London marathon 2019 - race report

2 May 2019, 16:34

Last year I got sick for 5 months with multiple viral infections and needed chemo to get rid of the last one, and then it took another 6 months to rebuild my immune system after the chemo. As a result, I couldn’t really stand up for more than a few minutes during that time, let alone run, so I had to DNS or defer every race I cared about.

I started off this year with a sold two months of training in attempt to rebuild what I’d lost in 2018, but then I got ill again for the whole of March. So I was left yet again having to DNS The Big Half, and cram the rest of London Marathon training into the 4 weeks I had left, which I absolutely couldn’t have done without my long-time coach, Barbara at Energy Lab. Even with her expert guidance, however, I was nowhere near back to my usual fitness level come race day so I knew that this year would be my slowest marathon ever. But it was also oddly freeing as I’d never run any of my six previous marathons without chasing some sort of time or qualification.

I also did some soul-searching from my sickbed and realised that being ill every Spring was something I can no longer avoid (despite my best “crazy germ lady” efforts!) and I needed to change my life to work around being ill every Spring rather than being frustrated and disappointed every time my body let me down and got in the way of my ambitions. So this London marathon would be my last for a long time, and I’ll be concentrating on Fall marathons in the future, since I can quite reliably train over the Summer. And if this is the price for being alive the past ten years since my bone marrow transplant, then I have to accept that.

VLM kit flatlay

If this was going to be my last London, then by god I was going to enjoy every second of it. This was my only goal for this race, and I achieved this and then some. I can honestly say that I enjoyed EVERY single step of this race.

I ran with a massive grin on my face from start to finish.

Unlike my other marathons, this never got tough, and I never had to “dig deep”. I ran easy and chatty up to 25k with a friend I made along the way (Hi Mark!), stopped to soak up EVERYTHING at Run dem Crew‘s cheer point at Mile 21 as I knew it’d be my last chance to feel the energy and love, and I even picked up the pace for the Embankment, passing everyone in the last few kilometers to sprint across the line.

Tower Bridge selfie with Mark
My new friend, Mark, and I at Tower Bridge

I ran this marathon, like all my previous marathons, in gear I’d made myself. Specially, I used the Active Leggings design from my “Sew Your Own Activewear” book, shortened to above the knee with an added back waistband pocket to bring the pocket count up to a whopping FIVE POCKETS! I had plenty of room for my phone and battery pack, Gu and Torq gels, Shot Bloks, and chewable SaltStick Tablets (I’m a very salty sweater and I find the salt helps me even more than the gels!). I finally ditched my hated Brooks Pure Flow shoes for distance running (good riddance!) and a month before I’d bought some Merrell Bare Access Flex shoes to use instead, and I adore them! It’s really difficult to find a barefoot-friendly shoe (wide toe-box, lightweight, zero-drop) with just a little bit of cushioning for longer distances on the road, but these have really ticked all the boxes for me.

High five at Mile 21
Photo credit: Rich Williamson

I also had the pleasure of trying out a new product, ChafeX, which I’d ordered from the States after I’d seen it mentioned in ultrarunner Stephanie Case’s brilliant Barkley Marathons race report. It claims to change the outer layer of skin to prevent chafing and blisters, which intrigued me. I’ve always struggled with blisters on the balls of my feet and big toes, and it’s been especially bad this year for a variety of reasons, meaning I’d get horrific blood blisters (and regular blisters) in much shorter training runs, even through KP tape or Body Glide. Even though I only got to apply ChafeX the day before and the morning of the race, it worked like a freaking dream (they recommend starting three days before your event, but it only arrived in the post the day before)! Honestly, I’m so impressed and so pleased I took the risk of trying it out anyway, as I didn’t get a single blister or hot spot on the bottoms of my feet, which is as close to a miracle as I’ll ever see! I only ended up with a blister on the upper inside edge of each big toe, which is entirely my fault as I forget to apply it there!

Hug with Charlie at Mile 21
Photo credit: Simon Roberts

But seriously, not having pain from hotspots or blisters was such a contributing factor of my enjoyment of the race – it meant I wasn’t wincing at the impact or rough road surfaces later on in the race, and it meant I wasn’t changing the way I ran to make landing on blisters less painful, meaning I had absolutely no muscular niggles or pulls or cramps, either. Happy feet, happy Melissa!

Confetti at Mile21
Photo credit: Annie Clarke

I had an absolute BLAST, and it was the happiest I’ve felt in a long, long time. My body may have been through the unimaginable, and it may let me down more often than I’d like, but my body is meant to be running long. This may be the last you’ll see me on the other side of the barrier at Mile 21, but it won’t be the last you’ll see me with a big grin on my face and a marathon medal around my neck.

Virgin Money London Marathon, 28 April 2019, 4:11:15 (Personal Worst and PROUD!)

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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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London Marathon 2017 - race report

25 April 2017, 11:27

Having been seriously ill for the first third of last year, I had to defer my London Marathon place to this year. Beyond giving me a sense of humility, perspective, and appreciation for my health, it also gave me the renewed vigour in my training to not take this opportunity for granted. It took pretty much all of 2016 for my body to recover (both from the illness and my first ultra on an accelerated training schedule) and my training since January has also been a bit more experimental than usual.

On my request, I’ve been doing a lot more low carb, fat-adapted cardio training, plus my coach Barbara has been working a lot with me on muscle activation and running form. Cue lots of targeted strength training (hello Monday night 500x park bench stepups!), and my longest runs were only barely 3hrs this time around. But I felt like my previous years’ marathon pace of 5min/km (8min/mi) was still a good bet, so I set off with the mindset to try and “tickle my PB” of 3:30 by keeping a relaxed and controlled first half.

A 20min wait for a bus followed by a further 10min wait for a train (then the 15min walk from Maze Hill to the Green Start!) left me entering the start zone just as the last calls for the baggage trucks were being announced. From there I joined one of the enormous toilet queues, finally getting to the front at 9:58! It meant I didn’t get to meet up with my friend Steph (we had a loose plan to run together since we were going for the same time and in the same pen), and I don’t even know where my start pen was meant to be, but I crossed the line at 10:02 determined to not let it stress me. I opted for my usual road marathon choice of one headphone only with my carefully curated marathon playlist – easy, chilled songs at the start, getting gradually more intense throughout the race when I need the boost. Having one ear free means I can hear the crowd shout my name, or equally, try to tune out the screaming and focus on my music instead when I need to.

London marathon 2017 - mile 12 London marathon 2017 - mile 12
Looking fresh at Mile 12

This was my first big race using my AppleWatch (running the brilliant Runmeter app) as my GPS/pace watch, and I freaking loved it. I set up a custom screen on Runmeter that just shows me my elapsed time and current pace in a large font, so I did a lot of checking my pace in the first half and adjusting my legs faster or slower as needed to stay on that 5:00 target. I was toying with turning off the heart rate monitoring during the race to save battery, but in the end I kept it on more for the record of it than anything else, and it seemed to stay in the mid-170s throughout (Zone 3 for me). The AppleWatch battery itself is brilliant, but I will say that being connected to the phone through bluetooth for extended periods of time absolutely kills my phone’s (5S) battery, so I needed to run with that in a battery case. But considering I threw my Garmin in the bin after near-continuous “Finding satellite” failures plus a typeface I could barely read at a glance, I am all aboard the AppleWatch-for-running train!

For some people, running with a phone, battery, multiple gels, headphones, and salt caps might be an issue, but hey, that’s why I design activewear! With my “sew your own activewear” book deadline being the day after the marathon, my publishers asked if I could run it in designs from the book to help with marketing down the line. I’ve run all 6 of my previous marathons in me-made gear, but I usually wear a Run dem Crew shirt or vest on top. This time I wanted to both rep my crew AND show off my book designs, so I made my shorts and vest from modified designs which will appear in my book (coming out early 2018), and took the vest up to Big Teezar in Camden to get the RDC logo and my name vinyl printed onto the front. The shorts are actually a leggings design from my book chopped off above the knee (which unfortunately cuts out a lot of the design interest!) with an additional back waistband pocket bringing the pocket total up to FIVE. FIVE BIG POCKETS, PEOPLE. My vest takes the offset side seams of one design in the book, but uses the neckline and armholes of a different vest design from the book, and I tweaked the ease to be somewhere between close- and loose-fitting. I know what I like for racing, and I wanted it to be perfect!

London marathon 2017
Running through Mile 21, photo by Simon Roberts

The colour scheme started with the flame-print lycra I got printed at FunkiFabrics, using rust supplex, red supplex, and yellow chitosante down the side pockets, and reusing the red and yellow in the vest top. I was trying not to see it as McDonalds (or Serpentine!), but a friend said I was channelling Baywatch and Hulk Hogan, so I’m going to go with that!!

But back to the race – in a marathon my goal is to reach the first half as controlled and relaxed as possible, having spent minimal energy. So I settled into my marathon pace, kept things relaxed, and kept an eye out for my husband at Mile 12 in our old neighbourhood. Seeing Princes Harry, William, and Kate cheering at maritime Greenwich was more than a little surreal, and running into my 2014 #ExtraMile buddy Ibi on the course at Mile 3 was kinda crazy, but for the most part south London was just a chillaxed blur.

One thing I love about the London course is that, if you run around a 3:30 pace, you get to see the Elites coming down The Highway around their KM35 as you’re going up the opposite side of the road approaching the halfway point. This means I got to see Wanjiru, Bekele and the others in full form from only a few metres away, but also cheer on my amaaaaaazing friend Tom Payn repping his RDC vest on his way to a 2:22 finish! I crossed halfway bang on schedule at 1:46, and it was shortly after this that my first muscle issue began to appear – a curious pain on the top of my left ankle. It got bad enough that at one point I actually stopped to loosen my shoelace, but I’m still not sure what the issue was, as I’ve never had a pain there before in my life (and post-race it was definitely red and angry).

