World Transplant Games - Malaga 2017 - race report

7 July 2017, 17:02

I’ve been amiss in posting the past few months, not for lack of running (or even interesting things to say!) but entirely down to lack of time to actually get my thoughts recorded. In May we went to Copenhagen to visit friends I’ve known for years through running, then a few weeks later we visited Southeastern Turkey for a wedding where I ran along the incredible Lycian Way before diving into ice-blue waters.

And 2.5 weeks before the Games, I ran a time-trial 5k with a friend on pacing duties that did not go so well. We were aiming for a 20min 5k, which should’ve been within my skillset, but I made him work harder than I was proud of, I felt like my heart rate was red-lining the entire time, and even though I crossed the finish line as first lady, I didn’t feel proud or triumphant – just shattered and a bit embarrassed.

So off the back of that, I laid everything out to my coach and she formulated what was probably the toughest two weeks of training I’ve had in the entire four years I’ve been with her. It also coincided with a rare heatwave in London, which meant that for the fortnight preceding the Games, I was cycling to my office job (35min, 10k), working a full day, cycling to Regents Park (35min), putting in 90min on the dirt track with my coach, often in 30+C heat, then cycling home (45min), picking up dinner on the way, shoving food in my mouth and falling asleep. Repeat pretty much daily, though sometimes the track session would be replaced by a solo tempo run or an occasional recovery run. But I didn’t have a single rest day in the leadup, and it was really just fine-tuning my formwork and pacing, which saw me shaving 8 seconds off my 800m and 3 seconds off my 400m in the span of two weeks. Note that this is on top of the 6 months of endurance and strength training I’d already been doing – you can’t expect to ONLY train two weeks for events of this calibre!!

So I boarded the flight to Malaga feeling prepared. but definitely guarded. Training in heat wave conditions was definitely helpful to prepare for the 30-35C temps in southern Spain, but mentally I felt a lot of pressure to live up to the 6 gold medals I earned at the previous Games in Argentina, and knowing that I had ten supporters flying in from around the globe to watch me only added to the pressure.

Opening Ceremony

The Opening Ceremony this year was held in the historical bullring, and the athletes parade was a-m-a-z-i-n-g. Definitely a great way to start the Games off right!

Opening Ceremony

My first event of the week was the 5km Road Race, which is my strongest event and one I’m most comfortable with as a distance runner. I’d vastly prefer a 10k or even half marathon, but as far as races go, at least I’m in my element with a mass start and two laps around a closed course.

Road Race

The race looped around the Malaga port, passing by a Picasso Museum, aquarium, several sculptures, and an enormous yacht as well as a historic lighthouse, so at least I had pretty things to look at to distract me from my screaming legs and lungs. Even though the race started at 9am, it was already 29C and several athletes collapsed on the course from heat exhaustion, so I cannot stress enough how tough the conditions were!

Road Race
Photo credit: Dave Medcroft

Road Race
Photo credit: James O’Brien

The two loop course also contained a handy out-and-back section which is always helpful when racing – it means you can see the position of the competitors behind you instead of relying on your spectators to shout out info. It meant I could also tell my teammate Ruth that she was still in silver medal position on the second loop, as the ladies between her and I were in different age categories.

Road Race
Post race selfie – I said it was tough!!

Thankfully, I was able to retain my world championship title by finishing first lady (in any age category), winning gold in the 30-39 age category as well as team gold for women of any age (first 3 females across the line win points for the team), finishing in 18:57! Though take that with a grain of salt, as many athletes’ GPS recorded it as being significantly shorter than 5km (more like 4.5km)!

Road Race podium
Photo credit: Dave Medcroft

Road Race

Then it was (thankfully!) three full days of rest and recovery around Malaga and Torremolinos to prepare for the track events on Friday and Saturday. In Argentina, my events were pretty nicely spread, with one in the morning and another in the afternoon on each day, but the scheduling was… eclectic if I’m being charitable, and ramshackle if I’m not. Schedules were only finalised at 6:30 on the morning of competition, started two hours late, and ended up with my 1500m being raced at 3pm in the sizzling heat of the day, with a mere 10 minutes of rest before the 400m. Many, many expletives were uttered, but there wasn’t anything to be done but trust in my training and know that all the other athletes were in the same boat.

The 1500m is traditionally my strongest track event, and one I enjoy the most at the British Games, where I often have Belfast athlete Orla Smyth to play with. I love competing against her as she’s a super strong runner who always pushes me to do my best and get to put some strategy into play. In short, it’s much more fun when Orla’s running, too.

1500m Orla and I
Photo credit: Dave Medcroft

So as the gun went off, we both broke away from the pack and I settled into Lane 1, with her barely a stride behind me. I could hear her breath so I knew she was close, and she maintained that position for the first two laps.

Photo credit: James O’Brien

Traditionally, I like to make my move and pick up the pace in Lap 3, but I realised during this lap that I couldn’t hear her breath any longer, and by the time we started Lap 4, her bell sounded about 200m behind me so I knew I just had to push on through the heat to the finish and take gold, only 4 seconds slower than my World Record time I set in Argentina. Considering it felt like we were being melted from above as well as the heat coming up from the track itself, I’ll definitely take that!

1500m podium
Photo credit: Dave Medcroft

No sooner had we come off the track from the 1500m, though, and they were already calling for the 400m. In all, we had ten minutes between races, which was in no way enough time to recover, let alone stretch, cool down, and warm back up for the race. But again, there wasn’t anything to be done, so we toed the start line again, with me in Lane 3 and Orla ahead of me in Lane 4, for what’s traditionally her strongest race (she left me in the dust at the British Games last year!).

But it seems that all the intense heat training with an emphasis on 400m and 200m really paid off! I started behind (such is the way of the staggered start), but as we rounded the final curve into the last 100m, I could see her ahead of me and something in my brain said “this is within your grasp, GO FOR IT” and I just pushed it as hard as I could, concentrating on high arms, high knees and gained ground right up to the finish line…

400m Orla and 1
400m Orla and I

…where it was so close that neither she nor I could say who won, and neither could our friends on the line awaiting the next race, nor our friends in the stands. In the end, we had to wait over an hour before the Photo Finish Booth (thank god there was one!) made a decision and we were awarded our medals. In the end it was decided that I won by one one hundredths of a second, possibly the closest finish I’ve ever had in my life. It honestly could’ve gone either way, and I’d initially thought I’d lost it, so it really is a shame that it couldn’t have been awarded as joint gold.

400m podium
Photo credit: Dave Medcroft

After a brutal day on the track, it was back to the hotel for a very welcome dinner and an even more welcome night’s sleep before returning to the stadium for the second day of athletics. Unfortunately the previous days’ racing had aggravated a stress fracture Orla had suffered in the leadup to the competition, meaning she had to pull out of the 800m. This is normally the race where we’re most evenly pitched, so I was gutted for her that she couldn’t put all her hard work into one last race.

Photo credit: Dave Medcroft

As it turned out, the 800m was the closest thing I had to a time trial the whole Games, with quite a bit of breathing room between me and the Iranian lady in silver position. But even so, I remember coming into the finishing straight and hearing the crowd really pick up their cheers and thinking “are they cheering because I’m finishing, or because she’s gaining on me??” and picking up my pace in paranoia that she’d pull out a last second victory over me like I’d just done in the 400!

After the 800m, I had an hour or two to think about whether I wanted to run the 200m race. Now, the 200 is traditionally my weakest event, and the one that takes the most out of me, and I’d really only put my name down thinking it’d be a wildcard and I’d only run it if it was a guaranteed medal. But I was feeling ballsy on the day, and we’d practised the 200m form and pacing so much in training that I decided to run it, even though World Record holder and fellow teammate Emma Wiltshire was also on the starting sheet.

Photo credit: James O’Brien

The other girls were all sprinters and therefore using starting blocks, but I refused to allow myself to be intimidated and just ran as hard as I could with my arms and knees high, pushing, pushing pushing until I crossed the line… for a new PB and bronze! Honestly, I think I was the most chuffed about this bronze than some of the Golds, and it would turn out to be my only PB on the track this year.

200m podium

Finally, the last events of the day were the 4×400m relays, with us ladies up first and the men directly after. With a few runners out for injury or other event conflicts, we fielded a team of myself, Emma Wiltshire, champion 100m sprinter Emma Hilton, and fellow Road Race team winner Marie Devine. Marie set off first, holding her own against the Hungarians and Argentinians, with Emma Hilton gaining ground in her lap to put us in the lead. Emma Wiltshire further strengthened our lead, so by the time I picked up the baton for the anchor leg (they put me on anchor?!!?), I merely had to maintain what we had. In the end, I think I gained a little bit more ground, but was able to finish comfortably for my 6th gold medal of the games.

4x400m relay
Photo credit: Dave Medcroft

After a quick closing ceremony, it was back to the hotel to shower and change before the Gala Dinner, where Team GB were awarded the team prize, which wasn’t much of a surprise considering we absolutely dominated the medal table from start to finish, earning more gold medals than the second place team (Team USA) had total medals.

As I like to tell people, the World Transplant Games are as much a reflection of the nation’s health service as they are the athlete’s abilities. And as every single athlete who competed had to cheat death just to get to the start line, it really is the most inspiring week of athletics you’ll ever experience. The addition of events for donors this year made it even more special, from the standing ovation received by the donors in the opening ceremony right down to the special medals awarded for the different donor events. You could feel the gratitude not just from the athletes but also from the supporters like my family and friends, who wouldn’t have me around if it wasn’t for my donor.

Team Fehr
Team Fehr, minus Paul and Claire who joined later in the week!

Looking at the medal result between Argentina and Malaga, you may be forgiven for assuming that this year’s haul was inevitable, but it absolutely wasn’t. I was hoping to maybe win gold in the Road Race and 1500m again, but these Games have absolutely exceeded my expectations. The competition was fierce this year, and there were some incredible feats of athleticism on display, truly showing what is possible post-transplant. As it turns out, my 8th rebirthday of my own bone marrow transplant is tomorrow, a timely reminder of the day that my life began again, a life I wouldn’t have if it weren’t for my donor.

All the medals

World Transplant Games – Malaga 25 June – 2 July 2017

5k Road Race: 18:57 (gold) & women’s team (gold)
1500m: 5:40 (gold)
800m: 2:48:74 (gold)
400m: 1:11:39 (gold)
200m: 32:07 (bronze) (PB)
Women’s 4×400m relay: (gold)

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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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Cambridge Half Marathon 2017 - race report

8 March 2017, 10:52

I never quite got around to giving you all a winter training update (what can I say, running your own business whilst marathon training really leaves little time for anything else!), but the short version is that it’s been going well. After putting on a few extra pounds over Christmas and generally feeling “blah”, I returned to my good friend Maffetone in a big way. Low-carb isn’t the enemy of endurance training, it turns out, and I highly recommend the book Primal Endurance as a good blueprint for how to maximise training gains while eating low-carb. I even bought a copy of it for my coach so she can adjust my marathon training plan a bit, as I’ve been struggling with interval work in the meantime.

I only mention this as it’s tangentially important to lessons learned during the Cambridge half. Much more relevant, though, is my medical history, as I’ve had two separate illnesses during training – a head cold in January that miraculously only lasted a week (since my transplant, I’m lucky if I’m over a bug in 3 weeks!), and a sinus infection that left me in bed and hopped up on Night Nurse the week leading up to this race.

Granted, I did start to feel a bit perkier on Friday and Saturday, but earlier in the week it was looking like I’d not even be able to party pace it, let alone gun for the PB as I’d hoped. But with my energy levels back up to about 80% and some well-planned nose blowing the morning of the race, I had re-aligned my expectations again to try and treat it as a solid training run. The weather forecast deteriorated as my health improved, however, leaving us with freezing temperatures (6C), pouring rain, and high winds on race morning. Luckily I came prepared – full leggings, thermal long-sleeved top (with hand mitts!), and RDC shirt to run in, plus a sacrificial jumper and hat for the start as well as the ever-chic binbag to keep the wind and rain off (don’t knock it til you’ve tried it!).

Binbag at the start

A sub-1:45 predicted finish placed me in the fastest start pen with the bulk of the club runners, so I positioned myself near the back and mentally prepared myself to be overtaken a lot. The rain came lashing down almost the second we started, which helped to keep me from getting too excited in the first few miles, as did the general crowding through the one-lane sections through the city centre. Since my AppleWatch (running Runmeter) was under my long sleeve, I generally ran this race on feel for “comfortably hard”/tempo pace, and only pulled up my sleeve to check my actual pace a handful of times (and was generally pleased that I was going faster than I’d thought).

When I previously ran this race in 2015 it was comprised of two loops, mostly through town, but last year they switched to a single-loop course to increase the numbers (as single loops can take the full width of road instead of splitting in half for Lap One / Lap Two runners). The route now starts and ends on Midsummer Common, goes through the city centre and past Kings College, then heads out into the countryside to Trumpington and back around before taking some nice twisty-turny bits through town and then repeating the first 2-3 miles of the race to finish at Midsummer Common again.

