The dreaded taper

I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t like who I am when I’m not running.

My first ever half marathon is in two days’ time. So over the past few weeks and months I’ve been focusing on training, lengthening distance, building endurance, working out fueling during the run, ensuring my diet is healthy… and for the past week I’ve been tapering, doing very little. I swam on Monday, I ran 5 miles on Tuesday and since that – nothing.

I don’t currently have access to a car, so I haven’t been swimming. I’ve still been walking the dog, of course, but have struggled to meet my step targets this week. I’ve given myself permission to stop worrying about food, so that I reach the race well fueled and ready to go, but the end result has been snacking and almost reaching the point of comfort eating.

What worries me is that on one level it’s been easy. I’ve had more time to get on with other things, and I haven’t really felt any different.

And yet on another level it’s been hard. My routine is built so much around runs and swims and sensible eating that I’ve struggled without that structure. I feel twitchy and as though my fight-or-flight is being triggered for no reason.

So do I run to race? Or does the race get in the way of the running?

Both, I guess. I’ve really enjoyed the longer runs I’ve been doing lately to prepare for it, just getting out there and covering the miles. I haven’t been focusing on speed, but I think that’s what I want to look at when the race is over. And most of all, I want to get back into that routine, because it hasn’t felt right without it.

As usual, I can reflect this onto my writing too. Writing regularly feels good. Suddenly stopping feels bad. After a while the bad feeling fades, leaving me with a niggling feeling that something isn’t right, but with no clear link as to why.

Running/swimming for the body. Writing for the mind. Both essential as part of the regular routine.


Three things

2015-03-21 13.58.47Instead of parkrun this morning, I went out to a village hall convention, of all things. During the morning, I learned three things (none of them directly related to the subject of the convention, but that’s by the by!):

I really enjoy being among people who want to get things done, and chatting to them, and sharing ideas. I was reminded of the six or so years I spent on childminding association committees. I really need to find a way to get back into that sort of role again properly.

I find drawing and sketching relaxing, and want to do more of it, without worrying myself over the quality of it or feeling I have to justify the time spent.

I really am interested in raising chickens, and by this time next year would like to be somewhere near doing that, if not having actually reached that point.

Oh, and I also discovered that an S-type Jaguar is a very comfortable car, and quiet enough to carry on a conversation between three people, one in the back seat!


The long run

In my progress towards a half marathon, which I’m running in just 11 days’ time, one part of training has been to extend my longest runs. Previously, the farthest I’d run had been 10k, or 6.2 miles, but the half marathon is twice that distance, so gradually, over the weeks, I saw my longest run achievement edge up from there to the half marathon distance of 13.1 miles, or around 21k.

As I set out for that full distance run last week, I was feeling relieved that it would be the last time I had to cover a really long distance on a training run, not least because it would take me around 3 hours. I was also feeling that half marathon was really too long, and I preferred 10k distance for races.

By the time I was halfway round, I began to feel that I’d really, really miss those long runs when the half marathon was done.

Yesterday I ran only 8 miles. Yes, I said only. I’m tapering down now, so as I have to miss parkrun on Saturday, on Sunday it will be 6.2, as part of a virtual 10k race, and next Tuesday I’ll probably only do 3 miles or so, and not run on Thursday or Saturday at all, in preparation for the HM on the Sunday.

So now I find I feel cheated. Only 8 miles. Only an hour and a half. I’ve got quicker over the time, thankfully, but I still run slowly enough to have a couple of days of panic after the furore at the weekend where a runner was pulled from a race for being too slow, until the fallout from it convinced me that I’d be okay and that what happened was exceptional and not approved of by the majority of the running community.

Last night I found myself checking interesting marathons that were coming up on my timeline – Bath, where 4k of it is through railway tunnels. The New Forest, an area I’ve always loved. Bedgebury Forest, trail running not too far from home. It’s far too early to be considering any marathon, of course; I haven’t even completed a half marathon yet (but those races mentioned also have half marathon versions, the little voice whispers). But it does seem that the long distance bug has bitten well and truly, and having discovered the pleasure of going out for a full morning’s run and covering the miles around my local area, I consider it likely that I’ll keep going even after this race is out of the way. While the shorter, faster races generally hold little appeal, perhaps because I know I’m highly unlikely to achieve the sort of speed that most do, the longer distances definitely do call to me.