London marathon 2017 - mile 23
Looking decidedly more haggard at Mile 23…

But soon I had bigger issues to worry about, as I began to get some very tight cramps/knots in both quads at the same place – inner thigh a few inches above the knee – again, a strange place and a first for me in any run. This tightness started around the Isle of Dogs and slowed my pace by a few seconds per km. I stopped to stretch out my quads at one point to try and shift it, as well as a quick thumb-massage, but to no avail. It gradually got worse, and by Canary Wharf and Poplar it felt like I had a fist-sized rock in each thigh, making every step painful and making maintaining pace difficult. I kept telling myself “Just make it to Mile 21 [where the RDC cheer station is] and maybe Barbara [my coach] can massage it out…” Mile 21 is incredibly motivating at the best of times, but when you’re suffering, the boost it gives is immeasurable. Hell, even just knowing that it’s coming up will push you to carry on, and when I arrived to a million familiar smiles, high fives, confetti cannon, and hugs, it was just the boost I needed. I found out that Barbara wasn’t there, though (having had to cover a class that day) so I resigned myself to a painful last five miles.

The theme for this year’s London marathon was “Reason to Run”, and to be honest, I was struggling with this in the leadup. I mean, I wasn’t running for a charity, or in the memory of someone, or even a particular time. But in those last few miles, when the pain in my legs was screaming at me to “JUST WALK”, I found my reason to run. My mind fought back, and its ammunition was the mantra “You are alive, and you can run.”

London marathon 2017

The pain in my legs and ankle got worse, plus somewhere along the Embankment the back of my knee started to pop, leading me to try to stretch out my quads again after my leg nearly gave out entirely a few times (apologies to the spectators who got to hear a string of continuous F-bombs…), and finally I just realised that I needed to put my head down and push through whatever else was coming, even if it meant falling flat on my face. So I sucked it up, willed myself forward, and remembered that I was privileged not only to be alive, but to be running again. And despite all the above, I managed to pick up the pace in the last mile for a final finish time of 3:38:58 – not quite tickling my PB as I’d hoped, but still a GFA (guaranteed entry for next year) and a Boston Qualifier, so ultimately worth the pain.

London marathon 2017

So what went wrong this time around? Well, I always say that I learn something from every single marathon, and the take-home lessons for me this time around were:

  1. Pre-race massages are NOT optional. A yoga session the day before helped, but I know that tightness in my hamstrings and hip flexors was likely the cause of my quad distress. I was lax on my massages this year, and I need to do better in future.

  2. I need to increase my Magnesium levels during marathon training. I’ve known for years that I’m a “salty sweater” and a routine blood test a few weeks before the race revealed my Magnesium levels were low, but I found out too late to do much about it. I took two salt caps during the race, but it’s no replacement for regular stores and likely caused the cramping issues.

London marathon 2017

But it wasn’t all bad, and I really do take on board lessons I’ve learned in previous marathons, too. I’m particularly proud of my rock-solid pacing this year, holding back and staying strictly on target marathon pace, especially in the first 10k when it’s tempting to go faster because you feel fine and easy (learnt in London marathon 2014).

London marathon 2017 splits
Check out dem splits! (the min/km column)

I was also absolutely on-point with my nutrition, taking either a gel or two ShotBloks every 5km up to 35 (I brought one for 40km, but I hardly ever take it, and this year was no different) even when I was zero desire to shove another down my face and I don’t feel like I need it and salt caps at halfway and again at Canary Wharf (30km). I also did a great job at staying relaxed in the first half, sticking to my aim of using as little energy as possible to reach halfway. In past years I get overexcited, weave around people too much, and high five too many kids (sorry kids, but that takes energy!), and it really comes back to bite me later in the race. And finally, in the latter stages, I walked through the water stations (learnt in Berlin 2014), and stopped to stretch out my legs when something was tight (it didn’t actually fix it this time, but I learnt in Copenhagen 2013 that a few shorts stops and walking breaks only adds a negligible amount of time).

London marathon 2017

Marathons are an interesting challenge. You can do everything right in training, have perfect weather (albeit a bit too sunny for my liking), the right mindset, but still have things go wrong. You just have to learn from them, come back stronger, and try again next time. I think it’s part of the reason why I keep coming back to the marathon distance – I know I have a sub-3:30 in me – I just have to get all the little pieces in place (plus have some luck with the weather) and have the right day. But there’s no rush – I know my day will come.

London marathon 2017

Virgin Money London Marathon, 23 April 2017, 3:38:58

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A guide to the Transylvanian Bear Race

13 June 2016, 14:32

This post is intended to help guide anyone wishing to run the Transylvanian Bear Race next year, as there’s not much information out there beyond the official site. You can read my race report here, but this post is more laying out the logistics and my opinions on how you can make the most of your time in Transylvania over the race weekend. These are all my opinions and I might have an error here or there, but basically I’m answering all the questions I had before running!

Viscri main street
The main street in Viscri (no really)

Viscri view
View from the Viscri fortified church

Pre-Race & Viscri

  • Flights & transfers – The race organisers did a good job of laying out all the flight options from London to the race start. I opted to go for the more expensive flight into Targu Mures (aka “Tirgu Mures” or “Transilvania”) airport which arrived very late on Thursday night, and I’m glad I did. Transfer times to/from Targu Mures were only 90/60min instead of the 4+hr transfer from Bucharest, and it meant I had the whole day on Friday to relax around Viscri village. Transfers were in vans, and the ride was comfortable right up until the potholed, dirt track leading into Viscri. Note that you should bring along a torch and a map of where your accommodation is located as the drivers just know where you drop you off and that’s it.
  • Money – Definitely bring some cash in local currency (Romanian Lei) before you get to Viscri, as no one takes cards. There is a cash point in the Arrivals hall at Targu Mures airport (and presumably at Cluj and Bucharest, too, as Targu is tiny!). There aren’t many places to spend money in Viscri, but there is a small shop selling snacks and drinks, a bakery, the fortified church (8 lei entry fee), the ladies selling hand knitted socks (about 30 lei a pair), and also lunch at Viscri 125 (also around 30 lei) on Friday if you arrive early like I did. There are plenty of cash points in Sighisoara so you really only need enough to get you through the day in Viscri.
  • Viscri accomodation – I stayed in Viscri 129 guesthouse, which was on the main street and only a few doors down from Visccri 125, which serves as Race HQ and appears to be the only hotel, restaurant, and wifi in the village. Others who stayed at 125 were very happy with it, and I was pleased with 129, too. Experience Transylvania were super helpful in arranging my arrival at 3am and getting some groceries in the fridge for my arrival, so they certainly get two thumbs up from me! Accommodation in the open hayloft is included in your race entry, but you need to provide your own sleeping bag and mat. I didn’t see the loft myself (as it was up the hill by the fortified church) but I’m told there were plentiful toilets but no showers, and you’d be advised to bring ear plugs and eye masks as the cuckoos and cows are quite loud in the morning!
  • Viscri village sights/amenities – Viscri is a tiny village – there are seriously only three roads, and you can walk around the entire village in about 10min. The only reason people really ever come here is to see the fortified church, which is well worth a visit for the views as well as the local history museum, which I found genuinely fascinating. You can also see the terrain of where you’ll be running the next day! Some others visited the village bakery, where you can watch them make traditional loves, and there are a few ladies selling hand knitted socks and caps on the street leading up to the church. Every morning and evening the cows go through town on their way out to pasture (and let themselves into the right house each night!!) which is about as much excitement as you’re likely to get. As a result, there are cow patties everywhere so you might want to leave your heels at home, ha! I was also surprised to find that the villagers tended to speak German instead of Romanian.
  • Registration/briefing/pasta party – Friday night there’s a mandatory race briefing followed by a pasta party at Viscri 125. The latter consisted of pasta in a meat sauce or veggie sauce accompanied by bread, with a cash bar on hand if you fancied beer, wine, or the local plum palinka/moonshine. Directly after the race briefing was registration, where you signed a waiver and picked up your number for the next day – all very low key!
  • Fundraising – The race is in aid of the European Nature Trust and you’re expected to raise £200 to help fund their efforts to educate the local children in conservation as well as buying up forested land to preserve. The TENT guys were on hand to help tell us what they do, and the education bus was open to poke around, too. They’re a really small and friendly charity doing a lot of good work on the ground in Romania, and IMHO the fundraising amount is quite reasonable!

Viscri knitting lady
One of the ladies selling knitwear in Viscri

The Race itself

  • Route / elevation – The ultra course is ~88km and the marathon course is 47km, and you can see my Strava run details here, which include the elevation. Marathon runners had the option to be taken further up the course in a horse and cart so that it’d be closer to true marathon distance rather than starting at the church. This was still 45km, but cut out the incredibly boggy first few km, but on the downside you also miss out on starting at the church, so it’s something you’ll need to decide for yourself. Note that only the ultra course goes through the surrounding villages – on the marathon course, the only civilisation you’ll see are at the start and finish.
  • Running surface – The vast majority of the marathon course is along a mountain biking trail, marked with crushed white chalk stone (the ultra course uses this too, with added diversions to the villages). Since it’s designed for mountain bikes, the turns are banked, there are twisty chicanes up and down steep gradients (which you’re welcome to run straight through!), and the occasional jumps nearing Sighisoara. It rained heavily the night before our race so the path was pretty much continuous mud and puddles, but much easier to run through that the logging trail in the first 2km.
  • Course marking – As nearly all of the marathon course follows the mountain biking trail, you really only need to follow the crushed white stone, but there are places where it’s not easy to see. The race organisers tied hazard tape to trees every 50m (red for ultra, yellow for marathon) and even spraypainted arrows on the road in a few places. I personally found it pretty easy to follow even in my marathon-brain state but apparently I was in the minority who didn’t get lost at all.
  • Feed stations – There are checkpoints at kilometers 13, 24, 31, and 37 on the marathon course (a few extras for the ultra, but I didn’t write those down!). These were really just a volunteer with some bags of snacks (crisps, haribo, cookies, bananas, etc) plus bottles of coke and water by the side of the trail (no tables or chairs). I should point out that there are no toilets along the course, but you’ll be running in utter solitude for long stretches of time so squatting in the forest to do your business is really no biggie (but pack so loo roll in a ziploc just in case, as the race has a strict NO LITTERING policy so you’ll need to bring your tissue back with you).
  • Required kit list – The race website listed a bunch of things that runners needed to present at registration and every checkpoint, so I brought all these with me only to find out that they were only vaguely recommended. The only items we were actually required to bring along were a water bottle and a waterproof jacket (and even then there was no checking at the feed stations, start or finish). The torch was mostly for finding your way around Viscri at night, and the map case and compass were replaced by an offline map app, and the whistle was presumably to ward off bears and sheepdogs, but we weren’t really told what do to in case of bear sighting anyway, as they’re really rare with the amount of noise and smells runners produce!
  • Recommended kit (IMHO) – These are all highly subjective, but I’d recommend trail shoes, a good running backpack, a waterproof jacket, water bottles or camelbak, whatever nutrition suits you, plus a backup phone battery and the aforementioned loo roll in a baggie. But back to the shoes – about half wore road shoes (including the first lady!) and were fine, but I was very glad to have my trail shoes, because we ran through really thick mud and standing water, and my trail shoes drain and dry off much more quickly than road shoes. But ultimately wear whatever you’re comfortable running 5+ hours in! Also weather depending, you may want suncream or sunglasses for the 4km or so in the meadows where there’s no shade. I used bug spray but I think the mud washed it off anyway – the bugs were only an issue if I stopped moving entirely.
  • Maps – Instead of paper maps, we were all told to download the View Ranger app onto our phones and load up either the marathon or ultra course map in case we got lost. To be honest, I only opened the app once during the race, and that was just to see exactly how close to Sighisoara I was when I started to hear road noises.
  • Photographer – There’s a very friendly race photographer, Paul, who followed our progress in a 4×4 as well as by mountain bike. But there’s only one of him and we all got quite spread out, so I only saw him once at the beginning of the race, though the organisers took photos of everyone at the finish line, too. If photos are important to you, get practising with those selfies!
  • Wildlife – You are very unlikely to encounter any wolves or bears! Frankly, the professional sheepdogs are scary enough, but the shepherds were briefed ahead of time that we’d be coming through, and kept a close eye on them. I did see lots of birds, snails, a couple frogs, and a family of piggies, though, and heard lots of cuckoos in the forest (though strangely, no squirrels!).