I personally give the new route two thumbs up – I really like two lap courses in unfamiliar towns as I visually know how far I’ve got to go the second time around, but repeating the first/last few miles of the course serves the same purpose for me, and I quite liked seeing a bit of countryside and fields, even if they were really windy and sparsely supported. Speaking of support, my favourite cheerer of the day was a little dog riding in its owner’s front bike basket, barking support as his owner rode alongside the runners! Very Cambridge.

As for my race, I continued along at my “comfortably hard” pace for the first 7 miles with no real issues. I ran into my friend Ben from RDC just before Mile 6 and ran with him for a few minutes before he needed to stop and stretch out his ankle, but I was otherwise on my own and without headphones (as per race rules). I only grabbed a few sips of water at the stations at Miles 2 and 6, but when I hit Mile 7 I could feel myself dimming and knew I’d need to grab a gel at the Mile 8 station (thankfully they were High 5 isotonic, a brand I’d tried and liked in the past). My months of training under my cardio heart rate threshold had done wonders for my fat-burning ability, but at the pace I was going I know my body would be consuming a mix of fat and glycogen, and at Mile 7 the glycogen stores were just a bit too low. But the gel at Mile 8 (and half of another at Mile 10) really did the trick, gave me a sugar high (it’s been so long since I’ve eaten anything sugar that carrots honestly taste sweet!), and helped me to glide on through to the finish maintaining that same pace. So now I know that I can easily go a good 6 miles at slightly-faster-than-marathon-pace without the need for fuelling, so I can plan my nutrition for London marathon accordingly.

Cambridge Half medal

Even though I was overtaken quite a bit at the start of the race (and the 1:45 pacers when I stopped to open my gel packet at Mile 10), I ended up passing a ton of people in the last few miles, as normally happens when you pace a race well. This is always a terrific boost no matter what the distance, and I sprinted the last few hundred meters to eek out a time of 1:45:59. Now, this is a full 9 minutes slower than my PB (set at Bath Half in 2014), but considering I was still nursing a sinus infection and fiddling with low carb training, I feel that’s a time I can really be proud of. Coming into the race, I’d felt that my planned marathon pace of 5:00/km (8min/mi) was still nowhere near comfortable, yet during this race I maintained an average 4:50/km and felt good. So on top of the nutritional lessons, I’m feeling much more confident that I can maintain my planned marathon pace, especially with another month and a half of training, strength work, and a bit of weight loss, besides.

In fact, the only downside to the entire race was after it ended. The race numbers were allocated based on estimated finish time (so low numbers = faster runners) and the baggage tents were organised based on race number… meaning that everyone finishing at the same time had to join a massive queue for one or two handlers, while the rest sat empty. This would’ve been merely frustrating if not for the fact that it was freezing, we were all wet, not given space blankets, and the VIP area placement made it impossible to distinguish any of the queues from each other. A whippet-thin runner in front of me was literally convulsing with cold and everyone was getting numb in the 30-50min wait to get to whatever dry clothes they’d packed in their kit bags. I don’t know how the organisers could’ve done the bag check so brilliantly in the past yet made such a stupid mistake this year, but seriously guys – BAGGAGE CHECK BASED ON SURNAME. Or assign race numbers randomly. One of the two – it’s not difficult.

Cambridge Half medal

It’s a real shame that the frankly dangerous baggage chaos put a downer on an otherwise excellent race. Assuming they’ll take my advice above for next year, it’s a race I can definitely recommend. It’s great timing for spring marathon training, close to London, cheap (so long as you can snag a place the second they go on sale!), well organised, with a hefty medal, and great pubs nearby to warm up in afterwards.

Cambridge Half Marathon, 5 March 2017, 1:45:59

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British Transplant Games: Liverpool 2016

11 August 2016, 13:14

Two weekends ago I travelled up to Liverpool to compete in my fourth British Transplant Games for King’s College Hospital, the hospital where I had my bone marrow transplant seven years ago. The Transplant Games are open to bone marrow and organ transplantees of any age, in a wide variety of sports and activities, and it truly is such an inspiring weekend of sport, community, and the life-saving power of transplants.

In years past I’ve done dedicated track and speedwork in preparation for the games, but this year has just been so… disrupted (between being ill for Jan-Mar, then going straight into marathon training for Transylvania then straight into distance cycling for Dunwich…) that I didn’t get a chance to do any speedwork. I did finally get on the track two days before the Games, but prior to that, the last time I set foot on a track was in Argentina!!

So I was really not feeling prepared this year, and just approaching it as a benchmark, and if I won some medals, fine. But my heart wasn’t really in it, and I kinda felt like I was just going through the motions, if I’m honest. I was most looking forward to seeing so many friends from around the country that I only see once a year!

Mini Marathon

My first event is always the Mini Marathon on Saturday night. It’s 5km for men, and 3km for women (don’t even get me started!!), either on roads or park paths somewhere in the host city, and this year it was a simple out & back route along the docks in Liverpool, which was nice. The Donor Run takes place at the same time, and is open to the public, but to avoid a dangerous scrum with serious competitors getting tangled up in fun runners in tutus (see Bolton in 2014), the transplant athletes set off from the front, with separate Donor Run waves behind.

Immediately from the starting gun there was a lady that was quite a way in front of me – I’d never seen her before, but I couldn’t close the gap at all, and mentally I’d already started thinking “oh well, I guess I’m not taking my [1st lady] trophy back home this year, but she looks younger so maybe I’ll still get gold for the 30-39 age category…” which made me not push quite as hard. Then I heard a spectator shout “Go Nadia!” and realised that she wasn’t far behind and I couldn’t quite give up yet, so I pulled up my socks (metaphorically) and kept pushing until I was over the line.

So no one was more surprised than me to hear the words “Congratulations, first lady!” – turns out the lady who went off like a shot wasn’t a transplant athlete but was a fun runner doing the 5k who just pushed her way up with the transplantees to be at the front! So thank you, speedy lady, as you definitely made me run harder than I would’ve otherwise!

The second surprising thing said to me as I crossed the line was “As first lady, you get to release the doves!” RELEASE THE DOVES?!? This was definitely a first for me! I’ve never been asked to release doves before!

BTG 16 - doves release
Releasing the doves

But yes, the first 3km male finisher and I opened the basket and… actually they were quite content to sit in there until we gave them a little prompting and they flew away!

BTG 16 - Me and Ruth
With my friend Ruth, who’d run ultras on the two previous weekends(!) and took bronze in the Mini Marathon (and Gold in the Race Walk!)

With the Mini Marathon out of the way, I felt a bit more relaxed and able to enjoy the King’s team meal afterwards on Saturday night, ready for the shorter track races, which are all on the Sunday – yes, five track races in one day!


The 1500m is my favourite of the track races – not just because I’m a distance runner and it’s the longest, but because you get to employ some tactics and mind games. I find with the shorter races a lot of it is just technique and brute strength, and I personally like not having to stay in lane, too!

Last year was the first year that I’ve had the chance to race against my “nemesis”, Orla, but she was coming off a foot injury last year and wasn’t at peak performance. With me not at my best this year, it was always going to make for an interesting race!

BTG 16 - 1500m pack (Roger Spicer)
Photo credit: Roger Spicer

With the 1500m, you’ve got a few options when it comes to the lane – naturally, you want to gravitate to Lane 1 since it’s the shortest distance, but this can mean that you get trapped in when there are several runners in a pack. But since it was just me and Orla up at the front, I chose to run on her shoulder in Lane 2, making sure she knew I was there and she couldn’t take it easy, even though it meant I was running further on the curves.

BTG 16 - 1500m chase (Orla Smyth)
Photo courtesy of Orla Smyth

I usually like to turn the screw and up the pace in the third lap, but this year I upped the pace, but she matched it and I just couldn’t get around her. So I stayed with her and played the only card I had left – the sprint finish. Now, for all my medals and trophies and marathon times, I am terrible at sprint finishes – I always get left for dead at Run dem Crew when we sprint it home, and I didn’t really want to leave it to a risky finish.

But since it was the only option I had left, as we rounded into the last 100m, I gave everything I could and hoped she wouldn’t notice until it was too late – and by some luck, that’s exactly what happened!

BTG 16 - 1500m finish (Roger Spicer)
The finishing sprint!! Photo credit: Roger Spicer

Had she noticed earlier how much I’d cranked up the speed, I know she could’ve won it, but it was the surprise I needed to cross over the line just ahead, taking gold and giving the crowd a great show, too.


I had a few hours break before my next race (thankfully!) but the 200m is my least favourite distance – it’s my weakest event (I don’t even do it at the World Transplant Games) and oftentimes the fast 100m sprinter ladies come up to run it, with them in blocks and me just trying to hold on. And it absolutely wrecks me for the rest of the day, moreso than the longer races. But I’d promised my team captain I’d do it if it was a guaranteed medal (and therefore points for King’s) so I asked the officials for the starting list and… there were just three of us in my 30-39 age category, so it looked like I was running it!

I didn’t know the other two ladies but I assumed this was because they were sprinters so I’d mentally resigned myself to bronze, but to my astonishment, I’d ended up crossing the line first for a gold!

BTG 16 - 200m (Dave Medcroft)
Sprinting the 200m! Photo credit: Dave Medcroft

Even stranger is that I raced it in the exact same time as last year, but it got me the gold instead of the bronze, which goes to show that it’s as much about your opponents as it is your performance sometimes.


I had about an hour break before my next race, and for some reason there were loads of women in my age category signed up for the 400m, enough that they had to schedule two separate time trials! As it turned out, there were a few no-shows so they managed to squeeze us all into one final, but I’d be up against Orla and I knew this was not only her strongest event, but also that she’d run half as many races as me in the past 24 hours.

BTG 16 - post race (Roger Spicer)
In the finish area. Photo credit: Roger Spicer

I pushed it hard, but Orla came round in an inside lane and took the lead and maintained it, thoroughly deserving her gold and leaving me with the silver. Which, looking at the strong finishes from across the other 8 lanes, is no mean feat in itself.


And, no less than a half hour after the 400m (literally not even enough time to get my medal), I got to do it all over again… twice around! There weren’t as many of us on the starting line as the 400m, but frankly I was knackered. So when Orla took off like a shot I thought “There is no way she can maintain that pace for the whole 800m” and resolved to keep steadily at it and close the distance over the two laps. But respect to her, she did maintain that pace, and I never did manage to close that gap.

BTG 16 - 800m (Dave Medcroft)
Orla deserved that gold! Photo credit: Dave Medcroft

But I kept true to myself, too, and maintained my pace, earning myself a second silver for my collection! It wasn’t until afterwards that I compared my times to previous years, and it was interesting to note how consistent my times were compared to previous British Games (where I’d been equally knackered at the end of the day – my Argentina times were way faster thanks to the extra training and rest days!). My 800m time was actually 2 seconds faster than last year’s time, and my 400m was 1 second faster, so again, it’s really down to your competitors as much as it is your own times!

4×100m team relay

And again, I had less than a half hour’s rest before the final event of the day, which is always the team 4×100 relays. Now, I always put my name down in advance to help out the team, but I always try to wriggle out of actually doing it because a) I’m freaking exhausted at this point of the day, b) I am not a sprinter and hate competing the 100m distance, and c) oh god the baton and the little lines and I can only hand off within certain lines, aaahhh!

But we’d had some injuries this year and so a few regulars couldn’t do it, and I agreed to run it if I could be in the first position and therefore only have to do one baton handoff, ha! There were so many teams competing this year that they had to run three separate heats (as time trials) to decide the winners, and Team King’s did amazingly well – coming second place in the first heat so we then had a nail-biting wait watching the other two heats hoping we’d be fast enough to cling on to a silver or bronze.

As it turned out, we were awarded silver on the podium, but after some protests that the winning team was comprised of athletes from mixed hospitals and therefore ineligible for medals, we were eventually awarded gold!! In all my years for competing for King’s, we’ve never won gold at the relay so this was a huge deal for us, and completely unexpected!

BTG 16 - all the medals
With all the medals!

So all in all, I ended up with four golds, two silvers, and the right to retain my trophy for another year. Not bad for feeling woefully unprepared, especially if you consider that, in June and July, I’ve run an (ultra) marathon through Transylvania, cycled 120 miles overnight, and won medals in six separate track events! Which is quite a range.

British Transplant Games, 30-31 July
3km “mini marathon”, 12:18 – gold & trophy
1500m, 5:48 – gold
800m, 2:56 – silver
400m, 1:13 – silver
200m, 0:32 – gold
4×100m team relay – gold

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Dunwich Dynamo - ride report

19 July 2016, 14:35

The Dunwich Dynamo is not a race. Nor is it a sportive. Nor is it organised (by anyone!). The Dunwich Dynamo is a rite of passage – an annual 120 mile bike ride from London Fields in east London to Dunwich, on the Suffolk coast. It’s been going for over 20 years and the route is just “known”, and the date is the Saturday closest to the full moon in July. Riders set off sometime between 7 and 9pm, and generally don’t make it to the beach at Dunwich until sunrise, or some hours thereafter.

James is the cyclist in our relationship (I prefer to think of myself as “a runner who’s sometimes on a bike”) and I urged him to ride it last year as I think it’s good to challenge yourself and go outside your comfort zone every now and then. He absolutely loved the experience and camaraderie on the road through the night, and assured me that there’s plenty of slower riders, riders on Bromptons, wacky races-style antics, and plenty of burger vans and pubs open all night along the way, and that he really thought I could do it. So I agreed, as long it the forecast wasn’t really wet (as it turned out, it was super warm and just about perfect!).

