Running and I.
This is my journey to being a runner again. After surgery, cancer treatment and a couple of infections that ruined my legs put me in hospital.
I’ve really missed running. Being out on the road, just you, the elements and your personal soundtrack is real freedom as far as I’m concerned. The elation that comes with finishing a hard run, the clear head and wide open lungs are one of the best feelings on earth.
Fitness isn’t about losing weight, or even looking good for me. It’s really about being able to do things that smaller people think is normal. Like being quick off the mark to rescue my 2 year old hellraiser son from immediate mortal peril. I don’t bother routinely weighing myself either, I know what fit looks like and feels like.
Scales really are a terrible mistress too. They make you a slave to something that changes all the time. If you’re a big guy like me, the amount of water in your body or even how recently you’ve eaten or been to the toilet has a big impact. The mirror and the clothes you wear is a much better guide.
For reference, I’m an absolute bear of a man. When I’m at my fittest, I’m still heavier than most heavyweight boxers at 270lbs. I’m 6’7″ tall, and built like a Viking, with a long body and short(ish) legs. I have always been freakishly strong wherever I can use my huge levers to move things.
But like most tall men, I struggle with more than 10 pull-ups and I can’t bench nearly as much as I should. I pack on muscle really fast everywhere too. I’m not complaining… just explaining.
One step forward, two steps back.
Before the last infection put me back in a hospital bed, I’d just started enjoying my running again. Then, disaster struck. I don’t think the two things were related, but not taking care of my legs was definitely a factor. By wearing compression gear and looking out for the telltale signs of lymphedema, I’d probably be ready to race again by now!
Or, not. But I have learnt some valuable lessons.
Having my inguinal lymph nodes cleared out both sides of my groin and all of my pelvic nodes stripped out means that lymph is harder to clear. If the lymphatic fluid can’t use it’s normal route up the body, it has to find new ones. For me, that really means everything needs to go up the back of the legs.
Running (and walking) really helps to push the fluid around my body, but having big muscles to soak it all up helps too. Of course, I’m also writing my adventures to get strong again!
When I first started to run again ten years ago, (after giving it up in my early 20’s) I used the couch to 5k method. It’s a tried and tested way to run 5k in a few weeks from absolutely nothing. It eventually helped me to run 10k in sub 42 mins, a half marathon sub 1hr 30 mins and a marathon in sub 3h 30 mins. So, it’s not to be sniffed at. It’s a brilliant way to make running accessible for everyone.
It works on the principle of using intervals (effort followed by a rest period, before effort again) to improve your recovery rate. Improving your recovery rate means you can sustain effort (running) for longer, and therefore run further, for longer.
Because I’m not absolutely brand new to running, and I know what to expect – I’m starting on week 3 of the programme. If that doesn’t work out, I’ll start right at the beginning.
Run day 1: 20th December
So, this is the day. We’ve been plunged back into the strictest lockdown (Tier 4) in East Herts, but just over the back fence in Uttlesford they have stayed in Tier 2.
At 8 am, just like every Sunday in my part of the world – it’s deserted. Regardless of the pandemic, Sunday mornings in the Home Counties are lazy family time. Long breakfasts and the Mail on Sunday is typical for most households here.
*Or Teen Titans blaring on four televisions while my kids greedily spoon Ben and Jerry’s into their faces, as it is in my house.
Normally, I’m a muddy legs, short shorts, cross country kind of runner but these aren’t normal times. Today I’m going out in base layer compression tights, shorts and a hoodie, and I’ll stick to the tarmac too. No hills, just a 2km stretch of flat road that I’ll run up and down to complete the intervals.
Don’t underestimate how much of a big deal hills are. When it comes to improving as a runner, hills really are your friend. To get ready for cross country season I used to do 8x 1km hills twice a week – run up, jog down and repeat. After 5 or 6, I would experience some kind of outer body experience. Where my body couldn’t understand why I’d choose to try and kill myself like this, when I could just take a hairdryer in the shower, or throw myself off a motorway bridge.
But today it’s a flat course, tarmac, intervals set on my watch, and dressed like a boxer doing their road work.