Sighisoara main square
The main square “post race” beer area in Sighisoara

Sighisoara beer
The local beer, Ursus, is rather good!

Post-Race & Sighisoara

  • Finish line & goodie bag – The race finish goes through the centre of the old town, through the main square (where you’ll get cheers and beers from those who’ve already finished!), up the infamous wooden stairs, and then the road winds upwards again at the top of the stairs, finishing at the very top of the hill. This year we received a beautiful, hand crafted ceramic finishers medal, embroidered teeshirt, and a canvas tote bag. There was water at the finish, but most of us just went back down the hill and had a beer in the piazza cafes instead. We were also given access to a piazaa hotel to have a shower and change, though if accommodation changes in future (see below), you might just check into your hotel afterwards instead.
  • Post race party – The post-race party was in the basement event space of one of the piazza hotels, and really was just a sit down, two course meal. Drinks were extra, and there wasn’t any music or entertainment. It was also very casual, so don’t bother packing nice clothes or dancing shoes or anything! It was really just a great opportunity to chat to the other runners and find out how their races went! There was nothing formally organised for Sunday morning so say your goodbyes at the party unless you make specific plans to meet up the next day.
  • Sighisoara accomodation – I won’t go into the details here as I’ve already contacted the organisers, but our included accommodation was extremely disappointing. I’m told that they’ve learned from this and that it may not be included in future anyway – just know that there are loads of reasonably priced hotels in Sighisoara, so if a good bed and hot shower matter to you, just book your own room for the night.
  • Sighisoara sights/amenities – Sighisoara is a decent sized town with a roaring tourist trade so all the amenities are there – cash points, grocery stores, bars, restaurants, tacky souvenir shops, the works. The main attractions are the citadel/church at the top of the hill, which has some interesting frescos and crypt, and the clock tower, which includes an extensive museum and views from the top. Both had entrance fees, but I can’t recall what they were. There’s also “the room where Dracula was born!” but Tripadvisor said this was tacky so I didn’t bother…
  • Flights & transfers – The pickup point for transfers back to the airports was from a restaurant just off the main square – very easy to find. Make absolutely sure you don’t miss the transfer time, though, as it was everyone’s responsibility to be there. If you’re flying back out of Targu Mures airport, use up your local currency before going through security, as the two shops on the other side of security/passport control only take Euros. But really, buy any snacks or souvenirs before you leave Sighisoara because the airport selection was really dire.

View of Sighisoara
View from the clock tower in Sighisoara

Things I wish I’d done: had my husband fly in to Targu Mures after the race and spent another week driving around the Transylvanian countryside! Several others thought to do this and I was so jealous!

I should also point out that there’s a mountain biking trip through the same area in Transylvania, run by the European Nature Trust (who are the charity partner for the Bear Race and are really lovely people!). One of the five days is the exact route of the Bear Race marathon, and I can attest that the trail is perfectly suited for cycling!

If you’ve got any other questions about something I’ve not covered here, feel free to leave me a comment below, but as time goes on my memory might get a bit hazy!

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Transylvanian Bear Race - race report

7 June 2016, 13:39

I have never felt more grateful to be on a start line than I did standing in front of the fortified church in Viscri, Transylvania, in Romania on Saturday. I’d heard about the Transylvanian Bear Race over a year ago when my friend Rhalou ran the first ever one and raved about it, sharing amazing photos and saying it was the best race she’d ever done (and she’s run a lot of races). So I signed up pretty much immediately when it opened up for 2016, and couldn’t stop talking about it for the past 9 months or so. People loved the name and the crazy premise of the race (to run through Europe’s last unspoiled virgin forests, with wild bears and wolves, through medieval villages, and finish going up the steps to Dracula’s castle), and I was excited to finally run my first trail marathon after running five road marathons. For me it’d be both an adventure and a new physical test.

But I was quite seriously ill in January, and didn’t really recover enough to do any running whatsoever until April, meaning I had to defer London marathon and DNS Cardiff Half. I managed to party pace Hackney Half in the searing heat, but cramming in 6 weeks of training and only one really long run in for this race was not ideal. But my 3.5hr run along the North Downs Way gave me confidence that I could at least complete the race, and my legs felt marathon-ready, even though overall I knew I still wasn’t back up to my usual fitness level.

Bear Race start
Before the start, complete with Run dem Crew tee, custom-sewn bear shorts, and trusty backpack

The Transylvanian Bear Race is actually two races – you can choose to run either the “marathon”, or the ultra. I chose the marathon because I’d been wanting to run a trail marathon for ages, and I credit my staying at a race distance for a number of years before progressing in distance for my only ever having one injury in 14 years of running (from a track session, no less!). So I felt I wanted to stay at the marathon distance a while longer before possibly moving into an ultra at some point – and this ultra is 88km, over twice the marathon distance! I only discovered a month or so before the race that the “marathon” distance was actually 49km the previous year, and as it turned out, 47km this year after cutting out a section through a village. With 576m (1890ft) of climb and challenging terrain, this is not your standard marathon – I’d also learned that last year’s winner finished two hours over his road marathon PB, and that if you get in under 6 hours, you’ve done really well!

Bear Race selfie at Viscri
Start line selfie with the fortified church at Viscri

I stood on the start line feeling ready for adventure, and almost immediately after we took off, we encountered two miles of the boggiest mud I’ve ever seen (and I’ve been to both English cross country meets as well as Glastonbury!). This made it difficult to even walk, let alone run, and I know I used up far too much energy early on just getting through it (as did everyone else). But I was fortunate enough to not lose a shoe (as others did), and when we finally hit the proper trail, it felt amazing to finally stretch out my legs and find a comfortable running rhythm. The vast majority of the race just follows a very well maintained mountain biking trail through the forests – while it was designed for cyclists with nice banked corners and shallow gradients (think zigzags up the hills which runners could easily shortcut), the entire route was lined in a crushed chalk stone which made it easy to follow but also really nice to run on.

Bear Race view at clearing Bear Race selfie with vista

But there were a few twists and turns along the way, and a few places where it wasn’t immediately obvious which path to take (as there were some logging roads in places, too), and the race directors marked the route with coloured tape at 50m intervals – red and white for the ultra, and black and yellow for the marathon. Talking to other runners afterwards, I seem to be in the minority that didn’t get lost at all, and even in my braindead state at the end, I found it easy to just follow the white chalk path (we were also supplied with an offline trail map app but I didn’t need to use it at all).

But those are purely logistics – the experience of the race was both the hardest run I’ve ever done and also the most rewarding. 90% of the route is in the forests, which were just stunningly beautiful. For large stretches of the race I ran alone in the forest, and I could turn 360 degrees around and not only see no other humans, but see no other evidence of humans other than the path. The sound of the cuckoos in the trees while I ran, with dappled sunshine streaming through the forest canopy is a memory I’ll take with me forever. And it was like that, over and over, for hours.

Bear Race forest selfie

We got really lucky with the weather – the forecast in the week leading up to the race called for thunderstorms on the day, and even at the pre-race briefing we were told that waterproofs were mandatory. It rained heavily in the days leading up to the race, leaving the path as a near-continuous string of puddles and mud despite the chalk, but the weather during the run was gorgeous – sunny but shaded in the forest and about 20 degrees Celsuis (70F) with a light breeze.

Bear Race - muddy trail
Fairly representative photo of the muddy trail

The meadows, however, were another story. Apparently only 4km of the course is not in the forest, but as soon you stepped out of the tree line you were hit hard with two things: 1) omg the vistas across the mountains were incredible, stretching for miles and miles fading into faded purple mountains, with no houses or human evidence in sight. And 2) the beating sun caused the temperature to be at least 10 degrees © hotter than in the forest, which, combined with the high humidity, made running a real struggle. Once the initial boggy miles were out of the way, I settled into a pretty good rhythm in the forests, running about 6min/km (9min/mi), chatting with various other runners for 10-30min at a time, and just stopping at the checkpoints to fill up my Camelbak and be off on my way.

Bear Race - with sign
Posing with the directional sign at the 3rd checkpoint at 31km

But right after the third checkpoint at 31km (19mi), we hit a meadow and I just melted. I’d already been running for about 4 hours at that point, and every time I attempted to jog a little, but my body just said NO. So to avoid heat exhaustion, I ended up walking the entire 2-3km of that meadow, despite attempting to run several times. This meadow alone easily added 30-40min onto my time, but as soon as I hit the forest again, the cool air hit me and I could pick up running again. Once we were on the mountain biking path, we were pretty much alone until the last descent into town, apart from 2 or 3 weathered local shepherds keeping an eye on their flocks (who’d be warned in advance that we’d be coming through and to kindly keep their enormous sheepdogs out of our way!). Whenever I’ve been on trails or public footpaths in the US or UK, I’d come across people out hiking or walking their dogs, or even out running at least once every half hour or so. But in Transylvania, there wasn’t a soul using the path that wasn’t part of the race, which I just found odd, but also a bit sad. Sure, we were running through a very remote area with only a handful of villages for miles around, but it still felt like somewhere so beautiful should be appreciated a bit more, and not just by 65 sweaty Brits on one day a year.

