An almost-marathon in four easy stages

Easy stages, HA!  A month of flattish one-mile runs on the machine is ‘easy stages’… four 6.4-mile runs, with a height gain between them of 4250 feet (almost 1300 metres)… well, these runs seem to be getting more difficult, that’s all I’m saying!

Though maybe this was because they were spaced out between January and June!

Runs with my pal Daren are always really special things.  For starters we follow the same route that we’ve been running for about 5 years now… though infrequently enough that I’ve not tired of it yet.  It’s also more of a perambulating conversation than it is a run per se… the run simply happens while we’re chatting.  Aside from anything else it is slightly mind-bending, since we seem to be experiencing time-travel… the other versions of ourselves are running around the same circuit at around the same speed, separated only by time.  I swear that you can hear the different versions laughing at each other on a quiet day.

For some reason most of the horizontal distance seems to be downhill (it’s just an illusion), but there are three major inclines: a relaxed 300 vertical-foot hill that you could chug up in a 4×4, barring the various gates & stiles; an anything-but relaxed 150 vertical-foot scramble that is almost impossible to crawl up when it’s slippery; and the much-vaunted tank tracks, a very steep 400 vertical-foot climb that occurs near the end of our run.  The latter is a barometer to our level of bouncy zing: we have so far always managed to run up it without needing to stop (or stop talking), though on occasion that run has been a near stagger.  However, this last time it was only Daren’s enduring positive mental attitude that helped my mind to pretend to my body that it could make it to the top… I say pretend, because I couldn’t walk for about 4 days afterwards!

I’m pretty happy though that I still managed the run at all, given the pitifully small amount of training that I’ve done over the last couple of months!

So that’s all my running for the last year accounted for… which means that the next post must be about the sedate art of gardening. 🙂

180 mile runs

It’s fair to say that I didn’t run at all between the beginning of June and the end of August last year, but by that time I was starting to suffer from the lethargy that creeps up on you when you’re not doing enough exercise.

As I was updating materials & content for new second-year students joining my Creativity in Enterprise module at Brighton Business School, it occurred to me that I could use the same approach that I was advocating to them… doing a little each day, rather than trying to do a lot once a week.

Going for a long run once a week is really lovely, but the ‘getting ready, running, recovering and writing’ process is invariably more than three hours, even for a relatively short run… or four hours if I ran to the Beacon and back.  In September 2016 I didn’t have the time or the motivation… and even five miles is a long way when you’ve not run for three months.

The sustainable alternative was to run one mile each day instead.

Obviously it helps a lot if you have a running machine in the house, which we do.  Then it’s about creating that impetus to run a short distance each day.  I achieved this by targeting myself to run at 6mph, so 10 minutes per run… knowing full well that I would otherwise compete with myself to increase the speed, which would not be good over such a short distance with no warm up.

In September I clocked up 20 miles, then monthly totals of 27, 27, 29, 23, 24 and 25, which was in March when my module came to a close for the year.  April and May were then not so impressive at 3 and 2 miles respectively, but the total was 180 miles in under 30 hours.  A worthwhile amount of exercise to have notched up, and analogous of a considerable amount of additional learning for my students.

Of course I didn’t entirely manage to remove the competitive urge.  Where I would normally run on a gradient 2, to represent the effort required to push the world round underneath me outside, I slowly suckered myself into running at gradient 3, then 4.  I even managed a week of runs at gradient 5 before I backed off again… 5 is really effortful, where what I needed was simply a little exercise!

Why stop?  You may well ask.  I normally do ‘stuff for me’ in the mornings, because this is the only part of the day that is relatively consistent.  However, the combination of some qigong stretching, 15 minutes of yoga, 15-30 minutes playing the guitar, 10 minutes running, 10 minutes cooling down in the garden, breakfast, shower etc meant that by March it was taking me 2 hours to get ready for work each day.  It’s a lot of fun (great me-time), but at that level not sustainable… something had to give.

It was the running that quietly dropped off the agenda.

My mornings are still fun, but at the moment that extra slug of lethargy-reducing exercise is coming from other interesting activities… like gardening.  But more about that in another post sometime. 🙂

Father’s Day

Last autumn my father sadly passed away, aged 91.  On this day in June, which celebrates fathers everywhere, my heart goes out to all those friends who have also lost parents, some very recently and some a very long time ago.

