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Tuesday, 13 May 2014

It has been a week since I ran the 21km at the Milton Keynes Half-Marathon and more or less 4 months since I’ve started with the running “thing”. Oh gosh, it feels longer. All the endless long runs on the weekends, the knee pains, the hip pains, the back pains. But I finished. Yes, I did :-) I know my timing was horrible, 2:50, but I am proud to say that I crossed that finish line without walking any bit of the route.
Anyway, let me tell you the whole story. The stress started 24 hours earlier. Everyone who knows me can testify that I am a super-prepared person. I plan everything of anything. I am that kind of neurotic who wakes up 1 hour earlier just to make sure nothing will happen on the way and start to freak out if the train is 2 minutes delayed. Anyway, when I did a last check at the TFL website just to make sure of my commuting on the next day, the journey London-Milton Keynes was taking 3h30 instead of the supposedly regular 2h because it was a Bank Holiday. What? 3h30? I would have to wake up before 5h to be there on time.
After my total panic-tears-despair moment, my guardian angel/savior aka superman suggested ‘why don’t we rent a car?'. OMG! Really? How could I have not thought of it before? I will jump the part that the service at Hertz was a completely nightmare - and we were mistreated by a stupid and rude receptionist - straight to the relief that was arriving at Milton Keynes on time.
After 1h30 we finally arrived there… and the weather was great! Sunshine and it was about 16 degrees with a forecast of 18C. While Andre was parking I had to go to the start line because the traffic around the stadium was worse than we were expecting. I did my final toilet run, clipped the number on my shirt and adjusted my Polar heart rate belt. It was time!
(Of course, my useless IPhone decided to eat almost all the battery before the race had even started. Consequently, I would have to run without using the Nike Running app so I could have enough battery to listen to some music all the way.)
Punctually at 10am it started. The beginning was very crowded but that is how every race probably is. I read that there were about 3,000 people running the marathon and 2,000 the half, and we all started together.
Since my app was not working and I had nothing to indicate my speed or distance, I tried to keep my eyes on the marathon pace makers as much as I could. I started keeping up with the 3h45, but I lost him. Then the 4h, but he was too fast as well (damn it!). 4h20, 4h45. All gone. Finally I found the 5h, which I managed to stay close at least during the first 10km.

Picture stolen from Google just to show what a pacemaker is - blue ballon :-)
Talking about the first 10km, they were the easiest part. Everyone was still happy, together, full of energy, smiling and cheering. But between the 11km and the 17km, oh jesus, it felt like a horror film. For several different and random reasons. First, the “amazing” weather and the 18 degrees just made things worse. It was freaking hot and I was used to run below 10C, with winds and rain. Second, my knees started to hurt like crazy. Third, part of the route was in a beautiful open field full of DAMN POLLEN!!!!!!! Yes, pollen!!!!!!! My eyes got so watery that I started laughing because it felt like a really bad joke. And last, the hills. Ok, there were no HILLLLLLLS per se, but half the way was slightly inclined and everyone who runs on a treadmill knows the painfully difference of the treadmill completely horizontal and with some inclination.
Anyway, fatigue totally got me between the 11km to the 17km and that was when my speed went completely down. I was so slow that sexagenarians were passing me easily. I thought I wouldn’t make it. I thought what the hell I was doing there and why on earth I signed up for something like that. 
However, when I thought that all my energy was gone, something miraculously happened. I finally got to the point when you turn your brain off and you just run. It took a while, just after the 17km, but I was finally there. I didn’t care about timing anymore, about the pain, about old people passing me or how slow and clumsy I was looking like. I just ran. And ran, and ran. I managed to improve my speed a bit (not enough, but who cares?) and when I realized, the stadium and the finish line were already on my sight.
It was endless. I was sore and when I finished and slowed down it was like I would never be able to walk to the car. But the feeling. The feeling was indescribable. I could try to explain but I don’t know if words would never be able to honestly describe what goes inside your head when you finally cross that finish line, when you see someone important to you there waiting for your arrival, proud of your accomplishment. No, my spirit did not change. No, it was not a life changing experience. No, I don’t know if I will ever have the courage to do that again. But it was fucking awesome. I set a goal and I reached. That was all. I actually did it.
The final score? Two toenails completely dead and five blisters the size of a car, but I will call them “battle scars”, it sounds better :-) After a week my right knee is still showing signs of misuse but the blisters - and unfortunately the toenails - are already gone. I am happy that I did it. I finally did it. The horrible sensations of the 11-17km are still very vivid on my head so I cannot say that I will run such a long distance again. But I cannot say that I won’t neither. I don’t know. I think that after a while you probably forget the bad feelings and concentrate on the satisfactory ones, so you sign up for something like this again and again. That is at least what some people say.
I hope I will be brave enough one day to run a whole marathon. 42km. It makes me lazy just to think about it. Just the idea hurts, but I am sure it is because the 21km are still too recent. Let’s see what the future holds. I may delete this post one day just to forget the pain I suffered and do it all over again. I really hope I do.

