Going longer and further than ever before

My next challenge? Well, it will be about distance. A longer distance than I’ve ever done before. But it’s not about running.

Next February I’ll be taking part in a charity cycle trek through Vietnam and Cambodia, covering almost 500km over a 12 day trip. I’m doing it together with my husband and we’re supporting Lend with Care, a charity that helps small businesses around the world with micro loans.

Michelle and a bike

Getting used to riding the trails on a trip to Scotland

It’s a part of the world that I’ve never been to before and I’m really looking forward to getting to see it by bike, having a bit of adventure and supporting a good cause. As we’re funding the trip ourselves, any sponsorship we do raise will go straight to the charity and we hope to visit a couple of the businesses they have supported while we’re out there.

So, cycle training has started in earnest. I already cycle a bit with my triathlons, but the furthest distance I go is around 40km and that’s generally on flat roads. My husband is a lapsed cyclist, who hasn’t done much cycling since he was a student. As we’ll be covering 100km on the longest day, we both need to put in some serious bike miles over the winter.

As we’ll be riding on trails and using mountain bikes, I’m having to get used to a new style of cycling. No more dropped handle bars and slick, skinny tyres. My trail bike is much more rugged and has suspension to cope with bumping over rocks, stones and loose gravel.

My training didn’t get off to the best start when I tried to bounce up over a kerb stone, totally misjudged the angle and came crashing down on my right hand side. I had an anxious few days where I thought I may have broken my elbow. But I got away with a massive bruise and a very sore arm for a few weeks. A break would have really set back my training.

We’ve been out again this weekend, challenging ourselves on an undulating, off-road trail around the reservoir at Kielder. A 26 mile route and I don’t think there was ever a flat bit. And despite setting off into the wind and riding a circular route, I swear, we never had it behind us. But we survived, despite some pretty squally weather that closed in on us.

Quite how training in wet and windy Northumberland will prepare us for the heat and humidity of Vietnam and Cambodia, I’m not sure. But it will be a challenge and it will be fun. Which is what it’s all about really isn’t it?

You can find more details about the trip and our training on our new website http://www.cycleforcare.co.uk/

Go faster or go longer? The runner’s choice

It’s T minus three weeks until GOW100, and I’m starting to experience all the usual symptoms I get this close to an ultra event. Namely, a slight nausea at the mention of the event, an impulsion to read every article ever written by previous winners, and working out exactly when I will consume every single calorie during the race.

Of course, all of this goes out the window on the day and I go back to being my usual slightly chaotic self.

When my big sister visited a few weeks ago, she asked why I run 100-kilometre events. Now, I must preface this by explaining that Tania is also a runner, and a bloody great one at that. She’s run marathons in times I can only dream of. She exudes incredible mental toughness too; she not only ran the Paris Marathon with tonsillitis, but crossed the line with a PB!

So explaining the allure of an ultra to my sister is a little different to how I might explain it to some people. If I could explain it, that is. You see it got me thinking, why do we run these insanely long distances?

Mostly it comes down to the Challenge Factor. Whether you run 10km or 100km, you do it for the challenge. The thrill of a challenge so big you don’t know whether you will make it, and if you do, whether everything will still be in working order.

The problem is, once you’ve crossed the line, the challenge is complete. Finito. Some people can stop there, happy with the knowledge that they conquered the challenge. Others, like you and I, seek out a new challenge. A tougher challenge.

So with 10km, 14km, 21km and a marathon complete and everything seemingly in tact, there was really only one question remaining:

Go faster or go longer?

I’m not a fast runner, and while I’m sure I could wake my inner Bolt with the right training, I love shuffling along at a cruisey pace, enjoying a good chat and stopping to take in the surroundings.

So instead of testing out my speedometer, a marathon became 50km, which became 100km, and now I’m about to run my fourth such event. I suppose the big question is, will I go up to the next level and take on a 100 miler (160km)?