For Father’s Day, I’d like to share some of my memories of my fantastic father, around three of his boundless attributes: his creativity, his patience and his energy.

The creative father.

My father had an extraordinary flair for doodling. His line drawings comprised of exuberant swoops, elegant curves and poignant points… each element neatly resolved in the context of the others, to create a pleasingly tasteful, miniature work of art. I grew up surrounded by these transitory doodles, for they adorned scraps of paper, the margins of old magazines and the family’s legendary wipe-clean-formica kitchen table.

On occasion he would render unseen versions of his drawings into a third dimension, using pieces of balsa wood or lumps of chalk to create small organic sculptures. He was a master at creating small models, from sailing boats and strings of cars pulled by electric motors, to functional ranch houses for my toy cowboys, to elegant dolls houses for his grandchildren.

In my forties and being slightly too old for a dolls house, he very kindly made me a beautifully crafted, self supporting flight of stairs complete with a handrail, one tenth scale, which he thoughtfully named Aspirations to inspire his young son.

He also worked on a larger scale, cutting holes in floorboards and walls to make the family’s labyrinthine cellar and creating a cavernous wardrobe from scratch in the master bedroom.

His love of creative swoops and curves also clearly manifested itself in his amazing garden which, though based on the paths that my elder siblings beat through the originally-untamed-undergrowth when they were young, he carefully crafted so that edges and levels resolved into one another in a most harmonious way.

I’ve come to realise that gardens are transitory, dynamic entities. Like the gardeners who create them, they are ever-changing and they actually exist in all their different states at the very same time… at least in our minds… a kind of organic pastiche of all their various forms, overlaid on top of one another.

For example, as you look down through small shrubs and across the different lawns, you can see a beautiful 30 foot cherry tree at the bottom of the garden, grown from a cherry pip by my siblings… the cherries are mouthwatering, like the raspberries, blackcurrants and apples grown in that part of the garden.

I can picture the cherry tree clearly, though it was removed to make way for a greenhouse at least 20 years ago, a structure which itself is now completely hidden from view by mature trees and shrubs.

In the same way, I can still picture my father, back then when he used to work for a living, engrossed in crafting his garden at the weekends, making stuff in his subterranean workshop, or simply creating swirling doodles on the kitchen table. I’m certain that it is this creativity that has driven my own passion for abstract art and quirky homemade furniture.

The patient father.

Twenty-five years ago, when I bought my first house, my father eyed up the garden as a blank canvas on which to grow a masterpiece, but I was too young, naive and impatient to appreciate his vision. Instead I defended the two boring patches of grass and empty patio with a metaphorical pitchfork. He just smiled and acquiesced.

Many months later he offered me some pots for my patio (amongst which I remember there was a tall bamboo and a bright yellow Mexican orange), which brought a little colour & texture to my otherwise bland, adolescent garden. More than a year later again, he casually observed that the plants had started to outgrow their pots and wondered whether I might like to plant them in the garden… and put some new, smaller plants in the original Trojan horse pots.

Over the course of fifteen years and with ongoing paternal guidance, the area of grass in the back garden diminished in size by a half and disappeared entirely in the front.

Over the same period yet another budding Foster-gardener had been patiently tended and allowed to slowly develop towards maturity, like an animated, human version of the deliciously complex wine that he created over the years and that we still look forward to drinking, on special occasions.

Much later I came to realise that gardening is as much a manifestation of patience as it is about an understanding of botany. His boundless patience is obvious from the tranquility of his garden, the sheer scale of the plants, many of which were originally grown from seeds or cuttings, and the gardens of his children, each with their own inimitable style.

As I was writing this I was curious about the effect of just one of the many, many seeds that he patiently grew in my mind… I walked out into my garden to count eight Mexican orange plants of different sizes, some huge, and twenty-five pots or clumps of bamboo, all bar two of which have been grown from that original gift in 1991… which in turn had come from a vast bamboo clump, grown by him from a small cutting that he had been given, maybe twenty years before that.

