Saturday, April 21, 2018

Two weeks till Rotorua

I did countdowns to events last year and I thought I may as well repeat it this year. The next event on the calendar is the Rotorua Marathon (half marathon event). There's been something of a phoenix-from-the-ashes element to it. Five weeks ago I ran, struggled and walked in the Coatesville Marathon, feeling broken and flat. Despite some obvious physical issues that have not gotten better or worse, but have transformed, they haven't obstructed any of my progress.

Last week I expressed my consternation that what came easily last year was strangely not coming out from a much more structured, planned training programme. The difference of six days is significant: I packed four workouts into a crucial week and with some easy running tomorrow I will have done 70km for the first time since October in the lead-up to the marathon. What have been the workouts?
- Tuesday: Hill sprints - I ran 12.5km including 6 sprints up local "hills".
- Wednesday: 10km tempo run at Shoe Science Run Club - I ran within myself but still ran almost as fast as my 10km TT last week. I finished without feeling overly tired.
- Thursday: 15km 3 x 2 mile intervals (in this case: 1 mile easy, then 2 miles fast, then 1/2 mile easy, and then 2 miles fast and 1/2 a mile easy and then 2 miles fast and then easy to finish). The important thing from this run was that all three intervals were hard out runs but each time I recovered well enough to still go hard out.
- Saturday: 20km easy + 5 km fast. I managed to slash 3 minutes off my run of the same route from 2 weeks ago and most importantly felt the 5km fast easy enough to do - I managed to stay under 5 minutes per kilometre on tired legs. And I didn't feel tired after the run.

Of the four runs, I noticed clear improvements in three runs. Tomorrow I'll run slowly easily and only exert myself a little at the Garmin 5km run tomorrow. Two weeks is the recommended length of a taper for a half marathon and I'll look to do this "by the book". I'll do two time trials in this period to double check my fitness and estimate the pace that I'll do Rotorua. I believe I should be fast and fit enough to equal or better 1:38:45 from last year. There could still be some "progress" made but consolidating the gains, healing what can be healed and keeping sharp is the order of the fortnight ahead.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

When it rains it pours

Being of British ancestry I do tend to talk about the weather a lot and the last 12 months have really stood out as extraordinary. We had a long baking summer, three cyclones and just recently an apparently mild weather system produced unpredicted category 2 cyclonic winds that brought down a large number of trees in Auckland and cut the electricity supply to some for days.

Though my mouth talks about the weather, weather rarely intrudes on my mood or my plans. I've been running as much now as I have in the past, although it must be said that a lot more caution has been required in the last few weeks with some suburban blocks completely dark after sundown and before dawn, often with branches of varying sizes blocking the footpath. (In isolation either one of these wouldn't be too bad but together you could be running into a tangle of branches before you know it!)

Following up my last blog, the tendon problems I mentioned are slowly going down though not completely; shin pain has returned and my knee still checks in to say it's still there from time to time. But I am running and running pretty well. In the last month I've run more than 200km and gotten some of my speed and endurance back. With three weeks to go till the Rotorua Half Marathon I'm still trying my best to get in important training, raise my mileage and test my limits.

Last year I ran Rotorua and achieved a lot more than I had expected. I ran 1 hour 38 minutes at a time when I hadn't broken 1 hour 40 minutes at any stage. And although my training relative to its lead-up was solid, it's nothing compared to what I've managed to do after it and even in the recent weeks. For some context, in 2017, in the same set of 4 weeks I ran only 120km compared to 224km this year. But there is a little mystery for me in this. Mileage does have an affect and should raise performance. I am doing work-outs that should help me run faster and longer, the kinds of work-outs I didn't even know about last year. Yet I did my favourite 21.1km training run and did it 2 minutes slower than last year. To give myself a little consolation, this morning's route was slightly different to last year's route as we moved house and there is a little bit more "uphill" than before; and it was raining for the last 10km, although I was already behind the 8-ball when rain started to fall. The strange conclusion is that I was a stronger faster runner at this time last year with less running.

