Monday, December 31, 2018

The year and beyond

It's been a whirlwind this 2018. This is just a recap for myself and also a base for planning the new year ahead.

This time last year I had just come back from taking Christy to Coromandel and then went to my dad's for new year with a slightly irksome knee. After a drunken spur-of-the-moment decision to bound on my half-sibling's trampoline, I  my knee for a couple of months. Health of the machinery of my body was immediately set as a theme, but it seemed like a contagious theme affecting my students and staff, especially in the second half of the year.

I'd barely gotten moving painlessly again than work got moving. In fact that was the whole school got moving as the school was immediately at a new location, disconnected from the network for over a month, students pouring in and new staff on board. And I had five weeks to get things stable enough so that I could go on a four week holiday in China. It almost got there. I credit my senior teachers with enough character to really hold it together. I brought my computer to China and it was used far more than I'd have liked to. Then the NZQA descended and I was asked if I could come back early to help defend. I didn't. I'd have missed my father-in-law's birthday and lantern festival, which were big reasons for being over there.

The body however was still coming together. In the rush before China, I'd gotten the process to diagnose my knee underway and done in the nick of time. The knee had issues since August but the New Year trampolining was the final straw for it. Running in early January I could barely run 3km before I was in too much pain. Fortunately ACC gave me a visit to the specialist and my first MRI. The news had been good: a strain but some exercises and a gradual build up was all I needed. The day after the diagnosis I was in China and a few days later, I ran in our village for the first time. But then my arches flared. And then, while eating lunch, I turned to talk to my nephew and sprained my side. The last two weeks in China I had a dicky knee, a strained side and painful arches. I felt like an invalid.

Returning to New Zealand, the school felt on an even keel but not without drama. I failed a teacher's probation and had a grievance case against me. It was thrown out but definitely added a bit of flavour to proceedings. The great thing was that the new senior teacher brought with him a lot of his associated teachers who were a charming lot; they were very quickly the favourites of the students. Compared to the staffing travails of the previous year, things were great. My other senior teacher was really struggling with either chronic or self-inflicted illness. Another teacher had real kidney issues and was constantly ill. Then a student came down with meningitis. Another with appendicitis. And then another had a bad acid trip and was tipped into psychosis.

Fortunately my health was up and unfortunately the same time it was down. After the niggles at the end of China, everything came right. My side-strained eased with rest; my knee pain faded with the right regime; and my arches as I've learned since really do get better the more they're beaten into the pavement. After a tough Coatesville Half marathon where I was compelled to walk, I had a great Rotorua Half marathon where I really felt like I broke back into rhythm. My 1 hour 40 minutes for that race on a tough, hilly course made me believe I could achieve my goals. What were my running goals? As mentioned on 30 December 2018:

"My goals for 2018:
- Consistent uninjured running
- 2500km/year (i.e. over 200km most months)
- 5km - 20:00
- 10km - 41:30
- Half marathon - 1:32:00
- Full marathon - 3:20:00"

Most of these were achieved. My full marathon goal shifted to 3:30 and was achieved in October. I ran 2800km and easily met the mileage goal. The half marathon goal was met in August but that personal best was never bettered later in the year. 10km goal was achieve mid-year and I didn't try again at that distance. The 5km I know I could meet because on a difficult course I recorded 20:20. Probably the nicest thing about the year is generally achieving the first goal, consistent uninjured running. 2017 was hickledy-pickledy with stops and starts. Apart from breaks 

But literally as I ran that goal-affirming 1:40 was when the reality of another health crisis came to a head. I'd noticed in the preceding runs a niggle in my lower abdomen. I rested but still it was there. And then I ran Rotorua and it became full-blown pain. I thought I'd done something nasty to myself when I just need ed to look in the mirror to see that it was something rather different. I had a bulge out of my body. Later it was diagnosed as a hernia. After the initial explosion of pain, I found running did in fact not cause or aggravate it and merrily ran onwards and achieved the goals I set out. Until December when I finally had my surgery to fix it. Recovery from surgery is a new thing for me and I have learned a lot - I have a character flaw, probably not exclusive to me, that makes it difficult to refrain from waiting for recovery and always pushing the bounds. It can work for some injuries. I'm increasingly confident that it isn't the case for post-surgical rehabilitation. It's been a busy end of the year and I've wanted to have my cake and eat it. New year will be close the third week of recovery and still the area of the wound is sensitive. I've resumed easy running but still cannot confidently run for 5 kilometres without some discomfort. I pushed myself to do a park run in Christchurch while on holiday and accidentally pushed myself in the last kilometre. By the end I was worried I'd put my recovery back a few strides. Three weeks though is only half-way through the length of time it's meant to take for full recovery.

So I was as fit as I ever was while flawed. My immune system allowed me another year of sustained health, which considering the busyness of work was a great thing. I threw myself into solving the constant issues that a growing school had to overcome. People usually deferred to me and increasingly management allowed me to draw lines and trusted my judgement, often at cost. It came as a relief that when things counted my decisions at the highest level of the company were agreed to. One consistent message has been that our school is the one that higher management doesn't need to worry about, and when problems come up they have the confidence that it'd be handled. A few days after my surgery my boss made it clear she wanted me at the Christmas party and it was clear why when I was awarded the Supreme CARE award. Although I'd have rather not have been there and felt physically ill, it was a pleasant surprise. In my appraisal I'd told my manager that I'd be interested in continuing into an Academic Manager in the future which she also thought might be a future path for me. Overall the professional end of the year ended very well. 

For 2019, it's easiest to talk about my running goals. Once my recovery from surgery is complete, I plan to continue in a similar vein, learning from the experiences throughout this year and achieving:
- Consistent uninjured running
- 3000km/year 
- 5km - 19:00
- 10km - 40:00
- Half marathon - 1:29:00
- Full marathon - 3:20:00
- At least one trail race

Probably the biggest missing piece since coming back has been the financial side of things. Because we haven't explicitly sought to save money we have generally just saved when we could. We haven't yet arranged our affairs or habits in a way that will result in us potentially having our first house. 2019 should be a good year for saving but it'll take some planning to make it happen.

Professionally it's going to be another challenging year to make sure everything happens at school. The goal of Academic Manager is not an immediate goal and I'm in no rush. The success this year has, apart from luck, been due to bringing together all the micro-skills I learned managing in China, with the comfort of having worked with a team for two years and confidence to know people had my back. I've still made many missteps and there have been more things to learn from and apply in 2019. 

Those are the goals I'm happy to be public about. Although some people are skeptical about new years resolutions I like Christmas break being a moment to reflect and project. I look forward to the new phase. Happy new year to all! 

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Bounce Back

It’s been two weeks since my operation - a long and busy, almost unrelenting two weeks. Boxing Day has presented me with a brief respite before we head to Christchurch. Fortunately after a period of doubt and despondency about my recovery, things appear, as they often do, to not be as bad as I thought it could be. 

It started on the day after the surgery where I did do a fair bit of work from home and some sleep, with the help of three different painkillers. Then two days after the operation driving well before I needed to for an urgently needed warrant of fitness, then Friday foolishly driving to the dentist, fixing a leaking valve in the kitchen then driving again to the company annual party on the same day. Then four days after, picking my in-laws up from the airport and driving them around on their first two days in. Then working the Monday and Tuesday but feeling so bad that I opted to recover all of Wednesday. Fortunately Tuesday was the day that I was recommended to finally get back behind the wheel... 

Needless to say, I hadn’t been following doctor’s orders very closely. Could I have it all? A smooth recovery, my work done, a memorable experience for my in-laws and a merry Christmas? The answer by Christmas Eve was a “no” said with a grimace. That day I was more uncomfortable than any other day in my recovery. I’d just driven everyone back from Rotorua and felt swollen, immobile and sore. I almost baulked at going out again that afternoon to get necessities. I had developed a strong belief that the wound or the mesh that had been put in was not healing in the right way. We were considering calling off the trip to Christchurch but I still lived in hope that Santa would wrap me some relief and leave it under one of the two Christmas trees we’d be going to the next day.

Christmas did come. A storm with it. I still seemed pretty tight and sore again but once home after the festivities I thought I was good enough to go for a walk and even do some jogging. It felt good and I  slept well. The next day, today, I went on my first run since, a 2.3km, 13 minute jog and felt mobile and fresh for most of the day. Now, with my mind shifted out of negativity I suddenly feel my recovery is fine. The clouds had lifted just as they were doing so literally outside.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

The pain

It's been a curious week, from the "John" the psychotic student, to my own operation, to a busy "recovery" with medical leave at home, to feeling unwell at the company Christmas party on Friday night yet receiving the "Supreme Award", to picking up my in-laws and spending all of yesterday as they marvelled about trees. It's Sunday before the last few days of work and I've already slipped into holiday/rest mode because very little else has been my usual work schedule.

On the recovery, I'm still sore and swollen, TMI: still rather constipated and needing metamucil to relieve my belly, but I'm sleeping well and cutting back on the painkillers. Today is the day when the bandage should come off the wound, but I'll leave that till later in the day. I was hoping that things would be less painful by now but I was probably too optimistic. I slept well in anticipation of the surgery perhaps because I didn't really have time to think about it deeply.

As mentioned before I enjoy the company of my in-laws. My father-in-law has always enjoyed communicating. He has always tried to make conversation; his father A-Gung, is the same. And he would make a good language teacher if there was ever a Qingyuan dialect Cantonese class. He grades his language down and is patient when he listens. He has found a way to understand me despite my bad tones, or overly creative way of expressing what should be simple things.

