Wonderful Walks: Epping & Hatfield Forest.

Taking a walk in the forest is a fantastic way to get outdoors and away from the hustle and bustle of daily life.

According to studies, spending time in a forest can reduce psychological, depression and hostility. At the same time it is also known to help improve sleep and the feeling of well being, whilst being mutually beneficial for your physical health and fitness too. The smell of trees also have their benefits as the chemicals they release, phytoncides, have been attributed to improved immune defences as well as a reduction in anxiety!

With all these advantages of walking around trees it is no wonder I feel so relaxed after spending time in my local wooded areas. When you add the fact that they offer such scenic surroundings to pass the time whilst walking, it makes me wonder why I don’t spend more time in the woods!

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I have always been a big advocate for exercising to improve mental health. No matter what activity you choose, you will always find that once completed your state of mind is completely different.

Walking or hiking is an activity that has become more frequent in my training schedule in recent years. It offers a break from the high impact and intensity from other activities I take part in, like running or spinning. Though, that’s not to say it is any easier. With a group of highly enthusiastic walkers – the pace and the terrain is always a challenge.

Whilst training for the Isle of Wight challenge finding routes that allowed us to prepare for both the mileage and terrain proved rather difficult. Living around the Herts/ Essex border did not exactly prepare us for what we were to be facing on the island. So we had to search for the toughest hills possible, the longest paths and the most picturesque routes to keep our minds occupied on the challenge ahead.

Forest routes became a frequent favourite as most offered us all of the factors we needed for training.

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Epping Forest was one of these and one route we continue walking today! The 2,400 hectares of ancient woodlands is found between Epping at the north and Wanstead at the south. Here you will find 12 miles of woodland paths north to south and 2.5 miles east to west – offering a fantastic opportunity to walk a loop of significant distance. A forest with many paths that look identical, it does open the opportunity to get lost if you don’t know your way – I certainly did the first time I ventured there alone. Once you have familiarised yourself with the paths (perhaps with a map), you will find pleasure if finding new routes and working how to make your walk longer or more challenging.

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Not only that, but with our ever changing seasons you will be rewarded with a number of beautiful views whatever the weather. Epping Forest is always a hive of activity throughout the year, with dog walkers, runners, cyclists and horse riders alike – all wanting to take advantage of the beautiful scenery.

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Hatfield Forest, though significantly smaller than Epping a short distance away, offers equally stunning views. Only 403 hectares, it is a biological Site of Specific Scientific Interest in Essex. Only a few miles from Bishops Stortford and moments away from London Stansted airport, this picturesque spot is owned and managed by the National Trust. Like Epping Forest, not only will you stumble across a number of walkers, runners, cyclists and horse riders but also roaming cattle during the fairer months of the year. Whilst Epping offers an undulating terrain, Hatfield Forest is significantly flat in comparison. Running along the north of the forest is the Flitch Way, a former railway line passing through 15 miles of rural Essex between Bishops Stortford and Braintree, where you will find numerous runners and cyclists opting for the gentle path ways to clock up the miles.

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Delve further into the forest and you will find a mix of grassy paths, woodlands and even a lake. In the height of Summer, the forest is a hive of activity, with numerous families and friendship groups heading here for the day. In the cooler months, especially earlier in the day you will normally come across dog walkers and fisherman, taking advantage of the serene surroundings. No matter what time of year you visit, you are bound to be captivated by the beauty of the Forest, though more so during early, cold, sunny mornings in the winter when the sunrise and mist from the cooler temperatures provide the most beautiful backdrop.

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I have walked both Epping and Hatfield Forest countless times over the last few years and am yet to find a walk that I don’t enjoy. Each walk may see us taking the same steps, following the same paths at times, but every time we do the view is different. At the end of each walk we find ourselves feeling just that little bit better physically and mentally.

Royal Parks Half Marathon

On Sunday 14th October I took part in my sixth half marathon, at the Royal Parks. For many years I have entered the ballot in the hope that I would be able to take part in one of the most sought after runs in the racing calendar. Every year I failed, with this year being no exception. So I opted for a charity place. I was already raising money for Mind, so I used this as an opportunity to keep the fundraising going.

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In the lead up to the event, I picked up a cold and did not get in the distance I would have liked. So I knew ahead of the race I would have to accept the fact that there wouldn’t be any PB’s. With my recent news of a place in the London Marathon ballot I simply decided to use this as a training run to work out where I am right now and give me a goal to work towards the next half marathon.

