Sleep Trackers: Five Stages of Sleep

It is well known that a combination of a good diet, low stress and exercise enables us to sleep better. However, in the busy world we now live in, where we find ourselves having to deal with the stresses of every day life, snoring partners and restless children, it is no surprise that getting a good nights rest is something of a struggle for most of us.

According to Sleep-Science, scientists before the 1950’s believed that as people drifted off to sleep their brains and bodies would go into a “shut down” mode, entering a passive state which would enable them to recuperate from the days events.

What we have since learned is that sleep is a lot more complicated and active than we think.

Many fitness trackers have a built in sleep monitor that enable us to understand how well we are resting and in turn offer tips to help us improve our sleep. For many years I have tried not to focus heavily on the sleep tracker itself, as at times the constant monitoring of my own sleep cycle caused further stress.

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So what are the five stages of sleep?

Within Stage One of the sleep cycle our brains produce alpha and theta waves, and eye movement slows down – usually within minutes of nodding off. Here we are in light sleep, are somewhat alert and can easily be awoken. This stage of sleep is rather brief – usually lasting only several minutes.

Stage Two of our sleep cycle is also light, where our brain produces a sudden increase in brain wave frequency known as sleep spindles. The brain waves then slow down. If you were to have a power nap this would be the optimum time to awake.

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Stages three and four is the stage whereby we enter into deep sleep, as the brain starts to produce slower delta waves. No eye or muscle movement is experienced during these stages and it becomes a little harder for someone to wake us due to the fact that our body becomes less responsive. As the brain starts to produce more delta waves, we will then move into a deeper, more restorative stage of sleep, and it is most difficult to wake up at this stage. This is the optimum time for our bodies to repair muscles and tissues – especially important for those of us who spend a great deal of time training.  This stage is also important for stimulation, growth, boosting immune function and building up energy for the next day ahead.

We then enter Rapid Eye Movement Sleep (REM) about 90 minutes after falling asleep, with each REM cycle lasting up to an hour. On average, an adult has five to six REM cycles each night and during this stage our brains become more active. This is where our dreaming will occur, our eyes will jerk in different directions, our heart rate and blood pressure increases and our breathing becomes fast and irregular. The REM stage of sleep is important for the learning and memory function – this is where our brains processes information from the day before – storing it in our long term memory.

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As adults we spend half of our sleep time in stage two, 20% in the REM stage and a further 30% is usually divided between the other three stages. As we get older the time we spend in the REM stage will become progressively less.

My own cycle follows a similar pattern, with the vast majority of my sleep in the lighter stages – it’s no wonder I am easily awoken my snoring or our mischievous cats. I used to spend a lot of time worrying about my limited time in the deeper stages of sleep but as I get older and understand how sleep cycles change, this has become less of a worry.

The important factor for me is ensuring that I improve my sleep cycle as much as possible. Ensuring I keep to a regular schedule for both going to bed and waking up is extremely important – even at the weekend (though sometimes life even gets in the way of that bed time). Keeping a TV out of the bedroom is a must for me; though I am guilty of focusing on gadgets (i.e. my phone) before I drift off, falling asleep with the lights and sounds of a television will only have a negative impact on my sleep.

Other great ways to improve sleep is exercise – I never have an issue falling asleep due to high levels of activity, it is just the staying that way that’s the problem. So, at times I like to add Floatation Therapy sessions and massages to help relax my mind and body.

As our personal and professional lives become increasingly busy and stressful it is imperative that get the rest we need to keep our bodies functioning to their full potential.

Over the coming months, as my training for the London Marathon starts to take on a new level, my sleep will be most important and something I will keeping a close eye on.

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.

Time Out in Zante

With the heavy rain and wind we have been experiencing over the last few days it is hard to remember that a little over one week ago I was basking in thirty degree heat, with my toes in the sand and a nose in a book.

It had been a while since I had a complete “beach break.” Time to simply to nothing but rest and soak up the sun. Don’t get me wrong, we always ensure we get our holidays. It just seems that it has been a while since a holiday revolved around the beach. I expected our trip to San Diego the previous year to have a little more relaxation, however with so many things to see and do – it just did not work out that way. Plus with some great running routes around Mission Bay I could not resist a few early morning runs to get the day started.

