Sunday, 4 July 2021

A Taste of the Trails

From quite early on in the Covid pandemic, once I realised that all races would be cancelled for the foreseeable future, I took to exploring the local footpaths on my runs.  Up until now my training had been dictated by my racing programme and needing to hit specific time targets and goals.  But now, all of a sudden, pace didn't matter any more - for the first time in my life I was running purely for enjoyment, and I loved it!  I discovered all sorts of new routes, including the 41-mile 'A Coventry Way', a circular route through the countryside around Coventry.

Start & finish of A Coventry Way

Route map

I spent 10 months walking and running the route in sections with my coach, Les, to recce it in preparation for running for the whole thing.  The route is a mixture of field paths, farm tracks, some canal towpath, cycleway and short sections of road connecting it together.  With just over 1700 feet total ascent, 14 stiles, 108 gates and some lovely countryside, it makes for a challenging, but very enjoyable, day out.





Above:  some of my recce walks / runs


And I'm off!
Eventually I decided I was ready to attempt the whole route, so at 9:58am on Wednesday 9th June, I set off from outside the Queen’s Head pub in Meriden, straight up a flight of steps, across the B4101 Birmingham Road, and off into the countryside.  The first mile, across the fields and through St. Laurence churchyard, was mostly uphill which, together with having to walk through a field of cattle, meant it was pretty slow.  This was no bad thing, really, given I needed to save my legs for later on!  I soon got into my rhythm and was feeling pretty good as I followed the path across the fields, onto Benton Green Lane, and then across more fields towards Spencer’s Lane.  I remembered to take a crucial right turn in the path, where I’d gone wrong on one of my recce runs!  Then through a pony paddock and out onto Spencer’s Lane at just over 3 miles.

The next section of the route runs along the road before joining the Kenilworth Greenway on Waste Lane.  The path surface along the Greenway is excellent and I found myself bowling along really easily, with a smile on my face, loving being out in the countryside.  Consequently, miles 5 to 8 along this section were a bit quicker than I was intending, and I probably paid for this later on in the run.


Kenilworth Greenway


Kenilworth Greenway

Emerging off the Greenway at Dalehouse Lane there was then a short steep pull uphill and onto a narrow path running behind the houses.  There were places along here which were quite overgrown with stinging nettles, but nothing like what was to come later!  This path took me across Kenilworth Golf Course – I was really wary here as on one of my recce runs I’d very nearly been whacked on the head by a golf ball!  Across a few more fields and then out onto the top of the A46 slip road at around mile 10.  Another short road section (Stoneleigh Road) and then back onto the fields towards Stoneleigh.
Fields towards Stoneleigh
This is one of my favourite sections of the route, crossing the River Sowe, through some new tree planting, across the Stoneleigh Road and then a lovely downhill run, over the River Avon and out onto Stareton Lane at mile 12.  The countryside here is lovely and there was also some welcome shade through a wooded section, as the temperature was already beginning to get quite warm.

Another quick mile on the road, past Abbey Park business park and Tantara Lodge, to take another narrow, overgrown footpath alongside a barbed wire fence and off across the fields again.  This mile (mile 14) must have the highest concentration of gates and stiles on the whole route – I think there’s about 12 in this one-mile section! 

Bubbenhall church
Consequently this was another slower mile, but I was soon back into my running as I approached Bubbenhall, through St. Giles Churchyard, and through the village to the village hall where I met my coach, Les, for my first re-fuelling stop.  I swapped my empty drinks bottles for full ones, replenished my stocks of GU energy gels and food, and was off on my way again.  The underfoot conditions were still conducive to decent running – a stoney track, then a couple of fields before crossing the Oxford Road and a good path into the village of Ryton-on-Dunsmore.  From here it was an underpass under the A45 London Road (17 miles), and a very short section along this road, before taking a flight of steps and back into the countryside again.  The next section, through an old gravel working which has now been restored as a wildlife habitat with pools and reed beds, was very tranquil and a pleasant change from the farmland scenery.  The path then winds its way around Wolston Community Centre and through the centre of the village, before joining Priory Road and heading back off across the fields again.  Across some sheep fields, and a wooded section along the River Avon, the path then emerges onto the B4455 Fosse Way at around the halfway point (20.5 miles).  This was where the fun and games started!  The path runs adjacent to the B4455, on the other side of a hedge, in a narrow section hemmed in between the hedge and a wooden fence.  As I entered through the kissing gate I found myself, quite literally, up to my armpits in vegetation!  I battled my way through, cursing and swearing with every step as I was stung by nettles and ripped to shreds by brambles and thorns.  In addition to this I knew from my recce runs that concealed beneath all this vegetation were hundreds of large rabbit holes!  It was impossible to run, which was probably a good thing as at one point my foot went down a hole but thankfully, because I was moving relatively slowly, I didn’t do any damage to myself.  It was with great relief, and much pain, that I emerged from this path almost in tears!  Just after this I crossed Bretford Bridge and was cheered up by the workmen carrying out some repairs to the bridge, when they all wished me well on my run.
Cheered on by the workmen, Bretford Bridge