The day started early, getting to Epping Station long before the trains had started running. It was dark, it was cooler than recent days and the forecasted wet weather was definitely starting to show its face.

Heavens opened as soon as I arrived at the event village. Before I had the opportunity to sort myself out and drop off my bag, I was soaked to the bone. With wet feet, clothing and hair frizzing with the humidity I simply resembled a drowned rat. And we had not even started. It was safe to say I was keen to get the race over and done with before I had a chance to catch a chill.

There was not much of a wait. In the yellow wave, I was rather close to the back, but did not have to wait too long before crossing the start line.

At 9:30am I was on my way.

The first 2 miles proved to be rather crowded. A total of 16,000 runners took part in the event, meaning that despite with the even waves, trying to get around the slower runners and form any kind of steady pace was impossible.

So I spent the first few miles just trying to get into the run, to warm up the legs and soak up the crowd – which in true London style came in their thousands to cheer everyone on. These miles saw us run out of Hyde Park, through the Wellington Arch, down Constitution Hill to the front of Buckingham Palace before working our way down Birdcage Walk and round St James Park before doubling back on Whitehall.

The route then follows many races I have taken part in before: the London Winter Run and London Landmarks Half Marathon, to name a few. As they were roads I was accustomed to running you would have thought I would have found the route a breeze. It was simply not the case. Between mile 3 and 4, as I double backed along the Strand, I found my pace slowing, feeling rather sluggish. By mile 5, as we headed along The Mall I was in desperate need for the bathroom – I had obviously over hydrated in the lead up to the event.

Toilet break taken, I plowed on. Back up Constitution Hill (yes it is actually a hill. Something you don’t realise until running it), towards Hyde Park and the screaming crowds yet again. The spectators and the cheer stations gave me the momentum I needed at this point. I had written my name on my bib and had random strangers screaming words of encouragement – I could not stop with so many eyes on me.

On I went zig zagging along the route through Hyde Park, finding the inclines somewhat of a struggle between mile 7 and 8, feeling my legs tighten between miles 9 and 10 and then feeling rather grumpy by the time I reached mile 11, when the heavens decided to open yet again.

I was stomping along, reminding myself I had just over two miles to get through, mostly down hill, but finding it rather difficult to keep myself motivated.

With the heavy rain unrelenting I simply had to get through as quickly as humanly possible – dry clothes and a hot tub session was calling.

It was then I passed the Mind cheering station. Wearing the charity vest with pride, I was spotted quickly and received the most almighty cheers from the volunteers. Giving me just what I needed to get through to the finish.

A few more turns in the course and the 800 metre marker was in sight (on an incline mind you), followed shortly after the 400 metre and then finally the finish line was in clear view, so I picked up the pace. No slowing down now, the end was near. I had made it yet again.

Not the best, yet not the worst timing for a half marathon. In fact the time of 2:33 ranked third in the six halves I had completed.

Although I had not fully prepared for the distance in the lead up, it showed that my training with Harlow Running Club was paying off. It was a significant improvement to my timing at the London Landmarks Half earlier this year, despite walking some of the route.

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It was not the result I wanted – I always secretly want to see an improvement. But It gives me a benchmark for training, It gives me an idea as to the work I need to do for the London Marathon and a new goal for the two half marathons I have booked for the Spring.

Despite being one hell of a grump throughout this race, it is a beautiful route in our city, and one that I would love to run again.

So I eagerly await the ballot entry email to sign up for the Royal Parks Half Marathon in 2019, in the hope that I can experience it again perhaps without the rain.

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Post Race Recovery

As I dragged myself out of bed this morning I felt the tell tale signs that I had pushed my body to the limit the day before, running the Royal Parks Half Marathon (write up to follow soon).

The delayed onset muscle soreness had set in. Walking down the stairs proved rather challenging, getting in and out the car made me look like an elderly lady and the more I remained still throughout the day the more stiff I became. To the point where I felt the best thing for me to do at the end of the working day was to go home, eat well and have an early night.

Whilst I feel a sense of achievement, completing 13.1 miles is always tough, I can’t help but look at the many steps advised to take to aid post race recovery and see what more I could have done to make the recovery just that little better.