Fast forward to Summer 2018 and after a good eight months training and racing, amongst other stresses of daily life, I was well and truly ready to worship the sun for nine days. And for a good five days, it was the perfect opportunity to do so. Until I ran out of reading material. So from the sun lounger I enquired with my trusty Trip Advisor app to allow us a few days exploring.

The first trip on the agenda was a Turtle Spotting Cruise. A cruise that promised a little wildlife as we cruised the bay of Laganas in an attempt to spot the loggerhead turtles swimming in their native environment.

We managed to spot one turtle as it came to the surface. However visiting in September, when it was coming towards the end of the season, meant that this was the only one we could spot whilst on the cruise.

The boat continued on from Laganas bay, cruising the coast of Zante, past the small island of Marathonisi (otherwise known as Turtle Beach due to its uncanny resemblance to the sea creature), before stopping around the Keri Caves for an opportunity to swim in the crystal clear waters.

With a sea temperature of 24 degrees we did not hesitate. Leaving many members of the tour on board we jumped straight in and was rewarded with one of the most pleasant swims I have yet to experience.

On our second day trip, having already had the pleasure of a tour on around the coast by boat, we decided to book the Zakynthos Island Tour by Coach and as a result saw some of the most beautiful views to date.

Starting early we met our coach and tour guide towards the north of the island, quickly making our way to one of many stops – views of the neighbouring island of Kefalonia.

Back on the coach, our tour guide continued to delight us with facts about Zante in an extremely entertaining manner until we arrived at our next stop – Agios Nikolaos.

Here, you would find the opportunity to take a small boat and visit the glorious Blue Caves. Sadly, on the day we took our trip, the sea was far to choppy to risk a small vessel. Therefore we simply took in the views of the small town before heading off again to our next location – Navagio Beach. Otherwise known as Shipwrecked Beach.

The views to be had on the cliff edge overlooking the beach were breathtaking. Luckily, due to the choppy waters, there were very few boats visiting the beach itself that day. So we were treated to unspoilt views of the cove, the shipwreck and the stunningly aquamarine blue waters that surrounded it. For me, this was the highlight. I had never seen such a sight in all the time I have been travelling. It is clear to understand why it is known as one of the most photographed beaches in the world. Some even risk their lives (against the advice upon the cliff top) to get a better view and picture to take home. I stuck to the guidance of our tour rep and was simply memorised.

Our time at the top was rather brief, as coaches tend to find themselves in a bit of a pickle getting back down the tight roads if they linger too long. So we were off before we knew it. If the tour had ended here I would have returned home happy – it was the view I had been waiting for.

But our tour continued on. Visiting the quaint Monastery of St. Dennis in Anafonitria and the village of Exo Hora, well known for it’s 2000 year old, gnarled olive tree – which is still producing olives today.

After so much excitement everyone on the tour was ready for a spot of lunch. And the spot for lunch could not have been more perfect. Nestled on the cliffs in Kampi, we enjoyed a fantastic meal at a traditional Greek Taverna, whilst offering cliff top views that would please the most seasoned traveller.

After a good week of all inclusive hotel food, I could not have been happier with the vegetarian offering this venue had for me. The dreamy location was just icing on the cake. A perfect end to a fantastic tour of the island, as after our lunch it was back to our resort for the last few days.

The resort itself, though not the best in terms of accommodation and cuisine, offered us a fantastic, quiet get away with great views and sandy beaches.  The perfect place to recharge your batteries and make friends an adorable litter of kittens!

As the post holiday blues set in, it’s hard to imagine I was actually in such a picturesque location.

Zante proved to be one of the most beautiful, unspoilt and tranquil places I have had the pleasure of visiting.

A place I would happily visit again in the future.

Adidas City Runs: Clapham

Sunday 16th September saw my return to Adidas City Runs, with the Clapham 10K route. After my pleasant run with them a year previously with the Shoreditch 10K I was looking forward to seeing what South London had to offer.

As with most race days, it started with a very early morning to ensure that I arrived in plenty of time to get myself sorted before the start: multiple toilet breaks, adjustment of kit and filling up my running bladder for the miles ahead.

There was not much time to hang around, as within 30 minutes of my arrival the first waves were being called to the start pens. My wave (wave C) was soon heading in the same direction. Very little time passed before the runners were off!

