What I wish my illness could do in my absence

When the Wizard came to Wales

It’s like a dream come true.

I’m training at the gym, working to strengthen up my core, my glutes, my knees, my arms and my back because weak buttocks can ruin a runner (I read that in a book), and I don’t want a weak butt. And while I’m set with my morning and mid-run caffeine cuddle (TrueStart Coffee), my 100% amino acid vegan protein greens balance recovery fuel (a mouthful to say but ultra-delicious) (Arbonne) and my nutrition plan for a happy tummy (loadsa veg & 9Bars), along comes a magical little sachet that has just topped up my How to Run with Awesome plan to veritable Fierce mode!

Meet the newest member of the Fierce Mind endurance running family – Tailwind!

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I asked another endurance runner who is starting out on a John O’Groat’s to Land’s End run (incidentally the same day that I start at the LE end) what his nutrition was for the run. He said tail wind. I laughed. My mind conjured up someone running with the wind behind him, relying on wind energy to power his trajectory. “What if the wind changed direction?” I mumbled to myself. Obviously, the more I raised an awkward eyebrow, the more he realised that I didn’t know have a scooby what ‘tail wind’ was. So he briefed me, and after I got home and googled and pondered and calculated the nutritional maths calculations with my calculator and realised that the calories and carbs were significantly increased compared to how I had intended to run (just add food), plus that it was (to my utter content) gluten free, I bought some.

First thing I noted was that they asked me what I was training for and when my next event was at the checkout – it’s worth mentioning that Tailwind are a US company that was brought to UK shores by a believer and an ultra runner who realised that we needed the goods. Thank goodness he did! With that in mind, this is the reason that you, like I, may not yet have heard of them. But the secret is getting out because of the results…the reviews page makes for exciting reading (if you get excited about reviews that tell you positive things).

IMG_7333So the wonderful thing is, the day after my order was put through, my little box of goodies arrived with a personalised postcard inside! They have a neat little tray of sachets with all the different colours that they send you so that you can try out the flavours before diving into a big tub. You can cut a sachet in half by pinching the line across the middle (directions on the packet) so that each sachet can be tried twice. It dissolves instantly in water. It doesn’t give me stomach cramps – n.b. I have never been able to use energy drinks for this very reason, and now have an option of endurance (tailwind) or short session (Arbonne) energy drinks as well as a hot hug (TrueStart Coffee) to boost my physical exertions. The taste is a hint and not a sugary explosion. Did I mention they are gluten free?

So taste-wise, customer service-wise, packaging-wise (lots of lovely bright colours that just make me go silly), I’m a happy bunny. But did they work for me?

The short answer is abso-blinking-lutely!

I wasn’t really sure what to expect. At the gym I put 20 minutes into a high intensity interval session on the bike, then went through my arms & core session, before moving on to glutes, single-leg balancing acts, arms again and yoga. I throw in planks (single, high and low), press ups, leg lifts, Swiss Ball control and burpees for my arms and core element, and by the third set (note, I’ve never made it to a third set before) I put my ten press ups to the floor in the fastest, swiftest moves I’d ever done them, not even fresh had I ever completed that third set so fast! I felt, note felt, physically stronger and lighter. The fuel has nutrition and hydration (not just the water), it contains electrolytes so my body was effectively recovering from the first two rounds whilst I was sipping away. Tailwind suggest sipping regularly rather than gulping, this is a good call as any gulping is likely to mean more frequent toilet trips.

IMG_7334Happy with my first round, my second gym visit with the fuel went even better. I was able to push myself further, no doubt as a result of delayed fatigue, which in turn is helping me to grow stronger. The big test will come with the running. I’ve delayed running, except a 1.5 mile the other day, in order to allow my muscles to strengthen and straighten where necessary, not because of an injury, but because I don’t want to be injured! I now have all the right ingredients in place for fuel and recovery, it’s time to shape up with the mental agility and get some mileage under my belt for February. March will taper after the first week so in effect I have 5 weeks left of solid training before reigning in the LSRs. Taking some sturdy ultra advice from many I’ve read, watched, spoken to, and befriended over the years, it’s Anna Frost‘s advice to run LSRs back-to-back to get the maximum out of the run without breaking the bank that is now firmly etched in my mind. With that plan, I can go far.

