Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Year Turns - 14 Weeks to Go

Every Christmas, Helen and I spend a few days with our families in and around Liverpool and Manchester. For the past few years, I’ve also just started training for a Spring marathon at this time, and have to lead a double life; as well faking neurotypical gregariousness and playing at being an Uncle and an in-law, I’m also getting up early and putting the miles in. It’s a strange lonely sort of ritual. It doesn’t seem to afford the same sort of comfort as running at home, perhaps because after each run I’m returning to someone else’s house where I’m living out of a bag and where my post-run protein comes in someone else’s crockery.
The disrupted weather this Christmas has led to some odd runs. I have no idea what to wear, and have donned a windproof jacket for a sixteen-mile run only to wish I could discard it after ten minutes. And this week, I set out two hours before sunrise in 50 mile per hour gusts in a single flimsy layer and didn’t feel the need for any more because the gales were so unsettlingly warm.
It’s not just the weather that’s been odd and unfamiliar. This five-days-a-week regime continues to surprise me. Not only are my muscles that aren’t having time to recover, but my skin as well, and I’ve experiencing chafing at far shorter distances than in my usual regime. I continue to feel tired and sluggish when running, but oddly the day after that treacly sixteen-miler, I zipped through another eight at what would be a respectable race pace. I have no idea why.
My calves and quads are still sore, and both my achilles tendons are aching although so far this feels like a sustainable discomfort and not an injury in the making. I’m daring to hope that because I’m fitter and stronger than the last time I attempted to run so frequently, I’m correspondingly less injury-prone.
After the Doctor Who Christmas special went out, I placed a reminder on social media that its writer, Steven Moffat, had supported me and I was gratified by the number of donations which came in on Christmas and Boxing Days. In the new year, I’ll be making more targeted appeals and also approaching donors directly. We’re not far off £3000 now and I still believe we’ll get to £5000.
I’ve run my last miles of 2015. Tomorrow will be the year I turn fifty, and the year I run an ultramarathon. Both occasions have been occupying my thoughts for years but are hurtling towards me now.

Money Raised: £2,753.77
Money to Raise: £2,246.23
Miles run: 132
Miles to run: 832
Sponsor me here:

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Long Haul - 15 Weeks To Go

I’d like to say I’m fighting fit. In truth, I’m fighting to fit training in. Other things are being sidelined - piano, social correspondence, bothering to iron work shirts. Keeping to the training targets comes first. I feel the benefit of the runs, especially the brace of long ones each weekend, and my mind is more still afterwards, but this isn’t honestly an enjoyable kind of running. This five-times-a-week repeated punishment gives me no time to recover and run with fresh muscles. Each individual performance feels as much of a struggle as the sort of training I used to run five years ago before I became fitter. I can feel repetitive stress injuries, quite literally, nipping at my ankles as I run. Each time, I pledge to stretch and use the foam roller more and more. And after each time, I don’t because there just isn’t enough time. Look at how often I’m using the word “time". It’s the miracle ingredient I crave.
What’s does this feel like? It’s like suddenly running with a passenger. There’s more effort and less result. These are each individually disappointing runs. Only taken as a series, ninety runs, five a week over eighteen weeks, does the achievement emerge. Each week the achievement is still being on my feet and just about uninjured at the end of the fifth run. It’s degrading my other activities too - yoga’s harder and on Saturday afternoon as I scaled tenement staircase after tenement staircase in the cause of activism, my calves and quads were screaming at me to stop.
I’ve worked out a way of fitting this in around Christmas obligations. Christmas can be a challenging time for an Aspie. There are lots of overlaid sensory and social landscapes and the temptation is to curl into a ball and wait it out. But I’ll have some solitary meditative space as I go out and train. I love running on Christmas morning, and finding a return to the childhood thrill of being first up and discovering what has been left for me.
I must record the strange weather this December. At this time of year my usual running enemies are cold exposed skin and feet sliding around on ice. But this year, I’m facing high-speed gusts of warm wind. Wind is the enemy of runners seeking target paces, but for the next fifteen weeks, they’re not what I’m looking for. I’m looking for stamina, and the ability to keep running when I’m exhausted. These are perfect conditions, then - a 45mph head-on gust can make even running on fresh legs feels as though one’s entering the fifth hour. 
I’ve rediscovered the dawn this week, twice setting out before sunrise. At this extreme of the year, the return of daylight each morning is to be celebrated and there is no better way than to be out in it, ideally running south-east into the new day.
And soon, into the new year.