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Rehydration is one of the most important steps post race. No matter the weather, rain or shine, the exertion on race day will mean any water taken on board will have been sweated out, along with electrolytes and minerals to boot. I always carry a hydration backpack whilst running; ensuring I don’t have to rely on water stations en route. At the finish line I always take extra water that is being handed out and on the journey home I tend to pick up a bottle of fizzy water to quench the first. Then, once home, the rehydration will continue. Though this time round I should have added a few electrolyte tablets to replace those that were lost during the race itself.

Cool Down is extremely important, especially if you have a long car journey ahead. The temptation once a race is complete is to sit down – something I always try to avoid as (like I have seen today) the more I remain stagnant the more I suffer with stiffness over the next 48 hours. Post race I try and use a short walk as a cool down; usually the walk from the finish line to the tube station is sufficient for me.

Eating to recover is always recommended. Something I always have an issue with. Post race the last thing I want to do is eat, with the over exertion (and perhaps too many jelly babies from spectators) making me feel rather nauseous. It is advised to eat something with a good mix of protein, carbohydrates and healthy. Bananas are always readily available at every finish line, which is unfortunate for a banana phobe like me. My go to once home is a jacket potato with beans! Ultimate comfort food.

It is recommended to have a gentle massage to flush out the lactic acid and toxins. If you head to a sports therapist to aid your recovery, make sure they are aware you have taken part in a race so they know to be gentle. Personally I have to wait a few days before allowing any therapist to ease out my aching muscles. Instead I always spend a good 30 minutes in the hot tub at the gym, followed by some time with the foam roller. The roller and I don’t get on at all. It’s not pleasant process – but necessary.

Stretching is one step I always skip! And seeing as I failed to stretch after yesterday’s race it is no wonder I am feeling the aches and pains today. As I increase the training in the lead up to the London Marathon this is something I am going to have to pay more attention to.

Add some post race Protein to your meals! As a vegetarian I often fill up on eggs or Quorn post race. An omelette is a perfect way to fill up on protein and aid muscle recovery.

Early to bed! Not only do most races start early, requiring a nasty wake up call especially for a Sunday, but your body has been pushed to its limits. You are bound to be tired and it’s normal to feel like going to bed before the sun goes down. After yesterday’s race I spent the afternoon in fresh pajamas, on the sofa with a duvet before tucking myself into bed well before 9pm. It was the most dreamless sleep I had had for weeks.

Continue to rest in the days following the race. Don’t rush into strenuous training straight away. Take advantage of those rest days, with active recovery. Today I am allowing complete rest, but tomorrow I will return to running club for a gentle track session and will keep the legs ticking over throughout the day with a lunch time walk.

Despite running numerous races over the years, and having the experience to know what’s best, I still made mistakes in my post race recovery. Hopefully I will continue to learn from these and make better choices next time round.

Running the London Marathon…..again!

As I crossed the iconic finish line at the London Marathon in 2017 I believe the first words that came out my mouth were “Never Again!”

Despite saying this then (and every moment since), I, along with thousands of runners, still decide to chance my luck with the public ballot assuming the odds will not be in my favour. But like the lottery, you have to be in it to win it, so after being inspired by thousands of runners in April, you throw you name into the mix and see what happens,  and simply forget about it for several months. With around 17,500 ballot places against over 400,000 entries for 2019, the chances to get a spot is around 5% – so most walk away disappointed with also a sense of relief.

I assumed and prepared for this result myself.

As my social media feeds started filling up with posts picturing the iconic “commiserations” magazine I was expecting my own copy drop through the letter box.

You can imagine my shock (and horror) to discover that the odds actually were in my favour. As I was “In” and heading to the London Marathon for a second time.

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It has taken me a good few days to digest the ballot result. As I shared the news with various people I received messages of congratulations (like I had completed the race already) and from my running club members, who were rather envious.

As the news has sunk in I have begun to realise how privileged I am to receive a ballot place. There were over 400,000 entries and I got a spot. The spaces are like gold dust, with the London Marathon being one of the most sought after races. Who doesn’t want to run in our great city and to be part of the most amazing day in the sporting calendar. And I have the opportunity to run it again. I was chosen!

So as I come to terms with the challenge I now face, I am looking forward to see how the London Marathon will be different for me the second time round.

I know what to expect in 2019. Unlike my attempt in 2017, I will not be be in the dark on race day itself. The course will be familiar, I will remember the sections on route where I found myself struggling and prepare mentally and physically to overcome any issues that may arise. I know that just after the half way point when you see the faster runners coming back towards you I will need to dig deep to push through – as this had a mental impact on my performance in 2017. Knowing what to expect will  go a long way to improve on my previous attempt and help me prepare for race day.

