Sunday, June 21, 2015

Just a number

Your finish token number at parkrun doesn't mean anything you know. It's a number that indicates the amount of stopwatch lap button presses the timekeeper has made at parkrun that Saturday. Just because you are number 56 this week it doesn't mean that you necessarily did better than last week when you got number 76. It could mean that there were just twenty less people who turned up this week. It could mean that some people who went for a quick run last week went for a slow run this week.

I know it sounds harsh, and I don't mean it to be, but I've seen people fixate on their parkrun finish token position number like it has real meaning and it doesn't. People laugh at the line "parkrun is a run, not a race", but it's true. That's why you can't win parkrun, you can only be first finisher.

I've finished third finisher overall, I've finished 432nd finisher. That third finisher position doesn't tell you anything. It doesn't tell you that it was bucketing down with rain, and that there were a total of six runners that day. It doesn't tell you that we rocked up 3 minutes after everyone had started, having bolted from Balingup to Manjimup in order to run that day. My 432nd finisher token was two weeks prior, at Bushy Park. It was a gorgeous day, and I ran with Jeremy, and we were ecstatic that we were on holiday in England  and running Bushy parkrun on what a regular Bushy parkrunner called a fairly quiet Saturday with only 841 runners. It's my 'worst ever' finish position, yet it's one of my better parkrun times.

My first parkrun I ran 33:09, and was the 46th runner of 48. Last week someone said to me that they thought they'd have been gutted that they were third last having just run that time. It hadn't even occurred to me to care. I'd run the entire five kilometres of my first ever parkrun and got my finish token and sat down on the grass knackered as Jeremy came over with the stopwatch, showed me my time and gave me a high five.

And that's my point - if you want to measure your improvement at parkrun, focus on your finish time. Try and increase your age graded percentage. Don't feel discouraged if you never finish first in your age category - you need to recognise that while someone may be in the same age category as you, they've also have been running since they watched the Olympics on television when they were in year three at primary school and begged their parents to let them do Little Athletics.

Last of all, always remember that despite people's competitiveness, parkrun isn't a race. You can't win it, so if you come first finisher, that's nice, but the only thing it really means is that the barcode scanning queue is a bit shorter for you than it is for the people who finish after you.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Where to start

I used to be known as a cyclist, and people asked me how I started. So I told them. Now I am known as a runner, and people ask me how I started. So I’m telling you.

Starting was probably the hardest part. I had read about the Couch to 5K program, and I’d found a C25K app to use on my iPod Touch, but it sat there, virtually unused for years. I tried at one point, and it wasn’t very successful, and while I knew why, I also felt like I was trying for someone else’s benefit and not my own. 

In November 2011 I decided that I wanted to complete a triathlon. I simultaneously signed up for the mini tri option at the Women’s Triathlon in February and the lead-up six week training course run out of Challenge Stadium. The course started in January, so I had two months to get in the pool and to learn to run.

I went out to the playing fields near our house and ran around them. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to run it all, so I thought that I’d implement the idea of the Couch to 5K program and just run a bit, walk a bit, run a bit. I would set out on the perimeter of the fields and run to certain lamp posts, then allow myself to walk for a lamp post interval, then ran to another specific lamp post. I did this a couple of times before I decided that I wanted a bit more structure in my attempts.

I’d already worked out when cycling that being attached to my phone or my iPod Touch was a huge irritation to me – I didn’t like those arm bands, and I suspected I’d just be distracted by my phone if I had easy access to it. I unearthed my old iPod Shuffle and loaded the first week’s track of the Podrunner Couch to 5K podcast onto it – the Shuffle just clipped onto my clothes and wasn’t obtrusive. The Podrunner music is set to a specific set of beats per minute, and there are tones overlaid on the music that tell you when to run or to walk.

I made the decision to follow the Couch to 5K program but not the timing of the program. The proper program timing has you running to the week 1 track three times, then the next week moving to the week 2 track and running to that three times. I knew what my schedule was like and decided that I would only move to week 2 when I had managed to comfortably complete the three runs to the week 1 track within a seven day period. If I wasn’t comfortable, or my schedule meant that I couldn’t do the three runs in that timeframe, then I wouldn’t graduate to the next track. I was going arrange my running to my schedule, not theirs, which meant no pressure to me. 

I hadn’t been running long when I started to develop shin splints. I didn’t realise that they were shin splints at first, as it only appeared in one leg initially. When one Saturday morning it in appeared both I realised what it was and booked a session at The Running Centre that lunchtime to get on a treadmill, have my gait videoed and find a pair of shoes that were more supportive than the old trainers that I’d been running in previously. Once I had different shoes the shin pain halved immediately, but I realised I’d done sufficient damage to warrant booking in to see a physiotherapist. She showed me exercises to do three times a day, immediately followed up with icing of my shins. I was also shown how to use sports tape and to tape up my shins and calves so that they were supported before I went for a run. Over the following six weeks she would give me regular horribly painful Saturday morning massages of my calf muscles to loosen them up.

The realisation of shin splints was about one week out of the start of the triathlon training course. My physiotherapist gave me options to do that wouldn’t cause flare ups; like running on the grass verge alongside the path. The course running coach was very encouraging and pleased to see that I was out giving it a go any way I could rather than avoiding the problem entirely. I took careful notice of the instructions during the course because even if I couldn’t implement the coaching ideas immediately they were something I could try in the future. For running sessions at home I was still slowly making my way through the Podrunner Couch to 5K series. 

To my relief around the end of the training course my shin splints completely dissipated. Mid-course during swim training I managed to sprain a facet joint in my neck so I had been visiting a physiotherapist near work for my neck three times a week, plus the physiotherapist near home on Saturday for my shins. Needless to say my physiotherapy benefit on my health insurance swiftly ran out. I would end up needing physiotherapy three times a week for three months before I had complete movement in my neck again. Interestingly, before the sprain I used to regularly wake up with a stiff neck because “I’d slept wrong”, but since I completed the physiotherapy I’ve very rarely woken up with any neck issues and if I did they would quickly dissipate rather than hang around for days the way they used to.