The real battle of running is with your mind, telling it not to go too fast, not to think too far ahead or worry about your footwork. Just staying in the game, minimum effort and looking down the road ahead of me is the idea. Just finish. I try and have a little sing while I’m running to get my breathing under control too. Top tip there. Can’t sing? Slow down.
The first few intervals were surprisingly tough, as my nose started to stream and my shoulders tightened up. Experience tells me the aching shoulders will go away, but it’s a decent indicator of how far my fitness has gone through the floor.
About half way through, my right knee and quad started to ache. It’s not a normal feeling, and it’s almost certainly down to lymphatic fluid struggling to move around. It didn’t last for long though, and by the time I’d got to rest time everything felt back to normal.
My warm down was a mile and a half walk home and a quick stretch of the hamstrings. I’m pretty low maintenance in terms of warm downs, always have been. I’ll be wearing compression tights all day anyway. If I find any new aches or pains in the next couple of days, I’ll change my routine.
All things considered, I’m over the moon to be back out running again. I’ll have tomorrow off, and go out again on Tuesday evening.
For a body that hasn’t even thought about running for a few months, I feel really good. No aches, no pains, no injuries. I think that’s down to the wonders of compression tights, but it could just be that I didn’t do much running. I’m feeling much more energetic today, I’ve been much more active.
I decided to take a second day off, out of necessity really. I travelled to Suffolk for a funeral, and by the time I was home, life had taken over.
Run day 2, 23rd December
Waking up this morning, I feel like there’s been a huge change overnight in my legs. (and my bollocks, but more on that later) Everything looks normal. Is this really down to just getting running, and doing some calisthenics again? Doubt it, but it could be helping.
I’m still on the the 3rd week of couch to 5k, and the run felt quite easy. Definitely easier than it was a couple of days ago. It’s only 4 short intervals of running, but it’s incredible how something so simple has such a huge effect on fitness.
No nasty pains mid run today, but I did get the familiar feeling of going too hard, too early. As my lungs started to burn, I had the presence of mind to slow down a bit and just focus on finishing. It’s a marathon, not a sprint after all. (see what I just did there? No? OK.)
If everything continues like this, in a month or so I’ll be running 5k again. It’s not a big jump to get to 10k from there, and that’s the perfect distance for me.
Recovery today was almost instant, my heart rate was back to normal in no time, and I just had a walk home through the fields. I really do live in a gorgeous part of the world.
Interesting to note with the whole lymphedema thing going on last month: Now I’ve got all the scrotal swelling back under control, I seem to have a couple of extra inches back in the old chap too. I’m not sure I’d have put it on my Christmas list, but you never know when I might need it.
‘Twas the night before Christmas
Another rest day, one to feast and wind down. Although, that doesn’t really happen when you have children. It’s a day to assemble things and wrap presents. Presents that have been hidden around the house, in the garage and in the back of cars. Some presents I know about, many more that have been kept from me. Mostly so I don’t kick off about the wild excesses lavished upon my children by my wife.
Rest days from running mean that I can work on other areas. I’m making a big effort to step up my strength work at the moment. Not just in my lower body, but full body strength work in general.
Run day 3: 25th December. Happy Christmas to me
I haven’t run on Christmas day since 2013. I don’t really know why, I just haven’t. It used to be a big thing for me, to get up early and have a quick run down the river Lea and back home.
But since then, I’ve had children and moved to the country. The countryside where I’m surrounded by trees and hills and mud and nothing flat. Nothing flat enough for me to remember how to run on. It’s not that I don’t like running in mud. Wearing spikes and sloshing through cold wet fields in a vest is the best. I’m just not ready yet.
It was absolutely freezing this morning, -2 when I left the house. A uniquely English kind of cold, where the air is wet and the breeze is sharp. The sun struggles to break through the heavy cloud, and the cold cuts like a blunt knife.
I’m not ready to be wandering out in fancy running gear yet, not that I could find any at home. I’m not really doing enough to get hot and I’m not going long enough to get cold. So I head out in a hoodie and shorts, with the obligatory compression tights of course.
Today’s run was surprisingly easy. I added a long shallow hill to the last interval too. I’m really happy with my progress. After everything that’s happened, especially with the infections and the recovery from chemo-radiation treatment, this is a huge thing for me.