Into the second half now, and the next mile was gradually uphill, along a bridleway enclosed by hedges and trees.  Luckily the ground conditions had dried out considerably from when I last ran this section a few weeks ago, when it was ankle-deep in mud!  Now it was very rutted but, luckily, much more runnable.  I then had to negotiate another field of cattle before running around the Motte and Bailey castle in Brinklow.  The route doubles back on itself through the picturesque village of Brinklow, before setting off across the fields again to join the Oxford Canal at Grimes Bridge just before 25 miles.  It was starting to feel harder now and, although the canal towpath was flat, it was a very uneven, rutted surface which made it hard going.  A steep flight of uneven wooden steps leads down off the canal and I had to be very careful not to trip and go hurtling headfirst down them!  At mile 27 the route crosses a large arable field, which was the only wet section underfoot that I encountered.  It was like running through a paddy field, splashing through mud and ankle-deep water.  Although it was quite refreshing for my hot, sweaty feet, it was very hard running and afterwards my feet were slipping around in my squelching, soaking wet shoes and socks.  This wasn’t great through the next section, beyond Ansty, which was through very rough fields of knee-high thistles and overgrown brambles.  My toes were getting battered as my feet slithered round in my wet shoes, and I had to stop and disentangle my t-shirt from a vicious thorn!  I was relieved to get to Barnacle, at just before the 29-mile point, for my next re-fuel stop.




The 'paddy field' near Ansty!

Barnacle to Bedworth was fairly uneventful, apart from another section of painful overgrown nettles.  By now I was beginning to struggle, paying for my over-ambitious early pace and finding it hard in the heat.  Winding my way through the housing estates in Bedworth I thought I might make up some time, but I had to keep stopping for traffic when crossing roads!  This is the only really urban section of the route, and has become more so with more and more housing being built in recent years.  And then, as I passed under and along the Bedworth bypass at mile 32, there was yet another section of overgrown nettles and vegetation!  I vowed never to do this route at this time of year again as my poor legs were subjected to yet more scratches and stings!

After Bedworth I set off across the fields again, but was struggling with fatigue, a bad stitch and finding the uneven underfoot conditions and overgrown vegetation hard going.  The second half of this route is definitely harder running than the first, however I was determined to finish - there was never any doubt in my mind about that.  I had a few slow miles where I was alternating running and walking and trying to take fuel on board and stay hydrated.  One particularly hard section came at mile 34 - a huge arable field with some kind of very course grass crop.  The path was non-evident, but luckily I knew which way to head to reach the gate at the top from my recce runs.  However, it was like wading through water!  The grass started at about knee-height, but got longer and was up to my thighs as I got further in.  Added to this it was all uphill!  Needless to say, it was impossible to run and I ended up walking as it was too energy-sapping to try to run!  Seeing my support team at mile 35 was very welcome, and I tried really hard to make my tired legs run!  The run / walk combo continued to Corley Ash, then there was a lovely downhill section through grassy meadows which got my legs going again.

Up and over the M6 motorway, then downhill across the tussocky grass of the common to Corley Moor.  I knew by now I was nearing the end and this uplifted me and seemed to give me a bit more energy (or maybe it was just the energy gel I had!).  A bit of welcome shade came as I ran round the edge of Birchley Hays Wood and from there I managed to run pretty much all of the last couple of miles, apart from one field of horses at mile 39.  I’d had an altercation with one of them previously and certainly wasn’t going to risk being kicked at again!


Meadows near Corley


The horse didn't seem to like me being in its field!

And then the final part, and another of my favourite bits of the route, down through the birch woodland of Meriden Shafts to the road at Eaves Green.  I’ve seen this woodland change from the browns and russets of autumn, with its Fly Agaric fungi, to the vivid mass of bluebells in spring.  Today it was the varying greens of early summer, and some more welcome shade, but I had to watch out for all the tree roots waiting to trip my tired legs!  And then the final downhill stretch along the road to the finish, back where I’d started 6 hours, 32 minutes and 15 seconds earlier, outside the Queen’s Head pub in Meriden.