I completed the triathlon, and did as expected – appallingly badly in the swim, fourth in my age group for the bike split and mid-pack by the time I finished the run. But I’d loved the running, so I carried on with Couch to 5K. Just before we went to Malaysia for our honeymoon and then the Malaysian Formula 1 race, I had been ready to graduate to the Week 5 tracks, but after not running at all in KL (good intentions aside) and then having to recover from a terrible cold that I’d developed in KL, I ran week 4 again. When I finished, and where I’d finished on my regular playing fields course I realised I was much faster than before, so I downloaded the Week 5 tracks. 

Week 5 in Couch to 5K is a departure from the previous four weeks. For starters, there are three Podrunner tracks, the first two making the run intervals longer, culminating in the third track a 20 minute solid bout of running. I barrelled through these with relative ease; I’d feared them a bit, but by that point I’d been regularly running for about 6 months, and they proved no difficulty. The next week I went to the week 6 tracks, and had no issue with those either. Actually, that’s a lie; for the first track of the week it had felt weird returning to interval running again just to build up to 25 minutes of running for the third run of the week, so I jumped straight to the third track of week 6.

At this point I decided that I was going for it. A few months previous Jeremy and I had walked the perimeter of the playing fields with my bike Garmin and had measured the full distance as 1.8km and marked every 250 metres up to 1.75km. We knew that if we ran the perimeter three times that would make 5.4km, so one day I loaded up some music on my Shuffle, and went out there and ran. It took me about 45 minutes, but I ran all 5.4km. I was ecstatic. I deleted the remaining Podrunner tracks and replaced them with a playlist that went for a bit longer than 45 minutes. At some point not long after that I realised that I liked hearing the sounds of my neighbourhood instead of music so I stopped using my Shuffle and just ran my three laps of the playing fields without music.

I kept going out there and running my 5k. At one point Jeremy and I felt brave enough that we decided to expand our horizons beyond the playing fields and run a perfect 5km loop that I’d found online; the loop went straight past our house. This was a big step because I generally ran before work and with the playing fields loop if for some reason I couldn’t complete the run I could always shortcut through the playing fields for home. Running around the neighbourhood made that easy back-out clause disappear.

It had been early in 2012 that I’d read of parkrun in a magazine, so I kept an eye on the parkrun website to see whether it would come to Perth. At some point I found out that Claisebrook Cove parkrun was launching the first Saturday in August, so I waited impatiently for it to begin. The Monday before the launch I was sitting cross legged between shelves at work, went to stand up and felt a very sharp pain in my left knee. I gingerly walked around on it, but by the Wednesday I’d had to buy a knee brace so I booked into the physiotherapist again, only about 50 days after having stopped seeing him for my neck. He told me that I’d torn my medial collateral ligament, and that running at parkrun – actually running full stop – was out, so I was restricted to volunteering for a while. I knew my knee injury was a pre-existing condition; back in 2009 after I crashed my bike the doctor sewed my left knee back together, which meant I wasn’t able to bend it for a few weeks while it healed. When the stitches came out I’d  been told to go to a physiotherapist to get full movement back into it, but hadn’t been diligent in attending beyond about three sessions. One day standing up in an awkward fashion tore it at its weakest point.

The physio got me back functioning in time for the Perth City to Surf at the end of August; “your knee will probably hurt but you won’t do any more damage to it”. It wasn’t close to perfect – his advice was City to Surf on Sunday, or parkrun on Saturday; but not both, so I chose City to Surf. Jeremy and I had walked the 12km course a few years ago, but the 2012 City to Surf 4km run was going to be our first running event. We enjoyed ourselves, and finished happy with our times. The following week was a little difficult on limbs that weren’t used to hills – we’d been training around our area which is a mini Netherlands when it comes to elevation change, and by the Friday my right hamstring was fairly tight. In retrospect this was to have been expected; my right leg had been doing all the stability work keeping me upright while my left knee was a shambles. So when my right hamstring tore while I was running the Friday morning after the race I knew immediately what I’d done. I already had a booking for the physio that day for my knee, so I sat perched on my ice pack at work until the appointment and then the physio ignored my knee and worked on my hamstring instead.

When my hamstring and knee were finally sorted it was the start of October, and the physio allowed me to run parkrun. I’d been volunteering reasonably regularly on Saturdays, sometimes getting Jeremy to come meet me at the Kinky Lizard cafĂ© for the post parkrun coffee afterwards, but this was to be my first bash at it, so Jeremy volunteered as timekeeper while I ran. The first guy in came in in 19:07, and I came in in 33:09. In that 14 minute gap Jeremy was converted to a parkrunner. He immediately ‘got’ it; that it wasn't just his mad wife and a small group of runners, it was a supportive community. The next week I had a Saturday morning appointment, so I wasn’t going to run parkrun, but he went to Claisebrook Cove without me. By December 2012 he would be talking to Jon about setting up what became Canning River parkrun. 

Having both become parkrunners, Jeremy and I decided to run a 10k race in Albany at the end of October, so we drove down to do it and took part in one of the last Port to Point races. It was surprisingly hot for Albany, and the hilly 10k course took me 1:23:00 to complete. Two weeks later there was a 10k race in Fremantle, and the flatter course had me 4 minutes faster, with 1:18:51. 

In the finishing area at Fremantle, surrounded by parkrunners I sat quietly, reflecting on a few things. One, it had been almost bang on 365 days since I’d decided I needed to learn how to run, and two, that I’d taken it very gently the whole way round on the Fremantle 10k course. So gently in fact, that if given the option I knew I could have immediately set off and run the course all over again.