Dunwich Dynamo
selfie at the start

I’ve been cycle commuting regularly since January when we moved moorings, but my route is only 11km each way, and my longest ride ever is still just some 30 mile sportives we did last year. But I figured I’d just take it at my own pace, and well, it’d be good to challenge myself a bit. I should also probably point out that I do all my cycling on a 25 year old, heavy ass (14kg) mountain bike with road tires, and that I haven’t worn my clippy shoes in nearly a year either. But I’ve got marathon running legs and good cardio, so I figured the flat-ish route shouldn’t be too big of an issue. What worried me much more was the overnight aspect, as I start nodding off every night at 11pm on the dot – I pretty much wind down like a clockwork toy. And I was right to worry, as fighting sleep deprivation was by far the hardest part about the Dynamo for me.

We set off at London Fields in a big group of riders around 8pm, and the streets through London were quite fun – really congested with cyclists but good banter and there were just SO many of us that drivers just gave us the right of way, which was great. Things spread out a bit once we got to Waltham Forest, and by the time we got to the first pub stop I was feeling hungry, but otherwise fine. I resisted the siren call of a chandy and had some bar snacks and some flapjacks instead.

Dunwich Dynamo
at the first pub, around 10pm, with tea!

It’s probably a good point now to list out a few things I liked about the ride, and a few things I didn’t.

Things I liked

  • The pit stops were great – full of happy people, food, chatter, and friendly support. These each felt like a mini festival!
  • The inventive light displays – loads of riders decorated their bikes and helmets with fairy lights, and a good amount had the wheel LED displays, too, which made it feel really festive.
  • The Sudbury Fire Station halfway point – a true beacon in the darkness and my own personal Mile21 moment!
  • Especially in the second half, the country lanes were utterly gorgeous. Early in the morning, there was hardly any traffic, so you could just concentrate on the views and fresh air
  • The people who set up chairs in their front gardens just to wave and cheer us on. I made sure to give them a toot and a wave in return!
  • Spending time with my husband in a shared pursuit. He doesn’t run, so this was a great way for us to do an athletic activity together.
  • Dunwich beach and a dip in the sea – best ice bath EVER.

Dunwich Dynamo
Dawn at Barking

Things I didn’t like

  • The overnight aspect. Losing a night’s sleep was far, far harder than the ride itself. It would’ve been 100% more enjoyable for me if it was an 8am-8pm ride.
  • Being passed by thousands of riders, over and over again, for hours on end. I’m not a particularly slow cyclist, but I’d be going at a fair clip and then be passed by a group of riders like I was standing still. It’s really dispiriting to be passed like that over and over again, and it means you can’t chat to anyone, either. I wished there was a dedicated social/casual wave to allow more camraderie outside the pit stops.
  • Descents with blind corners in the dark. I cannot stress how much these stress me out. I don’t mind descents when I can see what’s coming up, but if I can’t see the road surface, or if there are any riders or cars ahead of me, I’m going to lay on that brake like a freaking granny so I don’t end up with full body road rash.
  • The asshole who shouted at me while on a dark descent just before dawn, while passing really closely, causing me to fucking lose my last remaining nerve and burst into tears, requiring 15 minutes of hugs and chocolate by the roadside before continuing. Fuck you, mister man in backpack. I hope you feel big and proud.

Despite having not cycled anything longer than an hour in the past year and not having trained at all, my legs and lungs were actually fine throughout. My right hip started bothering me and my bum started chafing a bit after about 80 miles, and I was fighting low-level nausea for the second half, but I think I held up okay, all considering.

Dunwich Dynamo
Pancake & Gu pick-me-up…

Despite all the unenjoyable bits, I’m still really glad I did this. I’m proud that I was able to cycle for 9.5hrs (12.5 hrs elapsed time) with relatively few consequences. I’m proud that I didn’t fall over in my clippy shoes, not even once. I’m proud that I didn’t walk up any of the hills, even at the end when lots of others were doing so. And I’m proud that I did it in entirely self-sewn gear, too (more on this over at

Dunwich Dynamo
Obligatory finish photo!

I feel the need to give a special shout out to two people who really and truly got me through this when I might not have otherwise. First, my Run dem Crew friend Vicky, who not only stayed up all night at Sudbury Fire Station to cheer me and a handful of other RDC friends on, but she also made trays and trays of sandwiches, cakes, orange slices, crisps, and even gluten free options and really helped boost morale when I felt about 90% done at the halfway point. And second, my husband James, without whom I really don’t know whether I’d have finished. He stayed with me the entire ride, picked me up when I needed it, hugged me when I needed it, got food and drinks while I stayed with the bikes, and brought some magic chocolate and pancakes from his bag at exactly the right point (pancakes topped with salted caramel Gu gels is a wonderful thing, btw). Basically, he sacrificed his ride so that I could get through it.

Dunwich Dynamo
Beach finish. Thank god!

I really do think it’s something that everyone who’s able should experience at least once, and I’m glad I did it. But right now I don’t think I feel the need to do it again!

Dunwich Dynamo, 16-17 July. 9:33:29

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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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...and now World Record Holder, too!

7 September 2015, 22:03

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

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

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

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

800m podium

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

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

Handing the baton to Emma

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

Team GB 4x400m relay team

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

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

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

Final medal haul

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

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

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Comment [7]

World Champion!!

26 August 2015, 22:15

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

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

WTG 2015 5k photos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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British Transplant Games: Newcastle 2015

5 August 2015, 13:28

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Total medal haul
The obligatory Mister T shot!

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

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

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

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Nike Women's 10k #WeRunLondon race report

27 June 2015, 12:42

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nike Women's 10k starting line

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nike Women's 10k finish with champagne

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

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

Nike Women's 10k - selfie and necklace

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

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

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

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Bupa London 10,000 2015 - race report

28 May 2015, 12:52

This was the 6th time I’ve run the Bupa London 10,000 race, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that there couldn’t possibly be anything left for me to say about it. But you’d be wrong (and I forgive you), because this year, not only did they add in more starting pens, but the route was entirely new! The route still starts and ends along the Mall, but this year, instead of going along the Embankment (which is being torn up for the new cycling superhighway), the Strand was used instead, taking us up into Holborn, out to Bank and around back to Trafalgar Square and Westminster, finishing along St James’s Park, right in front of Buckingham Palace (Course pdf here).

selfie with Liz's House

As you could infer from my running it six times, I love this race. The organisation is brilliant, it’s easy to get to, cheaper than most other central London races at only £28, and the support along the route is just great. I’ve also really enjoyed the standard route, so I wasn’t quite sure how the new one would feel – but honestly, I think I preferred it (as did all of my friends)! Somehow there seemed to be more downhill stretches without any additional uphills (they must’ve just been subtle), and while you still got to see the Elites passing by you on the Strand (like the Embankment in most years), the route was wiggly enough to make it feel more interesting than just an “out and back” course. And my personal favourite – no Leadenhall Market so no cobblestones this year!!

Now, as for my own race experience this year – the upside to running a local race like this is that I can roll out of bed 90min before the starting gun and still get there in plenty of time. In fact, I was still yawning in the starting pen, wondering what exactly my legs were capable of. If you’ve been keeping track, in the previous four weeks I’d raced London marathon (26mi/42km), Run Hackney (13mi/21km), and cycled the Medway sportive (31mi/50km). So my legs weren’t exactly fresh, and I wasn’t entirely convinced I was fully recovered from London marathon, either.

Bupa 10 starting pen view

So I figured I’d run the first 5km of the race all-out and use it as a benchmark for the World Transplant Games road race since the last time I’d raced 5km was my first-ever race in 2007, so having a new time to whittle down over the next few months is useful. So I belted out of the starting gate, pretty much hitting 4min/km along the way, and crossing the 5km timing mat in 21:26, which was wholly respectable, I think.

Then I had a bit of a mental wobble, with the usual “ugh my legs feel heavy”, “wait, what am I doing again?”, and “why do I care exactly?” going through my head for about 30 seconds before I shook it off and told myself the quickest way back was to just push it as hard as I could. I mostly maintain a 4:20min/km pace (or thereabouts) through to Trafalgar Square, and then when I hit Horse Guards Parade (the same final 2km of the London marathon), I cranked my legs up to sprint speed and blew past a ton of people in the last few hundred meters.

Finish photo at the Bupa 10k

In the end, I actually came in a full minute under my previous PB, and no one was more surprised than me! I honestly wasn’t expecting it, especially considering my lack of motivation for the second half, but it goes to show that my legs really can surprise me when I turn my brain off and let them do their thing!

RDC group after Bupa 10k

I met up with a few other Run dem Crew guys and my husband at the finish, and after some lunch, went up to the Viviobarefoot store in Covent Garden where I had a total geek-out session with one of the staff there about biomechanics, form, and flexibility. For like 2 hours! So all in all, a pretty great way to spend a Bank holiday Monday.

Oh, and registrations for 2016 are already open. I’ll definitely be signing up for my 7th time!

Bupa London 10,0000, 25 May 2015, 43:27 (PB)

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Run Hackney 2015 - race report

12 May 2015, 11:54

I ran the inaugural Run Hackney half marathon last year, and, despite the extreme heat and a few organisational issues, I really enjoyed it. Instead of chasing a PB, I helped a friend through her first ultra-distance training run (having run 30km prior to the start line that morning).

This year, the race was moved to mid-May instead of June (presumably to reduce the chance of a swelteringly hot day again), but this also meant the race was only two weeks after myself and a lot of others had just run London marathon, which wasn’t exactly ideal. To be honest, I probably wouldn’t erred on the side of rest and not run this at all were I not offered a place, but since it was one I enjoyed so much last year, I couldn’t really say no.

So I found myself on race morning having run only 6km since London marathon and not really knowing what I wanted to achieve in the race. I grabbed the very first Jubilee line train to Stratford, and ran into a friend on the walk across the Olympic Park to the race village. My first order of business at any race is to drop off my bag, and I was pleased to see that they’d broken up the bag drop significantly further this year, so that I walked straight up to the tent instead of the 15-20min wait I remember last year. Toilet queues were the usual “Is that the queue???” pre-race length, but appeared to be moving briskly. I caught up with the hundred-or-so other Run dem Crew members for a group photo, and then went off to join the 1:30-1:45 pen, figuring I’d let my legs decide what they wanted to do.

The start pens were super disorganised last year, with nowhere near enough space for people to join, resulting in a massive scrum for the first few miles. I’m pleased to report that the organisers clearly took feedback on board for this year (a common theme for this race!), and the start pens were clearly labelled, with only the 1:30-1:45 one not being quite big enough to get everyone inside (I’m guessing they looked at last year’s finish times, which would’ve been far slower than normal due to the heat). Happily, I saw my coach/trainer/physio/guru/shaman, Barbara, inside the pen so I jumped to barrier to join her. She was pacing an old friend to 1:45, and asked if I wanted to join them – working out that this was 5:00min/km pace (or, exactly my London marathon pace!) I jumped at the chance to both have some company and some direction to my race.

We started off at a comfortable pace, and chatted away happily. The forecast was for cloudy and cool weather, but it ended up being sunny again, and I was really glad I opted for shorts, though I didn’t think to apply sunscreen at all, boo. The crowds throughout the town section of the route were great – lots of ordinary people out cheering on the runners, and I even got to see my friend Rosie hanging out her front window, cheering her head off for me when I ran past! In fact, the only portion of the route which was lacking in crowd support was the Olympic Park section at the end, which was pretty much devoid of anyone but runners…

During Run Hackney
Photo credit: Claire McGonegle

The organisers had clearly listened to feedback from last year, and the experimental, eco-friendly, but prone-to-exploding water pouches were replaced by bottles at the water stations, supplemented by at least one corner shop handing out their own bottles from their own supply. It’s community involvement like this that really gives a race personality, and for most of the course, Run Hackney really feels more like a local race rather than a “Big City London race”.

During Run Hackney
Photo credit: Claire McGonegle

The course was largely the same as last year – starting in Hackney Marshes and winding through Hackney, hitting a lot of little parks and local landmarks along the way – not places you’d necessarily see on postcards (hello there, back of the Weatherspoons!), but more places you’ve seen on the bus, or been to on a night out, or round a friend’s place and haven’t necessarily pieced together as being right next to each other. The big change for this year was the last portion through the Olympic Park, which was baking hot last year, with zero shade and runners dropping like flies. This year the course went through the park and out the other side, rather than a circular route back out the way you entered. This meant we only got the Cheer Dem Crew treatment once, but felt a lot better on the run. I’m still not sure they’ve totally nailed this portion of the route – I love that we run past all the stadiums, but the lack of crowds and shade this late in the race make it a hard slog – perhaps it’d be better if the route was reversed and you ran through the Olympic Park first?

Run Hackney finish selfie
Photo credit: Barbara Brunner

In any case, once you’re through the Park, there’s really only a mile to go, and unlike Cambridge Half, the finishing chute really is a short and straight 100m dash! I met up with Stephen (cursing me again as this is now the second race in two weeks where he’s apparently been chasing my back but unable to catch me up!) and then Barbara and her friends, who I’d unknowingly left behind at around Mile 11 or so as they’d slowed down a bit.