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There is no pressure to fundraise. Although it was amazing to be offered a charity place in 2017 and raise money for the Willow Foundation, the stress of trying to raise such a huge amount did add to the worries of training. If I was not running and thinking about running, I was constantly thinking about creative ways to raise money – often putting a lot of money into raffles and bake sales myself. And whilst it is a fantastic thing to be able to do for a charity I do question the large targets most set when eager runners sign up for such events. Thats not to say I will not be throwing out a fundraising link – because I will continue fundraising for Mind in memory of my Uncle. It just means that I can relax knowing that all I need to do is get the training in and run on race day.

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Back in 2017 I trained alone, with no guidance other than running forums, blogs and advice from friends. In 2019 the shape of my training will be completely different. As I am now a member of Harlow Running Club, I will have set training days which take away the stress of planning routes and motivating myself when I just don’t want to run. I will also have an array of equally crazy people, who are either running a marathon for the first time in Spring 2019 or those who have run multiple events, to train with, to get advice from or simply to encourage me to keep going when I just don’t want to. In addition, training with the club will give me that little extra running ability I just didn’t have from going at it alone.

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Finally, to this day I still remember that finish line that so many friends raved about. During training, when they all said “the finish is so rewarding” they were not lying. It was simply one of the most defining moments in my life. The pain and time had no relevance – I had completed the London Marathon and nothing could beat that feeling of euphoria!

So, I look towards 2019 with a sense of pride, excitement and I must admit, a shred of fear as I prepare to tun the greatest race on earth yet again.

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Chasing the Personal Best

The “Personal Best”, the constant quest to obtain a PB can be rather stressful, frustrating and challenging.

As many of my previous posts have detailed, I hold my hands up and say I am constantly hoping for a personal best on a daily basis, whether it is during training or during a race itself. The ability to improve on your previous performance is not only rewarding but also extremely motivating, for anyone – not just runners.

But, as many like minded runners would relate to, as soon as I hit a new PB I am constantly attempting to compete with myself and, as such, often find myself frustrated with my ability to push myself further. When in fact, I should be looking at my progress and how far I have come.

Six years ago today, I took part in my first ever race. Taking part in the Willow 10K was rather daunting and the furthest I have ever run. I completed the undulating course in 64 minutes and whilst I was ecstatic with the result I declared I would never run a race again.

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Though, the next year I was back again – in attempt to beat my previous years time. However, on my return I immediately felt the pressure to improve on the year before and, subsequently failed.

Again I vowed to never run again. But went on to join a local boot camp several months later which opened up a whole new world and level fitness, and the addiction to running races continued to the point that I have now lost count of the number of 10K races I have taken part in, along with half marathons and the London Marathon to boot. So much for never running again.

Despite now being a “seasoned runner,” someone who is extremely capable of running for miles without issue – I am constantly doubting my ability, chasing the PB and getting frustrated or wanting to give up when I don’t get it.

But what we all fail to understand is that the “Personal Best” we all crave for every time we don the running shoes doesn’t always have to be about time. The personal best can also be a distance you set yourself, a goal you have overcome whilst running or even just how you feel during a run or race.

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My local parkrun is a prime example of this. It is one run that stresses me out each week. The pressure to improve, to do my best often causes a panic within and makes the run one I tend to not enjoy. When I first started taking part, week after week I would get a PB until I found myself no longer improving. I took a long break, whilst training for the Isle of Wight challenge and returned in June to again see a succession of PB’s. But for the last six weeks there has been no PB, and I find myself frustrated before I start every Saturday.

The course itself is not an easy one. Two and a half loops of the local town park, which includes a grassy up hill section – that I have never been able to conquer until a few weeks ago. On the second loop I was determined that no matter how slow my pace was, I was going to get to the top without stopping. And I did. I did not have a PB time wise that Saturday morning. But, I was ecstatic – my personal best for that day was conquering that nasty hill.

And some further PB’s followed after, with a sub 30 minute 5K personal best during a session with Harlow Running Club. It was flat and it was on a track – but nonetheless – it was still a personal best.

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So we need to take the achievements where we can. It doesn’t matter what your minute/ mile pacing is. It matters that you are moving, it matters that you understand that a personal best can be found in other places too.

We all put far too much pressure on time forgetting that in doing so you can bring stress and pressure to the body. Instead we should relax, enjoy the activities we are doing and take the PB’s, in what ever form they come.