Three months later I ran my first half marathon.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Co-operation – my overseas ReLEx Smile laser eye surgery treatment

I had laser surgery performed on my eyes when we were in Kuala Lumpur.

Jeremy will testify that I’ve been banging on about getting it done for ages. Back in July 2007 I paid about $250-300 to the Lions Eye Institute to find out if I was eligible for the surgery – you have to pass a series of tests before any ophthalmic surgeon worth their salt will perform the surgery on you. The purpose of the surgery is to eliminate your need for glasses for about 10 years, so if the thickness of your cornea or the health of your eye is such that you won’t reach ten years before you need glasses again, you’d end up with what is termed an “unsatisfactory result”, and therefore you are not an eligible candidate for the surgery.

I remember calling up Lions to book the appointment, and phrasing it “I need to know if I have to gather up the courage to get the surgery” as there was no point in my saving my pennies only to discover that I wasn’t eligible at all. Of course the bottom fell out of the investment company that I had my savings in (thankfully my house deposit was invested elsewhere) and the money evaporated down to 10 cents in the dollar and my courage was not required for a while.

Recently it was sadly highlighted to Jeremy and I that if you want to do something and you have the means, then delaying the event until some far off date in the future could mean that you miss out entirely. So when my optometrist suggested that I appeared to be an excellent candidate for Lasik, and there were very good clinics overseas where I could have the surgery done for a fraction of the cost of having it done in Australia, Jez and I sat down and discussed the idea.

Saving up AUD8000 for elective eye surgery had always seemed a bit excessive when we could spend that money quite easily on house renovations or upgrading the car or heck, even a European holiday for the both of us. Factoring in that my glasses used to cost about AUD300 per year, the thought of spending about 25 times that amount for ten years of no glasses, it was clear that it wasn’t anything like a cost saving measure. The convenience of being able to use sports glasses was a fond distant memory from my second failed attempt at using contact lenses, but not worth that amount of cash. My prescription prevented me from wearing any glasses that had even a slight curve to them, so sports glasses were never possible unless I wanted to spend almost a thousand dollars on prescription Rudy Project sports glasses. And I was certainly never comfortable with that idea – what if I crashed my bike again and broke them?

I randomly googled “laser eye surgery medical tourism” and found a few reasonably reliable articles on the topic, and Malaysia was included in the list of places where you could have the surgery performed. We’d been to Malaysia for the Formula 1 twice before, so we felt comfortable there. I found a number of references to an eye specialist clinic, Optimax, so I started doing some research on them. Jeremy and I had the daft idea that we could go to KL for the Formula 1 again, and then stay a few days longer and I could have laser eye surgery.

One Saturday late last year I called up the clinic. I asked what the requirements would be for the surgery, what my options would be, and the likely cost. It would depend on my corneal thickness and prescription power as to whether I would be able to have femto-lasik custom laser surgery, at RM4000 per eye (the easy rule of thumb with Malaysian Ringgit to Australian Dollar conversion is to divide the Ringgit amount by three), or a newer surgery called ReLEx Smile at RM6300 per eye, and the eligibility tests beforehand would be RM195. I would be supplied with forms for a Perth optometrist to complete at 1 week after surgery, 1 month, 3 months and 6 months after surgery. I would then have to fax or email the forms to Optimax so that they could keep track of my progress after the surgery. If it was thought that I required further surgery, then it would be performed free of charge by Optimax, as long as I got myself to Kuala Lumpur.

Femto-lasik custom is performed by lasering a flap on the cornea, lifting the flap and then using a second laser machine to remove the excess corneal tissue. (Kimberly Cun explains the process in an entry on her blog, Narcissism is Necessary).

ReLEx Smile is best described as keyhole laser surgery. A laser is shone through the front of the cornea, separating out a section of the corneal tissue called a lenticule. The lenticule is then excised from the eye via a 4mm long cut on the cornea.

Both techniques provide an excellent result on eligible patients. The femto-lasik custom is literally custom – your corneal tissue is excised according to a three dimensional image of the surface of your eye. This is the same concept with ReLEx Smile, but there is no need for a flap to be created. You will experience dry eyes after the surgery – there is no escaping that. My research unearthed a paper that looked at the results of a number of studies, and it stated that 96% of patients experienced dry eyes after surgery. You are disturbing the surface of the cornea, either through the creation of a flap or a slit in the cornea – this will effect tear production and the lubrication of the eye. However, the length of time that the patient experiences dry eyes is expected to be shorter with the ReLEx Smile technique.

The 2015 Formula 1 calendar had been released at this point, so I booked an appointment with Optimax for the Tuesday after the race; in the morning they would do the eligibility tests, and if I was OK for surgery, then in the afternoon they could perform it. I was able to email through my glasses prescription details and I contacted the Lions Eye Institute and they retrieved my records from their computer system and told me the corneal thickness that they’d measured back in 2007. Optimax replied and said that because of my hefty astigmatism there was a chance I was not eligible for ReLEx Smile surgery, but that decision would rely on the full battery of tests to confirm, however (not issuing a guarantee – see battery of tests) they believed that there would be no issue with femto-lasik custom.

The lady from the Lions Eye Institute had advised me that whilst it was unlikely that there had been a dramatic change in my corneal thickness measurement since 2007, she had heard of a significant change happening in some people over time. She thought that I should be fine and wished me luck. I felt 95% sure that I would be found eligible – technology and technique was sure to have improved over the past 8 years, and the only eye injury I’d incurred since then was a small amount of debris in my right eye after I cycled to work the day after that enormous hail storm a few years ago (the power had been out throughout the South East Metropolitan area, therefore no trains were running). My eye had healed from the debris extraction and there had been no significant change in my prescription for a number of years.