It really begins to ramp up next week, as the runs get longer and the intervals shorter. That’s the incredible thing about this programme, just how quickly you progress. In a couple of weeks, I should be able to run 5km again. Slowly. On a flat road.
All this feasting takes its toll. Boxing day is a rest day.
I’ve eaten so much over the last week, and have broken all my rules. I’ve loaded up on everything I can lay my hands on. Back to normal starts tomorrow, maybe Monday.
One thing I have noticed is the amount of water I’ve drunk today. It’s really unusual for me to drink water now. I stopped drinking water because it messes with my lymphedema, so I’ll see how that all goes tomorrow. I’ve discovered a bit of a balance now, getting most of my fluids from all the greens I eat.
Run day 4: 27th December
The app thinks I’m making tremendous progress, so It’s pushed me on to week 4 of couch to 5k ahead of time. The running parts are getting noticeably longer and the intervals shorter. In a couple of weeks, I’ll be almost ready for a 5km run!
I’ve got a running partner today, as my wife has decided that if I’m going to be fit again, she is too. We used to run a lot together, but it’s been years. Or at least, it feels that way.
I don’t think I’ll tell her about my new personal trainer just yet…
The first run was really hard today, my legs felt like lead and everything else just aches. But by the time I was a few seconds into the first rest interval, I felt really good. The rest of the run was pretty easy. The app has pushed me forward again though, maybe it’s more confident than me!
Run day 5, 29th December
Strangely, nothing aches from my new exercise regime. Usually, I’d feel it in my knees, ankles or ham strings. Now I get up and go for a run and my legs are as fresh as a daisy.
My running partner liked it so much last time, she’s back again too.
In just a handful of runs, the running parts are really starting to ramp up. It’s 16 minutes of running today, spread across 4 intervals, and by the end of the week we’ll be running 20 minutes straight.
I’m not sure it would feel this easy if I hadn’t done it before and knew what to expect. How important the right shoes are, and how important it is to go to the toilet before you start running. Also, how you really need to avoid hills when you’re just starting out.
We didn’t today. We broke the rules, adding in a hill and stepping the pace right up in the last interval. But, we finished it and it didn’t kill us.
Every session we do, it feels more natural. Just getting into the rhythm of having run days and rest days, and reflecting on the progress that’s being made is a really positive thing.
It’s not easy to be positive at the moment. Being locked in our homes for the second time this year, and the relentless stream of doom from our media. Be it about the COVID pandemic, or Brexit, or the strain our NHS is under. The state of the economy, or the union or even our high streets. Every single day, we’re told there’s nothing to look forward to.
Well bollocks. I’m looking forward to running 5km next month, and 10km the month after. By Easter, I’m going to run a half marathon.
I ate really badly today. This time of year just means there’s too much stuff in the fridge. Yule logs, cake, christmas pudding, trifle, anything with custard and of course chocolate. Oh, and crisps.
Anything naughty that I could possibly find fell down my neck yesterday. But it’s not all bad, because I finally confirmed to myself once and for all that sugar is terrible for me.
It just swells me up like nothing else, so I’m going to have to find a way to replace it. Starting in two days time.
I’ve decided to make some new year’s resolutions too.
Run day 6, 31st December
When I woke up this morning, I didn’t think this run would be possible. Eating badly yesterday has made me feel sluggish this morning. I have a headache and I feel really tired.
It’s also -4 outside, and I’d like to stay in bed. Fortunately though, my 2 year old has other ideas and I’m probably not staying in bed again for fifteen years.
My running app keeps pushing me ahead on the programme and I’m doing three running intervals today. I’ll be doing 18 minutes overall.
It’s the coldest day I can remember this year, probably because I’ve forgotten anything about the pre-covid world. The paths and tracks aren’t really icy though and after a quick walk I’m as ready as I’m going to be.
The thought of the first bit of running just fills me with dread. If I go too fast, it’s all over. It’s so important just to go easy, concentrate on your breathing and not watch the clock. One step at a time.
The first 5 minutes was really tough today, but I recovered fast when it was time to rest. It took no time at all to get my breath back. That was a very welcome surprise, and the best indicator that I’m ok to keep pushing ahead.
I thought the longer session in the middle would be harder, and by the time I got to the last session I was ready to go faster.
Sometimes, when you think a run is going to be terrible – it just isn’t! Maybe that’s down to all the junk I ate yesterday, plumping up my glycogen stores… (maybe not)
Cold, but happy.
Run day 7, 2nd January
It’s the first run of the new year, and my first day of 75 hard. A challenge I’ve taken on to get me back into a healthy routine.
I’m out with my running partner again, and neither of us are really feeling up for it. My legs are like lead.
It’s two 8 minute intervals today with a 5 minute recovery walk in the middle. That’s probably about 3-3.5km of running all told.
The first 5 minutes was hard, and we chose a new route around rolling parkland. No huge hills, but having a couple of inclines are certainly going to help us to build our fitness faster. Just getting the miles under our belts, however slowly, and focusing on recovery is what it’s all about right now.
The biggest thing for me is always how fast I’m able to recover, and it’s going really well. At the end of the first run, I was back to normal straight away. As I reach longer distances, I’ll start to do all my measurements using my heart rate.
The next run is two runs of 10 minutes with a short interval, then we’re going for our first decent timed run of 20 minutes.
Run day 8, 4th January
After yesterday’s weights session, I thought I’d really struggle to do anything. By yesterday evening I was really starting to feel the burn walking up the stairs!
I was sore and achey when I woke up, and my legs were heavy but nowhere near as bad as I’d feared.
This is the last set of interval running before we move up to doing one big long run. 12 minutes, with a three minute break then 8 minutes running. We headed out as soon as it was light, into the grim January weather.
It’s a bit warmer today, at 3c. But it’s raining, and it’s windy.
The first run was tough, battling wind and rain and long hills. But we stuck at it, even with the biting wind in our faces, pushing us back.
I’m really struggling with congestion at the moment, I don’t know if I’ve just got a permanent cold or if it’s something else. Maybe it’s something to do with my damaged lymphatic system, but in the first 5 minutes my nose just streams.
It’s runs like this that make running on the flat in good weather easier. If there’s any time to get back on the road, and to do the hard miles it’s now.
We’ve been using an American couch to 10K guide. It’s a bit harder than the NHS equivalent but it’s got us where we need to be. On Wednesday, we’re going to be doing 25 minutes. That’s Week 6, run 3 of the NHS couch to 5k plan.
Side note: I’ve been keeping an eye on my vo2 max since I finished cancer treatment. Before I was diagnosed with cancer, it was around 50. For a 40 year old man, that’s really decent.
When I completed my treatment it was around 45, which still is pretty respectable for a man my age. Chemo and radiotherapy sharply took that down to around 34, which is terrible. Being admitted to hospital in November took that down even further, to around 32.
In just a couple of weeks of running and walking, I’m back above 40. Our bodies are simply amazing at bouncing back from adversity.
Run day 9, 6th January
It’s time for the first big one. After skipping through a few sessions, (it was the app, honest) today we’re running for 20 minutes.
Doing the double daily exercise sessions as part of 75 hard isn’t making things any easier though. I do a weights session every day that I don’t run, and I try and go on a long walk every day.
My fitness is really improving though, and while my legs ache a bit sometimes it’s getting better all the time.
It’s cold at the moment, around or below freezing every day. Typical January weather sure, but it doesn’t make going out to exercise any easier. I got a 7 mile walk in early, and I’m taking on the run in the evening. In the dark.
I haven’t progressed enough for the first 5 minutes of running not to feel really hard yet. My legs always feel heavy and leaden early on, I’m stiff and inflexible and my hips feel tight. As I get into a rhythm, I loosen up and things get easier.
We chose a pretty flat route this evening, and while it was tough going to start, we got through it. We’re going back to intervals and then a 25 minute run. By the end of the month, all being well we will be running 5km for the first time in what seems like forever.
Run day 10, 8th January
I’m actually getting excited about running now. It’s taken 9 days back on the road, but I can feel the strength starting to come back into my legs.
Every run is a genuine progression over the last.
Unfortunately, we had to go out late again. It’s cold and dark and freezing cold at the moment, but it seems to be working.
We chose another flat route, under streetlights. I haven’t bothered with one of those miner’s helmet lights that the trail runners love. All things being normal, I wouldn’t run in the dark at all. Where I live, every road and track has a pothole, and where there aren’t roads, it’s mud.
It was a 20 minute road run tonight, which felt much easier than the last one. Towards the end, we moved up to 25 min 5k pace and it felt really good. Whisper it quietly, but 5k could be on the cards next week.
Run day 11, 9th January
I don’t really like running two days back to back, but I want to keep running at the same pace as my wife and not to get too far ahead.
We managed to go out in the late afternoon, and it was -4c. I can’t remember the last time it felt this cold, it’s really nasty weather this January. The freezing fog, drizzle and wind just make everything more of a struggle.
Doing the same routes gets boring quickly too, so we changed it up today.
Unfortunately, where we live is in the middle of rolling parkland and at the top of a big hill so it’s tough to find many beginner level routes.
In the past, the hills were never much of a problem but we’re starting from scratch now and lately, hills have been tough to say the least!
We went on a circular route, and upped the time to 23 minutes today. There are two long hills, and we managed to keep a decent pace all the way round it. The next challenge is to try and find another 7 minutes or so, to smash that big psychological barrier of 30 minutes.
If my legs can take it, I’m going out again in the morning.
Run day 12, 11th January
NEWSFLASH: I didn’t go out for that run yesterday. It’s fine by me, I’m in no real hurry. I’ll just listen to my body when it needs the rest.
Today we’re back to intervals, in week 6 of NHS couch to 5k. Why does it go back to intervals after I’ve already run for 20 minutes plus? Well, the official line is to “consolidate your progress”.
The basic science, is that rest intervals are really important when it comes to improving your lactate threshold. Put simply, the higher your lactate threshold, the better your performance.
So just when your body thinks you’re done running, you start again and force it to deal with all the lactic acid build-up. Over time, your body gets used to this new normal, and you can run longer and longer without your legs giving up on you.
It’s a couple of relatively short runs, with rest periods just long enough to test your legs.
Week 6 of NHS couch to 5k always catches you by surprise, and these short intervals are always harder than you expect. Heavy legs, nasty weather and poorly lit country streets didn’t make it any easier – but we nailed it.
Run day 13, 14th January
Unusually we took a two day rest between runs. Home schooling, working from home and general life just got in the way. It’s another set of intervals today, just two runs with a 5 minute rest in the middle.
I spent all of today’s run up on my toes, really because I wanted to work my calves a bit harder. That’s going to hurt in the morning.
Another night run, through deep icy puddles in potholed lanes. It was also my first run without using compression tights. As I write this, there are no ill effects – but I’ll take stock in the morning.
I can’t get past just how hard the first few minutes of a run are at the moment. My legs are so heavy and stiff, and I struggle to get into any rhythm with my breathing. I’ve definitely got another cold too.
7 or 8 minutes in, I start to find a bit of rhythm but I don’t feel like I’m really running yet. I’m just rolling down the road, but it’s better than walking.
The biggest trouble with being out in the country is the boring route when you have to run at night. It’s just up and down the same stretch of road. When we lived in town, it was easy to find routes. That’s the only thing I miss though!
It’s back to the longer, non stop running next. We could go for 25 minutes, but once you’ve got going you might as well keep going.
So on Saturday morning, the first 5km run since chemo treatment is on. The route I’ve chosen is a familiar one to us. There’s a long hill in the first mile, but after that it’s pretty easy.
If we can get that cracked, I’ll feel pretty good about things.
Run day 14, 16th January
Up early, and it’s been snowing during the night. The roads and tracks are already covered in puddles, and some are impassable because of the rainfall over the past week.
The wind, the cold, the mid and the hills are going to make this tricky, but some days are just like that. Weekend roadworks took away another 1km or so of road running from the start of the route, so we’ll just have to go as far as we can.
The first few minutes was really tough. Trying to dance around the potholes and puddles is hard work, especially when you’re trying to get your breathing right. Before we could get into any kind of rhythm, the first long hill came along, then the mud and the slush.
After 10 minutes or so, it got easier but we ran out of road after 28 minutes. Still, that’s a new post cancer personal best! Once the roadworks are gone, 33 minutes is on. Oh, and a crack at 5km of course.
Run day 15, 18th January
No more intervals for a while, it’s all about running for time now. Over the next few weeks, I’ll just keep increasing the time I’m running for until I can run 5k in under 30 minutes.
