I’ve been working hard to improve my strength, running pace and overall fitness this past month. For over a year, I’ve been plodding along at the same old pace, covering the same old routes, without ever pushing myself too hard (because, frankly, getting out for a run – whatever speed or distance – has felt challenging enough, what with two little ones to run around after all day, one of whom has NEVER slept through the night).
When it comes to both running and parenting, I’m pretty good at telling myself I’m not very good. It’s my industry standard: Claire Chamberlain – Could Do Better.
For running, this manifests itself in fairly obvious ways: I should be running further; why didn’t I get up earlier? I could have pushed harder.
It doesn’t seem to matter when logic pipes up in a small voice in the background, reminding me that, actually, I’m doing the best I can; that I don’t have a whole heap of free hours right now; that I’m sleep deprived due to a teething baby and a child who has suddenly and inexplicably decided that 3.30am is time for cornflakes. Nope. All those ‘shoulds’ keep muscling into my thoughts anyway, making me feel that I could do better.
It’s the same with parenting. All those arts & crafts sessions I do with them (despite the fact it takes a bloody age to get the glitter out of the carpet); all the colouring and playing and chasing and cuddling; all the meals I cook; all the tears I wipe and knees I kiss better; the fact I gently stroke their faces as they sleep and that I love them to their bones. All of that can get wiped out in an instant, simply when I serve up an ‘orange’ dinner (fish fingers and baked beans FYI), or when I end up shouting after asking him 17 times to get his shoes on; or when I sneak a peek at my phone because playing Toy Story again is just so freakin’ tedious (sorry Buzz et al, but
sometimes often I really do just want to jet off to infinity and beyond… and stay there. To have a nap).
So you know what? It’s amazing when you have a moment that makes you realise you aren’t all that bad. You’re not bad at all, actually.
This weekend, I did the Shoreham Woods 10K Trail Run, a very beautiful race – but also one of the toughest (and hilliest) I’ve ever encountered.
My training hadn’t gone exactly to plan (I should have run further, got up earlier, pushed harder… you know the score). Plus, due to the sleep deprivation, my diet had roughly consisted of caffeine, chocolate digestives and cake for the past week.
But in the end, none of that mattered. Because yes, I could have been fitter. But it turns out, I was fit enough.
I ran with a friend and we chatted our way around the stunning route – along woodland paths, across grassy fields, down narrow rutted tracks that seemed to disappear perilously over the edge of hilltops, and up some frankly ridiculous inclines. The uphill sections saw my pace slow to a walk and had my heart pounding, but every time we reached the summit, we somehow regained our momentum and kept going.
What’s more, I loved it. I loved every leg-aching, lung-busting, calf-burning second. I loved the freedom of jogging through the woods on a beautiful almost-autumn morning. I loved the presence I felt. It was almost transcendental. I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face.
So yes, I could be fitter, obviously. But I’m perfectly fit enough, thank you very much (actually, it’s probably thanks to my two children, who have me lifting, playing, carrying, rescuing, chasing and fetching all day, every day. That’s my strength work and cross training, right there). From now on, I am determined to stop the negative self-talk: I AM fit and I CAN do these things.
And you know what? While I’m at it, I’m a decent mummy, too.
There. I’ve said it.
When my daughter was eight weeks old, I signed up to run a marathon. It must have been something to do with having just grown and given birth to another human being that made me feel so capable and empowered. The female body is amazing. I felt amazing! I was capable of committing to – and achieving – anything.
In the months that followed, I gradually increased my running speed and distance (so far, so good).
And then, as December gave way to January and the start of my marathon training, my resolve (having so far channelled my I’ve-given-birth-I-can-do-anything mentality) faltered somewhat.
A marathon? Training to run 26.2 miles – this time with an energetic three year old and teething under-one year old along for the ride? Had I gone f*cking insane? What the hell was I thinking?
At first, despite the fact I already had doubts, I felt the brave thing to do was battle on.
Battle on, despite the fact I was soothing and feeding a baby back to sleep in the darkest hours of the night, rising at dawn to greet my son each morning and racing around after my little ones all day.
