Saturday, 30 January 2016

Becoming a lab rat....

Over the years, I have vaguely heard people talk about physiological testing, using words such as "lactate threshold" and V02max, but not really known much about what they really meant. An opportunity came up to visit Northumbria University to be a lab rat and take part in some of these tests, so I jumped at the opportunity, even though I really didn't know what would be involved.

An example of a lactate curve
You probably need to be nicely rested to get accurate results......whereas I'd had a busy week working extra hours, and having to run around town lots taking my car to the garage and back.....but I still thought it would be interesting. I had also been fighting a battle with sinusitis and a head cold for a couple of weeks, but as my chest was clear (and I had almost won the battle) it was fine to go ahead.

The room looked slightly scary as I entered it.....a treadmill in the middle with computers on each side, a box with some measures by it, a physiologist, a lab technician, a PhD student and 3 undergrads. It felt weird doing a quick warmup jog on the treadmill with all those people watching me, but actually they probably weren't really watching, just setting up the equipment. 

Curves vary for different specialisations

I was weighed (the heaviest I've been in about 8 years), had my height measured (taller than I've ever been???) and then it was onto the jumps. The first test involved squatting to 90degrees for 3 seconds and then jumping up vertically (to measure stored force in the legs), the second test was an up and down jump (ie not holding the squat), and the last one involved stepping off the box but making the first contact with the floor as short as possible. Each jump was repeated 3 times for accuracy, but it was the last test I had the most difficulty with - you had to try to step/fall off the box itself but not step too far away from the box, and land with both feet on the floor together, and then remember to jump as quickly as possible.

Checking the lactate level
After that we moved onto the lactate testing. This involved running at a set speed on the treadmill (starting at 11kph) for 4 minutes, then stopping for a minute while I had my finger pricked and the lactate level measured. I then had to jump back on the moving treadmill (while the speed increased by 1kph) for another 4 minutes and repeat the process. This would carry on until I was told to stop from the reading that were being taken. I also had to wear a heart rate monitor (I never usually wear one of these as they seem to either fall down or cause horrible chafage) so they could check my HR whenever they checked my blood lactate.

My poor battered fingers ;-(
The thing that I found hardest about this was running with a mask on, which was recording my oxygen and carbon dioxide levels. The first mask was slightly too big for me and so it came up too high and partially covered my eyes, but the smaller mask was much better. I still felt like I should be in outer space, as the mask below my eyes and the straps above them made it feel like I was wearing goggles. I couldn't see where my feet were landing on the treadmill which was rather off putting, but Phil (the physiologist) just told me to keep my head up, look ahead and trust my landing. I did have to look down at the start/end of every 4 minutes, as I could only imagine the carnage of me trying to jump on and off a moving treadmill without looking at it.

As the treadmill got faster and faster, I was desperate to be told that my lactate levels had gone high enough for me to stop, but no sooner had I stopped running, than it was back to the jumps to repeat the tests. Strangely enough, it felt like I had improved at them, but it was probably that I had actually just warmed up.

We stood around chatting for a few minutes and I thought (with a with of relief) that it must be all over. How wrong could I be? Phil announced that I must now "run to exhaustion"!!!!!! 

An example of VO2max testing
On went the mask and heart rate monitor again (o joy!) and back to the treadmill I went. This time it was set on an incline on 5 degrees and the speed increased by half a km/hour every 30s. It felt rather tough and I was petrified of sliding off the back and ending up in an embarassing heap on the floor. I knew my fried Rosie had disconnected the cables when she did this test as she was trying so hard, but me found that my legs were just getting more and more painful at a slower speed than I'd expected. The end point of this test is up to the runner - when you don't think that you can continue any more - and the limiting factor differs between individuals - but what stopped me was my legs rather than my cardiovascular system. Maybe it was the incline, maybe the previous tests, or maybe the after effects of my week or my cold, but my quads were burning so much that I had to stop. At least I'd managed to get up to the same speed as I had in the lactate testing, but I did feel rather a failure.

After that, you guessed it, back to the jumps........and then it was finally over!!!

