Tuesday 4 November 2014

Running very slowly up hill

Firstly (as most of my posts seem to begin nowadays), apologies for the lack of update in... half a year? I suppose my main excuse is that I didn't really think that "Anna being sad and stressed about her PhD" was anything that anyone really wanted to hear about, nor I wanted to write about, and that has largely been the theme of this year.
Maths maths maths maths LaTeX maths
I stopped racing my bike about a month into the season as I quickly came to the conclusion that to race you needed (a) time (b) effort (c) money and (d) some mental capacity to spare, all of which I am and was sorely lacking. After a few *epic* blowouts I just canned it. I've then just spent the rest of the year (after an amazing winter getting as fit as I'd ever been, awesome) feeling a very small, crushed shadow of my former self.

There should really be another, smaller anvil on top of the PhD anvil labelled "trying to find a job" because that wasn't a barrel of laughs either
However, the end of this year is thankfully in sight, I have a job lined up that I am UNBELIEVABLY excited about starting and I will be finishing my thesis soon and getting on with the rest of my life. 2015 will feature such exciting grown up challenges like "trying to buy a house in a horrific financial climate", "endeavouring to be shit-hot at my new job" and "building a ridiculous recumbent tadpole bike because that'd be awesome*".

*See hypothetical future posts. 

With that I will cut the sad violins, smash them and throw them down a well, and tell you of how I went to Ireland to do a mental Adventure Race and 100% did not die.

For some reason or another I had a media spot on Killarney Adventure Race in County Kerry, Ireland at the beginning of October. There were three lengths of race I could do: the 27km, 60km or 70km. The first had 9km of running, then 17km, then 27km.

Oh, and this running was up mountains.

Naturally, having not run for years, I picked the longest option. I mean, none of the others would be hard enough, right? I didn't want to be weak.

Now, there was only so much I could rely on residual fitness and 27km of running up and down hills on rough ground was full on non-blaggable so this was going to need some training. Therefore, in mid-June, coinciding with me moving from Cambridge to the Peak District (yep, that happened) I, Anna Railton, started running.

I barely believed it myself to be honest. My past experiences with running have all been along the lines of

*runs 10 miles*
*catastrophically breaks self*
*vows to never run again*
*repeat annually*

This time I resolved to do it sensibly (turns out that I have actually learnt something after 25 years of living) and build up the mileage SLOWLY. The first few times I went out where AT+ sessions of complete and utter horrific wheezing. It was truly embarrassing for someone who was still reasonably fit to be coughing up bits of lung after 1.5 miles of running (not even up hill by this stage).

I was however doing it in countryside that looks like this

Lathkill Dale, AKA "I currently live in paradise"

so I have precisely no leave to complain about anything. (There were also less people to witness the embarrassing Anna-running experience than there would've been in Cambridge which was another massive plus.)

However, slowly but surely, it got better. I was less doubled over in pain and my ankles were getting better at not dying at the slightest bit of off camber. The mileage slowly climbed and I started to get it. I started to get running. For a while it helped to run away from my demons.

By the time I made it to Ireland I had done a few runs >10 miles and felt like I had got myself to a position where I wasn't going to injure myself in the attempt. My rather modest set of ambitions for the race were:

  • Finish
  • Do not stop
  • Do not injure self
  • Do not die
  • Do not come last

I soon found myself in Ireland feeling like a total fraud with my media spot (imposter syndrome, anyone?), surrounded by actual journalists from places like the Telegraph and the Daily Express and some whacking great big hills in the background... I was out of my depth.

View from hotel window. Was going to have to run up that the next day, wurg
After some last minute flitching of bananas from breakfast I was ready as I was going to be and it was race time. Kit involved some totally badass Salomon trail runners (orange, naturally), a rolled down onesie, a rowing short sleeve, a totally fit longsleeve from Helly Hansen and a rucksack off eBay for £10. And a platypus drinking tube thing I found at the back of a cupboard. Basically, amateur ++. Why had I decided to do the long route again?

Rucksack was cheap as one of the straps had been mildly chewed by a dog
Wow so stripey! WOOOOO
I win at awkward selfies

The first leg was a 10km "warm up" run up and down a hill.

Now superpose that into this:

(Irish Times)

and add some sort of wheezing soundtrack over the top and you've pretty much got it.

We started in waves of about 50 so this leg everyone was just so bunched together that you just had to run at other people's pace. That and I was hardly in the position to work myself to the front of the pack. It will come as no surprise to you to learn that I run very slowly uphill. (This is a very good metaphor for the entirety of my 2014). Admittedly, if I hadn't been a good stone overweight it might have been a bit easier but such is life.

Gravity sucks
I struggled on to the top then threw myself downhill again, back down the way I came.

GRAVITY RULES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Turns out I go *down* hill very fast indeed *evil laughing* and actually overtook people at this point. It was FUN.