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Starting at Larkhall Park the route saw participants head north towards Vauxhall before turning back towards Clapham, along Wandsworth Road, skirting the east of Clapham Common before winding round the tree lined streets of Clapham Old town and North Clapham towards the finish line back at Larkhall Park.

The race started off well. Despite the recent balmy temperatures the morning was over cast, cool and saw a welcome gentle breeze – making running conditions seem perfect.

From the first to the third kilometre I found myself comfortable, setting a good pace (albeit, slightly faster than previous races due to my training with Harlow Running Club) and generally feeling rather relaxed after a recent break away in the sunshine.

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However, perhaps due to my lack of training in the lead up owed to my holiday or my faster than normal pace, or perhaps a mixture of both, I started to find myself tiring rather quickly between the third and fourth kilometre. Add in a couple of unexpected hills around the “flat route,” slowing down my pace further, I found my spirit wavering slightly – stopping to walk the hills that I would not have caused issues previously. I also started to spend more time looking at my watch, trying to work out if a PB was on the cards. During the first and third kilometres this was looking likely. After four kilometres I started to give up on the PB yet again, deterred by my post holiday fitness level, and to simply use this race as a way to return back to training after a very inactive break away.

The route itself was not without challenges, as mentioned above there were a number of hills thrown into the mix that were completely un-expected, the twists and turns around the residential streets became tiring and to top it off, as with the Shoreditch 10K, residents ignored the signs about road closures and decided they were well within their rights to drive down the closed roads. I saw at least three drivers, with very little regard for the runners around them screaming at the marshalls, obviously putting both at danger with their stupidity to pay attention to the signs around them.

And the water stations? Where were they? There was nothing available until after the 6KM mark. Many runners were overheard asking the marshalls “where is the water station?” And on what transpired to be a rather muggy day once we got well under way, this was an error of judgement on the organisers part. Luckily, I always run with water so it did not cause an issue for me. But there were many participants clearly struggling with the lack of hydration.

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That did not put runners off enjoying the course, however. Many participants around me were clearly enjoying themselves (some more than others) and there were many smiling faces as we approached the final turns to the finish line.

Despite my lack enthusiasm throughout the route, I was undeterred as we came towards that final stretch. Any energy I had was used for a sprint finish, allowing me to come under my British 10K time from July (just).

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Was I bothered about failing to get a PB and a sub 60 minute time yet again? Not really. I had enjoyed my much needed time off, coming back feeling refreshed and ache free. I always say “next time.” And I will get there one day. With the ability I have gained training with Harlow Running club, teamed with regular Spinning classes – I have no doubt that I will eventually reach the goals I set for myself.

In the meantime, it’s time to head off to running club……….

Joining Harlow Running Club

For many years I have spent the majority of my running miles training alone, with the occasional running partner thrown in. And whilst it is always great to have a running partner, I often found pressured to run faster than I was capable – at the other person’s ability. Which can be rather stressful.

So when I trained for the London Marathon in 2017 I was not bothered about running alone. I could set my own pace and train as I wanted to.

It’s funny how that can change when you pick a new challenge. When I signed up for the Isle of Wight I could not even imagine getting through the long hours walking around the coastal path alone. So with others joining me on the challenge itself, I trained with them. And I was so grateful to have that company to get me through.

Once the event was over, however, I had to find a way to get back into training alone. The challenge was done, it was time to get back in to a normal routine. But I found it incredibly hard to do so – unless it was a group spinning class – it was difficult to get back into a schedule and motivate myself.

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So I started to toy with the idea of joining the local running club. Something I had always shied away from with the misconception that it would be to cliquey, that it is full elite runners and that I would embarrass myself with my mediocre “running.”

In the attempt to re-claim my love for running whilst the weather was on my side, I threw caution to the wind and contacted the club organisers who swiftly invited me along for a “taster” session.

I was duly impressed. On arrival I found that my idea of what the club would be was pure fabrication on my part. The group were not cliquey in the slightest – in fact several members came up to me straight away as I was clearly a “newbie.” Neither was the club full of elite runners. And I was not mediocre at all – I just was not elite.

In just a month I am starting to understand the benefits of joining a running club such as this one.

