The return

I have braved waters infested with pirates. I have gone down sewers and into slums. I’m supposed to be intrepid and courageous. (Though I’m not, really.) But this morning? This morning I was due to do nothing more complicated than run for six miles, and I was alarmed. In fact, my nerves were shredded. This state wasn’t helped by the fact that my cat had disappeared all night, something she never does, and something that sends me spiralling into panic. This is reasonable, as her mother was run over by a car and I had to bury her smashed, bleeding body, and I won’t ever forget that. So, all in all, I was nervous. I was due to run the Pudsey 10K, a local race in Leeds. I’ve never run it before; I was meant to race it two years ago but took too much magnesium and discovered, too late, that magnesium is often used for its powerful laxative properties. No way was I going to run the hills of the Pudsey worrying about messing my shorts.

Hills. Yes. Many hills. I didn’t sensibly choose a flat, easy race as my first one in three months. I chose one that looks like this:

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(That is not my time or pace.)

There were other worries. I hadn’t run since Monday. Partly, this was because I’d had to travel to Dusseldorf and back. I’d planned to run in the city I was going to (it wasn’t Dusseldorf; I can’t say more because I signed a confidentiality agreement), and when I finally arrived late one evening, after two planes had developed technical faults, a fellow guest at the conference offered to run with me the following morning at 7am. At 6.30 though the phone rang: he thought the weather was bad, and he was right. It was raining hard. That wouldn’t deter me usually but combined with a very poor night’s sleep, no idea where to run, the city being in a steep valley with lots of hills, and a dead iPhone and no charger so no way of carrying a map: well, I had lots of excuses that at 6.30am on crappy sleep seemed to be very reasonable. So I did a seven-minute workout instead and that was that. I would have done Parkrun on Saturday, but FRB and I went out the night before and slept through Parkrun, and anyway it would have contravened my strict no-runs-back-to-back rule, which I will stick to to give my tendon time to recover between runs.

I haven’t stuck to the other rule though. The golden rule, of not increasing distance by more than 10% a week. My longest run had been five miles, on Monday I’d only run four, and this would be six, with hills.

There was something else. I like to think I’ve kept up exercising, but there is no way I’ve done as much as when I’m fully running. I’d then be doing 25-30 miles a week, probably, plus strength training. I haven’t done that. And I have also been more indulgent with my food, probably because I don’t have to submit to Jenny weighing me every week. The result: 1.5% increase in body fat and half a stone in weight. I don’t like it. I feel heavy and sluggish, even without the bloating that is a constant, apparently, in my new perimenopausal life. I’ve stuck this to my fridge as inspiration. I’d rather have Victoria Wilkinson, who is super strong but not so skinny, but this will do for now:


Weight, risky distance, hills, no racing for three months. Gulp.


I was going to race!

I got my kit ready, and it felt good.


I knew other people were running in road shoes, but I also knew it had rained overnight, and there were trails, so I chose my Brooks PureGrit. They are so comfortable, anyway, that I wear them around town. It’s not like winter running of cross-country, when only Inov-8 grips well enough, but Inov-8 studs are painful on tarmac and your feet get knackered.

I had my usual race breakfast of toast, marmalade and marmite. I made a flask of coffee, swallowed with the usual profound disgust a shot of Beet-it (because it works) and left for Pudsey. Some of us were meeting at some clubmates’ house for pre-race tea and coffee. Three toilet visits later – my pelvic floor has also suffered from not running so much – then I warmed up on their carpet, and at 10.30 we walked up their road to the start of the race. Suddenly there were purple vests everywhere. Group photo. How long since I’ve done one of those? I’ve watched on our FB page as the official group photo gets changed with race after race, and been miserable about it. And here I was in one, finally, and it felt great.

Then there was some milling. Before a race there is always milling. FRB had given me a strict race strategy. He knows the course perfectly, and probably would even if he didn’t live locally, and he had given me strict instructions mile by mile. The summary: don’t peg it on the initial downhill because I’d pay for it on the hills and in the last couple of miles. There would be four hills, though officially no-one counts the last one, because it’s a long steady rise up to the finish in the park. No-one, he said, will be running the bad hills except for the first twenty runners. I hadn’t run this race, but I’ve run around Pudsey and bit and know the ones that come out of the valley. I knew what to expect.

The milling was wet. The weather was supposed to be dry, but this was a heavy shower. There was much good-natured grumbling about the weather, an announcement that I couldn’t hear because I’d put myself so far back in the pack, and then we were off. I thought: Don’t peg it, and I didn’t. In fact, I followed the plan perfectly, even when I wanted to speed up. And then later, I probably couldn’t have sped up.

