40 Before 40: #15 Take a yoga class

As a runner and coach I understand the benefits of being bendy, of maintaining flexibility and the role yoga can play in being a better athlete. I’d never really tried it though and certainly wasn’t any good!

I’d tried to follow a few online tutorials with varying results. It’s hard to watch YouTube when in “downward dog” and never knowing if you’re doing things right annoys me. My enthusiasm never lasts long, hence the challenge of attending an actual class, with other people, who can see me fall over.

This is NOT a beginners class.

I first tried a class at Fitness First gym. I was assured it was beginner friendly and the instructor would be helpful etc…don’t believe a word of it! It started okay, just me and 40 other people all of whom could contort themselves inside-out. For 30 minutes I eagerly followed every instruction, even if I wasn’t stretching as far as those around me I was looking something like they were at least. Lots of arms in the air and legs apart, breathing when told to, only losing balance a couple of times. Then all of a sudden the instructor mumbled something incoherent and the entire class snapped to attention in a pose that looked like the aftermath of a car crash, limbs in places limbs shouldn’t go. I tried to copy them, but they were already on the move swapping arms for legs and before I knew it some of them were upside-down! For the last 30 minutes I floundered, not being able to follow a single instruction and feeling like I’d stumbled in to my own version of purgatory. The end couldn’t come soon enough!

I could have left it there, challenge completed, class attended, lesson learned… but in January 2018 I was convinced to have another go, in a smaller class that had the word “beginners” in the title. It helped that the class was above a favourite pub, so if it all went wrong at least I could drown my sorrows!

This class was much better. It was far more my level with slow movements, proper explanation and guidance on how it should feel when done right. I learned things in that first hour that made sense of a lot of what I’d done before. I learned how to move my weight and focus my efforts, and how I should be pushing in to the floor or up to the sky to make the stretch more powerful. It felt totally different to every previous yoga experience, I felt accomplished and when we finished I felt great. Over the next few days I tried some of the asana (poses) at home and it felt great again, like I was properly working as opposed to just getting in an uncomfortable position. I even tried a yoga app and was able to get much more from it now I understood a bit more. My more experienced companion didn’t get as much from the class, but as a future instructor hopefully she took something away from it. Yoga is scary and difficult to beginners, especially blokes, so simplifying it is a great skill to possess.

I’ve actually been back twice since and learned a little more each time. I’m not running at the moment but it will be interesting to see how the yoga skills and stretches will influence my recovery when I do. I’m excited to find out.

You can learn more about the instructor and classes I attended HERE

Do you have a favourite yoga pose? Any simple yoga routines online you can recommend? Just comment below…

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40 before 40: #8 Go Vegetarian For 30 Days

I should probably start by explaining my motivation for this one…

It is not borne of any desire to stop eating meat. I am a committed omnivore, I love meat. I understand all the reasons others decide not to eat it, but I also understand that bacon is life. My decision wasn’t based on compassion, or wanting to free all the cows. In the past I have been vocal in my advocacy for meat. Nando’s is a reason to stay alive; birthday steak is something to look forward to for 364 days of the year. In fact, I have been less than kind about vegetarians and vegans and their choices, unnecessarily so, and for that reason I first thought about making amends in some small way. It also seemed like a good opportunity to reduce the amount of calories I was consuming! What swung it and got vegetarianism on the list was the idea that I could spend 30 days learning new recipes, really getting to know the veg aisles at the supermarkets and exploring alternatives to my twice a day, every day meat consumption. I hoped to come out of this not craving meat and happy to go without a few times a week. I decided not to avoid fish though, so technically I was a pescetarian I guess.

The reality was quite different. I successfully avoided meat, but I’m not sure I actually increased my vegetable consumption!

It all started in something of a rush, as I realised that by chance I was going two days without meat, so it seemed sensible to continue it and only have 28 other days to worry about. A trip to the supermarket though soon revealed that planning would have been a good idea. With no recipes in mind I ended up buying pretty much what I usually would only without any meat! Pasta sauces became roasted vegetable rather than carbonara, there was a vegetarian pizza, and LOTS of bread and beans. These things became the staple of my diet, as I struggled to find the time or motivation to experiment or learn. My diet became primarily tuna pasta or beans on toast, and lots and lots of prawn mayo sandwiches.

As well as my own shopping, I realised how much meat was always on offer wherever I go. I opted for a free fry-up without bacon at a breakfast event, turned down my favourite ham sandwich, bbq burgers and a roast dinner; pretty much every food I was offered for a month was meat based!

So I did it, I went for 30 days without eating meat, and it was relatively easy but far from enjoyable. I do have a new found appreciation for the struggles of vegetarians to eat out and avoid meat, it is in practically everything we eat and firmly ingrained in the culinary psyche of the country. Whilst I haven’t learned anything about cooking I am now a little more likely to eat a meat free meal which I suppose is something.

But I still bloody love a bloody steak.

Heaven.