The finish!
Despite the struggles with an ongoing stitch for most of the second half, and the battles with vegetation, I loved the run and am delighted to have completed the whole route.  I’d like to say a massive thank you to my coach, Les, for all the recce trips he did with me, as well as his support on the day, and to my parents for their support too.   

I decided to put all this trail running to good use, and entered the North Downs Run 30km trail race in Kent, which also incorporated the British Masters Championships.  The race started and finished at the Cyclopark in Gravesend, and wound its way through farmland, vineyards, orchards, woodland and beautiful wildflower meadows on the North Downs Way and other local footpaths. 


Covid-secure start at 2m spacing


The start of my wave

Despite somewhat misty weather it was a really picturesque route and I felt very uplifted by the scenery (quite literally at the top of the hills!).  My runs in the rolling Warwickshire countryside didn't really prepare me for the hills of Kent and, whilst I coped with the uphills quite well, my lack of technique was very evident on the downhills.  My quad muscles were screaming for the next few days!


The only bit I wasn't smiling!
(copyright Dawn Granger Photography)


Smiling again!

All in all, as a novice trail runner, I was really pleased with my time of 2hrs 33:48, finishing 6th female and picking up a British Masters silver medal in my age category. 


Back at the Cyclopark, nearing the finish


Crossing the line

So I wonder where my new-found love of trail will take me next.  One thing is for sure though, I need more training on those hills!  Finally, a huge thank you to Mizuno for their fantastic support and their Wave Daichi trail shoes which are amazingly comfortable to wear and got me round both these runs, as well as numerous training runs, without a single blister.

Saturday, 1 August 2020

Who needs races anyway?

It’s now exactly 12 months since I last raced (well, not counting three parkruns, but they’re not really races are they?!).  Little did I know when I crossed the line to win the European Corporate Games 10k last August that I wouldn’t race again for at least 12 months, and still counting.

First it was another episode of high hamstring tendinopathy, then two carpal tunnel operations (one on each hand, four months apart) then, of course, the small matter of a global pandemic!  But although I miss racing when I’m injured I haven’t really missed it all during the pandemic.  I think this is partly because the situation has been the same for everyone, with races cancelled worldwide, so I don’t feel like I’m missing out.  I’ve just accepted it and not let myself get frustrated or disappointed about it.  After all, as both my dad and my coach, Les, always tell me, there’s no point in getting stressed or unhappy about things that I have no control over. 

For the past 34 years I’ve always said I train to race, which up to now has been true, but since lockdown began I’ve realised that actually I don’t need races to motivate me to get outdoors and run.  Running is part of me; it’s who I am and is as much a part of my life as eating, sleeping or cleaning my teeth!  I run for lots of reasons; the competitive element and wanting to get the best out of myself being just two of many.

Of course, there are the health benefits.  Lots of research has been done into how running can reduce the risk of preventable diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, obesity, mental health and some cancers – all of which put massive pressure on the NHS.  I feel like I’m playing my own small part in trying to help the NHS by looking after my body.  If only all those people who stood on their doorsteps clapping for our key workers felt the same way!  My body is precious to me – after all, it’s the only one I’ll ever have – and so I want to look after it and keep it healthy as best as I can.  And, of course, the benefit of keeping my weight under control through running means I can enjoy the occasional slice of cake or glass of wine!

Running also helps my mental health and wellbeing too, by boosting my mood and making me feel more positive.  Studies have shown that exercise is one of the most effective natural anti-depressants in alleviating mild to moderate depression and anxiety.  It’s all to do with the endorphins and endocannabinoids released in the brain – apparently!  And exercising in nature adds even greater benefits, hence Vitamin G(reen).  Again, research has shown that being outdoors in a natural environment can reduce stress and depression, improve mood, improve sleep, lower blood pressure and boost your immune system.  I can definitely relate to the ‘feel-good factor’ of being in a ‘green’ space.  I think it’s so important to get nature into our towns and cities so that everyone has a chance to access some ‘green’ and re-connect with plants and animals, trees and water as it really does have a positive effect on health and well-being.