Battle on, despite the fact I felt daunted by my 16-week training plan.
Battle on, despite the fact I was dreading those runs getting longer. Dreading the additional exhaustion. Dreading the possibility that this would lead to me not being able to give my children all the energy, positivity and creativity they deserved from me.
And then it hit me.
I didn’t have to do this.
Now historically, I’m not a quitter. I’ve previously run two marathons. While training for both, I suffered setbacks. But twice I made it to the start line. Twice I crossed that finish line. And I loved them.
The start of marathon training should be exciting. It’s a time of possibility and growth and determination. It requires commitment and dedication and guts. You have to be hungry for it.
It’s taken me a few weeks to realise I’m just not hungry enough for it yet. To realise that the brave decision is not to battle on. The brave decision is to admit to myself – and everyone else – that I won’t be running this marathon.
The brave decision is to quit.
So often, the brave decision is the right decision. Because as my marathon goal ends before it has even begun, a new set of running aims has started to stretch out before me – aims more suited to my current time restrictions, family commitments and energy levels:
1 Run a decent 5K with the running buggy.
2 Get a new 10K post-baby PB by April (sub-1:03:27).
3 Run a sub-60-minute 10K by June.
So there they are: three challenges, all of which are more suited to my life right now. And you know what? I’m excited by them.
The other great thing? These new goals mean I’ll get to spend a whole lot more time with my new favourite running buddy: my baby girl, whose babbling in the running buggy makes me smile and whose giggles spur me on.
This time last year, as 2014 was drawing to a close, I did not have high hopes for 2015. In fact, I distinctly remember telling several people I had already written it off. The reason? I was expecting a baby.
I know, I know. I should have been brimming with excitement at the anticipation of such a wonderful, joyous occasion… but here’s the catch. I’d been there before. Two years and four months before. That first time around – expecting my son – I was so excited, so happy, so desperate to hold my baby in my arms… but once he was finally born, the reality of the post-birth healing, sleep deprivation, constant feeding and loss of my old life slammed me in the face and threatened to floor me. Then there was the crying. Oh God, the endless crying. My baby boy suffered so terribly from colic that he would scream for hours on end. It was draining; I felt like a bad mother – that I wasn’t good enough. I was to-the-bones tired and yet had to carry on – day and night – when all I wanted to do was curl up under a 10-tog duvet and close my eyes.
Don’t get me wrong – I was so very grateful and relieved my baby boy had been born safely and that he was healthy. But the actual parenting bit? It was so much harder than I’d expected.
Second time round? Well. I decided to expect the worst and if there were any rays of sunshine through the sleep-deprived fog, it would be a nice, balmy little bonus.
And a strange thing happened.
My daughter was born in March and my little family had the most wonderful year.
Yes, it has been hard. Yes, I am tired. Yes, sometimes I feel like banging my head against the wall when I’ve had to say ‘Be gentle’ to my son for the 76th time that day. Yes, I am fed up of scraping bits of broccoli off the floor and discovering that I’ve knelt in a splatter of Weetabix/porridge/avocado again (bloody weaning). Yes, sometimes I’d love a weekend off.
But wow, the joy in our house. The love and the laughter and the noise. Just wow.
It helps that, as a second-time mum, I am so much more relaxed. I now have the confidence to raise my baby my way, as opposed to worrying I’m doing it wrong according to this or that book.
It also helps that my baby girl was a peaceful newborn and remains, for the most part, happy. Oh yes. She is smiley and calm and utterly chilled out with the world and her place in it.
But it is also down to someone else.
My funny, clever, sensitive little boy has simply shone in his role of Big Bro.
The baby cries? He hands over his favourite toy. She coughs? He pats her back. He has helped teach her to wave, clap and blow raspberries. I feared he would never stop bouncing up and down with excitement when she started to crawl. He has one-way conversations with her, and she smiles and laughs along with him as if she understands every word. He tells her he loves her. All the time.