Money Raised: £2,445.77
Money to Raise: £2,554.23
Miles run: 86
Miles to run: 878
Sponsor me here:

Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Pressure Mounts - 16 Weeks To Go

This is what I looked like
about an hour after
after my tenth marathon
This week, I've properly appreciated for the first time what a significant volume of training I've committed myself to. Before my best marathon yet, I trained three and sometimes only two times a week. I usually had two or three days to recover between each training run. If I maintain the training pattern I've set out for the ultra I will be running five days every week, snatching just two days recovery between them. And on each of those recovery days, I attend a high intensity gym class.
It feels like a recipe for fatigue, a suppressed immune system, and overuse injuries.
I'm not backing off yet, but there's great comfort in knowing I can do so if I choose.
This week was an oddity, because it followed the spontaneous 23-miler the previous Saturday. I ran a couple of miles straight after my gym class on Tuesday and felt fatigued and wobbly. Things had improved by Thursday when I joined a charity run at work at lunchtime and, festooned in tinsel, ran a competitive four miles against a bunch of competitive IT professionals. I think I'm going to be able to cope with these clusters of three short runs from Tuesday to Thursday if I don't run any of them straight after a gym class again.
This weekend held my first two longish back to back runs, eleven miles on Saturday and seven on Sunday. Encouragingly I was more energetic and speedy on Sunday.
However, I usually feel crap. This volume of training has had me craving high-energy food and my weight has crept up a couple of kilos. I'm tired, and finding it hard to get up in the morning. I have an upset tummy and a blocked nose a lot of the time.
I'm not just going to put up with this and hope it goes away. Between now and Christmas I'm hereby imposing an in-bed-by-ten regime and watching what I eat so that my blood sugar doesn't spike. If that doesn't help enough, I may look at dropping one of the midweek runs. I have to maintain the two back-to-back runs at the weekend though, and in just a few weeks, they'll amount to a combined distance of thirty miles. It will be a real challenge to fit them in around other people's ideas of what I should be doing over the Christmas holidays.
I've changed what I listen to when I run. As I'm not chasing speed on the long runs, I can afford to listen to audio drama rather than energising music. I've been greatly diverted this weekend by, amongst other things, Big Finish Productions' audio revival of 1970s post-apocalypse drama "Survivors".
Reading the above, I realise I'm feeling a bit sorry for myself. Some of this is my resistance to change, and some of it's the low mood that comes with tiredness. I think that there's a part of me that doesn't actually believe that this five-day-a-week training programme is the right thing for me and that it's risky and contradicts the lesson of success I've been having by running less and faster.
Maybe the two problems - exhaustion from the volume of training, and a shortage of days over Christmas when I can run - are actually solutions to one another.
It's not just in my legs and joints that I'll do well to cultivate flexibility.

Money Raised: £2,273.27
Money to Raise: £2,726.73
Miles run: 55
Miles to run: 809
Sponsor me here:

