Tag Archives: running

Greatness in the grind

Mo Farah, seconds after winning the men's 10,000m

Mo Farah, seconds after winning the men’s 10,000m

Winning is easy. If you’re Mo Farah, at least. The British runner made his final sprint to the finish in the men’s 10,000m at the World Athletics Championships look like a breeze.

He rounded the final corner and then – boom – after 26 minutes of running he easily dipped into his reserves and pulled out a final 200 meters that left the field scrambling in his wake.

That’s how it looked. In reality I’m sure it was likely anything but easy, despite’s the Briton’s ability to cheerily push through fatigue and pain.

While the final 20 seconds of Farah’s greatest race – or the one that cemented his standing at Britain’s greatest long distance runner – were the ones celebrated, repeated, and reported on worldwide, they weren’t the ones that won him gold.

As the most amateur of amateur runners (yours truly) knows, the end is often the easy – or easier – bit. Getting there is the hard part – the fifth and sixth kilometers are often where the race is run or lost, whether you’re competing in front of millions of viewers, or just hauling yourself around north Portland on a Saturday morning.

Farah’s greatness lies in these fifth and six kilometers, as he displayed in London yesterday. Under siege from younger competitors, who appeared to be running as a team against him, he was forced to step up the pace.

Farah's sprint to the finish

Farah’s sprint to the finish

Watching on, at times it seemed that the British runner was dropping back, only for him to rally again and again, responding to the faster pace, battling back.

Such running goes far beyond physical form or fitness – it demands deep mental reserves, an ability to remain focused and work to a plan, when every external (and most internal) factor wants to pull you off course.

If there’s a lesson to be read from the ability and greatness of Mo Farah, it lies here. Yes, preparation is vital; yes, performance is critical; of course, your finish is often key, but most races are won in the grinding, unexciting, off-camera, mid-sections.

This takes focus and self belief, two hard-won traits that are too easily and too often bandied about in life and sports. And even the world’s best athletes struggle to maintain them; as Farah himself said afterwards: “At one point in the middle of the race I wasn’t thinking I was going to lose, but I thought ‘this is tough, this is tough’.”

“Il faut d’abord durer” (“first, one must endure”) was a motto adapted – in very different circumstances – by a well-known American writer. It came to my mind in the final moments of yesterday’s race. If, like Farah, you can bounce back often enough the challenges – eventually – will dry up.

And they did, in those final 200 meters, when Mo Farah kicked into his sprint, the crowd roared, the flashbulbs popped, and history was made. But that was the easy part.

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Grin and ice it

Running in Dublin, 2011.

The 50k days – 2011.

‘Hallux limitus’. It doesn’t sound too sore. In fact, it hardly sounds like an ailment of any sort.

But it is, and those who’ve experienced it know exactly what those words mean – and what they feel like.

The condition is a stiffening of the big toe joint, caused by osteoarthritis. Not only does the joint stiffen and flare up in pain, but a bone spur begins to emerge on top of it.

If you’re a runner this spells trouble (likewise if you want to wear those Italian dress shoes). You can hold it off for a while, by way of inserts and cutting your distances, but once it’s underway it’s unstoppable – without intervention at least.

In my case, I’ve been managing a worsening case of the problem for the past four years. Almost two years ago I wrote that it would, untreated, surely stop me running.

To date, it has not. But I run less. My onetime 50k a week is now a distant memory – anything above 20k causes problems for me at this point. This has meant more time than I ever envisaged, or desired, on an exercise bike in my local gym, and long, long, walks on the weekend.

My hallux (big toe).

My hallux (big toe).

Despite such workarounds, and the availability of cortisone shots, I’m edging closer to the day when I make an appointment with my physician to be referred for surgery.

For now, I’m running in denial – or a form of denial, at least. This is why I occasionally attempt something I used to do regularly – a handy 10k on a Saturday morning, for instance – knowing, but refusing to recognize, that I’ll likely spend the rest of the weekend dealing with the effects.

This mentality, common among pavement pounders I imagine, fascinates me. If any other activity was causing me pain and damaging my body, I’d stop. Who willingly courts pain? And if you do, what does that say about you?

For now, I tell myself that the fitness and endorphin rush payoff trumps the discomfort. But only just. And the scales will, shortly I’m sure, start to tip in the opposite direction.

