I had never really enjoyed running, although I had always loved the outdoors and getting out into the hills. Before our kids came along six years ago most trips or holidays would be focused on some type of mountain or hill exploration, but since fatherhood my only real exercise consisted of mountain biking a few times a year.
So due to my painfully sedentary job and lack of regular exercise I found that my waistline was steadily increasing as the final years of my 30s were rapidly decreasing. Around this time, I was diagnosed with sleep apnoea which if left unresolved can lead to health issues later on, and although technically not too bad on my BMI score, any excess body fat can make sleep apnoea much worse. Luckily my usual eagerness to drink and be unhealthy had slowly faded over the years as the consistency of being woken by children at 6am with infectious enthusiasm for life tends not to sit too well with a banging hangover. So thanks to both my kids and the doctor’s advice, in August 2019 I bought the cheapest GPS watch I could find to motivate me on my journey into the world of running.
First I decided to try and lose a stone, but with one very strict rule. No dieting. I mean I got “hangry” at the best of times; there was no way I would be able to run and restrict my eating…It turned out that my Garmin watch included training plans for a beginner to 5K which I followed consistently though September and October slowly increasing my runs until I could do a 5K with only a handful of pauses to let my stomach acid gently drain back down my oesophagus.
The longest run of my life thus far was a very slow and painful 7 miles from my house through Golden Acre to Eccup and back again, so naturally I thought it was good time to sign up to the Leeds 5K Race Series at the Brownlee Centre. It consisted of 10 x 5K races over the year for people who mostly seemed to belong to running clubs ending in Striders or Harriers.
I had not considered my pace much at this point and had just been focusing on distance for my runs. On race day I started out strong, I was keeping up with the head of the pack with the first few 100 meters being my strongest and fastest. But my muscles soon began to burn with lactic acid, and I was passed by more and more runners as my legs died a painful death. I crossed the line in 25.06: still a PB for me but I had certainly not yet discovered the ancient art of pacing.
For Christmas that year we had chickenpox. The kids caught it first and then passed it to me. It knocked me out of action for a few weeks. My whole body looked like I had had lost a fight with a wasps’ nest, I didn’t want to scare the neighbourhood so had to take a break from running.
By late January I was starting to run a few times a week again, but the bathroom scales had not moved much in my favour. Speed 5K was evidently not my thing; I needed a new goal to motivate me. I stumbled across the 1000 miles in a year challenge during a YouTube wormhole; it seemed like something I could aim for. I needed to do around 84 miles a month which sounded possible, but in January I could only manage 20, so I knew that with a gradual increase each month I would need to be doing 120 mile months towards the end of the year to meet my target.
I stuck to the plan and increased my mileage as much as I could each month, doing longer and longer runs; on May 10th I did my first 10 mile run, and on June 11th my first half marathon distance. Then on June 14th I attempted an even longer run but as I hit 10 miles my knee decided that was my limit, I limped on for a bit hoping it would sort itself, but in the end I had to call my wife Jess for the first, but not the last roadside rescue.
I had read that you should only increase your mileage by 10% at a time, but I had not followed this or even worked out what increase I was doing each month and my body was struggling with my new activity levels. It was rare that I would complete a run or even start one without some sort of pain. But I just wanted to get to a fitness level where I actually enjoyed being out running, and then hopefully it would become a permanent fixture in my week leading to a long-term healthier lifestyle.
They say it takes an average of 66 days’ repetition for a new behaviour to become automatic. This is where I wanted to get to, I wanted my running to be a habit, something that I just did, part of my routine, not something that I had to force myself into each time. In July, (way longer than 66 days later) I started to feel different, I began to enjoy running more, even with all the aches and pains I seemed to be almost disappointed if I couldn’t fit my scheduled run in due to other commitments. This was most peculiar. Was my brain re-wiring itself?
On the 19th of July I headed out early to Pen-y-Ghent and did a 10-mile loop. It was a perfect clear sunny morning, and in a small way it was my first bit of “fell running”. As I slipped and sank in the peat bogs on Plover Hill I made a mental note to look into fell shoes for my next outing. I had enjoyed this run from start to finish, had no issues with knees and felt great. When I took my shoes off at the car it was even a relief to lose my first toenail. It had been bruised and sore for a few weeks and was now just hanging on and pulled off easily. I had Googled the issue and discovered I apparently had “Morton’s toe” whoever he is. It’s where your second toe looks longer than your big toe, this means these toes take a beating in running shoes but using a runner’s loop to tie your lace can hold the ankle better to reduce the problem, also going half a size up in shoe is supposed to help. I did both of these things, but when my nails grow back they soon became purple and sore again so guess it doesn’t work for my particular type of freak toes.