Here I just wanted to mention that I’m going through a fairly hypomanic episode and am falling in and out of consciously being aware of that (honestly, sometimes I completely forget that I’m not always so active, upbeat, productive, proactive, and funny). There are two campaigns running online at the moment that have empowered me to keep writing, keep talking, to remain open about why this run is happening in the first place. #imnotashamed and #itaffectsme are simple tags yet they are letting people articulate outside of their heads in a common language – compassion.

When I run I let nature be my sounds, in part because in doing so I am acting out of mindfulness to take me to places that we forget about so easily in this hectic world: the stillness of life sprinkled with the colourful melodies of other animals. Partly because it’s safer when running on roads without traffic. Partly because I don’t have a decent set of headphones/earphones and the pulsing thrum of cars as they pass is almost nauseating under the music.

But, a huge part is because music, to me, is intensely emotional. A single song can alter my mood before it’s half way through the first verse, sometimes for the good, getting me to bop along and even cycle or run in time to the beat. Sometimes it can cause me to stop and crumble. Or even to get angry and expend energy I didn’t really wish to use up so quickly, because I’m so intent on getting myself to be as strong as I can be, to power through the pain, the wobbly arms, the breathless lifts, so that I can complete the run and do what I set out to do. But two songs almost took me out of the game yesterday. It’s a good job the gym was pretty empty on a Sunday afternoon, and sweat looks like tears, because I had to stop and sit with my back to the wall like I was exhausted, hold my towel to my eyes and just cry. I was already breathing heavily because of the burpees I’d just jumped through, but I was very consicous of being seen weeping in my lycra.

The first song that hit me, rather mildly but was still a memory recall precursor for the one that followed, was Lukas Graham’s “7 Years”. A beautiful piece of writing, a beautiful melody, which just invoked memories of my childhood, my father and our broken relationship. And my path into parenthood. It got me thinking about my daughters and how creative and talented they are, that sometimes they literally take my breath away. My eldest has the voice of an angel, she is singing, dancing, and acting outside of school where she just excels at everything she does. My heart bursts with pride that she puts her heart into everything, just as I did (and still do). My second daughter has a writing talent for poetry and stories that astounds me, her emotional intelligence has always been far beyond her years, a wise little head on her shoulders. Teaching herself to dance freestyle street aged just 8, a runner, and a little lady who has already decided she wants to save the world and get into politics, everyone who meets her sees how she shines. How is it that I came to be their mum? I’ve gone through my years feeling a failure at everything, a failure for all of the relationships that failed, a failure for all of the careers that failed, and a failure for being here without a penny in my pocket and only a hope that I can make a difference to this world. Perhaps the real reason I am here is not about me, it is about my children.

The second song that caused the cookie to crumble was Naughty Boy ft. Beyoncé & Arrow Benjamin with “Runnin'”. No doubt an incredible song with a video that is mesmerising! But those words hit me like an arrow through the heart. Because I am running. I am running because I feel broken, because I’m afraid of losing everything that I hold dear, because I’m putting myself into a situation where it pretty much scares the crap out of me most days – oddly enough not the running part, but the interaction with other humans part. I’m scared of failing again, that’s probably what it comes down to, and in these two songs those fears managed to rise up to the surface and make me wobble.

IMG_7332Once the song was over I got on with my training. And I came away, not feeling shaken, nor stirred. But feeling alive, feeling vulnerable, feeling as though I’ve been touched by fire. This is my condition, and it’s an endurance run in itself, as it will last for the rest of my life. If I can endure that, then I can endure anything else because so far nothing has burnt my nerve endings like Bipolar Disorder.

It’s not just being up and down, it’s being so far up that I feel like I am helium, and feeling so far down that I feel like I am lead. It’s not being emotional. It’s feeling emotions so intense that they can knock the wind right out of your guts when you least expect it. It’s feeling emotions so intense that something that may appear to one as being banal, innocuous, or plain silly, could affect me so badly that I suddenly feel like the tiniest speck of viral dirt on the planet, and ashamed to even exist. A song doesn’t just make me feel emotional, a song has the ability to strum at my emotions and snap at my heart strings to the point of breaking them. Sometimes, they do break. And when they do they hurt so much that I am unable to breathe. When that happens, I am so far gone into my emotional existence that I cannot feel or think, I cannot imagine taking another breath, taking another step, or living another day.

