I’m going to die….

Photo by Anurakta O'Neill

Photo by Anurakta O’Neill

So are you! So is your dog, your cat, your goldfish, and, heartbreakingly, your child. Although not, we all fervently pray, before you.

We will all die, as Benjamin Franklin pointed out, “‘In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

I remember the first time my father told me this quote. I tried to point out I was certain I had been born, but he wasn’t having any of it. I was alive now, but could I be totally sure I had been born? I appealed to my mother, who confirmed she had indeed been there at my birth. This reassured me, and at the age of 10 or so, the idea of my own mortality was happily so far in the future, as to be as irrelevant as taxes.

I am now in my 52nd year, and my mortality and the ever present taxes are much more to the forefront of my mind.

As you know, I have entered a marathon, to be run on the 1st June, and I have been telling people all about it, in the hopes that the pressure of having done so will encourage me to train. However, twice now, I have been told that marathon running is detrimental to health, and I might drop dead in the middle of the thing. One person told me the story of Joy Johnson, who died recently, aged 86, one day after running the New York Marathon for the 25th time. Apparently (according to the New York Daily News) she felt a little tired the day after the race (!) went to lie down, and died peacefully in her sleep.

Frankly I cannot see a problem with this. I would cheerfully choose to go in the same way. Given the choice between participating in the sport I love at 86 years of age, and then dying quickly and peacefully during a nap the next day, and that of suffering for years with cancer, diabetes, heart disease or any of the other chronic long term diseases our species is afflicted with, I’ll take the running any day.

Ah yes, the reply comes back, but not all people are in their 80’s when they die running. Jim Fixx (the author of the Complete Book of Running) died of a heart attack aged 52 (yes, my age) after going out for his daily run. Whilst not wanting in any way to minimize the distress this must have caused his family and friends, again he died doing what he loved. And we can be sure that on the very same day Jim Fixx died a number of other people also died of heart attacks. But they had not gone for a jog.

There are risks with running, as there are with almost anything else. The tragic irony of Michael Schumacher’s accident brings this home. A top competitor in Formula 1 car racing, surely one of the most dangerous sports out there, he receives a life changing head injury on an easy ski slope in France, surrounded by families enjoying a day out.

So where to from here? Once, when I seemed particularly accident prone, having ended up in hospital in May for 3 years running, I suggested spending the next May in bed.

“Ah yes”, my mother retorted, “But then you will get thrombosis and end up in hospital anyway!” There are, it seems, as many risks associated with NOT doing things as there are WITH doing them. And then there is the problem that worrying about what might just happen is likely to cause stress, and common knowledge reports that stress also causes illness.

So I think I will just carry on doing what I love to do. Yes, I will be sensible, and eat healthily, train carefully and generally look after myself. And I will continue to run, and train for my marathon. Who knows, it could be the first of many and I might just be still running when I am 86.

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Goal Setting…The Dark Side.

Photo: Katie Oliver

Photo: Katie Oliver

Goal setting is all the rage nowadays. The internet, films, articles and endless self help books tell us how to set goals, how to break them down into manageable sub goals and then everything will be wonderful, the sun will always shine, we will be popular and successful, and rich to boot. Just get that list made and all will follow as surely as the southerly follows the nor’wester.

But it seems to me that goal setting has a dark side. Quite a big one, and one of the biggest problems, in my book, is that it simply doesn’t work.

Just what happens when you fail to achieve those goals? Sometimes the stakes are very high indeed. Let’s say you need to sell 10 widgets this month, or be sacked. It isn’t set up like that of course. No, there will be a big meeting with nibbles and designer water and a powerpoint presentation and lots of ‘rah rah’ about how the company is on the up and up and the company only wants the best employees, and it knows these people here ARE the best employees. And they can prove it! Sell 10 widgets by the end of the month and you can be a super employee! You will get put into the top selling areas where the most widgets are sold and be eligible for bonuses. All you need to do are sell those 10 widgets!

Those who don’t sell 10 widgets need more help. They will be put onto ‘special measures’ where they have to attend extra motivational meetings (in their own time, and with no extra pay of course) and they will have all their work scrutinised by a special manager. The idea is, I believe, to make sure they simply get fed up and leave. No need to sack them then, but if they don’t go of their own accord, then, given the fact the super employees have all the best selling areas, they will soon fail another goal and out they go.

With stress like this behind meeting the targets what does a poor employee do? Well whatever it is you can bet it is not in the best interest of the company! They are hardly going to share contacts, are they? They are not going to hand over a big potential widget buyer to a more experienced colleague even if they do not have the experience to deal with a major player in the widget market. They are going to offer time based discounts on widgets to get the sales into this month. They are going to cook the books, by holding over the 2 extra sales they made last month to this month. They may even resort to answering other peoples phones when they are out of the office, damming their colleagues with faint praise, before offering to take up the deal themselves. I am sure you can think of other ways and methods, but we will stop here.