The energetic father.

The garden at my parents house is 100 feet long, with a path that winds ever downward into the valley, like a temporal thread that sews its way through my mind and back to my earliest memories. Even the top of the garden is effectively two storeys below the sitting room and the bottom yet another two vertical storeys further down.

And yet, if my father spotted a cat in the garden, he would run from the sitting room, leap down two flights of stairs and chase the feline miscreant on down the path until it disappeared, chastened, into the undergrowth. He would then casually return to his initial elevated vantage point, having hardly broken a sweat, where he would resume drinking his tea and admiring the beautiful view.

This boundless energy was put to other uses too, such as endlessly returning my pedal car to the top of the garden so that I could delightedly whoop my way down again, or taking us on adventures to explore ancient castles, English counties and foreign countries.

No sedentary beach holidays for us… our holidays involved going places, camping out, climbing mountains, doing stuff. His energy was infectious and it flows on through his children, and clearly through his grandchildren too.

It is all too easy to be sad when someone who is really important to us passes away and this is clearly the case with my father… no more can we tap into his encyclopaedic memory of plants and gardening tips, no more will he be a conversational sparring partner, no more beaming blue-eyed smiles of delight when you turn up unannounced.

But sadness is not something that I associate with my father. Instead it is his quirky creativity, his boundless patience and his sheer energy that come to mind and live on through each of his children, in our slightly unconventional mindsets, and in the crazy ideas and endeavours that he helped us to seed.

And I like to think that he is now able to be everywhere at the same time, spending his days with each of us, and most especially when we’re outside, working in those transitory, dynamic, organic spaces that we call our gardens.

I for one am extremely grateful for having known this remarkable man and for having had such a unique and fantastic father.

To my Dad, Happy Father’s Day.

What’s 375 days between posts?

It’s been a while since I last shared my thoughts through the FosterRuns channel and a lot has happened in the intervening time.  Not only have I not been writing here, but I’ve also been running a lot less, though more about that in a separate post, or two.

One of the important lessons about strategy is that you need to choose what you are not going to do while you close the gap between yourself and your goals.  Allowing things to lapse of their own volition doesn’t count… it needs to be a more deliberate decision.

For example in 2009, at the point that I realised I had effectively lapsed in my mediocre playing of the guitar, I made a deliberate choice between giving up & gifting my guitars to a worthier home, or working hard over time to become a more accomplished guitar player.  Whilst hard work & at times frustrating, the choice of the latter has proved to be a genuine source of joy, especially on those days (like yesterday, almost eight years post-decision), when I feel that I’m actually progressing.  The key to making this decision work was about creating a sustainable habit… in this case a minimum of 5 minutes a day, 52 guitar lessons with the amazing Lucas Cook over the course of the first year (and countless pointers since), two new guitars along the way as rewards for my persistence etc.

I feel as if I am at one of those crossroads, where a choice needs to be taken, though in this case it’s a more complex recipe of choices.  The original aim of FosterRuns, back in August 2007, was to encourage me to run, whilst also encouraging me to write… exercise for the body connected to exercise for the mind in a virtuous circle.  The number of posts on the site now sits at 676, but take away the running and the impetus to write about it disappears.

I quickly figured this out with my earlier blogs, where the writing dried up for lack of a sustainable stimulus.  Even my random musings about work, which I really enjoyed to start with, petered out within five years.

It’s not that I no longer want to run… on the contrary, it’s really important to me to maintain that ability, especially as I love going out for those brilliant occasional runs with friends.  But I now allocate part of that finite ‘time’ resource to other things such as Yoga, which is a more all-encompassing workout.

It’s also not that I don’t want to write… the purpose of this journey was to give me the skills so that I could write.  You need (at the very least) to write, in order to be able to write.  My tally for this last year is a simple article (awaiting publication), one or two songs, quite a few workshops, numerous bespoke explanations for students or clients, a Fellowship application (gained 🙂 ) etc.  I had hoped to be able to say that I had finished my first book, but my internal critic still has a finger on the pause button… I am taking steps to circumvent this though!