This journey has come with so many incredible twists, that five months ago I never could have them dreamt up!

  • I’ve revived my creative endeavours via photography and illustration, graphic design and blogging.
  • I’ve started up a shop page so that I can sell designer products (my daughters especially love this) based on my running inspirations – be they people, places, words, or things, with 100% profits going directly to the fundraising effort (OK, so it’s 20% of the product price but every single penny counts!) and I’ve already made a sale! Whoop!
  • I’ve asked, and I have received (sounds so simple but getting to the point of directly asking someone for help is my Everest).
  • My return route has been created (I was face-planting my desk most nights just to get from LE to JOG!) by the superb team at Endomondo who are now supporting me on the challenge in a variety of roles, I cannot wait to share these with you!
  • I’m receiving messages of support which fill my heart with glee.
  • The donations are trickling in.
  • My anxiety about where to sleep is beginning to diminish (a teeny tiny bit) now that I have scoured the country for hotels and B&Bs at my stopover points and have a list to contact (this is probably going to make me tremble in fear – having to use the phone!)
  • I have my running fuel plan and the recovery fuel plan is starting to materialise.

IMG_1064I still have 9 weeks to go, and yet I feel like I’ve already completed the challenge and am celebrating with the wonderful people who supported me and helped me to survive and fight another day. I know that the meditation is making magical things happen, so I focus on those positives when the going gets tough. My battle here isn’t physical; the physical strife can be endured and repaired. My true battle is in my mind. I’m arming myself with the support, the team, the volunteers, the believers, the ones who show me love and compassion. I am making memories and storing them for the days when I need to dig deep and recall what the heck I’m doing this for.

All of those who have touched my life with support and love may not realise it, but they are slowly changing the world! The effect that they have on me helps me into a place where I am able to effect change to help someone else. Isn’t that empowering? We are all truly connected.

Mindful Adventures

IMG_2603Two words have revealed themselves to mean something very different to me over the past four weeks. I thought I understood adventure. I thought I understood what it meant to be mindful. We often hear that phrase (mostly from our parents or teachers), to be “mindful of that step”, or “mindful of the traffic”. And what we class as adventures no doubt arose from reading stories of events that unfolded for people other than ourselves. Adventures were things that happened ‘out there’ or ‘in another country’.

Discovering additional meanings for these words, perhaps emotionally, I admit, but also tangibly (I err to use that word), has allowed a freedom within my mind to widen my grasp on what makes me, me.

I can’t speak for others, we all experience life and words and meanings and events in entirely different ways with different outcomes, though we all appear to be striving for some similar sort of result through our relationships and our community engagement, to whatever degree that may be. What I can say for myself is that I now understand Mindful and Adventure to be two sides of the same coin.

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On the 28th November I took my younger daughter on a road trip to Bristol to attend the first ever Women’s Adventure Expo which showcased not only a full programme of seasoned explorers and adventure seekers, but also a full day of workshops for those wanting the nitty-gritty and the hands-on approach. I opted for the full seminar programme, simply because the list of women who were to divulge trade secrets was already outstanding, and I needed to look after my brain capacity and that of my mini-me. I was also the one doing all the driving out of the two of us, so past 2pm was already going to be a challenge.

On this day, my understanding of what an adventure could be became clearer. Not suddenly, like an epiphany {though I do often have those} but more like a blooming flower that finally catches the bee’s attention before it swoops in for the forage. Adventures are literally under our very noses. We can seek them here, and we can seek them there. The Monkey’s knew what they were talking about, but I’ll be darned if I thought that adventures were only for those who dared pack up and set off. Come to think of it, I did just that when I was nineteen years old, heading off to Lyon without many pennies but certainly high hopes and grandiose desires. I never looked back on it as much of an adventure though, more of an experience, a rite of passage through desolation, desperation and depression.

Squash FalconerIMG_9715 ~ “If you have a dream, no matter how big – go for it!” ~ reminded me that through adventures, especially arduous and adrenaline-fuelled ones, eating lots is forgiving. Her stories of para-gliding off mountains didn’t leave me with a taste for the sport, but I absolutely admired her resolution for getting things done no matter what, and the importance of the little things – the right underwear can make or break your entire day.