A friend of mine works for a big company. Every year they are required to set goals for themselves and write out the steps to achieve them. The trouble is that they are also assessed on these goals at the end of the year, and if they fail to achieve them then the management want to know why. The assumption is they have been slacking. Even if they set a challenging goal and achieve 85% of it, that is not good enough. You achieve them…or you don’t.

So at her place of work they plan their goals very carefully indeed. They must be easy to assess, and easy to achieve. There is a certain amount of ‘goal swapping’ going on. “I did this last year, and it worked well. You try it this year and Sarah can have it next year….”

Anyone who wants to really challenge themselves (and probably benefit the company as well) is quickly dissuaded by the others. The result is people setting mediocre targets for themselves, ones they know they can easily achieve.

My son did this at primary school. The kids had to set a goal for the term. Children wrote down things like ‘getting to the end of the red reading scheme books’ or ‘keeping my journal up to date’. My son wrote that his goal was to remember to put his chair up at the end of the day. That’s my boy! Easy to achieve, easy to assess. Success assured.

But what about personal goals? The ones you set for yourself, rather than ones imposed by management? Say, losing 10 pounds by Christmas, broken down into a manageable sub goal of one pound per week. Or running a 5km in under 25 minutes, broken down into getting under 30 minutes by the Easter Egg Run, and under 28 minutes by the Beach Fun Run etc. You can read all about setting personal goals on the internet. It’s easier than you think! Write those goals down! Set a deadline! Stay motivated by visualising achieving your goal!

And then you don’t achieve it. Again. Now what? You are a miserable failure just as you always knew you were. So what that you have lost 9 pounds. It wasn’t the 10 you set as your goal was it? So what that you have run 25:10. You knew you were no good as a runner, this just proves it. Might as well give up now, despite the fact that when you set the goal you were running 5km in 36 minutes…

So what to do? We don’t want to just drift aimlessly from day to day, reacting to life, going with the flow rather than having an idea of where we want to be in the future. But setting goals seems to be a double edged sword. How do we plan for the future without destroying our peace and happiness at the same time?

I have been struggling with this question. I have entered my first marathon, and without some sort of goal (finish the darn thing) and a training plan I would be unable to to it. Yet I have made and failed with so many plans and goals in the past, and suffered all the guilt and self hatred that comes with failure. I can also come up with 101 ideas to rig the system so it seems I achieved my goal when I didn’t. Which is not the point.

My friend, Michelle, has made a ‘yearly plan’ rather than a list of hard and fast goals. ‘This year I intend to get outside more’, etc. Maybe this is a better idea. I intend to run a marathon this year, rather than I will run this particular marathon on this particular date in this particular time.

Peter has taken a sabbatical year this year, and is constantly being asked what his plans are. So he made a list of goals for the year, all beautifully written out on nice paper with coloured sections. He looked at it and groaned. So much to do, so many goals to achieve!

He put his pens away, got out his board and went surfing!

So maybe this is the solution. Make the plans, then treat them with the contempt they deserve and get out for a good surf!

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Technological Tribulations for the Minimalist Runner

Just a few running gadgets.

Just a few running gadgets.

It has been a busy few weeks here at Slowhabits. We have had a number of running events. Peter, Emily and I did the Mount Oxford Odyssey, 20km over Mt Oxford, with a seriously punishing climb. Then Emily ran the 33km Mountain Run section of the Coast to Coast and Rowan and I crewed for her. At a lesser level, there has been a 5km series in the park and I did a local 10km as a time trial.

This inevitably brought us into contact with other runners and their gear, gadgets and gizmos. There has also been the inevitable training talk.

And this has left me feeling rather adrift.

I prefer to run without any electronics. For me the beauty of running is its simplicity, just me, my dog and the trail. I do sometimes carry a watch if I need to be back at a certain time, maybe to pick someone up or for an appointment, but I prefer not to.

Talk recently has included ‘slowing down to speed up’. The theory seems to be to train your endurance systems by training for a long time at low heart rate levels. Then on other  days training for a short time at high heart rate levels. This method of training requires the use of a heart rate monitor; a strap around your chest, and a special watch to pick up and record the data.

Other people spoke of GPS systems in their watches or phones or iPods. These can be downloaded to computer programs, mobile ones even, that are right there on your mobile device, which tell you exactly how far you have run and how many feet of ascent you have climbed and even how many calories you have burnt.

