Training

DNS / Defer

20 July 2018, 15:18

I had one goal for 2018 – qualify for Boston again so I could run it next spring to celebrate my 40th birthday.

I’ve qualified a few times already, but never quite had the chance to actually run it, but with it being an off-year for the World Transplant Games and my marathon PB sitting untouched for the past 4(!) years, this was going to be my Year of the Marathon.

And my training was going really well right up until mid February, too – good strength training, I was fitting in run commutes to work, and I even got down to my target race weight a few months early, too.

And then I got sick.

At first, it was just the seasonal flu that went around my office. Seasonal flu, but one that multiple people told me was the worst they’d had in decades. So with my medical history, I determined that I’d probably be laid low for 3-4 weeks since it was taking normal people out for a week to ten days. Six weeks later, and I was finally starting to feel about 75% recovered, but missing six weeks at the height of marathon training meant that I’d now have to defer my London marathon place (having already DNSed the Big Half during the height of my flu) and I started looking around for other options over the summer to qualify before the Boston cutoff in mid-September.

And I’d just signed up to run Reykjavik marathon in August when I started to feel very, very unwell all over again. This time, it turned out, I’d come down with three other viruses simultaneously, all three of them very long-lingering and particularly nasty.

Culprit one – Parainfluenza. Despite the name, it’s not actually a type of flu, it can hang around for months, and knock you absolutely flat. And there’s no treatment.

Culprit two – Adenovirus. Apparently there is a treatment for this one, but you’ve got to test positive for it in more than one area of the body to qualify, and I (only) had it in my nose/throat/lungs, which count as one place.

Culprit three – my old pal the Epstein Barr Virus, aka mono, aka glandular fever. Nearly everyone has EBV laying dormant inside them at all times, but only special, immunosuppressed flowers like myself get to experience the joys of multiple EBV reactivations (for long-time followers, this is what took me out of action for 3 months in 2016).

So if you’ve ever had, or known anyone who’s had mono/glandular fever, imagine having that for, ooh, three months on top of two other nasty viral infections, after six weeks of horrific flu, and that’s been pretty much the whole of my 2018. I literally couldn’t get out of bed for days at a time, let alone go to work or anything social, and even just walking to the corner shop took an extreme amount of effort that would leave me in bed for the rest of the day. It was so bad that I had to get a “Please Offer Me a Seat” badge for the bus, as I couldn’t stand up for more than about ten minutes. I was beyoooooooooooond bored, beyond frustrated, and literally so jealous of everyone who was simply getting on with their life that I felt angry all the time, too.

Eventually, after being monitored, swabbed, tested, and spending days in hospital (having to fight not to be admitted at one point!), I eventually convinced them to give me the treatment for EBV, because I was simply not getting better on my own, and I had waited more than long enough.

The treatment for EBV is Rituximab, which is actually a pretty cool piece of bioengineering – they take mouse cells and graft human receptors onto the outside, which then bind to your lymphocytes, which are then targetted and killed by your immune system. Rituximab is given for a wide variety of auto-immune disorders, but since EBV lives inside your lymphocytes, it also works for that, too. And by “works”, I mean, it kills off half your immune system while also killing the virus. Yay. But at this point I would’ve drunken yak vomit if someone had said it’d make me feel better, so off to the chemo day unit I went, every Tuesday in June (and then into July, after the parainfluenza came back for a week and they postponed a treatment).

Oh yes, they can give you chemo for a viral infection! Rituximab may not make your hair fall out, but seeing as how they’re pumping animal cells all around your veins, people have a tendency to react badly to it the first time. I thought I’d be safe, since I was given it for my first EBV reactivation right after my transplant, but no, four hours into the first dose, and I started to feel the cotton ears, dizziness, and weird vision that I recognised from my years of reacting to platelet transfusions, so I slammed my hand on the nurse call button. The nurses paused the treatment, gave me two lots of IV piriton while they watched my blood pressure recover from a low of 80/40 (no, that’s not a typo). After an hour’s break, they restarted it, and another four hours later I could finally go home.

Luckily the other three doses were uneventful, and by the start of July, I actually started to feel a bit more energetic! Like, I could walk places and not need a lie down, and I could finally do a full day’s work, and I could cycle commute without feeling utterly awful (as an aside, taking it really slowly on the bike was WAY less energy and stress than taking a rush hour train). But not enough to ride 100 miles on a bike this weekend, so my ballot place for Ride 100 has also been deferred for next year.

So I’m at the point now, in mid-July, that I actually feel about 80% recovered, and I went for my first run back this week – a nice 5km around my local cemetery/park. But this does mean that I’ll be lucky to even run the 10km in Reykjavik next month (they host the marathon, half, 10km, and fun-run on the same day and you can switch between at the expo). And likewise, no British Transplant Games this year for me, as I was too sick during the registration period to have any hope of passing the physical.

And the dream to run Boston next spring is over, as there’s no way I can rebuild from this and qualify in time for September. And more than that, I feel cheated out of 5-6 months of my year. I was sick during the “Beast from the East” blizzard, and I was still sick during the heatwave, for godssake!

And the punchline to all this? I’d actually had the flu jab.

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Rounding off the year...

31 December 2016, 12:39

Whether you’d noticed or not, I haven’t posted since August! Was the cause of this some catastrophic illness, or injury, or that I’d given up running altogether to find myself in some Buddhist yoga retreat? Nope, just regular ol’ boring “I got busy”.

