This middle aged woman can

How’s that for a catchy slogan? There are a proliferation of annoying hashtags all about empowering women to take up sport and exercise. Alongside this are an increasing number of events branded as women (or more usually ‘girls’) only, Pretty Muddy, Iron girls, Great women’s 10k etc etc #thisgirlcan.

I understand the sentiment behind this movement but for me it seems more divisive than inclusive. It’s an unassailable fact that men and women are physiologically different but this isn’t news. Men have a higher ratio of muscle mass to body weight, so they will generally always be faster or stronger than women. There will always be exceptions but this is just simple biology, no point getting upset about it. What I will get upset about is the perception that women are somehow capable of less and really need their own pink and fluffy events. Giving us our own little events to level the playing field actually marginalises women rather than including women. I’m not talking about elite competition or team sports here, common sense dictates that separation is needed in those environments. I’m talking about recreational running and gym activities. Why do we need our own 5ks when parkrun welcomes everyone regardless of gender, ability or age?

The message I get from the glittery pink events is “you can do this little event, no big nasty boys to upset you and make you feel inferior”. The problem is that I don’t feel inferior, but now these type of events are telling me that maybe I should. I’ve been running for a long time and I’ve done every type of event imaginable, I’ve never been worried about the performance of anyone else so why does it matter who else is participating? I’m no elite, I’m a middle aged woman who relishes the challenge of what I do. I’ve recently done my first ultra marathon, nobody ever told me I couldn’t do it. In fact I did it because someone told me I could! So we’re all susceptible to believing what we’re told, why not tell ‘girls’ that they can take part in events as equals?

The same applies in the gym, as a woman in my mid 40s I don’t expect to be as strong as an equivalent man. Why should that bother me? Well, it doesn’t. I’m interested in being the best I can be, no good will come from comparisons. Let the women train with the men and each do our own best. We have our own goals and our own measures of improvement.

Giving women our own events and sessions is well intentioned but ultimately gives us another glass ceiling. Who wants an artificially level playing field with an imposed barrier? Give me a field of lumps and bumps where the sky is the limit. There will be obstacles and tumbles along the way but the potential to achieve is infinite. There are enough battles still to be fought without creating new ones that don’t need to exist. Just because you’re female doesn’t mean you can’t be sporty, conversely not all people who lack confidence to join in sporting events are female. Let’s encourage those who want to join in regardless of gender or stereotype.

The road to strength and fitness is not paved with pink glitter, unicorns or empowering hashtags. Take the first step, join in and see where it leads to. Parkrun or ultramarathon, male or female, first place or last place, we’re all doing the same thing. There’s a Latin phrase which translates as “strength rejoices in the challenge”, how about that for an empowering hashtag?

If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.

This is going to be a long post, an ultra post if you will. Settle down, get a brew and let’s go.

Day zero-Friday

Surrey is a fair distance from Nottingham so we’d booked ourselves a premier inn in Aldershot for Friday night. We set off late in the afternoon in cold but clear weather. When Guy and I go to events together we always seem to have dramatic weather- we’ve had torrential rain and 50mph winds so I’d long been convinced that this weekend would bring blizzards. I was delighted to be proved wrong, at least until about 15 miles from Aldershot. We had proper blizzards with cars crawling along the motorway. It got worse after we left the motorway, there were abandoned cars and cars stuck all along the dual carriageway. What’s needed in these situations is a 4×4 truck, as luck would have it that is exactly what we were in. After a few bold driving decisions and a bit of navigational freestyling we made it to the bright lights of the premier inn. We were probably the smuggest motorists in the Home Counties. There was quite a queue at check in due to a coach party having to abandon their coach because of the snow. This seemed to be the most exciting thing that had happened to the passengers in quite some time.

On the way down Guy was telling me about a conversation he’d had with a member of the local running community, let’s call him Dave. He’d filled him in our weekend plans, Dave’s response was “don’t come home in a body bag” but delivered in a way that implied that this was neither unlikely nor undesirable.

We had dinner in the Brewer’s Fayre (oh the glamour) and watched the first half of the rugby. After that it was off to bed with a brew and full command of the remote control, sometimes it’s the little things.

