Tuesday, 13 August 2013


I began running when I was a PGCE student. I ran because at the time I realised that other than Friday night football it was the first real time in my life when I was not doing any form of sport. Up to that point whether it was football training, swimming, rugby training, rowing or martial arts I had always been involved on a fairly regular basis in some form of sport.

So there I was an old rugby shirt, pair of shorts beat up trainers and mp3 player plodding my way up and down the streets of Cheltenham where I lived. I had no idea of the distance I ran, I had no idea of the times I was running, I just put some music on and ran a circuit. Most days I came in out of breath and often very sweaty.

Once I moved from Cheltenham to Bristol to begin my teaching career I forgot about evening runs and became swamped in the world of professional teaching. Eventually things began to mount up around me and I once again started running. This time instead of running for fitness I ran to unwind. Again I ran quite hilly routes and again I had no concept of time or distance. This time though I ran in slightly lighter clothes and had a different pair of beat up trainers.

My geographically interesting teaching career moved on then and I switched sides of the country and moved from Bristol to Kent. Instead of running I borrowed a bike and began cycling each evening. Instead of just going out and cycling I had a more modern phone and a GPS app to record distance and times.

Fast forward to this academic year.

A group of friends from the school trust I work at suggested we all enter the Hell Runner (8 miles through mud and bogs and sand and woods) 'yeah OK I'm in' was pretty much my response.  We all went for a training run together and it soon became apparent that my just running to keep fit left me in a different category to my running colleagues all of whom seemed able to run much further and much faster than I could.

I however managed to finish the Hell Runner (with the help of my friend Dave) and felt an enormous sense of achievement for being able to shove my body through the mud and distance.

Now why bother with all this introduction. Well because since then I have started running more regularly. Originally I ran once again to release the tension and stress of the job (I am a science teacher) but things seem to have changed up recently. 

The name of this blog comes from something my other half often says to me when I pull a hair brained stunt or do something stupid that flies against the public perception that I am, in fact, a fairly intelligent and respectable individual. Often this may be buying lots of DVDs or records, mostly it is for falling in drunk having popped out for an hour to see some friends. 

On this occasion though it is my idea to train for distance events.


OK so I am not coming into this completely blind. I have been building up my distance and my pace with regular runs and recently ran the Mid Kent 5 Miler in 41:52. And I use Strava to record my runs on my phone so that I can keep a record of how far, fast and long I am running for.

Now here is the deal. Currently I am entered in the Kent Coastal Half Marathon (although at time of writing due to a mistake on my part I am actually entered for the full marathon...). I have also been reading various books on running such as Why We Run by Bernd Heinrich and The Barefoot Running Book by Jason Robillard.

Now as a biologist the idea and concept of barefoot running appeals to me. From an evolutionary angle it all seems to make sense. However I am still not sold on the idea of running outside with nothing on my feet. At least not yet. A trip to a pebbly beach gives me all the feedback on how sensitive my feet are at the moment even though in summer I tend to wear very little on my feet (espadrilles, Converse, flip flops etc). 

So what to do with 3 weeks until the half (full) marathon? Well the answer is simple follow the advice of people who know what they are on about. Start training barefoot or minimalist along side my normal runs. This was the tendons and muscles in my legs and feet can get used to running barefoot but I can still crank out the 13+ mile runs needed to be ready for my next event. 

Brilliant but I do not aim to buy a pair of expensive 'minimalist' running shoes to ease my way in. Instead I have purchased a pair of 50p (in the sale) white plimsolls. 

No those aren't them but they look very similar. 

Now all the articles and advice I have read on minimalist (I am going to use that phrase as I aim to at least have something on my feet) running state that due to the different muscles, ligaments and tendons being used (owing to the lack of heel and cushioning in your trainer) you should start from scratch. This literally means run a mile at a time.

Which brings me to today and the first run for this blog.

Now I am not a fast distance runner, nor am I an extreme distance runner but I do pride myself on a few things. Firstly my pace tends to be fairly consistent even over half marathon distance. Secondly my breathing is very steady and deep during my runs. Thirdly I do not feel that I am a heavy footed 'heel planter' when I run.

I like to imagine that my running is fairly natural and uses the arch in my foot and a slightly forward lean to conserve energy and spring into my next step.

I would like to think that.

Today's run blew that idea away. Totally.

The first thing you notice running without a built up heel is that you naturally strike the ground with the ball of your foot more. You are conscious of it. You can feel your toes spreading as more weight than normal is distributed amongst them. This is good, apparently this is natural, if you think back to times when you have run barefoot (as a child, on the beach, on grass at a picnic) this is what happens. 

The second thing that I noticed is that my heel hardly touches the ground at all. Maybe, just maybe, a little kiss here and there. This means that my 'ride height' felt taller than normal and strangely looser because of it. 

Finally the whole enterprise felt lighter and quicker. As my feet lightly touched the pavement (which oddly could be felt through the thin sole of the shoe) and my heel hardly planted to slow me down, my spring was more pronounced. I felt in the air a lot longer between strides even though my pace seemed quicker and more assured. My weight too felt more forward on the balls of my feet, driving into each next step instead of being lost somewhere. 