 

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Who James Met: James Cracknell OBE

James Cracknell OBE is a double Olympic gold medallist and endurance athlete with credits including rowing across the Atlantic in 49 days (with presenter Ben Fogle), racing to the South Pole and being only narrowly beaten by Norwegians and being a GB age grade triathlete. He has run several marathons and finished 12th in the Marathon de Sables (making him the highest placed Brit in the event’s history). He now owns RunJOy Ltd who provide half marathons in Cheltenham, Exeter and Weston-Super-Mare.

James Cracknell OBE, Olympic and endurance hero.

NAME: James Cracknell

LOCATION: Prince of Wales Stadium, Almost Athletes track session

BEEN RUNNING FOR: I did some running as part of my rowing training, shuffling up and down the towpath, and then after the 2004 Athens Olympics when I retired from rowing I took on the London Marathon the following year. That’s when I learned, about halfway round, that there is more to it than just running. The speed work and training etc which I hadn’t done. That’s why I’m at the track now!

HOW DID YOU START: After the faff of rowing where you need a boat and water and other people who turn up late, the ease of running and time efficient manner made it the obvious choice. A pair of trainers and you’ve got all you need. When my eldest was born and sport wasn’t the only priority there were suddenly other time pressures, and running was the easiest way to fit in exercise.

FAVOURITE DISTANCE: Well I think as every runner knows, any race you do is always too long! I think I’m best suited to the half marathon, my 10k time and splits would suggest I’m better going longer but a marathon is too long.

FAVOURITE RUN/RACE: I enjoyed New York Marathon, because I could run it very differently. As an Englishman there I could do it very anonymously and just concentrate on my running. There wasn’t as much fancy dress and things, it was a very serious run, in fact in my starting pen people were discussing the weight of their trainers! I was like “they’re size 13, does that help?”. So I enjoyed New York although it is tough through the quiet sections on the way to Manhattan.

FAVE BIT OF KIT: I think a pair of shorts is the crucial thing. I have lots of kit and toys but a decent pair of shorts with inner shorts, not a net, and a singlet that isn’t too baggy are keys to happiness. Anything that doesn’t chaff! All chaffing is needless pain. (If you haven’t read James’ book about rowing the Atlantic “The Crossing” do so. That man knows about chaffing!)

DREAM RUN: I love running by the sea or by water, that’s always nice. In terms of races I’d like to do there’s an ultra marathon in Badwater, Death Valley which is a brutal test, you do it with your own support crew. It’s 135 miles in 50 degree heat all in one go, that would be interesting.

DREAM RUNNING PARTNER: I’m quite unsociable when I’m running, just head down going for it, I’m not one to chat. My East German coach used to tell me if you’re talking you aren’t working hard enough so maybe that’s why, although he wasn’t a track and field coach so not sure why I still listen to him!

RUNNING ASPIRATIONS: Well the aim of the race series is to get more people running, that’s what drives me. It’s not about getting runners to chip a few seconds off a time, it’s helping build more activity in to their lives and see the benefits of running. Then they can get more out of their children and grandchildren, I believe if we don’t bank some fitness in our thirties and forties, then you’ll start withdrawing in your sixties and there’s nothing there. You need to build up some credit so I’m hoping people take on the challenge of our half marathons and fitness becomes habitual and helps them through life as a result. For me personally, I’ll always want to chip a few seconds off my race times but that’s no longer my focus.

FAVOURITE INSPIRATIONAL QUOTE: Abraham Lincoln said a great thing, as well as abolishing slavery and many other accomplishments! “If I had six hours to chop down a tree I’d spend the first three sharpening the axe”. That’s perfect for endurance running as well, you can’t attack a marathon with a blunt axe so spend the time preparing!

Entries are now open for the Cheltenham Half Marathon on 30th September 2018. Click HERE to book your place.

 

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Who James Met: Kristina Schou Madsen

I met Kristina in May 2017, when we recorded this interview. Since then her running has gone from strength to strength with another National title and podiums around the globe. As I write (almost a year later!) Kristina is preparing to break the world record for a trip up and down Kilimanjaro! Kristina also runs a city race series and virtual race series, learn more at Kristina Extreme Running.

Kristina Schou Madsen

NAME: Kristina Schou Madsen – Danish National Trail Running Champion

LOCATION: Cucugnan, France, ahead of the Trail de Cathares mountain race.

BEEN RUNNING FOR: I did my first half marathon in 2008, very unprepared but I’ve been running every since.

HOW DID YOU START: It was actually a bet, a drunken bet! I was at a party and a friend said “Kristina, I bet you can’t do a half marathon…”

FAVOURITE DISTANCE: Somewhere between 70 and 90km, I like the long runs, they suit me better.

FAVOURITE RUN/RACE: Not sure about having favourites but the 2013 Everest Marathon was epic, that was my first race under extreme conditions. That meant a lot to me and inspired me to do more of this kind

FAVE BIT OF KIT: I’m sponsored by Hoka, Garmin and CEP, and a nutrition company 32GI so I need to be faithful to them all, but my favourite kit is my running shoes. As long as I have those I can run!