Back in 2007 the Lions Eye Institute people had advised me that I would end up needing reading glasses in the future (you can’t stop age related deterioration of sight, and at the age of 40 a significant number of people with previously apparently perfect vision suddenly find themselves nearsighted). I knew that my astigmatism could make the surgery difficult, and in my mind I was prepared for being told that if operated on the surgeon could only be able to produce a partial result – the continued need for vision correction with reading glasses, but the elimination of my distance vision problems.

We were booked into the same hotel we were in last time – the Parkroyal in Bukit Bintang, and we were flying Air Asia, all booked through Air Asia Go. It’s excellent value, because the flights from Perth to KL are only 5-6 hours, so you can deal with no leg room and no on-board entertainment for that long, and you get great deals on five star hotel rooms. If we were flying long haul to Europe then there is no way I’d fly on a low cost carrier, but when it’s only short haul like that Air Asia is perfectly adequate. (However, ask me again when I’m 70 and I’ll probably tell you I avoid low cost carriers). We were flying in the Thursday before the race, and flying out the following Friday.

A quick note: the only problem I’ve found with Air Asia Go is that it never includes the option of the hotel breakfast, and that is a pity. Few things are more fabulous than a multicultural hotel breakfast buffet. We usually start with the rendang, rice and roti canai, and then move on to French toast, or waffles, then omelette, or cold cuts of sausage and cheese, and pastries plus toast, fruit, and yoghurt all along with endless cups of tea and juice. After all that, you rarely need lunch.

The Formula 1 race, well; I’ll admit Vettel made a good choice when he went to Ferrari. I hope Renault comes good for Ricciardo and Infiniti Red Bull and I think that Alonso and Button are enjoying themselves in participating in the development of the McLaren Honda powerplant, but must hate seeing the track from the back of the grid like that.

Monday was a great decompress day – we went up to the Batu Caves (amazing, beautiful, and it is advisable to avoid getting bitten or scratched by the monkeys) and swam and sat by the pool. I made sure to make good inroads on my book because I was sure I wouldn’t be able to read much for a while.

Tuesday we got up early and went for a run, as a bit of a last hurrah. The Optimax preparatory instructions advised against swimming, tennis or tae kwon do for a month after surgery, but hadn’t specified anything regarding running, so Jeremy and I decided it was safer to assume no running for the same time period. We only had time to go out for about 4km but it felt more humid than it had been for any of our other runs in KL and made me finally decide against doing the Malaysian Women’s Marathon, because the prospect of running 10 times that distance plus a bit in potentially the same humidity did not appeal. Historically the event has lined up well with the Formula 1 weekend so it has always been in my mind as a possibility. (Maybe just the 10K race instead).

We ate the usual ridiculously large hotel breakfast, and then headed out to get a cab to Taman Tun Dr Ismail, where the main Optimax clinic is. Optimax have a number of clinics throughout Malaysia, including in Penang, but the Taman Tun Dr Ismail clinic in Kuala Lumpur is the HQ of the operation. The taxi costs about RM30-35 depending on the traffic of the day, and with a 10am appointment there was bound to be traffic. We gave it an hour to travel what Google Maps suggested should only take about 30 minutes, and they were fairly close in their estimation. With time to kill before my appointment I thought it wise to quickly withdraw some cash at a nearby bank ATM whilst I could still see to read the screen on the machine.

We went into the clinic and I got the standard medical history form to fill out. If you end up going to Optimax and you aren’t a Malaysian citizen with an identity card please note you will need your passport number for this form. Your passport number will also appear on your medical certificate as provided by Optimax if you choose to try and take some of your leave time as personal / sick leave instead of annual leave.

The staff quickly took me in to begin all the tests. They’re all the ones that you’ve probably had at some time at the optometrists – the glaucoma puff of air in your eye test (a measure between 1 and 20 is normal, mine was 9 at the time), the one where you look at the hot air balloon picture as it moves in and out of focus. There was a harlequin one and the slit lamp where you look every which way while they examine your eye. The slit lamp one was my favourite, because at one point due to the direction I was told to look combined with all the lights and mirrors I managed to see my own retina. Then there was the classic eye test: read this line, and this line, and now this line. Which is clearer? The red or the green? Which is sharper – 1, or 2? 3, or 4?

They took me back to the waiting area to Jeremy again, and put dilation drops in my eyes. I sent Jeremy off to investigate a running shoe shop and a bike shop that we knew was in the area of the clinic while I waited for the dilation drops to kick in. I sat for a while idly watching Sherlock on the television if I recall correctly until the staff took me back in to the slit lamp where they got to really look at my retina properly now that my pupils were dilated, and then they took me back to the eye examination room and tested that again.

Once they’d finished the tests, they took me into a counselling room and said that I yes I was eligible for laser eye surgery but I was eligible for both types – femto-lasik custom and ReLEx Smile. I was a bit flummoxed at this point. All my research had been into femto-lasik and the risks involved with that; I hadn’t even contemplated ReLEx Smile. The counselling session was solid; you are explained the procedure, what happens, etc. I decided to get Jeremy back to the building to discuss my options with him – I’d set aside the AUD3000 for femto-lasik custom surgery, and I wanted his – not approval as such, but agreement – regarding my choice of surgery. We finished the counselling session and I sat waiting for Jeremy in the reception area, whilst I read through the disclaimer form (sensibly printed in large font type). Oh and I was told that I’d only have to stop running for about a week. It was probable that it would be fine after 3 days, but it would be best to wait out the week, just in case.