Day one-Saturday

By Saturday morning the snow had stopped falling but it hadn’t thawed, Aldershot Tesco was like a winter wonderland. We had breakfast and set off for Farnham. The world’s most condescending satnav got us there “turn second left (scumbag)” in good time for the 9.00 start. We collected our numbers, dropped our overnight bags off and did what we do best – had a brew. I wasn’t as nervous as I usually am at the start of a race, perhaps because it wasn’t really a race or maybe because I knew I wasn’t going to be alone. The scenery at the start area was beautiful, snow covered fields and views towards the hills. There was a good mix of people there, from racing snake style serious ultra runners right down to first timers like me (and plenty less experienced than me). Eventually it was time to start, the snow was crisp underfoot but not slippy. The first photo opportunity was a few miles in

Up on the hills doing our best Frozen impressions.

We’d planned to walk the uphills and run the rest, it was about completing not competing. The plan was working perfectly, we ran/walked to the first checkpoint around 9 miles in. We stopped for drinks and food, I went for a mix of savoury and sweet whereas Guy stuck with savoury (this is important!). We carried on, up more snowy hills, through woodlands with breathtaking views and over hills with children sledging. I was loving it and the miles were passing nicely. Until all of a sudden I wasn’t loving it. It was around the 13 mile point when I realised I had no energy, I felt awful and couldn’t see how another 20 miles were possible. I’ve never had a problem like this at this distance before, 13 miles is a standard weekend run and nothing to get excited about. I didn’t want to worry Guy by having a meltdown so I just went a bit quiet, he noticed (or maybe he thought he’d gone deaf). Rather than going for a standard “pull yourself together Froggatt” he opted for trying to work out what was going wrong and then fixing it. Drink and emergency sweets and our first reference to the immortal genius of 5ive “keep on moving”. Within a mile or so I was fine again and on we went.

See how high up we are!

As we ran we talked to other runners along the way. One chap was an experienced ultra runner but he told us he was just having a very bad day and asked how we were doing and what we were training for. “This” I said, “my first ultra”. His reply was “and you’ve chosen a multiday one? Wow”. Guy told him that he was training for the Marathon des Sables, “so you’ve done a few ultras leading up to this then?” “Well I did one the other week” said Guy, “that’s all”. I got the distinct impression that our new friend thought that we were both slightly bonkers.

The major test of day one was Box Hill, this came at around 22 miles. The ascent was partly up big wooden steps and seemed to last about 5 miles, I like hills as much as the next person but this was huge! It was also really muddy, if I hadn’t had Guy to physically pull me up the muddy bank at the top I’d probably still be there now. No sooner had we reached the top then we had to go back down the other side- more steps. It was around here that we first heard the helicopter “that’s Dave” said Guy “he’s followed us and brought some body bags with him”. From then on he seemed to be circling us, it only increased our determination not to need his body bags.

After Box Hill something strange seemed to happen, it was like we found our groove and could just keep on running. Unfortunately we slid slightly off course but a runner behind us called us back before we’d gone far wrong. Sadly the same couldn’t be said for the chap in front of us (who we’d followed) as he had his headphones in and vanished into the distance. The last section of day one was great. I’ve never run over marathon distance before yet when we got to 26 miles it wasn’t difficult to keep on going. We got to 30 miles and started to drop down to Redhill, the last 3 miles were the fastest of the day.

We crossed the finish line together, we’d done it. Day one 33 miles completed in 7 hours 50 and we were still in one piece.

On arrival at the school which was our home for the night we went straight for the hot drinks table, time for a brew. We collected our bags and found a nice spot of sports hall floor to call our bed. I like a bit of luxury so had brought along an inflatable sleeping mat, it was the best decision I could have made! After we’d unpacked it was showers then a massage for me while Guy watched the rugby.

After the rugby it was dinner time, everything is provided and the food was lovely. 5,000 calories takes a lot of replacing. After dinner we listened to some talks on the Marathon des Sables and ultra running in general. The conclusion was that it’s not just about running, strength training is important as is mental attitude. After the talks it was time for bed with lights out at 10pm. Everyone had settled in to their sleeping bags and all was quiet, then from next to me came a whispered “good night John-Boy”.

Day two- Sunday

Our day two start time was 8.00 so we’d set an alarm for 6.30, imagine our delight on discovering that wake up time for everyone was 5.40. My main concern about day two was whether my legs would work, amazingly I woke up and found that I was perfectly capable of moving. Bonus. After breakfast it was simply a matter of doing day one in reverse. Day two had something that day one didn’t have- ice, lots of ice. The first few miles were pretty safe then it was back up Box Hill at around 10 miles. If getting up there was tricky then getting down was trickier. I fell over pretty early in the descent, Guy helped me up and checked I was ok. He was a step or two ahead of me for the rest of the descent so missed my next 5 or 6 falls. Despite the ice I still managed to get covered in mud. Fortunately he did managed to witness my best fall, the one where I ended up flat on my back in the mud “what are you twatting about at Froggatt?”. I’m fairly sure that translates as “oh no my friend, are you hurt? I’m absolutely not laughing at all at your ineptitude.”

Day two views.

The ice continued causing me problems, I did a passable Jane Torville more than once. It was frustrating because stretches that we could have run were so icy we had to walk to avoid me ending up in A&E or Dave’s body bag. We kept hearing a helicopter “Dave’s chopper, he’s coming for you”.

We stuck to the strategy of walking uphill and running on the flat or downhills as long as there was a chance of me staying upright. There were some truly lovely moments, running through a snowy forest as a deer bounds through the trees was unforgettable. The words of 5ive inspired us as we kept on moving, you should take inspiration from wherever you find it.

Day two was harder in that we were tired and we expected it to be slower, not to mention the ice. It wasn’t as hard as I’d expected though. Really it’s just running and we can do running, it’s just a long old way. We chatted to other runners along the way and just kept going. 25 miles passed and then 30 and then it was the home strait. At 32 miles Guy turned to me and said “I think we’ve broken the back of this now”, he was right. Somehow we’d covered 65 miles together with just one little mile to go. Suddenly I didn’t want it to end, we were on the verge of finishing this ridiculous distance but I was having so much fun I almost didn’t want to leave the little ultra bubble of just keeping moving.

We rounded the corner and we could see the finish, just a field to go and we’d done it. 66 miles and we’d actually done it. We crossed the line together, still smiling. Day two had taken 8 hours 20.

We did it! 66 miles and we’re still on speaking terms. We’re also super hardcore ultra marathon runners.

What’s the first thing we did after crossing the line? Have a brew of course.

This has been about more than one weekend though. There’s so much to be done before the actual event, so much that helps it fall into place. You need a family who tolerate your absence while you train. You need friends to train with, friends who will come and run 15, 20, 25 miles with you. You need a PT to train you to be strong enough to cope with what you’re asking your body to do. You need a massage therapist to keep you in one piece after all the running and strength training. You need self belief. You need all of this before you cross the start line. Finally, you need a friend who will pull you up when you’re sliding down, who will push you when you’re struggling to get going, who will pick you up when you fall (all of these literally, not just figuratively) and who will be with you every step of the way.

Recovering, tapering or just plain lazy

It’s two weeks since Langsett and now mere days until the Pilgrim Challenge. The week after Langsett was a recovery week, Monday bootcamp was a bit of a challenge. On the Tuesday I managed a slow 3 mile jog, by Thursday I was back to something like normal running. Last Sunday Guy and I headed out for an easy 10 miles. It was a lovely run but we were both still feeling Langsett in our legs. It’s always a pleasure to be out running on the trails on a Sunday morning.

Since then it’s been full on taper time. We’ve gone directly from recovery into tapering with not much actual training. This week I did a 6 mile run on Tuesday and a 4 mile on Thursday, doesn’t feel like enough at all. We did a very tough caveman bootcamp on Friday, I’m definitely not going this Friday. I did a shortish long run today, just 8 miles with some club friends. It feels good mentally to finish my training on a good run where I felt both strong and comfortable.

This week will be Monday bootcamp and a tiny run on Tuesday then nothing. I’ll spend the week writing lists of what I need to pack, worrying about what I might forget, panicking about what we’re attempting, imagining ailments, obsessing over the bbc weather app and generally being a nightmare. I’m looking forward to next weekend in many ways. It’s a challenge but we’ve trained, I hope we’ve done enough. There’s a balance between not doing enough and over training, have I found it? I think we’re as prepared as we can be. At the very least it’s a fun weekend away. I really don’t know what to expect, I’ve got this idea of ultra runners as superfit elite people. I can’t help feeling like I’m an imposter.

The event itself is in deepest darkest Surrey and covers 33 miles each day, that’s 66 miles in total. Let’s not focus on that bit. We get to stay overnight in a school hall with a zillion other people, I’ve invested in a super small inflatable mattress- I can’t fit a four poster in my kit bag. There will be lots of food, I’m brilliant at the eating bit. This time next week we’ll discover how I am at the running bit. My aims are to complete it and to still be on speaking terms afterwards. Time to stay calm and not panic. Argh.

Out on the Wiley, windy moors

Once again I’ve been very slack on the blogging so it’s time for a two week catch up. The last couple of weeks have been building up to the longest training run of this “plan”, it’s probably a bit optimistic to describe it as a plan really but it’s the best I’ve got.

I started New Year’s Eve with a scenic 11 miles of trails with Jo and Louise, it was a lovely route with plenty of hills and mud. Later in the week it was back to running club and a shorter run. The following weekend was the last opportunity for a biggish back to back of running before the Pilgrim itself. On Saturday Elizabeth and I set off to do a 12ish mile route, 12ish was really almost 14. By the end my knee was starting to niggle on the downhills, not a pain, just a niggle. I think it’s the effect of running loads of miles, I got a bit carried away over the Christmas holidays with all the daylight. Niggly knee or not I had a Sunday run planned so that’s what I did. We went from Guy’s neck of the woods for a change. We have a different natural pace and he hadn’t done 14 miles the day before so it was a nicely challenging run, we had to cut short at 8.5 miles as my current road shoes sometimes make my toes hurt and this was one of those times.

I can cope with the odd run where things hurt or it doesn’t go right, it happens sometimes. It’s a bit trickier when it happens on your last run before a week off running. I had planned to do a couple of short runs during the week but I was gently advised to rest my knee totally. I found a week of almost no exercise really tough, I usually love a taper but I felt lazy and huge!

The reason for the easy week was the little trip we’d booked for Sunday, the Langsett loop. The Langsett Loop is a brilliant ‘It’s Grim Up North running’ event, it offers 5,10,15,20,marathon and 30 mile options. I’d entered the marathon, Guy the 30. By the time we got to the start I think he’d have happily pushed me down a ravine. I spent most of the journey worrying, panicking, threatening to retire from marathons and generally being a highly strung nightmare. He calmed me down with a “look, what’s the worst that can happen?” with an undertone of “FFS Froggatt, chill”. We registered, faffed (me), did several wees (also me), made new friends (him) and stressed a bit more (me). Amongst the faffing we found Sarah and Duncan from LERC. Sarah was doing the 10 mile and Duncan the marathon (his 96th). The race briefing was very firm on the need to stay on the left of the only stretch of road in the loop due to a recent fatality there. What’s the worst that can happen? Apparently we could die.

Here’s me and Sarah before the start, I’m not looking terribly relaxed. All distances start simultaneously and follow the same 5 mile loop. The loop was incredible. The terrain was track, soft grass, rocks, mud, trail and road. It went up then down, then up, then up etc etc. The literal high point was up on the moors, absolutely stunning. The weather forecast had promised winds up to 50 mph and it was pretty accurate, it was bracing. The loop meant that you were only running into the wind about 1/4 of the time.

I did the first loop with Sarah and Duncan and the second with Sarah as Duncan pushed ahead. It was so good to do a nice long run with her, she’s been out through injury and did brilliantly. She finished at the end of lap 2 so I started lap 3 on my own. This is fine, I can do 15 miles on my own. I can do it on my own but I like a chat on a long run unless it’s a racing race. I was really pleased to spot Duncan a mile or so later, someone to run with a chat to. The miles passed nicely, walking the uphills and running the flats and the downs. At around 17 miles Guy appeared behind us, he’d lapped us and was at 22 miles himself. He looked really strong as he passed, not like a man who had run 22 miles of tough trails. I was loving it too and did apologise for the earlier stress. There’s something so ridiculous about such a tough run that it puts you in a really good mood. Lap 4 was ticked off, 20 miles done and still happy. The 5th lap was the hardest but it wasn’t unpleasant at all. The knee that had been worrying me was holding up ok with KT tape and ibuprofen but at 21 miles it suddenly hurt but in a different place. I decided to take a couple of pain killers and they seemed to work. From there it was just a matter of keeping going and ticking the miles off. As 26.2 isn’t divisible by 5 there was a nasty little out and back tagged on after the 5th lap to make the distance up to a marathon.

I crossed the line in 5.42, collected my medal and goody bag and headed for the cake. Guy had completed the 30 miles almost half an hour faster than my marathon so he was also waiting at the cake. We treated ourselves to official commemorative hats….

Don’t we look pleased with them? We’re just waiting for the outdoor catalogue modelling jobs to come flooding in now.

The Pilgrim Challenge is now less than three weeks away so there’s not much more running to be done before then. I’ll do the usual bootcamp, strength training, club runs and a couple of shorter long runs. It’s now more a matter of not doing anything daft between now and then, looking after myself and staying calm. I’ve promised not to spend the next three weeks stressing. We’ll see how that goes then.

If it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you.

Deep.

This blog comes to you from that funny bit between Christmas and new year when you don’t know what day it is and you’re 90% mince pie. Since my last blog I’ve gone public on the ultra thing. Most people have gone with the “you’ll be able to do it”/”how exciting” option. I wouldn’t say it’s gone down entirely positively at home but hopefully we’ll get there!

Being off work for a week means lots of running time, I’ve done a couple of trail 15 milers. I’m not finishing them completely done in but I’m also not finishing them and fancying doing it all over again. It’s difficult to train for this sort of mileage because there’s only so far you can sensibly go yet still have enough left to go again in a day or so. I’ve done 7 miles today, a run I hated and struggled with a year ago, today it was great. I considered doing a bit more but I’ll save it for tomorrow. The week off work has done me a lot of good, I’m sleeping better and feel a lot more rested. All good things must come to an end though, back to work on Wednesday so back to running on the roads in the dark.

I’m feeling less panicky about the ultra now, in fact I’m often quite excited about it. At the moment we’re both fit and still in one piece, just 5 weeks to go. It might be time to change the settings of this blog to public now.

Catch up time

It’s somehow been almost a month since my last blog. It’s not that I have nothing to say, more that it’s difficult to blog when nobody knows you’re doing it without arousing suspicion.

Since my last ramblings I’ve been pretty busy. I’ve done the Clowne half marathon, I set out to enjoy it and try to get somewhere near to last year’s time. When I’ve done this race in the past I’ve run with Scott and we’ve chatted and sworn our way round. He wasn’t there this year so I was all by myself. The run was good, at 5 miles I decided it had been long enough without chat so I started talking to the people next to me. One of them turned out to be an experienced ultra runner who was only too happy to share his wisdom. All of his advice was really useful and I’ve learned a lot. Hilariously he thinks that I may have an advantage over Guy by the end of day two. I don’t agree with him as Guy is a lot fitter than I am, if I get to the end of day two I’ll be ecstatic.

Last weekend contained no running at all as we were in London watching the boy play in the National Children’s Orchestra.

This week I’ve been back to it, a couple of shorter runs midweek and the usual strength training. Yesterday I went to Barnsley to do the Elsecar 20 mile with my friend Eve. On the way up I was really nervous, I haven’t done that distance since April, it’s laps, I don’t like laps, what if my trainers aren’t comfy? What on earth am I doing? In the event it was great! It was cold but we chatted the whole way round, stopped for drinks, snacks and wees. We finished in 3.40, we could probably have carried on although I was also fairly glad I’d finished. Ideally I would have done another long run today but I had to deal with the hell that is Christmas shopping. I managed to fit in 5.5 trail miles before we went. Pleasingly I could have done more, maybe not 28 miles more but I could definitely run.

I’m now having times where I think I can do this, I also have times where I have a huge panic about what I’ve let myself in for.

Finding the balance

This is all unknown territory for me. I know how to train for a marathon but this is totally different. I’ve had a bit of a wobble this week, should I be running more/am I doing too much? I’ve done my two club runs this week, both around 6/7 miles, I’ve also done my usual boot camps.

This week’s long run wasn’t quite what I’d hoped for. My logic was ok- short of time, road half marathon next weekend so let’s do a long road run this weekend. On Saturday morning Louise, Will and I set off for a 15 mile run. We all like off-road running better but it would be fine. One of the benefits of off-road running is that it’s kinder to your joints, I’d had a bit of pain in my hip overnight so I had an inkling there’d be a few niggles. As the hip bone is connected to the thigh bone and the thigh bone’s connected to knee bone etc etc I got a fair bit of pain in my knee from about 10 miles on. It’s not pain, it’s a niggle, it will be fine. It hurt, the run was hard and as soon as I got home I was googling “how to tape up knee”. I wouldn’t say the run provided me with the growing confidence that comes from good training. More a panicky feeling wondering whether I’m broken and if this is the end of the road. Maybe new trainers will sort it.

Today my knee feels ok but I haven’t done any exercise. This is where your mind plays tricks on you and alternates between “I need to run more miles, I’m not training enough” and “you’re overdoing it, that’s why things hurt”. As most of my friends (and family) still don’t know I’m doing this I’m limited in who I can send panicked messages too. The obvious candidate is the person running it with me, a no nonsense “first priority is get to the start line. You’ve done marathons, you can do the distance ” helped. We’re contrasting personalities.

I’ve got a mini massage booked on Saturday and a half marathon on Sunday. It’ll all be fine.