Felicity AstonIMG_9719, the first woman to ski across Antartica alone, is a story teller with a seriously funny side that drew me into her wintry tale like a cup of cocoa and marshmallows on a stick. Freezing cold places scare me, perhaps because of their absolute nothingness when faced with the real elements, but in her story there was more than just ice, frozen garments or white-outs. There was also passion, determination, a colourful bag, the befriending of the sun, and an experience that I related to because of the mental strength required to just get out of the tent, everyday. When I thought about my challenge ahead, this resonated with me. Would I be able to get out of my tent everyday, to go another mile, another forty miles? I spoke to Felicity afterwards and her advice for me was simple, yet perhaps paramount to the completion of the task. I need to know why Im doing this, because that why will be my anchor to get me through each day. I need to have a checklist of ideas, thoughts, memories to reach out to when the tough gets absolutely stinking rotten. I need to have lots of different uplifting songs on my iPod because I will get bored. These were just some of her nuggets, and no doubt more will be discovered when I read her book.

Arita BaaijensIMG_9722 recounted her wilderness days of the world’s deserts with camels, and finally her finding the path to Shangri-La through the Altai Mountains. Her spiritual tale invoked an alternative sense of adventure for me, a longing for enduring enlightenment. It is possible to find oneself though adventure, wherever that may be, as long as we are mindful of what is around us – the air, the sky, the sea, the rivers, the plants, the mountains, the trees, the animals. Everything is connected, and everything is sacred. It appears that in our culture we have somehow forgotten that.

IMG_9732Ann Daniels stole the show for me with her enthusiasm for story-telling and her – what can only be described as epic – adventures through the polar ice caps, starting over two decades ago as a fairly fresh mother of triplets. If ever there was a story that could be told to uphold the strength capability of mothers, hers would be it. Ann didn’t recoil from the details, the stark realities were bared and shared: with adventure comes a price, sometimes at a cost of a life, sometimes at a cost of immediate health and well-being. What Ann conveyed is that I am never too old to begin my adventures, I can always find a way, and being present with my family when I am not on an adventure is one of the fundamental keys to life’s balance. I will be away for six weeks during my challenge – that has never happened to us as a family before, I have never been away for more than six days. It is vital that I make lasting memories to use as my soul-nourishment for the challenge itself.

IMG_9726Each of the speakers were able to share something that I could take away with me that was vital in some way, and will no doubt stay with me throughout my own journey. The point of going to WAExpo, though, was not just for what I could learn, but to introduce my daughter to a world of inspiration and female mentors. I am passionate about my children growing up with mentors that they can relate to, and for Sydney, my little adventurer-storyteller who has already spent six months abroad with a foreign family and is now fluent in three languages, I could not think of a more appropriate, fun, and engaging opportunity than this. The mother-daughter bonding session was complete with no radio in the car for the entire nine-hour journey, a run around Bristol before dashing to the coffee shop for breakfast, giving every homeless person we came across some of our food rations or money or coffee, and a short sight-seeing session of the city by sunrise and nightlight. These were good memories made right there.

IMG_9714Now where does this link in with the mindful part of the post? I will delve into greater detail in another post about meeting entertainer and mental health campaigner Ruby Wax in a few days’ time, but essentially I learnt from her that I am already being mindful – using mindfulness in the sense of meditation – during my runs. I cannot say that I am doing this when I am not running, but for the most part this is what goes on…

When I run, a few things happen.