To delve a bit further – I’d been working 4 days a week as a Product Manager at a small tech company, running my entire sewing pattern business from one day a week. In reality, this meant I was writing blog posts and social media content every single lunchtime, doing product development nearly every evening and all weekend long, and Fridays were spent doing all the boring accounting and email answering that keeps a business alive. And I was exhausted. So in August I quit my office job to once again focus on my business. I thought it’d only be a few months’ full time to reinvigorate it and get a few more patterns ready to develop, but I found that as soon as I created some space in my life, the opportunities just poured in, and I had to grab them.

As a result, 2017 is going to be epic for the business, and my running forecast doesn’t look too bad, either: I’m running Cambridge Half marathon again (this time with the new single loop course!), London marathon for the third time (with my deferred GFA place I was too ill to use in 2016), and I’m representing Great Britain at the World Transplant Games again at the end of June, this time in the hot and sunny (eugh) climes of Malaga, Spain!

Cheering Cardiff Half

Looking back at 2016, there were definitely some highlights, but through no fault of my own, it was a bit of an “off year”. I started the year with an awful illness (or, at the doctors’ best guess, a series of illnesses alongside some EBV reactivation, giving me glandular fever/mono on top of everything else), which laid me low from January through to the beginning of April, causing me to DNS the Cardiff Half, something I don’t do very often (or ever? This might be my first DNS). I travelled along to cheer since it was my birthday weekend, but I was only able to stand for 10 minutes at a time, and the weather was atrocious that day, so maybe it was for the best.

As I mentioned earlier, I had to defer my London marathon place, since I only started to feel better about 3 weeks before the race, and I finally got to experience Run dem Crew’s crazy Mile 21 cheering station from the other side of the tape, which was super fun.

Post Hackney Half

This meant my first race of the year was a few weeks later, at Run Hackney (aka “Hackney Half”). I don’t know how they do it every year, but it was freaking sweltering yet again, and I just ran it as a training run to get some much-needed miles in my legs in preparation for my big race of the year…

Bear Race - with sign

…the Transylvanian Bear Race! This was the race I’d been looking forward to for like 9 months, and while I was disappointed to have to defer London, I would’ve been crushed to have to skip Transylvania. I had to scramble to fit in the training miles to be able to run it at all, and without all the base building and strength training work I’d had to skip at the start of the year, this was very much a “slow and steady” race, not to mention my first ultra (though I hadn’t intended to run an ultra yet…)

Dunwich Dynamo

No sooner had I recovered from Transylvania (and the overnight cycling rite-of-passage, the Dunwich Dynamo!) than I had to start thinking about the British Transplant Games, and, to be perfectly honest, this was the least prepared I had ever been for the Games. I had just come off long, slow trail running and had zero strength or speed sessions, and only set foot on a track the week before. So I was the most surprised of all to see that I could still do fairly well even without the specific training – even though it took me far longer to recover from these track events than it did the 6.5hr Bear Race! The Games this year also held one of my highlights – being asked to release some doves as the first female in the Mini Marathon (3km)!

BTG 16 - doves release

The weekend after the Games, I’d signed up to run a 10km race around my local park with a good friend. He’d only just started running a few months earlier, but with the enthusiasm of a new runner, signed up to run the Beat the Blerch 10km all the way over in Seattle! When I found this out I insisted he should get at least one race under his belt before flying halfway around the world, so I paced him through the four laps of Battersea Park, chatting most of the way and gradually getting faster until I had him sprinting across the finish line. This was my first “ target=“out”>Run Through race, and I was super impressed with the organisation and atmosphere – it’s really difficult to make a race welcoming to both first-timers and seasoned racers (of which this had both, and everything in between), and the custom medal made it overall excellent value, too.

Battersea with Meltie

For my own records, we finished in 52:17, wholly respectable for Meltie’s first ever race.

Battersea medals with Meltie

My final race of the year was the Cabbage Patch 10 (miler), which I’d signed up to ages back as it’s a pretty iconic club-focused race that’s been going longer than the London marathon. The name has nothing to do with the 1980s dolls – it’s named for the Cabbage Patch pub in Twickenham that’s hosted it since the early 80s! It’d been ages since I’ve run a 10 miler and I’d been feeling rundown for the past fortnight so I opted to just run it comfortable, sticking to around 5min/km (8min/mi) pace, rather than try and race it. The first few miles were through dull suburban streets, but it picked up once we ran along the river and we even saw a few swans! I picked up my pace around 8 1/2mi in, grabbed a beer from the beer station(!!) at mile 9, and then ran with it for the last mile, keeping my arm steady and my pace hard. I got more cheers in the last mile than the whole race combined – turns out loads of runners missed the beer entirely and everyone loves a lady running with a beer! The post-race goodies were great, the long sleeved(!!) tech tee is one I actually wear instead of chopping up for refashioning, and my finish line photo was so good I actually bought it.

Cabbage Patch 10 with beer

I was hoping to finish in under 1hr30 & I ended up in 1:23:22 so I was pretty chuffed with that.

So all in all, a pretty light year on racing, but I’ve spent the last few months going back and doing all the base building work with my coach that I should’ve done at the start of the year. Lots of core work, glute strength, and frequent, low mileage running to get me ready for both London marathon, but also Malaga later in the year.

I don’t necessarily wish for more medals in 2017, but instead I just wish for good health. What I do with that health is entirely up to me.

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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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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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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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