When Jeremy returned and sat down with me he reminded me that the only thing I’d been particularly concerned about with femto-lasik was the flap creation and the fact that there are no stitches – there’s just a flap. And my tendency to rub my eyes was a concern for me; the fear that I’d accidentally forget and rub the flap open. There were also a few potential post-surgery issues with femto-lasik that would be generally avoided by using the newer technique and encouraged me to just go for the ReLEx Smile technique. The eligibility tests had noted that my eyes were naturally dry – a hazard of having a job that involves looking at a computer all day. ReLEx Smile could probably decrease the excessive dryness significantly compared to the femto-lasik. Whilst I hadn’t specifically put aside more savings, we did have savings to cover the extra expense. So I signed the disclaimer form for ReLEx Smile surgery for both eyes, and we paid. If you are reading this thinking about having laser eye surgery in Malaysia, please note that the day after my surgery was the day of the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax in Malaysia, so now all goods and services have a 6% government tax on them. I can’t confirm, but I suspect that medical procedures are not exempted from the tax.

We were told to head off and return at 1:30pm for surgery. We left the building and went to the Starbucks down the road. I wasn’t hungry, but I knew that I needed to eat, so we just had a coffee and tea each with a sausage roll and gave the free WiFi a bit of a flogging. I got a second enormous cup of tea to go and we went back to the clinic. Now, remember, I’d had pupil dilation eye drops given to me earlier, so my eyes looked like I was stoned and my sensitivity to light was huge. If you are ever pre-warned you are going to be given dilation eye drops, take enormous sunglasses with you – the drops were going to dilate my pupils for about 2 days, but yours might not dilate your pupils for as long. At this point I had terrible near vision, but my distance vision was being corrected by glasses. My prescription sunglasses were quite well tinted and polarized, but I still had trouble trying to deal with the brightness of outdoors at lunchtime.

Back at the clinic we sat in reception for a little while then they took me and another female patient to a surgery preparatory room. You had to take your shoes off and leave them outside the room, and occasionally surgical suited and booted people would wander in and read files and wander out again. We were advised on post-operative care by a staffer; which drops, how often, and when. I would have to use a combined steroid and antibiotic called Tobradex four times a day for a week, then I was to discard the bottle. I was to use Refresh Plus eye drops; I had a box of thirty single use containers and I would need to use them every two hours when awake. They supplied us with Ponstan, which most women remember for use against period pain but it is basically a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory painkiller. If I was uncomfortable enough to require pain relief it was recommended that I use that – but to take it with food.

Our blood pressure was checked and we were given the first of many anaesthetic eye drops at this point. We changed into a green sort of pair of cotton pyjamas (not scrubs) plus those paper hairnet things and put paper booties on our feet. I slid my glasses into the pocket of the pyjamas, and to be honest I didn’t really recognise that it had been the last time I would wear them.

We sat down with Stephen Chung, our surgeon. He was the guy who set up Optimax in back in 1995, and it has now expanded from one clinic in Taman Tun Dr Ismail to eight clinics throughout Malaysia. He went through the full ReLEx Smile procedure and explained that for the procedure to occur, and for it to be successful, it requires conscious participation from the patient – you have to follow instruction and you have to concentrate. It occurred to me that it’s not an operation, it’s a co-operation, between surgeon and patient.

Whilst being examined with the slit lamp we had dots painted on our eyes – whether this was on the cornea or the white of the eye I don’t know; I didn’t feel anything, as the local anaesthetic had well and truly kicked in at this point. We also had our eye areas cleaned ready for surgery.

The other patient went into the operating room first and I sat and tried to concentrate and remember on the instructions I had been told. Not much time passed and I was ushered into the operating theatre.

The room was quite dim, and the machine had a bed that swung out on an arm underneath it. I was guided onto the bed and a quilt covered me. The bed then swung under the machine. A device was gently placed on my right eye and it held my eye open – you’d expect it to be uncomfortable but it wasn’t. Then something that smelt faintly like Contact book cover was stuck over my top and bottom eyelid, and then a surgical drape was stuck down over that. I slid under the machine and suddenly there it was, the green light that Dr Chung had said that I would see, the laser that was going to cut the lenticule in my cornea.

In retrospect, I was glad that they didn’t go through a bit of a dummy run, as I’d probably have panicked and it would have all been over, red rover. The co-operation requires the patient to look at the green dot, even if that green dot disappears, you keep looking at the spot where it was, and you do not move your eye in any manner. The dot isn’t big – think of the tip of the screw on the hinge of your glasses; it’s that small. And when you are told that you will see a green light, you actually see more than that: there is a startlingly white circle surrounding a green circle, and then the single green dot you need to focus on is in the centre of that circle. The white and green circle lowers onto your eye, disappearing out of your vision and is held there by a light suction. When the suction activates, a gentle female computer voice says “Suction on”.

Suddenly my biggest fear was moving. You see: with ReLEx Smile, there are no immediate second chances. On surgery day it’s a one shot deal. If you move your eye, and the laser loses its position it cuts out immediately, automatically. The placement is so careful and so fine that you can’t really try to start again where you stopped, so two months has to pass so that your eye can heal. Once your eye had healed, then they can try again to cut the lenticule. If you live in Malaysia, that’s an inconvenience, but it isn’t the end of the world. But if you’re me and you’ve flown 5-6 hours and are paying for a hotel, that’s a very expensive twitch.

I could hear someone count down from 25 – that’s how many seconds that you stare at that green dot. Sure enough, it disappeared and I just lay there, staring, concentrating and hoping that I hadn’t moved from where the dot had been and then suddenly it was over. The female computer voice said “Suction off”, the white circle reappeared and Dr Chung said “you moved just at the absolute end, but the laser didn’t lose you, and it is fine”. I was slid under another part of the machine which enabled Dr Chung to extract the lenticule that had been created in my cornea. You look at a white light this time, and there is no staring in one place; you swivel your eye chasing this light all over. That can’t have taken more than 15 seconds, and after a great gush of eye drops and saline solution on my right eye suddenly the drape was being removed. Now it was on to the left.