Next came the 35km bike leg, on a trusty rental bike whose tyres and brakes I neither knew nor trusted, over roads that could only loosely be decided as such. I decided to go for the style of riding known as "don't break your fucking collar bone else you'll never finish your PhD". This resulted in a bit of passing by people decidely more gungho about the blind corners and gravelly descents than I was (I think only one person broke their collar bone on the cycle ride, not too bad considering). However, once the flat and the inevitable headwind kicked in, these people were my bitches and I passed them all again. I was enjoying myself. FUCKING POWER TO WEIGHT DOESN'T MATTER ON THE FLAT HAHAHAHAHA.

When my eyes were not on the road watching for the ever present gravel banks/mud/sheep, the views were simply stunning. Tourism Ireland had even organised to have a rainbow on show when I got to the top of the valley, which was nice of them.

Here is an actual photo (not taken by me - I wasn't stopping for no photo taking!) in case this drawing isn't really helping your imaginations along very much:

Oh yeahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh
Srsly. Wow.

I think in terms of tarmac quality I would classify the roads thus:

but that's totally forgiven since in terms of scenery:

Around this point I realised I had been going for a good couple of hours and hadn't eaten anything yet, but whatevs. I felt totally fine!

The ride finished in a field with lots of crash barriers in it and bikes EVERYWHERE. I left the bike and started to stuff my face with food as I walked (yeah, sorry) down the the **KAYAK LEG** OMFG. It was my "oatcake transition" and sadly I can't run and eat multiple packets of oatcakes (stored in my rowing onesie "snack pouch" like some sort of oatcake marsupial) at the same time. There was a free cereal bar in the race pack so I ate that too. Honestly, it was the most well prepared transition you have ever seen and everyone within a five mile radius was in awe of this display of slick professionalism.

The kayak leg (out and round and island and back) was a nice break for my legs and a chance to talk to a nice Irish nurse who was being my stoker (they were two man kayaks). He however was weak and went for the 60km option, which reminded me that I had a 17km run up a bloody mountain to do in a bit. Hmm. Shit. I got out the kayak, wished my kayak-stoker good luck, ate a micro stolen-from-breakfast banana and started running. Naturally I immediately got the worst stitch known to mankind. Then the path went from "flat field through transition" to "cliff face" and I started to get into trouble. This was three hours in.

I was pretty much already at my limit walking up this hill so I resolved for "run on the flat, route march uphill" formula. On and on it went. Steps turned to a nice trail through woodland. Nice trail through woodland turned to "mud with some rocks in it at 25% gradient" and my pace slowed to a crawl. I ate some more things, felt awful and kept climbing upwards. The only slightly reassuring thing was that everyone else I saw was walking by this point too (the elite entrants had gone in the first wave and were now hours ahead). "It's only 45 mins to the top" someone said. I think my reply was a 1000 mile stare.

"Oh it's fine, I will run down" I thought to myself. If there ever was any down. What was "down"? Who was I? Why was there a plastic tube flapping round my shoulders? WHY HILLS EXIST?

My quads by this point felt like I had gone to the gym after not doing weights for a couple of years and smashed out some serious number of back squat reps. My hip flexors were strips of burning pain. Why ON EARTH did I decide the longest route was a good idea? The 60km people didn't have to go up this bloody mountain and would be done by now and home eating cake or something. Bastards.

The path finally started to flatten out but I couldn't progress from my death march trudge to running. I'd try, then peeter out after a few steps. I repeated to myself the mantra of 2km ergo tests and head races alike

 "This will end." 

"This WILL end." 

All my food was now gone and I still had to get to the checkpoint at the top then get down again. Eventually, I rounded a nondescript corner and there was THE FINAL CHECKPOINT. I turned round and tried to run back down hill.

Sadly by this point a very very deep bonk had set in and my brain no longer had the sugar that 5-hours-ago Railton had done to make the quick decisions needed to run downhill quickly over rough ground.

I was in the "fuzzy vision" section of sugar-bonking and was therefore going to have to walk all the way back downhill too lest I act in infringement of the targets "do not injure yourself" and "do not die". Arse. Still, there were stunning views over the lake I'd kayaked in a few hours ago, it wasn't raining and the memory of those micro bananas stolen from breakfast were still fresh. Can you get sugar from the memory of a banana? I hoped so as I had sod-all else to eat.

Eventually, (very eventually) I hit the woodland trial again. I tried to run, got horrendous stomach pain so stopped and continued trudging. This repeated every 500m or so. It was tragic.

I reached the steps past the waterfall. I trudged, a little more carefully, dodging the water-fall tourists.

This is the waterfall (not taken by me, but TripAdvisor). In all honesty I was so sugar bonked it barely registered. 

Then, finally, I reached the field with the bikes in, three hours after I left it. There were not many bikes left, I thought sadly. Still, there would be food soon. One little 6km cycle and food, so off I set in the direction of the finish line and FOOD.

And. There. Was. The. Finish. Line. Which I had to go underneath, deposit hire bike with a man then CLIMB OVER THE TOP OF THIS GANTRY OVER THE ROAD to get to the real finish line, not this fake finish line.