Sunday, December 06, 2015

On The Waterfront - When Dave Met Desmond

To make life seem less repetitive and mechanical it’s good to have adventures, to keep doing new things for the first time. I spent this weekend visiting my mum in Liverpool, which is mainly a comforting nostalgic break from the cumulative rigours of routine, but I decided to deliberately explore two new experiences.
Last year when visiting I brought my bike with me and as I was riding back from the southern suburbs to Lime Street station, cycled past an enticing deep sunken garden behind the Anglican cathedral. And unexplored place! I found that this was St James’ Garden, excavated when much of the stone that the city is built from was hewn, that it hosts a spring, and that it’s a graveyard. So this time, quivering with the elective power of taking a weekday off work, I went to explore. It felt like entering a secret kingdom, and a quiet one too - apart from its own sepulchral calm, it has all the peace of a walled garden (but a biblical rather than a Victorian one) and bathes in the stillness from the cathedral that towers above, floating in the air like a gothic mothership.
There were a few other explorers, exploring the garden quietly with cameras like me, or sitting and exploring their own inner landscapes.
I stayed for about forty minutes. The place will stay with me for life. I can close my eyes and retreat there any time I choose.
Don’t worry, blokey readers. This will get a bit less poncey now.
My sister and her husband live with their three young daughters in Formby, a quiet coastal town about twenty miles north of the Liverpool suburb where we come from and where my mum lives. After having followed a training plan for two marathons this year which stipulates a twenty-miler every couple of weekends, I’m ready to run that distance at the drop of any proverbial hat that I might hear fluttering earthwards. Inevitably, I resolved to run from Mum’s to Rachel’s next time I was down.
Twenty miles should take three hours at a leisurely nine minutes per mile I reasoned. The only risk was the weather. I’d be running up the Mersey coast and winds of up to 45 mph were forecast. This was the weekend of Storm Desmond. (On behalf of all Pink Floyd fans can I entreat that when they get up to T, we can have Storm Thorgerson?) But they seemed to be from the south east. I wore a windproof jacket and gloves and set off. My mum lives half a mile from the banks of the Mersey at Otterspool Promenade, and as I approached it, my iPod played “Stanlow” by OMD, their solemn hymn to the oil refinery over the river whose lights I could see as I ran. And as the OMD boys hail from “over the water” as they say in Liverpool, i kept them playing as a surveyed the towns of the Wirral on the other side of the choppy river. The wind propelled me forward from behind and as I passed the spot where I collapsed with cramp on the Liverpool Marathon in June, I felt happy. When I was a boy, the promenade just stopped here, at the landfill sight, but over the decades that’s become a garden festival and then housing and even marinas. It’s an impressive rebirth and as I headed north I felt a sense not just of the Irish Sea ahead of me but the Atlantic and Liverpool’s historic links with the new world. This fired my imagination as a boy and did again as I ran. I love landscapes, history, movement, and the absence of crowds. This is where I’m most alive.
And so, now it’s all joined up, I can run from the house I grew up it to the Pier Head, with all it’s new developments and the Liver Buildings. Here’s I turned inland, going east for what was an optimistic piece of memorised navigating, up Water Street, where my father worked for Bibby Brothers shipping when I was a boy, and along Dale Street, barely changed since then. I soon found myself where I’d never been before, looking for Vauxhall (Lots of planets have a Vauxhall) where I joined the Leeds-Liverpool canal.
Here I managed a serendipitous error. Thrown off by the domestic labyrinth and shearing wind, I turned the wrong way on the canal, and heading west towards the docks was treated to an astonsihing ladder of locks, as the canal descended between enormous dark brick warehouses over a century old. The scale of this intrusion of historic industry into the landscape was breathtaking and as I regained my bearings and headed northeast again I was grateful for the happy accident.