Run Hackney race medal
Nice of them to match the medal to my Duathlon Shorts!

We got a quick selfie, then collected our medals (great design, and nice of them to coordinate with my shorts!!), goodie bags (absolutely bursting with stuff I actually want!), and technical teeshirts (in a variety of sizes, and again, a nice design). Some might balk at paying £40-odd for a half marathon, but the swag alone was totally worth it. Seriously top notch, and I couldn’t really fault the organisation, marshalling, or general atmosphere of this race, either. With other London half marathons practically as impossible to get into as London marathon, Run Hackney is a great opportunity to run a half marathon without having to splurge on a hotel room (which would cost far more than the entry fee here anyway!).

After Run Hackney
Photo credit: Barbara Brunner

I’m not sure how they quite managed to get another warm and sunny day two years running – they might start to get a reputation for being the running carnival! Plenty of steel bands, a nice laze in the park with friends after the race – a girl could get used to this (if only she remembered her sun screen!!). And if you’re into a bit of forward planning, you can even pre-register for 2016’s race now.

Run Hackney (half marathon). 10 May 2015. 1:45:06

Full disclosure – I was given a complimentary media spot at this race but all views are my own. I didn’t use the media starting pen, because I don’t really agree with that – better to be in with the paying punters!

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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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Cambridge Half Marathon - race report

9 March 2015, 13:36

I’m overdue with about four posts I want to write about, but since January I’ve been working two jobs, marathon training, taking evening classes plus all the usual social and home commitments, which meant that, unfortunately, blog writing has fallen by the wayside even though I’ve had no lack of topics to write about! I’m hoping to catch up on those soon…

But because of all of the above, I’ve also not felt 100% on track with my training. I’ve been fitting in four sessions a week, running a couple of hours at the weekend, running to and from Run dem Crew on Tuesdays (meaning I often cover 16km on a week night), but still in general I felt quite sluggish and slow. In other words, just not “race ready”.

When I’d signed up to run Cambridge Half last year I was excited to get a coveted spot in a race that sells out within hours every year, thinking it might be a chance to try for a sub-1:30 finish and it’d save me a bit of money over a foreign race, too, since I’m saving my pennies for Argentina in August. But rail replacement services from London in the morning meant I’d nearly had to book a hotel, until an old work colleague stepped in and very kindly put us up for the night. Apart from having a great evening chatting with him and his wife, seeing Jupiter(!!) through his telescope, he has also run this race over the last few years and was able to give me some great local knowledge about the course, plus know exactly which car park would be empty on a Sunday morning for easy race access!

Cambridge Half - kit layout

We got to the start in plenty of time, and I even managed to run into Ben, the only other RDC member running it (as the vast majority of the Crew were running Paris half on the same day), and we trundled off to the fastest (sub 1:45) pen to get the last few shivers in before the gun. Even though it was super sunny and I’d worn a sacrificial sweatshirt until the last possible second, my hands and feet were completely numb and the first 3 miles felt like I was running on cloven hooves. I wouldn’t recommend this as a race approach, but it did help to slow me down and keep my pace in check for those crucial first few km where I tend to speed off into the abyss.

Cambridge Half - wave

Since I wasn’t feeling anywhere near ready to attack my current PB (1:36 from Bath Half last year), I decided my approach would be to channel Berlin marathon and try to run a really well paced race instead, and just see how I felt. This was my first race running with my new Garmin watch (a topic for another day!), so I made sure I kept my pace between 4:30 and 5:00min/km, but in general I tended to hover around the 4:40-4:45 mark. This was also the first race that I used Salt Stick capsules to try and minimise the dehydration I get in longer races, no matter how much water I take in. As a really salty sweater, taking these at about miles 5 and 9 really helped, no matter how dodgy I felt pulling a little dime bag with white pills from my leggings’ back pocket!

Cambridge Half - side view

The course itself was really interesting, super flat, and with lots to look at en route – a plus since it was a no headphones race, which also worried me as I prefer to run with one earphone of music for speed sessions and I wasn’t sure how I’d cope. Instead I sang songs to myself in my head, mostly “Audition Day” by Oh Land and Beastie Boys’ “Intergalactic”! I’d made a new pair of running leggings especially to appeal to the boffins of Cambridge – my upcoming Steeplechase Leggings pattern (with no inseams!) made with FunkiFabrics circuitboard printed lycra, which got lots of compliments on the course, both from spectators and other runners. There were a few little bridges to cross, some narrow winding streets, but lots of crowd support in clusters, which is how I prefer it, really. It was a two lap course, which I’ve found I really like, as I have a much better sense of where I am and how far I have to go on the second lap around when I tend to flag a bit. But thanks to my pacing strategy, once I hit Mile 10 I was still feeling pretty good so I made the conscious decision to ramp up my pace a bit and try to target 4:30min/km, and I’m pleased to say that you can see this in my Strava pace analysis!

Cambridge Half - final push
Pushing through the longest “finishing straight” ever…

I learned in Berlin that if you can save a bit for the last 5km, it really makes a massive mental difference in the way you finish a race. Once again I got to pass a lot of exhausted runners in the end stages of the course, and it meant that by the time we crossed through the Start line (with announcers repeating over and over that it wasn’t the finish, agh) and turned back into the park towards the Finish, I looked at my watch, saw it was 1:34, and that I could actually manage a PB if I really pushed the last few hundred meters, so I started sprinting…

…only to discover that the finishing “straight” twisted and turned, took us around the perimeter of the park, turned again, and then approached the finish line from the opposite side! So my finishing sprint lasted an agonizing amount of time – 4 minutes, which means it was probably closer to a kilometer in length than the 200m I was expecting! So I didn’t manage a PB, but considering I didn’t think I was anywhere near capable of achieving it, it’s no big loss anyway.

Cambridge Half - finish Cambridge Half - finish
Yes, just like in Berlin, you get alcohol-free beer at the end…

I learned in Cambridge that I am way stronger, both physically and mentally, than I thought I was right now, and I’m feeling much better about running London marathon in a few weeks because of it. Perhaps burning the candle at every conceivable end is great endurance running training somehow?

Cambridge Half - finish

Cambridge Half Marathon, 8 March 2015, 1:38:28

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My 2014 Year in Review

29 December 2014, 16:46

2014 Race Photos
I was holding off on posting my roundup of 2014 until the very last day, as I generally can assume I’ll be running over the holidays, when London is blissfully empty and quiet. But some total bint at my husband’s office (who will receive a slap in the face should I ever meet her) slobbered her cold germs all over him at the Christmas party in some faux-cutesy “oh I’m so sick, woe is me” schtick, and surprise, surprise, he caught her cold the next day. Meaning that I, with my impaired immune system, caught it the day after that. My husband recovered after about three days, but I’m on Day 8 now and still haven’t turned the corner, which has totally ruined my Christmas and makes it very unlikely that I’ll be doing any running between here and New Year’s Eve, so I may as well try and look back on the good things that happened this year instead of the crummy, crummy end.

And overall, I had a great year of both racing and running in general! I was, as always, coached by the extremely talented Barbara at Energy Lab, whom I fully credit for both sorting out my gait, training, nutrition, and keeping me injury free for my 11th year running.

Races by Distance:

Let’s start by longest first. In 2014 I ran two marathons, the London Marathon and the Berlin Marathon. Both were completely different in terms of goals and how I felt on the day. London was my big “A Race”, and I was super motivated to get a big PB. Berlin was a lot more laid-back, and I really only wanted to improve my pacing, regardless of what that meant for time. I learn a lot from every single marathon, and what I learned from each of these separately could fill a novel. I’ve got lots to think about entering my training for London marathon 2015.

I also ran two races which were between full and half marathon distance, both put on my the utterly fantastic Events to Live team: The Surrey Spitfire (20 miles) in March and then the Three Molehills (16 miles) race in November. Both of these I ran with friends, and neither were for any particular time. Coincidentally, both were also marked out by exceptional weather – unseasonably warm and sunny for Spitfire, and absolutely chucking it down, monsoon-style for the Molehills.

With halo of medals
Me with my 2014 medals! Image courtesy of Energy Lab

I could’ve sworn I ran more than two half marathons this year, but no, only the Bath Half in March as a lead-up to London marathon, and Run Hackney in June after FOMO hit me hard and I ran it to keep my friend Maja sane. Again, when I compare the two, the one where I really pushed hard to get a new PB was less enjoyable than the one where I kept it casual with friends, but that’s to be expected, really. For me, it’s all about understanding what I want from each race, and accepting that the PB ones are going to hurt!

What with all my other races, I only managed to run Flatline once this year – that’s the 10mile race put on by Energy Lab that’s just 10 repeats up and down Swain’s Lane (otherwise known as the steepest hill in London). It’s a ridiculously hard and trying race, but since you’re passing people at every repeat, you get lots of encouragement and high fives every few minutes, too.

I always seem to find time to squeeze in a 10km race, even if it’s ridiculously close to other, longer races. I ended up running four this year, starting off with the Anthony Nolan Marrowthon in March, which was really just a fun-run for me the day after Flatline. Then in May I ran my favourite ever race, the (Bupa) London 10,000, which I’ve run ever since the very first in 2008 (and I’m signed up to run again in 2015, too). I was still mentally recovering from London marathon during this race this year, and found it challenging to keep going, but I ended up with a new PB without really meaning to, which is always nice. Then, shortly after, I was surprised to enjoy Nike’s We Own The Night despite the overcrowding and poor lap management, and then I didn’t race another 10km until the end of November when I joined 160 other members of Run dem Crew at the Greenwich Park Movember where I came within 30 seconds of my PB despite the sizeable hills and not really pushing myself.

And finally, in a class of their own was my second British Transplant Games up in Bolton where I took gold in the 3km, 1500m, 800m, and 400m, and a silver medal in the 200m. It’s been interesting to switch to training for such shorter distances in between my spring and fall marathons, and I imagine my track work will start even earlier in 2015 in preparation for Argentina!

New PBs!

As mentioned above, I earned myself three shiny new PBs this year!

Yet if I had to pick my favourite race of the year, I think it’d have to be Berlin Marathon. I can’t think about this race and NOT smile – the weather was warm and sunny, the course leafy and interesting with just the right amount of crowds, I had great energy and conversation throughout from my friends Christina and Luis, and having paced it well, we were able to pass everyone in the last 5km on a joyous high.

Personal Highlights

Some other, non-racing personal highlights for me:
  • ExtraMile – Being chosen as one of four inspirational runners leading up to London marathon would’ve been incredible enough, but to meet with the other guys and have my own film crew follow me throughout was just incredible. Seeing my massive face at the London Marathon Expo was a bit surreal though!

  • My FehrTrade Patterns – I released my first two exercise sewing patterns at the very end of 2013, and since then, I’ve released six more, including a freebie and my first menswear pattern, too. I’m also proud that I ran both my marathons wearing shorts I’d designed and sewed myself, and ran most of my races in my own-sewn gear, too.

  • Hampstead Heath trail running – This year has truly turned me into a trail runner. I know Hampstead Heath isn’t the largest or wildest place out there, but it’s somewhere I can go without travelling all day, where I can meet friends, get muddy, and still be back in time for lunch. I’ve run through all seasons on the Heath, and if I haven’t been for a few weeks, I start to get really itchy to return, even if I’m on my own. Some of my favourite runs this year have been on the trails.

  • Run dem Crew Elites – I moved up to the fastest group at Run dem Crew last December, and I’m proud that I persevered through the toughest times and ran with Elites through all of my training phases. It’s really, really not easy knowing that you’ll be dead last even though you’re running at your absolute fastest sprint trying just to keep the leader within sight, and god knows it’d be a lot easier and enjoyable to just always run in a more comfortable group. But no mater how painful, humbling, and, well, “character building”, running with the Elites is, it’s also one of my proudest achievements, and I know that by just being there I’m inspiring others, too.

Total training distance

I track all my training run and distance using the Runmeter app, which posts everything up to DailyMile, so I can tell you that in 2014 I ran 2,136.29km (1,327.43 miles). As you can see, I had some pretty intense training in the leadup to London marathon, so it’s no wonder that paid off with so many PBs!

2014 training mileage

I’ll be changing up the way I record my runs in 2015, however. I joined Strava a few months ago, but I’m not really that keen to use their app. But DailyMile hasn’t been updated or bug-fixed in about two years and is just a ghost town these days, and I wanted to go were all my friends were. I also really noticed in Berlin how much I’d prefer to get constant, on-demand feedback on my pace and heartrate rather than just the “once every km” I was getting with my phone app, so I asked for (and received!) a teal Garmin FR 15 for Christmas, which I’m sure will also affect the way I track my running over the next year.

As we draw into the last few days of 2014, I’d like to wish you all a happy, healthy, and fulfilling 2015 in the year ahead. May all your runs be muddy and your times be PBs!

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Greenwich Park Movember 10k - Race Report

3 December 2014, 14:35

What a difference a week makes! Last weekend I ran the extremely hilly Three Molehills 16mi race and my friends and I came in last place. This weekend I ran the Greenwich Park edition of the popular Movember 10k series, and well… I was definitely nearer to the front!