Until the, and the day I make that physician call, it’s grin and bear it – and ice it immediately.
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Standing on the beach, with a run in the sand

Looking towards Cape Kiwanda, February 2017

Running towards Cape Kiwanda, February 2017

One of the things I miss about living in Dublin is the sea. In the two decades I spent there I was rarely farther than a 15 minute drive to the water.

In more recent years, living close to the northern shore of Dublin Bay, I could run to Dollymount Strand in 10 minutes (if I pushed it mind you, usually it took a little longer).

Since relocating to Portland, Oregon, last year, most of my running has been on the sleepy streets of North Portland, usually in the morning before traffic gets busy. It gets the job done, but it’s not quite the same as jogging along the surf line, out among the elements.

Neither is grinding out the kilometres on a treadmill, the other option in recent times (and the more sensible one, given Oregon’s weather this winter).

Running past roots. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Running past roots. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

After six months of this, I’d had enough, though. And so I found myself arranging a trip with my wife to the central Oregon coast, to a small town called Pacific City. It boasts a large offshore sea stack, a huge, climbable sand dune, a famous brewery, and four miles of straight, level, sandy, beach.

And it was deserted. After months of living and working out in a city, it felt strange to be standing on sands which stretched out for four miles with nobody in sight. It may have been the time of year, or the early morning, but no-one ventured past the beach entrance (the site of the brewery’s pub – which may explain matters). And so I ran on alone, in silence.

Well, anything but silence. The roar of the ocean, whipped around by a steady north-easterly, kept me company. Once I got into the zone I was not only running in Pacific City, I was on Dollymount Strand, or Rosslare Strand, or Curracloe Beach, my favorite coastal runs back in Ireland.

Without cars, street signs, people, or a phone, one beautiful natural area is like all the others – thankfully. For 50 minutes I was out of civilization and out of time. I planned to run 5k along the beach, but I couldn’t resist pushing on.

I’ll hurt tomorrow, of course, but I’ll be back on city streets then, where – nicely lit, well paved, and without the wind and the noise – running is always a little tougher.

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Friedrich Nietzsche’s guide to running

Friedrich Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche

New laces. Baseball cap. Rain jacket. Copy of “Ecco Homo”.

What do these four items have in common?

They’re what I need for a late Fall run in the rain. While the first three items might be familiar to most runners, I’d bet that few whip out the work of a 19th-century German philosopher before they pound the pavement.

Why should they? Because Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Ecco Homo” deals with the concept of difficulty, the area where wishful human expectations hit the wall of cold disappointing reality. That’s a familiar concept to anyone trying to knock out a sub-44 minute 10k in Portland’s October wind and rain.

Every runner knows that he or she is often just one outing away from a  difficult session – the tough day when you’re contending with nasty weather, or you don’t feel well, or your long-planned prep appears to have had little effect.

Each runner has a way of handling this. Some run through the difficulty, grinning and bearing it, while others avoid it altogether, turn over and grab an extra hour’s sleep on a Sunday morning. I’ve been both runners at different stages, usually feeling aggrieved by circumstance in the process.

Nietzsche suggests a third way – acceptance.

“To regard states of distress in general as an objection, as something that must be abolished, is the [supreme idiocy], in a general sense a real disaster in its consequences…almost as stupid as the will to abolish bad weather,” he wrote.

The plantar fascia

The plantar fascia

(The marathon-running novelist Haruki Murakami put this another way: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional”.)

The challenge is to incorporate Nietzsche’s ‘distress’ into your workout, to get up close to it and make it part of the session. Physically we can build muscle by lifting weights – why not apply the same principle to mental weight?

Like the rain, difficulty is not going away. Like the niggling pain in my ankle or the ache of a shin splint, it can’t be abolished.

Later today I’ll head out for a 30-minute run knowing that I risk aggravating my on-off plantar fasciitis. But I’ll take my training advice from the “Ecce Homo”: “Pain does not count as an objection to life”.

In other words, get out there and just do it.
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What’s in my running bag

Don't leave home without it

It’s not a lot – but it works

When it comes to running I’m consistent. I don’t do bells or whistles. I don’t own a GPS watch – in fact I rarely run with any electronic device. Nor do I sport hi-tech socks or fancy layering.