As a prelude to repainting my house, I spent last Sunday washing the gutters and soffit boards… this post is similarly preparing the ground for a next step, in this case a decision about whether or not this blog forms part of my forward strategy.  Keep your eyes peeled for a few more posts in the near future before I finally take that decision. 🙂

Old pastures

After a week of chilly weather, such that I wished I’d put the wood burner on Friday night, this morning was a spectacular return to summer.

Having sat in the tea-house to sup my way through two quadspressos, I felt that I had to get out for a run… especially as I didn’t feel up to a run last weekend.

I started off in the normal direction, but then a path caught my eye that I’d not run down for an age and I followed it. Unfortunately the first section was full of stinging nettles and my legs took a real hit! But then it led me across the fields to old Wivelsfield and an old corner of Burgess Hill that looks as if it is still delightfully rooted in the ‘fifties.

I crossed Rocky Lane (perilous!) and ran up through Bedelands Farm nature reserve, then crossed back across onto Theobalds Lane and ran round the back of where I used to live. I’m always curious about old neighbourhoods so I paused outside the house to take a quick look. The front garden landscaping that I designed has really stood the test of time, although the plants have been allowed to grow huge… I guess that it is almost eleven years ago now!

Overall Strava estimated that the run was 7.2 miles in 70 minutes… circa 6.15 mph.

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May two two run

Yesterday I ran the same route that I ran three weeks ago, but Strava deemed it a shorter run and slower.  6.9 miles in 71 minutes, only 5.8 mph average.  Not wholly surprising… well, the time at least.

A fortnight ago I spent a really enjoyable week working in Denver, but flew both Sundays and so missed the opportunity to run.  As soon as I got back last week I managed to catch a horrible cold, which I only managed to shake off this weekend… the two nights where I managed to sleep a full ten hours probably helped a lot!

It was the first ‘proper warm’ run of the year, which was lovely, but it much more of a struggle than I’ve been used to for a while. In fact I’m really feeling the effects today… although that might also have had something to do with the mammoth gardening session that I did afterwards: repotting four large bamboo plants & finding them new homes in the garden, repotting Kim’s Japanese cherry, emptying out the compost that has accumulated in bags over the winter, cutting the grass front & back, trimming the front hedge and then, for good measure, cutting an elderly neighbour’s grass to help him keep on top of it.

Talking of grass cutting, I have to mention the local communal grass that is (apparently) looked after by West Sussex County Council.  Aside from the fact that it is almost three feet tall in places, as you can see from the enclosed photos, I noticed something interesting about the kerb edges.

Five or six years ago (prompted by the local council asking how they could support the business community, with no budget) I started an ad hoc experiment regarding grass verges, with four hypothesises.

  • H1: If the grass verge is neat, then the owners of adjacent houses will tend to look after their front gardens.  Kerb appeal suggests that house prices are likely to be positively affected by this, whilst ‘broken windows theory’ suggests that residents of these areas are likely to feel happier and more responsible for their neighbourhood.
  • H2: If the verges are edged then grass will not grow out to destabilise the adjacent road or pavement, slowing the need for expenditure in this area.
  • H3: If the grass is cut more frequently (say every two weeks as opposed the the council’s 6-8 weeks), then the grass cuttings form a mulch that decomposes easily on the lawn, rather than choking the grass and sitting at the edges where it speeds up the egress of grass onto adjacent tarmac surfaces.
  • H4: If residents feel pride and responsibility for their neighbourhood, then they will take this positivity into their workplace and be more engaged, thus achieving the original aim.

I didn’t get to test my hypotheses empirically, but there is a good degree of support for them based on what I hear from neighbours (I’ve been looking after the grass areas adjacent to us for this extended period) and see with my own eyes.

For example, to add weight to H2, I carefully edged the kerbside of one of the verges in the two photos below, but not the other one (on the other side of the junction).  Bearing in mind how long ago I did it, the differences are palpable… the other non-edged sides of the green have spread across the pavement by up to a couple of feet, destabilising it in the process.

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Coenagrion puella, the Azure Damselfly, described and named by Linne in 1758. (Thank you Michael & Jenny:-)

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Cloudy & cool with muddy patches

It’s been 6 weeks since my last run, which is how long it’s taken me to (almost) get over the coughing bug that I managed to catch whilst working in Budapest.  I sat down on the plane to come home and started coughing… eugh!