DREAM RUN: I would like to do the four Beyond The Ultimate events. I did the Jungle Ultra last year (which she won!), and I have plans for the Desert Ultra. Then there’s only the Ice Ultra in Sweden and the Mountain Ultra which will take me back to the Himalayas.

DREAM RUNNING PARTNER: In the desert I am hoping to run with Susie Chan, who is a very nice and interesting person I met on the Jungle Ultra, so I’m looking forward to that. I meet a lot of nice people all the time through these adventures, so the next new friend will do.

RUNNING ASPIRATIONS: I’m not setting goals for 5 or 10 years, I think that changes all the time as I change as a human, getting older and more experienced. So instead, I’m figuring out on my way and not looking too far ahead. As long as I always have the next thing in mind I’m happy.

FAVOURITE INSPIRATIONAL QUOTE: (laughs) Tits to the valley! (this was our rallying call for the downhill sections of the mountain half marathon that weekend, where Kristina finished 4th despite taking it easy and doing a 2km detour)

 

 

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40 Before 40: #4 Jump between Adam and Eve on Tryfan

One of my 40 before 40 challenges, listed HERE

Adam and Eve, the two iconic stones that make up the true summit of Tryfan in North Wales’ Snowdonia mountain range, have long been a favourite of the more adventurous mountaineer. Legend has it that any hardy hiker brave enough to leap from one to the other receives the freedom of Tryfan. I’m not sure what I’d do with the freedom of Tryfan but I set out to earn it anyway…

The hulking mass of Tryfan and the north ridge.

The walk is a demanding one from the start, with no chance to find your legs before you start climbing straight from the roadside of the A5 at Llyn Ogwen. Initially steep steps worked in to the hillside in tight turns, the climb soon reaches a level traverse of the mountain were decisions need to be made. The prescribed wisdom is to stay as central as possible on the North Ridge and climb, needless to say, I didn’t. I was climbing with Greg who liked the look of the long line of scramblers making there way up a thin crack in the rock face, but the more I watched the more I realised that long legs and rangy arms would serve you well on this section, neither of which I possess! We weren’t alone on the mountain (far from it in fact) and a confident voice proclaimed a less crowded and less demanding route to the left…so I followed him and his two friends. Our journey left continued leftwards, and even though we were gaining height slowly I was conscious of the nagging advice of the masses at the back of my mind. I fooled myself that actually, given the sheer scale of the mountain, even our long diversion was still relatively central all things considered. I was wrong.

We eventually turned up the face of the mountain and started climbing in earnest. There was something resembling a path but it would often peter out to nothingness, only for one of us to find something that looked path-like a few metres away.  We toiled on, gaining height gradually, until reaching a point where it seemed we’d climbed ourselves in to a dead end. A few minutes of clambering around horribly exposed rock outcrops and peering in to long drops all around us and we were starting to think retreat was the only option.

Greg killing time taking selfies at the summit, having gone the right way.

Greg to the rescue! Having followed the masses and stayed central to the North face as suggested he’d reached the summit and sat waiting. Getting bored of that he’d found his way off the back of the mountain and down to where we were waiting, albeit the other side of a very thin gap between rocks with an overhang and 1,000 foot drop. As cruxes go this one was a beauty, but with lots of contortion and passing of bags and poles we managed to all squeeze through on to the last reaches of a different gully and Greg led us to the summit from there. I have to say, even if we had committed to the crux and got beyond that ourselves we would have been unlikely to find the summit for some time. It was only thanks to Greg approaching it from above and seeing the obvious line that a route was possible at all, from below there were several impenetrable rock faces to be overcome.

With the summit safely made it was time for sarnies and Star Bar, a chat with some of the many other climbers there that day and to watch people toying with the step between Adam and Eve. If you read about it online you’ll learn that the stride needed to clear the gap is a mere four feet. What is harder to imagine is that on one side is a short drop to a boulder field and guaranteed broken bones and the other is a fall of several seconds to certain death. It is also hard to picture the space for landing and take off, both roughly a square meter, on an angle and uneven. If it sounds like I’m making excuses, maybe that’s because I am. I didn’t take the leap.

Adam and Eve, they don’t look very threatening from this angle…

Once I was able to see the challenge I realised that even climbing on to the stones would be a struggle, but then to make the leap would be a feat of athleticism, balance and bravery I just didn’t feel capable of. However, I wasn’t disappointed. I was sat on top of one of the greatest mountains in the UK, having scrambled and climbed up there via a very testing route and had done so comfortably and without fear. I realised that while the challenge may have been to jump between the two summit stones actually the achievement and pleasure was in getting there, in the journey to be in a position to make the leap. I didn’t need to cover that last 1.5 metres in order to have achieved something special that day.

In our usual way we came down via an unmarked route, taking the shortest line between two points which involved reverse scrambling, leaping over bogs and plenty of “I think it’s just over there…”. All in all a truly magnificent day in the mountains.

When I got home I measured out the distance between Adam and Eve in my hallway and attempted to leap it. I made it, just, with millimetres to spare but plenty of carpet to cushion my fall if I had come up short. In hindsight I think I was wise, but I’ve been practicing my leaping and landing since then and one day I will go back…

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