Bear Race - meadow tree
The only shade in that entire blazing meadow

But back to my race – after the molten meadow, I picked back up running again in the forest, but without the same vigour as before. I’m blaming it on the heat, but it could also just be the fact that I’d been running for longer than I’d ever been on my feet before. By the time 5 hours rolled along, I was still a few kilometers shy of the 42km marathon mark, and I “celebrated” by recording a little stream of consciousness video diary on my Go Pro, which was thoroughly amusing but rather rambling so I edited it down for time!

Bear Race - stairs at Sighisoara
The stairs at Sighisoara (actually only half of them!

Bear Race - acid trip selfie
My “acid trip” selfie taken on the stairs – I swear I wasn’t pulling a face, this was just how I felt!

Just before the final zigzag descent into Sighisoara, I started to hear some road noises and another runner came up behind me in one of my walking breaks, so my new friend and I made the descent into town together, feeling equally startled by the sudden appearance of people, taxis, and chickens, and then running on pavement, cobbles, and having to cross the road! Once we got into the main square we were greeted by an almighty cheer from the finished runners enjoying their beers in a piazza cafe, which really helped pick up the legs to get to the almighty covered wooden staircase leading up to the citadel. My new friend started running up the stairs (!!), to which I promptly said “F— that, I’m walking up!”, then once at the top, it was a short curve round to the very top of the hill, where the finish line was marked with a few stones, cheers of congratulations, and a hug from my friend Ruth (who said I “looked fresh”, hahahah).

Bear Race - finish line

My official time was 6 hours 22 minutes and 57 seconds, which was about 2.5hrs longer than I’d ever run before (my 3:52 finish at Copenhagen marathon in 2013). I’d also finished as second lady, apparently, too, so in case you’re thinking that this was a really slow time for 47km, just let that sink in (and in fact, my time this year was faster than the first lady’s time last year)! That time is much more of an indication of how difficult the terrain and conditions were than any particular comment on my performance on the day – I know one runner who took nearly 12 hours to finish!

Bear Race - medal

I’m leaving out a lot of race particulars here on purpose as I’m writing another post as a guide for anyone who’d like to run it next year (and you should!!), but the medal we were given at the finish is probably the nicest one I’ve ever received in all my races. It’s a glazed ceramic medal, handmade by local artisans, and is such a wonderful and fitting reminder of the race – it’s beautiful to behold, but also a little rough around the edges but absolutely bursting with charm.

Transylvanian Bear Race, 4 June 2016, 6:22:57

This race was in aid of the European Nature Trust, a small charity whose aims are conservation of the Transylvanian forests through buying up land as well as educating Romanian schoolchildren in a travelling conservation bus. You can donate to my fundraising here if you’d like..

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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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Homemade flax gels recipe

11 May 2016, 15:37

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

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

Homemade flax gel recipe

  • 1 ripe banana

  • 1 cup oats

  • 1/2 cup ground flax seeds

  • 1 tablespoon chia seeds

  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon

  • 1 tablespoon honey

  • 1 tablespoon coarse salt

  • boiling water

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

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

Flax gel

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

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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.


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 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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London Marathon 2015 - race report

28 April 2015, 13:11

This was my 5th marathon, and my second time running London. I’ve always said that I learn so much from every single marathon I run, and this time in particular, I was really trying to apply the lessons learnt from last year’s London marathon (namely – do NOT set off too fast, even if you feel good!), and Berlin marathon (sticking to a pacing plan can make a world of difference in a race).

So with those two lessons firmly in mind, the first half was always going to be crucial for me in terms of reigning my speed in and running it as relaxed as humanly possible. I kept repeating to myself to expend as little energy as possible until at least halfway.

The first few miles were spent enjoying the moments, making memories, running into friends (and seeing Marathon Talk‘s own Tony’s Trials for the second year in a row!), and being surprised by friends cheering at points along the route (shout-out to Dommy, Linda, Stephanie, Sarah, Cat, and Simon!). In general, I find the first half of the course (bar the Cutty Sark) to be incredibly dull. I know the area between Miles 6-12 particularly well, but it still doesn’t make them any more interesting! At least this year we were blessed with my perfect race weather – cold, cloudy, and slightly damp – so south London wasn’t the baking hot, shade-free torture zone it was last year.

London Marathon - Mile 12 cheer

As always, my first major highlight was passing home at Mile 12, where all the neighbours came down to the end of the road to cheer me on. I grabbed a quick kiss from my husband, waved hello to the in-laws and a surprise friend from out of town(!), and applied a bit of Body Glide to prevent further chafing from my me-made sports bra neckline (never a problem before this race, and the Body Glide stopped anything from developing further). My husband said afterwards how much fresher I looked this year, and I definitely felt that, too.

London Marathon - Mile 12 high five
Running past home at Mile 12, very happy to see my husband, neighbours, and family!

In terms of my goals, the first half was hugely successful – I ran it relaxed, easy, and averaged only about 10 seconds under my goal pace of 5min/km (8min/mi). For me, mentally, however, the race only really starts to get fun once I pass Tower Bridge and the halfway point – I much prefer the course north of the river for some reason, even though many hate the desolate Isle of Dogs.

Last year, I utterly hated the London crowds. It felt like 3 1/2 hours of people shouting at me, at a constant din turned up to 11, with no respite from the heat, crowds, and shouting. This year, I definitely noticed more patches where the support was quiet (maybe due to the less-nice spectating weather?) and I made a point to appreciate those when they came. Psychologically, I dealt much better with the crowds this year than before.

A little after halfway, I noticed my left hip started to ache, and then occasionally give me sharper points of pain, but this is something I’ve become accustomed to in road marathons – running for such a distance on the hard surfaces really does a number on my hips in particular (I imagine that running the same distance on soft trails wouldn’t, though I’ve yet to test that theory). Since this was a pain I’ve had before, I didn’t panic, but instead reminded myself that “it’s a marathon – it’s supposed to hurt” and concentrated on improving my form. This is the first I’ve really tried this technique, but I was very impressed – when I made the mental note to pick up my heels, land on my forefeet, and pull my shoulders back, it was like I’d popped a painkiller. So I kept reminding myself of this as much as possible, and I credit it with my finishing the race with only two blisters and a bit of stiffness in my legs and shoulders.

So by the time I went through Canary Wharf at 30km I was feeling a bit ragged, but still not too bad – not as relaxed as the first half, but nowhere near as broken as last year! From Canary Wharf, I pretty much just counted the miles til I got to Mile 21, where my crew was waiting for me.

London Marathon - Mile 21 big head
My “big head” at Run dem Crew’s EPIC Mile 21 cheer point. Photo credit: Sarah Mac

They’d put up signs all along the course the night before the marathon, and I honestly got a boost every time I saw one – I even gave our gunfinger salute to quite a few! But even experiencing the hallucinogenic high of Mile 21 last year didn’t diminish the impact of it all over again this year.

Big head appreciation
Showing my appreciation for my “Big head” at Mile 21. Photo credit: Gemma Brady

To see hundreds of familiar faces all cheering you on, shouting for YOU, getting so excited that you’re some celebrity runner, seeing your face blown up to a billboard size, then shouting and cheering back at them all while a confetti cannon bursts overhead… just epic! (Though I don’t recommend open-mouthed cheers while confetti is falling, hahah!). Just after we passed Mile 21, another runner commented to her friend “Now that’s what I call support!”.

Mile 21 shout
Cheering for the cheerers at Mile 21. Photo credit: Michael Adeyeye

Then I had to concentrate on not getting too excited since I still had 5 miles to run, but I knew that once I hit the Highway again it’s a straight shot all the way to Big Ben, which is mentally so much easier to handle. It may be 5 miles, but it’s a straight 5 miles! I had to really work to keep up the pace here – I kept targeting 5min/km but I’d look at my Garmin and see 5:10, or 5:15, and have to really struggle to pick up my legs to bring it back down to 5:00. I walked through two water stations to better get my last salt cap and gel down, but I honestly don’t think it added much to my time (I’d walked through all the Berlin water stops, afterall).

I’d really wanted to burst through the last 5km like we had in Berlin, but couldn’t really get my speed up any faster, so the brilliant feeling of passing everyone at the end just wasn’t meant to be (I passed more people than passed me, according to the official stats, anyway!). I worked really hard to maintain my goal pace, though, and even though my second half was slower than the first, the stats had my average pace at 5:02/km, which is incredible!

The Embankment was a sheer wall of noise (turned up to 11) and pushing past with everything I had, I only really focused on counting down the bridges and keeping my eyes on Big Ben in the distance. Having run the course before, I knew St James’ Park feels deceptively long – after you turn the corner at Big Ben, it’s still one long mile left to go. But before I knew it, I was on the red road outside Buckingham Palace and stumbling over the finish line!

London Marathon - space blanket
Directly after the race, still in my “quiet time”

I followed my fellow race zombies to collect my baggage, then my husband, his parents, and our friend, though I had to sit down for some “quiet time” before I could move anywhere or do anything (I get this after every marathon).

London Marathon - afterwards
Afterwards, in Trafalgar Square, Photo credit: James O’Brien (as are all the other uncredited ones above!)

I’m really proud of myself for sticking to my pace plan and taking it easy for the first half – I found it much more enjoyable than last year, and even though it was still a tough race, I was able to let my cheering crews lift me up. My finish time was only 2 minutes slower than last year, but it was a world of difference in terms of experience, pacing, and control.

Considering this wasn’t my “A Race” for the year (competing for Team GB in the World Transplant Games in Argentina has that honour!) I’m really pleased. Plus it’s another GFA/BQ combo in the bag! (“GFA” = “Good for Age”, which means I get a guaranteed place at next year’s London marathon. “BQ” = “Boston Qualifier”, which means I’m eligible to run Boston Marathon should I wish to)

Oh, and I got a lot of compliments on my me-made running shorts from the crowd and other runners alike, too!

London marathon, 26 April 2015, 3:32:40

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London Marathon - Follow Me!