August 4th was my first 16 mile run and my 2nd rescue, as I again called to be picked up, this time from a compete burnout and the realization that my usual 150ml water bottle was now insufficient for longer runs. I figured that by now my training in the Cookridge hills, aka the San Francisco of Yorkshire must have forged me into a tough mountain athlete honed and ready to join the prestigious North Leeds Fell Runners.
My first club run was an easy paced run around the Meanwood valley trails. This filled me with some confidence that this “fell running” was certainly something I could do. However, the next few club runs kicked any confidence I may have had about my ability to run up anything apart from the mildest incline firmly into the grass. What followed was a chest-busting climb up Beamsley Beacon, before hurtling down again over rocks, steams, heather and mud. To my surprise I made it down without smashing my face into the ground, but what was this madness I had found, where was the consideration for health and safety, and how could these people run so goddamn fast up and down a hill?
With a few more club runs on Ilkley and Baildon moors charging around in the dark, fog and rain, I felt the bile creep up on me once again as my body got used to the change in pace from my usual flat amble around Eccup and Harwood. But it was great fun, I felt energized, could this be a way to combine my love of the hills and mountains with my fledgling running hobby and healthier me?
On October 26th I did my first marathon distance. I had wanted to run from my house to Almscliff Crag for a while. I had estimated it would be around 18 miles so not much further than my longest run of 16 miles. It had been raining for a few weeks and the ground was completely saturated so I wore some fell shoes. This was fine until I arrived back in Cookridge having unexpectedly extended the run around Otley Chevin. The final five miles of pavement-bashing in a shoe with no cushioning built for soft terrain was a new level of sore. I had never given much thought to doing a marathon distance before and assumed I would need to do a hell of a lot more training before I could attempt it, but at mile 21 it seemed too close, I had to try. So when I shuffled past 26 miles I was more than a tad surprised.
I had known since October that barring any serious injury I would be able to hit my 1000-mile target sometime in December. But strangely the knowledge that I could do it made me less motivated to try, the thought of completing it on just a normal jog around the local trails seemed a bit of a let-down. I wondered if I could do a 50K as the final run of my challenge. It seemed a better goal to have, but I honestly did not know if my body would be able to do it. I had done no real training plan as such; I had just been going for regular runs.
I had done another marathon distance on November 14th and that had been twice as hard as the first, maybe because I knew now how far it felt now, or maybe because I still couldn’t get food down on a long run. I had tried various items but everything had made my mouth feel bone dry and I struggled to swallow any down. It just left me feeling sick. At mile 26 with only a mile or two to reach home I was broken and had to call to be rescued by Jess for the third time.
I planned my route. Start from home, head to Bramhope, along the Chevin, through Menston and Burley Woodhead up to the trig point on Ilkley moor, then across to the trig on Baildon moor, down Shipley Glen to the canal in Saltaire and then follow the towpath all the way back down to the bridge across the River Aire in Horsforth, and finally up the hill to Cookridge. My OS app said it would be bang on 50K.
I estimated that when I was back near Calverley I would pass the marathon mark; I knew the canal towpath could be busy on the weekend and I pushed the thought of a very public collapse out of my mind. If I used what I had learnt over the past year I thought I would be OK. Namely: Eat a good breakfast. Do some stretching. Use a roller even if you don’t know why… it might do something. Take lots of liquid. Carry some food. Actually eat the food. Even if previously a dog person, when running assume all dogs want to kill you. Pace yourself. Choose a day without the option of an emergency rescue so you can’t bail out again.
It all went perfectly. I even managed to eat a whole Snickers when I reached the top of Ilkley moor. But as I headed down and over to Baildon I jarred my knee in a hole, not too badly, I thought it would shake itself out. It didn’t, and later on at around mile 20 it was really starting to flare up and cause a lot of pain. I hobbled on until Calverley Bridge which was the first opportunity to cut the run short and I gingerly walked home from there.
So my year did not end in a 50K blaze of glory, but perhaps more fittingly I crossed the invisible 1000-mile line somewhere on Ilkley moor during the NLFR winter solstice run. I was actually still nursing the bad knee more than I knew when we set off…sorry for slowing anyone down.
Fell running is definitely something I know I will continue to pursue in future and running in general is now something I love to do. I had finally lost a stone. It took the full 12 months, so probably not the most inspiring weight loss story. (But all with no dieting.) More tellingly my BMI score was 4 points lower than it had been and I felt better than I had for a long time.
I look forward to when my body recovers from the injuries and pains this new healthier lifestyle has given me, I can’t wait to head out to the hills again. For now, I will have to be content with putting my feet up, eating cheese, drinking port and reading Feet in the Clouds.
See you on the fells.