I often draw the parallel between my running and my writing, and I feel that applies here too; short stories really don’t appeal to me. They don’t have enough meat on the bones for me to get stuck in. But novel writing – yeah, that I can handle. The in-depth, longer story, with multiple characters and plotlines. A project that’s definitely for the long-haul.

I briefly considered giving up my writing recently. Was there any point? Was I ever going to produce anything worthwhile? Looking back at what I’ve written so far was reassuring; no prize winner, but sound for what it was. I’m enjoying the process. I’m learning from it. And in the end, that’s all I can ask from anything, whether it’s planning and writing a novel or training for and running a long-distance race.

And will I ever run a marathon? Who knows, but at the moment the little voice on my shoulder seems to think I will.


Living with a vivofit

The training for the half marathon is still going well, with the race itself only a frightening 12 days away! One of the tools I’ve used to help me monitor my fitness is the garmin vivofit I received for Christmas.

2015-01-01 16.04.33The vivofit is a gadget, worn on the wrist, that monitors steps and general activity. It has several screens, cycled through with a single button. These include steps taken (daily), number of steps to reach goal (which changes to number above the goal once reached), distance travelled, calories burned, time and an optional heartrate screen – I have a heart rate monitor (HRM) that can send signals to the vivofit.

The gadget itself comes with two wristbands, one large and one small, in whatever colour you order, and there are other packs of wristbands available in different colours. It’s reasonably comfortable to wear, and the time setting means that it can be worn to replace a watch, although I tend to wear my watch on my left wrist and the vivofit on the right.

I wear my vivofit constantly, only taking it off in the shower at home. This means I wear it when sleeping, and when swimming.

step screenThe goal for each day is set automatically. You can override it, but I just leave it, and it’s settled at around 15k steps per day. If I meet the target (and on a long run day I might even double it), it goes up. If I miss it, the next day it will be a little lower.

I tend to ignore the calories screen, as I’m never sure whether it’s counting just calories from activity, or whether it takes into account normal burning of calories throughout the day anyway. As a result, I’ll use another tracker (phone app or watch) to track dog walks, and I’ll use my watch to track outdoor runs.

When on a treadmill, I’ll use the vivofit with the HRM. Turning the vivofit to the heartrate display screen triggers a mark at the beginning of an activity, while turning off the heart screen or disconnecting the HRM will mark the end of it. This means that when I sync the device, the time of the activity and the related heart rate data is recorded as a specific activity, although no distance or pace is recorded alongside. I’ve found from this that the distance recording on the vivofit is fairly accurate.

Steps are recorded on the garmin website, and a record is available of my past history, so I can see how active I’ve been over a period of time. It will also break the data down into times of day I was most active.

Syncing the device is done by pressing and holding the single button until SYNC appears on the screen, and then takes a few seconds. It will sync via bluetooth to either my phone app or to the computer using the bluetooth receiver that’s supplied. The battery in the device is supposed to last at least a year, so there is no fiddling with batteries or charging, but it does mean that to preserve battery life there is no backlight on the screen.

One feature I find useful is the activity bar. A red bar appears at the top of the screen after an hour of moving very little, and further, shorter, bars appear every 15 minutes after that, until I reach one full bar and four quarter bars, indicating I haven’t moved much for two hours. This prompts me to get up and move around for a bit, in order to make the bars go off again.

2015-01-03 17.11.40Another feature is the sleep monitor – by pressing the button until SLEEP appears on the screen, I put it into sleep mode, and it then records sleep patterns, based on movement, until I turn it off again. I can then see the length of time I was in sleep mode, and record my mood when I woke up. A full record can then be seen on the garmin website, to show my sleep patterns over a period of time.

All in all, I find the device a very useful gadget for keeping an eye on my activity, prompting me to keep moving and trying to hit the daily goal, and reassuring me that I’m sleeping more than I thought I was.



Making up stories

You know what? Writing consists largely of making up stories. And yet sometimes, one of those stories is so powerful that it enters our lives and changes them, becomes a part of them.