The answer is yes, but not yet. You see, when I stand on the start line in three weeks’ time, I still won’t know for sure whether I’ll cross the line at the other end or will be staring at three disappointing letters: DNF. And until I know that for sure, a miler remains a challenge too far.

Well, at least until next year.

Now the Great North Run is complete, what’s your next challenge, Michelle?

The support of champions

How about being handed a bottle of water by someone with 16 Olympic medals to their name, who has won the race that you’re running more times than anyone else? It was a massive surprise to me to grab a bottle of water from Tanni Grey Thompson, one of the UK’s best known Paralympic athletes at a water station on the Great North Run.

In one of those ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ moments, I reached out to take the bottle being held by the lady in the wheelchair; realised who it was; spluttered out her name and got a huge ‘Go on Michelle’ as she read my T-shirt and sent me on my way feeling like a champion.

It’s one of the things that make this race so very special, the support that you get every mile of the route. People line the Tyne Bridge, set up cheering stations beside motorway flyovers and, by the time you approach the ten mile point near South Shields, they really can be your best friends. They pour out jugs of water, offer jelly babies and orange segments, or just yell at you to keep moving – anything that will help you get through those last few miles.

Fireworks over the River Tyne

Spectacular scenes for the Great North Million celebrations

This year, the one millionth runner will cross the line. The Great North Run has beaten races in London, New York and Berlin to become the first to achieve such a milestone.

Earlier this week I enjoyed the celebrations to mark this achievement which took place along the banks of the Tyne. From its pre-historic, geological foundations, through Viking raids and the beautiful illuminated manuscripts of the Lindisfarne Gospels; to coal and ship building, industry and invention, right up to modern day science, arts and culture, the story of the the North East and the spirit of the run was brought to life along the great riverside. A carnival of music, dance, water, fire and spectacle, proving that the North East knows how to put on a great show.

Tanni Grey Thompson was there too, alongside Mo Farah, Paula Radcliffe, Mike McCleod and Haile Gebrselassie – athletes celebrated for their achievements on the run. But, The Great North Run isn’t about the elites, it’s about the ordinary people who become extraordinary by taking on the challenge.

Me on the Great North Run in 2010

High fiving supporters on the Great North Run – picture by Karen Wilson

On the eve of this year’s race, I’m very proud to be among them and reflecting back on this particular event which marks my own running milestone.

By the time I stood on the start line of my first Great North Run, I’d started to think of myself as a runner. Having gone from 0 miles to 13.1 in the space of a year, I’d also travelled a long way personally – shedding off feelings of being uncomfortable in my own skin to emerge physically and mentally stronger; someone excited by new challenges and encouraged by the support and friendship I encountered along the journey.

I’ve got lots of people to watch out for as I run tomorrow. From friends running it, to supporters on the Tyne Bridge, at 8 miles, 10.5 and somewhere in the last mile. Tanni’s confirmed she’ll be at her usual spot, volunteering at the water station too, so I’ll be watching out for her and hoping to grab the baton of a champion to spur me on.


Run like Goldilocks

There’s no rest from running at the moment. We’re at the pointy end of our training for GOW100, a 100-kilometre endurance run along the Great Ocean Walk trail in Victoria, and if anything, I should be running more!

But I do know how you feel. While training for TNF100 earlier this year, I suffered from a mild case of ITB. While not crippling, it was enough to stop me from running for a couple weeks, in spite of an agonising urge to just get out there and “suck it up”. Resting was the perfect cure though and I haven’t had a problem since. (Quick, where’s the wood…?)

My only problem now is finding the time to run. The past few weeks have been a little crazy to say the least and it’s becoming harder and harder to make time for a long run during the week. Winter has found me huddled in the gym for a quick 30 minute lunchtime session rather than out on the trails for the 3-hour runs I should be doing. But that’s all about to change.