It was a lovely race. I was outside, in fresh air, running through woods and alongside fields, and it was gorgeous. It was such a gigantic pleasure. I didn’t even mind being so slow.

I’m lying. I did mind. But I ran along thinking what Janey wrote in her Veggie Runners blog about running the Coniston marathon: Put your ego in a box. Just enjoy the race. So I did, until I was overtaken by a lovely man who runs for my club, but whose marathon times are about 45 minutes to an hour slower than mine. I tried very very hard to keep my ego in the box, but in the last mile I had to overtake him. The incline up to the finish in the park was hard, and I felt sick in the last 200 metres. I did it 1 hour 1 minute, which was perfect according to FRB’s strategy, though it’s twelve minutes slower than my PB, and though I was beaten by slower runners I’d normally be way ahead of, including our M70 runner.

Oh well. I’ll be back.

Afterwards there were free sports massages being given out by a local physio practice, so I asked for special attention to be paid to my hip flexors, glutes and tendon, and they were all so tight the physio was wincing. Me? I was yelping. It hurt.

I’m knackered now. But it feels good. A swim tomorrow, and another race on Tuesday. It’s so good to be back. It’s good to be running, and racing, but probably most of all, it’s good to be running and racing with this lot:


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Lucy is pleased. Lucy is very pleased. Lucy is my wonderful physio at Coach House Physio. I think she’s wonderful even though she has caused me much pain by combining her fingers with my muscles, tendons and nerves. But I’m very pleased that she’s pleased. I thought I may have overdone it last week. I ran 4 times in 7 days, or 5 times in 10 days and after the fourth time in the week, my tendon hurt significantly. As in, back to the Voltarol and painkillers. But it only lasted a day, and I rested for two days, ran on Monday morning and it was fine. Soreness is normal, said Lucy. She wouldn’t have expected anything else; the tendon is getting used to “loading” again, and it will complain. She thinks it will settle down. Meanwhile, there’s my hip. My hip has been sore for years. I always assumed it was bursitis, because it aches when I sit a lot, or when I’ve been sleeping on it in bed. But Lucy thinks not, because it doesn’t do something that it should if it were bursitis (I can’t remember what). Instead, it’s the whole body thing again. After months of doing glute exercises (and actually doing them: I have been both obedient and cautious), my gluteus maximus muscles are activating beautifully. But my hip flexors aren’t working as they should – I know this from visiting Trimechanics last year – and my back is taking the load. When Lucy’s fingers found my QL muscle, I yelped. A lot. But the pain is worth it: when I arrived at Coach House, my pelvis was wonky and my right hip was higher than my left. By the time I left, many yelps later, they were equal.

And the verdict is good. I can keep on running. I have new hip flexor exercises. One day of rest between runs, but that’s just rest from running, so I can do strength training (as I can now squat without pain for the first time in months), swimming, cycling, anything. Here goes, QL or not.

Meanwhile, the best way to do injury-free running is to watch other runners running while not doing it. So I did that at the weekend, supporting FRB while he ran the Wharfedale Half Marathon. I’d entered it too but withdrew and they kindly let me defer my place until next year. My name was still on the entry list when we arrived at Wharfedale Rugby Club in Grassington, which runs the race. It made me feel like a running phantom.

I wasn’t running, but I still love race days. People milling around in kit. A general air of good cheer, mixed with nerves. And I get to gawp at nice kit and lean muscles. On Saturday I learned to love Rapha cycling kit and Inov8 tops, both of which are way too expensive to buy outside sale time, but gorgeous. But I don’t need any kit. I don’t need any kit. (If I repeat it often enough I may stop buying stuff). About a dozen of FRB’s club-mates were running, but none of mine, oddly. We’d got there early, and took advantage of the free tea and biscuits. Then I set off. As usual FRB Navigator General knew exactly where I should stand. I was on foot, as my bike has been punctured by Leeds’ shitty road surfaces yet again, so I walked for a mile or so, down the Avenue from the club, up towards Grassington, and then out again towards the dales. It’s such a beautiful place. Dale on one side, moorland on the other. There was only one problem: Wind. We’d intended to camp, but FRB, forecast-checker, had seen that 50mph winds were predicted. And here they were. It was spectacular. I got to the crossing of lane and road where the runners would pass, then headed up the hill. There was a bench under a tree so I sat there in the hope that it would offer shelter. It didn’t, but it was a bench, and I had a sandwich to eat so I did. The runners came up about ten minutes later. They’d only done about a mile, but I cheered them on anyway. If I could read the club vests, I used the club names – “well done [insert club name here]” with the occasional “well done everyone” to be inclusive. As usual, I only started getting thank yous about two thirds of the way along the pack; everyone else probably doesn’t have the lung capacity. Though I’m sure that I usually manage to thank every supporter or marshal no matter how exhausted I am. At least, I hope so.