He is curious, too. He was looking all over our bookcase and spotted all the Chinese literature I had. One book caught his eye, a book on Chairman Mao which is incidentally banned in China. He has been reading it slowly but surely since he arrived. "Is this accurate?" he asked me this morning. Asking that of me who believes there aren't really accurate books, only perspectives and interpretations is not that fair. I told home it is probably not completely accurate but the books about Mao in China aren't either.

Reading it and talking about the topics opened a can of worms and led to my mother-in-law relating some stories from the past that Christy hadn't heard before. They had lived through the revolution and the Cultural Revolution so it isn't a surprise that there are some dark tales - one just assumes that most of them have already been told. Christy didn't know that her parents had seen people beaten to death in front of them. I guess it doesn't come up at the dinner table or when watering the crops. As she sometimes is bothered why her parents aren't "brave" to try new things, it is one of those realisations that hits you hard. Doing different things that made you stand out could once be a reason to be suspected and perhaps even killed.

One other uncle they talked about this morning was the village drunk when I was there. I saw him whenever I went to one village. He was married to an intellectually disabled woman, which always seemed just a bit too "arranged". They had some smart children though. I'd never known him sober. Apparently he was the rebel smart-alec, the kind who might say dangerous things for a laugh. When things got serious during the Cultural Revolution he had more than his fair share of "struggle sessions". It's impossible to know the details but it's a sad post-script to his life that someone that  might be written off as a "village drunk" had more pain and suffering that most people could probably handle before drinking himself into that state.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

What a treat!

There have been many themes this year, and one theme that has definitely made it different is encounters with the healthcare system, especially in the last couple of weeks. It all started with a visit to a sport science specialist to undergo my first MRI. In China, I strained my side and had a poultice of sorts applied. (I think that's a first as well.) Back I developed a hernia and had an ultrasound of my groin. And then finally the attention went off me: we had a student in hospital with meningitis, a teacher in for his kidneys, another student in for appendicitis all at the same time. (I could go between three floors to see different people!) And then we had another student who had a "bad acid trip" and was spun into psychosis - that was a long day, departing the hospital at 3am with a guard at the room.

But the real show was my first non-dental surgical procedure, the hernia repair. I always remember my sister occasionally using the word "hernia" when I was young, in a phrase of exasperation she picked up from somewhere. Until I saw it on my own person, its appearance or causes were a point of ignorance. I remember the first sensation of it while running - I thought it was my hip flexor. But then I ran the Rotorua Half Marathon and it was excruciating. I was perplexed because it was painful yet my pace was fine, perhaps hinting that it wasn't part of running machinery. After finishing I looked in the mirror while changing and lo-and-behold there was a hernia, a bulge beneath my flesh. After a trip to a GP and confirmation with that ultrasound I was put on the waiting list. Incredibly the GP gave me the green-light to continue running. And the symptoms weren't major and it faded into the background but it remained there through three more half marathons and two full ones. When the surgeon did his preliminary examination in September I'd just finished the first full one of the year where it had caused no trouble at all. Fitness means the recovery could potentially be faster, and the muscles in that area are stronger. The doctor said the surgery would probably be in November, and with my running schedule in mind I asked for mid-December. And although with arrangements for my parents-in-law's visit to NZ making that not quite as ideal as it was looking, it fell as well as it could really.

I left one hospital for our psychotic student two days before entering another for the surgery. Not surprisingly it was a very different experience. My evening teacher, who has one of the most caring, responsible hearts for his students in our school (we're blessed with a few!), took the student there on Friday night at 9pm by taxi and sat with the student at the hospital awaiting the psych team who would be coming "soon". My teacher is special too in that he can get stressed or aggravated when things aren't as they should be and when I realised the medical cavalry hadn't arrived after an hour. I got myself back together after an already long day and headed to the hospital. The student "John" (not his real name) had been acting very differently in the two weeks prior to it coming ahead. Twice we tried to get him to a doctor and twice he disappeared just as we were getting organised. The day before his admission I'd given him three choices in the order of my preference: (1) He goes to the doctor to find out what's going on; (2) he withdraws and goes back to Colombia; or (3) I treat him like a normal student and we write up his final Student Study Agreement, which if broken would result in his withdrawal and the cancellation of his visa. I gave him 24 hours to think about it. The next day John found me and said he'd like to be treated like a normal student. This was good to hear even if he still didn't seem quite right yet. He was confused that I went through with serving him his "agreement" but then went off to class. The next night he finally levelled with his teacher. He took 15 LSD tabs at a party two weeks ago and he never "came down". His emotions were not under control and he was hearing things and hallucinating. He'd had suicidal thoughts. The teacher ended the class early and they went to the hospital.

My teacher was focussed tightly on the student's needs. The main doctor, R, came in and out but never really communicated with us about the plan and timeline. John was restless and kept calling himself stupid, muttering in and out of English and Spanish. At one point he reached for some power cords intimating that he'd strangle himself. On one walkabout he tried to make a break for the door which the teacher physically prevented himself. "Have you asked for him to be watched?" we were asked. Was it our place to ask? I replied, quickly following it up with an affirmation that we really needed him watched. We kept asking the nurses for guidance about when the psych team was coming. It eventually came out that because it had to be done in Spanish, it'd likely be tomorrow! So at 3am we left and I drove the teacher home. We reassembled at 2pm the next day to speak to a psych doctor and nurse and then left at 5:30pm with the plan set. Overall A&E wasn't a great experience.

Then it was Monday and I received a call - do I want my hernia surgery on Tuesday? With a moment's hesitation I accepted. And after a hussle to prepare everyone for my absence, I was off to the physio for my contusion, sleep and then my date with a scalpel arrived. And what a difference. Everyone, and you must meet a dozen people in the process, was very kind and clear. Every time my blood pressure was taken it set off the alarm for low pulse. They asked the same questions and checked everything. Even in the operating room they were asking about my job, learning language and then... I woke up three hours later. Then the nurses took me to a room where I watched a little TV, assured the world of my smooth surgery and generally took my time. By 5pm my mother had arrived. And I already had the discharge in my hand and a bag full of pills.

Convalescence is sweet. It's like the perfect kind of holiday for a person like myself. I have lots of discreet time to attend to a large range of tasks and interests with no-one else really to disturb me. One day down, two more to go and I'll say that hernia repair was a good choice just for the benefit of time to myself!

Monday, December 03, 2018

Go big or go home

I've had a blessed "run" this year. I've jacked up my running to a point that the body that I thought was fragile and easily injured can take several consecutive weeks of 100km are not breaking me. My biggest problems of the year were my pesky arches, which often disappeared as soon as I try to run. My biggest foe was really the ground itself, which I met on four times. (And don't tell anyone, but almost a fifth.) The first was in the fog, in the dark; the second time was while crossing the road, opening a "gel"; another time tripping on advertising base while scanning for a public toilet. And on the cusp of the grand finale of the year, one more connection with the Earth.

It was in amongst a set a series of mildly unfortunate events on the day of the Omaha Half, where I was hoping to break 1:30. I miscalculated the time I'd need to get to the event and even when leaving prudently early, I got there with just a half hour till race time, most of which was spent queuing for the loo. Because I was queuing for the loo, I couldn't do my usual warm-up. Jogging from the loo, I jumped up onto a dewy boardwalk and had my feet shoot out from under me and experienced a butt-first collision with the ground. Apparently I wasn't the only one that had come a cropper pre-race on what was actually the final straight. The shock of the fall and the realisation stunned me briefly enough that others got over to me before I even attempted to get up. It hurt. But then I got up and moved around and felt it wasn't the end of the world. I dropped my bag off and joined the group warm-up and then headed to the start chute.

The race began and I felt pretty good for the first couple of kilometres. Then came the two kilometres of beach, one of the tougher sapping parts, and still felt good. And then things slowly went downhill figuratively (which is ironic because it's the flattest track around, barely an incline of any kind). I was slowing down and the different terrains in particular got me, first a gravel section and then spongy grassy sections. Each one ground me down. On the track that I ran fastest last year (1:35 at the 21.1km mark), matching that time was not going to be possible let alone my ambitious target. I was waiting perpetually for a slower running buddy to pass me at any moment. I just wanted it to end. And it did with me finishing 1:37:25. Not a disastrous time but a nothing time. But that's when the extent of the carnage came in.

I stood around the drink stand waiting for my buddy who'd found it a taxing course when I realised one of my arches was making it difficult to walk. After a rest I hobbled over to the bag drop which took ages to find my bag, then I hobbled painfully to the car. It was difficult to press the pedals without pain. Getting out of the car was becoming difficult as I realised the fall was more serious than I thought. My buttocks weren't just bruised; my hips were tight and I found it hard to get around. By the time I got home I was going full "old man" (no offence to the older men who are dynamic and fast moving). My arches flared, my hips and butt ached. The next day another layer came to the fore: my left quad became sore in sympathy and the arm that also took the impact from the fall was also weak. All in all, it has made up for all that good luck with one stroke of bad. I can only hope another night's sleep can make me feel fresh again. 

Saturday, December 01, 2018

Pawn storm

Earlier this week the 2018 World Chess Championships concluded. It was in fact the first championships that I have followed from first to last game, which might come as a surprise. It's really just a reflection on how technology has enhanced our everyday lives. When I was young, chess matches came in books, maybe magazines. I remember watching a few matches from one championship on our family's Sky TV, which was a rather curious choice for ESPN back then.