OK, OK… so
every now and then many times a day I’ll leave her happily playing with her toys and, on returning 20 seconds later, she will have been shoved over, a bewildered look on her face, with no toy in sight. But he’s only three. We’ll get there.
One other amazing thing has happened this year – so incredible it should technically class as a miracle: I have managed to carve out a little time for me.
I started running again. I started writing this blog. I have crossed the finish line of two 10K races in not-too-shabby times.
I’ve been beating myself up a bit recently for my lack of running, but you know what? I have realised I need to feel proud of everything I have achieved in my running shoes this year.
After all… 2015?
It was supposed to be a write-off.
Happy New Year!
Ask any runner about their race-morning preparation, and I can pretty much guarantee you will hear tales of well-timed nutrition, proper hydration, a pre-packed kit bag, race number to hand, and travel plans to the start line known off by heart.
Dear God, I was so underprepared for my first race back.
For a start, I didn’t even have a race number yet.
Second, I was so focused on making sure the little ones were properly fed and dressed appropriately for the cold September morning (ever tried to wrestle a two-year-old into a hoodie when he insists on wearing only a T-shirt? It’s quite hard), I forgot to drink any water until after we’d left the house.
Third, my husband asked me the postcode of where we were going, so we could program the Sat Nav, and I didn’t bloody know. Hell, I wasn’t even wearing a sports bra yet, on the off-chance the baby might need a feed before the starting gun went off.
But despite the chaos and complete lack of a pre-race plan, the Sunday morning traffic was kind to us and we arrived with half an hour to spare. And everything kind of fell into place – the event was organised by my workplace, so a couple of wonderful colleagues soon got me a race number, a bottle of water and a pre-run pep-talk. Plus, the baby was so interested in everything going on around her that she was not in the least bit interested in milk, giving me time for a speedy superhero-style costume change round the back of the baggage tent.
It was during this costume change that I looked up and really took in the course for the first time.
I am such an idiot. Because despite the fact I have lived in south London for a long time; despite the fact, even, that I used to live just a few miles up the road from the venue and that I did all my marathon training around the area, I had forgotten the lie of the land.
It just hadn’t occurred to me the route would be hilly.
It was. Now, I’m not talking super-steep ‘Snowdon’ hilly’; more long, slow, energy-zapping hilly. Two inclines per lap. Three laps.
I had a secret aim for this race – I would have loved a sub-60-minute finish. One lap down, however, and it became perfectly clear this was not going to happen, as with heavy heart I watched the 60-minute pacer pull further and further away from me.
I really could not have chosen a better, friendlier, more inclusive event to ease me back into the world of races. The south-London park setting made it feel wonderfully familiar, all the race marshals were so supportive and the atmosphere was great, as I chatted to other runners en route.
And those hills? Well, they didn’t stop me running. I ran all the way… all the way to the finish line and my little boy’s arms (he promptly stole my medal). And I actually felt pretty strong the whole way round, finishing in 1:03:27. In short? I loved it.
I’d be lying if I said those three minutes and 27 seconds aren’t bothering me. And I can’t blame the hills entirely. My strength work, which would have helped massively with endurance, has been pretty non-existent (unless you can count pushing a toddler in a buggy while simultaneously carrying a six-month-old in a sling as strength work).
I know my weaknesses. I am going to work on them. My next goal is a sub-60 10K.
Because that’s the nature of running: it’s addictive.
Having set myself the goal of being able to comfortably run for an hour by the end of the summer, I’m pretty thrilled that I’m basically there.
I can now run for 60 minutes (I’ve managed this twice, in fact), and while it sure as hell isn’t comfortable yet, it feels like a bit of a milestone.
My first hour-long outing took me by surprise somewhat – I’d forgotten just how far you can get in that time. It became clear after about 20 minutes that the original route I’d planned wasn’t going to suffice, so I took a few detours, headed off the beaten track and found some lovely quiet sections of woodland to jog through.
When you’re the whole world to two little people, it’s nice to get lost in your own little world for a change.