The programme will graph the results in multiple ways, allowing you to compare this week with last, or this year with last year, or even you with your training partner. You can count calories burnt this week, and decide if you can justify that piece of chocolate cake. And you can set goals for the next training period and get to see if you have achieved them.

I, of course, am a minimalist runner. I do not need or use these gadgets.

So why do I want them? And I do want them!

I feel that somehow I will not reach my potential if I do not have them. That these gadgets will somehow transform me from a struggling but happy back-of-the-packer to a lean lithe competitive front runner. Somehow my training will became easier, and I will even leap out of bed on cold rainy mornings energised, like some weird kind of battery, by the electronic gizmos hung around me.

It is time to step back and take stock.

Do I really and truly think these things will make me a better runner? How did people train before they had them? Would I still enjoy my running if I used them? And would the use of them simply make me anxious?

Let’s take each question one at a time.

Do I really and truly think these things will make me a better runner?

Yes, they probably would, IF I took the time to use them properly, formulate an action plan and carry it through. There has been a lot of research into the best way to train, and these gadgets would help me train in the best way. BUT, I would actually have to make and carry through the plan, rain or shine, whether I want to or not, otherwise the expensive device would become like that gym membership. The one you never use, and makes you feel guilty every time you think about what you paid for it.

How did people train before they had them?

I have no idea, but it would be interesting to find out. After all whilst the record for the marathon continues to fall, there are fewer men who seem to be able to run a marathon in less than 2:20. Apparently in the 1960’s and 70’s there were 180 people under 2:20 in Britain alone, in 2005 only 5 British men ran under 2:20. I don’t know the stats but I assume it is the same for the women. What were these runners doing for training? I don’t know, but I DO know they didn’t have iPods and GPS systems!

Would I still enjoy my running?

This is the big one for me. I am not sure I would. I think I would quickly become obsessive about my times and distances. I would be watching the numbers on my heart rate monitor rather than the Hectors Dolphins cavorting off the beach. This might be fun at first but I do not think it would be long before my definition of a ‘good run’ changed from how I was feeling after the run, and what I saw during the run (dolphins, seals, hawks, Kea….), to what the numbers said on my gadget.

Would the use of them simply make me anxious?

Yes. These gadgets lead to goal setting, something I do not do well with. I prefer a serendipitous, happy-go-lucky way of living to a carefully planned and well defined goal orientated life. Planning and goal setting makes me anxious, and repeated failure (the dark side of goal setting) numbs and immobilises me.

So do I still want them? Well yes…they are widgety gadgety and fun looking, but on the whole I think the bad outweighs the good, and that is without taking the prohibitive cost of these things into account.

So I am not going to buy them, I am just going to run and enjoy myself. And I might do some research and find out how people used to train before we had these things.

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Getting High.

I am still ‘high’ from Saturday, and it is now Tuesday afternoon. I am not sure when I am going to come down again. It was a ‘legal high’ of course, we are not advocating breaking the law here, and it is a high anyone can get.

No, I didn’t take anything, I ran a race. It was quite simply the hardest race I have ever done in my (admittedly short) running career.

It was called the Mount Oxford Odyssey, and was supposed to be 18km and around 4500 feet of total ascent. I say ‘supposed’ because we were told on the start line they had added an extra 2km and it was now 20km!

It was wet and foggy, the terrain was really really steep, and it was a very hard day out. At one point I managed to fall off the path into a tree, cutting, scraping and bruising myself. There were some parts of the course labeled “High Injury Area. Take Care!” I, of course didn’t fall off those bits, that would have been heroic, dashing bravely down the steep and dangerous areas. No, I fell off the path to the bridge less than a kilometre from the start, before we had even reached the mountain proper!

The men winners did it in about 2-2:10 hours, the women in around 2 and a half hours, my daughter and husband in just over 4 hours (Emily beating her dad by less than 5 minutes) and I took 5:38.

I loved it, yes the climb was really steep and I was very glad to see the top (where I was high in at least two senses of the word) and yes, I was so very tired at the end, but what a feeling! I did it, I am so happy, I cannot stop smiling 2 days later.

Some of this is, I suppose chemical, exercise endorphins and all that, but some must also be psychological. It really feels great to do hard things and succeed. By some peoples standards I was maybe a bit of a failure. I was 3rd from last, with a time more than twice the winning time. And I wasn’t hanging around having picnics, I was working hard all the time. I really couldn’t have gone any faster. But by my standards I am a winner. I did something very hard for me to do and I finished it, cuts, bruises and all.

Now I am finding it hard to stop bragging and evangelising! Take up running folks! Be like me! I am a winner! I am a champion! I have to try and keep the lid on, but it pops open every now and again, like in this post!