We sadly lost Terry Pratchett this week, and I’ve read many comments on the subject. He was a man who made up stories that entertained but also made us think, as he held a mirror up to our world and showed us with uncanny insight just how the world works.

One of the hardest storylines for me to absorb right now is the collection of stories he told about Death. Somehow, Death became a character with a job to do, and a personality of his own. He became, if not a friend, then at least someone familiar to greet us and to take us on our way when our time comes.

He has become such a clearly defined figure that thousands of people signed a petition asking him to give Terry back. And that’s where, for me, the line between real life and fiction blurs uncomfortably. Does it matter if we choose to accept a story as true and to live our lives as though it does? Does it make any difference? I personally believe that if you can make up a story that makes you feel better about a situation, then that’s helpful, as long as you recognise it as a story. The difficulty comes when you accept that story so deeply that you forget it is a story (please note that I’m not suggesting those people who signed the petition actually believed Death would receive it and reconsider; merely that it is tempting to believe it because it feels comforting).

There are other stories around us that have become part of our thinking as well. The family story, where something (often magical) happens to make people look at each other differently, experience each other’s lives, and at the end brings them closer together. The hero story, where the reluctant hero is forced into action and comes through triumphant, after many setbacks. The classic fairytales, where we understand that no matter how bad things appear to be for the heroine, it will all turn out well in the end.

These stories influence the way we see the world. We try to impose our own stories onto random events, or expect things to turn out a certain way. We feel cheated if we don’t get our happy ending. Terry Pratchett’s narrativium lives on.

In the end, we all write our own stories. Some write them better than others. Some can share their stories. Most stories have little effect, but the more powerful ones can change a life.

Is it wrong to want to write one of those stories?


I smuggled the book out under my coat

I had a spare half hour this afternoon, so I wandered into the local library, a place where I spent a large part of my childhood, and which opened up the world to me. I don’t often go there these days, but I wandered around looking at books on the shelf, passing time, and in the end I picked one up, sat down in a chair and started reading.

It wasn’t a fiction book; as a child I would only ever read fiction, and couldn’t understand my best friend who would only ever read non-fiction, but I have a whole pile of fiction books waiting to be read, and wouldn’t dare pick up another. This was a book called How Not to be Wrong: the Hidden Maths of Everyday Life. I teach or tutor maths on occasion, and I’ve always been interested in how numbers work and how maths is all around us – one of my pet hates is the “I haven’t had to use algebra all day today” meme – and so I started reading the introduction.

In the end, I took the book to the machine, fished out my library card and checked the book out (you don’t even have to see a librarian these days), but discovered that I was almost hiding the book away as I took it out of the library.

Why did I feel so guilty about it? Part of the problem is that I currently read for part of my living. I read manuscripts and give detailed feedback. I get free books in return for reviews, through the Amazon Vine programme. And I have a pile of books of my own choice that I’d also like to read. So adding another to the pile feels like extravagance.

There aren’t enough hours in the day already. How can I just add something else to the pile?

I guess, because I need to relax. I need to enjoy myself occasionally. I need to read widely in order to do my job – both the reading and the writing part – as well as I can. And as this is non-fiction, I’m not going to constantly picking plotholes in it.

And it’s also rather enlightening and interesting, and maybe I’ll learn a lot, and maybe what I learn will help me to teach maths better, because I’ll have a deeper understanding of how it does integrate with real life. As to the algebra – each time you work out what your change should be from a money transaction, you’re using algebra, because algebra is just making explicit the rules that numbers follow, which is that if a+b=c, then c-a=b and c-b=a.



It’s been a busy week. As part of my training for a half marathon at the end of March, on Tuesday I ran 11 miles, my longest distance yet. Tuesday afternoon I gave blood, after making sure I had a good lunch in between and plenty to drink.

Then I made a couple of mistakes.

I was due out at a social evening for the allotment society, so I cooked food for the rest of the family and as I’d had a big lunch I decided I wasn’t hungry and just had cheese on toast – I couldn’t eat with the others as they don’t eat until the time I’m going out, thanks to the wonders of the railway timetable. Then I decided I didn’t need to take my handbag – I avoid it whenever I can – and walked down to the meeting.