The difference, I think, could be summed up like this. When I run normally I feel like I push off one foot then the other. When I ran minimalist I felt like I was springing from step to step.

The proof of the effectiveness is in the times though. Before I knew what I had done, I had managed to run 2 miles in 16:23. To put it into context that gave me a 1 mile pace of about 8:21. My race pace for the Mid Kent 5 Miler (a race remember) was 8:12 per mile. 

So an easy going training run (albeit shorter in distance) was not far off a race pace that I had trained for. This can be read two ways I guess. One that I run the same kind of pace regardless of the situation. Or that the minimalists might be right and running in this way is a more economical means of conveyance. 

From how I felt when I ran I believe the latter.

Now the downside, and the reason why you have to start from scratch. 

After 2 miles I still felt fresh and relaxed but my calves did not. They felt stretched, like they had golf balls in them, like a baked potato that had just been split open. In short they hurt. 

Curiously nothing else hurts, not my left knee (often it can feel a little 'weak' after a run), not my shoulders, back (lower specifically), hamstrings or quads. Just my calves. Which makes sense if you think about it. Running without the heel catching the floor much means that the calves are stretching much more than they are used to. This naturally will take a bit of getting used to. Which is why you should only start with very short distances and work your way back up to the longer distances that you might be able to run 'normally'.

Now for the ridiculous part. 

I was walking back home. 

I should have taken a short cut and got home, stretched off and showered. 

I was walking back home.

I couldn't get past the feeling that I was running faster and wanted to prove it.

I was walking back home.

I kept stretching my calves to see if I could ease off the pain a little and allow me to run some more.

I was jogging back home.

I knew there was a segment I had set on Strava a 1.1 mile 102ft elevation run that has a best time of 10:23.

I was jogging to the road where the segment started.

I reached the road where the segment started and upped the pace. To my surprise the pace upped easily, so I kept pushing it. 

And then some.

I set a fastest ever half mile (3:29) and then disaster struck. 

Up ahead in front of me at the brow of the first hill was another jogger. I started to hope that he would cross over or take a different route. I knew what would happen if he stayed on the road in front. I would feel obliged to race him. 

Like I said, ridiculous man.

He turned the corner and I lost sight of him. I was still powering up the first hill and I hoped that when I rounded the corner the jogger in front would have crossed the road and I could just concentrate on running home and seeing how fast I had done this segment (on sore calves remember).

I rounded the corner and he was ahead of me still, about 300 meters away. 

I did not give an instruction to my legs to speed up. 

But they did. 

It is very easy to lengthen your stride when you run on the balls of your feet. As it is easy to lengthen your stride it is easy to quicken your pace and to appear, to yourself at least, like you are sprinting. 

This happened. My pace upped and the man in front soon became the man behind. I did not really see him next to me at all. I felt like a middle distance runner passing someone on the home straight. 

Still running on the balls of my feet I reached the top of the second hill and began the decent down to the final flat straight of the segment. 

I have never descended that hill so fast. 

Normally each step is slightly planted and static and I ease my way down. Today I flew down it. Whether this was a spike of adrenaline or whether this was due to better feedback from the ground I am unsure but before I knew what was happening I was approaching the flat straight home. 

Then it hurt.

A lot. 

On hilly terrain my body was able to deal with the pain in my calves due to the fact I was either controlling my pace down hill (barely) or working on pushing up a hill. Now there was no consideration like that. 

I started to plant my feel as my calves gave up on me. I had pushed too far. Less that 200m to go and my pace started to fall away from me. For the first time in ages my lungs began to hurt as my breath lost is usual deep and steady rhythm. My long powerful strides became a shambling gait and through nothing more and force of will I managed to reach the end of the segment and cross the road to finish. 

Then I ran a further 20m (if that) before with lungs that felt like wet bags of cement and a phone down to 14% battery I stopped the recording of the run and limped down my street to my door to stretch off.

It was then I realised my error. No not pushing myself, at this time the lovely brain chemicals had been released and I felt amazing, if in pain. No I had stopped the GPS app to soon. 

Like most running apps Strava works at a +/-100m accuracy. Which means that in order to record a segment or a distance or a challenge you have to run about 100m further than you aim to. 

I fell foul of this once when completing a 10k challenge and it robbed me of a personal best. 

The same happened today. 

So the final segment was not recorded as a segment. Which means no new pb on that route. Which means only the half mile has been recorded. 

I can however look at the data and the timings from the map.

My personal best on the 1.2 mile segment was 10:23. Today I did it in 8:30. On sore calves. In plimsolls.

My best 1 mile record is 7:40. Today I ran a mile on the segment in 7:20. 

Now the segment is part of my regular run, sometimes I run it quickly sometimes slowly. The mile is recorded wherever I run. 

That includes flat canal running when I'm at my parents and ultra hilly running on the North Downs way. 

It annoys me that my mile and segment pbs have not been recorded. I am however excited by the prospect that minimalist running seems, at the moment, to be a better and quicker way to run.

The challenge has been set now to keep this up and to get some actual results from it.

Challenge accepted.

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