So what is it? Why does finishing almost last in a mountain race, undertaken in drizzle and fog, and run mostly alone, make me so happy? The endorphins are long over now. Can doing something hard really make you this happy?

And is this the secret to happiness? Pick something really hard, and keep at it until you can do it? Is it actually that simple (simple, but not easy…or it would not be hard, would it?)

I have no idea, and would welcome your thoughts on this.

In the meantime I am off to the park for a 5km fun run. And next week I start training for the Mount Arrowsmith race. Fun!

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Running, the Minimalist Sport?

Shirts Shorts and Shoes

Shirts Shorts and Shoes

Running is the ultimate minimalist sport. Shirt, shorts, shoes…sorted!

Once outside your front door you put one foot in front of the other and repeat until you have done as much as you want, or until you reach home again. And that is all there is to it.

This quote neatly sums it up.

“If you run, you are a runner. It doesn’t matter how fast or how far. It doesn’t matter if today is your first day or if you’ve been running for twenty years. There is no test to pass, no license to earn, no membership card to get. You just run.”  John Bingham.

Running really is that simple, even a 3 year old can do it. We don’t need a club, or 14 other teammates, or a special pitch or court. We don’t need an opponent, a coach or an umpire. We just run.

Some people, like Barefoot Ken Bob (http://barefootrunning.com/?page_id=393) don’t even bother with the shoes, they just go out barefoot, and I suppose if you lived in a nudist colony you could dispense with the clothes and still run!

Surely it has to be the ultimate minimalist sport.

And maybe it is when we start.

But soon the rot sets in. At first my running kit consisted of an old cotton T-shirt, too old for regular use, a pair of knee leggings and a pair of all purpose running shoes. The shoes were the only real expense as I bought them from a ‘proper’ running shop. Then, as I got a little fitter, I wanted to run even if it was raining. Up until that point I stayed home if it was wet. So I bought a running jacket.

Then the weather started to get cooler, winter was setting in. I tried an old cotton sweatshirt but that, together with the cotton T, just soaked up the water, both sweat and rain. So I added a dry-fit running T and a merino thermal top to the kit.

Soon I was going out on consecutive days so I could not get my kit washed and dry between runs. I gained another pair of shorts, a running skirt, another T-shirt and another merino.

Then I started running on the trails, so I bought some trail shoes. I noticed I was ruining my road shoes by using them on the beach, where they got damaged by the salt and sand, so I kept them for beach running and bought another pair for the roads.

And then I started going further on the trails. I bought a waist belt to carry my water bottle, snack, phone and car keys. I started going further and put on my old rucksack. It jogged and jostled and got in the way of my arms, so I bought a Salomon specialist running rucksack.

And THEN I entered some trail races. These have kit lists. I have just entered the Mount Oxford Odyssey. And this is what we have to carry…..


This is a true mountain event so you are exposed to the elements, changing conditions and unstable terrain at any time of year. We will be gear checking EVERY competitor at the race pack collection as well as having random gear checks at the start line. You may be asked to show your gear at marshal points along the track. Do not take any gear out between gear check inspection and the race start. This is for your own safety!! 

You MUST carry the following with you in your pack:

* at least 1.5 litres fluid

* survival blanket

* whistle

* thermal (or equivalent) hat and gloves

* thermal long sleeve top and leggings 

* waterproof jacket

* basic first aid kit (The first aid kit must contain as a minimum : adhesive strapping tape, 4 band aids, 2 gauze pads, a crepe bandage and some Panadol)

* enough food for up to 6 hours 

* Any medication you will need for while out on the trail i.e inhaler, antihistamine

We recommend that runners wear trail running shoes with a good grip on them as the descent is reasonably technical. 

And here it all is laid out on the kitchen table.


And then there are the costs. The new shoes when your old ones wear out, special clothing for extreme weather conditions, and, once you start competing, you can add race fees, travel and accommodation expenses, gels and hydration drinks, ‘body glide’ for chafing and special plasters for blisters!

So where did the minimalism go? How did this stop being such a simple sport and end up a monster requiring its own budget and storage space?

The simple answer is…I don’t know. Somehow slowly and stealthily it has crept up on me. I am now reviewing the situation. Some stuff is necessary if you are going to do anything more than just run on the streets around your house, and I think this is the problem. To remain a minimalist runner, you need to minimize what you actually do.

So it is back to the basic plan, as usual. Check…do I really need this? When and where would I use it? Have I got something else that would do this job? And if you find you do need it, nothing else will do its job and you are in fact going to use it…trail shoes are unnecessary if you really don’t run trails….then go ahead.

Just try not to feed the monster too much!

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