I’ve been brought up with a love of the outdoors and natural world right from birth.  As a baby I was carried around various nature reserves in a baby carrier on my dad’s back!  This love has stayed with me all my life and even influenced my choice of career as a landscape architect.  I know I’m very fortunate to live surrounded by the lovely Warwickshire countryside and I especially appreciated this during lockdown.  Just to be able to lace up my Mizuno shoes and set off around the lanes or across the fields made me feel so much calmer, and more able to cope with the uncertainty of everything going on in the world.  I’ve had great fun exploring new routes and footpaths too.  It’s easy to stick to the usual tried-and-tested routes, but it’s been an adventure to discover new paths across the fields, especially as I haven’t needed to run to a certain pace schedule as I would when training for a big race.  And you can cover so much more ground when you’re running, compared to walking!

During lockdown I used my love of nature to give another purpose to my runs, to raise money for Warwickshire Wildlife Trust as part of the 2.6 Challenge.  This was set up to try and help charities fill their funding gap caused by the cancellation of big events such as the London Marathon (hence the theme based around 2.6 or 26 – the number of miles in a marathon).  My challenge was to spot 26 interesting wildlife things whilst out on my daily runs – not as easy as it sounds when you’re running at around 8 minutes per mile and not carrying binoculars!  But I achieved my target (I actually got to 28 and will keep adding to it if I spot anything else that’s noteworthy).  I saw everything from butterflies to fungi (a rather magnificent ‘Chicken of the Woods’ specimen), birds, plants and even some deer.  Several of the birds I saw or heard are sadly on the ‘red list’ of species needing high conservation priority, e.g. yellowhammer, grey wagtail and skylark.  I also had a slightly scary encounter with an angry buzzard who didn’t like the fact that I was obviously too close to its nest!  It was calling and swooping overhead, so I ran away as fast as I could, trying not to twist my ankle on the uneven ground or get stung by the overgrown nettles!     You can read the updates on my JustGiving page if you’re interested in everything I saw – and it’s still open for donations if you’d like to support Warwickshire Wildlife Trust’s vital work!

Most of my running is usually done alone so I didn’t find it an issue when we could only exercise alone during lockdown.  Although I must say I’m missing my weekly interval session with my club-mates at Leamington C&AC.  I miss the friendly chat and the support and encouragement everyone gives to each other.  I’ve made so many friends through running, both locally at my club and local races, as well as further afield through competing nationally and internationally.  I might go out running on my own, but I feel part of a much wider community.

I’ve also missed training with my coach, Les, and recovery has been harder not having the benefit of the sports massages that he previously gave me.  I’ve also obviously been unable to see my physio, Mark Buckingham, although I’ve had a couple of sessions with him via Zoom which actually worked surprisingly well.  He was able to diagnose just by asking me what I felt when he got me to do various things.  With the help of diagrams on a shared screen he showed me how to treat any issues myself.  It worked really well and could be a useful way of getting physio advice in the future when away on training camps etc.  

I haven’t felt the need to do any of the virtual races that have sprung up – I’m afraid they just don’t excite me.  To me a race is where everyone stands on the same start line, at the same time, and runs the same course in the same conditions!  Who knows when, or even if, we’ll ever get back to that again!  But at the moment the simple pleasure of running, being outdoors in the fresh air, and the feeling of freedom is enough motivation for me.  For the first time in 34 years I’m not training to compete and am enjoying running without all the pressure of preparing for a specific race.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m definitely looking forward to the day I can race again, and I’ll certainly be raring to go when races eventually return and I feel they’re safe enough.  But for now, with over 1000 miles under my belt so far this year, I’m just happy to enjoy running for its own sake and for all the other benefits it brings.

Sunday, 5 January 2020

A round-up of the last decade

24,865 miles (bringing my lifetime total to 65,889); four Great Britain vests; three England vests; World and European medals; a British record, world masters record and a British championship title.  That just about sums up my last decade!  It was an exciting decade filled with new challenges and opportunities: my first venture into the world of ultra-running; the experience of representing my country in World and European championships; travelling to new places and making new friends.  Yes, I’ve had my fair share of low points too; various set-backs including five episodes of high hamstring tendinopathy which have kept me out of action for several months at a time, but these in themselves are challenges to be overcome and serve to make the high points even sweeter.  The achievements haven’t come without a huge amount of hard work, determination, dedication and perseverance, but I’m incredibly proud of everything I’ve managed to accomplish over the last 10 years.

Here are a few of the highlights:

Finished 24th in the elite women’s race in the Virgin London marathon and narrowly missed out on a place in the Commonwealth Games marathon team.  However, I was instead selected to run for England in the IAU 50km World Trophy Final in Galway, Ireland.  This was the first time I’d run anything further than a marathon and I was both excited and a little apprehensive.  I needn’t have worried as I ended up winning the gold medal and setting a new British record and World Masters record of 3:15:43.  I ended the year ranked number one in the world over 50km.