There was another reason though: For most of my most productive chess period 1994-1997, the chess championship was disputed. The two strongest players of the time, Gary Kasparov and Nigel Short, appalled by the corruption of the international chess body, FIDE, started their own championship. FIDE in response held their own and with sponsorship never being huge in chess there wasn't many matches. Fortunately by 2006 there was one match to unify and it has been pretty clear who the champion was ever since. By this time though I barely touched the pieces, except the odd challenge by friends. In China I also had a few chess events even playing a simultaneous exhibition against some of the English students (a simultaneous exhibition, or "simul" is when you play against many people at the same time. Since most had literally learned to play the same day, it was pretty easy except for a few who had more than a few clues.

During the period where the title had been disputed they experimented with different formats for the championship. To someone unfamiliar with tournament or match play, it might intrigue you to know that there are many different formats to chess. The world championships used to always be played "classically", which is with each player having 100 minutes to play the first 40 moves and then 30 minutes for the rest of the game. But other formats from "rapid" (each player would have 25 minutes plus 10 seconds extra per move for the whole game) to "blitz" which has 5 minutes for each player with a small increment per move. If you go to a chess club when players aren't involved in playing you'll hear the clatter of pieces and the smashing of clocks in casual blitz matches. Online, blitz is a staple because it can be sustained. But for the purists nothing beats classical games because it's a true measure of a player's abilities, and that's what is mainly used in tournament play. So when the chess championships started including different formats to decide the champion, people were aghast.

Although technology has now connected the chess world comprehensively it's also one thing that gets close to tearing it apart. In the year that I stopped playing chess, an epochal moment happened. Gary Kasparov, arguably one of the strongest players ever, lost a match to Deep Blue, an IBM-designed chess computer. 21 years later there is no debate about who would win in a match of man and microchip. And now they are tool for preparation - so much so that in the recent match sometimes more than 20 consecutive moves were "home preparation" by the players, without any requirement to use their skills of calculation. And just like the effect of performance-enhancing drugs in running, there will always be suspicions about whether online computers are producing some of the moves in real tournament play when players or their confederates use devices covertly. Back in my youth, I had a computer programme "Gary Kasparov Chess" which was hard to beat but would play moves that are obviously "not human". This is still the case to an extent - sometimes the moves are too steeped in cold, computer logic to even appear like a natural human move. But by the same token, they can uncover new motives, overlooked resources and "impossible moves" that over the board are impossible to see.

The 2018 World Championships was between Magnus Carlsen of Norway and Fabiano Caruana, an  Italian-American. The format was very modern - 12 games of classical chess, after which, if the scores are tied, it'd go into four rapid games, after which, if it is still tied, would go into blitz, after which, if the scores are still tied, would go to an Armageddon format (which is so new I've never played it!). The classical portion was 12 straight draws - Caruana in particular showing a depth of preparation that kept the incumbent Carlsen on the ropes. Carlsen showed though that once Caruana's home preparation finished, he was resourceful enough to find solutions. Astoundingly in the 12th match, Carlsen, finally with a stronger position with more time on the clock, with the ability to end the match with one win, offered a draw to Caruana. The chess world sighed. Gary Kasparov tweeted that it was proof of Carlsen's lack of nerves and predicted that he would collapse to defeat in the rapid phase. There was cringing all around, too, on the internet: We'd have a World Championships (again) decided not in the classical format but one with fanciful time controls. Had the classical format died? And had they been finally killed by the computer.

With the rapids all scheduled for a single day I was up early enough to catch the commentary of both the first two matches around the time of breakfast, and the third concluded while I settled in at the office. Despite Kasparov's curse, Carlsen was the clear favourite and has long been considered the best rapid player in the world. And so it came to be, once the rapid games began he won three straight games retaining his title. Caruana seemed exposed in this format and even in level positions made inaccuracies that led to defeat.

I don't agree that the "rapids" pollute the sanctity of the title. For me the world chess championships is to find the strongest player overall and all round. If twelve classical games cannot prove a winner, the two are clearly fairly level in that format, so it's time to find another format. The classical remains the prestige form, while still allowing for dynamic, time-pressured play if that doesn't prove a winner. As it is, the different formats are the medicine for the computer-prepared play. Even before the time of computers, matches just in classical format could take months to complete. The first time Kasparov played for the world championships, it lasted 48 games! Magnus Carlsen has been champion for the last 5 years and in time could rival Kasparov as an era-defining champion and GOAT. Time will tell.

In the same way that running was a sport of my youth, chess was my hobby and I nurture the possibility of resuming play at a club in 2019. Running though will always be steep competition for my time. My year of running is winding up in the next 10 days, with the biggest event being tomorrow with the Omaha Half Marathon, which will prove whether I can run 21.1km in under 90 minutes - my goal for the whole year. I've been getting progressively more nervous today but I know that I'm fitter than I've ever been and the most likely to do so. If the weather can grant us some grace, it's going to be an awesome day!

Saturday, November 17, 2018


It is often said that running is a free and easy sport. You just throw on some shoes and head out the door, whereas cycling you need to be kitted up and with a set of wheels, gyms cost to enter and kick-boxing needs a ring and gloves. While that street cred for running might be good, but the idea that it's "free" has never walked into a shoe shop. The retail price for shoes tends to be between $200-$300 and and a pair of shoes lasting between 400 to 800km of running, every four kilometres run costs at least a dollar. That means my average weekly mileage of 80km should be costing me $20. (Well, it would if I hadn't found ways and means for getting cheaper shoes.)

My wife often chides me on the number of running shoes I have "on the go". If you asked me how many pairs, I wouldn't be able to tell you; so let me count now: I ran this morning in my Asics Gel-Cumulus 19; yesterday in my Asics Gel-Pursue 3; Wednesday in my Hoka One One Bondi 6 - that's four pairs in four days! I also have my Brooks Glycerin, New Balance 680v4, New Balance Fresh Foam 1080 and my newest purchase, Asics Gel-Sonoma, for trail running. So that's... seven pairs. Even to some of my running friends, this is a bit excessive. But there is a method to this madness.

Firstly, my feet are special and have history. Flat-footed with in-soles and a belief that my feet destroy shoes, I have rarely given much pity, thought, consideration or kindness to shoes, even when I took up running again in recent years. The reason I believed my feet destroy shoes was that my feet would start bending and wearing shoes in a particular way, and that bending and wearing would in turn change the way my feet were landing intensifying the wear and tear. When I started running again in 2016, I had one pair of shoes and occasionally another when I thought I might need a replacement broken in and ready. 2017 was my first big year of running and it started with a pop with a calf tear, which took a couple of months to completely recover from. Twice in 2016 and 2017, I developed ITB syndrome, both of which could directly be linked back to wearing the same pair of shoes. Then in August 2017 I strained a tendon in my knee and barely made it through to my first marathon at the end of the October that year.

It was around that year I started recording which shoes I was using on which runs so the mileage I was doing in each would be monitored. And it was shortly after that I start building a range of shoes. My philosophy was that my feet would never completely adjust to a single pair of shoes to overwork them, and also my feet would always experience and shoes of an average level of wear. Shoes that are too new blister and take time to adjust, older shoes have lost their cushioning, and different brands have different design principles. Since March this year I've only suffered some arch irritation (which is common for me, plantar fasciitis) and in that period have clocked up 2500km running in 8 months. For comparison, I did 2000km last year in 12 months.

Where I before didn't really respect my shoes, each pair of shoes has a distinct impression, personality and history. The oldest of the pack are my Asic Gel-Pursue 3's. I was intending to retire them at 800km but they're still running really well. If you consider them as almost a third of my running this year you can imagine my desire to hold onto them for as long as possible. But it was the New Balance 680's which I trusted to run my two marathons this year. At first I hated them and had decided they were only for training. But the simplicity of it all suddenly became appealing and I chose them over all others at crunch-time and they got me to my goal. The Brooks are the second oldest and also favourites. I bought them at full price and they got me my best half marathon time. They're one of my normal width shoes so they're snug. I run mostly in wider shoes which seem to blister less. I can take the chiding when my feet are healthy, I'm achieving my goals and my shoes are lasting longer and longer.

Fortunately apart from shoes and entry fees, serious runners do get event t-shirts, free socks galore, carry packs and event hoodies as give-aways or race pack loot. (For some reason they don't often give running shorts.) 2500km up and an investment of about $500-$600 for this hobby. I think it's worth it. It is a cheap and easy sport!

Sunday, October 28, 2018

The monkey is finally off my back

It's just noon but it feels like most of the day has passed. I'm sitting back on the couch drinking my Earl Grey (with some celebratory sugar added) reflecting on a very busy morning. As I sit, it's only my feet that are still mildly disgruntled with my choice of hobby. One toe in particular would be entitled to issue a grievance. But generally the body is feeling quite good - not like one that has necessarily run 26.2 miles. And it has, and the word "run" is key: While this is my third marathon, the previous two had moments of either intense exhaustion or discomfort that forced me to walk for some time. My discontented feet ran the full distance (excluding drink stops).