The position of the treadmill meant that Phil had been able to wander round while I was running on it, so he could actually asses my form and my gait (stride and step length were also being measured)......which was probably rather a scary thing for him to have to do. I know that I have some "interesting" gait issues, and know what injuries I am prone to, so it was interesting to hear his opinion. I had felt my pelvis tilting anteriorly as the speed increased on the treadmill, and this was one of the first things he commented on. It means that I don't actually activate and use my glutes properly (shame, because they're big enough) which must lose me a lot of propulsive power. This is exacerbated by my tight hip flexors which worsen the anterior tilt. He also noticed that my pelvis is higher on the left hand side (I do have more problems with that hip flexor) and to compensate, I carry my left shoulder lower than my right. This explains why I appear to have a twisted foot in all race photos (I rotate my leg while bringing my foot through to avoid hitching my hip further or swinging my leg right out) and also why I always have a sore left shoulder/back after long runs/races. 

All in all I'm rather weird and wonky........and I almost dread getting the analysis of the results as he might just tell me that I'm a disaster area and should just quit while I'm ahead(!).

Monday, 25 January 2016

Saying "Sayonara" to my 30s.....

That's probably a misleading title as I didn't wear my Sayonaras either weekend!!!

Birthdays are funny things - as a youngster you look forward to celebrating them eagerly, and often wish to be older than you are. When you are older, you often dread them and wish you were younger.....until you become very old and they are celebrated once again, and you start adding years on (as my Polish Babcia was keen to do!).

What's in a number?
In between they're a bit of a non-event, though there is quite a lot of social pressure to make a big deal of special birthdays, eg those ending in 0. I was told that I might dread turning 40, as I might feel "middle aged" or that I was getting old.....and I was also told that I might be really excited to be joining a new age group, and hence open up a new category in running. I can't really say that I felt either of these - I still wonder when I'll feel "grown up" and age is just a number to me, it doesn't affect the way I run or race.

However, my life these days is filled with running, racing, friends, family, food and drink .......oh yeah.... and I celebrated with a bit of all of these.

In a way, I also celebrated the end of my 30s by doing something memorable - something I've never done before - which was take part in a 3000m race. Don't worry, I've not gone completely mad, it wasn't a 3000m track race, but a XC relay race.

I didn't sleep well the night before as I was rather nervous about letting my team mates down. I was running for my English club (Durham City Harriers) who were actually hosting the event, and I was due to run the middle leg (out of 3).....and for the Senior "A" team, rather than the Vets team. Setting us up on the first leg was Rosie Smith (who actually runs XC for GB/Scotland) and then I was handing over to Emma Toogood (the club's track captain) who are about 10 and 20 years my junior, respectively. My main thought (apart from "oh, no they'll hate me if I let them down") was that "this could be really embarrassing", especially when I saw the course. It consisted of 2 laps of 1500m, all of which was visible to everyone else (teammates, other competitors, the men, other spectators and the general public out for a Sunday morning walk).

Setting off....

The temperature was well below zero, and so most people (myself included) opted for trail/fell shoes as the ground was frozen so hard that it looked like spikes would hurt. Rosie set off in tights, but Emma and I bravely opted for shorts, as wearing tights (mentally) made us individually feel like it was a training run.

By the time Rosie (who ran the fastest leg of the day) handed over to me, she had opened up a huge gap on second pressure to stay ahead then (yeah right!). I have to say that it was actually great to have so much on course support (even if quite funny to hear people trying to give you advice as to how to run the race while you were just trying your hardest not to slip).

Confused by the laps?
I breathed a small sigh (it was all I could manage) as I had managed to stay in the lead as I was waved onto the second lap, but at that point the race became rather confusing. There were now ladies running various laps of various legs, so it was impossible to take your preferred line (for the course or the terrain). I tried to stop myself turning to look behind, and just kept working towards the finish. A final sprint into the finish funnel saw me handing over to Emma having kept a gap (although I fully admit it had got smaller) over the second placed team. Unfortunately, their last runner was also a very strong lady but it was a great result for us to finish in second place overall as the host club. Strangely enough I actually quite enjoyed the day....being part of a team and encouraging each other, even if the distance was rather short. A memorable last race of my 30s, but funnily enough, I might not be averse to taking part again in the future!