Up then along the well maintained towpath. There was a kind of grim beauty to the landscape I passed through, countless scrap yards and businesses where blowtorch and swarfega are always to hand. A fire in a skip added to the sense of ruin. In the whole section along the canal, I didn’t see a single vessel on the water, a stark reminder that I live in a genteel varsity town where rowing teams and longboat holiday makers revel in life on the water. Beyond the canal were places I’d only had the most fleeting engagement with in my youth. My father had an uncle and aunt in Bootle, and it hadn’t ever been a place I’d imagined visiting on foot. 
At Crosby I left the canal and tacked back over to the coast. I’d missed some sleep during the week and was starting to feel it. But I was over half way and on schedule. As I headed towards the sand dunes at Crosby I realised how fierce the wind was. I was enjoying the novelty of running where I’d never run before but feeling apprehensive about the conditions. The promenade seems to run through the middle of the dunes and had accumulated blown-in deposits almost too high to jump over. The wind coming in from Liverpool Bay was whipping in from my side and found the best way was to run with one eye closed to keep the sand out. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had my calves blasted by sand like this. In such circumstances, the thing to do is grit your teeth (although the wind was actually doing this for me) put your head down and get on with it. 
I’s been going for about two hours by now and although I didn’t know it at the time, made a catastrophic mistake. I turned inland again too early rather than continuing north along the coast and found myself passing through well-to-do residential areas. I now realise that after two hours, my reasoning and planning had gone to pot, and even when I referred to the mapping app on my phone I wasn’t looking for the big picture.
I had a point to aim for that my sister had told me about at Hightown station where I could catch an off-road path all the way up to Formby, but I ended up taking an insane dangerous route to it along a busy road with no pavement, hardly any verge, and tight corners which meant that I had to keep changing side just to be seen. Common sense commanded me to take my earphones out and stop and leave the road when oncoming cars approached. This I later learned is a notorious place just for motorists. As a pedestrian I had no business being there. And I still hadn’t worked out that this wasn’t the route I’d been planning. I was becoming exhausting and angry that that run seemed to be longer than the twenty miles I had planned.
I finally made it to Hightown, tired and angry, but at least pleased that I was off-road again and could put my earbuds back in an bask in the stadium rock anthems of Asia. If you’re not allowed a guilty pleasure in these circumstances, when are you?
I phoned my sister, who is one of the most chatty and loquacious people I know. I think I may have cut her dead slightly with my just-the-facts-ma’am progress update.
I arrived, via this odd little sub-space wormhole, in the middle of a residential part of Formby and felt my spirits lift as I trotted the last few streets to the house. The numbers on my watch just didn’t make sense. I’d maintained a pace of about 08:45 a mile and yet was arriving half an hour late. It dawned on me that I’d run far more than I’d planned, well over twenty-three miles. Another half hour and I’d have covered a marathon.
My nieces excitedly cheered my arrival. I handed my phone to their mum and lingered outside the front door for two minutes, stretched and relishing the last solitude I’d enjoy for several hours.
The first two hours of the run had been exquisite mental and physical nourishment. The last hour and a half had been tough. I was glad it was over.
Now, a day later, I appreciate it a bit more. I’ve created a link between two places. Whenever I think of the two houses my family live in I’ll be able to contemplate a continuous path of footsteps linking them. 