  • I start to listen to solely my breathing and it often sounds really loud, there is a pattern and I focus on the pattern to moderate it.
  • I am aware of the sound of my clothes rustling, and I focus on the swish, and is it an issue?
  • I spot colours, I rarely look at just the road, because my head is up, moving left, right, up, and down, looking for bright colours to photograph and record as part of my journey.
  • I listen to the birds, there are so many, and there are so many different calls that I wish I could understand what they were singing to each other.
  • I see the light display through the clouds, the peaking of the sun through the hedges, the colours that change across the sky, the lights of the cars through drizzly rain, or the reflection of the moon on the puddles and rivers.
  • I am aware of the smells of the honeysuckle trees, the freshly-cut grass, the smoke of the barbecue or the bonfire, the potent farm odours and the remnants of a dog-walker’s companion.
  • I am aware that it’s very hard to catch rain on your tongue whilst running, but that some rain can stab you in the eyes.
  • I am also aware that, when I am not aware of any of the above, my mind can tumble down into a monotone dungeon and start to fester whilst it wades through the rotten past, the gruesome problems, the grizzly details of political and social injustice, and before long I am trapped inside my own head, ruining my run through stress, tension, anger, and a rising lust for vengeance. It is in these thoughts that I want to curl up and forget everything an everyone through bitterness and rage.
  • There is, however, an in-between. I don’t quite fall to the bottom of Dante’s seven rings of hell, but I fall just enough off the enlightened path to start to dream up grandiose ideas of everyone I can meet, all the possibilities that can play out to enhance my situation and the cause I am striving for, and that no person or idea is too big for me to approach or complete. I can do anything! It is in this place that I have to be extra-mindful of who I am, what I am capable of, and where these thoughts take me, because they are my slippery slope upwards into my very own house filled with helium balloons heading towards Paradise Falls.

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Mindful Adventures – I have come to reason with the idea that each run out of my home is a mindful adventure, as sure as walking across the Arctic would be for Ann Daniels. For me, adventure is not just a physical notion, it is predominantly a mental one. Managing my condition {my illness/ situation/ problem/ blessing, whatever it is called on any given day} Bipolar Disorder is about keeping a balance to prevent me from teetering over the edge, whether that be falling downwards, or upwards. I have come to learn that through mindful running, I can keep myself grounded by becoming focused on the plants, the flowers, the skies, the sheep, the colours, and the sounds which I also photograph to feed my creative desires and needs; the endorphins that I produce as a result are an essential part of my personal pharmatherapy. They are how I cope with being mentally ill.

My 1686-mile challenge, therefore, is an opportunity for me to take on my greatest adventure towards recovery, and to hopefully encourage, empower, inspire, or guide others along the way, to find theirs too.

Footfalls and Fellows

In Mid-November, the calendar of running days was added to the wall, the countdown to lift off is slowly ticking by, and every day sees extra mileage added to the muscle bank.

I am twitching my fingers, fiddling my thumbs, feeling not quite anxious but more fidgety and slightly irritable about what to do next, not dissimilar to a fiancée waiting for her wedding day.

It’s getting to the stage where I am telling people about the run in person rather than behind my safety screen. It’s less comfortable. How I say it comes out differently each time, and I tend to hold my breath whilst waiting for the “Are you crazy?” response. That’s debatable, but is in fact just my own expectation. No one has actually said that (to my face), but I am consistent in my self-beration.

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The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Whilst the reasons for running are becoming ever clearer, the photography more important, and the weather gradually more wintry, the past couple of weeks have been increasingly tough to handle emotionally. Recently I saw “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” again. The cinematography, the colours, the characters, the story, the music, all resonate so deeply within me that I feel that this story was created for me, to keep me going. Calmly taking my hand down the path of adventure and trust. The showreels in my mind that occur whilst out running aren’t always the magical wanderlust that Walter Mitty has, though, so when they are energy-sapping I have to use all my willpower to bring myself back to mind, and focus on my breathing or the colours around me. It’s a daily activity in itself! I’ll write more on this, and Ruby Wax in a later blog post…

The end of an early November training week highlighted running injuries and recovery nutrition. I’d been cruising along gradually building the miles when the day after my 16-mile jaunt I was suddenly shortening a ten-mile run to just four miles. My achilles appeared to be complaining quite angrily and both calves were throwing up spikes from somewhere deep within too. I felt engaged in a battle against my lower legs. This is a first for me, normally I am griping about glutes, hamstrings and quads, all of which have been suspiciously quiet recently, leading me into a false sense of security over how well I have been recovering from runs.

My first port of call was to google. Did I have an injury? Was I going to have to take a day off? Will this cripple me for months? Surely one of the first major obstacles on this challenge so far; helping my mind to stay focused when faced with a setback. I also took to twitter to reach out to Physio @KineticRev, whose twitter feed is filled with wonderful recovery and training methods for all sorts of running issues that I can download and ‘run’ with.
I set to work on absorbing both the Achilles and the How to Foam Roll Calves, and started to give my legs some ouch TLC. I carried on running, but dramatically reduced the mileage for three more days. By the start of the next week I’d managed an eight-mile run with very little tweakiness, and decided that the foam roller was a necessity to keep the legs healthy and happy for running.