25 April 2015, 11:35

Tomorrow I will run the London Marathon. As I wrote about last week, I’m surprisingly chill about the whole thing as I haven’t really felt like I’ve been “marathon training”. This is my fifth marathon and my second time running London, and it’s not even my “A-race” for the year, either.

first four marathons
My first four marathons! Amsterdam 2012, Copenhagen 2013, London 2014, and Berlin 2014

So why exactly am I running this? Well, I fought long and hard to earn myself a Good For Age (GFA) place last year, and by god I was going to use it! It basically means that I’m free from the stress of fundraising for a charity, and all that entails. I also really want to see if I ran repeat my pacing success from Berlin marathon last Fall and run a steady, controlled, and even first 22 miles, and crank it up in the last 3mi (5km) to finish super strong. I also really didn’t enjoy the crowds at London marathon last year, and well, as cross country showed, I’ll try anything twice. I really am hoping to enjoy it more this year, especially Run dem Crew’s legendary Mile 21 cheer station, which was a bit of a blur of heat, noise, and confetti last year!

This isn’t my traditional, full kit layout photo, but as loads of people were asking what to look out for on the course, I wanted to show the my old-school RDC vest (which I wore to run my first two marathons, see above!), and a special version of my latest Steeplechase Leggings pattern, which has no inseams! The RDC logo is highly reflective, but a bit difficult to spot from a distance, so look for the shorts instead!

VLM kit

Since I’ve got to carry 4 gels, a pack of Shot Bloks, and a kinder egg capsule full of Saltstick caps this year, the single back pocket in these isn’t really enough, so I’ve also made a matching armband pocket to store the rest (a strategy which worked well in Berlin!).

The salt capsules are a relatively new addition, but I’ve always been a super salty sweater (I’ve been known to have a salt crust on my face after hot 10km races), and I’ve found that one capsule every hour or so during hard sessions really helps me. Like, within 30 seconds of taking it, I feel significantly better. Having tested them under race conditions at Cambridge Half and then again on a 20 miler, I’m feeling confident about using these tomorrow, too.

VLM photobooth

Whether you’re coming down to central London to cheer tomorrow or not, during the race itself, there are a few different ways you can track me:

1. The official London Marathon site (my race number is 27256), which will show my position at every 5km and guesstimates in between. Note that the tracking portion of the site will only appear on race day – Sunday 26 April (the mass start is at 10:10am BST), and that my little dot will only move once I’ve passed the 5km timing mat (approx 10:35am).

This year there’s also (finally!) an official iOS app, which means you can plug in all your favourite runners ahead of time and get updates when you latch onto a tube station or pub’s wifi (3G along the route is notoriously oversubscribed on race day). I had a look on Google Play, but there doesn’t seem to be an Android version, sorry.

These two official methods take data every 5km when I step over a timing mat, and extrapolate my pace in between. So if a runner changes pace significantly, it’s not going to reflect that.

2. Twitter – My Runmeter app will tweet from my account that I’ve started the run, and you can click on the link to see where I am, and/or reply to ANY of my tweets (including that one) to have it spoken into my ear while I run. The only issue here is that if the 3G is unavailable when I start (and it’s likely it’ll be oversubscribed at the start and finish), the tweet with the link in it won’t go out. You can still reply to any of my tweets though, to have it spoken to me (you can’t just write a new mention to me, though – it has to be a reply).

Also, do not freak out if my progress suddenly stops near the end of the race, as it did along the Embankment last year! That just means the battery on my phone died prematurely (well, it is supplying me with tunes, GPS, and spoken comments along the way!), and I’ll update it when I’m reunited with my spare battery after the finish.

3. DailyMile – join and send me a friend request before tonight, and you can access the same tracking link, and also any comments added to my post while I’m running will also be spoken into my headphones. The advantage here is that Runmeter will poll Daily Mile something like every 5min throughout the race, so if the 3G is down at the start, it’ll just post it at the next opportunity, then updated as it gets info from my phone. My profile is here After you sign up, hit the “Add Friend” button on the left under my photo. Note that other than for races, I really don’t use DailyMile much anymore, much preferring Strava since they actually update the site and add new features more than once every 5 years. But Strava doesn’t support the spoken comments yet!

So wish me luck, and keep an eye on the above tomorrow!

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London "Marathon Training"

14 April 2015, 09:43

VLM sign

It’s two weeks to go until London marathon, and everyone (who knows I’m running, at least) is asking me “How’s marathon training going?”

And that feels like an odd question, because I don’t really feel like I’ve been marathon training this time around. For the bulk of January and February, I was putting four runs a week in, but I wasn’t following any strict plan. Sure, I’d do tempo on Tuesday, shorter easy runs on Mondays and Thursdays, strength training on Fridays, and something longer on Sundays, but it wasn’t to a strict, pre-ordained pace for x minutes of the run, and if I felt particularly unmotivated, I’d often cut the run a bit shorter, or go a bit slower than planned.

Post run legs

Mentally, I’ve always had this summer’s World Transplant Games as my “A-race”, and London marathon as my “B-race”. It’s my 5th marathon since I ran my first in 2012, and my second time running London. I got my own Good For Age place off the back of last year’s time, so I’ve not needed to hit up people for fundraising for it this year (though I am raising funds to get me to the World Transplant Games!). In fact, until I ran Cambridge Half in March, mentally it didn’t really feel like I was running a marathon in six weeks at all – the running I’d been doing was just what I’d be doing anyway, race or not. But my performance in that race surprised me, and showed me that I was capable of applying the same formula to other races, and that Berlin marathon last Fall wasn’t a fluke.

In fact, since Cambridge my general approach to London marathon is to try and replicate the success of Berlin – run it well paced up until the Run dem Crew cheer explosion at Mile 21, then up the pace and gun it down The Highway and the Embankment to the finish. I’m certainly hoping that a well-controlled pace will allow me to enjoy the race more than I did last year. Everyone who runs London marathon comments on how amazing the crowd support is, and I won’t deny that the crowds were bigger, louder, and more consistently present along the entire London course – much moreso than in any race I’ve ever run. But for me, the constant din of people shouting at me for such a sustained period of time (no matter what the intent behind it) was emotionally exhausting, and the crowds pushing into the road downright claustrophobic.

NYC running

Don’t get me wrong – I’ve run plenty of big city races before, and I’ve always appreciated the points where the crowds really get you hyped up and energised. But those parts are always balanced with other areas of the course which are maybe only one or two people deep, shady, and a lot quieter, too, which make you able to appreciate the loud parts more fully. Without the quiet sections to balance it, London was just constant shouting with no relief, especially if you are already in a world of pain from starting off at (insane, suicidal) “What the hell was I thinking breaking my 10km PB in the first 10km??” pace.

So I’m hoping that by keeping my pace controlled and my mind relaxed, I’ll be able to enjoy London much more this year. And if I don’t, then I’ll be making some tough choices about whether I want to run it again next year, GFA or not. There are far too many spring marathons out there I’d like to run, and I don’t see much point in running one I don’t enjoy (but as cross country proves, I’ve got to try anything twice to confirm I don’t enjoy it!).

Group with Buckinham Palace

In the last few weeks, I’ve been carrying on with the motions of marathon training – I’ve run my 20 miler (along the riverside with fellow RDC runner Pip for company), and this past week a group of us ran the second half of the marathon course to have it fresh in our heads. This course run-through was the single most helpful run of my entire training last year, and really helped me push through the pain barrier on race day to know exactly where I was in relation to the major mile markers. And since this isn’t my “A-race” this year, and I’ve not got any time pressure, having proved myself with a hat-trick of PB, GFA, and BQ (Boston Qualifier) last year, I’m really looking instead to just run it well paced, enjoyable, and with a strong finish. And if it’s not as blisteringly hot as last year, that’d be nice, too!

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Berlin Marathon - race report

2 October 2014, 09:05

I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted from this race. I wasn’t expecting to actually get a place when I entered the ballot nearly a year ago, but I was delighted when I got in (though somewhat less delighted at the €100 price tag). I figured it’d take some pressure off my performance in London, but as it turned out, I got everything I wanted in London marathon – a PB, a GFA qualification, and a BQ (Boston qualifier), too.

So all summer, I was left with the question of “what do I want to achieve in Berlin?” After training super hard for London, and then turning around and hitting the track all summer training for the British Transplant Games, I didn’t really have the drive to push the pain to gain a few minutes in Berlin. But what I had been wanting for a while was to run a really well-paced race, instead of going off to quickly at the start and then dying midway through and hurling myself across the line. So I ultimately decided that I’d use Berlin marathon to try to run an even pace, no matter what time that ended up being.

The timing worked out that our favourite (street food-heavy) festival in Budapest was the weekend before the marathon, so my husband and I took the opportunity for a holiday through Bohemia – starting with the food and thermal baths of Budapest, to the schnitzel and prater in Vienna, to the beer, beer, and more beer of Prague, and finally ending with the marathon in Berlin. I can’t say that a week of absolutely gluttony and beer is the best way to prepare for a marathon, but in all honesty, I don’t think it did much harm, either, and it ensured I got to the start line very relaxed.

Berlin marathon
The day before – it wasn’t this empty on marathon day!

After I dropped my bags off on the morning of the race, I headed to the designated gathering point that the Berlin crew (the wonderful Run Pack) had declared, where I ran into a bunch of our Run Dem Crew runners in addition to other friends from crews around the world I’d met in previous races. Since we were all in the same start pen, I ended up running with Christina from NBRO (whom you might remember from my Copenhagen marathon or Hackney Half race reports) and Luis, who lives in Portugal but runs with RDC whenever he’s in London. The three of us agreed to target somewhere around a 3:30-3:45 finish time, but keep it relaxed and see how things went.

Berlin marathon

We settled into a groove, with Christina keeping an eye on the pace with her watch, and Luis and I chattering away happily, pointing out the sites and weird facts we’d gleaned from the guidebooks, high fiving kids, and pulling faces for the cameras. Above all, Luis and I decided that we’d remind ourselves to smile and remember that we were lucky to be healthy enough to run and appreciate the gorgeous, perfect day. The three of us got to halfway in a respectable 1:50, all feeling good, but Luis and I needed to stop for the loo, so we said farewell to Christina, who went on ahead.

The second half of the race carried on much like the first – running at about 5:10-5:15min/km (just over 8min/mi), which felt relaxed and comfortable. We’d stop and walk through every water station so we could rehydrate effectively without getting it all up our noses, and Luis took advantage of the fruit on offer, while I stuck to my “gels every 5k” plan. Our pace dipped a little to 5:30min/km at about 30-35km, but we still felt great, and it meant we could take the mental space to really enjoy the atmosphere. I personally preferred the Berlin course and crowds to London marathon – the course was flat, but I wasn’t expecting it to be so leafy (it was a sunny day, but I hardly noticed!), varied, or interesting, and the crowds were present throughout, but not screaming in my face the entire time. Periods of relative quiet interspersed with a ton of charming little bands (some teenage garage bands, high school orchestras, jazz quartets, drummers, you name it!) meant we could appreciate the really loud sections even more when they came.

Berlin marathon

One of the great things about racing in a city which has a sister crew is that they always lay down an epic cheering station. Fuelled by beer and Jagermeister, Run Pack really outdid themselves at KM37, and the boost I got from them and a kiss from my husband really gave me the kick I needed to crank it up again to the finish.

Berlin marathon

In most of my marathons, I find that I get to KM40 and my pace picks up a little as I think “oh hey, there’s only 2km left – I got this!” but in Berlin, I was able to push the pace for the last 5km instead. I felt my form improve, I loosened my shoulders, and said to Luis, “Ok, let’s do this!”. We upped our pace back up to 5:10min/km and just blew through the last 5km, passing absolutely everyone, which felt amazing.

Berlin marathon

If you’re not familiar with the Berlin marathon course, you actually run through the Brandenburg Gate right before the end. You go through Potsdamer Platz, turn a few corners, and there she is – and even better is that you can see the finish line just on the other side. We were already flying with massive smiles on our faces when we saw the Gate, but Luis insisted we run through the central span instead of the closer left one (he was totally right!) and we gave each and every camera a big smile and gunfinger, which carried right up through the finish line, where I gave Luis a massive hug. Together we finished with the exact same chip time – 3 hours 46 minutes and 5 seconds. Nowhere near a PB, but I honestly didn’t care! He was the best marathon companion I could ask for – full of energy, enthusiasm, optimism, and great conversation.

There’s certainly something to be said about running relaxed – I finished this marathon with one blister on my right foot and a little patch of chafing under my right arm, but otherwise unscathed. I’d also worn a pair of my Threshold Shorts – my latest sewing pattern designed and sewn by myself. I’m super happy with how these held up to the marathon distance, and the inner pocket in the back held my final two gels safe and secure, too.

Oh, and the rumors are true – they really do serve (non alcoholic) beer at the finish line!

Berlin marathon

The ballot for next year’s Berlin marathon opens on 18 October…

Berlin marathon, 29 September 2014, 3:46:05

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Berlin Marathon - Follow Me Tomorrow!

27 September 2014, 19:21

Tomorrow I will run the Berlin marathon. It’ll be my 4th marathon, and my first time in the city in over 14 years. I accidentally got a ballot spot late last year, and I figured it’d be a good backup should things not go well in London marathon. But, having achieved everything I wanted in London, I was left with a bit of “what now?” in my goals for Berlin.

So I decided that I really just would like to run a well-paced race for once, with no real time expectation. Classic Melissa is to set off like a jackrabbit then steadily get slower as the race goes on, so this time around I’m just going to concentrate on going (what feels like) incredibly slow and see if I can maintain an even pace throughout, whether that means I finish in 3:15 or 4:00!

I’m happy to be representing the speedy boys in my crew by wearing one of the new Run Dem Crew Elites vests on top, and on my bottom half I’ll be wearing the lavender version of my newest sewing pattern, the Threshold Shorts. These are designed specifically for running so what better way to prove my confidence in the design than by running an entire marathon in them, eh?

On my feet will be my newest shoes, the Brooks Pure Drift, since they’ve got a bit more cushioning underneath, but are still lightweight and with ample toe room.

During the race itself, there are a few different ways you can track me:

1. The official Berlin marathon app (search for “Fehr”), which should show my position at every 5km and guesstimates in between. Note that the tracking portion of the site will only appear on race day – Sunday 28 September (the mass start is at 8:45am Central European Summertime).

Now, it’s very unlikely that I’ll be able to get a German pre-pay SIM with affordable data on the day, so the above may be the only option. But in case I do, the below interactive options also work!

2. Twitter – My Runmeter app will tweet from my account that I’ve started the run, and you can click on the link to see where I am, and/or reply to ANY of my tweets (including that one) to have it spoken into my ear while I run. The only issue here is that if the 3G is unavailable when I start (and it’s likely it’ll be oversubscribed at the start and finish), the tweet with the link in it won’t go out. You can still reply to any of my tweets though, to have it spoken to me (you can’t just write a new mention to me, though – it has to be a reply).

3. DailyMile – join and send me a friend request before tonight, and you can access the same tracking link, and also any comments added to my post while I’m running will also be spoken into my headphones. The advantage here is that Runmeter will poll Daily Mile something like every 5min throughout the race, so if the 3G is down at the start, it’ll just post it at the next opportunity, then updated as it gets info from my phone. My profile is here After you sign up, hit the “Add Friend” button on the left under my photo.

And if all else fails, the thought of a massive beer stein and pretzel at the end will get me over the finish line!

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A week of marathon training

25 August 2014, 19:24

I had a few days of rest after my performance at the British Transplant Games, but then it was right back into marathon training. I’ve only got a few short weeks left before Berlin marathon to get any quality training in before the taper, so we’re not wasting any time in getting my body transitioned back into endurance shape after a few months on the track.

I thought some of you may want to see what a typical week of my marathon training looks like, and since last week felt particularly hard(core), it seems as good a week as any to use an an example.

view beyond Putney Bridge

Monday – longish run

Monday’s run called for 1hr40min with varying paces. Without going into the full breakdown here, this meant warming up then running at half marathon pace, 10k pace, then 5k pace one right after the other, and repeating until I cooled down at the end. Mentally I find this really tough because the distances I’m covering (~20km) are routes I’d previously only run as Long Slow Runs, but here I’m running them at controlled fast paces! This particular session was made even tougher as I really needed the toilet from the turnaround point – I figured I’d use Tate Britain’s but they weren’t open yet, and then the public toilet I stopped at wouldn’t take any of the coins I or the helpful passerby inserted! I ended up just having to rush home, but the act of clenching it in for ~40min really made me feel ill for the rest of the day.

Tuesday – threshold run

On Tuesday nights I run with Run dem Crew and since the end of last year I’ve been clinging on at the back of the fastest group, the Elites. I’m often the only lady in a group of whippet thin guys who can slam out a 35min 10k, but I find I’m able to keep up with the often sub-4min/km pace so long as I get a break to catch my breath now and then. This really is a threshold run for me – I’m at the very edge of my speed, beyond my comfort zone, and very nearly at my maximum mile pace. Some weeks the machismo of the guys takes over and it’s not very pleasant at the back, but this week everyone was in a great holiday mood, which made all the difference. Particularly helpful is when one of the guys (or Sorrel!) fall back to keep me company, and I had a great chat with Tom along the Embankment this week, which really helped take my mind off the pain. On this particular run we covered 11.5km in 47min, which averages out to just over 4min/km!

Wednesday – recovery & massage

Now, I don’t get a sports massage every week (more like once a month during heavy training) but my legs were overdue for it after the thrashing I gave them up in Bolton, so I decided to jog the 3km up to Energy Lab in Shoreditch both to warm up my muscles for the massage, but also shake out the lactic acid and other junk that had surely built up from the night before. Barbara had a good dig around in my legs but only found a few knots – namely the one I was feeling in my right hamstring anyway! Happily though, my quads and calves were all feeling good, though so I passed the MOT with flying colours.

Track shadows

Thursday – track

I was surprised to still see track workouts on my training plan after the transplant games – when I’d trained with Energy Labs for previous marathons I’d mostly had tempo runs on Thursdays (or even double runs!), but in this case the sessions were longer than I’d been doing before. After a few warmup laps and drills with the rest of the RDC track group, I split off and ran 1200s and 800s with only about 2min recovery in between. Even though I was on the track for over 90min, I still only covered half the repeats I was meant to do, so I need to figure out what to focus on for this week or I’ll be destined to never run 200s!

Friday – rest

Sweet, sweet rest.

Saturday – long run

This time around my long runs alternate between long, hilly trail runs up in Hampstead Heath, and long flat runs along the river. This week called for a 3hr flat run, alternating 30min at marathon pace with 20min at half marathon pace. This doesn’t sound like it’d be that much harder than just running at a Long Slow Run plod, but by god it’s tough when you’re two hours in and already feeling tired!

Daniel the Run dem Bear

The best part of this run was that my friend Daniel happened to have the same run in his plan, too, so we were able to run this together, meeting at Millennium Bridge (after I’d run from Tower Bridge to warm up) and following the river all the way around to Richmond Bridge. This was super exciting for me as I’d never gone beyond Putney Bridge before – usually for 20 miles I cross at Putney then come back along the river to home, but this way we decided to end at Richmond, meet my husband for lunch, then catch the train back home.

I’ve run with Daniel for so long that we’re really comfortable running partners – we have very close to the same pace and pain thresholds (though he insists I’m better at shorter distances, and I know his ultra-running ass is better at long distances!), we won’t let each other get carried away, and we’re not afraid to speak up if we need to stop and stretch out for a minute. Or in my case, stop for a minute at every bridge beyond Putney so I could take a photo! Just call me the “Bridge Hunter”!

Thames path at Barnes

I could always see on the map that the Thames path turned into trail beyond Putney Bridge, but I wasn’t quite expecting it to feel so remote and, well, “trail” through Barnes and Kew! There the trail goes through wetlands and woodlands, with no traffic to be seen at all, and happily bare ground rather than pavement underfoot, which feels much kinder on the hips after a few hours.

me at Kew Railway Bridge
Celebrating at Kew railway bridge

Richmond Bridge selfie
Celebrating the first sight of Richmond Bridge with an unattractive selfie!

We’d planned to only run to Richmond Bridge, but with the controlled pace of the run, we ended up hitting the bridge with a good 30min left to go, so we actually went beyond it and turned back around after 15min so we finished at the bridge itself. James cycled down to meet us and we all had a good stretch out and pub lunch along the river before hopping on the train home to my own personal recovery saviour – an ice bath! I usually only use them after marathons but I could tell my legs were shredded and would be really suffering without one so I set the timer for 10min and I swear it makes a difference!