Halfway through the meeting, I started feeling decidedly woozy. I felt the blood drain from my face, to be replaced with a sheen of perspiration. My vision started blurring and swirling and I was not at all well. Because of where I was sitting, I would have had to walk all the way round the back of the group to reach the toilets, and as I hadn’t brought my bag, I didn’t have the snack that I always keep in there. So I sat it out and thankfully had started to recover a little by the end of the talk, at which point I sent a text message for hubby to walk down and escort me back home.

So when I set out for a short run this morning, only to find my legs felt like lead, I didn’t worry too much. I was kind to myself and allowed several walking breaks, while not panicking that my running days were over and I’d never be able to run again, because I knew from experience that there was a good reason I was struggling and that given a day or so more to recover, I would be fine again.

One thing I’ve developed over the past couple of years of running is resilience – I have experiences I can call on, where I’ve not felt well, or a run has gone badly, or conditions have been less than ideal, and I know better how to cope. I have memories of running when tired, running in the rain, giving up on a run, running while freezing cold – as well as memories of successful runs, fast runs, long runs, in beautiful weather, in pleasant surroundings. I can judge each run in a wider context, rather than on its own merits.

Now I need to transfer that to my writing. I’ve been thinking constantly about my fantasy novel, and working on it in spare moments, but I have to confess that I haven’t done as much as I would have liked. And sure enough, I’ve now reached the point where I start thinking can I actually do it? There’s so much that I want to include in there, so much that should be in there, and I wonder if I actually have the stamina and ability to complete it to the standard I would like. All it takes is a post from someone about a successful local writer publishing her first novel, and my confidence hits the floor and stays there.

So this is where I need to develop writing resilience – the ability to keep writing whatever the mood, and accept that some sessions will be good and others not so good, but they’re all moving in the right direction. The ability to brush off doubts and appreciate the process as desirable in its own right. To recognise that the fact I see the weaknesses in my writing is actually a strength, because at least I can see what’s missing, rather than imagining I’m writing a masterpiece when it’s nowhere near.

And one big reason I need to do this is because I’m reaching the point now where I’m lining up beta readers (or to be more accurate alpha readers) to help me out with the structure, and so I need to reach that point where I have a complete story that’s ready to be looked at. It’s nearly there, but not quite, and will only get there with work.

The other reason is that once again news stories are appearing that make me think of the other novel I have on the go, the speculative fiction novel, the one about babies, which really does need a proper title! So I need to get the fantasy novel to a point where I can set it aside/pass it on to readers and then let it rest for a while, and press back on with the babies.

Because these things won’t let me rest these days, and the least painful way to deal with them is to push on and get something done about them. Even if it does end up being a load of rubbish that’s not worth the effort of reading. Because apart from anything else, I’ll have learned what works and what doesn’t, and will be a few steps further down the line towards being able to finish something that is worth reading.


Out of routine but still achieving

Normally I cope with  life by developing routines. Because I know it’s a run/swim day, or a run day, or a swim day, I’ll get out there regardless of how I feel. Ask me to go on a non-scheduled day and there’s no way that will happen. Sadly, I haven’t managed to build up my writing routine that strongly yet, so have missed opportunities simply because the structure wasn’t there to force me to write whatever my mood, but the exercise is definitely at the point where it’s easier to stick to routine than miss a session.

So when I learned that today, my longest run day, I would have to run an errand, thereby disrupting my schedule, my heart sank. No time for a long run before, forecast for Thursday is rain so I can’t swap the two days safely, so what was going to happen?

I’m training for a half marathon, which takes place in around 7 weeks, so really didn’t want to miss out on my longest run, so I made myself a vague promise I’d go after lunch. Then I decided to take advantage of being dragged away from work for an hour and I took my notebook with me, so I could get working on my novel while out.

Having added a sizeable chunk to my novel, I tried to sit smugly at my desk, but there was still something nagging at me; I may have managed to work some writing into my day, but what about my long run?