Human-powered transport joins places up. It’s a deliberate way of weaving something valuable. 

The Big Launch - 17 Weeks To Go

There’s an embarrassment of riches to report this week. I had expected that I’d be writing about a deliberate diversion from the training schedule, where instead of running 8-9 miles on Saturday and 6-7 miles on Sunday, I yielded to the impulse to run over 20 miles between my mum and sister’s houses along the banks of the Mersey. But there’s such other good news to report that I’ve hived that off into its own entry.
My fundraising approach has been to recruit high-profile supporters first, so I can shamelessly cite them to publicise what I’m doing to raise support in the spheres where they’re well-known.
I’m really pleased that in this first week, I’ve managed to solicit support from several areas that are important to me.
First, I came for the comedians.
Toby Hadoke is celebrated as a Doctor Who interviewer and and audio actor, but that shouldn’t diminish his day job as a stand-up comedian and MC. He put a smile on my face this week with sponsorship and endorsement. And keeping it fishy (Hadoke/Haddock, get it?) , another comedian, Richard Herring also chipped in. (“Chipped” in. Ha ha. I am funny). Richard is best known for playing the bean-faced postman in “Time Gentlemen Please”, but has a place in my heart for his documentary stand-up show “The Twelve Tasks of Hercules Terrace” over a dozen years ago in which he recounted labours including running the London Marathon. This inspired me in 2004 to run my first ever 10K for charity, so he is part of this reason you’re reading this.
Then, I came for the politicians.
My ward, Fountainbridge and Craiglockhart has a couple of the best local councillors you could hope for and they stepped up admirably. Cllr Gavin Corbett (Green) claims (wrongly) (and repeatedly) to be responsible for my marathon success by ordering me to climb tenement stairs delivering hundreds and thousands of ward newsletters. But I’ll allow him this fantasy because he’s very much part of the success of this initiative by sponsoring me first. And across the chamber is Cllr Andrew Burns (Labour) who leads the city council and despite having described me as “a lost cause” politically sees some worth in this apolitical endeavour and has included me in his budget. A metaphorical tick in both their boxes.
Then, I came for the businessmen. In their suits and ties.
I’ve worked for Dave Foreman for much of the last decade. He’s led me through some challenging projects but always by making me want to earn his support. And Neil Davidson is something of a role model in the astonishing charity challenges he puts himself through. They’re both inspiring leaders who make me feel good about working for them. I think they usually use some form of sinister mind control, but they've done it here with their donations.
Then, I came for the Doctor Who writers.
There are literally too many of these to mention in person, so I’ll single out the famous ones who written proper Doctor Who on the telly. Way back in 1980, Andrew Smith made me green with envy by becoming the youngest-ever writer for the series. His subsequent police career has been built on knowing right from wrong so I’m flattered he’s chosen to back my appeal. Paul Cornell has written some of the best episodes for the Eccleston and Tennant Doctors and as a vicar’s husband knows a thing or two about fundraising appeals. He can come to me next time the church roof needs fixing. And finally, Steven Moffat, the man who for the last half-decade has been the lead writer and executive producer on Doctor Who (as well as doing a similar job with “Sherlock”) has been more generous than I could ever have dared hope. He’s a big-hearted, passionate man, and here is just another example.
So, I’ve got the (local) government, the law, the church, business, the satirists and the storytellers behind me. I am going to shamelessly milk their patronage via a series of manipulative graphics on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, timed to coincide with paydays, and use their names to drum up more support. Damn! I’ve let slip my secret plan.
The very good news is that fundraising has exceeded my wildest hopes. I anticipated that I’d get support by writing to people I know individually, but social networking has done its stuff and wonderful people I know, some of whom I’ve only met in person once or twice, have been generous in the extreme.
With only 33 donations so far, I’m 44% of the way to my £5000 target. The average donation has been staggeringly high although this is due in no small part to a certain television executive. 
While all this has been going on, I’ve been doing my part. It dawned on my heavily that there will be around 90 training runs for this race and that I’ll be running five times a week. I began the first week’s training with what seemed to be absurdly short distances - just two miles on three consecutive days. And yet, by the third day, I was feeling an undeniable muscular fatigue and craving a day’s rest. This is because my previous training regime involved running no more than three times a week and having at least a full clear day between runs. I’m going to be feeling tired and sore for the next few months, and I’ve realised that this Saturday’s indulgence - an unscheduled 23-miler - will have to be a one off. I’ll have to respect this schedule or I’ll become injured. And I’ll have to keep listening to my body, not just my muscles, but my heart, my lungs and my gut (you really, really, don’t want to know the awful details) and not fall into damaging habits. 
I’ve been thinking about what to blog about for the next seventeen weeks (Running 23 miles provides ample time for such speculation). I’ve decided to go and interview some of the staff from Number Six and report first-hand how services funded by Autism Initiatives help and enable people with autism. And why don’t I talk to one of the organisers of the Glasgow-Edinburgh Ultramarathon about how first-timers get on? And, yes, if I can persuade her, I’ll interview my wife Helen about what it’s like being married to someone with Asperger’s who obsessively runs long-distance races and blogs about them.
I watched Doctor Who with my mum last night. When Steven Moffat’s name up on the opening credits I inwardly cheered. 
His cunning plan has worked.

Money Raised: £2,213.27
Money to Raise: £2,786.73
Miles run: 29
Miles to run: 835
Sponsor me here: