My first year as a runner

Andy Stanford-Clark - Sep'16

Someone recently posted on Twitter: if you run, you're a runner, no matter how fast or how far. So I'm a runner! This used to worry me a bit: are you a runner when you have the proper kit? A pair of proper running shoes rather than just trainers? Be able to run more than a certain distance? At more than some particular pace? No, the statement is very clear: if you run, you're a runner!

I ran 5k, for the first time in my life, a year ago, 3rd July 2015 to be exact. I didn't do Couch to 5k, or anything at all, actually, in preparation. I just put on my trainers, some shorts and a t-shirt, and went for what I had calculated was 5k, along the coast path near our house on the Isle of Wight.

I was already reasonably fit: I do quite a lot of walking, and had been using a rowing machine about once a week for quite a long time. I set out on my run with the intention of completing the distance, regardless of the speed, so I jogged really slowly. I got to the point where I thought I should reasonably have been able to run to without being worn out, and just carried on. At the turning round point I still felt OK, and that made me feel good. The last 1k was a bit of a struggle, but I used the "counting down from a large number" trick to take my mind off the running. That worked, and I was soon on the home straight, and then I'd done it! 40:07, my stopwatch told me.

Why did I start running? Mostly because so many of my friends and colleagues are runners. If so many people are doing it, there must be something good in it, I figured. I also wanted to get fitter, so was looking for a new activity. My children are both keen runners (daughter ran at county level for a while), which was an additional motivation: so I had another topic to talk about with them. I was also, of course, attracted by the geeky tech: GPS trackers, Strava, running apps, recording progress over time. The whole "quantified self" thing. I also have a lot of friends who rave about parkrun, and I really wanted to experience that!

I did the same 5k run along the coast path once a week for the next few weeks. Each time it was easier to finish, and my time slowly decreased. I had a lot of aches in my legs at that time, usually the evening after a run. I found lots of ways to stretch out the muscles that were aching, and would diligently do little repetitive stretching exercises during the next couple of days. Conference calls are a good time for repetitive gentle stretches!

I was very happy running along the breath-takingly beautiful Isle of Wight coast, so apart from my curiosity about the social aspects of parkrun, and my desire to get an "official" 5k time - rather than what first my stop watch and then the Strava app on my phone was telling me - I wasn't in any particular hurry to do a parkrun. My 5k time was steadily improving. Breaking through 30 mins was a target and then an #achievmentunlocked in September.

I signed up to parkrun and got my barcode: another reason not to do it removed. I have to admit I was a bit apprehensive about taking the parkrun plunge. It felt like it would be like going to a party where you don't know anyone. But one Saturday, totally on the spur of the moment, I decided today's the day. So spontaneous was it, in fact, that by the time I'd changed into running gear, found the all-important barcode, filled a water bottle and driven the 7 miles to Newport, it was a minute to 9! Someone who looked like a proper runner was running across the field, so I guessed he knew where the start line was, and trailed along behind him. When I got to the line, they'd already started, and the tail runner had just crossed the start line. So I just carried on running past him, and quite a lot of other people (about half of them as it turned out), and found a group that seemed to be going at "my speed", so I tagged along with them. After what seemed like quite a long time, I chanced a glance at my stopwatch and found I'd only been running for 10 minutes. Oh no! I've blown it: not even half way yet, and I'm feeling like I should be on the last half km by now! So I slowed down quite a lot, as finishing the course was my main ambition, not any particular time!

My first official parkrun time: 26.15. I was very pleased with that. At the finish line I saw a couple of people I know, which was a pleasant surprise. I didn't know you are a runner, they said. Well, I just did my first parkrun, so I must be now, I grinned. That evening, my heel became painful down one side. It stayed painful for several weeks. I called it my parkrun injury, because the first two parkruns I did, I got the same painful heel. Very odd. I concluded it must either be the extra acceleration that I unconsciously used to overtake people (even though it's NOT a race!), or that there were a couple of sharp turns on the Medina course, or that most of it is on hard shale path, contrasting with my soft, grassy run along the coast.

This stopped me running for a few weeks around Christmas. I did ankle strengthening exercises for a couple of weeks, hanging my feet off the edge of the stairs at home. Gradually the pain went away and I could do the exercises for longer (about 90 sec, I think I got up to). I was becoming far more aware of my muscles, and learning to listen to what they were telling me.

For Christmas I got some proper running shoes, socks, shirt and shorts. And... a Garmin ForeRunner 225 running watch. At last I could leave my smartphone at home and escape the dreadful UI of the Strava app! The watch is great: live time, distance, pace, and 1k split times at a glance. When I get home, it connects over BLE to my iPod Touch and the Garmin Connect app downloads and analyses my run data. Then it uploads my run to Strava. All done automatically while I'm having a shower. My running shoes were from Sweatshop, who offer a great service of a custom-moulded insole, which they make in a clever machine when you are In the shop. I had a problem with pronation a few years ago, and this has really helped make my shoes very very comfortable indeed. Highly recommended!

Stretching and warming up before, and stretching after a run are very important. I do a few custom exercises that stretch out the muscles that I know get tight: hamstrings, quads and calves in particular. Stretching is a gentle, slow thing, I realised, when my son shouted in alarm: "don't bounce!" when he saw me preparing for a run one day. Stretching afterwards is essential, also. Far too often I'd go for a lunchtime run and then spend the afternoon sitting at my desk. Standing up a few hours later was often a painful experience!l

Coming up to date, I have logged nearly 50 runs totalling just over 300km. In April I broke through the "5 pace" barrier for my 5k run: 5 minutes per km. That was my goal for 2016, so, tick, done that. My 5k PB is currently 24:42. I haven't got an official time for that yet: my parkrun PB is 25:29. Inspired by my son regularly running more than 10k, and a half marathon, I started slowly extending the distance I was running. Easy to do on the cliff path: just go further before turning round. I have continued with a weekly run, adding 1k and then doing that distance a few times until it felt OK. It took a while, but I'm now running 10k comfortably. I did 14k a few weeks ago, which felt great! Each time I run a longer distance it feels really good because I know it's the furthest I've ever run, evva! While on a business trip to Taiwan recently, I ran a couple of early morning laps of Liberty Square in Teipei, which was pretty amazing, amongst lots of people doing Tai Chi.

As I enter my second year of running, I want to continue improving my stamina, increasing my pace, increasing the distance, avoiding injuries. I don't think I'm cut out to be a marathon runner: it gets boring just running for a long time, even with such beautiful scenery around me; and it's a lot easier to find a spare hour for a run than 3. That said, I didn't think I'd ever run 10k, so who knows?

Thank you, in no implied order, to @abigailcooke86, @bodonovan, @bryanboyd, @ciemon, @ed_sc5, @hardillb, @icraggs, @itchypaws, @lauracowen, @martinjgale, @matthew101, @maygg, @timdp, and @vintage1951, who are all inspiring runners, and are great for encouragement, advice and conversation. We are runners!

Comments, advice or questions? Tweet @andysc.