Although I'm now following the advice of the running experts online, I definitely wasn't back then. Last year, I was still trying basically to go as fast as possible on all my training runs but not running many back-to-back days. Looking back on the titles or descriptions of those runs, one of the most common phrases is "badly timed", that is, I'd often misjudge the speed I should run out and feel the burn by halfway or three-quarters of the way, and have to try to survive till the end. Quite possibly that is a short cut to fitness (if one avoids injury) because the body has to quickly adapt to the demands of ridiculous work-outs. As a result of running fast and holding on I had PBs of 45:00 for 10km and 21:00 for 5km. I'm nowhere near that right now. I'll persist with my plan until after the Rotorua Half and then evaluate. Many of the work-outs are said to take 10km to show effect and I'd like to give it a chance to make me a stronger, resilient and eventually faster runner.

Friday, April 06, 2018

Starting blocks

What does it mean when it's easier to run than jog? What does it mean when it hurts less to run fast than to even walk? Those are questions that it pains me to ask. During this period that I've been running I have had a lot of niggles, even mild injuries but none have been more confusing the my two feet right now.

While I was in China, just when my knee was coming right, something went wrong with my left foot. It was painful just below the point of my ankle. And it should have because I'd ignore discomfort and still decided to run 8 kilometres. "You should listen to your body!" they say. But I've never listened to my feet. Half my runs in 2016 started with tight, sore soles that only loosened after running. (I realise now that I had plantar fasciitis for much of my twenties and thirties.) So I ignored a little tight discomfort on one run and struggled to shake it even with extended rest. And just as it started to show signs of improvement, my right foot mirrored the symptoms. Now I've got two terribly frustrating feet. 

But, there is a silver lining. The physio said it was my tendons and tendons improve through putting work through them and using them, that is, running. So on painful feet I start my warm-up, fearing that I might make things worse. I jog in agony. And then once I begin, the previous pain fades. And the rest of the day is fine.

The best measurement of tendon healing is how it feels in the morning. By that standard, it's getting better but still not near better. Mornings make me walk like an arthritic old man. But better is... better.

My running plan for the next year is clear in my head. Even with these niggles I'm running more and more strategically than I did at the same time last year. I'm looking forward to a good 10km race on 15 April with which I'll judge my fitness, which will lead to an estimated time for me to do a half-marathon on 5 May. 

The first step is rest. Tomorrow there is no running. And then on Sunday I'll aim to run 25km. If and when I do, it'll be the first time I've done that since the marathon. I hope I can do it on painless feet.

Friday, March 16, 2018


There is a time in life when everything is about to happen. A few moments when it does. And then a time shortly after when it resumes. And now it is resuming.

Looking backwards through the smoke and rubble of the past was a four week long holiday; a helter-skelter technology-hamstrung four weeks in the office; the hustle and/or bustle of the Christmas period travels and feasting; the marathon and its anticipation; the struggle for fitness and confidence in my own health; work stretching me to the limit while I still focussed mainly on running... that backward glance was a busy 6-7 months. And now I can look ahead to a comparatively anodyne and relaxed "start to the year".

It does feel like a beginning, a reset. There is nothing on the horizon. There's just life, routine and simplicity.

Today was the first Friday since I came back. Everything has fit together. It started at 5am in the morning with a 10km run. This was the longest run since late December. In the 2.5 months before this run, I'd run a mere 52.7km, and it's been a challenge of restraint, stupidity and desire. My left knee which had been a nuisance since August 2017 got really stroppy with me after bouncing on a trampoline on New Year's Eve, and I struggle to run more than 3km in a single sitting. I strengthened and waited but it still bothered me till eventually I went back to the physio, who redirected me onto a specialist. With him I had my first MRI of my life. Regrettably that was just a few days before our trip to China. Less than 48 hours before departing the result came out was interpreted by my physio and said onto me: Keep strengthening, don't stop running.