Daniel & I at the finish

In the end, we covered just over 20 miles (34km) in exactly 3 hours, which bodes well for both of us in Berlin marathon, I reckon!

Tower to Richmond map

Sunday – rest

By this point I needed it!


Totals for the week – about 80km and 6hrs of running, spread over five sessions.


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London Marathon - race report

16 April 2014, 17:55

This was a tough race. Mostly it was down to the relentless sunshine making for a very hot run, but also because I’d kinda forgotten how hard marathons are. I think in my mind I’d figured that Amsterdam was hard because it was my first marathon, and Copenhagen was hard because I’d been so ill and hardly had any training. But surely having 6 months of perfect training in the lead up to London would make for a different experience, right?

I’d had a pep talk with Energy Lab on Friday and decided that I would set out with fellow Run dem Crew Elites Jason and Daniel, figuring that their 3:15 target pace would still be slower than my adrenaline-fuelled starting gun pace. So we set off, ducking and diving for the first few km as Jason wanted to reach the 3:15 pace crew just ahead of us. I later found out that this particular pacer was awful and had set out a full 2 minutes faster than he should’ve, and didn’t even complete the race, so in actual fact we were going much faster than 3:15 pace as we caught up and then overtook them. I lost Jason and Daniel around 5km or so, but I was feeling good and comfortable and enjoying myself, high fiving lots of kids along the way.

London marathon

Cutty Sark was incredible and everything that’s been said about the London crowds is true! I’ve never, ever run a race where there were crowds the entire way like that. For the most part, I used the crowd’s energy to push me forward, but there were definitely times throughout the race where I would’ve preferred some silence for just a minute or two – hours upon hours of people shouting at you (no matter what their motive) can get really overwhelming, and the Lucozade tunnel around Mile 23 was the only respite on the entire course.

I didn’t really feel like this was a battle against the distance – this was definitely a battle against the heat for me, and as a really salty sweater, I had a sweat strategy built in to my nutrition strategy – taking 3 doses of the extra salty Margarita Shot Bloks spread over the race, but also grabbing a vital bottle of Nuun electrolyte from James (along with a sweaty kiss!) at Mile 12. As I predicted, running past home was a much bigger boost than Tower Bridge, which I hardly remember, and Canary Wharf was particularly memorable for me because it was mostly in shade. By the time I got the Run dem Crew’s epic Mile 21 cheering station, I was really feeling rundown and battered – my left hip was giving me problems, I’d had a recurring stitch for most of the race, and the balls of my feet had gone so tender that I’d been forced to flat-foot strike for the last few miles.

London marathon

I only remember brief snippets of my crew as I flew through the cheering station, but as I passed, a confetti cannon was set off in my honour, and as I looked up, I saw the brightly coloured tissue paper squares framed against the blue sky, and the image stood still for a while as time seemed to melt. It’s an image I’ll remember for an awfully long time.

I’d been told by Barbara and Claudia that they’d be waiting at the end of Mile 21 for me to give them a sign – a thumbs up, and they’d cheer me on my way. Shaky hand, and they’d jump on the course for a pep talk. Or a thumbs down, and they’d jump in and take me all the way to the end. I’d been battling the heat since about Mile 10 and in need of a boost, so I gave the shaky hand signal, and Claudia joined me for the next kilometer for a very, very welcome pep talk. I started my listing all my physical complaints, to which she just said “Yeah – you’re running a marathon!” Yes. I kinda needed to hear that! Then she talked me through the mantras and mental tricks I needed to go the next 5 miles, but pointed out that I was slouching my shoulders and that opening them up would help my breathing and my stride. With all that on board, I sent her back to help others, and carried on for the last few miles, using my own mantra of “Strong, fast, lean – you got this” over and over and over. In previous tough races, I’d been a fan of counting breaths, but for some reason this is what my brain wanted to hear on Sunday.

London marathon London marathon

The Embankment was crazy – somehow both shorter and longer than when I’ve run it thousands of times on my own and with Run dem Crew at turbo pace. I know that stretch of London probably better than any other 2.5km, and it was just a matter of putting my head down and getting to the end. As we turned the corner at Westminster and ran the length of St James’s Park, I happened to notice a familiar gait in an Anthony Nolan vest – I shouted “Honest Jim!”, and it was indeed my Daily Mile buddy who I’d never previously met in person! I’m still not entirely sure how I recognised him with such little brain, but I remember taking his hand and trying to pull him with me to the finish, but he told me to just go.

I pushed out the very last few hundred metres with as big a sprint as I could muster, and I crossed the line as the clock read 3:31, so I wasn’t entirely sure for a few minutes whether I’d broken 3:30 or not (as I couldn’t remember what my start delay was, and my phone battery died along the Embankment). No sooner had my chip been cut off and a medal placed around my neck, and my ExtraMile film crew appeared for an interview! I apologise for the state of whatever I actually said here, as it was literally seconds after I’d crossed the line and I have no recollection of what I’d said (only that I drank half of the sound guy’s water bottle!). It should make for interesting viewing when the last video goes up!

London marathon

Anthony Nolan were true to their word about their volunteers finding us at the finish and whisking us away to their post race reception – their five cheer stations throughout the course were all fantastic and huge, too, giving me a boost each time I reached the next one. The spread they laid on at the Royal Society was fantastic, too – hot food, really good massage therapists, places to sit and chill out, but the best finish line treat of all was a surprise visit from my husband, who made a huge effort to cross London to meet me there.

Going into this race, I’d told others that I was targeting 3:20, but that I’d be really happy with anything in the 3:15-3:30 range. I wasn’t as fixated on a time as three time-based goals – a new PB (previous was 3:48), a Good For Age time so I can get a guaranteed place for next year’s marathon (I needed 3:45), and the toughest of all – a Boston Qualifying time (I needed 3:40). So I’m utterly ecstatic that my final finishing time of 3:30:37 is indeed all three.

Thank you all again for all your support, comments, donations, patience, and hugs over the past six months as I worked as hard as I could to make my race dreams a reality. OMG PB GFA BQ.

London marathon, 13 April 2014, 3:30:37

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Half marathons in preparation for London

8 November 2013, 11:56

The cornerstone of marathon training is undoubtedly the long, slow run (LSR), but nearly every marathon training plan you’ll find also incorporates a half marathon race a 4-6 weeks before the full marathon. As my next big race is London marathon on 13 April, I’ve been looking around trying to decide which half I should enter.

Having spoken to others also running London, this seems to be a common topic of conversation now as everyone starts thinking about their 2014 race calendar, so I thought it was worth sharing my shortlist…

16 FebruaryBrighton Half (registration now closed except through charities), Brighton, UK

23 FebruaryHampton Court Half, Surrey, UK

2 MarchBath Half, Bath, UK
2 MarchSemi-marathon de Paris, Paris, France (Great race, but I’ve gone the past two years running!)
2 MarchSilverstone Half (Is it just me, or does the course look really dull though?)
2 MarchReading Half Marathon, Reading, UK (No way am I running this after Sophie’s review of last year!)
2 MarchEastbourne Half, Sussex, UK
2 MarchTunbridge Wells Half, Kent, UK
2 MarchRoma-Ostia Half, Rome, Italy

9 MarchCPC Loop The Hague, The Hague, The Netherlands
9 MarchMilton Keynes Festival of Running, Milton Keynes, UK
9 MarchCambridge Half (registration now closed except through charities), Cambridge, UK. (thanks to StrayTaoist in the comments!)

16 MarchSpitfire 20 (Miler) and its sister race, the Tempest 10 (Miler), Surrey, UK
16 MarchLeith Hill Half – plus a “Wife carrying race”!! the same day. (thanks to GoodGym for suggesting this on Twitter!) Dorking, UK

Anyone ran any of these that they could sway me one way or another? Have you signed up to any of these, or one I’ve missed? Right now I’m kinda leading towards either Surrey/Guildford, Hampton Court, or the Spitfire 20, but I could be persuaded…

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London Marathon - One Way or Another

25 October 2013, 11:39

If you’re a runner in London, you will inevitably be asked if you’ve run the marathon. “Why, yes, I’ve run two marathons!” you might reply, only to get the response “But have you run THE marathon?”.

To many average Londoners, the London Marathon is the only marathon. I’ve also been asked if my other marathons are the same length as London. To people who don’t run, London Marathon is the event, and many are only marginally aware that other marathons exist in other places in the world. So if you’ve been asked this same question for the last ten years like I have, there comes a time when you just need to suck it up and try your hardest to get a spot for London.

But that’s the other thing that non-runners don’t seem to realise – it’s really not easy to get into London Marathon. Unlike most other marathons, you can’t just sign up, pay your money, and turn up. There are only a few ways in:

How to get in

  • Sign up with a charity and agree to fundraise. This is by far the most common way to get into London, but with the going rate of £2,000 and many charities requiring you to be financially liable if you don’t raise the target amount, this isn’t one to be taken lightly. And many charities only get a handful of spots each year, so there’s competition for them, too.

  • Run another marathon in a qualifying “Good for age” (GFA) time. This requires a few years’ notice, and a lot of training. The times for men are particularly tough to achieve, and you need to apply in a short window of time around June/July the year before the race.

  • Get a ballot place. Feeling lucky? You can enter the ballot a year in advance, but you’ve got to be quick, as the limited spaces to be included in the ballot draw usually run out in a few hours. Yes, that’s just to enter the ballot, not to get a guaranteed spot! Ballot places are usually very rare indeed – last year only two people from my 200-strong running crew got in this way, though this year there are more like 10-15 for some reason. I know plenty of people who have entered the ballot for 5-10 years and never been successful.

  • Enter through your running club. EA-affiliated running clubs can apply to get a small number (usually one or two) of places to give to their members. But if you’re not already in a running club, you’re not going to get in this way anyway (and if you are, then you probably already know about this!)

(There are also two other ways of getting in if you’re faster than GFA, which Simon Freeman details nicely here)

I’m running it!

I’m very pleased to announce that I’m running the London Marathon in April 2014. So how’d I get my place? It’s more convoluted than you’d think…

When I ran my first marathon in Amsterdam last Fall, I was ecstatic that my 3:48 finish time was under my young female 3:50 GFA qualifying time, and I’d told everyone who’d listen that I’d be running London. At London marathon this year (like every year), I cheered the runners streaming past the end of my road, and I thought to myself “that’ll be me next year!”. Then London Marathon’s organisers changed the GFA times, without warning and without a notice period (when Boston Marathon changes their qualifying times, they give 18 months notice, for example). They only moved my age category by 5 minutes, but it was enough to strip me of the GFA place I’d thought I’d had for six months. This was a major blow.