The route.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Considering the three running books I have on my bedside table at the moment, What I talk about when I talk about running from Haruki Murakami was the one I started to read posteriorly but finished first. Not just because it was shorter and easier to read, but more important, it talks about how running can change your entire life’s dynamic. If you are looking for training sheets and diet schedules, this book is not for you. However, you will actually enjoy this quick read if your interests lies in understanding deeper the feelings and issues of a successful professional (in this case a worldwide best-selling writer) trying to balance his routine around working, ageing, traveling and running (and triathloning and ultra-maratoning and etc, etc, etc – this guy can do anything, it is incredible).

Personally speaking, when Murakami talked about his writing activities I found a little bit monotonous because I was more interested in the running parts. Nonetheless, after a while you start to understand how his job as a writer was intrinsically connected to his athlete aspect. You cannot talk about one and leave the other aside. The necessity to overcome barriers, walls and targets were equally important in both sides.

Anyway, it’s not because it is a book focused more on life than running that you will not be able to get some very good tips on the way. For example, I am extremely conscious of how sluggish I am - ‘runningly’ speaking. There are some days the fact that I am slower than others (honestly, I occasionally feel that I am slower than EVERYONE else) really annoys me. Seeing all these older and heavier people passing me like they are not even making an effort drives me insane sometimes. But Murakami talks about how he dealt with the same preconception. It is reassuring and empowering to have a guy who once finished the course Athens-Marathon under excruciating conditions accepting and talking openly about feeling the same embarrassment.

Summarising this topic, he said that some people are slower just because that’s how we are. Different human beings with different body structures. That's all. Getting annoyed and upset it is not going to help – or change – anything. Denial just makes things worse. Besides, it is not that some people are 'slow', most of the time it is just because some bodies take longer to warm-up. That’s how he figured it out that he was doing right running long-distances. If your muscles take 5km to heat up, running short distances will be always frustrating because your body will not even have time to reach its full potency before the race is over.

In my opinion, the chapter he talked about his experience running a 62-mile ultra-marathon was the best one. I was so curious about the end I couldn’t stop even when my train got to the final destination. I wish I could stay longer sitting there just to be able to finish. You can feel in your bones the pain he felt during the course, the anguish. “Even though my legs were working now, the thirteen miles from the thirty-four-mile rest stop to the forty-seventh mile were excruciating.” OMG. 100km. I will not say anything else about this chapter (and the book) because I don’t want to spoil anyone’s curiosity any longer, but it is a book definitely worth reading.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