Frugality is the name of the game. I like to keep my kit to five or six items.

This works well, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it’s a lighter load. Secondly, packing is easier for runs in other places. Thirdly, there’s less stuff to lose – and it all fits in a 15 liter pack (a Berghaus Twentyfourseven bag).

Over the last decade of running I’ve boiled it down to a simple collection, pictured above. I have one duplicate of each clothing item and that’s it. (Did I mention I’m frugal on the track?)

This is the kit that gets me around the bridges in Portland, along the beach in Dublin, on the pavement in Toyko or through the park in New York City.

So, as they famously ask at Amoeba Music, what’s in my bag?

The kicks: Nike Vomero 8s. The most reliable running shoe I’ve owned. This pair are a couple of year old but a little TLC and a lot of avoiding cross country surfaces has kept them intact. Even after a solid drenching (Portland or Dublin-style rain) they’re dry in 24 hours.

Kit in action

Kit in action

The top: I’ve had plenty of running tees over the years. This New Balance sticks out for two reasons: it dries quickly and it was given to me by my fashion-forward sister. No doubt she noticed that it would match my Nikes.

The shorts: Every runner knows the feeling. You arrive in a city, unpack for a morning run, and spend ten minutes in the darkness trying not to wake your spouse and locate the running shorts you left in the laundry basket at home. This pair was picked up in the wake of one such morning, on a visit to Galway, Ireland.

The socks: Socks are socks are socks. Nothing fancy here. Black’s handy for hiding the mud stains though.

The outer layer: …And breathe. This North Face Flight Series has got plenty of ventilation and the green/yellow color means I’m less likely to become a road statistic. The downside is an unstorable hood which flaps demonically in the slightest wind (works well in the rain though – see above).

The glasses: A basic pair of Pepper’s, their Speedline brand. They’re polarized, which limits glare on early morning outings. Not too expensive because – inevitably – I will mislay them.

The watch: My only nod to the digital age. I bought this Polar AW200 nine years ago, ahead of an ascent of Mont Blanc. While barometers and altimeters are rarely required where I run the stopwatch is handy. No GPS or other workout tracking though – but then again I run for other reasons.

Needless to say I’ve spared you some less glamorous elements of my kit – the underwear, the sunblock, the Vaseline, the blood, the sweat and the tears.

But what you see is what gets me around. It’s enough to push out a 44 minute 10k in the park or around northeast Portland – which is all I need for now (just don’t ask me to do it every day though, or I’ll have to add a jumbo bottle of ibuprofen to my bag).
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A running lesson from a 70-something hiker

On Croagh Patrick

On Croagh Patrick

“It’s good for the soul.”

Not the words I expected to hear from a 70-something hiker as he ascended the tough scree slopes of Croagh Patrick, a mountain on Ireland’s western seaboard, on a rain and wind-lashed November afternoon.

The light was falling and I was coming off the mountain as quickly as my sodden boots could carry me. As I descended I was surprised to see, emerging from the mist ten minutes below the summit, a couple of men making their way up.

As they got closer I expected a brief conversation, above the howling wind, about conditions on top or how much longer they had to hike to get there. That’s if I even wanted to engage in conversation – my summit high had quickly faded and I was dreaming of taking off every piece of wet clothing once I got back to my car.

The lead climber, now just meters away, was 40 years older than me, moving slower than I was and clearly feeling the impact of a 700 meter ascent up a wet rock path.

Seconds before we passed he looked up and grimaced, before smiling briefly and giving me his words of advice. A second later we parted. I think we managed a mutual ‘best of luck’ – but I doubt either of us heard it above the wind.

This morning I awoke more than 4,400 miles from Croagh Patrick, to the sight of rain pouring down on the September streets of Portland, Oregon. It was before dawn, I was tired, my legs were sore, my rain-gear packed in a box still in transit from Ireland.

I could’ve provided myself with a dozen more excuses not to go for a morning run. But something in the rising light or the hanging clouds on the West Hills kicked me back to November 2008, to the slopes of Croagh Patrick and an old hiker who refused to quit on a hard mountain day.

My three miler was little compared to his daylong climb, though we probably wound up equally drenched afterwards.