Fast forward a week and it was onto my first race of my 40s - again a relatively short (3.8 miles) relay race, but this time on "road" and for my Scottish club, Dumfries Running Club.

There was slightly more pressure this time, as we were the defending champions. To add to that  everyone said that we had to win as we hadn't actually returned the trophy (Sian, who ran with us last year but wasn't running this year, still had it). It's always nice to show that a relatively small club can field a good team, and what's more, we had 3 different age groups covered (Lisa is a V45, I'm a V40 and Mhairi is a V35).

Lisa is a feisty starter and not afraid to use her elbows to get some space, while Mhairi is a fast finisher, so I'd suggested the order of Lisa, then Mhairi then myself.....which is what we went with. We also had a men's V35 and a men's V50 team taking part.....and they said they were going to try stay ahead of us for the three legs of our race (the men had an extra 4th leg to run).

After the first lap, the MV50 runner came home first, just a few seconds ahead of Lesley, the first (and fastest) lady who had a storming run to take Garscube into the lead. Next back for DRC was our V35 men, and so when Lisa handed over to me as second placed ladies' team, I wasn't sure how much I'd be able to make up. I was 70s down on the V50s, and 41s down on the V35s, but more importantly 67s down on the leading ladies.

Finishing my leg
Surprisingly, it only took just over a mile to overhaul Garscube, and I was then tempted to just settle back as I couldn't really see anyone ahead to chase. I find these short races really difficult, as you feel like you're running a solo timetrial and it's very easy to find your concentration has wandered (in a longer race, you tend to settle into a pace, and if your mind goes astray for a wee while, there's enough time to get back on track).

I gave myself a mental talking to and tried to refocus and push on, with the aim of giving Mhairi every advantage I could to overhaul the guys on the final lap. Soon after that I spotted both DRC guys up ahead, as the V35s had caught the V50s and they were working together. As we closed into the changeover area, the V35 runner drew ahead and I put in a big effort (well for me anyway) to just pip the V50s on the line.

Rather muddy feet for a "road race"
Then it was all down to Mhairi, and she rose to the challenge admirably. She anchored us home to retain the title over 5.5 minutes clear of Garscube and finishing well ahead of both DRC 3rd leg male runners!

I know that people often complain about the conditions, but it was definitely tougher this year than last year. Not only was there a pretty strong wind to contend with.....varying between a cross wind and headwind as far as I could work out (though I guess there must've been some tailwind too).....but as most of the second leg runners discovered, the walkers, dogs, lead and buggies were a massive challenge. The route is meant to be run on the tarred paths round the lake, but I spent the whole of my first mile jumping onto the grass into puddles and mud, as there was absolutely no way that anyone was going to give me an inch of space on the path.
The winning DRC ladies

As a team, we were delighted to retain the title, but on a personal note I was over the moon to have run 6s quicker than the previous year, despite the conditions, and be only 15s slower than Mhairi's anchor leg (in fact, we DRC ladies ran the 2nd, 3rd and 4th fastest legs of the race).

Friday, 1 January 2016


It's amazing to see how a year can pan out. I started 2015 with no major goals or pressure but just decided to enjoy myself and take opportunites as they arose.
Looking back on the year now, I have run on roads, on trails, on mountains, on tracks and in the mud of XC. I've run by day and I've also run at night. I've run at home and I've run in other more far-flung parts of the world. I've worn my old scruffy gear and I've worn 8 representative vests.
I've reacquainted myself with old friends, met some great new friends, temporarily misplaced a few friends (though I'm sure we'll reconnect soon) and unfortunately lost a few friends to illness/accidents.
I've laughed, I've cried, I've danced, I've sung, I've fallen over....but all in all, it's been a great year and so here's to a wonderful 2016 for everyone - who knows what it will bring?
As for me, what better way to start it than a long run, on a mixture of road, trail, mud, steps and hills......well, mainly mud if I'm honest!?!