Arbonne PhytoSport After Workout & Arbonne Essentials Greens Balance
Arbonne PhytoSport After Workout & Arbonne Essentials Greens Balance

Another angle that I had to grapple with, which was entirely my own fault because I know my tummy and I know how food affects me, was my nutrition and recovery.
Four weeks ago I did my first long run over a half marathon, in over a year. Fifteen point seven miles, in wind and rain, and I hadn’t brought enough water with me. Schoolgirl error! I manage my supplies by gauging what I’d need after a ten-mile run, as up to ten miles I won’t bring hydration with me. I was also running slower so had calculated that I wouldn’t need to hydrate so frequently. Whatever, maths has never been my strong point, and my sums failed me miserably. This left me blackberry picking in the rain whilst my legs screamed, and even thanking the universe for the discarded but entirely perfect satsuma on a road-side hedge, waiting to be devoured by someone who needed it. I certainly did. For four days after I had not been quick enough to re-order my stock of Arbonne Essentials Protein Shake (pea and cranberry protein), Greens Balance (36 fruit & veg), PhytoSport Recovery Fuel and Hydration (Electrolytes). These four elements have been assisting me on my nutrition journey to help keep me topped up and replenished with the right nutrients for my muscle recovery and immune system. I’m one of those people who simply cannot eat after a run, especially not an arduous one, so trying to gulp down anything solid is likely to result in a splash back. Having found not had any of these whilst continuing to run day after day, mostly 10kms, I felt heavy in the legs and in the head by the time the 16-miler day came along.

truestart coffeeLessons well and truly learnt, this is how we grow after all, I not only have my nutrition stocked up, but I have gained an addition to my training routine in the form of coffee! Yes, my secret love has materialised as TrueStart Coffee, a performance-based measure of caffeine that is Gluten Free and Vegan. Perfect for my sensitive tummy! I have learnt that a cup of coffee one hour prior to endurance training enhances the session, and a post-caffeine hit is also supposed to improve recovery prospects. I take mine with Hemp Milk or Coconut Milk, keeping dairy out of my diet as much as possible (more on all of this in an upcoming blog). My roller is my daily best friend, with a tennis ball following suit for added ouch, I’m still running every day, with strength and conditioning a few days too. Not one to be complacent, I’m continually increasing my understanding of nutrition for the event, as it will be a whole different ball game for the six-week challenge. More on nutrition in an upcoming post!

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Trail Running over Offa’s Dyke Path

Fast-forward to December 1st and the past two weeks have been mostly pain free, the long run being a double eight-mile with a fifteen minute wait between repeats for stretching. Something I’ll likely be doing on my challenge – four x ten-mile runs as opposed to one forty-mile run! Psychologically, this I can handle. It will also give supporters the opportunity to run or cycle with me in sections. Building on a network of supporters will not only boost my morale but also give me an added incentive to finish strong and on target. This Saturday I went with my daughter Syd to a networking event at the Women’s Adventure Expo (next post on this!) in Bristol and came away emotionally and mentally inspired! There is so much to be done and so much that is possible to do within women in sports and mental health awareness and equality for all ages. I am keen for schools to get involved with this challenge too, so I will be in contact with nearby schools which fall along the route in the coming few weeks! In terms of maintenance, I saw Gerwyn from Denbigh Muscle Therapy Clinic for some calf and achilles work which has boosted my leg happiness, and have now returned to Colwyn Bay Athletics Club to help improve my speed, as plateauing will undoubtedly happen unless I vary the tempo.

IMG_9443The outlook is very bright for December, I ran 207 miles in November, and this month I am aiming for over 300. It is doable. I do get to do a short run on Christmas Day – of course, I will need to build an appetite for the festive feast! I’m actually considering doing a family run on Christmas Day with my girls and Tom, with Ben cycling. They don’t know that yet but that would be a treat! I’ve also got my old school’s Cross-Country race to look forward to on 14th December, where I’ll be pitting myself against my twelve year old daughter, who I must not underestimate! It will be a chance to break out my Saucony Xodus into race mode.