  1. I am in the right in environment. By surrounding myself with like minded people who enjoy running and show such enthusiasm will help me in the long term. Within the group you will find so much support – many members encouraging and motivating you.
  2. Running clubs encourage a range of training – something that you will be less likely to do alone. Harlow Running Club have a great mix of training: from track sessions, hills, long distance and speed. I find that if I am running alone it is easy to get into a rut of running the same routes and therefore becoming rather bored. In the month I have been running with a club I have seen a variety of routes, lots of hills and some speed work too. With them I have discovered some lovely country routes I would have never have known before.
  3. It’s a community. As with my boot camp days, I have quickly developed relationships with many of the club members who have encouraged me to test out different parkruns, races and generally inviting me along for a Sunday run. These people will no doubt be imperative to my motivation over the Winter months.
  4. The competitive streak will surface. I never thought of myself as competitive, but have often been told otherwise. In my month since joining I have noted that this competitive edge has been surfacing more often than not. Whether it be catching up with one person in front or over taking another runner in a sprint finish – there is definitely a competitive edge within me.
  5. Being a member of a running club will give you that psychological ability to call yourself a “runner.” I have always battled with the idea of calling myself a runner as my running at times feels more like a jog than a run – especially if I compare myself to those at the elite end of the spectrum. But now that I am an affiliated member of a running club and registered with England Athletics it feels like I can class myself completely as a runner.

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Within a month of joining the club I am already finding improvements with my running technique and abilities. This week saw me reach a PB for my 5K, I have seen my average min/miles drop, my fastest min/miles (for short bursts) improve, a greater ability to conquer hills and to top it all off I have met some wonderful people who encourage and support me every step of the way. And this is just within the first month.

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Joining Harlow Running Club was the best decision I have made for my training in such a long time. I am looking forward to seeing what it will bring over the next few months.

 

A Tuscan Adventure

There is nothing like getting away from it all, by taking a quick break and exploring a foreign city. I like to make a habit of picking a mix of sunny beach holidays and cultural city breaks.

This year I chose the area of Tuscany as one of my cultural adventures. Three days and three nights in the northern region of Italy. With so much to see and do I did not waste a minute – flying into Florence I had a jam packed few days to ensure I got to experience as much as possible.

DAY ONE – Wondering around Florence

A very early morning flight from London City meant that I arrived in Florence long before check in was allowed. The Hotel B&B, outside the city centre, were extremely accommodating – happily keeping my bags and directing me into the centre. Though I required very little direction. Drop me in any city, with a map, and I will very quickly find my feet. Florence was no exception.

I quickly found the centre, with the iconic Duomo taking my breath away as soon as I set my sights on it. The area around the attraction was buzzing, with it being the height of the tourist season queues to enter the impressive building were too long for me to entertain. So I simply found the best place to take it all in, from a nearby roof top bar. Robiglio provided the perfect escape from the growing crowds, enjoy a relaxing view whilst having a few refreshments. It was the perfect find. Plus a great place to meet friends (who happened to be in Tuscany at the same time).

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Down back on the Tuscan streets I wondered along with the crowds, across the famous Ponte Vecchio distracted by the numerous shops sparkling with stunning jewels. It is easy to get distracted by the beauty on this bridge, a bridge like no other I have seen before. Views along the river were not to shabby either.

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More wondering ensued to get the best view of the city – from Piazza Michelangelo. I could have happily sat here for hours with the Duomo so stunning in the skyline, the view down Ponte Vecchio, watching the sun go down. Like many areas of Florence in the height of the season, the area was thriving – with couples, friends, school groups galore. Everyone made the climb to get one of the best views the city had to offer.

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DAY TWO – Siena, San Gimignano, Monteriggioni and Chianti

With so much to see in the region I thought booking an excursion with Viator would be the perfect way to get around. Obviously if you were to hire a car all of these areas would be easily accessible. However, I did not want the stress of finding my way in a foreign country so a tour was a perfect option for me.

It was a long day, covering many beautiful locations, so if you do book this trip expect to be on and off the coach covering a lot of ground.

First stop, the medieval gem that is Monteriggioni. Built in 1203, the walled town offers fantastic views of Chianti from its castle walls.

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Second stop was the beautiful town of Siena, distinguished by it’s medieval brick buildings. Here there is plenty to see and with the package with Viator you have the option to take the walking tour. I decided against doing so, the group was rather large (around 50 people on the bus itself) and I knew I would enjoy seeing the town alone, making my own way and wondering the beautiful streets of Siena.