It all started as it always does at 3:30am with an early wake-up and breakfast. Then it was off to the CBD to catch the ferry over. As I walked towards the ferry building, I bumped into one other competitor and chatted all the way from the ferry building to the venue. He was a young Brit who has now settled in NZ. He was preparing for his first marathon and thought he'd do his first marathon in preparation. Then it was off to do one of the most important things before a big run: get to the portaloo early before there are queues and get yourself at ease. One new event on this particular marathon was a wheelchair division. They went first because none of the runners would have a show at matching those chairs - they're fast!

And then five minutes later we were off too. The forecast had been a bit iffy and it started to drizzle just before the start gun and that went on for about half an hour. This was a bother to me - my glasses become useless once it is persistent drizzle and I took them off and held them in my hand. One little regret was that though I had a carry pouch, it was pretty full so I chose to hold my glasses. Not long after I felt a "pop" and noticed one of the lenses had come out and was in my palm (luckily). This meant that I'd have to run the rest of the race without glasses. In the end it didn't affect the race but was annoying because I often didn't spot friends as they ran around.

Before any event I have anxiety about how different parts of my body will hold up. My chief running concerns of the last three weeks were my left arch and my right heel. I'd kept my running comparatively light last week and the lead-in to the race but I could still feel the sensation in my heel even before I left home this morning. Though both "woke up" at various points in the race, they disappeared after some time. I felt my toes tingle a little though and thought I might develop blisters.

But it was a race and that was something I always enjoy about running. I actually started from the wrong area. Generally they try to get people to stand with people of similar pace so that there is less dodging and weaving. When I went in there was no direction about pace groups so I just stood doing some warm-ups while more and more people came in. When I finally noticed the pace signs come out and realised I was in the wrong place, there were too many people to move back. That meant that I was surrounded by rather fast runners. After the gun I went at my own pace and let all the runners flow around me. (This is almost the opposite to what happened in the Devonport Half where I was was at the back and had to negotiate through crowds to get to my pace group.) It's funny to be passed and passed. I always wanted to stay with them, which I could, but then I'd be going to fun and would run out of gas. It was so tempting. As it was I was already going faster than intended but it didn't feel unnatural. I felt like I was running easily.

By the time we got to the Bridge I'd gotten with the people who'd be regular companions. There was Red, a young woman, and Benny Buttcrack, a gent with loose pants. Red was a swift runner and at times surged quite far ahead but always tended to drift back to the group after about 15km I passed her and didn't see her again. Benny Buttcrack was never going to be a great person to follow. Does this man not know that running shorts have drawstrings? Either way, his shirt was too short and his pants invariably went with gravity as it was weighed down by sweat. I was with him for most of the last 20km of the race. He looked ungainly but was also a fast mover. He did disappear ahead for sometime before he started to go slower returning from St Helliers and I passed him twice before not seeing him again. I believe he had the last laugh though. I think he was among a bunch of runners that passed me in the last 5km.

It was strange running this route that dismantled me last year. I remember the stages leading to disaster and event the sensations at different locations on the route. St Helliers in particular has left a mark as that was when I massively decelerated and could no longer deny that I was stuffed. This year was eerie as I did the turn at St Helliers (31km mark) tired but still on pace (under 5min/km). I was waiting for "The Wall" to hit but though the next five kilometres after St Helliers I was on track. It was only at Okahu Bay that the fatigue started to show in my split time, 5:22min/km, which ended up being my slowest km in the race. Now was a battle against the clock. My stated goal was "under 3:30" and while I was "ahead" any splits above 4:59min/km would eat into the buffer of time. The next four kilometre splits were all over 5:00. Fortunately, after those I was at the 41km mark and also was studying my time and knew that with just a little more pace, I'd probably scrape in. My calves were crying in fatigue but I pushed and produced a 4:52min/km for the last full kilometre. By the time I was in the finishing shoot I could see the official time hadn't yet got to 3:30 and I jogged through with seconds to spare.

While the body has found some degree of peace on the couch, I'm glad to say my mind has found some peace as well. My target for all three of my marathons has been 3:30 or better. And I went from the start gate to the finishing arch in three hours, twenty nine minutes and forty seven seconds. That might only be thirteen seconds within target, but it's also fourteen minutes faster than my previous best marathon eight weeks ago and finally getting the 3:30 monkey off my back. Why 3:30? Well, technically I should be aiming a little lower. Based on the speed that I can do a 10km race and half marathon, I should be able to do it much faster, 3:11 apparently. But my training runs have shown that I struggle to maintain the pace required for such a time. Whereas 3:30, when I first aimed to run a marathon, worked out at just under 5 minutes per kilometre which is, on the face of it with my fitness, a manageable pace. But the two previous marathons have shown that even with a seemingly conservative target, I struggled.

Why? I had my own theories, including having gone too fast, which might have been the case but hydration was something that with time had been a particular realisation. This run I drank at every stop. I also used "gels" which are high sugar squeezy packs that can charge you up. Perhaps as a result, I didn't have the same "crashes" in the last third of the marathon.

It's time to celebrate. I've been virtually teetotal for the last two weeks so I'm looking forward to imbibing a little this evening. The coming week I can gladly sleep in and just do a couple of very light runs on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. I still have work to do with two other goals: My 5km time at Cornwall Park is 20:20 and I would like to get that under 20 minutes. I have just one formal race to attend, the Omaha Half and ideally there I can replicate this success and get under 1:30, strictly speaking not a strong goal of mine, but one that is quite possible considering recent results. But this week is not a time to think about that. 

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Packing them in

It truly is perverse the number of running events that are happening on any given week, disturbing traffic, startling blue penguins and increasing the production of medals and technical t-shirts. Every weekend there is something on somewhere attracting hundreds of people, well trained and bristling ready for action. Although there are probably those freak-of-nature amateur athletes who compete every week, it's not healthy to push your body to its competitive limit on such a regular basis. And even if you did, the general thought is that you wouldn't improve much because you wouldn't give your body the appropriate variety of runs to stimulate the body to respond adaptively. 

After I had finished the North Shore Marathon on 3 September, all I had in store for myself competitively was the half marathon series, five events around the greater Auckland area, each a couple of months apart. I liked the idea of a series so I could see my progress, and especially whether I could eventually challenge the 1:30 threshold (i.e. doing a half marathon in under 90 minutes). When I entered it in May it still seemed like there was a wall at 1:35 that I wouldn't be able to get passed, but back on 12 August I surprised myself with getting 1:31 at Millwater. I knew if my fitness continued I'd be able to challenge 1:30 sooner than I thought. Then of course the marathon rolled round and I had to recover. Initially I opted against entering the Auckland Marathon (28 October) just so I wouldn't have too many events but then some bait was thrown into the water. Asics offered a chance to "join Team Asics" and  get 20% off the entry fee as well as an Asics pack if I was one of the 20 people chosen on 30 September. I put my name down with some trepidation. I was leaving it up to others to decide if I were running. But I liked trying something different and left fate to intervene.

In the meantime, I picked up my training again and got into a good rhythm. One great thing about having just run a marathon is that your body doesn't know if there is another one coming up and prepares just in case you are stupid enough to run again. So you get a fitness boost in the aftermath, even though other parts of your body might be still recovering. Three weeks after the marathon I ran my usual Parkrun at Cornwall Park and immediately smashed my previous record by 50 seconds (this is quite a lot). Parkrun, for the unacquainted, is a free, timed 5km run every Saturday morning all over the world. Auckland has five different ones attracting hundreds every weekend. Previously in the peak of my fitness I'd always struggled to get under 21 minutes at Cornwall Park. After the marathon last year I did 21:22; then in May this year I got 21:14, a month later while feeling unstoppably fit and fast, I regressed to 21:36, then in July I made slight progress to 21:10 in August. Considering one of my stated goals for the year was breaking 20:00 at Cornwall Park, I was clearly "doing it wrong" or just underestimated the challenge of it. And then I ran the marathon and 20 days later ran the Cornwall Park parkrun in 20:20. That's how significant a marathon is in pushing you to a new level. (I ran a parkrun this morning and registered 20:26 to show it wasn't a flash in the pan.) I still have to find a way to clip off another 4 seconds from each kilometre and then it's mission accomplished! 

30 September was quick approaching and the decision of whether to run Auckland Marathon was about to come clear, but 30 September was significant for another reason. It was the day of the first event of the half marathon series, the Devonport Half. I'd never run this before and naively thought I'd be able to match my Millwater time. It was considerably hillier and had more people than I'd ever imagined. With the hills, it has a "smack in the face" called Huia Street in the first kilometre which is a short, steep hill, and in the 18th kilometre has a "winding smack to the guts" in climbing Northhead. It's not a simple course. But a bigger factor for me was that because I delayed going to the start area, I began stuck in a huge mass of runners with very little space to move, nowhere near my usual pace group. It took about half the race of first dodging and weaving and then moving up to each cluster of runners and passing them to get to runners I could pace with. It was at the 11th kilometre I bumped into Jonathan, a regular run club runner who is also in the series. I knew his pace (he's second fastest and a great pacer for me). So I kept with him for about a kilometre before pushing onwards and caught another fast bunch. In the end, I finished 1:33:44, which though slower than my expectation I was pretty pleased with. It wasn't the improvement but more of a consolidation. It was my second time under 1:35 but on a difficult course. 

The next day was my birthday and so was the news that everyone who wanted to join had been accepted for Team Asics. I gave myself the gift of a marathon and now I'm running in the marathon in just 8 days. With that, and bearing in mind what I said about not competing all the time, in the six months until the end of October, I would have run 2 marathons, 3 half marathons, two 10km races and five 5km races, twelve events, which works out at almost one every two weeks, which can only be regarded as overdoing it. The body has held up remarkably well and I've enjoyed racing. Racing is quite enlivening for the mind and soul. 