I was asked at the start if I wanted to hold the hand of a nurse, and I’d felt confident enough to say no, I’ll be fine. As my left eye was draped and I slid under the laser again, I felt a hand slide in next to my right, under the quilt. I grabbed it and hung on to it for dear life. I had no more than 40 seconds to one minute to go, and adrenalin was coursing through me. The white and green ring came down towards me, the green dot was there, and I stared and concentrated at it for 25 seconds, and when the computer voice said “Suction off” I think I started breathing so hard I nearly dislodged the drape. I was slid under the white light, and I chased that for a few seconds and that was it. I was done. Another gush of eye drops and saline solution and I was being led out of the theatre, into the change room and suddenly I was putting my trainers back on outside the preparatory room door.

I walked through the clinic to Jeremy, and he asked the staff to call a taxi for us, and then I sat there, in the reception area, slightly amazed that I’d finally done it. I’d had laser eye surgery.

When the taxi was due we went outside and I was massively pleased with my non-prescription sunglasses, one of my purchases from before we left Perth. I’d been emailed about a month beforehand a list of pre-surgery instructions and there were a few unexpected ones in there. Specifically an entreaty to not use any products that have alcohol as an ingredient, lest they affect the accuracy of the laser. Now, you’d have to read the ingredients panel of each product to discern what uses alcohol – Cetaphil gentle skin cleanser does, Oil of Olay moisturiser does too, but hurrah! My Dove cucumber and green tea deodorant is explicitly promoted as 0% alcohol, so whilst I was an un-moisturised patient, at least I wasn’t too sweaty. Some of the instructions were things that I fear have been an issue in the past, like “on surgery day, don’t drive yourself to the clinic, you will not be allowed to drive home”, and “bring non-prescription sunglasses for after the surgery”.

The taxi arrived, and I decided to try and curl up for a nap. The adrenalin was wearing off, and probably my anaesthetic too. I figured that sitting in the back of a taxi, unable to see properly and combined with the amazing driving of KL taxi drivers there was a reasonable chance of motion sickness, so it was best to combat it with sleep. Surprisingly I managed it, and I woke up as we went over the speedbumps of the Parkroyal driveway. We got out of the cab, and Jeremy guided me through the lobby and into the lift up to our floor.

I wore my sunglasses into the room, and went to remove them, and then put them straight back on. I faffed around filling the kettle for a cup of tea while Jeremy closed the blinds and prepared to go out. I gave him RM100 to get as many packets of Refresh Plus eye drops that he could find. I was intending on going straight back to sleep if I could, but my body requires a certain amount of caffeinating to function properly, and two grande Starbucks teas isn’t sufficient. In my research before the flight over I’d realised that my Buff (a sort of headscarf/headband/neckerchief thing) would be a perfect blindfold if I needed it to be darker than my sunglasses would allow. I’d taken it with me to the clinic in case I needed it in the taxi back to the hotel, and I fished it out of my bag and climbed into bed with it like a child’s blankie grasped in my hand. Jeremy headed out, and I hit the switch to turn off all the lights in our room and slept.

I woke up about an hour later, and discovered that the advice of “as little screen time as possible for a few days” was probably a very good idea as I checked Facebook. I dialled down the brightness setting on my phone, turned it away from my head so I was looking at it side on and typed a comment that yes, I’d just had eye surgery. I rolled over and went back to sleep again, but for a shorter time. When I woke up I felt very awake. I used the loo and then folded the Buff into a blindfold, put it on and then went over to the wardrobe with the room safe in it. The wardrobe has an automatic light in it, and I knew I could punch in the safe code blindfolded and dig out my iPod Classic and headphones, but the pain from the wardrobe light would be immense.

I bunged on the audio book for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and made it about 10 minutes in before I felt massively tired and rolled over back to sleep. My eyes felt a bit irritated; like I’d been to the beach and had some grains of sand stuck in them. I knew that the Ponstan needed to be taken with a meal so I decided that when I woke up I’d have something to eat and take it then. When I woke up again my eyes had stopped hurting. It was late enough that I knew it would be night outside, I gently drew back the blinds and grinned madly as I looked out from the 17th floor and realised that the logos and directional arrows painted on the road below were in crystal clear focus. I looked at the right hand turn lane next to the hotel and I spotted a worker brushing leaves off the road onto the verge and marvelled that I could tell he was using a reed broom like the track marshals use at Sepang F1 Circuit.

I suddenly felt ravenously hungry for a massive slab of steak, so I found the room service menu, called them up and ordered a medium rare beef tenderloin in mushroom sauce with steamed vegetables. Not long afterwards Jeremy, Cathy and Greg came to the room and we sat chatting about their day, our day and the surgery while I ate.

The next day I went down to breakfast with Jeremy a touch earlier as my appointment at the clinic was at 9.30am not 10am. We scoffed as per usual, and went out and found a taxi driver who took us to Taman Tun Dr Ismail and we directed him to the clinic building. He was going to wait for us outside the clinic while I had my post-operative appointment. I had a mass of tests done including a ‘cover your left eye/cover your right eye’ test whilst I struggled to read some letters on the wall – I could work out some of them but not all of them (It’s either an O or a C or a D). I felt a bit sad and disheartened until the clinic worker said “OK, so you’ve got 20:20 vision, you’re fine to drive as of now”.

I had 20:20 vision. I don’t think I’ve ever had 20:20 vision before in my life. And those letters on the wall that I was struggling to read? Probably the size of my thumbnail.

I then went through to see Dr Chung who looked at my eyes through the slit lamp. He was really happy with the progress so far, and said that if I wanted I could use goggles in the hotel pool to protect from splashing, but to not put my head under water. He also said that I could rub my eyes without any concern and wash my own hair in the shower because the incision was healed enough that the fear of shampoo in the eyes was pretty small.

