super generic girl

the awesomely average life of a girl like all others


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Lessons from the Big O 2013 – I’d rather feel like crap than just feel okay

Posing for Mike Tennent's camera, before I knew what I was in for.

Posing for Mike Tennent’s camera, before I knew what I was in for.

I ran the toughest course of my life on Saturday and I’m not even sure I’m prepared to talk about it but if I don’t dump it all onto this keyboard right now, I may never find the ability to talk about it again so, stand back, here goes whatever’s about to come out of me.

The 21km trail I was supposed to run that morning ended up being a 28km trail with brutal elevation (who knew some parts of Rotorua were so close to the sky?) and some of the toughest terrain I’d ever run in my life. When I think of parts of it – and I still do, like some sort of weird PTSD – I just want to use swear words. I’m going to try to choose others and spare you from those but, frankly, I’m so out of energy that I can’t promise much. This will probably be a long one so get a cup of tea or something (and bring me a stiff drink while you’re at it). If you don’t feel like reading this whole thing (why would you?) and you just want to know whether I finished or not, I did. You can leave now.

For myself and whoever poor bored soul has decided to keep on reading, here’s a recap.

I signed up for the Big O on Tuesday after Leah told me she’d be running it in a fairy costume. I thought of my poor tutu abandoned at home and decided that putting some extra miles on it wouldn’t hurt.

Hahaha. “Wouldn’t hurt”. Anyway.

That same week, I got shin splints and a weird 24h bug forced me to work from home the day before the run. Feeling better by Friday evening, I felt too guilty to skip the NZ anniversary drinks of a really close friend, so decided to stop by those anyway (with the race in T minus just a few hours). “Stopping by” turned into cocktails and dancing (because my mind is that weak) and, at midnight, I was standing up in the kitchen separating jelly beans into tiny ziplock bags and hoping for a miracle. I finally fell asleep at 1am, with the alarm set for 5am.

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Just a few hours later, in pain, sleepy and with a slight hangover, I got picked up by Stacey, a vision from heaven who picked me up with a hot coffee and a muffin. Three hours later (with an intense few minutes trying to follow the America’s Cup because apparently I’m now one of those people who follows boat races), we arrived at the event base in Rotorua. I immediately spotted Mike (who took the tutu photos) and a few other familiar faces and, as the excitement kicked in, I managed to forget about how crappy I felt and how there was absolutely not a single good reason for me to be attempting that run after such a shitty week. Whatever, I was wearing a giant tutu and it was going to be an amazing day out!

Except, not so much.

You see, I wanted to prove to myself that, even under such miserable conditions, I could run a half marathon. The problem is that, even if you ignore the shin splints, the sickness and the hangover, I’m still at the lowest level of fitness I’ve been in the last year. Finishing a half, at this stage, is like a personal Everest. I’d done it the week before on road and I wanted to do it this week on the trail, even though I was feeling even worse.

I know it might sometimes sound like I’m taking the piss when I tell you about how unfit I am and then write recaps of runs a lot of people can’t – or don’t – run. I’m not, though. If you know me, you know I have the eating habits of a stray dog living behind a McDonald’s drive-thru, I stay awake thanks to litres of coffee every day and sleep an average of four or five hours a night. Also, I don’t run nearly as much as some people think I run, just because I keep a running blog. But I have this theory that running is mostly a mental exercise and so, as long as your mind is strong, it doesn’t matter that the rest of you is falling apart.

Just a couple of little issues with that theory: a) it’s mostly bullshit and b) this run wasn’t actually a half.

I had company the entire way – Ruby the dog joined me about 4km into the run and never left me again so we had the chance to bond for a whole 24km of running, walking, sliding down mud, jumping over fences (so many goddamn fences!), getting lost and crying. Yep, crying. Not even embarrassed to admit it. I cried and told Ruby how much of a stupid idea this whole thing was. She listened patiently even though, by then, I had already yelled at her to “stop fucking judging me!” as she stood at the top of hills watching me drag myself up.