One of the first ladies was the amazing Karen Pickles, who runs for Pudsey Pacers. She ended up winning it i.e. being first lady. The male winner was Frank Beresford of Otley AC. I’d seen her before the race and she wasn’t sure she’d do well. But that’s because she’s modest as well as extremely fast. I like extraordinary talent combined with modesty: who wouldn’t? FRB came past. He managed a thumbs up and a smile, and in return I yelled “MOVE YOUR ARM” because he sometimes runs like Haile Gebrselassi, though as far as I know he didn’t spend his childhood running miles and miles to school and back with schoolbooks under his arm, which explains Haile’s frozen arm. He’d been adjusting something in his pack, he said, and appreciated the reminder. So he says… He was running well, but he hadn’t expected to beat his time last year, because of the wind. But he did, by ten minutes. I saw them all pass, nearly got brained by some branches that broke from the tree I was sitting under, then went into Grassington to look round. That didn’t take long, and I was back at the rugby club in good time to see them come back. The race was impressively organised up to that point, but for some reason, the organizers were not preventing traffic from driving down the avenue, which is where the runners came onto for about 300 metres before heading into the rugby pitch to the finish funnel. Even a marshal pointing out that several hundred runners were going to be sharing the road might have been a good idea. But car after car kept coming, and sometimes the runners had to run around a couple at once. At one point three cars formed a mini traffic jam; one tried to do a three point turn, and the runners were having to run round them. Ludicrous.

I cheered and clapped, including Karen, and then, coming in ten minutes faster than his time the year before, FRB. But he didn’t hear me (because of the wind) or see me (because he was knackered). See? Phantom.

Afterwards I milled around with everyone else. It’s the hardest bit of supporting, I think, because you want the endorphins that everyone else is soaked with, while you’ve just stood around for a while watching. But it’s still a lovely atmosphere, and you can soak some of the happiness up, and the rugby club was serving chips. Nowt better.

Afterwards, we spent the day in the pub, watching the flags blow in the gusts, and deciding whether or not to camp. We did. The wind died down by 10pm, and if it weren’t for the bonkers birds in the trees around Wharfedale rugby club’s training pitch, who started a dawn symphony at 3am, it would have been a peaceful night (at least for the person in our tent who got the non-deflating airbed, i.e. me).



It was such a simple thing to do. Leave my office, drive half an hour north to Otley, get lost for about ten minutes, phone FRB, who is also known as Navigator General for his uncannily perfect memory for routes run and driven only once, get re-directed, get slightly lost again via the car-park of a posh Otley hotel, finally arrive at Surprise View car park about five minutes late (not bad for me, whose timekeeping is poor enough for FRB to factor in an extra fifteen minutes to any departure), strip off sweater, detach car key from bunch of keys, drink some water very inadvisably, and




I am a writer who is supposed to be good at conveying things with words. But it’s hard, actually, to convey how wonderful it was, to simply move at speed – not too fast – through gorgeous nature, on a stunningly beautiful sunny evening. It’s such a simple activity, running, despite all that we complicate it with (though not at high level and particularly not in certain training camps, as we learned later that evening from the BBC Panorama documentary on doping and Alberto Salazar).

But it is simple. And over Otley Chevin, a beautiful dollop of hills, rocks, trees and trails that overlooks Otley and nods to Ilkley, on a sunny evening, it was beautiful. It’s not often that we feel a certain emotion these days, amongst the noise and clutter and chaos and stress of life. I did feel it last night. I felt joy. I was joyful, just to be running. How I had missed it.

FRB was a great companion. He told me if I was going too fast. He advised me about rocky sections. He had planned a route that wouldn’t tax my tendon too much: some uphill but not on rocky sections, but mostly flattish trails through the woods. But then we glimpsed the view, which in yesterday’s light was magnificent, and we decided to change the route, to see more of the open and not stay in the dark of the trees. There would be more climbing and more rocks but I said I’d walk if necessary, and I watched where my feet were going.

I was wearing my new Brooks PureGrit this time. I think they may even be more comfortable than the PureFlow. Here they are during the five mile Harewood march at the weekend:


They are light, flexible and cushioned, but with none of the heft from shoes that are usually advertised as cushioned, but which seem to get most of their cushioning from weight. I had my orthotics in, of course, and my tendon was fine. I twisted my ankle a bit on some rocks, but it settled down. I keep expecting to wake up and for it to be sore and angry, but so far it hasn’t. And as long as it doesn’t, I’ll keep doing my cautious programme. A little further each time. Maybe a hill or two. I intend to keep up the swimming, but haven’t been all week, though I think a swim after a run is probably the perfect combination, as although the kicking aches at first, it loosens everything beautifully by the end of a good half hour session.