Virgin London Marathon 2010

Winning the IAU 50km World Trophy Final, Galway

I was invited to run in the world’s most famous road ultra-marathon, the Comrades marathon (87km) in South Africa.  This was the most amazing race I’ve ever done, with an incredible atmosphere from supporters along the route from Durban to Petermaritzburg.  I finished 13th female in 7:11:45.

Comrades Marathon finish

As a result of this run I was selected to run for Great Britain in my first 100km – the World and European championships in Winschoten, Holland.  I had a lot to learn in terms of pacing and nutrition for this distance and I was disappointed with my 21st place in a time of 8:27:33.  We did, however, win team silver in the European Championship.

Great Britain team

The people of Winschoten always go to town decorating the streets for the runners

As part of my build up for the 100km I again ran for England in the 50km World Trophy Final, using it as a training run, and winning the silver medal.

Finished first female, in a new course record, at the Cotswold 35m race.  I was subsequently selected for the GB team for the World 100km champs. but unfortunately picked up a calf injury and had to withdraw from the team.

Ran for Great Britain in the European 100km champs. in Belves, France.  Won the bronze medal and lowered my PB to 7:48:12.

Running past a French chateau in the Dordogne Valley

On the podium in a European championship

Won the Coventry, Solihull and Warwickshire Sportswoman of the Year.

The second episode of high hamstring tendinopathy and I only managed 5 races all year!

Ran for Great Britain in the World and European champs. 100km, again in Winschoten, Holland.  Finished 10th in one of the strongest 100km fields ever, and set a new PB of 7:39:50 which ranks me 5th on the UK all-time rankings.  Also won silver in the World Masters champs. (W40-45).

100km in Winschoten again

Finished the year by winning my 100th road race, at the Christmas Cracker 20km in Moreton Morrell.

With celebratory '100' balloons!
Another year of hamstring injury, but I did finish 1st W45 in the BUPA Great Birmingham Run half-marathon.

Racing to the finish
British 100km champion!  My first British title came at the age of 45 whilst representing England for the 7th time in my career.  My performance also helped England to win the Anglo-Celtic plate, against Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

British champion!

This led to an invitation to run in the Fuxian Lake 50km in China, where invited athletes from all over the world were accommodated in a luxury 5 star hotel overlooking the lake – a fantastic experience.  The race was hot, humid, hilly and at altitude and I was really pleased to finish 4th female.

Waiting for the start in China

Won the Coventry and Warwickshire Amateur Sportswoman of the Year.

My third 100km World Champs. for Great Britain, this time in Sveti Martin, Croatia.  I struggled with the heat, hills and a disrupted build-up due to injury, but was proud to battle on and finish the race when many didn’t.  Was also super proud to carry the GB flag in the opening ceremony.

Team GB flag bearer

Taking on fluid in the heat of Croatia

The last year of the decade and finally my 50km British and World Masters records were broken!  It was inevitable they would go at some point and I take heart that it took two top class GB marathon runners to break them – many congratulations to them.  I’m really proud that the records stood for 9 years and that I’m still 11th on the world all-time 50km rankings (all ages).

Highlights for me this year were winning the Midland Masters 10 mile title; being part of the Leamington C&AC team that won the Cotswold Hilly 100 and took 23 minutes off the course record and winning double gold at the European Corporate Games.  The second half of my year was again ravaged by injury, but I finished with my first ever parkrun at Warwick Racecourse just before Christmas.

Midland Masters 10 mile champion

I didn't have much time to admire the Cotswold views as I helped LC&AC to victory and a new course record!
Double gold - European Corporate Games

I have many people to thank for helping me to achieve all that I have over the last 10 years (and more!):  my brilliant physio Mark Buckingham; podiatrist Steve Avil; sports med. and nutritionist at QE hospital, Birmingham; sports psychologist Stuart Chambers; friends and family for putting up with me spending time training and racing; ‘Team Les’ training group at Leamington C&AC for their support and encouragement and, of course, my amazing coach of 33 years, Les.  His guidance, positive attitude and practical support with things like massage, accompanying me with drinks on long runs, support at races etc. is invaluable and I simply could not have done it without him. 

Finally, a massive thank you to Mizuno for their continued support over the years and supplying me with their fantastic shoes and kit.  Also to The Warwickshire health & fitness club at Leek Wootton for their support and use of their excellent gym facilities, which is an integral part of my training.

Here’s to the next decade and hoping it will be as enjoyable as the last one.