One side issue is the birthday gift from my wife, a smartwatch, the Fitbit Ionic. Now that I've had it for almost two months, I've observed some interesting things, especially about resting heart rate. When I started using my it my resting heart rate was in the middle of a lower period, as low as 46 beats a minute. But with a lack of sleep and a busy week, it rose. After the marathon, it rose still. When I drank alcohol, it'd rise. When I fell and had wounds, it was higher until they healed. The peak of all these factors coincided with my highest resting heart rate of 58 beats a minute. I've had a good week limiting these factors and now it's back down to 50. I'd like to get it back well into the 40s by the time of my marathon. 

Another interesting thing is observing my heart rate during exercise. It is rather random. When I'm exerting myself it can be high or low. When I'm taking it easy it can be high or low. In fact, it sometimes has this "flicking the switch" moment, where my heart rate mid-run increases or decreases by as much as 40 beats a minute. And I don't feel a thing. I haven't had any symptom on the run apart from increasing fatigue which is the same sign any runner should get as they run more. Because my family does have something of a curse in the cardiac department, it might have to be something I get a doctor to look at. It could be just a gremlin in the device but is probably not coincidental. 

8 days to this whimsical marathon, I'm going to be watching my heart!

Sunday, September 23, 2018

The dimensions of running

Every runner knows what runs down must run back up again. And what goes up must all come down again. We run in our bodies but our minds also run in their own mental worlds at the same time. Please indulge me a build the layers of perception for the act of running. It occurs to me, well usually after running a long way with my mind desperate for distraction, that there are different dimensions of running, either in the physical actuality of it all or how we perceive it:

The zero dimension is simply running effectively in your head. This is like running on a treadmill. On a treadmill you're going nowhere, often very quickly. You don't have any real perception of going anywhere except when you visualise it. In actual fact, some real terrain runs might incidentally become akin to this as a present preoccupation takes over the mind and sets the body in auto-pilot as it strides a well-worn path. You could be running anywhere for you care as you digest whatever emotional or psychological issue is bothering you.

The first dimension of running is a straight line. Some runs are in fact a straight line but often you can think of a run as merely a linear distance. In fact when asked about a run and we report the distance, usually others interpret it merely as a straight-line distance, even when other factors might be more salient, like the where, for its beauty, or the what, for its significance, or the how, for its degree of difficulty. Even if every run you do were a loop, the runner after the fact might perceive them as lengths of string that he can hang on your belt, or that he could tie together to make a long rope of your mileage to show "how far he's come". A runner's mind is often in a linear mode, one-foot-in-front-of-another, while in action. While there might be turns and bends, the legs are just going in the straight line pointed by the head, which is where the perceiver is in its lofty perch, as if enjoying the run as a movie.

The second dimension of running is in recognising the run as a line on a map. This isn't rocket science I know but we can trace a route on a map but that might not be necessarily what is going on in one's head when they're actually running. I'm sure the original runner from Marathon to Athens was very clear the route he was running. It occurred to me though that many run group runners generally don't know, even if they know all the turns. In a race, often you're not thinking about the map, you're just following the markers. But at the end of the day, it's nice to marvel from a distance of how far you've travelled through space. I remember when I first came back from Taiwan, I walked with my friend Eric from my home in Mt Roskill to West Auckland, to the North Shore, slept outside Devonport Library and then took the ferry back to the Auckland CBD for the final walk home to Mt Roskill again. It really broke the segmented awareness of the map, of my Mt Roskill world, my New Lynn world, my Massey world, my Hobsonville/Greenhithe world etc.

The funny thing about the first and second dimension is that you can't get passed the simple difficulty that you need to go through space and time. There's no quick way to get a long run over and done with. Easy kilometres still really far. It sometimes surprises me after a series of big runs when I feel I could run Everest, a simple kilometre can feel an eternity - one thousand metres~!

The third dimension of running is building the map with the topographical rises and falls. Auckland is a fabulous place to run in that you really do climb over hidden ridges and ranges that an automotive or second dimensional brain does not really register. The map is not flat. And most runs here have a degree of ascent and descent to them. It's fun to perceive a run in the third dimension. When I run up a mountain I like to imagine viewing the mountain from a drone to see myself progressing up and around the foot, waist, shoulders and head of the hill.

As a lover of astronomy I sometimes like to go a bit further to image myself on the bottom of our spherical world falling with gravitation towards the centre of the Earth. In fact, if you watch a science fiction movie with characters in low gravity walking and then go running, you can easily recognise gravity in each lope on our planet. We're pushing ourselves up and it's pulling us down. If running in the morning, I can even visualise the world rotating towards the sun to have it "rise".

The fourth dimension really is pace, momentum, propulsion and acceleration through the three dimensional space. You are a hurtling body. While you're desperately trying to sustain yourself in the air against gravity, you're also pushing your body forward with a huge amount of force. It's only when you have to stop or something stops you that the full energy is transformed into heat and impact. As you course through the depressions and rises of the land, your speed changes and your body tenses and releases, tenses and releases as you go on, perhaps for hours. It's almost alchemy to think that our body can do this: it turns mere bread into explosive heat; it bears a horrible brunt, getting stronger rather than breaking.

And that I guess is the fifth dimension I'd like to think aloud about: the transformative side. I've got a mind that would like to think that it can dispense with the linear aspect of time, embracing a present that is the product of all presents before it. All past runs are pieces to my present puzzle; running itself fills a role in my life that has made me what I am. Running is a piece of the dynamic condition known as "health" (that really is a totality of the wellness of all your cells and their ability to keep your whole organism surviving the course). Running is a piece of my self-actualisation, achieving what I had always imagined of myself since I was a youngster. Just as in the fourth dimension we see the body surging through the ups and downs in the land, our lives follow a similar dynamic course.

All this talk of ups and downs, I might as well get the theorising hat off and mention that I've plummeted into the pavement twice in seven days, bringing the number of falls this year to a rather disturbing three. My wife literally told me before I left yesterday morning to be careful not to fall, to which I promised I'd be fine.  My mind and circumstance then conspired to make me into a liar.

Yesterday's fall was quite mundane. It wasn't dark, an overcast but clear morning running along Great North Road in New Lynn. I was keen to relieve myself and had been scanning both sides of the road. This in itself was annoying. I'd been before I left, had been in Kingsland about 3kms into my run and then at the 9km mark again I needed to go. Some runs I'm fine and some runs my body just wants to pee everywhere. Anyhow, while my eyes were checking out the roadsides my right foot struck a black sign base. It was the kind of base that they'd usually slot a sign into but this one was just the base, left outside on the footpath. Presumably they put the sign out every day and then remove it at the end of the day. The base itself is quite heavy so that its sign wouldn't be blown away. When my foot connected with it, it probably didn't move an inch, but my body crumpled into the concrete a metre onward. I was stunned for half a second, which was about the time needed for my nervous system to make its initial reports of damage. Nothing major and after a second half-second I was up and running and made a visual inspection while on the move. This probably confounds non-runners. If you've fallen over, you should take a break and check things out. Well, maybe other runners will think of me a fool, too. Either way, all three falls this year did not stop me for long. On this occasion, my right shoulder had taken the brunt of the impact, with my right knee losing some skin and my palms also losing some, especially the outer edge of my right hand, which had a moderately deep abrasion. It was the only of my many cuts that continued to bleed. I had a hydration vest on so I sucked out some water and washed my hands as I ran. Apart from the bleeding, the dull soreness of my shoulder was the only other nuisance. I ran a further couple of kilometres to a petrol station. They initially said that I couldn't use their bathroom as it was staff-only. Fortunately my bloody hand changed there minds. I held tissue from there almost for the next 18 kilometres until I felt a bit too tired and wound up the run.

The fall the week before was a cracker, though: my own carelessness was a big part of it. I'd already run about 14km, also in relatively good morning light, when I came to a road I had to cross at some stage. It was relatively busy, unexpectedly so in fact. Perhaps there was an event nearby. Or perhaps I'd never run the road that late in the morning. Either way, I could see it'd take patience to cross. At the same time, 14km was the point that I'd decided to take a "gel" (sports nutrition). It was to be a long run and I wanted to get used to taking gels. So I got one out of my waist pouch and was about to rip the top off when I thought I had a break in the traffic. Crossing is a tricky act: You can see oncoming traffic but need to turn your head on the move to see if there is traffic coming form behind you. Now, you might say that it'd be a good time to stop and look behind, but it's second nature to do this on the move now. I've crossed 1000's of roads while running. I thought I had a clear patch so I darted across just after a traffic island. I may have been still trying to zip back up the pouch or had just turned my mind away from the pouch either way, I was distracted and my foot caught something, perhaps just the raised part in the middle of the road and I fell directly in the middle, not directly on either lane but in the section after the island. There was actually a car coming fairly closely from behind who came to a complete halt, perhaps in shock of the running falling into the middle of the tarseal. My gel had been thrown into his lane. Again I had half a second stunned, then half a second of scrambling, scooping up the gel and getting to the other side to do a quick body-check, an OK-gesture to the driver and then running onward. I really felt a fool for a moment, thinking how it could have been a lot worse. Compared to yesterday, the injuries were very light. Perhaps tarseal is a bit nicer in comparison to concrete.