This race has a reputation for being very hilly and one of the toughest 10k races in London – it’s two laps around Greenwich Park, taking in the two biggest hills – twice. This was my first year running it, though I cheered last year so I saw the larger of the hills, and then I ran the course as a practice run a few weeks ago, too. So I felt pretty well prepared, especially since the weekend before was both longer and hillier.

For a bit of fun, I took the elevation graphs from my running app and adjusted them so they were all at the same scale, comparing the Greenwich Movember course to both Three Molehills and Flatline (the race which is just 10 times up and down Swain’s Lane).

Elevation comparison

Amazing, right? Anyone who’s run the Movember route will swear that it feels a lot tougher than it looks here, but I think it’s important to put everything into perspective when you’re chugging away up a steep hill.

Thankfully I had another motivating (not so secret) weapon – the mighty Cheer Dem Crew were out in force, cheering on all 162 Run dem Crew members who were racing. They perched along the steeper hill, cheering us on both as we sailed down the hill, and then turned around to struggle back up it. They even brought the confetti cannons, though their aim definitely got better as the race went on (I don’t recommend taking a confetti cannon in the face at close range!).

Charlie & Glenn
Glenn (RDC Movember organiser & total legend) and Mister Run dem himself, Charlie Dark

I also felt it was high time I dusted off my gold medal leggings, having previously raced in them back in early 2013 at the dismal East London Half. They’re a bit too big for me these days, so I had a bit of sagging round the ankles, but I got an awful lot of attention on the way round and I was really easy to spot in the crowd!

Greenwich Park Movember

I didn’t really have any goals in mind for this race, considering it’s so hilly. But as there’s no starting pens, the first 2-3 km were super congested, too, which took some time off, too. I spent most of the first few kilometers running on the grass beside the paths, trying to duck and dive around people so I could stretch my legs. Unusually, I also decided not to wear my headphones for this race (I usually run with music unless specifically prohibited) since there were so many Crew running it and I could better cheer others on without them.

Running up that hill...

The great thing about having 160-odd friends running a race of about 1600 total is that you are constantly seeing people you know. The two-laps plus large amount of double-backs meant I was pretty much constantly giving high fives, gunfingers, and shouts of “Yes yes!” which also helped make the race fly past.

Greenwich Park Movember
Note: Satan is not a crew member!

So back to the results – I ended up finishing in 44:57, only 38 seconds slower than my 10k PB, and finishing as 8th lady! To be honest, had I known I was that close to getting a PB, I might’ve actually tried harder! ha! So in less than a week, I went from finishing last in a race to finishing in the top 10. Life can be pretty funny sometimes…

It was a great race to finish off my 2014 racing year, leaving on a high and getting me ready to start marathon training again in a few weeks.

Greenwich Park Movember 10k, 29 November 2014, 44:57

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Three Molehills - Race Report

27 November 2014, 17:31

I become a bigger and bigger fan of Events to Live with every race I run. I first encountered them when I ran my first Bacchus race in 2012, and then this spring I also ran their 20 mile Spitfire race and together they really sealed my undying devotion. They’re a small events company, local to Surrey, and they just put on really great races in their local area, with interesting distances, terrain, and sights. They’re always reasonably priced, well organised, and with the friendliest marshals I’ve ever encountered. The end result is that when I sign up to one of their races, I know it’s going to be a good time.

The Three Molehills race is predominantly a relay event, with each leg taking in one “Molehill” – it’s a great play on words because they’re hills in the Mole Valley, but also the hills are massive, so calling them “molehills” is like a tiny pat on the head to the beasts that are Box Hill, Norbury Park, and Ranmore! You can also opt to run the entire race as an individual, however, taking in all three hills over nearly 16 miles, and so of course, that’s what I chose to do, and happily, my friends Chris and Cat were equally crazy!

Three Molehills - elevation
The elevation for the course, recorded by my GPs app

It’s impossible to talk about this race without also talking about the weather – it was an utter downpour for the entire day. Raining sideways, windy on the tops of the hills, flooded streams, and large amounts of standing water pretty much everywhere. The only way to get through it was to just accept that you’d get soaked to the bone, and bring a towel and change of dry clothes for afterwards (which is what we did).

Three Molehills - Box Hill steps
Box Hill stairs. Photo credit: Amy Heinen

The first leg was the steepest, taking in the infamous Box Hill (infamous because it is the steepest hill in the entire south of England, used by cyclists every weekend trying to replicate the Tour de France mountain stage feelings). Usually the course has a choice of stepping stones over a creek, or a longer route going over a bridge, but the creek was so flooded the bridge was the only option (and even that became flooded the next day!). Across the bridge it was the a relentless line of muddy steps up the side of the hill, which Chris and I ran up most of, trying to pass our way around all the walkers, before having to stop and wait for Cat and the top anyway. We took a second to admire the views before returning back down the steep slope, past the motorway (where we got full-body sprayed by so many cars I lost count), and back to base before turning around to start the second leg.

Three Molehills - group shot
Photo credit:

The second leg was the longest, but also one which had a more undulating terrain around a wide loop, rather than a distinct “up the hill then down the hill” like the other two legs. This one went through Norbury Park and included a lot of woodland stretches, and the trees looked absolutely gorgeous in the rain – the dark, damp trunks a pleasing contrast to the autumn foliage. I think this is my favourite of the three legs. If I’d run it as a relay in future, I’d personally go for this one, as I’m well suited to the up ad downs spread over a longer distance.

Cat and Chris both then stopped in for a loo break when we were back to base before starting the third leg. There weren’t any portaloos and there were already people finishing the race (!!) so it took them a good 10min to fight their way through people changing so we could get started again. The third loop was completely familiar to me since it was the same course as the end of the Bacchus half – an out & back up Ranmore along paved paths, past the church and a little ways along some flat meadow before turning around again the way you came.

This was a great finish to the race because a) you already knew exactly how much you had left, b) you could admire the views as you ran down the hills through the woods, and c) having the finish be entirely downhill means you can really fly and sprint right into the finish line!

Three Molehills - finishing straight official
Photo credit:

Having finished the race, we picked up our medals, bottles of beer, and chocolate bars, then quickly got changed into dry clothes before we got any colder. I can honestly say that I couldn’t have been more wet had I gone swimming – every layer had to be rung dry, and yet I didn’t have a single blister!

Three Molehills - beer and medal

It wasn’t until we checked the official results in the pub afterwards that we realised that we actually came in last place (for the solo runners anyway – a handful of relay runners were behind us)!! This was a first for all of us, as we’re pretty fast runners, but we were taking it a bit leisurely, plus there was that 10min toilet stop, but still, coming last was a shock! We mostly just found it hilarious, which is all you can do, really.

Three Molehills - team last place
Team Last Place!

We reckon the reason was two-fold: it was an incredibly fast field, but also, we imagine all the slower runners took one look out their window on Sunday morning and went right back to bed! Which is the sensible option, but definitely not the fun one.

Three Molehills - afterwardsThree Molehills - triathlon leggings after
Photo credits: Amy Heinen

I ran this race in some leggings that I sewed myself (which you can read about on tomorrow) and they felt great throughout the entire race. I’m proud to say that I even got a few compliments from the other runners while I was running, too! They look like they were made to be doused in mud – you can barely tell it for the wild, geometric print, perfect…

Three Molehills, 23 November 2014, 2:40:40

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Race Forecast - Hackney, Argentina & everywhere in between

21 November 2014, 13:05

This seems to be the time of year where a lot of runners start planning out their races for the upcoming year. Lots of the big marathons have already done their ballot draws (London, Boston, and Berlin, to name a few), and as the nights draw in, it’s nice to have events on the horizon to look forward to.

My racing year isn’t fully finished – I’ve got two more races over the next two weekends before 2014’s medal count is in the bag, but I thought it’d be a good time to take stock of my plans for the coming year…

Three Molehills

(23 Nov) This one’s on Sunday – it’s by the same people who put on the magnificent Bacchus races, and has the same start and finish location, but they’ve somehow managed to put on a race both longer and hillier than the Bacchus half! This one’s 16 miles, and one of the three “mole hills” is actually Box Hill (infamous as the steepest hill in SE England – where the Olympic cyclists had their Tour de France moments). You then have two other massive hills besides! This one’s also run as a relay, which each team member taking about 6 miles (and one hill!) each, or you can run it solo, like myself and a few friends are doing. Solo entries are sold out, but there are a few relay team spaces available on the day. More info.

Bacchus - long climb
Running Bacchus half in 2013, through the same area as Three Molehills. But minus the fancy dress!

Greenwich Park Movember Run 10k

(29 Nov) I joked with a friend that the only way to make the Greenwich Movember course seem short and flat was to run an even longer, hillier race the weekend before it! This race is two laps through Greenwich Park, taking in quite a few of the park’s legendary hills along the way, all in aid of the Movember men’s health charities. A friend at Run dem Crew organises a team every year since it’s a charity very close to his heart, so I’ll be running this with at least 100 other crew members, and it should have great crowd support, too (I should know, as I cheered last year!). Astonishingly, entries are still not yet sold out, but they are sure to very soon. More info.

Cambridge Half Marathon

(8 March) I’ve been wanting to run this race ever since they started it a few years ago, but it sells out within hours every time, and I’m never quite quick enough. So I was super happy when my friend Laura tweeted when registration opened, and I managed to snag a spot! It’s a fast, flat, two-lap course through the town centre, and it’s close enough to London that I can get the train up and back on the day and not have to worry about hotel expenses. Plus, I’ve got a friend up there who’s invited me out for a pub lunch afterwards, result! Entries are completely sold out, as predicted. More info.

London marathon
Running London marathon this year, coming through the Mile 21 cheer station

London Marathon

(26 April) Yes, I’m running “the biggie” again! Since I ran 2014’s race in a fast time, I qualified for a “Good for Age” (GFA) place into next year’s race. This means I didn’t have to cross my fingers in the general ballot, or be tied to a fundraising amount for a charity place. I had a brilliant experience running for Anthony Nolan this year, but I’ve already got to fundraise an awful lot to get to Argentina in August, and I don’t want to fatigue the goodwill of family and friends. Several people have commented that they’re surprised I didn’t choose to run Boston marathon since I qualified, but it and London are very close together, and I couldn’t really do both. London is my local marathon, and much, much cheaper for me to run, plus I have the advantage of knowing the route well this year. Ballot and GFA entries are now sold out, but some charities still have places. More info.

London 10,000

(25 May) This was my first ever 10k race when I ran the inaugural event back in 2008 in an absolute downpour, and it was such a great experience that the thought of running it again one day powered me on through my illness and bone marrow transplant the following year, and I’ve returned to run it pretty much every year since (even when it was the weekend after a marathon following a full week of international business travel!). There’s another summer 10k around central London that is an absolute train wreck of woeful organisation every single year, and costs about twice the price of this race. Do not be confused – the London 10,000 is impeccably run every single year, has a great course, and is a joy to run, even when it’s raining. It’s just about the only race I’ll sign up for a full year in advance. Entries are still available now, but it does sell out every year. More info.

Run Hackney

(10 May) I waited on the fence for the inaugural running of this race last year, finally succumbing to the Fear Of Missing Out just before it sold out. I had friends who flew in from the continent just to run it, and the hot weather made for a fantastic, carnival-esque atmosphere both on the course and in the park afterwards. You can read my full report here, but the short version is that it was an impressive race considering it was the first time one had really been done in that area (let’s all try and forget the abysmal East London Half, shall we?). The race organisers are putting on a bunch more races this year (including Bath Half, which I thoroughly enjoyed this year), so I’m confident this will be a fun one to run again, especially if I just run it as an easy diversion to all my track training! Entries are still open, and are at a special £5-cheaper early bird rate right now (believe me – they don’t get any cheaper if you wait around!). More info

Maja & I at Hackney Half
At Run Hackney this year, pacing my friend Maja (left) through her first ultra-distance run

British Transplant Games

(30 July – 2 Aug) I’m now in my 5th year since a stranger saved my life with a bone marrow transplant, and this will be my 3rd year competing for King’s College Hospital in track and field. I’m interested to see how my times in the Mini marathon (3k), 1500m, 800m, 400m, and 200m will compare to past years, since I’ll be training far harder this year in preparation for the bi-annual World Transplant Games later in the month (see below). Next year’s British games will be held in Newcastle, and will be the only event I’m planning on traveling to – otherwise keeping costs down as low as possible since the World Games will cost a lot of money. But in Newcastle, I’ll be looking to retain my Mini Marathon trophy as well as take as many god medals home as possible! Registration is not yet open for the BTG, but if you know someone who’s had a bone marrow or organ transplant from a donor, get in touch with the Transplant Sport team leader for your transplant hospital. More info

Melissa running the 1500m
Competing in the 1500m final at the British Transplant Games this year

World Transplant Games

(23-30 Aug) This is the biggie for me – my “A race” for the coming year! I’ve been selected to represent Great Britain in track and field, so I am going to train my absolute hardest to earn some gold medals for my country! The World games are taking place in Plata del Mar, Argentina, next year, so the costs are going to be considerable. I really, really, need help to fundraise to cover the costs of accommodation, flights, competition insurance, Team GB kit, and travel to the Team GB training days. I talked in depth about what selection to these Games means to me, and how it really is a celebration of life for all the competitors who would certainly be dead were it not from the goodwill of another person (many of whom had to die in the process). They’ve just announced the competition schedule, which is nicely spread out over the week for me – the 5km Road Race on Monday, the 1500m and 400m on Friday, and the 800m and 4×400m relay on Saturday (the 200m is also on Saturday so it’s likely I’ll drop that). You will hear an awful lot more about this from me over the coming year! Selection for Team GB has concluded, so if you want to be in the running for the next WTG in 2017, you need to compete in the next BTG (see above). More info



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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British Transplant Games - Bolton 2014

13 August 2014, 11:35

This weekend I competed in my second British Transplant Games, which sees organ and bone marrow transplant patients from all over the UK competing in a variety of sports, showing what we can do when given a second chance at life. The games move around each year, and took place in Bolton over the weekend (you might recall my report from Sheffield last year). Last year I only fancied competing in the two longest distances available, but this year my team captain encouraged me to sign up for the maximum five individual events, so I registered for the 3km “mini marathon”, 1500m, 800m, 400m, 200m, and the mixed relay.

