tote bags, a silver finisher’s necklace I’ll actually wear, champagne, a Birchbox full of skincare samples, coconut oil, peanut butter sachets, and gourmet popcorn. It was such a nice day that I didn’t mind having to pay a few quid for protein ice cream to eat sitting around in the sunshine afterwards!

So, despite the few problems (greatly reduced from last year, IMHO), this was a wholly enjoyable race, and one that was super welcoming to first timers and those recovering from all manner of illness and injuries. Leading up to the race, had I been injured, I’m pretty sure that I would’ve crawled around in order to get the finisher’s necklace and swag! Maybe Nike have worked out that a lot of us just need a little carat to aim for after all?

Nike Women’s 10k London, 21 June 2015, 43:28

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Coastal running in Llandudno

24 June 2015, 13:59

Two weekends ago we took the opportunity to get out of London and headed up to Llandudno on the North Wales coast for a mini-break. I’d never been to this part of Wales before but I was utterly delighted by the small seaside town with its mix of independent shops, wide (and completely uncommercialised!) beach promenade, and traditional pier.

Llandudno - shelter Llandudno - seagulls

We were only in town for three days, but the seaside air and change of scenery really made it feel like a much longer holiday. One thing I particularly loved about Llandudno was its proximity to rugged nature – right next to the town is a large outcropping called The Great Orme with lots of land to roam about on (in addition to a Victorian tramway, cable car, dry ski slope, etc). The train station is right in town, too, making it easy to come into town and never need to use a car or public transport the whole time!

Llandudno - tourist photo
Tourist photo from The Great Orme overlooking Llandudno

You can easily walk from your hotel in town up into the headland, or choose to take the adorable tramway up the steepest section instead. After we got the lay of the land (so to speak), I knew that Sunday’s run would encircle the Great Orme along the peripheral Marine Drive, and I couldn’t wait!

The Great Orme - running view The Great Orme - running view

Marine Drive is a one-way, toll road, with hardly any traffic on it, and a wide pavement running the whole length. There were a few other walkers, but mostly I had the views and the sea air to myself. The elevation was decidedly “undulating”, but the whole loop was only about 10k in total, and there was as much downhill as there was uphill!

The Great Orme - running selfie

I also experienced a “first” on this run, when I ran past a bunch of mountain goats! One of the even had a crow perched on his back, calmly sitting there the entire time he was in view!

The Great Orme - mountain goats & crow
Mountain goats (and crow!) on the Great Orme

Lest you think this was an entirely wholesome mini-break, I did indulge in a few of the usual seaside treats…

Llandudno - dieting

I am pleased to report that the seagull went away disappointed (I think I may have even seen a single, seagull tear roll down his cheek as I threw half my chips in the bin!). And on our way back home we drove through Snowdonia and some of the most gorgeous scenery I’ve ever seen in my life. We’re both now itching to come back again for a hike/camp/run/cycle holiday as soon as we can…

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