I spent hours and hours and hours and then some more hours climbing up hills, negotiating roots and vines, getting my legs cut by gorse. I fought not to let the mud swallow my shoes and tried my best to block out the constant rain that kept pouring for hours. Partly because of how shitty I was already feeling before I started running, partly because it really was that tough a run, I ended up sinking to a level of low I didn’t even know I could get to, a little basement hidden under the basement of the most negative shit I’ve got in me.

Running often does that to me and I don’t complain because it’s part of what I chase when I run: high degrees of emotions, whether they’re happy or sad. Some of the most unadulterated happiness I’ve felt in life has happened during a runner’s high. Some of the deepest sadness has happened during a runner’s low (is that even a thing? I get it a lot so it should be a thing).

The point is, and this is especially true for trail running, I experience feelings at a much higher frequency when I’m out running and that is a big part of the reason I do it. On Saturday, proving that it wasn’t all bad, I rode quite a good runner’s high between kilometres 5 and 9 (when I slipped and hurt my knee). For those 4km, I took close notice to the fact that I was wearing a giant tutu and running alone through a stunning piece of Earth in New Zealand. And fucking hell, I felt lucky. Luckier than you and anyone else around. I had one earphone on and didn’t bother with my usual BPM-influenced running music. Instead, I put on Yann Tiersen’s Amelie OST, which sounded strangely fitting, and spent a good half an hour smiling to myself in the middle of nowhere, genuinely happy. I don’t get that stupidly happy doing anything else that I do in life. Even if I’d not finished the run, it would all have been worth it for that half an hour alone.

But just like that, I also experienced what I now remember as the absolute lowest of the lows, a sort of feeling I find much harder to translate into words. When I got lost, cold, in pain and didn’t know how much longer I had to go, I wanted to give up. I wanted to sit there and cry. I didn’t sit (mostly because stopping would only have made me colder) but I cried and hated running and hated that I’d put myself in that situation.

I couldn’t remember the happy moments anymore and went into a strange dark place in my head where the finish line didn’t actually exist anymore and I was just going to have to accept I was going to be there forever. I stopped the music and went into a weird auto-pilot mode where I kept putting my feet one in front of the other without really hoping to get anywhere. I didn’t care about the cold. I didn’t care about the screaming knee. I didn’t even care about finishing. I was just empty of whatever it was I was supposed to think or feel and, instead, there was just nothing.

Now that it’s been a couple of days, even though nothing will change the fact that I felt absolute hatred for those moments, in those moments, I can see that they’re just part of what I seek anyway. Who wouldn’t want to feel things in such extreme ways?

The problem, you see, is that life is too comfortable. Way too comfortable. We take the elevator and get takeaways, pay extra for same-day delivery, have remote controls, heated car seats and apps for everything. If we plan things right, we can go whole days without even having to move anymore. We do whatever we can to make life as easy and comfortable as we can because we think that’s what we’re supposed to do. We even measure people’s success by how comfortable their life is. And we sort of stop feeling things. It all becomes average. Not quite freezing, not quite boiling, just an in-between temperature that fits no purpose and that is no good but also not bad for anything. We think that suits us just fine but we’re just crippling ourselves and getting through life missing out on actually feeling things.

In long-distance trail running, there’s no room for that in-between. Everything is heightened, enhanced and technicolor. Happy only means happiest and sad only means saddest. Average is a concept that only exists out of the trail, in the weekdays at work when people ask how we’re doing and we say “okay”, the hours we spend commuting, the time we numb ourselves in front of screens and forget to feel things because feeling things is hard work and drains you out.

A long-distance trail run never goes “okay”. That trail on Saturday left me empty, which was exactly what I wanted it to do (whether I realised it on that day or not is an entirely different matter).

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Just about every non-runner I know has asked me at least once why the hell I get out and do these things (especially since the next few days are spent barely moving and bitching about it). I find it such a transcendent thing that I have no skills to explain. I can only hope they assume there must be a really good reason I willingly put myself through the pain I talk about. Because that pain is just the result of a major rush of happiness and genuine feelings are supposed to leave you exhausted. Other runners know. We’re not as stupid as we look. We wouldn’t spend all this money, travel this far, abuse our bodies this much for something average. For that, we have PlayStations.