Saturday night’s “Mini Marathon” was my first event, though it’s really four races run at the same time – a 5km “mini marathon” event for male transplant competitors, a 3km “mini marathon” event for female transplant competitors, a 5km “donor run” for anyone, and a 3km “donor run” for anyone. Last year all four races were set off in one massive scrum, which saw us literally tripping over children in the first few hundred metres, and caused a lot of complaints about the safety of the faster and slower runners alike.

So I was pleased when I ran into my friend (and kidney transplantee) Ruth, who then went up to the organisers pre-race to ask what they were doing about the situation this year and if they could please separate out the competitors from the fun runners. The race hasn’t been chip-timed for the past few years, so it’s essential for competitors to be able to run as fast as they possibly can in order to win medals.

Melissa & Ruth pre Mini Marathon
As an aside – Ruth is a total badass who’s also run loads of marathons, including Bacchus full last year, and just ran the Thunder Run a few weeks ago, solo, completing over 90km in 20hrs. Just sayin.

So after some warmups, we all took to the start as a massive scrum, with a few half-hearted comments for all the 5km runners to please go to the front. Facepalm. So Ruth and I wrangled our way up to as close to the front as we could, avoiding the blind, tethered runner, small child, and other fun runners to try and get to a good position, a few rows back behind some dudes who looked fairly fast.

Mini Marathon starting scrum

The first 300m were on the track, and after about 10m of jostling to get around slower runners, then having to pull back to avoid three slower guys running abreast, I clipped the heel of another slower guy ahead of me and I went down. Hard. I’ve run probably 70-80 races in my days, and I have never once fallen in a race. But I fell here, and the track is nowhere near as soft as you’d think – I got massive scrapes on both knees and my right elbow, and half the pins ripped out of my number. I screamed a massive blue streak, Ruth helped me up, and I carried on running. Most of the course was a blur of anger and adrenaline, but I do recall a lovely woodland stretch near the end, then a surprisingly big hill just before rejoining the track for the finish/start line, where I finished as the first lady (fourth overall) in 11:07 to take the gold medal.

Melissa crossing the Mini Marathon finish line

I then headed directly to the paramedics to get cleaned up, where I immediately started a sneezing fit. After describing it to James, we concluded it was my first ever bout of hayfever. Ever. So for the rest of the weekend I was hopped up on antihistamines, going through tissues at an alarming rate, with red nose, red eyes, the works. Yay.

Melissa collecting her Mini Marathon trophy

But I digress – as first lady of any age category, I also earned the Lynn Hindle memorial trophy, which I’m happy to take care of for another year.

Mini Marathon trophy and medals

Saturday may have been dry and lovely, but Sunday’s forecast was for torrential rain for pretty much the entire day, with strong winds as a result of a hurricane remains further south. So, perfect for five track races! Ha. The 1500m was first up, and myself and the other ladies huddled under some gazebos until our start, trying to stay as warm and dry as possible.

Melissa running the 1500m
How much do I love this photo?? Notice the rain drops around my head… I’m also wearing two of my own patterns – the VNA Top & Duathlon Shorts!

I’ve run in the rain enough to mostly be able to block it out (Cophenhagen marathon was good practice there!), but the finishing straight had a helluva headwind, blowing the rain right into my eyes and making for some tough speedwork. I gave it about 90%, knowing that I still had four more races, but I still finished first across the line in 5:49.

Melissa towelling off after 1500m
Towelling off with my official team Kings College Hospital towel after the 1500m race, just like a swimmer!

Even though the track wasn’t as big or nice as Don Valley Stadium last year, and the seating wasn’t under cover, either, the staff on the track this year were superb – incredibly helpful, friendly, and professional, too. There’s nothing like having a lap counter, last lap bell, and officials shouting out your lap times to make a girl feel like Mo Farah (or Jo Pavey!).

There was a massive two hour delay, however, between the end of our race and the medal ceremony, which involved Ruth and I again having to track down race officials, explain to them that they got the medals wrong (medals are awarded by age category, not overall finish position), run back and forth between various race HQs, wait ages longer, finally get an amended result that was still wrong, and finally just write it out ourselves for the poor medal officials to get on with the podium stuff.

The 1500m medal podium

Oh yes, there’s a podium! By this point (midday), though, we were both starving and my 200m race wasn’t until 14:30, so we headed off for a quick lunch, arriving back at 14:00 in what we thought was plenty of time to warm up. …Until one of Ruth’s teammates came past us in the rest area saying “Aren’t you running the 400m? They’re calling your name out on the track!” Uhh??? So we both ran out (hearing my name announced as well) to make it onto the track just in time to run the 400m, which wasn’t scheduled to start for other 90min.

Apparently someone decided to compress the schedule in order to try and get all the races done before the impending bad weather (fair enough, since they had to stop play altogether earlier when winds were so high they were blowing metal barriers onto the track). But they made no announcements in the sports hall before we left, and despite their twitter account making lots of casual tweets, they said nothing about the time changes, which would’ve made us high-tail it back from lunch to compete!

So after running the 400m (and winning it in 1:15) then pleading my case about missing the 200m race and clearly showing I’d made every effort to be aware of the situation, the race officials finally conceded to let me run 200m on my own as a time trial, with my time being slotted in amongst the other runners for rankings. I was fine with that, as I just wanted to be able to compete! I’m really not a sprinter, but I wanted the chance to at least get a time down, so I headed out on the track with another lady (in a different age category) who’d also missed the race, and we ran our 200m, completing mine in 0:36, which earned me a silver after all was said and done!

Due to the approaching dark clouds, all the mixed relays were cancelled, so it was just the final 800m left at the end of the day, and I hit the start line yet again, feeling probably as calm as I’ve ever felt before a race. I especially like the longer races where I don’t have to stay in my lane, so as soon as I can, I tear off to Lane 1 and settle into a crazy fast pace, counting breaths in my head to ward off any thoughts. But as I was running the 800, I could hear the announcer talking about me over the tannoy, saying things like “well, it’s clear she’s a well trained athlete…”, which made me laugh, and make a note to tell Barbara about that one! Even at the end of a long day, I was able to earn gold here, too, in 2:45!

Melissa on the 800m medal podium

So I ended the day again, beaming from the top of a medal podium! My total haul for the weekend ended up being four gold, one silver, and an amazing trophy. This weekend was my “A” Race for the fall, with special emphasis on the 3km and 1500m, so I’m super, super happy with this result!!

Melissa with final medals and trophy

The games this year were also qualifiers for the World Transplant Games in Argentina next year (an IOC event, omg!), so I’ll find out in a few months if my performance was good enough to be invited to join the British Team. For someone who wouldn’t even be alive without her donor, this seems like an unbelievable proposition.

But really, the real wonder is that absolutely everyone competing this weekend wouldn’t be around if it wasn’t for the selfless generosity of another person. I think the British Transplant Games are the best possible way to show what can be achieved when someone is given a second chance at life.

Please, please put yourself on the Organ Donor list and discuss this with your family so that they’re aware you want to go on saving lives after you die. And if you’re aged 16-30, please also sign up to the separate Anthony Nolan bone marrow database, which means you could save a life and return to normal after only 3 weeks.

British Transplant Games, 9-10 August
3km “mini marathon”, 11:07 – gold & trophy
1500m, 5:49 – gold
800m, 2:45 – gold
400m, 1:15 – gold
200m, 0:36 – silver

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Run Hackney - race report

24 June 2014, 14:56

I love that there are suddenly a bunch of new races cropping up in London, because it means there are more races that I can run after sleeping i my own bed and without paying a fortune for travel. I didn’t sign up for the inaugural Run Hackney race (aka “the Hackney Half”) immediately, though, because the £40 entry fee seemed pretty steep and I was holding out to see if I could get a place through someone dropping out instead. But then friends decided they’d come in from Copenhagen to run it, and if they were staying at ours, then it’d be nicer if I could help them with the transport by running it too – so I caved and paid up anyway. It turned out that offering a local race like this meant it was a popular choice for London runners – over a hundred members from Run dem Crew also signed up to run! There were so many of us in RDC shirts that people were jokingly calling it the “Run dem Half”…

It’s also nice to have a half marathon in the summer instead of being just one stepping stone in a marathon training plan, but it did mean that I really didn’t have any expectations for this race, nor any clear goal from what I wanted to achieve. I’m still not really 100% back on form, so a PB was never on the cards, so instead I decided that I just wanted to enjoy a race for once, and run it however I felt like.

Hackney Half mid race
Photo by Michael Adeyeye

It’s a good thing I wasn’t chasing a PB, as the day itself was swelteringly hot and sunny – literally my worst possible running weather (give me downpours any day!). I thought I might run with my visiting friends, but then I ended up next to my friend Maja at the start.

Maja is training to run her first ultra in 4 weeks time – the 100km Race to the Stones, so she’d already run 30km just to get to the starting line, and she really needed someone to keep her company as she ran the half. This was the first time she’d gone beyond marathon distance, and once we settled into a comfortable 5:15min/km pace, I told her I was happy to stick with her and help her out.

Maja & I at Hackney Half
Photo by Michael Adeyeye, Maja in orange to my left. Notice how I am considerably perkier, having only run 12 miles in searing heat!

The first half of the race was mostly me chatting at her, swerving into the shady side of the streets, and giving high fives to kids. The second half was a lot harder for her, so my role switched into motivational speaker, water carrier (LOVE those water pouches!!), and Bringer Of Perspective. We saw an awful lot of runners collapsed at the side of the road (more than I’ve seen in any other race), but I was determined this wouldn’t happen to her, so I kept an eye on her hydration and nutrition, too, and let her know exactly how amazing she was and how much harder 50km on hard surfaces is on her joints than 100km on soft trail!

Post Hackney Half
Me, Maja, Emily, and Christina at the finish area

This race could’ve been just a “stick the headphones on and suffer through the heat” experience for me, but helping Maja through her own achievement gave my run a purpose. I felt good from having helped a friend, and despite ending up with a PW time (first time over 2hrs!) I had one of my most enjoyable races ever. There may have been some issues with the starting pens, and the route wasn’t all parks and canals (running round the back of a Wetherspoons was particularly memorable), but I still think Run Hackney was better organised than a lot of races which have been going for years. I love that it was put together by Hackney Council themselves to promote fitness in the community, and that local people really did come out to see what was going on (although many just to stare rather than cheer – let’s work on that next year, folks!). All in all, it’s a race I really feel good about running.

Run Hackney (half marathon). 22 June 2014. 2:02:16

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Bupa London 10,000 - race report

27 May 2014, 14:58

I ran the first ever Bupa London 10,000 back in 2008 in a steady downpour. It was my first ever 10k, and despite the weather, I utterly loved it and I knew I’d be back. Great course, perfect organisation, easy to get to, and always a good time. I’ve run it in apocalyptic rain and searing 32C heat, and last year only a week after I ran a marathon and flew halfway around the world for work, and it’s still always guaranteed to be enjoyable.

This was my 5th year running it, so I totally knew what I was in for. They’d tweaked the course slightly over the years, reversing the start and finish, leaving out St Pauls, and making the finish closer to Buckingham Palace, but it’s still comfortable enough that we feel like old friends. Despite running We Own the Night a few weeks ago and it being 6 weeks since London Marathon, I must confess that my head still isn’t back in the training game. The forecast was decent enough and my legs were in good enough shape, so I set off at the front of my starting pen at a comfortable 4:15min/km and figured I’d try to maintain sub-4:30 through to the last few hundred meters and try to kick out a sprint finish.

On paper, it looks like this was a massively successful strategy – I pretty much kept between 4:15 and 4:20 for the entire race, and sped up a bit in the last 200m. But this felt way tougher than it should’ve, and I know it was all mental. It was a nice day, I had good choons on my playlist, I was on home turf, and yet it felt like a struggle to just keep going and not stop midway through for a sandwich or something. I know this is normal after a big race, and I’m hoping that a return to a training schedule in a week or two will help matters.