Jeremy and I left the clinic and went back to Bukit Bintang. We went shopping and wandered around a bit eventually heading back to the hotel. It would have been as if the previous day had not happened, except for the fact that I didn’t have any glasses on unless I was outside in sun (the dilation eye drops were just wearing off at this point) and I using the timer on my phone to remind me to apply eyedrops every 2 hours.

When we flew home on the Friday (actually Good Friday) I had my extensive supply of Refresh Plus eyedrops in case the plane trip caused a problem with dry eyes, but I was pretty OK. Over the week of using the Tobradex I learnt that five minutes after using the antibiotic/steroid you can taste the disgusting substance and looked forward to being able to throw the stuff out after my week 1 checkup.

On Tuesday morning I went to my optometrist for the first checkup. She was ecstatic that I’d taken her advice and gone for the surgery. She was hugely interested in what I thought of the clinic and whether I would recommend other people make the trip to KL for surgery and I said that I had no qualms whatsoever. If you hadn’t had to take a taxi in KL traffic to get there, and if outside it hadn’t been as humid as hell, then the clinic could have been in Subiaco or South Perth.

My vision is pretty good most of the time. I’ve noticed that at work my distance vision is almost always fine, it’s my near vision that gets blurry, but I think that the nearsightedness seems to clear up when I’ve had a lot of water to drink, so I’m going to experiment a bit with a sizable early glass of water before my normal immediate massive cup of tea. I’ve also dialled down the brightness on some devices and screens, and would recommend you do that before the surgery in preparation. Along with the brightness I’ve jacked up the default font size of my home and work computer to 125% instead of 100% to compensate for the occasional near sighted moments.  It will take about 1-3 weeks to settle down, and my final eyesight power won't really be known for 6 months, but I can tell you already; it's amazing.

Another thing I discovered during the process, – and honestly it should have occurred to me earlier – was that you can have different types of surgery on each eye. The pre-surgery instructions had specified that any vision impairment beyond -16 would have to be looked at on a case by case basis. As I was sitting in the preparatory room there were a couple of other patients brought in to have their post-operative care briefing. One was having femto-lasik custom on both eyes, but the other patient was having femto-lasik custom on one eye and the other eye was being operated on using a third laser surgery technique called Advanced Surface Ablation (ASA).

I don’t regret the delay between 2007 and 2015 when I first learnt that I could have the surgery and having it done in 2015; it took that long to gather the courage. If it weren’t for my optometrist, I probably would still wear glasses, and wouldn’t have even thought of having laser surgery done overseas.

Thursday, February 05, 2015


Unsurprisingly I've been lacking running mojo since Six Inch. I knew I would be like this - the Marathon Talk guys suggest giving yourself one day's grace for every mile you've raced. Jeremy's physiotherapist Lauren says she takes six weeks (and she's a two and a half hour marathoner). She also said Robert de Castella takes 10 weeks to recover from a race.

I think it is related to distance. I'm fine running five kilometres or ten kilometres, so Masters Athletics Sunday races are great but anything beyond 12 or so holds little interest. My brain now associates 15+ as requiring some actual training. As I don't much feel like following a training plan, signing up for the Busselton half marathon didn't appeal.

Of course, because Busselton is two days away I'm now experiencing occasional pangs of regret about signing up for the 10k instead. I'm firmly squishing them as they are only tiny pangs of regret, but it feels like the pins and needles you get when blood returns to a limb - all that desire is coming back to life again.

I've been in this situation before. After the first half marathon; which as I've said before was the only one I diligently trained for, I didn't do much by way of running. I did the Women's Triathlon again, I did a very occasional Sunday long run but I mainly did only parkrun. I kept active a bit - I cycled the 80km City of Armadale gran fondo, and thoroughly enjoyed it, but it wasn't until I accidentally did 17km when intending to do a 10km training run for City to Surf that I decided to do the half marathon instead of the 12km race.

Jeremy and I had already entered the Sydney Blackmores half marathon when I entered the Perth City to Surf, so I knew that I had one coming up, but I was intending on easing myself into it. Instead I ran two half marathons about three weeks apart, and once we came back from Sydney we decided to go for PBs at the Fremantle half as well two weeks later.

My mojo is coming back, and it does feel good to have it popping back into my life. I don't know if I'll ever be at the stage where I can back up Six Inch with Lark Hill two months later, but it's probably a learned endurance thing that I'm just yet to cultivate.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Six Inch Trail Marathon

We woke up at 2:50am apparently. I'd woken up earlier in the night and had lain there expecting the alarm to go off at any second, then thought better of it and checked the time: 00:38. I sighed, got up and went to the toilet at the back of the chalet we were staying at in Dwellingup, had a wee and went back to bed, falling asleep again almost immediately. My hydration strategy was a little too effective it seemed.

When the alarm went off I got up and started dressing, ready to go. I went through to the kitchen where Jonathan, Julie, Cameron, Jennifer and Jeremy all were and made myself breakfast. We were all a bit sleepy still, but we'd all gone to bed relatively early the night before, so we could pretend we were sufficiently rested.

I wasn't nervous at all. The only bout of nerves I felt in the final week leading up to the race was the ten minutes after we left the house to go down to Dwellingup, and I think that was because if I had forgot anything that I thought crucial to my preparation I would have to drive an hour back home to collect it. At 3:30am we left the house to pick up another runner at the Dwellingup Information Centre carpark and then on to the Caravan Park to collect Kat and Simon, then drove straight down to North Dandalup to the Memorial Hall and registration.

There are a few things that feel quite absurd at 4am but carefully applying sun cream before you can even see a hint of the sun is one of them. It wasn't expected to be hot (indeed it only got to about 29.C) but having spoken to Dad the previous evening and had him tell me of another skin cancer removal it did bring careful application of sun cream to the front of my mind.