I’ve written so many words already I’m going to spare you a step-by-step account of Saturday. Let me just leave it here, for posterity, that this 28km trail was way, way tougher than my road marathon (and it took me longer too!) and tougher than any other event I’ve ever run. And I know you’re thinking “well, duh” after I gave you the laundry list of all the things that were wrong with me before I even started but I assure you it would have been one of the hardest regardless.

One of the absolute worst moments came at the 20km mark, when I caught up with another runner as we both slowly made our way up another god forsaken hill, trying to avoid all the gorse (he was smart and wore long pants, I’m currently sporting some really hot scratches all over my legs). I told him “not long to go now!” and he looked at his Garmin and said “yeah, maybe 5 or 6km to go, maybe a bit more” and, around about that time, my heart sank all the way down to the bottom of the Earth.

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“NO! We’ve got 1km to go,” I told him (and I’m pretty sure he could feel the panic in my voice). He explained that the aid station at 13km was the halfway mark (is this stuff in the emails the event directors send out? I need to start reading those) and that we were at least 5km away from the finish. He also said something about elevation and how he thought we should be heading down soon but we were weirdly still going up quite a lot. I don’t know, I stopped listening. I was still trying to process the whole “I wasn’t even ready for a trail half and now you’re telling me it’s more than a half” deal. So I took off and left him, obviously (actually, nothing to do with that, he was lovely, but I was freezing and running was the way to stay warm).

What happened next was proof that maybe freezing but staying near someone else would have been the thing to do. Being the self-proclaimed worst trail runner in the world (a title I embrace with more pride than I should), of course I got lost. We were high up in some crazy ass massive piece of farmland, fog so thick you couldn’t see anything in front of you, one wrong turn and I was panicking in the middle of nowhere and blowing my emergency whistle hoping someone would find me. Turns out the whistle did a bucket load of nothing and no one came to my rescue. I managed to backtrack all the way to the last marker I’d seen and found my way back to the track. Not long after, I spotted the same runner again – who had passed me while I was busy getting lost. Having gone through my little panic attack (of which we shall never speak of again), I decided to stick with him. We had a couple of kilometres to go by then and finally started making our way down. My watch marked just over 28km when I crossed the finish line. It took me over 5 hours to cover those – longer than it took me to run a full marathon on the road.

RIP, tutu.

RIP, tutu.

I wasn’t even close to prepared for what the day would eventually bring me. I know some training, less injuries and some better decisions (like, you know, not drinking and dancing the night before) would have made a difference but I’m glad the difference wasn’t between finishing or not finishing. I sort of still managed to prove my point, I guess. I’m more proud of those 28km than any of the longer distances I’ve ever done before and I’m still stupidly excited for everyone who braved that course that day, especially those legends who set out on a 35km and ended up having to accidentally run an ultra (and I’m super glad I ran the Big O 35km last year, when it was actually 35km).

With Ruby finally asleep in the car, Stacey and I took my bottle of wine spot prize to an Indian restaurant (we made sure it was BYO), ordered the banquet (all you can eat out of pretty much all of their curries, plus entrees), spent nearly $50 in lollies at the supermarket and drove back to Auckland singing our hearts out to keep ourselves awake.

The trail that marked the official start of my training for Tarawera ended up being so bad that it had the upside of making me confident that I can run that ultramarathon next year. If I survived Saturday, the way I was feeling, I can survive whatever gets thrown my way.

Settle down, universe, that wasn’t a challenge.


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Arthur’s Half recap – That time another runner helped me across the finish line

Pre-race, when he didn't really know what he was in for yet (hence the smile).

Pre-race, when he didn’t really know what he was in for yet (hence the smile).

I’ve said here a few times that signing up for half marathons and then not training for them is a really bad idea. I know this because I’ve made that mistake a few times. Like, oh I don’t know, last weekend, for example.

I registered for the Arthur’s Half (one of the hilliest road half marathons I’ve ever run) a few weeks before, then proceeded to not run anything over 5k until race day. Remember you like me for my charming personality, not for my smart decisions.