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The first stop was Piazza del Campo – the square popular for public celebrations and known for hosting the Paliohorse race. Here I stopped and took stock with a little Pistachio Gelato, taking in the atmosphere and soaking in glorious sunshine.

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Just a few streets away you had the impressive Siena Cathedral, with its exterior an interior constructed of white and black marble in alternating stripes. Like the Duomo in Florence, the queues were exceptionally long. Rather disappointing for me, as this was one Cathedral I wanted to visit completely. Sadly, with booking the tour I was time restricted so I had to move along.

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After a spot of lunch, with wine (which was included in the tour price) we made our way to a local vineyard. Visiting the region of Chianti without doing so would be criminal. At Famiglia Mazzarrini we tasted a range of local products including Chianti Classico, Spumante, truffle oil and balsamic vinegar.

With the wine tasting leaving most travellers sleepy it was time to head to our final stop off – San Gimignano. Recognised as a UNESCO world heritage site since 1990, the medieval town offers its visitors a chance to step back in time, to wonder its cobbled streets, soak up the views over the surrounding countryside and enjoy its local products – including its Gelato. Yes! I did have two helpings of Gelato on this trip, but you cannot help but taste the local produce on a hot, Summer’s day.

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The tour was due to end, and I thoroughly enjoyed every moment. The long day saw us cover some amazing sites and we were able to experience so much from the Tuscany region.

DAY THREE – Florence and Pisa

The final day saw me wonder the streets of Florence for a final time, eating a bit more Gelato and tasting more vino!

I took the time to visit the Boboli Gardens after reading some good reviews. If there was one entry fee I would advise not paying it is this one. Only ten euros, but with all the free views you can get in Florence, it was not even worth that.

Shortly after visiting the gardens I hopped on the train to Pisa. Just an hour from the centre of Florence, on a pleasant air conditioned train which runs through the Italian countryside.

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Pisa is a region of Tuscany that is better known for its Leaning Tower. The 56 meter tower is located in the Piazza dei Miracoli (Square of Miracles). It is a iconic site that I have wanted to visit since childhood. Seeing the landmark close up and climbing the spiral staircase was one of the highlights of my trip.

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Within the Square of Miracles you will also find Pisa Cathedral and the Battistero – all of which you can enter for a fee. My advice – pick the attraction that you most want to enter and stick to that. Unless you have the budget to visit all within the square of course. Personally – climbing the Leaning Tower was more up my street, so the rest I was happy to take in from the outside.

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Soon enough the whirlwind break was coming to a close. With my belly full of Gelato, Chianti and my fast growing affection for Italy trying to prevent me from returning home I was already thinking about my next trip.

Tuscany is by no means finished – there are many areas I am yet to explore – and there will be many more Italian regions to follow I’m sure.

Ride London: Volunteering

A little over two weeks ago I was privileged to take part in the greatest festival of cycling – Ride London. Though my participation was on the other side at this event, volunteering at the start line in Stratford.

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The event, which sees keen cyclists follow the legacy of many Olympic athletes from London 2012, ride along closed roads –  a gruelling 100 miles through the capital out through the suburbs in Surrey and back into London town, with an iconic finish along The Mall.

Some 30,000 cycling enthusiasts were taking part in the event in it’s sixth year. And this year I was able to experience the scale of the event first hand – by being a marshal.

With the first wave of participants due to set off very early on Sunday morning, it is safe to say those volunteering at the start line experienced a wake up call like no other. 02:30 am was a crazy way to start a Sunday. With many part animals heading home from a heavy night – I was heading in the opposite direction to start my shift at Stratford for 04:00.

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Before the crack of dawn I had collected my kit and details of my volunteer role – I was in the thick of it with many others – walking the waves of cyclists to the start line.

And it was a long agonising wait. In the many events I have taken part in, I have always found the wait in the pens the most tedious of all. Wanting to simply get started, but having to wait for thousands in front of you to pass go before it is your turn, when all you want to do is get going. This event was no exception. All the cyclists I was guiding to the start felt the same – they just wanted to go. However, unlike running events, due to the logistics of getting 30,000 cyclists through the wait was so much longer.

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Soon enough I had got the first of my waves through to the start line – without the threatened rain descending upon us.

My second wave, those who were riding the shorter 46 miles, were not as lucky.