After a few weeks of moping, I resigned myself to having to go the charity route. Ever since Anthony Nolan found me my anonymous bone marrow donor in 2009, they’ve been my charity of choice, but they’re also the official charity of the entire marathon this year, so they’ve got loads more spots and exposure! I’ve signed up with them, agreed to a fundraising target, and also agreed to do interviews, promotion, and anything else they need to help promote their good works. By the time I run it, it’ll be my 5th year since the transplant, so I make a good PR “success story” for them, too!

Melissa at Houses of Parliament
(Photo compliments of Anthony Nolan!)

But that’s not the end of my London Marathon saga, because while I was away in Mexico, I discovered that I was actually successful in the ballot, which I completely wasn’t expecting! So this means that I’m now free to raise whatever I can for Anthony Nolan, but without any pressure to hit a specific fundraising target. This is great, because I’ve got enough time targets of my own without adding any monetary ones into the mix!

My goals

I know April seems like a long way off, but I’ll be starting my training in a few short weeks, and while I’ve been on my scheduled break I’ve been thinking about what I hope to achieve in London.

Ultimately, I still don’t feel like I’ve had my best marathon time yet. Amsterdam was my first marathon, and though I trained hard and consistently, when I hit the wall at 30km I just didn’t know how to cope (I’m much better prepared now). And Copenhagen, well, I had barely any time to train after a serious bout with shingles left me in severe pain over the bulk of my training period, so it’s no surprise that I wasn’t able to perform to my peak on the day. In fact, it’s really a wonder I got as good a time as I did, considering!

So first and foremost, my goal is to run strong for the entire race. I feel pretty confident I can maintain a comfortable 5min/km (8min/mi) pace throughout, which would put me in around 3:30-3:35. This is my gold medal time, one I’d be thrilled to bits with. At the very least, I want to go sub-3:45 so I can earn my GFA for 2015 and rub London Marathon’s noses in it! But all of this is very contingent on my staying healthy through the winter, and not catching any major illnesses, which has been a theme of every winter since my transplant. I’m hoping that working with Energy Labs on nutrition and training, plus the added time since the transplant will improve matters this year.

Come April, I’ll be running on home turf, on familiar streets, with the course running right past the end of our road. The crowds will be cheering, I’ll run through Tower Bridge on the road for the first time ever, and I’ll pass through my crew’s cheering station at Mile 21 on feet made of pillows. I can visualise my crossing the finish line on the Embankment, and the elation and relief, but the time on that yellow clock is still a bit fuzzy. Bring it on.

If I’ve inspired you, please consider donating to Anthony Nolan on my behalf.

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Amsterdam marathon - race report

4 September 2013, 08:56

Amsterdam marathon, 21 October 2012
I wrote about my decision to run this here, but I’ll just summarise in saying that I never thought I’d run a marathon, even after running for nearly ten years at that point. But once the decision was made and my race entry paid, I’d realised that I’d need to follow a plan since I was well out of my depth. Luckily, I knew how ignorant I was, so I sought advice from pretty much everyone I knew that had run one, and they nearly all said to use Hal Higdon’s plans.

After looking through the various plans (and deciding exactly how many times a week I was prepared to run!) I settled on his “Novice 2” plan and followed it religiously all summer long. I highly recommend it, whether you go for the free version on his site, or the more interactive app.

It was my first marathon, and some of you may be thinking “oh, but she runs, I’m sure it was no problem for her”. Think again – that distance is no joke! I’d done all my training and got three 20 milers in, but it was still really tough. And up until 2012, I’d never raced farther than a 10km, so keep in mind that this is four times that distance!

On the day itself, it was my absolute perfect running weather – cold, cloudy, and with a hint of drizzle, and I was nervous, but as ready as I’d ever be. I’d wanted to finish in under 4 hours, but my “gold medal” time was 3:45, and to achieve that I’d need to run at 5:20min/km throughout (that’s 8:35min/mi). So I started off at my “easy” pace, which ended up being 5:05min/km, and that felt good. I was a freaking machine, maintaining that up through about 28km, when it started to feel tough, and I slowed down considerably from 30-40km, just keeping the momentum going and counting down every single km marker. I had two cheering zones from my running crew on the course, but my GPS running app, Runmeter, lets my Dailymile and Twitter friends speak comments into my ear while I run, so I had cheers of encouragement from about 30 different friends from all around the world, including some who’d gotten up at 3:30am to cheer me on! I cannot stress enough how much this helped me to carry on during that stretch of 10km when it was a real struggle (and which I now recognise was the infamous “the Wall”).

Amsterdam marathon

But at the 40km mark, we turned the corner out of Vondelpark, and I passed where I was staying and I knew it was only a short 2km to the finish, and that gave me the boost I needed to pick up the pace again, and – I’m still not sure where this came from – but I even managed a sprint finish into the Olympic stadium to finish in 3:48:23!! Which, umm, I’m stupidly happy with.

At the time, I was even happier because my time meant I qualified for a Good for Age entry into London 2014, but which later the organisers changed without any warning, stripping me of my place. Anyway, I hobbled back to my running crew’s hospitality zone for recovery shakes and hugs, then back to where I was staying for an ice bath (my host brought me tea and chocolate truffles to make it easier! Bless!), which I really think did help with my recovery. I had a few spots of chafing and two enormous blisters on my toes, all in brand-new places, but I was otherwise intact.

Oh, and not only did I run a marathon, but I ran it in leggings I’d sewn myself, three years after I had a bone marrow transplant.

Amsterdam marathon, 21 October 2012, 3:48:23.

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The decision to run a marathon

21 August 2013, 17:52

Non-runners have been asking me for years “So when are you going to run a marathon?” I suppose they saw that I saw fairly often, had competed in 10km and half marathon races, and seemed to enjoy running, and to them this was a logical progression.

To me however, I was perfectly fine running these other distances, where there was plenty of challenge in the speed/pacing, terrain, route, and all the other nuances that make racing so much of an unknown quantity, and no real need to lose my entire life for months, slave to the marathon training. Every mention of the marathon distance involved huge amounts of personal sacrifice, running in all weathers no matter what, and forgoing nights out just to run one single race, and that didn’t sound like something I wanted to do.

My stance on the marathon remained unchanged for years, until something broke in my brain. That small, quiet “What if?” started rolling around in there like a stone in a tin can, until all the reasons I thought I should try outweighed all the fears about the training and the race distance itself.

I told my husband first. He looked concerned.

It was not the most auspicious of training starts, either – we were staying in a friend’s spare room while our boat was in drydock, which is an expensive and stressful time of upheaval anyway, but Spring 2012 was also one of the coldest and relentlessly rainy times of the last century! So it certainly didn’t help matters that most of my early training was done in early morning downpours…

But I made it through, and I had a brilliant first marathon experience running Amsterdam in October 2012. I felt like I still had my life outside running (though my husband may disagree!), I found that I really enjoyed the consistency of sticking to a plan (Tuesdays are for tempo, Saturdays are for long, etc), and I ran better than I expected on the day itself, too.

Still, though, when other runners say to me others are making them feel pressured to run a marathon, my best advice is always to resist until you feel utterly compelled to run one.

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Copenhagen marathon - race report

20 August 2013, 16:49

Let’s start with my training history for this race: I lost 8-10 weeks of training due to an awful case of shingles (which I was still on two pain meds for at the time of the race), then I started to transition to forefoot strike about a month ago so my feet were still tender/damaged in a few places from that. Plus, I picked up a cold the week before the race so I was still really snotty & tired even as far as Friday, but ended up feeling about 85% on race morning.

This was a Bridge the Gap event for all the global crews to get together (like Run dem Crew, but all over the world!) so the Danish crew, NBRO, laid on a whole weekend of plans and had a special VIP tent at the start/finish, too. There were a bunch of us wanting to target 3:45 but after the gun went off, it was mostly three of us that stuck together: me (my 2nd marathon), Emily from RDC (her second), and Louise from NBRO (her third). Louise was definitely the strongest of us, and her pacing was rock-solid, not to mention giving us some sightseeing tips throughout the race! By 20km or so we were about 2 min ahead of schedule, but it was at this point that Louise broke ahead, and Emily fell behind me, so I’d run the first half of the race with these strong ladies, but ran the second half just me, my head, and my body.

Copenhagen marathon montage

Oh, and the rain. Did I mention it was chucking it down the whole race? I personally don’t mind the rain – I’d done most of my London training runs in it, and it meant there was no chance of overheating! I just felt bad for the spectators (of which there were many! And bands!).

The short version of the rest of the race is that my hips and quads just weren’t able to take the 3:45 target pace (5:18min per km). The former I blame on the frequency of cobbled stretches, the latter I blame on my recent forefoot striking building up my calves and hamstrings, but heelstriking during the race itself meant my quads were taking the brunt. When I realised that 3:45 wasn’t going to happen, I just settled in, tried to smile at as many spectators as possible, and breathe deep and calm. The 20s felt harder than the 30s to me, but I think that’s because I was still trying to maintain that pace then, and in the 30-kms I allowed myself to take a few walking breaks, though only of (honestly!) 10-20 second each. Just enough time to say “see hips? It hurts just as much when we’re walking as when we’re running. So let’s run again!”. Silly hips. They do lie, Shakira.

Copenhagen marathon official photo

Unlike Amsterdam, I stayed perfectly lucid throughout – no fuzzy headed haze at 30km, and it really was just my mind against the gnawing pain of my hips, quads, and my poor battered, blistered feet. But like Amsterdam, I got to 40km, and thought “2km left? That’s NOTHING! Let’s go!” I picked up the pace considerably in the final stretch and managed (what felt like anyway) a sprint finish for a time of 3:52:37. Not the GFA I wanted, nor a PB, but considering I’ve only really had 6 weeks of training, I’m okay with that.

Highlight of my race: passing by one of the soundstations just as Dee-Lite’s “Groove is in the Heart” came on. That’s OMG MY SONG and I was jumping up and down to Louise & Emily and I just wanted to stay and dance. Thank you, anonymous race DJ!

Copenhagen marathon, 19 May 2013. 3:52:37.

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