Anyway. I’m going to keep this recap boringly chronological, even though all I really want to do is jump to the bit where I tell you that I actually finished, but I suppose you need to understand why finishing that half marathon was such a big deal.

I jumped out of bed at 6am on Saturday morning with the ease I only jump out of bed early for running events. I got to the event area just as the marathon runners – those legends! – were starting their race. The marathon included a few extra amazing people doing it, including trail-addict Malcolm Law, running his first ever road marathon, and a group of people who had run a full marathon over night and for whom this was the second marathon that day. I hadn’t even had breakfast and those people were on their second full marathon. Knowing this was happening out there made the event extra special and I didn’t even care that it was raining and I actually just wanted to go back to bed.

I picked up my registration pack and immediately spotted Mike Tennent sitting at one of the tables, getting ready for the run. After a few months of almost-but-not-really meeting up at running events and knowing each other from Facebook, we finally got to say a proper in-real-life hello. Now, keep Mike’s name in mind. It’s important. In the bathroom queue, of all places, I met Jenny (hi Jenny!) who said hello to me even though she reads SGG. A few of us, Mike and Jenny included, then hung out by the registration area, as it poured outside. Leon, who was going to start the run with me, arrived shortly after.

Before we get to the running bit, let me tell you a bit about Mike. I’d briefly mentioned him here before, when I celebrity-spotted him at the Huntly Half a few months ago. Mike is currently nearly halfway through an year long charity fundraising project that basically kicks ass. He is running 52 races (half marathons or longer) in 52 weeks to raise money for Hospice. Now doesn’t that just make you want to high five a pony? I mean, what an amazing thing to do. The Arthur’s Half was event #22 for him and, because he’s one of those stubborn hardcore runners, he’s been sporting an injury and running them anyway (sometimes two in the same weekend because that’s just the type of fabric of awesome he’s made of). Because of his injury, and because he was planning to run another half marathon the next day (which he did, in 1:45:18, while injured!), he decided to start with me so I could keep him at a slow pace (I knew my slowness would come in handy for someone one day).

Pre-asthma photobombing, when things were still looking promising.

Pre-asthma photobombing, when things were still looking promising.

Shortly after 8am, we were off. And shortly after that, I felt something was off. I was running along with Mike and Leon (who couldn’t resist the temptation to run faster and bagged himself another sub-2h that day, the crazy man) when, suddenly, it felt like, no matter how hard I tried to breathe, no oxygen was coming in.

Oh great.

That exercise-induced asthma I had discovered I had a couple of years ago – and which I’d only experienced less than a handful of times – was back. Bitch. My inhaler? Nowhere to be found, of course, because inhalers are for sensible runners who plan shit properly.

We were just over 3km into the run and my immediate thought was that I could not possibly go into a panic. But you know what happens when you think that you can’t go into a panic? You panic about the possibility of panic. LAYERS OF PANIC. So I tried to think about other stuff and focus on my breathing instead. Like, really focus. No, harder than that. Literally putting some thought into every time I inhaled and exhaled.

I took a few walking breaks and Mike dutifully slowed down to walking pace to keep me company. I kept trying to bring my breathing down to normal levels and it occasionally seemed to work but always temporarily. I can’t remember how many times I told Mike I couldn’t breathe – as if he couldn’t tell – and he kept giving me instructions to try to get my breathing back to normal. He also tried to tell me off for not having my inhaler but he didn’t get mad at me for longer than maybe 2 seconds (not that I could tell anyway). We kept going at this running/walking/running pace as I tried to regain control of my lungs. At times, it felt like things were going back to normal. Then shortly after, I’d sound like Darth Vader again. It rained on us a few times and the wind was throwing the rain sideways at us and Mike kept carefully placing himself to shield me from it. Throughout the entire thing, I kept telling him I was failing to bring my breathing back to normal and he kept calming me down. Over 17km of this and the man still hasn’t unfriended me on Facebook.