For me, the highlight in the race was hearing my name shouted out at around 4.5km and suddenly being in the midst of half the Run Dem Crew Elites – Mani, Sorrel, Barefoot Tom, and Jeroen were running the race like a peloton, each taking turns at the front and encouraged me to come along for the ride. I got caught up with them for a few hundred meters but then realised that their sub-4 pace was way too fast for that early in the race so I told them to go on ahead. If I’d met them at 7 or 8k, or if it was a few months down the line, this would’ve been a dream race experience for me, especially since they finished in 39 minutes!

Post Bupa 10k

I didn’t finish too badly though – despite my mental game being decidedly “off” I ended up with a new PB by about 40 seconds. It’s the third time I’ve finished 10k in 44 minutes-something recently – first was at the un-chipped Marrowthon, and then the second was the first 10k of London marathon, so it’s amazing I was able to carry on after running the first quarter so quickly!

But a PB is a PB, even if it’s just by a few seconds, and I’m feeling very fortunate I was able to pull it off at all. This is one of my favourite races, and I just feel grateful every year that I’m able to participate at all. Each year I remember the only two years I didn’t run it, when I was off having my bone marrow transplant and then recovering from it. My BMT “rebirthday” isn’t for another month, but somehow this race is always linked to it in my mind, and it’s a great reminder of why I run at all.

Bupa London 10,000. 25 May 2014. 44:19

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We Own the Night - race report

13 May 2014, 12:50

I was really grumpy about this race in the leadup to it. It was in no way an A-race for me (or even a B- or C-race), and Nike’s lavish treatment of a select few bloggers in the months leading up to it really rubbed me the wrong way. There’s nothing like watching other people get given £120 shoes, £90 leggings, 3 course dinners, 12 month Spotify passes, and countless gallons of free booze to make you feel like a chump for stumping up £30 for a 10k race. And that some of those people had barely run in the past 12 months (and then didn’t even run the race in the end) whilst other bloggers were out running ultras and gathering together teams of women to help run, well, it doesn’t exactly promote unity (Note: I in no way expect to be invited to these things. My problem is that I’d rather have seen the hundreds of pounds spent on each blogging princess instead gone to reduced race entry for local people, those on benefits, students, etc).

This, plus a forecast of heavy rain, and my legs still not yet recovered from London marathon meant that I was in a “well I’ll turn up and try to enjoy it I suppose” frame of mind.

And do you know what? I really enjoyed myself.

We Own the Night had taken over the top end of Victoria Park in East London, and rather than the feeling of a race, it honestly felt more like a music festival, with loads of tents, food trucks, a massive stage, and plenty of chill out places. In fact, the only bad part was that it was so cold and windy that I didn’t really want to hang out for long afterwards.

There were a few minor problems with the start pens (at least they had some this year!). I was in the fastest, black pen, for the sub-45min girls, but we were jumbled up together with the next, purple pace (sub-50), so we all had to push and squeeze our way to the front, which was awkward. Then a whole bunch of VIP pink band ladies were let out right in front of us, meaning the first 500m were carnage – tripping over much slower VIP runners (some of them in big groups) whilst trying to duck and dive around the purple pace runners, too. There is definitely room for improvement here next year – please put the VIP racers at the front of their prospective pace pens, for starters, rather than at the very front. I’ve been on the other end of this, and it’s equally un-fun to be overtaken and made to feel like you’re standing still.

Once we broke free of the pack, I settled in with a few of the RDC Cheelite ladies for a fast but comfortable first lap. I was moving at a good pace, but comfortable enough to hold a conversation and to go out of my way to give the Cheer Dem Crew guys a good high five! We Own the Night did a great job of making the course feel really festive, too – the kilometer markers were brightly lit up like old cinema signs, there were several bands along the course (including a brass ensemble covering Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” at one point), a DJ booth featuring Josey Rebelle, and two disco tunnels with teal and purple strobe lights and balloons. They also had chip timing points at every single kilometer, too, so you got a rundown of all your splits at the end. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a race with that many timing mats before!

We Own the Night high five

Top marks to Nike for going the turquoise and purple route, too – I’m thoroughly sick of brands thinking all you have to do to put on a women’s event is make it pink, give out cupcakes, and halve the distance. There was clearly a lot of thought put into this by women at the top, and some great graphic design work on the day, too. For our entrance fee, we got a designer tote bag, a really nicely designed technical race tee, and a designer necklace in place of a medal, too. The goody bag had two brands of coconut water plus a bunch of Kiehl’s samples and a bag of popcorn (so not the best I’ve ever had, but not the worst either). I’d love to see a women’s marathon in London like they’d done in San Francisco in years past, but this is a great place to start.

But back to my race – since it’s a two lap course, it was inevitable that the faster runners would be overtaking slower ones at some point. When I ran Bath Half back in March (also a two-lap course), the organisers split the width of the route with barriers and clearly signposted to run on the left for the first lap and the right on your second lap. As we were rounding the bend to start the second lap, I let out an almighty torrent of expletives, because there were now several thousand runners (including the 1hr10min pacer) just now starting their first loop and taking up the entire width of the path. I have no idea why they chose to start the slower pens just as the faster pens were coming around, but it meant that the majority of my second lap was spent running next to the path just to get around the thousands upon thousands of slower runners. It meant I ended up going a lot faster in the second half, moving from trail running alongside the path, dodging bins, spectators, kilometer markers, etc, and having to weave onto the course in places and then darting in and around other runners. I’m sure I ended up running rather more than 10km in total, but it was the only way I could get moving at anywhere near the pace I wanted to go.

I wasn’t planning on going for a PB, and in the end, it wasn’t really PB conditions, and afterall, I wasn’t really sure how my legs would feel so soon after London. But it was good to give them a stretch, feel like I was moving fairly fast, and I ended up finishing in 46 minutes, which is only 2min off my PB from earlier this year. I’m also glad I wore my RDC shirt instead of the provided race shirt, as it meant that Charlie Dark (leader of RDC and the start/finish line emcee) was able to pick me out and announce “Give it up for Melissa Fehr!” as I approached the finish line. It was a great finish to the race, and having the last 600m separate from the loop meant I really could open up my legs and go for a final push.

I also took advantage of the nighttime festival atmosphere to debut a running jacket I’d just made which was also my first foray into wearable electronics – it features LEDs sewn into the back which twinkle and fade (more details on later this week)! It was too warm to wear during the race itself, but perfect for warming up afterwards and keeping the wind off while I devoured my cajun catfish burger from the food trucks! I didn’t end up redeeming my complimentary sparkling wine coupon as there was a massive queue to get into the bar tent so we opted instead to head home early for some chips and a hot chocolate.

I honestly wasn’t expecting much from this race at all, and I was pleasantly surprised. With a few tweaks to their media relations and start pen management this could be one of my favourite races.

We Own the Night London. 10 May 2014. 46:12

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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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London Marathon - Follow Me Tomorrow!

12 April 2014, 10:31

Tomorrow I will run the London Marathon. It’s my first time running London, but my third marathon, and I couldn’t be more excited. I’m running for Anthony Nolan, the charity who found me my anonymous bone marrow donor who saved my life five years ago, but I also felt I had to run representing Run dem Crew, who absolutely transformed my running and circle of friends since I joined 2.5 years ago, and Energy Lab, who utterly transformed my body and running style in the past year I’ve been training with Barbara and Claudia. Anthony Nolan get my vest (with “Transplantee” on the back!), but I used freezer paper and gold textile paint to add the RDC and EL logos to my shoulders, like little guardian angels.

VMLM vest stencilling

On my bottom half I’ll be wearing the biker short length of my newest sewing pattern, the Duathlon Shorts, in rainbow supplex with neon yellow and orange sides. These are essentially the shorts sisters to the leggings I wore to race Bath Half! On my feet I’ll wear my newest Injiji toe socks with the high ankles (so many freaking socks fall down at my heels but these don’t!), and my beloved grey New Balance Minimus shoes.

My kit for London Marathon

I also finally settled on my menu-err… gel strategy for the race, too – peanut butter, apple crumble, salted caramel, banoffee & margarita! The shot bloks count as three “doses” and the extra salt is really good for me, as I know I’m a salty sweater.

VMLM gels

I’m also having my husband pass me a bottle of Nuun as I run past home at 12 Miles – I’m hoping to get at least half that down my neck before I ditch the bottle. I’ve found that the electrolytes in those really help me.

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

1. The official London Marathon site (my race number is 7948), 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 13 April (the mass start is at 10am BST).

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.

The ExtraMile film crew will also be shooting me at various points throughout the race, so you can look forward to seeing the highlights of my race a little while after marathon day if you’re unable to follow my progress as it happens.

VMLM Expo selfie
Best marathon expo selfie ever??

Mentally and physically, I think I’m in a lot better shape now than I was for either of my previous marathons. I was a nervous wreck before Amsterdam because it was my first, and then I was under a lot of pressure to get a GFA time in Copenhagen despite only having 6 weeks to train due to severe illness. This time around, I will genuinely be happy with quite a wide range of time, but I’m targeting the 3:15-3:30 area, which will be a big PB for me should I pull it off. I’m totally grateful to my body for actually giving me a full 6 months of dedicated marathon training without getting sick (my immune system is “special” and the same as a 4.5 year old!), and I’ve been able to devote an awful lot of time, energy, and effort into making tomorrow go well. My mantra for the past few months has been “April 13th Me had better appreciate this!” so I“m looking to cash in on all that training!

And again, should you have any spare cash (even a fiver helps!), my fundraising page is here.

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Three Weekends, Four Races

17 March 2014, 11:52

Composite of my four races

I’m reaching the last crescendo week in training for the London Marathon, and I certainly feel like I’m ready for the taper to start now, but not necessarily because of a particularly few hard weeks of training. Rather – because of a particularly busy few weeks of racing! In the past three weekends I’ve raced four times, rather more than I like to, but the timing worked out and they all came together.

First up was the Bath Half on 2 March, which I’ve already told you about in detail. This was the one I pushed the hardest on – definitely by “A” Race of the four, and one that saw me earn a massive PB in my perfect race conditions.

Bath Half photos

Then the following weekend I had the semi-regular Flatline 10 race on the Saturday. Flatline is an event my trainer puts on and involves 10 repeats of the steepest hill in London – Swain’s Lane, by Highgate Cemetery. Up and down is precisely 1 mile, so by the end you’ve run the toughest 10 miler you could possibly do. Last month I got a new Flatline PB of 1:24, but this time around I knew I had a 10k the next day so I held some back in reserve and finished in 1:28, which certainly felt respectable.

Flatline finish tag

The day after I had the Anthony Nolan Marrowthon in Regents Park – an event I’d signed up for months in advance when I agreed to run London Marathon with the charity. The 10km race was two laps of 5km each, and once Flatline was announced, I decided I’d just “fun run” this and enjoy myself. Happily the weather cooperated and we saw one of the first gloriously sunny, warm days, so I basically just bounded around the course with my headphones on, enjoying the sunshine and thanking all the marshals. It wasn’t until the second lap that someone told me I was the first lady, but I still didn’t bother to up my effort at all until the last 100m, when the guy behind me started to sprint past. “Oh no you don’t!” I thought, and I matched him so we crossed the finish line together, all smiles.

Marrowthon sprint finish

I then looked at my GPS and realised that not only was I the first female, but that I’d somehow run a new 10km PB of 44min-something. Umm, how did I manage that when I was seriously just running comfortably and enjoying myself?! And can I please have some of this on London marathon day?

Finally, yesterday was my last race before London – the Surrey Spitfire 20 miler. This race is organised by the same people who do Bacchus, so I knew it’d be a good one! I’d somehow convinced my friend Viv to run it with me, too, even though it meant catching a 7:30 train from Waterloo, and err, running 20 miles. Again, it turned out to be gorgeously warm and sunny, and I had zero time expectation so just vowed to stick with Viv throughout, as she’s a bit slower than me and had also been having ITB troubles. Unfortunately, the latter reared its head after about 40min and we slowed it right down to help her push through the pain, but there was no way I was leaving her! It wasn’t entirely noble – it’s a no-headphones race and I really wanted her company and conversation through the countryside, too.

Viv and I after Spitfire

Due to the slower pace, my heart rate barely raised an eyebrow, even on the hills, and I really nailed my nutrition and water, too, meaning I finished feeling really fresh, and having enjoyed my 3:18hr run way more than I probably should’ve! The only downer were the two between-toe blisters I picked up, despite wearing toe socks and copious amounts of Body Glide, so I’ve learned that I won’t be wearing those socks on marathon day!

So I’ve reached the end of my month of races, but I feel like my training during the weekdays in between has been a bit listless – the first few days of the week have been spent recovering from the weekend, then the last few days are spent in gearing up for the weekend’s race. I’m a real creature of habit, and it’s probably no surprise that I feel disoriented by having an inconsistent training plan, but I think the challenges I’ve faced over the past month will ultimately make me better prepared for race day. Running four races in three weekends isn’t necessarily something I’d recommend, but I think I’ve come out the other side stronger, partly due to running smartly and not racing them all.

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Bath Half marathon - race report

3 March 2014, 14:29

I haven’t raced since Bacchus half in September, but I’ve been training non-stop since November for the London marathon, and Bath Half yesterday was my first real chance to see whether it had been paying off.