Eight years on, the Croagh Patrick climber’s advice has stayed with me. Whether it’s climbing a weather-lashed mountain or pounding city streets through the rain, don’t think it, just do it – and keeping doing it. If nothing else, your soul will be fit.

A climber through the mist, Croagh Patrick, November 2008

A climber through the mist, Croagh Patrick, November 2008

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The running advice that keeps me on track

Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami

One of the best insights I’ve encountered about running came not from a coach, or a sub-three hour marathon runner, or an athlete interviewed with a new medal.

Instead it came from a (then) 56-year-old man who I’d never met, and who’d made his name writing stories about – among other things – talking cats and alternate realities accessed through wells.

When Haruki Murkami wasn’t dreaming up his postmodern fables, he spent a lot of time running. And a lot of that time was spent running marathons (Murakami’s tackled the Boston Marathon six times).

His experiences led to his 2007 book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, a memoir which recounts how the Murakami-the-writer became Murakami-the-writer-and-obsessive-runner.

In his mid-50s at the time, Murakami was familiar with the highs all runners know. Given his age, and the strain marathons place on joints approaching their sixth decade, he knew the lows too, the tough days on the track.

“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional…The hurt part is an unavoidable reality, but whether or not you can stand any more is up to the runner himself,” Murakami writes.

When you’re running well – in my case 75% of the time – such thoughts never cross your mind.  But Murakami’s advice has become a critical mantra to get me through the hard sessions, the mornings when my plantar faciitis kicks off, or my shins begin to splint, or I simply find myself slogging through 45 minutes of steady wind and rain.

And pulling through those sessions is, to me, what the spirit of running is all about.

Dawn run, Galway, 2015

Dawn run, Galway, 2015

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Running into the City of the Roses

The Willamette River

The Willamette River, August 2016

After 8,000 kilometers, a number of farewell parties and all the work that’s involved in packing two lives into two dozen cardboard crates, I arrived in Portland this week in dire need of a mind cleanse.

When I’m jetlagged or feeling the strain of a heavy schedule one thing works for me – running. It doesn’t have to be a long distance or a great pace, or even a particularly enjoyable session. I just need to get out the door and start pounding it out.

My wife and I woke at 6am last Wednesday morning to a crystal clear sky over the City of the Roses. This was it, the first day of the Next Step, and the next step was getting outdoors.

We are staying in The Pearl district, close to the waterfront along the Willamette River – a circuit of which provides a spectacular dawn run. I had done this loop, around two of the 12 bridges which span the waterway, when we visited the city last December.

On the waterfront. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

On the waterfront. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Back then the weather was cold, with a freezing breeze off the river which blew away any jetlag cobwebs. This week it was warm, 19c at 7am, but a gentle late summer wind was just enough to ensure a comfortable run.

And so I started the next stage of my life much as I’d finished the last one, jogging along an expanse water as the day dawned. When much else is changing there’s comfort in maintaining some routines.

In busy and stressful times, periods of bereavement, heavy workloads, on days when it’s all gone right and others when I’ve hit a speedbump, up to this most recent move, to a new country, running has been a staple. At times it’s been easy, the 10k flying by; other times, every kilometer has been hard fought.

But every time the end result is the same. I walk back in the door in a better frame of  body and mind than when I stepped out.

Last Wednesday I entered our rented apartment, sweating and thirsty, tired and happy, dropped my keys and hat and told my wife something we already knew, “this is a great place”.

It is, and it’s best seen at 7am on a summer morning, crossing the Hawthorne Bridge with the sun on your face, the wind to your back, and the road rising to meet you.

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Taking away some of that Bull Island zen

Dawn over Bull Island

Dawn over Howth Head, August 2016

My physiotherapist better look away now. Because this is a post about something that I really shouldn’t be doing much of but, despite all advice to the contrary, can’t give up.

It’s running. Or jogging, or slogging, or the next best word that describes my morning efforts around Bull Island.

On the mornings I can run that is. A burgeoning case of hallux limitus, a fairly common arthritic disorder that’s struck the big toe of my left foot.

A year ago I wrote about how the condition could eventually end my running altogether. Twelve months on and a canny regime of ice/walking/bicycling/rest has ensured that I can still get out for 5k twice a week. If I’m feeling utterly reckless I’ll stretch that to 10 – and pay for it afterwards.