So you get it, right? It sucked. I couldn’t breathe for most of my half marathon and it freaking sucked. But the universe has this weird way of balancing things out and, in all that suckiness (if twerking is a word, suckiness can be a word too), there was Mike. And now all I have are amazing memories of that morning. I felt immensely guilty for forcing a guy who runs half marathons much faster than I ever will to stay so far behind and I told him a number of times that he should keep going and I’d catch up. He could see right through my bullshit, though, and kept reassuring me that he would not leave me behind. And he never did. Instead, that usually speedy runner spent two long hours and fourteen minutes running at the slowest pace of his life and trying to take my mind off my breathing by telling me about his life and getting me to tell him about mine.

Mike carried me through that entire course. There aren’t many things I know for a fact but I do know I would have given up if it hadn’t been for him. I’ve never pulled out of an event and you don’t have to know me that well to know how giving up would have absolutely crushed me. So I owe Mike for the fact that I’m not crushed right now. That I’ve got half marathon #14 under my belt, that I’m breathing ok again and that I can continue to say I’ve never pulled out of an event.

A couple of kilometres from the finish line and we're actually looking happy. I blame the rain for the look I'm sporting, not just the sweat. But mostly sweat. I should probably stop filling the internet with sweaty pictures of myself. One day.

A couple of kilometres from the finish line and we’re actually looking happy. I blame the rain for the look I’m sporting, not just the sweat. But mostly sweat. I should probably stop filling the internet with sweaty pictures of myself. One day. (Photo by Allan Ure, Photos4Sale)

That, right there, is what running is all about. Forget the rest. It’s just that, nothing else. Just that man on the course who could be competing against others (or against himself, trying to get a new personal best) but instead fought his competitive instinct and stayed with me the entire way, a runner he’d only met that very morning, just to make sure I was ok. Along the way, he greeted all other runners we saw, took photos, chatted away, kept checking on everyone’s little pains and niggles. In between trying not to suffocate, I kept wondering to myself whether I was going through the most painful or the best half marathon experience of my life.

The answer, of course, was obvious. It was both.

Please go and like Mike’s Facebook page as soon as you’re done here. If you can, donate to his amazing cause. He’s dedicating all weekends for a year to fundraising for Hospice and, at the same time, he’s being the kickass human being I’ve just described to you. If you can, please donate. You can pledge an amount for each of the events or just make a single donation. If you have problems with the form on his website, let me know and I’ll put you directly in touch with him (although chances are you’re smarter than me and can work it out).

Now if you’ll excuse me, I seem to have signed up for another last minute half marathon (this weekend) and I’ve got an inhaler to pack.


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A report on a week of morning runs for the love of pizza

VICTORY IS MINE AND IT'S FULL OF PEPPERONI!

VICTORY IS MINE AND IT’S FULL OF PEPPERONI!

Are you sitting down? I’ve got a pretty shocking revelation.

I ran every morning last week. Yep, every single one of those stupid cold mornings.

No, I don’t know what happened to me either. Probably some hormonal imbalance or something, I don’t know. One minute I was chatting along with a friend about this and that and then one thing led to another and I was agreeing to run every day for the following six days for free pizza. Not just any free pizza – Sal’s pizza which, as everyone knows, is the best pizza that has ever existed and I am someone with high standards, who doesn’t go for junk like Pizza Hut (just kidding, I have no standards, especially when it comes to getting free stuff).

All I know is that I spent over two years setting my alarm for 6:03 so I could get a run in before going to work and failed all but about 3 out of those 400+ attempts. It didn’t matter how much motivational stuff I read, nothing seemed to be able to get me out of bed. It became a running joke at home (hahahaha, “running joke”, I’m hilarious) and I had given up on any chance of ever creating this habit.

But along came the Great Pizza Bet of 2013 and my life changed forever (or potentially just for a week, the jury’s still out).

Let’s scrutinise this whole ordeal because this thing was hard and I haven’t bragged about it enough yet (although I’m sure some of the people I speak to IRL would beg to differ. But they can get their own damn blogs). I decided to document the experiment just for you:

Day 1 (Sunday): Running is the last thing I feel like doing (stuff I probably shouldn’t write on a running blog), but I drag myself out of the house in the late afternoon for a 5k. I figure if I am going to have a shot at this thing, I probably shouldn’t fail right on the first day.