If you recall, I managed to PB at Bacchus despite it being a super hilly, off-road course, and at the time I wondered what my time could’ve been had it been on a fast, flat course. So when selecting my spring half marathon, I was looking out for those with PB potential, and I settled on Bath since I’ve got two friends there and the course looked great. It’s a big city-centre race with 11,000+ runners and fantastic crowd support along the route. Some runners may be put off my the two-lap course, but I actually really appreciated this since I’m unfamiliar with the town and the second loop felt like it went way faster than the first as I already had a mental image of where I was going.

I’d gone to my trainer on Friday for a sports massage and to discuss race strategy, and I came away with a plan to run fairly comfortably (upper heart rate Z2-lower Z3) for the first 10 miles, then gun it for the last 3. I’d take in 2 Shot Bloks or a gel every 20min, but as the course is entirely in miles, I found it easier to remember to eat at miles 3, 6, 9, and 12. (I also came away with the feeling of Brand New Legs!!)

Kit laid out for Bath Half
Even the night before I wasn’t sure if I’d need the long sleeved top!

The weather forecast had changed several times throughout the week, from bright sunshine to mixed snow to 10 degrees, but in reality it ended up being my perfect racing weather – cool, cloudy, and slightly drizzling. The first mile or so was quite crowded with a fair amount of jostling and overtaking (as per usual), but the white pen seemed to be pretty even pacers as I ended up running with quite a few people for the entire race. But I made my classic mistake of starting out too fast – my first few kilometers were at 4:10-4:20 pace and my heart rate monitor was telling me I was in Zone 3 (high 170s-low 180s for me). So I tried to ease off the pace a little to bring my heart rate down a smidge, trying to think to “run comfortable”, but as I ran, my heart rate pretty much stayed put no matter what my legs did, so there came a point around Mile 6 I just thought “eh, fuck it!” and carried on with my pace, ignoring what my heart rate was saying.

On paper, this might seem scary to a lot of runners (myself included), but I ran through my mental body checklist and the lungs, legs, and head all felt okay, the pace felt a little tougher than comfortable, but certainly easier than my Tuesday runs with the RDC Elites, so I just tried to cling on and run based on all my other feedback and not let my heart rate overrule them all.

Bath Half photos
The final push to the finish line over the last few hundred meters…

My Bath-based friends were out cheering on part of the loop, so seeing them twice was a real boost, and I even had a chat with two fellow runners – one man came up to me specifically to compliment my forefoot-striking pose (a little weird, but nice!), and I spied an Anthony Nolan vest just ahead of me at one point so I said hello and found out he’s also running their 10km Marrowthon next week as well as London marathon.

The course profile definitely wasn’t as pancake flat as, say, Amsterdam marathon, but the few undulations just gave a bit of variety to the course – the very last mile is uphill, however, and while the gradient isn’t much at all, its placement at the very end of the route meant that the last mile felt about 5 miles long!

After Bath Half
Pardon that I’ve scrunched up my own-design PB Jam Leggings here – they weren’t like that while I was running!

In the end, I crossed the finish line in 1:36:28, which is a sizeable new PB for me (previous was 1:43), and though I failed to stick to my race strategy, I think I learned a lot more from listening (and not listening!) to my body and taking a gamble during the race.

I will also say for anyone considering this race next year – the VIP entry was totally worth the extra money. Honestly, I’d only gone for it since regular entries had sold out, but for £40 more, having a warm, dry place to go afterwards, plus private bag check, proper toilets, hot showers (though communal), unlimited food and drink for myself and two friends really made a huge difference on the day when I came through the finishing gates in the (now steady) rain, shivering, and very low on brain power. Not having to queue to get into warm dry clothes or perch in the mud waiting for other friends to finish was well worth it.

Gunfinger pose after Bath Half

Big thanks and congrats to Winnie who also ran this yesterday despite her training not going to plan! And for fuelling me up with a massive pasta dinner the night before…

Bath half marathon, 2 March 2014, 1:36:28

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British Transplant Games - double gold medals

12 September 2013, 17:09

The British Transplant Games are an annual event for all survivors of organ or bone marrow transplant to compete in a variety of sports. I wrote these reviews just after the event in August, but I’m playing a bit of catchup in posting them now.

On Saturday I traveled up to Sheffield from London to compete in my first British Transplant Games, and despite having done specific track training for the past few months, I was absolutely bricking it in the lead-up to the first race.

As a distance runner, I’d signed up to run in their longest events: the 3km “mini marathon” (awwww!) and the 1500m, plus a mixed 400m relay. I was surprised to find on Saturday evening however, that despite training for several months on the track, the “mini marathon” was actually a road race (good thing I didn’t put my spikes in!), that there was a non-transplantee fun run happening at the same time (with no separate start for those of us competing for medals), and that my main rival was out with a stress fracture so the showdown I’d been building up for wasn’t going to happen. Still I set off strong, and by the time I exited the stadium and hit the roads outside Don Valley, I only had a few men ahead of me. I gradually picked off a few more up the unexpected hills, and by the time I re-entered the stadium for the finish, there was only one man ahead! My final time was never recorded (arrgh!), but I was unbelievably chuffed to see I’d come in under 12 minutes, which was more than enough to earn me a gold medal for my age category, plus a trophy for being the first woman across.

BTG 2013 3k finish After the Mini marathon
I was so surprised, I did an unintentional Mo Bot when the commentator told me I came in under 12 minutes!!

Then the next morning was my second race, the women’s 1500m (3.75 laps around the track). This indeed was a true track race, with a gun start and a bell for the final lap! I came out in front in the first 200m and grew the lead over the race, ending up finishing over a full minute ahead of the next finisher! I had to lap a few of the other ladies, which I felt bad about, so I tried to offer encouragement as I went past.

Crossing the 1500m finish line

I also ran in the mixed 400m relay later in the afternoon, but despite making our way through the heats, our team came in 4th in the final. Only one of us had done baton handoffs before, so we practiced just before the race, which was actually quite fun! Everything went smoothly and we all sprinted our hardest, but the other teams were just faster! No shame in that!

Ruth & I on the podium

All in, I was really proud to earn two gold medals for Kings College Hospital (at the games, you compete for your transplant hospital), and proud to wear the Kings tracksuit up on the podium. For the first race, I wore my trusty Nike short shorts and my disco split back top, but for the second race, I threw all caution to the wind and wore my brand-new Jalie shorts & sports bra set since it made me feel that little bit more elite, ha.

Not bad for someone who was a few weeks from death four years ago! It was a truly inspiring weekend of sport, with only points deducted for missing out on a good tussle with my rival. Bring on Bolton 2014.

British Transplant Games, 3km: sub-12minutes, 1500m: 5:45, 17-18 August 2013

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Bacchus half marathon - race report

10 September 2013, 10:45

If you’re not familiar with Bacchus, it’s a fancy dress, off-road, hilly half-marathon (or full marathon if you fancy doing two laps) with wine tasting every two miles and free wine and hog roast at the end. Yes, it is exactly as much fun as it sounds!

I first ran it last year in 2012, and having sewn my sailor girl costume in wicking lycra to great success but not having had much cause to wear it in the intervening year, I decided I might as well wear it again this year too! The nice side effect of that is that you get to see a nice comparison between my body since last year (and I was deep into training for Amsterdam marathon then, too!)

Bacchus half - comparison

With all the mention of wine, you may have missed a crucial word in my description: hilly. The race starts off in Denbies’ vineyards, then briefly through Dorking and then for the remainder of the race it snakes through woodland trails and up the sides of hills, until you get a blissfully steep downhill on the last 2km which lets you sprint finish pretty much by gravity alone.

I plotted the elevation again this year with my GPS app, which I’ve cleaned up so you can see exactly how hilly I’m talking about…

Bacchus elevation

You’d be mistaken if you think the sharp blip at around 14km is the one to be concerned about – look again at the relentless uphill climb from approximately 3km-9km – this is the one that will turn your legs and spirit to jelly! I had the advantage this year of already being through the course the year before, so I was mentally prepared for it, but the big difference was that last year I was essentially “fun running” it as my reward for getting through my marathon training.

This year I had different goals in mind:

  • To beat last year’s time (1:58). I felt fairly confident I’d be able to do this, since I hadn’t hill-trained at all last year, and this year I’d been hill running every Saturday (including Swain’s Lane), plus I’d switched to forefoot running and just come off two months of track training.

  • To earn a new PB. My current half marathon PB was set at my first ever half, in Paris 2012 (1:47), and I thought I might be able to beat this despite the hills, but that was only if I could maintain a 5min/km pace throughout, which seemed iffy.

  • To win a prize. The first three males and females win a prize, along with the first from each age category. I was the 5th female last year, but there were far more runners this year, so this was the toughest goal, and not one I’d admitted to many people.

Bacchus composite

I set off at the front of the pack, with about 20 men ahead of me, but maintained my position of lead female up until about 4 miles, when I was overtaken by a very friendly Barnes Runner lady, and we had a great chat for a few minutes before she moved on ahead. The great advantage to having a strict “no headphones” policy plus fancy dress is that the runners actually talk to each other during the race, with the costumes providing great conversation starters! I got to chat to quite a few runners in the first half (even during the rain!), but I was on my own for long stretches of the latter half of the race, so it wasn’t quite as easygoing as last year.

My husband brought along the DSLR again this year, but thought to bring his bike, too, so he was able to zoom around the shortcut trails and snap me at a few points along the route. I must admit, though, that I was fairly annoyed to see him at about 4km into that relentless 6km climb, when I was feeling well and truly spent, chewed up, and spat out by the monster hill. I remember trying my hardest to smile, but looking at the photos afterwards, I’m so glad he decided to take these photos where he did.

Bacchus - long climb

The vista over Dorking and across to Box Hill is spectacular, but you can see every ounce of effort and sheer determination in my face and legs. In short, you can see exactly how hard I worked for this race.

I used a lot of the same mental tricks I learned during my recent track race – I find when the going gets really tough and my brain starts to let doubts creep in, counting to 20 over and over in time with my breaths really helps me. I also used the few flat and downhill segments to mentally refresh me – nothing more complicated than thinking to myself “Look, this is flat and the forest is lovely. Isn’t this refreshing? Let’s pick up the pace to make up for the next climb!”

Nutrition-wise, I went very minimally this time around, with only one pack of margarita Shot Bloks and a few sips of water from about half the water stations. I’d normally take at least one extra gel in there to be comfortable, but having practiced with less on my long runs, I knew that 3× 2 bloks would be enough to fuel me around.

So, back to those goals – how did I do? Well, I am absolutely over the moon to report that I achieved all three!!. My official time was 1:43, meaning that I beat last year’s time by over 15 minutes, set a new PB by almost 5 minutes, and ended up as the 3rd female over the line, meaning I won a prize!!

Bacchus shirts

The prize itself was almost inconsequential – for me it was the act of winning it – but I ended up winning a very nice Gore long sleeved running top that is very me indeed – dark purple with hot pink seaming and it’ll get lots of wear in a few months’ time! On the left above is the official race shirt, designed by my friend Laurie King. Isn’t it fantastic? It’s great to have a take-home technical tee that I love every bit as the race itself.

Bacchus is such a friendly race, with the warmest organisers, volunteer marshals, and other runners, and even in the rain and cold this year it managed to maintain a great village fete atmosphere. If I could give this entire race a giant hug, I would.

Bacchus half marathon, 9 September 2013, 1:43:19

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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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My Magic Mile

2 September 2013, 12:48

I’ve quickly become a regular at our usual Thursday track sessions over the course of this summer, but last week we did something a little different. The Marathon Talk podcast (which is well worth subscribing to!) is hosting the Magic Mile challenge so we decided to take part. As part of this, we listed our usual session details on the Marathon Talk website, effectively opening it up to any non-Run dem Crew runners who wished to take part. I’m pleased to say that we had four new faces come down and join us in addition to a healthy RDC showing, which was enough to run four heats!

To those not familiar with the track, one lap around is 400m exactly. One mile = 1.609 kilometers. Since four laps around the track is just shy of a mile, there’s an extra curved line drawn on the track 9m back from the usual finish line. Everyone starts at that line, then completes four laps.

Melissa on the track
(Special thanks to Murdo for taking this great photo of me coming down the final straight!)

I’m sure some groups could’ve done fancy chip timing or special stopwatches for each person, but we just set the timer going when we yelled “Go!”, then shouted out the various lap times as each runner crossed the finish line, and eventually scrawled every person’s mile time on a notepad.

Having just completed the 1500m in 5:45 a few weekends ago in the British Transplant Games, I figured my mile time would be somewhere around the 6 minute mark, and I’m very pleased to report I ran it in 6:08! Considering my best ever mile time in high school was 8:15, I think it’s safe to say that 34-year-old-me just kicked 16-year-old-me’s ass!

Humility has a way of catching up with you though – since I still had my training plan’s 400m repeats to do, I took a short breather before launching into 400m at breakneck pace, followed by 400m recovery. I was meant to do four or five but after the third I felt this close to puking and had to call it quits. 34-year-old-me has now learned never to eat peanut butter right before track…

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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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