I felt so proud when I made it to the final ten minutes and headed back towards the playground, where I’d agreed to meet my husband and the children. I was physically tired, yes, but wow, what a mental high! I had visions of my own little cheering squad waving me in through the gates, my son clapping his hands wildly for me as he sailed ever higher in a swing.
Let’s just say reality can sometimes slap you in the face.
When I arrived, I couldn’t see them: not on the swings, the slide or the seesaw. Not having a tea party in the little playhouse.
And then I spotted them: huddled under an apple tree in the far corner.
“That was good timing!” my husband yelled over to me as he saw me approaching.
My son had his trousers and pants around his ankles.
I had the distinct feeling that this was not, in fact, going to be good timing for me.
It turned out that, having left the travel potty at home and finding himself caught short, my little boy had happily pooped under a tree. And because the baby had just that very moment fallen sound asleep in the sling, my husband did not want to risk waking her by bending down to deal with the situation in hand unless he absolutely had to. Which, I suppose, is fair enough.
And so it was that, instead of cheers and high-fives and kisses, I celebrated completing my first hour-long run by wiping an arse in the middle of a public place and picking up faecal matter in a nappy bag.
Oh, the things we do for love.
Anyway, hopefully all of this (the running, not the bum wiping) has got me in half-decent shape for my first 10K event, which is this Sunday. Although as it has been described as “undulating” and with some “testing terrain”, goodness knows how I’ll get on. I’ll let you know…
Wish me luck!
It was 15 minutes into my run when I saw her.
With her long legs and swinging ponytail and perfect running stride. She was wearing tiny racing shorts, for Christ’s sake. And she looked about 15 years younger than me.
I say ‘saw’ her. In actual fact, she leapt past me like a sodding gazelle and was then off, into the distance.
I couldn’t see her for very long.
There I was with my extra stone of baby weight, wondering how attempting to run 5K had ever become so bloody hard. Wearing black capris, even though it was boiling (there’s no way I’m exposing the dog walkers to my legs just yet). And minus the swinging ponytail, which I recently swapped for a pixie cut that is a touch more Shoreditch than suburbs on a good day (I momentarily forgot I was a mother of two at the salon) and a touch more slept-in-a-ditch than Shoreditch on a bad day. It’s 50/50.
Seeing her was almost enough to stop me in my tracks and make me wonder why the hell I was bothering.
Because then I decided that, actually, she really didn’t look like she had two children to care for round the clock. Which means she hasn’t pushed the best part of half a stone of human being out of her vagina four short months ago. And her body hasn’t been stretched and softened by pregnancy. And her whole being isn’t weighed down by the very physical demands of caring for two little ones.
On top of that, she won’t have been up in the night feeding a baby or trying to find Nemo. Not a bizarre Pixar-related euphemism, I promise. I mean I have literally had to try to find Nemo, the cuddly clown fish, who has got lost down the side of my son’s bed no fewer than three times this week. [Nemo, hear this: if I am called in at 3am one more time to locate you, I am going to stop thinking you are a cute little toy and start thinking that you are, in fact, a bit of a dick.]
So, I might be ‘curvier’ than I was pre-children. I might be more tired. I might be softer and slower, and I might struggle to make it up that final hill.
But deep down, I am stronger.
And I won’t be stopped in my tracks.
Once I picked up the pace again, I realised something. You know what? It really didn’t matter whether ‘that’ girl had children or not. Whether she really was 15 years younger than me, or whether she has simply inherited good genes. In fact, if she is also a tired mother and is still managing to bang out a training run that looked like it could have bagged her a sub 45-minute 10K, well done to her!
Seeing her reminded me that running is an amazingly personal endeavour, with very personal goals and very personal achievements. Unless you are an elite athlete, it really isn’t about racing other people. It is not about comparison. Not for me, anyway. Everyone is running off their own struggles; their own stresses and strains. Everyone is running towards their own personal best.
Some might be a bit speedier or a bit slimmer than others, but at the end of the day, we’re all runners.
If I ever see ‘that’ girl again, I’ll even give her a smile and cheer her on her speedy way.