Both runs finished at 28km, not really achieving their purposes. The abrasion on my right hand I'll watch carefully. After my first fall of the year back in April, a similar cut was infected for quite sometime and I should have really seen a doctor. My immune system eventually healed it but it's not something I want to repeat.

Runners fight gravity in many ways and I lots two battles. The war will rage on.

Friday, September 07, 2018

Always crashing the same car

The 2018 version of Running Dan is markedly different to the 2017 version. Better injury resilience, much faster over 10km and half marathon distances. (There was, though, the pesky 5km record, which hadn't moved an iota.) Overall, it reflected a lot of good improvements to the "machine". My tendons were tougher and my muscles adapting to the strains of running. In terms of the engine, my lactate threshold was continuing to improve, and I believed too that my aerobic base had improved too. So going into the marathon last weekend I was quite sure I was going to improve my 3:46 record at Auckland Marathon, albeit on a more difficult course. I had been hoping for 3:20, would have been happy with 3:30.

At 9:14am, I pulled through the finish line at Milford Beach with 3:44, a two minute improvement after a solid year of training. Fortunately the result was coming clear well before the finish line. In some ways I was lucky to not to go equal or exceed the previous year's time. And unfortunately the story was pretty much the same.

There had been early tension about the weather. Heavy downpours were forecast near the start of the marathon at 5:30am. I bought rain ponchos to prepare for that eventuality but fortunately when arriving at 5:00am at Milford Reserve we were greeted by a starry sky. 5:30am is the earliest start time I've ever had and for that we can blame the moon. The North Shore Marathon goes across many beaches and the tide cannot be close to full. The organisers seemed to be a little slow off the mark meaning that most to the runners were milling around Milford not knowing where to drop bags or where they'd start the race. But everything fell into place.

We started in the dark, which startled a blue penguin which made good pace traversing the beach in front of us as it sought the safety of the water. Half of the people, including me, following the advice of carrying illumination (mine was a waist lamp). "It's your responsibility to know the course" was the mantra of the organisers. We were still clustered as we head off the beach and into suburban Auckland. I was lucky to have my illumination at one point when I accidentally went into a holiday park that was divided from the route by a wire fence. The wire blocking my re-entry back into the flow was only visible at the last minute in my beam of light, causing me to hesitate and then do a scissors jump over it.

After about 8km the bunch spread out and I ran with another competitor who I chatted with. His name was Peter and this was a training run for him before the road running championships. "This course is dangerous if you go out too fast," he mentioned. I don't think he was actually saying it to me at the time but it appears to have been the case. It does have its hills, including two ascents of Northhead, a lot of general undulation and beach sections. I feared the beach sections but the first loop allayed some of those fears: the sand was firm from the outgoing tide. My fears were reinforced though on the second loop when the sand had a chance to dry and you had this sapping drag.

The first 30km were according to plan. I had dropped Peter at the first ascent of Northhead and felt like I could run smoothly, at the half way point I accelerated again slightly. Up to the 30km mark I had maintained most splits below 5 mins/km (necessary for getting below 3:30) and had felt good. I was approaching Northhead the second time and that's when I slowed because of fatigue as well as being worried about having the energy to deal with the steep ascent. I ran the whole second ascent slowly but surely but by the time I finished I had a clear feeling of fatigue. With only 10km to go I wasn't too concerned. Even if I just maintained my overall pace, I'd get in at about 3:25. But the pace didn't return to me after the second ascent. I felt OK until 35km but not splits were below 5 minutes. And then stitch became me. It had developed slowly but distinctly in the early 30s but at the 35km mark it was unbearable. I rubbed it. I stopped and walked to take in big breaths but still it remained. I ran a section and then walked a section but still I wasn't feeling well. I felt almost nauseous. I thought it must have been the energy gel or my peanut butter slug I ate so I didn't eat any more, which too might have been a mistake.

During this period all targets slipped through my fingers. It was only in the 39th kilometre running on Takapuna beach that I sustained a whole kilometre running again, and I decided to consciously lengthen my stride and push. Both the 41st and 42nd were under 6 min/km and I shuffled into the finishing area.

In the post-mortem the main problem, not enough aerobic base for the pace I'm looking to maintain, is probably still the case. The pace might have been OK at Auckland Marathon but not this course. And even before the stitch I'd been decelerating. Interestingly, the "stitch" felt more gut-like. It may have come from the peanut butter I ate, or even a side-effect of my food poisoning from two weeks previous. (Up until the day of the marathon I'd still had some after effects of that episode.) If I run another marathon in the near future, I'm just going to bite the bullet and run on gu gels alone.

What's next? I'm still thinking whether I want to run the Auckland marathon in seven weeks time. There is enough time to recover and put some minimal training to improve my current fitness and experiment. There is a half marathon series that I'm already entered into starting in 3 weeks, and I'm eyeing the Kirikiriroa Marathon (Hamilton), just as an opportunity to see what I can do on a flatter course. Run on!

Friday, August 24, 2018

10 days n' counting

Next Sunday the gun will go off and all the others gathered at 5:30am on Takapuna Beach will head off with me for a couple of loops of the peninsula, including two ascents of Northhead to complete a marathon. Actually there's no gun. Most races have a countdown. I've been to a few that precede that with the national anthem in Maori. I like to have a bit of ritual about the starts both in terms of my own routine and what the race organisers cook up.

5:30am is the earliest I'd have ever started a race but thankfully most of my training is earlier than that in the morning so I don't think it'd be a problem. Race organisers probably had to have us go earlier because of the tides. (Each loop has two beach sections.) A 5:30am start though means having breakfast by 3am, which means the whole night before becomes a little bit of a joke. I think I'll need a nice simple week before this so that I generally rest well.

With 10 days to go, the extended forecast now extends to event day. Rain, it appears, but is bound to change as we get closer. I've never run an event on a rainy day. I hope I don't need to at 5:30am in the morning wait for the start in the rain.

The lead-in has not been without set-backs. After my half marathon two weeks ago I was in Fiji for a week which was well timed as it was the first week of my taper. However one of my arches flared up for a couple of days, and then when we landed back in Auckland I had a 24-hour stomach bug which meant I was too sick to run on the day I was planning my last long run. I had two consecutive days off running for the first time since May when I fell in the Domain. I've gotten back to it but I can't afford to do anything two outlandish. Probably this won't affect my performance but it just means I won't go in with the same level of confidence.

Before the half marathon I struggled to imagine that I would be able to pull it off with my eventual pace. My expected marathon pace is exactly the same. I can't really believe it but with the training and the chance to taper it should be achievable. The taper is said to a be a time of nerves and uncertainty and I completely feel it in terms of the confidence that my training and my body can cross the line in the way it is projected to. Only time will tell.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

The one before the next

In my lead-in to the North Shore, there were two well-placed "moments of truth" that would evaluate how my training was going. The first was the Western Springs 10km, for which I was aiming to run 42:00. I ran 40:50 and knew I was on the right track. This morning was the second of those, the Millwater Half Marathon, the climax of the Run Auckland series. Based on Western Spring's effort, I should have been capable of a 1:31:00 half marathon on a flat course. This is a scarcely imaginable time based on my previous experiences. All my previous halves have been in the 1:35-1:55 range. Millwater is not a flat track. It has hills, corners and undulation. It ambushed me last year where I had the fitness of 1:36-37 but paced it rather unwisely and struggled to a 1:40 finish.

I "conservatively" set myself a goal of 1:32 with hopes of doing better. In the end I got myself 1:31:10. It all happened all rather smoothly. It started with an outstanding day. Probably the most Spring-like day you could imagine in winter. I warmed up a little hastily but felt prepared, and then we were off. Again I tried to size up who to pace with but the pace readings I was getting sounded too fast and I slowly dropped myself back from any potential targets. Eventually I was passed by "AH".

AH was a familiar face for me in many ways. He is in his 50s but a very strong, metronomic runner. I always remember him in the leading bunch in the previous year. He probably didn't know me from a bar of soap before today, although he might have recalled me from the Western Springs event. I'd followed him for half that race before burning him off in search of a faster companion. When he caught me, I parked myself a metre to the rear of him and bided my time. Eventually I took a few turns leading him until about the 15km mark where I made my move. I chose to go full-tilt down the one sharp slope on the loop course and bolted away from him and shot past another runner. My next target was "The Last of The Night Ninjas". The Night Ninjas seemed to be a training team. Almost all of them were in the top 20! Fortunately, there was one just a little bit slower than the others who had always been on the horizon in their orange kit. The orange was a key point because on the second lap there was a lot of other running traffic with the track being shared with the half marathon walkers and 10km runners. It could have been difficult to pick who was actually running in my event, but with The Last of the Night Ninjas ahead I had someone of relatively equal pace to reel in. It took about 3km before at about 18km we and one other formed a bunch for about a kilometre. That was when I attacked the last hill and left them behind. Once over the hill and just over a kilometre to go, I felt I still had plenty left in the tank and went into overdrive, passing more or less at will to the finish line and recording 1:31:10. It was a personal best by 5 minutes to my previous best official time.