The UK heat wave we had experienced for months on end was forecasted to change dramatically, and it did just that. Shortly after 7am thousands of cyclists and volunteers were succumbed to torrential downpours that continued throughout the morning.

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Despite the shivers of the waiting riders, the atmosphere was still high. All involved were kept entertained at the start with music and I found myself trying to keep the spirts of those taking part up and dancing along to keep warm, whilst being completely soaked through.

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As I finally waved my second group of riders through, wishing them well, I could not help but admire their determination and ability. 100 miles is no mean feat, especially with the weather conditions they were facing. I’m sure many of them wished for a cooler race day than that we had been experiencing, but at the same time no one expected such a dramatic change.

With my shift over at just 09:30 it felt like I had been up for days. Watching the sunrise as the cyclists arrived, getting them to the start and standing for hours in the rain – it definitely felt like a full days work.

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Unlike those taking part in the race itself I was home, showered and in warm clothes within an hour – eagerly waiting on results of those I knew taking part.

It was an absolute pleasure to take part as a volunteer, to experience the scale of the event and to help send the participants on their way.

I have nothing but admiration for all who took part, for the volunteers and spectators who continued to stand in the rain throughout the day to cheer them on and the team who put such an amazing event together.

Yet another fantastic event in our city, allowing all abilities to get out there, get active and take part.

Roll on to Prudential Ride London 2019 – I will be there wearing my volunteering cap again for sure.

 

The British 10K 2018

On Sunday 15th July I took part in the British 10K for the third year. Despite running this event in previous years, I was overwhelmed by the number of runners taking part. In it’s second year run by Virgin Sport it seemed to have attracted far more participants than ever before.

The organisation in the lead up and on the day of the event was spot on. With the UK being hit with a glorious heat wave, all runners were advised to run with caution on the day. “Extreme” weather warnings were in place to ensure that runners remain sensible and organisers informed runners that the day was not one to race for a PB.

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Personally, I was quite happy to take on the advice given. To take it easy, to trot along at an easy pace and ensure I stay hydrated throughout.

Usually getting to the start of this race is rather slow. This day was no exception. With thousands of participants taking part we were set of in waves as expected with a large event. It was a good 40 minutes before I managed to get going from the start line at Piccadilly.

From the get go I maintained an easy going pace, not wanting to over exert myself too soon.

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Once reaching Piccadilly Circus the route saw us turning left up Regent Street, with street entertainment, before a sharp u-turn coming back down in the opposite direction. This then followed a nice downward stretch along Lower Regent Street before heading along Pall Mall to Trafalgar Square, Charing Cross Road and the Strand,  along Victoria Embankment, running alongside the River Thames, across Westminster Bridge, Victoria Street and then finally heading to the finish at Whitehall.

It is a fantastic route, especially if you enjoy taking in the sights of London whilst running. These streets have formed many of my London Road races over the years. The London Marathon has seen me run along the Victoria Embankment in the final miles, London Winter Run follows a similar path along the Strand before entering the city of London and the London Landmarks Half Marathon also sees runners pass through the Strand and finishing Whitehall in the opposite direction.

There is nothing like running in London Town during events like this, when the roads are closed to traffic.

This race was no exception. As usual crowds were out in abundance, cheering on strangers and loved ones. A number of street entertainers lined the streets, from steel drum bands to choirs – all bringing the spirit of London alive.

The temperature on the day was not kind for runners. Despite the city being a fantastic place to run, you do find that there is very little breeze as heat gets trapped between the buildings. On this day London was easily comparable to a rotisserie oven. Even I, the sun worshipper, was diving for the shade or mist showers at any opportunity.

I remained strong and steady for the first half of the race. But at times when I needed to take on water, I slowed to a fast walk, to ensure that I stayed hydrated. I knew being sensible was far more important than attempting a PB, so I took it easy. Perhaps a little too easy for my liking. At times when I could have pushed myself harder, I chose not to. I was more concerned about enjoying the race, finishing and getting my hands on a another piece of bling.

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And I got round. Finishing not with my best time for a 10K race, but beating my time from 2017 by several minutes despite the hotter temperatures.

That to me was a great finish.

I have no doubt in my mind that I will back to attempt the route for the 4th consecutive year with an aim to find a pacer to keep trying for that sub 60 minute goal.

Well done to all runners who took part and thanks to Virgin Sport for another successful, enjoyable British 10K.