So I did. I ran in the village for the first time ever. It was a thrill. But I was thwarted twice over: while sitting feasting and drinking I suddenly turned to my left and felt a pinch around my ribs; anesthetised by the drink I didn't notice for long; the next day I noticed my ankle was a bit sore pre-run. This is relatively normal for me. I have flat feet and they are never 100% happy to be feet, let alone running. As this was a feeling similar to what I had had before, I ran despite it. But the run after it though feeling OK at the time had a huge effect. My ribs ached and my ankle twinged. My ribs were sore with any movement so my plan of exercise went out the window. That alone would have precluded running but even if it hadn't, my swollen ankle was going to be an obstacle. And then in this pain, we travelled to Chengdu with heavy suitcases... After which it felt marginally better. Then we went to Guangzhou last week where I ran again but regretted it afterwards, feeling beaten up and miserable.

My specialist had booked me this morning so I decided that I had to know how my knee was and chose to run 3km. My knee was fine it appeared, but concern for my ribs and ankle cut the run short. The next day however I didn't have any after effects, which led me to today.

My alarm rang out at 5am. I didn't like it. I got up nonetheless. I could still feel the discomfort in my ankle but after a walk down the hall it wasn't obvious. I kitted up and went for a run. I pushed it - 10km is a reasonable morning effort. I felt the same as I had after 3km. My knee didn't irk me at all, but my ribs and ankle were clearly urging me to finish. I showered and went to the specialist who showed me the MRI scans: I'd split my tendinosus (a tendon). But he was taken aback that I ran 10km without discomfort and said I should still do strengthening work (which I will do). And now I have the challenging choice. I was silly enough to book a half marathon for Sunday. I might try it and try only to get to the end. I'll rest well, strengthen and think about it.

But that was all sorted at 7:25am. The day was still yet to get on with itself! I headed home, picked up the wife, headed to work and observed a teacher. He's a nice fellow who was introduced to our school while I was away. He's an awesome teacher and even more awesome because he likes our place and thinks I'm an OK kinda guy, and is best friends with our senior teacher. Good teachers set us up for stability. Then out the door I met my boss, who had the talk I'd hoped for. And she gave me the answers I wanted. So I feel happy staying where I am. We had a nice staff lunch and after a korean dinner with soju, I feel a nice calm with the year ahead.

It's time to resume and I like where this is going.

Monday, March 05, 2018

To health: Credit where due

I can't recall how many times I've recounted experiences with the Chinese medical system, either on this blog or real-time. Whether it's the upstairs-downstairs healthcare, or playing medical tag, with an audience of gawkers, poor Hippocratic attitudes, pushing in, and pushing away, it had always been a ride. I remember warning teachers: you just need to get a medical cert for your sick leave; the rest is a story to tell your folks.

But credit where credit is due to the humble Chinese hospital: it's better now by a long way. It's all about using its obvious strength while ameliorating its weakness with technology. China already had economies of scale. A single hospital has everything - but previously it was a Byzantine bureaucracy of paper and payments: register here, diagnosis there, payments here, treatment there, pay for your medicine/treatment here, collect it there, curl up in a ball and cry/die here.

Now there are payment terminals everywhere, scanning a QR code allows you to pay everything cashlessly. Now you can be treated and tracked simply. Technology serves the masses. Treatment are a salve rather than a rack.

It is a disaster that I've had contact with the medical system thrice on this trip. My sidestrain from eating. My wife's digestive distress. But travel should be about experiencing and in that area I can't complain.

Since I'm often with a glass on this trip: Here's to health.

Post-script: the strange picture is a plastic bag in a ball. They're sold from a vending machine with a QR code. There is no complimentary bag when you collect your meds. It's part of that move to reduce plastic waste.

Friday, March 02, 2018

City Review: Chengdu

We had a window of time to travel out of Guangdong and despite my having been there twice already we decided to go to Chengdu. Not that I was disappointed. My previous two visits impressed me and this visit was not any different. In my previous trips, I'd done some of the "key experiences" like seeing pandas, going to teahouses and eating spicy food. But had also done two specific out-of-town experiences Emei Mountain and Leshan's big Buddha. This time we spent it all inside the city and still found a lot to do.