Part of me threw up every excuse imaginable, desperate to prove that there was no way I could run, but I thought about my novel, how I’d been putting it off and putting it off, and how good it felt to get back writing again, and I thought about my running, and how I always enjoyed it once I got out there, and how if I missed this week’s long run it would make the HM training even tougher for the next few weeks, and in the end I got changed and went out.

The first mile was tough, but it felt good to have won the battle and got out there. The last third was mostly walking, as my knees started to protest, but I decided not to worry too much – I’d already walked about 5 miles with the dog today, and it was after lunch rather than the morning when I usually run, and I was short on sleep last night. So I finished my run in a very slow 1 hour 26 mins, covering nearly 9 1/2 miles, and now I can rest, because I’ve written today and intend to write some more this evening, and I also managed to get out there and run.

I think I’m back on track, with running and writing.


Reading is different now

In my childhood I would plunge into the world inside a book, to emerge hours later. As I grew older, that magic remained but weaker; I would read while cooking, while on the train, when doing all sorts of other things, but just sitting reading was not always a possibility.

Over the past couple of years things have changed. Now I make a living out of reading, one way or another. Either I’m reading stories to check for sense, writing style and technique, and making comments throughout, or I’m going through every detail checking for errors and correcting them. Either way, reading is slow and sometimes painful, and there is usually some sort of conversation between me and the writer.

Even reading books for pleasure isn’t quite the same; as a member of Amazon Vine, I receive books and other products in exchange for an honest review of them, so even when I’ve chosen a book and am reading it for pleasure, I’m mentally composing a review, thinking of phrases to describe what I think of it, working out how many stars I want to give it, and sometimes reading on when I might have otherwise let it drift out of my attention.

Just occasionally, I choose a book and pay for it, and then I can read it purely for pleasure. But even that has changed lately. Now I’m thinking about the words and phrases used, how the characters and situations are built, what in the story keeps me interested.

My latest read is even worse, as it’s written by someone I know. I have no obligation to review it. There will be no conversation with the author as to why she wrote something a certain way, or introduced this storyline here, or chose to handle the characters that way. But it’s still not something I can just read and enjoy, because I’m also examining her description, her character development, her handling of multiple timelines, and trying to figure out some of her secrets. And I’m feeling inadequate, because I recognise the qualities in her writing that are lacking from mine, and also inspired, because if she can do it why can’t I?

And so reading has taken on a whole new dimension for me. It’s impossible these days to just sit and enjoy a story with no desire to analyse it. Mostly, I’m okay with that, because the change has brought its own benefits.

But I do miss that utter absorption I used to have before I was so aware of all the writing skills involved and busy trying to master them myself.


Editing on paper

I’m still plodding away at editing my novel. I’m focusing on the first half at the moment, and found the best way was to print it out, stick it in a binder and go through it with a pen. I was a little shocked to realise just how thick a stack 148 pages is! Seeing it printed out double spaced was quite a moment; I realised just how far I’ve actually come on this story already.

Now I’m going through making sure the first half makes sense and is in logical order. This has meant moving some sections, so I’m checking continuity. I’m also aware that I do a lot of telling, sometimes several times over, so I need to make sure enough information is given for a reader to follow the story without being repetitive – always a challenge when you have the world clear in your head but your reader could be thinking something different!

Then once I’ve finished working on the first half, I need to push forward through the story. The second half is nowhere near as well developed, and I’ve a nasty feeling I’m going to have to go a lot further towards destroying our world than I’d originally pictured. But I’m thoroughly enjoying the process, even if I’m easily distracted.

The best editing session I managed so far was when I took myself out of the house to a cafe with no wifi and poor phone signal. The lack of distraction meant that I was able to sit and really focus for a couple of hours. The plate of chips was good too! I’ll be repeating that exercise every couple of weeks, I think, and pushing myself to focus more when I am at home.

Once I have the complete story clear and in order, which will be the end of draft 2, I can worry in more detail about writing style and technical details for the next draft. I keep reminding myself that there will be plenty of time to refine the story down to the best I can do. There’s no point in worrying about individual sentences until I know they’re telling the right story.

My main challenge now is pushing forward fast enough to keep up the enthusiasm and not risk losing the train of thought or getting distracted by other ideas and grinding to a halt.