What takes eight weeks to travel from Land’s End to John o’Groats? Spring. Stephen Fry shared this delicious fact on the BBC quiz show QI last night. And it’s very timely because we’re just four days away from spring, my favourite season, arriving right here in Melbourne. In addition to daffodils and tulips, a Melbourne spring brings with it Spring Fashion Week, Spring Racing Carnival, Melbourne Fringe Festival, the AFL Grand Final and a whole heap of other events.

Has spring arrived? Running along Port Melbourne foreshore.

Has spring arrived? It seems that way running along Port Melbourne foreshore!

But before I start sounding like a Melbourne guidebook, my favourite thing about spring is that it carries the perfect trial running conditions. Not too hot, not too cold. Not too dry, not too wet. I’m like Goldilocks prancing in and out of the bushes. My only challenge now is finding the right outfit to wear. When it’s hot, the choice is easy – just don’t wear much at all! And in the cold, I wear a warm layer that can be easily shed as soon as the blood starts pumping.

But spring is a perpetual challenge for my wardrobe. I used to pack my bag full of layers just in case there’s a downpour/heatwave/hurricane/hailstorm. Lessons were learnt and now I just run with the basics and let spring do what it does best: surprise me.

What’s the biggest surprise you’ve ever had on a run?

Olinda Falls: Another surprise during last week's trail run

Olinda Falls: Another surprise during last week’s trail run

Ice, ice, baby

It’s ice that stops me. The fear of falling. The precipitous slip and slide, overstraining muscles and tendons to stay upright when gravity would make a fool of you.

snow covered path through the trees

One of my regular run routes in the snow

Snow’s good. Snow’s glorious to run on, making fresh footprints and warming a chilled body from the inside out. But, once slushed up by other footsteps and refrozen overnight, each path and trail turns traitor, waiting to catch the runner unaware.

Thankfully icy days still seem far away just yet, although this year’s glorious northern hemisphere summer is beginning to fade. Mornings and evenings begin to darken and this week, the ragged edges of what began as Hurricane Bertha, sent squally showers to drench a bike ride or two.

Ice will also stop me if I’m injured. The good old recipe of Rest, Ice, Compress, Elevate rescued me from a sprained ankle after an obstacle race a couple of years ago, and I’m still likely to reach for the frozen peas if I’ve pulled or strained something.

I’ve become more aware of my various aches and pains since becoming a runner. And while I’m thankful I’ve never had an injury that’s kept me out of training for a long time, when I have had a niggle, I’ve taken the opportunity to learn about how that bit of my body works and what’s causing the problem. Physios and sport massage therapists must get fed up of me asking questions.

I like to think I know the difference between the aches of working hard and the pain of something yelling at me to stop. That’s why I missed a long run recently. With a half marathon in just over 4 weeks’ time, I can’t really afford to drop too much mileage. But when I could feel something wasn’t right, I hope it made sense to rest up for the day.

How about you? How do you judge when to rest and when to just lace up your trainers and hit the trails?

Four seasons in one run

Friday was reported as our coldest day of the year so far. How cold, you might ask? Melbourne’s coldest August day in six years. Cold enough for some roads to get icy and for snow to fall in the mountains. According to papers, it didn’t even reach the forecast temperature of 11 degrees!

You may laugh, because let’s face it; our coldest day had nothing on the hands-stuffed-deep-in-your-pockets-icy-breath-don’t-leave-the-house kind of cold that you are no doubt used to. The kind of cold that slices right through to your bones. And even if it had been that cold, I’d like to think it wouldn’t have stopped me from running. We ran in the snow in Edinburgh over Christmas and experienced how invigorating it is to run from a toasty house straight into icy air. It’ll wake you up quicker than an espresso shot.

What about rain? Well, we’ve had plenty of that too! But then we always do in Melbourne. There’s a reason Crowded House’s Neil Finn wrote “Four Seasons in One Day” while living here! I don’t mind running in the rain, so long as I’m prepared. Once I get through that initial despair that all this unwelcome wetness falling from the sky might ruin my run, I can’t help but feel a little bit like a kid running through puddles.