Hotel review: Buddhazen (near Wenshu Yuan (Manjushri Monastery): 4 stars out of 5

A beautiful classical building right next to a large monastery? It's as good as it sounds. Everything is old wood, perpendicular corridors and spiritual. The emphasise the connection with Zen Buddhism. The service was humble and quick. We would stay there again without hesitation. The only drawbacks were a slight odour from the plumping, a seemingly non-live TV broadcast and an average quality foot massage. But those are minor compared to the enjoyment of living in and returning to such a comfortable place.

Favourite placesDu Fu's Thatched Cottage: 4 stars out of 5; Shujing Fang Baijiu Museum: 5 stars out of 5

These were two places I went to for the first time on this trip and both would be high recommendations, although most appropriate to people with a bit of a knowledge of Chinese and Chinese culture. Du Fu was never one of my favourite Chinese poets. (For the record, I loved the alcoholic poets more, even when I was teetotal, namely: Tao Yuanming and Li Bai.) But after going to his recreated thatched cottage and the grounds around it I may finally have gained an appreciation. The poems I liked best were his war-time poems. During his life there was a large-scale rebellion against the Tang Dynasty and a lot of his works focus on the pains of war that any modern reader could see are just as true today. One non-war poem that took pride of place on the cottage grounds was a dedication to Spring in Chengdu:
Good rain knows its time,
It falls when it becomes Spring,
It follows the wind and enters by night,
It moistens all with fine, silent drops,
Its mists cloak the rural paths.
All that can be seen through it are the lights on riverboats,
And when it dawns the red of the sun can be seen through the moist fog,
The damp, heavy flowers decorate this city of Chengdu.

The poems were great but the grounds themselves are beautiful. Highly recommended.

Now an alkie like myself has to love Sichuan province. Of the top 4 baijiu brands by market share, 3 are made in Sichuan. Number three is Shuijing Fang which is made in Chengdu. And a few years ago when they were expanding the factory, the diggers revealed that the same site had been used since the Tang Dynasty. (Which incidentally could mean that Du Fu might have drunk wine from there!) It's one of the oldest proven places of Chinese wine production. Archaeologists have even shown that the bacteria that was present at the time is the same as is used now.

The museum itself takes you through the production process and even gives you a sample of the first drawn spirits, at about 68% alcohol. Wooooo! One sip is enough. They show you the art of their bottles. (And in fact Chinese wine bottles are far more artistic than the simple elegance of western wine and spirit bottles.)

Restaurant review: Bashu Dazhaimen Hotpot (Caishi Street, Qingyang district, Chengdu): 5 stars out of 5.

I'll throw in a restaurant review because simply it really shows service mind, which had been a rare thing in China. Every trip to Chengdu requires a trip to a hotpot restaurant. At first I baulked about walking far to one with a good review arguing that we weren't connoisseurs, and there were places on every street. But I was persuaded and we went to this one. My arguing and the required persuasion had probably delayed us to the point that we had to wait for a table. This was the first impressive point though. If you have to wait, they give you a voucher that takes 15 yuan off your bill, provide you with cordial, sunflower seeds and another snack. We didn't have to wait long and the waiter was very attentive. In fact there was one moment that I thought nailed attentiveness. A staff member gave us our cutlery and I thought I noticed a small smear of chili oil on my cup. I checked with my finger and no sooner than I did the waiter switched it without a word. The food was great, too. Overall, there are lessons even a New Zealand restaurant could learn from them, which is rare.

City review: 5 stars out of 5.

Chengdu. Three visits and three pleasant times spent. But there are so many small things which make you feel good. Whether it be the main at the guokui shop who used tongs to handle money and plastic gloves with food. The general cleanness of the surrounds. The proliferation of bicycles. The unobtrusiveness of people and service in general.

Thursday, March 01, 2018

If a tree falls in the forest...

China is an interesting place to be. Armed police and army troops march obviously. Tourists march on.

A friend mentions that something with knives happened in Beijing. Not in the news. Tourists march on.

We go from a station to a station. The blood goes from a city to a city. We march on.