I’m definitely starting to feel fitter, and stronger. The rest day over the weekend seems to have really helped me too. My breathing is better and my legs feel good.
The routes I want to run are still flooded, so we have to make do with what’s available.
It’s a daytime run, which really helps. But by the time we head out, I’ve gone 23 hours without food. I’ll eat later, what’s the worst that can happen?
The first 5 or 6 minutes were tough to get going, as has become pretty normal now. Everything felt tough, and very slow until I was about 18 minutes in. Then, suddenly everything came together. My breathing and my legs just felt looser, comfortable even.
The yards came by faster, and by the last kilometre I was at my target pace. I even managed a little sprint finish over the last 300 or so metres. 31 minutes run, 4.3km travelled.
Slow, but I don’t care. I’ve managed 30 minutes for the first time in a year.
Run day 16, 20th January
Today’s the big day. If I can, I’m running the 5k.
The weather is disgusting today, it’s wet, windy and dark. All the local fields are flooded and lots of paths are impassable, so today it’s road running for us.
Unfortunately, where I live it’s all hills and valleys. So I don’t have to go far before roads can be hard work too. I’ve found a route which isn’t full of hills, so I’m going for it.
I’m running everything fasted. By the time I head out for a run, I usually haven’t eaten for 20+ hours, and it’s been 24 hours today.
Running fasted seems to mean that it’s really tough to get started, and today isn’t any different. Another 17 minutes of running before anything starts to get comfortable. Tough breathing, heavy legs, no rhythm.
It’s a familiar story now, and I might have to change the way I eat, and lose a load more weight too! But, that’s another story.
I didn’t stop, and the last few hundred metres were tough, but I made it.
It’s been just one month, and 16 runs. I’ve gone from being horrendously out of shape and still suffering the effects from cancer treatment, to running 5km.
I’m quite proud of myself today.
Run day 17, 22nd January
Today is a double up day. It’s been a few weeks leading up to this point, but I feel like I’m strong enough to try a double run day.
It’s not going to be quick or easy, but doubling up, or running twice on the same day used to be a really good tactic for me.
By running a long-ish run in the morning, and some intervals later in the day, I’m getting maximum bang for my buck. My body gets forced to recover faster, and I increase my baseline fitness.
Also, because I’m always running fasted at the moment, I’m likely to have most of my available glycogen in the morning. By the time I get to the second run, I’ll be running on fumes and my body will have to dig deep. Recruiting more muscle fibres and finding new routes to fuel stored deep in my body. I’ll probably do a couple of these double ups every week.
It was freezing this morning, slippery and nasty to be out in. But it’s as good a time as ever.
I walked the first 2k to warm up, and then ran the next 6.5km. Walked another 2km, ran another 2km and was home in time for the home school.
I shaved 4 minutes off the 5km I ran last, which was really surprising. But it’s all moving in the right direction.
I had a quick sleep at lunchtime, and then did 3x1km intervals with my wife. By the time we got back I don’t think I’ve ever been so hungry.
Unless I feel amazing tomorrow, I’m taking two days off.
Run day 18, 25th January
I’ve had two days off, and I’m feeling fresh. Well, fresher.
The snow has really fallen down over the last couple of days and the roads and pavements are covered in ice and hard slush. Fortunately, the paths and fields are covered in thick, grippy snow.
I’m choosing a route I haven’t used for a couple of years. It starts with a kilometre long hill, and rewards you with a spectacular view of the Rib valley. Before dropping down and winding around Thundridge old church and into the village. It’s 6.2km, and I want to complete it.
The ground underfoot is perfect for building endurance. Alongside the challenge of hills, it can be loose and sandy, heavy and muddy or just plain wet. The freezing cold weather and snow just add to the fun.
I’ve changed my diet to keto now, and I feel so much less congested. The first few minutes was as tough as ever, but within 5 minutes I was already getting into my stride. I’m really glad I switched back to keto, as I think it will really help my fitness again. But time will tell.
I’m clearly getting faster, and I managed to shave another minute off my last 5km time. My legs ache, but I think that’s just normal now!
I have two months left of my 75 hard challenge, so I’ll keep writing about my running on that page