The only blemish was possibly from my over-eagerness the day before. There was an Asics training event with a group run. I'd initially planned to run easy and put in some bursts of race pace. Usually I wouldn't run more than 5km the day before but with the group I decided to do 10km, mainly because my mileage for this week was going to be below 100km and I wanted to make up for the lack. Then I went with the faster group. I felt like I was running well but when I got home I noticed some tenderness in my shin. I treated it as well as I could but could still feel it in the morning before my run. In the initial kilometres I could feel it too. It didn't stop me running as I had wished. In fact it was the same problem I felt back in April/May this year. The same problem that I had in the Rotorua event. I'd ignored it then and I ignored it today. After that run I was a cripple. After this run I felt like a cripple. This evening the swelling and pain seem to have subsided somewhat and I hope that again it's just a temporary thing that won't hinder our trip to Fiji and any training I want to do there.

With it shattering the 1:35 wall, I look forward to the Mizuno Half Marathon Series, which begins in September. The next wall is the 1:30 threshold. With my current fitness on a flat-track, I would expect myself to be able to do it, and there are some flat tracks in the series. Couple that with further increases in speed and aerobic base, I look forward to it.

Three weeks to go to North Shore. Some lacklustre long runs had shaken my confidence; while some big events show I'm still pretty fit and able to take what the courses throw at me. I think this Moment of Truth is truest.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Out of the mist

There comes a point during the many complex human interactions that comprise life that one starts to feel that the problems, obstacles and dilemmas don't reside in the actual real workings of concrete things but rather in rationalising and equilibrating of the perspectives and cognitive starting points of the collective human mass looking to deal with them. Any single human member entrusted and empowered to solve a problem would do so, but with the direction of a superior, or worse, rhe assistance of another, or worse, consultation from a committee, or worse the assumed support of a crowd of would-be supporters but later critics, the problem no matter how small becomes increasingly difficult. It makes successful problem solving in a collective environment a Nobel prize worthy achievement in psychology rather than a simple act of simple fixes. We obstruct ourselves.

That isn't to say without the human dimension problem solving is easy. There is skill, knowledge, common sense and creativity that comes in fixing those irritating problems. Perhaps it's the difference in big company / small company but the organisation I'm in never really learned how to launch anything. There are only a small number here who could organise a piss-up at a brewery. There is one I know of who I'll call "Katie". She under her own steam could organise Albert Hall. I'm not even close to her level of awesomeness but she can only shoulder; she cannot share; and she cannot train in these dark arts. I rate myself as one in contrast to the majority but I was lucky: I had the tutelage of some wise ones in the past, and had the constant necessity to find creative solutions, to "roll out" campaigns, at times against my will and beliefs, to "make it work" in my previous position. The common sense of organisation causes so many "duh" moments when you see someone thinking an e-mail or poster will successfully change something.

Change, oh, change. It's the elusive thing of them all. Change "them", change the world. If only "they" would listen. Or didn't "they" say that they would do such and such.  

5 more weeks

Well, perhaps not yet five more quite yet to the North Shore Marathon. But I've reached a nice clearing in time to write about my feelings (almost) five weeks out.

It's the 26th of the month and I'm just 15 kilometres short of the record mileage of June. 15 kilometre is really nothing to me these days, it won't happen tomorrow though. It'll happen on Saturday when I run a parkrun and then keep running. It won't be tomorrow because tomorrow is a rest day. A well-earned one, it's the rest after six straight days running, which, appropriate for a record breaking month, was the first time I'd run six days straight in my adult life. It's a nice little ticked-off goal - to run a good marathon it's good to be running 5-6 days a week, according to a lot of the resources I read.

For me it's something quite symbolic. I see myself as a fragile runner, with niggles a-plenty, injury always around the corner, over the horizon or at least swept under the carpet for a rainy day. The six days straight took me 110km, with three really focussed runs and three "easy" runs in nine hours twenty six minutes of running. And there aren't any sore spots.

That being said I had my "classic" moments of doubt: after day four's intervals (15km where three sets of 2 miles were done at speed) left my calves feeling beaten up. For a moment on the last interval I feel a sudden tightness in my right calf near where I had a calf tear in early 2017. I ignored it, ran just as fast but with that sensation. Two other points in my calves felt sore and so I chose not to run the next morning, leaving it to the Run Club in the evening to check them. They still "felt" it but I ran easily and by the end of the run all sensations in my calves had diminished. I'd run them out. If there is one learning point for the year it's that the cause can be the cure. The knee pain that blighted the last half of 2017 only went when I trained smarter with exercises. It simply became less obvious as my mileage increased. The rest day tomorrow will be enjoyed guilt and worry-free in that my legs are great, the rest only makes them stronger and I'll be ready to close out the month in style.

This should be my third straight week over 100km, touch wood, and barring any incidents. I've planned another two before my taper. This kind of volume and intensity should make my fitness quite formidable when it comes time to compete. Sometimes it's hard to believe that. In my pre-marathon half I should be able to maintain 4:20/km based on my understanding of my fitness. But that's a ridiculous number in the context of my previous running. That's fast! How am I meant to do that? The truth is that classic line: Trust your training. If there is one thing that is astonishing about running it's that when you put yourself out there sometimes your body responds and you just keep going. After my last blog I did a 10km race that was exactly that: I ran it in an unfathomable time in respect to my previous running: 40:50. I haven't recorded an official 5km time under 21:00 yet managed to keep pushing myself to the wire in a 10km at less that double my 5km race record. There were reasons, namely that the course was reasonably flat. Also, I jumped onto the tail of a regularly fast runner and once he couldn't keep it up leapt onto the coattails of another bunch and then another. Get with the right runners you'll have your carrot always in front to tease you to the end. And if the body is well-tuned, as long as the pace is vaguely reasonable, you'll sustain it to as far as you need.

I'm going to sleep well tonight.

Sunday, July 01, 2018

9 weeks till North Shore

Winter is certainly upon us: Fog shrouded mornings. Numb morning fingers. Trouble drying the laundry. And why does the heating in the car take so long to warm up?! I've had a hectic June. July promises to continue the hecticity. 

In spite of that, I've generally been able to find the time and energy to sustain and increase my mileage. June was a record month: 376 kilometres run, each week over 80km. (For reference, my highest previous week was 296km, and I'd only done 2 weeks over 80km last year.) This is all going to plan. And most importantly, I'm noticing the fitness effect of the high mileage. Last weekend I smashed my favourite half marathon route, TwinPeaks, shaving two and a half minutes off my previous best time, which was in turn recorded at my fittest, fastest period last year. At the Shoe Science group run I sliced one a half minutes off my 10km time for the my route record made just 6 weeks earlier. Almost unbelievably, the last few splits for that run were under 4:00/km. In every area I'm stronger than my peak period last year, except perhaps in my confidence to run beyond 32km.

And probably even more importantly than the fitness effect, I'm not experiencing the niggles to the degree I had last year, where I felt my momentum was always thwarted, and early this year when I felt I might not be able to run again at all. Fortunately ever time I've had those dire thoughts I've proven to be wrong.

Next week I have my next "moment of truth": A 10km race at Western Springs. It's a flat route and probably my best chance to record my best time for a 10km run, which in turn will be a measuring stick for what paces I might be able to do in the coming half and full marathons. My happy range of results would be anywhere between 42:00 to 43:00, with anything below 42:00 being a reason to celebrate. I've recorded two 10km times between 43:20-43:30 on hillier, more challenging courses, with slightly less fitness in the last two months. After this will be a half marathon 3 weeks before the marathon, which will be a perfect chance to sort out my marathon pace; and then the marathon itself on 2 September.

My general strategy will be to continue sustaining the mileage, up to 100km/week by the end of July and then taper from mid-August. I've done two runs over 30km so far and aim to do another 3-4 in this coming period. 

Saturday, June 09, 2018

12 weeks

(Warning: This post is yet again running-related)

The North Shore Marathon is just 12 weeks away. It'll be my second full marathon, and out of all my goals for this year, it is the highest, most valued. I have the goal of a sub-3:30 time, and hopes of getting it considerably lower. My other goals in between it and now, my 10k and 5k goals are at this point to serve this greater goal. 12 weeks is both far and near - individual weeks can play huge parts in the lead-in; a single run or injury can bring it all down. It has clearly got my attention.

To understand and be better prepared than last year it's important to know what went right and wrong last year. I should have had the fitness to get close to 3:30 at the Auckland Marathon. Instead I got 3:46 with an exhausting last quarter. My post-mortem of factors that led to the disappointment, from close range to long range are as follows:

  1. Running too fast in the first half
  2. Not hydrating well during the race on a warmer than average morning.
  3. Risking fueling with just dates and never considering using the gel I had in my hydration vest.
  4. Doing my training runs on average too fast, with few easy runs.
  5. Not sustaining a consistent mileage in the weeks leading up to the event. 

Many of these lessons I've already applied. Point 4 I believe I've partly succeeded in. I now do 2-3 completely easy runs during the week and have reined in my long run speed, with only a few indiscretions. For example, last week I was doing an easy run and in the last 5 kilometres found a "second wind" that I just ran with. Considering I had a hard run the previous day, it was probably ill-advised. My calves felt quite tender on the rest day and then they still had some residual soreness, which then affected my long run today. It served as a reminder that speed has the capacity to kill this campaign. Going slow now can only lead to more speed and health in the long run.