This past month was spent away not just from blogging, but from all my running and training as well. Do you know when that succession of unfortuitous events happens?  Yes, it did. One trip, two exams and a f*cking terrible flu drove me away from any kind of physical activity I could think of for entire four weeks.
First, a weekend in Amsterdam. Cool. In my deepest dreams I even considered running there, in the morning, to keep my training schedule. However, my willpower is obviously not that strong. “That’s ok, I am doing a marathon training to run a half-marathon, I am far advanced on my calendar”.
Of course I couldn’t predict that I would get the flu there and have to stay in bed for a week. Fact that overlapped with my final exams’ week. Great. Super great. By the way, the cold persisted for 2 weeks.
In the meantime I had a 10k run in Richmond (details in a future post) that I completely sucked. My time was horrible. I was feeling tired, breathless and useless. And to make bad things a nightmare, my cold got worse. That was the cherry on the cake. Result: one more week without running.
So the extremely-cautious-meticulous-tempered person that was ahead of schedule became a whole month late. Today was the first time I felt healthy enough to be able to go back to my regular training. I was supposed to be doing week-7 now (4, 6, 4 and 12 miles consecutively) but, hesitantly, I decided to go back to week-5 where I should run 3, 5, 3, 10 miles again and start back from there. I am still not feeling 100% yet and, in addition, it would be too pretensious to think that one month without any kind of exercise wouldn’t affect my performance.
I have to confess it was very, very, very hard (did I say hard?). First because after one month of indulging myself with crappy food – and delicious Dutch nutella waffles – made me gain 2kg. I have never been a slim person (lol) so every kilo that I lose helps me to feel lighter when I am running. But nooop. My legs at the moment feel like massive chunks of wood. Hippopotamus legs, I call them. And I am not being mean or too critic to myself, I need to accept the true and pay the price of undisciplined 30 days of food rebellion.
Chunky legs are actually cute if you are a baby hippo :-)
Second, because of the flu, I can feel that my cardio capacity was affected as well. While running, my heart rate used to stay stable on 165 and never go above 170. Today my average was 175 and – I don’t know how I managed to stay alive – it reached 188 more than once. I was trying to keep my pace at 9km/h but after 2.5km I started coughing like an old lady. That heavy and disgusting cough where you can hear the throat squirming.
Anyway, in spite of my hippo legs and disgusting lungs I am back to business :-) In the end it felt damn good to be able to run the expected 5km regardless my low energy levels. Besides, considering the situation, my speed was not even that bad. I know it will take some time for me to feel completely back on track, but I will not give up. This month will serve as a good reminder of how easy is to throw away months of hard work if you get a little bit careless and irresponsible. Self-control is a bitch you can never let loose.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Bad food choices equal bad productivity. Silly and obvious, but sometimes we pretend we don’t know that. My performance this week was completely destroyed, smashed and wrecked by my wrong dietary judgment in the last few days.
When I started running my main goal was, undoubtedly, to lose weight. However, when you start training more seriously, your body clearly requires additional energy. And where this energy comes from? Food, delicious food of course.
The trick is to keep your organism fuelled and lose the extra weight simultaneously. It is so damn hard. Especially if you love some treats like I do. You want to have pleasure eating, savour the moment, but at the same time you are conscious you need to make the right choices to be able to keep your running schedule.
Anyway, as I was saying, this week was a shamble. Not to overload my calories allowance, I exchanged dinner for popcorn twice, lunch for banana cake, fruits for “low calorie” crisps. The result? A shit (sorry for that) run on Wednesday and a shameful incomplete 4-mile yesterday.
Not just the total lack of energy, after 3.2km I started felling stomach cramps and finished my supposedly 4 miles on the elliptical. Such a humiliation. Embarrassing because I knew it was totally my own fault.
Low nutritional meals once or twice are not a problem, but when you have them pretty much half of the week, there is no chance you can expect the same performance if you had had full-protein and balanced options. It sucks. It totally sucks, but it was a necessary learning. It is through our mistakes that we improve.
To close with a flourish this amazingly wasted week, yesterday I had tapas (loads of them – and delicious by the way) and half a bottle of wine. Tah-dah!!!! Unable to train today. Of course. Tomorrow I may be able to do my scheduled 11 miles but I am not so confident. That is the second problem: I know I totally screwed up this week, so I don’t feel much positive for my final weekly long run. 17km requires 100% commitment and assurance or your mind will defeat you.
If I want to keep this training serious and committed, if I really want to finish the half-marathon in May without killing myself, I need to be aware that I cannot just eat whatever I want and everything will be fine later. The closer I get to the race, my meal habits will need to be consciously selected and my choices will have to be wise. That is part of the commitment I accepted when I decided to run Milton Keynes.