A couple of weekends ago, Mat and I ran the trails at Lysterfield Lake, a park to the south east of Melbourne. All around us was blue skies, but somehow we found ourselves running in the middle of a freak rainstorm. It felt like one of those cartoons with a black raincloud following us around relentlessly. The kangaroos rolled their eyes as we ran past like wet dogs, determined not to be defeated by the weather.

But if there’s one thing that will defeat me every time it’s the wind. Its most recent victory was on the Cape-to-Cape trail in Western Australia. We’d planned our adventure for a year, which mostly entailed locking in a weekend and reading a few pages of the guidebook. It’s a 135km trail along the Leeuwin-Naturaliste Ridge between the lighthouses of Cape Naturaliste and Cape Leeuwin. Imagine a map of Australia – we were running the very bottom left-hand corner. Our good friends drove us from Perth airport straight down to Augusta where we stayed the night before the run, listening in horror to the rain pounding the metal roof.


But come morning, the day couldn’t have been better for running, especially along the coast. Light wind, blue skies and no rain. Hopping across the rocks, we were in our own perfect world. Even the dolphins swam alongside us for a spell. I won’t pretend it was all a breeze though; there were two impossibly long sections of sand running that had no purpose but to sap all the energy from our legs and our souls. But we finished 55km with big smiles and stories.

The beginning of a very long sandy run

The beginning of a very long sandy run

Cooling off

Cooling off

The next day, the weather changed her tune. Winds of more than 60km/h were raging against us. Still no rain, but there was no way we could run the whole day against a brick wall. And so reluctantly, we spent the day visiting the wineries and breweries of Margaret River instead…

Run like the wind? Maybe not...

Run like the wind? Maybe not…

The Cape-to-Cape remains a run that we need to complete. And I look forward to taking it on again.

So Michelle – rain, hail or shine, is there anything that stops you from getting out there?

A place where everybody knows your name

I like the sound of your favourite cafe, where everybody knows your name. Do they have your coffee order on the go before you reach the bar?

I had a similar experience recently, on a trip to Barcelona. We sauntered along the cobbles and narrow streets of the Raval area early one evening and chanced across a couple dressed in black dancing the tango in a small square. The accordion music, the grace and the emotion of the dancers seemed timeless, a moment of magic we could have experienced on these streets any time this century.

We stepped into a small bar down a quiet alleyway lit with red lanterns, and although we never did quite get on first name terms with the brother and sister owners, we enjoyed a memorable night, eating Arabian inspired tapas and drinking wine and mojitos. Having entered as strangers, we left as friends.

The place where I’m most likely to have people know my name now is among the north east running community. I see familiar faces at parkrun and local races, and can usually rely on a shout out from a spectator or marshal on most race routes.

Me running the Bridges of the Tyne 5 mile race

Running along the River Tyne – photo by George Routledge

It catches me out sometimes, especially when someone says ‘Oh I know you, I read your blog’. Gulp! That’s really nice to hear, but it probably means you know a lot more about me than I do about you.

The latest was a girl from Elvet Striders, a Durham based running club who run in distinctive purple tops. I’m a big fan of this very friendly who are always very vocal in their support. Getting a Strider shout in a race guarantees to make you at least 15 seconds faster.

At the recent Bridges of the Tyne 5 mile race, I was able to give a shout of encouragement to our local running superstar Aly Dixon. Aly’s a runner from Sunderland who will be representing Team GB in the marathon at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. She’s a regular on the local race scene and as well as being a top class runner, she’s a lovely person, full of encouragement for other runners.

She’d long finished her race by the time I reached the end and was running a warm down as I made my way back along the course a little way to run with my parkrun pal Sarah to the finish. But she was classy enough to give us an encouraging shout out.

Afterwards, on twitter we exchanged a few messages and she said this:

I’m not the best runner, nor the best swimmer or cyclist either. In fact, as the old triathlon saying goes ‘why be rubbish at one sport when you can be rubbish at three? But I do try. And Aly’s message is a great reminder that you don’t have to be the best at something to enjoy it.