Who the HELL thought this was a good idea?

The real finish line had a table with bottles of protein milk on it (and some other stuff, but I only care about the milk). I drank a litre of milk, bloated to the size of a house then collapsed in a heap. I realised that someone had given me a hot food voucher so I swapped that for FOOD, enhaled that too then collapsed in a heap again. Then I went to sleep. I think in my room. Not hugely sure to be honest. I DIDN'T CARE.

At some point I also washed these in the bath, stuffed them full of promotional newspaper and fell asleep again. I am *really* sorry to the person who had to clean that bathroom :/ (This was sadly very necessary as past-stupid Railton had only brought one pair of shoes to Ireland...)

Things I learned from this trip:
  • Mental breaks from PhD doing physically strenuous things = GOOD
  • Entering a race with 27km of fell-running in while a stone overweight and not particularly fit = BAD*
  • Running/walking over rough terrain for hours really trashes your core. And your quads. And your hip flexors. Write off going downstairs normally for at least four days, or even being about to get out of bed normally
  • Taking enough food with you is super important
  • Eating said food is even more important
  • 2500 people doing an Adventure Race drop a lot of litter (and whole bananas which in hindsight I should've picked up and eaten instead of trying to sustain myself on memory-bananas)
  • The west coast of Ireland is completely epic and I am definitely going back again

*Though to be fair I did finish c.30 out of 60 women doing that 70km route. YAY RESIDUAL FITNESS. YAY HEADWIND BIKE SECTIONS. 

So, it wasn't fast and it wasn't pretty but I did finish it without any lasting injuries to myself and I rediscovered that feeling of pushing yourself that bit harder...

And with that, I must bid you farewell for another few months and disappear back to my PhD cave. I have a thesis to write!


  1. So impressed, sounds epic. I like that "do not die" appears only 4th on your list of priorities.

    Coincidentally, given I am terrible at running, have never kayaked and never ridden a bike off road, I am thinking about doing this - www.ratracecoasttocoast.com - next autumn, fancy it?? It's in the highlands which I am pleased to see rank highly on your scenery spectrum! (also my home.)

    1. Oh hell yes! Fancy doing it as a pair? Drop me an email...

      Good excuse to buy a new bike too :D (Though I do have a XC bike that would work).

  2. That sounds completely epic. I'm trying to start running again as having a job is making me fat and I don't fancy cycling in the dark but have limited my ambitions to a half marathon in March which now feels a bit pathetic.

    What is your new job? :-)

    1. I entered a half marathon then got food poisoning and never made it :(

  3. Welcome back, if only shortly. I am currently struggling with the equation editor in Word (never tried the one in Latex), wishing I was out there running, kayaking or something.

    1. Writing equations in Word D: D: D: D: The horror! Think I'm up to 250+ equations now, definitely not word-able. Honestly, if you have to do it a lot, consider LaTeX.

    2. My publisher have said they'd accept LaTeX as a deliverable but I'm so much more familiar with Word and accept the pain involved in its equation editor (30+ so far) that I'm prepared to stick with it. However the latest version of Word is worse than previous ones as you have to create what it calls structures in a very specific order or everything goes horribly wrong.

      Also I seemed to have found a bug in that I have a table + style + counter around my equation that I just copy and paste where needed and then edit the equation but Word changes the border style when I do that.


    3. Hmmm... I think any more equations than that (and if they are fiddly...), might be worth abandoning word. It'll (a) almost certainly be easier and faster in the long run and (b) look better.

  4. Yowza. Loved it. You've still got it! Look forward to the next installment whenever you're inspired again. good luck w PhD!!!

  5. Great to see you back, Anna! And a great humoristic account, as usual - in the end you did deserve your media slot as you wrote quite an amusing description of the race!

    Taking breaks from the PhD and, more importantly, "The Thesis" is paramount: I rely on my sculling and my runs to keep me sane :)

  6. Cheers Manuel - I am now making a concerted effort to leave the house at least once a day (the perils of working from home...). Best of luck with your "The Book" :)

  7. I wrote a long and nice comment. The Internet gods deleted it, the short version is : welcome back, hang in there - it sucks but finishing the damn thing shows how badass you are. Maybe my nice long comment will return from internet nirvana, but I'm sure it was deleted by people who want the world to believe that doing a PhD is fun and is not the most awful and terrible thing in its final stages. Hang in there, you won't die, it will finish. That's what I kept telling myself. Oh, and drink plenty of coffee and eat chocolate. "Research is transforming chocolate and coffee into words" (a wise friend of mine who's awesome and a badass scientist)

    Good luck! Kasia

    1. Cheers Kasia. I had to stop buying chocolate for that very reason! The coffee I am getting through though...

      "This will end" is my ever-so-inspiring thesis motto. That and "turning coffee and stubbornness into a PhD since 2011".

      Best of luck with yours!

  8. Loving your pictures and the original way you have put your story across - you're an inspiration and I am following your journey - awesome work!


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