I kind of feel this weekend is already lost, but tomorrow is a new day and let’s see what it brings. I will keep you all updated :-)
The finally amazing weather outside makes me feel even worse. Meh.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

It doesn’t have to be said that everyone has its own way to tolerate and overcome pain. Some can easily endure giving birth, while others cry when bumping the foot into the wall – that is my case by the way if you are wondering :-)
As mentioned in previous posts, I felt a lot of pain on my first trainings. The day after each run it felt like I had fallen from the top of a building and a cement truck passed over my body as an extra. Do you know that sensation you have during a cold when your body feels heavy like a bag of potatoes? Yes, that one! 
Anyway, it was bearable and I knew that it was the result of a very intense and exhausting exercise. I was pushing a lazy and sedentary body to limits until then unknown to him. However, what was worrying me was not the post-workout soreness, it was the pain on my knees.
I began to feel a discomfort on my right knee at the beginning of each run. It was not a horrible ache, but it was big enough to start making me feel concerned. After all, if I ended up injuring myself I would never be able to run Milton Keynes in May.
I started researching. Analyzing. Reading. I wanted to know until which point it was ok to feel some discomfort, after all, when you accept in your mind that you are training for half marathon you know you will have to endure some pain. But until what point?
So I used the power of Google to try to answer this question. I know if you have something serious you need to look for professional’s help, but deep inside I knew it was probably just something I was doing wrong.
After reading blogs, more blogs and specialized portals (Livestrong is a bless! I love this website, recommend to everyone!) I tried a couple of recipes. I don’t know which one was more effective (or the combination of many), but what makes me confident is that it is actually helping. I ran my 3 miles on Tuesday faster than I usually do, 5 miles on Wednesday - the horrible weather day - and 3 miles yesterday and I still can go up and down the stairs like a normal person!
Anyway, I will stop with this gibberish and jump to what I have been doing to improve my knee’s care. First, I found this sketch that differentiates pain zones on the knee. The soreness I feel is exactly on the outside and extends from the knee itself to up and down the lateral of my leg. Bang! It is ITB, or Iliotibial Band Syndrome (ITB), that according to Runner’s World (another one of my website saviour’s), is one of the most common overuse injuries among runners. It occurs when the iliotibial band, the ligament that runs down the outside of the thigh from the hip to the shin, is tight or inflamed.

And why does it happen? Many many many factors. The ones I think were relevant to my case were the use of not appropriated shoes when I started training, lack of strength on my hips/legs and, not surprisingly, running TOO SLOW.
The wrong-shoes factor I solved a couple of weeks ago (expensive, irght). The lack of strength I am working on with squats and calf exercises 2 or 3 times a week depending on the load of assignments from school (and patience). Finally, the speed part. That is the hardest one. According to The Thriathlete website, speeding up your cadence to closer to 180 steps per minute, you are more likely to strike under your center of mass and decrease the impact of the exercise on your body.
It is not easy, not at all, increasing my speed. I thought I was already doing my maximum by running the amount of miles I was doing. “OMG, I am a runner now”. Nop, not enough. I have to run FASTER.
Accordingly, I am slowly slowly increasing my speed both on outdoor and treadmill trainnings, and it is actually working. Not only I am shortening my times but I am also feeling less pain. Some days, no pain at all. I was afraid of running faster and injury myself when actually improving my cadence was all I need to decrease my pain. How I was suppose to know??? Living and learning after all.
And the cherry of the cake on my “Super Care Knee Intervention” was the acquisition of a foam roller (Runner’s World was really effective brainwashing me). So beyond the regular stretches I do in the end of every run, a couple of times a week I save a few minutes to massage the most affected areas with the foam roller. It hurts like hell. It hurts to the point you want to cry. Seriously. I am not joking. The videos you see on YouTube when people are doing the roller’s routines with a smile on their faces are all big lies, because if you actually are in need of the exercises is because your muscles are full of knots after the training and to loose them prepare your breath, because it is very painful.
Uft. This post was massive, sorry. But knee pain is a pain in the ass, and being actually able to relief it a little bit is making me a very happy person indeed. If you have it, don’t give up. You will sure find your recipe as well :-)
My new BFF.

Summarizing my ITB attack step-by-step:
1) Do the usual boring stretches you learnt at school;
2) Use right supportive shoes;
3) Run in a minimum of 180 steps per minute cadence (more here);
4) Strength training to stop bobbling my lower body (more here); 
5) FOAM ROLLER TORTURE ROUTINE (more here and here). 
Enjoy :-)