I wasn’t really sure what to expect from my run today, such that I almost managed to put it off for another week!  But run I did.

I took the normal short loop out to Wivelsfield, through West Wood and back via the Magical Path.  The weather was largely overcast and the temperature was cool enough for me to be comfortable wearing two layers, longs, gloves and a hat.  The ground was a lot drier than the last time I ran, with the compacted edges turning slightly bouncy, surrounding areas of squidgy and smaller pockets of watery squelch.  The bluebells were out in force.

My chosen warm top layer doesn’t seem to breathe, so despite the temperature I was hot & sweaty when I got back and more than ready for a cold shower… and not just my legs for a change!  I’ll know by Tuesday the extent to which my body is going to complain about a 5 mile run after 6 weeks off, but right now I feel pretty good.

According to Strava I ran 5.7 miles in 59 minutes, an average of 5.8 mph.

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Crossover weather

It’s looking more and more like Spring outside… provided that you’re looking out through the window with the heating on!

Or, like us, you’re willing to wait until early afternoon and have a sheltered south facing garden that acts as a sun-trap… and a warm jumper!

My run this morning had neither of these types of heating so I wore a thick running top over my t-shirt instead.  This was just about warm enough when I was in the shade, but too warm in the sun… which meant that I sweated profusely… which meant that the next area of shade seemed a little cooler!  I ended up taking it off so that i could dry out and warm up… if that makes sense?

I don’t remember it raining this week, but the ground was back to watery mud (and lots of it) so it must have done.

I did my simple local route out to the edge of Wivelsfield, through West Wood, down Hundred Acre Lane and then back on round via Ditchling Common.  According to Strava I completed 6.7 miles in 66 minutes… an average of 6.1 mph.

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Struggling with analogies

If you’re a regular reader, then you’ll know that I’ve been running an experiment on myself for the last six years… I’ve been working to improve my guitar playing, simply by ensuring that I simply play at least 5 minutes every day (following an initial 52 lessons in 2010 with Lucas Cook). One interesting side-effect of this is that I play two types of music.

To wake up my fingers each morning I play two Jazz standards, which together last a total of around three minutes. I’ve been playing these each day for four years (I think) and over that time I have slowly improved, though I still find them complex.

The rest of the time, which is around 20 minutes each morning and often the same again just before I go to bed, I play compositions which I have created myself. These have got ever more complicated over the years as my skills in fingering, picking and bringing notes, chords & melodies together improve.

It strikes me that these two types of progress are analogous to how organisations evolve. Most focus on efficiency and evolve incrementally, whereas others eschew efficiency and are instead constantly adapting to an ever-changing marketplace. To my mind the latter are focused on performance and whilst they are less efficient as a result, they are more engaging and exciting places to work.

It strikes me that the people in the former would trend towards being bored, whereas the latter are constantly adding to their value in the marketplace. I also hypothesise that the former are comfortable in their efficient success, whereas the latter are constantly failing, which is harder work to sustain, even when you’re actually making faster progress.

Do you have a view on this?

I ran from my folks’ place this morning and it was slightly warmer than last week, but still chillsome.  As I ran and the analogy above rolled around my mind, so I realised that I needed new views to break me out of the incremental thinking. Halfway to Ovingdean I turned right and headed over the hill into the next valley, or dean.  This is the one with Ovingdean in it. From there, rather than running down to the sea as normal, I ran up and over into the next valley and down to the sea at Roedean.

I wasn’t quite far enough East to run down the service road to the Undercliff Walk, so I ran along the top of the cliffs and soaked up the amazing view down onto the chalk seabed below at low tide. It has really muted colour-ways but it’s one of my favourite things… as I ran so I briefly chatted to another runner who wholeheartedly agreed.

As I reached the hill before Rottingdean, so I turned left and ran up the ridge to the top of Ovingdean and then on back to Woodingdean.

According to Strava I ran 6.7 miles in 67 minutes, a healthy average (compared to my recent performance) of 6 miles per hour, though I would clearly need to run more frequently to make any progress in improving on this.

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