And that was what went wrong last year, which led to point 5. I had momentum back in January 2017 until I did three straight days of fast runs, had one rest day and then one more intense run was enough to give me a calf tear and a couple of months out of action. After recovery and progress, I again were delayed by niggles both perceived and real. The biggest of these was my knee ligament issue that developed in July, which started once I started doing increasingly long runs far more early than I should have. For perspective, even though I was doing a few runs a week, the long run was often over half the mileage for the whole week. I was a so-called "Weekend Warrior" making up for a lack of running during the week by going overboard on the weekend. Every three "good" weeks of mileage would invariably be followed with a week of worry when something causes me to fret that I was overdoing it. This year I've built up in a more reasonable way. Two straight months I've average over 50km a week. In the last four weeks I've pushed it up from the 50s, now into the 70s. I'll consolidate around this level while aiming to push up further, peaking at 100km for the peak weeks in early August. In other words, touch wood, I've got a more informed, strategic mindset to get me in better shape to my goal.

As for points 1-3, that's race day.

Of course those are just to address the missteps of the previous attempt. 

Monday, June 04, 2018

Overtaking oneself (part 2) - Running related again

Almost two weeks on from the first Overtaking post, I have a better sense that I'm doing as the post title says. On the following Sunday, I set a new official 10km personal best with 43:16 at Barry Curtis Park. This was still not exactly "crushing it" but sets a nice measure of where I am at. At the same event last year I surprised myself recording 43:52 (mat time). I set off at a rather unrealistic pace for the first of three laps (below my 5km pace) but managed to hold on to an acceptable pace for the second lap before cranking it up for the final. In five weeks' time I'll be running in my next 10km race at Western Springs (8 July) where I hope to show my progress and get a time in the 42-43min range (target) or below (dream). Depending on how well the training goes, I may move this goal. In terms of really "overtaking myself" 42:48 is my fastest presumed 10km run which was at the peak of my fitness in October last year.

May was a good month for proving myself for mileage, too. The 266km I ran makes it the second highest mileage month of my running life. (Second only to September last year where I ran a half marathon and had my peak week before the Auckland Marathon. June 2018 is now set to become the biggest and, health-gods willing, should start a sequence of high mileage months to lead into the North Shore Marathon. In the first four days of June I've run 66km and I've no obvious aches or pains but will rest tomorrow before another two workouts, a rest day then the start of what I hope will be a pattern of six running days and one rest day until the taper for marathon. 

The next real tests of where I'm at are as follows:
5km - 16 June Cornwall Park Parkrun; 30 June - Western Springs Parkrun
10km - 25 June - Time trial; 8 July - Race: Run Auckland Western Springs
Half marathon - 23 June - TwinPeaks; still considering whether to do the Millwater Half prior to the full marathon.

Of course the main test is that final goal: North Shore Marathon 2 September 2018.


On Sunday I got to witness my little sisters' First Communion. Not having been brought up in a religious, let alone Catholic, tradition there was quite a lot to learn and a lot to go in the flow of even as a spectator. The girls themselves had gone through classes prior to their Confirmation (the day prior) and their First Communion to make sure they knew what to do. I could have done with a class though as each part of the Mass had some call-and-response element to it. If you did want to sing or talk along with the prayer, there were things you were meant to say at their conclusion. Not that my ignorance annoyed me - it was just interesting to be a part of. It was cute to see the girls and the other children have roles to play and rituals to perform. I couldn't help but be happy that they were brought up in such a tradition.

Ceremony is something that I have learned through experience is vital to being human. Perhaps that sounds like I'm going too far but it shows how far I've changed as I've aged. That is probably the case with a lot of people. As a principal of a school, there are many ceremonies to be done: Orientation for students and new staff; staff farewells; student graduations; recognition of performance or contribution. And not surprisingly their absence on occasion does get noticed. The "Why didn't we...?" question is commonly posed to me, when the "we" refers to "me".

One of the work topics that permeate my after-work hours is the lack of a sense of ceremony that our Chinese students have. Out of all the students who deliberately avoid a graduation by calling in sick or booking their flight the day before, most are Chinese. Ceremony isn't big in China and many ceremonies really are "for show". It's easy to be cynical.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Overtaking one's self

Warning: Running-related blog

As my running career rises with training and falls back with injury, I go two steps forward and one step back. There are lots of different emotions on this rollercoaster - the frustration of climbing back from the depths and the thrill of rising towards a crest. The previous peak for me was the last quarter of last year. I ran my favourite TwinPeaks route in 1:40, ran 10km under 43 minutes, ran 5km below 20 minutes, ran a marathon and got to the point where I could run a half marathon under 1:35.

Two months was all it took to take it back to the bottom. That was first apparent at Coatesville where I barely finished a half marathon in March. Fortunately despite the niggly weirdness and a suspected hernia, everything has come back together fairly well. But now there are some more semblances with my peak last year and I think I might be approaching my previous fitness. The Rotorua half marathon might compare well to those last year. My parkrun last Saturday was faster than my best race 5km last year as well. It would seem that my speed for shorter races has returned. I'm pretty sure that my endurance at the longer end of the spectrum isn't there yet though. I may struggle to run further than 30km right now.

But I have the confidence that I'll be past there soon. The next run is a 10km race on Sunday. This time last year I exceeded my expectations and broke 44 minutes. I shouldn't have difficulty matching that at least. I look forward to possibly getting below 43 minutes.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Out of the thickets, running in the dark

It's interesting how the patterns of our lives shape the patterns of our thinking. I believe that I'm pretty good at my job, or rather the job that I've fashioned for myself. It currently revolves around managing close relationships with 30 people and rapport with close to 200 people, and the administration thereof. That is 80% of the job. The other 20% of the job is more strategic and creative but is increasingly more detail related. Designing courses and programmes does have, as you would expect, room for innovation, but are predominantly referring to specifications and building to requirement. Most of my job is among the thickets.

And that is how my thinking about greater problems has disappeared. I'm in the thickets and struggle at times to get out of the details long enough to get a greater view of my job, my life and the universe around it. There were times in my life when I've enjoyed being beyond the thicket, up the trunk and perched somewhat along a branch to look out upon the jungle within eyesight. (But not the jungle beyond, or the concealed clearings.) It's been a while since I had that luxury and it is something that I yearn.

But my job isn't everything. Running, though potentially a hobby to not think about things, is something I now invest quite some time in decision making relating to planning training and time. I now consider myself at least basically capable of doing the planning for myself, and thinking about which events to enter, what paces, workout styles and terrain to run and how to deal with the physical and dietary side of these things. There is an element of creativity, risk/reward and endeavour. It's a realisation to find that the mere act of managing something of your own is a joy, not to mention without the managerial function to my running, I wouldn't nearly enjoy it as much. (There are a lot of other things to enjoy from running such as health, camaraderie, relaxation, pride in achievement, cultivation of self, but it's the managerial function that makes all the other most positive.)

In managing anything there are decisions, risks and rewards. In my job life this week has begun a reckoning about one of my decisions and my handling around it. I've learned a lot. Coincidentally it also featured a moment in my running where two strategic decisions came to a reckoning. Every busy runner has to make decisions of how to get the time to train in the face of all life's other distractions. My choice, which suited my constitution, was to get up early in the morning to run. This in a way has been my key decision to get the mileage in that allows me to run at a decent level. But there are risks. Even the lightest coloured running gear isn't obviously visible to drivers in dark conditions. (Let's face it - even the brightest coloured clothing could be mown down by a driver in the bright of the day.) It's also harder to see the ground and any hazards. This was obvious from the time of the blackouts. At the time of the black-outs I had the choice of borrowing a waist-lamp that would illuminate the path for our group running events but always chose not to. Even when one was free, I chose not to use one. Perhaps it was by conservatism around running gadgets. Perhaps it was my belief that I was a canny runner who could do without. To choose against running with carried illumination is the second strategic decision, which brings us to the result.

On Thursday morning I went on my first hard workout since the half-marathon, interval running at the Domain. I got up at 4:30am and jogged easily to the Domain. Fog had descended on the city and the Domain in particular had captured a layer of it. I began my first mile of pace and in the last quarter heard a van coming from behind me. The headlights hit the fog making for a bright glare. The Domain doesn't have a footpath around the mile loop so I tried to get to the left of the road so not to concern the driver. Just as he passed me, my foot went into a wastewater drain and I was thrown into the asphalt. The van stopped to investigate and I got up, my palms hot and my knee bleeding. He checked me out and but in the van's lights there only seemed to be some grazing and cuts. I thanked him and bid him on his way. I felt fine to continue so jogged for another mile before I felt good to start another mile of pace, then a rest, another mile of pace, and a rest, and a last mile of pace and then jogged home, 14.5km in total, at least 10km of running after my fall. I got home and got cleaned up. I hadn't noticed it but a cut at the base of my little finger had bled down to my elbow. I went to work without trouble but around 11am my left knee swelled up and I struggled to get around the office. I got a bit worried. My left knee had been the knee that I broke four years ago. It was also the one with the fickle tendon that had caused me annoyance for the last 9 months. The physio tested it the next day and found that no ligaments, tendons or bones seemed damaged, likely to be just a "contusion", and fortunately a couple of days on, the initial swelling has gone down. It's plausible that I'll go on a test run tomorrow.

I have to learn from this and act now to get a running light of some sort. I'd broken my knee while walking at slow pace. I'm very lucky if these are only "flesh wounds" considering I was running at interval running pace (between 4:00-4:30 mins/km) and thrown into the hard ground. The broken knee of course was falling onto some steps. I was lucky this time that my hands took the impact. (although interestingly two days later, my shoulder has started aching too.) I was lucky that I've been a habitual runner now with stronger bones. I was indeed lucky.