At the end of the run, I wasn’t too tired. I’d done the longest run in two months, a whole three miles, but I felt fine. And I deserved an ice-cream, so I got one. E-numbers, wafer cone and strawberry syrup that had never seen a strawberry: it tasted amazing.

I didn’t take any pictures as I was too busy enjoying the run. But we stayed afterwards to watch the Otley Chevin Fell Race, FRB banging his wok with a spaghetti server, me with some borrowed jingle bells, and Dave and Eileen Woodhead were there, as they are at most local and further-off fell races, with their cameras.



Three runs. I have done three runs. I’m not judging them by pace or distance but by time. So after that first fifteen minute run, I did another one 48 hours later. I did the same route: through the park, down the steps, over the road, past the wild garlic and cow parsley and into Gledhow Valley Woods. I love these woods. They are not big, the path is not long (about half a mile from end to end), and they run alongside a fairly trafficked road. But they have many trees, and a brook, and a boardwalk, and they are well cared for by the Friends of Gledhow Valley Woods, and they are oddly calm and serene considering that cars are travelling past about 30 metres from the path. Also, there is a lake, constructed in 1956:


At the top of the hill, above the woods, is Gledhow Hall, which has, it seems, a very beautiful bathroom made from Burmantofts tiles.


(all pictures from Friends of Gledhow Valley Woods)

I think it’s a beautiful wood. I hear plenty of birds singing in it. Though apparently the council doesn’t agree, thinking that it is “impoverished” and that 85 mature trees should be cut down. This campaign group says some of the beech trees are 100 years old and could last another 100 years. I don’t know what’s happened to the plans to fell it.

But back to the run. I’d asked the lovely people at Brooks on Twitter whether I should try a more cushioned shoe than the Pure Connects I run in. They said, yes, you might prefer the Pure Flow, which are still lightweight but more cushioned, and then said they would send me a pair. They also sent me a pair of Pure Grit “in case your physio lets you play in the dirt.” I am deeply grateful. Not least because the shoes are gorgeous:


My second run was my first attempt in the Pure Flow. I put in my orthotics, with the help of a shoe horn. My feet are definitely a bizarre shape; all shoes feel loose on the heel, and I have difficulty getting them on and off. Shoe horns are a revelation. Like all Brooks shoes, the Pure Flow felt great out of the box. Brooks haven’t paid me to say this: I genuinely think they are good shoes. The tongue of the shoe was the only thing that I found a little stiff, but the stiffness wore off.

The shoes were great. But the run was hard. It felt much harder than the first one. I felt tired, and I stopped four or five times, on a flat run that was only 15 minutes long. I felt old and unfit. But I still did it. Afterwards my tendon didn’t react too badly: it was slightly sore but not noticeably swollen. Ibuprofen gel and a massage, and fingers crossed. After that, I took it easy, with a ceilidh in flat shoes, a day of hangover recovery, then a five mile march around beautiful Harewood estate in the Pure Grits. Which are also comfortable. And which a young girl passing us looked at with envy.

I’ve never had running shoes that make eight-year-old girls jealous. Well done Brooks. You are down with the kids.

Today, another run. I increased it to 20 minutes, but it was all downhill. It was great, not least because I’ve been feeling increasingly flabby and unfit. Then, having watched the World Triathlon at the weekend, I must have been inspired, because I followed the run a few hours later with a half hour swim. And once again was baffled by how people’s minds work. I was in a lane, and one other person was in the lane. There was no sign that required us to loop, though I would have if there had been, so we were swimming parallel. The other person was a slow woman, and I am not Olympic, but I’m faster than that and I was doing front crawl. I got to the far side of the pool, looked round and saw another woman had joined us. That’s fine, except that she was swimming up my side of the lane, at exactly the same speed as the other woman, leaving me nowhere to swim. Annoying. Very annoying. Deep breath, a duck under the lane rope and into the fast lane, which had only one swimmer in it, who soon got out. When the next swimmer arrived, I asked him, do you want to loop or shall we swim parallel? He agreed to swim parallel, and off we went.

That’s how you swim in lanes when there are very few of you and there’s no sign telling you what to do. You communicate. I realise that makes me sound like an awful grump. Don’t get me started then on why the clock is on the wall halfway down the length of the pool. How is anyone doing front crawl supposed to see it?

I’m really not in a grump. I’ve been running. I’ve been swimming. It was all wonderful, lane-hoggers or not. And I’m going to get fit again. You’ll see.