Day 2 (Monday): Knowing I won’t be able to run in the evening due to some resemblance of social life, I decide to try to run in the morning. We all know how my attempts at morning running have ended before so I can’t say I like my chances… but then morning comes around, the alarm goes off and, after hitting the snooze button only once instead of the usual 23 times, I actually get out of bed. Once recovered from the shock, I run 5k and come back home in time to get ready for work. I spend the day feeling pretty smug about the accomplishment. I must  be high on endorphins because I announce to my friend that I am upping the bet and, instead of just six consecutive days of running, I was going to do six consecutive days of running with five consecutive morning runs.

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Day 3 (Tuesday): I have an event in the evening that involves running a lap of the Peace Mile in the Auckland Domain but the bet rules clearly stated that each run had to be at least 5k long. Peter, who I made the crazy bet with, runs every goddamn morning so offers to text me to wake me up (he has such little confidence I can do it he thinks he can offer some help and still win this thing). I ignore the text for about ten minutes but then start thinking about how he is out there running and I am in bed being lazy (but also warm). Very much against my will and against everything I believe in, I get out of bed and go for a run. Another day of feeling pretty proud of myself for it, especially considering I have to get back into running gear after work for the Peace Mile. Apparently I’m now the kind of person who runs twice in one day. But whatever, yolo right?

Day 4 (Wednesday): I ask Peter to text me again and at 6:45am he does. I don’t ignore the text this time and, instead, get up and ready to run. For some weird reason, my body feels like it is adjusting to this new morning running thing, and only three days into it. I am two days away from free pizza but, by this stage, that’s not the only motivation anymore. Other weird stuff is happening:

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Day 5 (Thursday): No text from Peter. I wonder if he’s feeling threatened now. I get up and run, unprompted. The crazy thing? I don’t even really have to, if I want to just abide by the original rules of the bet. I have a scheduled 10k night trail this evening so the morning 5k is just torture I choose to inflict upon myself. Except it isn’t torture and I actually enjoy it. Things are starting to get really bizarre now.

Day 6 (Friday): Following on a long line of good lifestyle choices, I stay up until 3am getting some work done (don’t feel sorry – I stayed up until 3 because I started working at 2) so don’t really like my chances of getting out of bed for a run. But it is the final day of the Great Pizza Bet of 2013 and I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this but I really freaking love pizza. The only thing I love more than pizza is free pizza and, this morning, I am a mere 5k away from getting exactly that. I am so exhausted when the alarm goes off that I hit snooze and decide that I’m just going to admit defeat and pay for my own pizza. Luckily, the courier comes around and forces me to get up to open the door so my running streak lives another day and my honor remains intact (well, ish). The weather is crappier than it has been all week and my hands are freezing (if I’m going to get up to run in the morning, I only have time to get into shorts and a singlet, there’s no time to think about sensible things like long sleeves or running gloves). But I power through, on my less than 5 hours of sleep. Then I spend the day trying not to fall asleep (and nearly failing a few times). But that’s okay because, on the other side of the these five consecutive morning runs, I scored a free pizza. HASHTAG WINNING.

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I got more than free pizza out of the Great Pizza Bet of 2013, though. I may have actually created a habit. Or at least created the possibility of something eventually becoming a habit (with a little bit extra effort). It turns out, all it takes is some bribery. Some pepperoni-filled bribery.

I don’t think it would have worked out so well if it had been just about the pizza, though (sorry, pizza). The realisation that morning runs turned me into a productivity machine during the day was a massive incentive to keep this going. I can’t be bothered hitting the googles to find out if there’s any actual science behind this but my empirical evidence suggests that starting the day off with a run makes you around about 349% more productive. That is, assuming you sleep longer than 5 hours the previous night.

And then there are the sunrises, those damn fine things that I keep missing out on. And the feeling that you’ve already achieved something before your day has even properly started.

But also, free pizza. Who cares about any of the rest, really?

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(I realise that the fact that the possibility of a giant free pizza was the only thing that got me into morning running sends this blog a further 3405 light years away from the healthy living blogs category. I swear I looked but couldn’t find a shit to give. )

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