But stopping is not an option. Most runners know the empty, distracted feeling when they miss a planned outing. Those who are injured know that they will do anything – make whatever time sacrifice, take whatever supplement, stretch whatever muscle – to get back out again.

Why? It’s not to get a physical workout – there are less painful ways to do that. It’s mental – or it certainly is in my case. When I’m off the track I miss the calming, clearing effect of a good run.

Running man

Running man

Over the years I’ve tried many things to quiet my mind. But nothing even comes close to the effect of 25 minutes running in the outdoors.

In recent weeks I’ve needed this more than ever. Planning, packing and preparing to leave Ireland has been exciting – but the flipside of the excitement, the anticipation and the bittersweet series of goodbyes has been my mind’s switch is jammed to ‘on’.

And so I’ve turned – despite the pain, which is manageable – back to jogging. Not just any jogging either, but a workout on Bull Island and Dollymount Strand, the sandspit that sits to the north of Dublin city centre.

This has been my gym in recent years, and it’s one I’ll miss. When my running ban was in effect I’d walk there, in any season and any weather.

But the best time to run in the area is on an August morning, shortly after a 6am sunrise. If you’re lucky you’ll catch dawn breaking over Howth Head, on one side, and over the city of a million slowly waking souls on the other. Most likely you’ll be alone, blank before the heavens, while your thoughts will have the decency not to intrude.

I’ve no idea where I’ll be running next month but – physios be damned – I will be. Whatever the location I do know one thing – I’ll take some of the Bull Island zen with me.

Dublin from Dollymount Strand

Dublin from Dollymount Strand, August 2016

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The five stages of runner’s grief

The foot

The foot

“The waiting is the hardest part,” sang Tom Petty in his 1981 hit, a song written as he recovered from a hand injury which limited his guitar playing. Or so I once heard.

At least Petty got back to the fretboard. My own experience with injury of late has been more along the lines of The Long and Winding Road, most of which has been pedalled.

For the past three years I’ve suffered with a running injury that worsened from an annoying niggle to a painful case of plantar fasciitis to a diagnosis of osteoarthritis in my big toe.

The result has witnessed a collapse in my mileage, from around 50k a week in 2013 to a pitiful five (10 if I push it) at present.

A programme of physiotherapy, along with exercises, x-rays and shoe inserts, was followed by a medical consultation and, finally, an appointment to an orthopaedic surgeon next month. While I wait on the latter my exercise regime has been confined to static, dull hours on a stationary bike, broken up by long walks (tantilisingly along my old running route).

The ongoing big toe saga also led me to google ‘how to cope with running injuries’, which brought me in turn to a Runner’s World article documenting five stages of ‘runner’s grief’.

First off, I’m aware that there are bigger problems in the world that a painful toe. But anyone who’s been injured will have encountered one or more of the five stages – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and – the fabled holy grail – acceptance.

Run or walk? Jogging in Porto, 2015

Run or walk? Jogging in Porto, 2015

In my case the first two, denial and anger, were one and the same, signifiers of a period when I’d run 40 and 50 kilometres and then lose my temper when I could barely walk for three days afterwards. Being as stubborn as most runners, this pattern of jog-wobble-hobble repeated itself for a year.

Then, with the onset of physiotherapy, I shifted to the third stage. I’d trade a dull, 45 minutes on the exercise bike for a 5k run. Then it became an hour for 2.5k and a handful of Vitamin I.

Was I depressed at this point? If I was I buried it in sweat and episodes of Deadliest Catch – still my stationary bike show of choice, mainly because the Bering Sea looks like the only place less enjoyable thank the tedious pedalzone I set up in our living room.

Then, one afternoon last December I walked into a radiology department at a Dublin hospital and, at long last and by way of my doctor, received a diagnosis. And now I’m awaiting the surgeon’s appointment.

Cue acceptance.

But not so fast (a bit like my 5k times). While I convince myself that I’m at ease with my injury and assure myself that I’ve learned lessons of limitation, ageing and common sense, the first question I’ll pleadingly ask the surgeon will be “can you help me run 50k a week again?”

To which he’ll likely laugh – and then recommend a stationary bike. Petty was wrong. The waiting’s been easy – the accepting’s the hard part.
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