The hall was filled with runners and volunteers, and I quickly went and registered. I would later discover that I had made an epic fail and placed my Aid Station 1 drop bag with the finish area bags instead of the Aid 1 bags, but fear not! we were fine without it. I then nicked round to the toilets behind the hall as I had remembered from last year the horror that was the inside toilets and the remarkable number of runners who have very nervous bowels. I will declare Dave Kennedy (Race Director) the genius who put solar powered lights in each cubicle as the toilets had no artificial light source otherwise. I recognised them as the course markers for the Lark Hill Dusk till Dawn Ultra.

Having had yet another wee, Jeremy and I set off for the start line at Goldmine Hill in Julie's car. When we got there everyone was milling around, a bit buzzy with excitement. Paul van der Mey found some of us and took some photos. Unsurprisingly the race had to start about 10 minutes late - there were a number of people who had not read their instructions and hadn't registered at the hall first before proceeding to the start line. The shuttle bus had become a two way bus and therefore there was a slight delay. I didn't hear anyone who cared about the delay, I think we were all too busy chatting to notice. The relief about the weather was palpable, and seemed to be a popular topic - I remembered last year's heat at 4:30am all too well, and I had only volunteered.

I had already started the course on my Garmin when we set off, so I just hit start on my watch. I stuck to my plan of refusing to be swept up by everyone else and running at the start, and I will admit to laughing at the mass of people that broke off the back of the pack of runners when they hit the actual beginning of the rise of Goldmine Hill. It was like watching the City to Surf 12km in miniature when everyone hits the climb at the top of St Georges Terrace; the front runners carry on up the hill with no decrease in speed, while the back of the great mass slowed almost as fast as rally car hitting a tree. The fifteen or so of us at the back gently made back the 50 metres that we had lost on the runners quite easily.

I'd been playing with Garmin Courses for a few weeks and had learnt their foibles and pitfalls. One was that the Garmin course on the Six Inch website was from a 4 hour 11 minute finisher, so if you follow that course file at the moment you hit the fourth hour and eleventh minute on course your Garmin will cheerfully advise you that your Virtual Partner has completed the course. Which I was advised by many to be quite demoralising. I'd worked out a way to adjust the course file for a 7 hour finish, so I'd saved that to my Garmin. During training I was almost always on map view, but on race day the course markings were so obvious and with all the reconnaissance runs we had done after about 6km I decided the map view was superfluous and left it on the Virtual Partner page instead.

The final goal that I'd set was to get a finish time that started 'Six hours..." so the main aim with changing the Garmin file was to assist me getting that goal. I had thought about it beforehand; you see, the Virtual Partner keeps on running at 8m45s pace, up hill and down hill. He needs no refuelling, so he doesn't stop at aid stations. This meant I had to build in a buffer for aid stations and the Escalator and when I went down hill I had to try and move faster than 8m45 pace. Ideally I would run up a number of the more gentle hills as well, all to build the buffer. Finishing in 6h10m was unlikely, but 6h50m was do-able. We soon built up a mile buffer time, so I had 15 minutes up my sleeve for a large portion of the race.

I wasn't completely utterly glued to my nutrition strategy - my watch beeped for a 1 minute walk reminder then for a 14 minute run reminder, the idea was that I would eat every 15 minutes. If it beeped for the 1 minute walk (i.e. eat!) and we were thundering down a hillside I would wait until we had plateaued for a while or hit the next uphill before I grabbed food. It would wash out in the end I figured, and it did.

Jeremy and I had ran and talked and strategised and walked uphill, belting down hills with great joy for about 19 km when we were travelling along a roadside. I was distracted and didn't really take any notice of the camber of the gravel road and stepped on a pile of gravel on the edge. I slipped sideways as the gravel pushed out from underneath my foot. I'd run through loose gravel before but there was always something hard and flat underneath it, this time it was sitting on a slope and was piled up looking flat on top.

I landed on my left hip, putting my left hand out and down as I landed. I inspected my hand and it looked a bit grubby with some minute grazes. Then as Jeremy tried to get me to stand up in an attempt to forestall the shock setting in, I rolled slightly to pick the weight off my left hip. At that point the shock train left the station and with Jeremy coaxing me to stand up I just gazed out over the bush and took some very deep breaths. I stood up and lifted my shorts leg to see a large square of gravel, dirt and bloody scratches. I requested Jeremy get the antibacterial wipes out of my backpack and please clean it. He gently wiped it clean while I winced and cried. There was no gravel embedded and I looked down to see my hip start to bleed afresh. A few runners came across us at this point, Alicia, Caroline and Rob, and as we started walking on we discussed that while on the outside you are an adult, when you are injured it feels like you have a stroppy three year old trapped inside.

They carried on and Jeremy and I kept walking. It hurt a lot to run and I couldn't work out whether it was the fresh air on the wound, the movement of my flesh and skin on my hip when I ran, ripping at the grazing or if it was just the shock. There was no serious internal damage, no bones broken, just ripped skin. Earlier in the day I had made it halfway up Goldmine Hill when I thought of another goal. To "finish with all organs intact and functioning" had sounded like an excellent plan, considering skin is an organ. That goal was cactus now.

We ran and walked the next 5 km to Aid Station 1. I would run the downhills starting off with a big swear, and intake of breath all the while wincing regularly. I checked with Jeremy how much Fixomull he had packed in his First Aid kit and my plan was to have Jeremy apply it at the Aid Station, us to both run to Aid 2 and assuming I got there OK I would assess my chance of finishing the race. I cried with frustration at the annoyance of it all. I'd not crashed on any recon run, and it was a hazard I should have spotted but didn't. Jeremy held my hand while I cried and we walked on.

We ran into the Aid Station and Jeremy told me to get ready to remove my pack for refilling. We got to the number caller and she couldn't read Jeremy's number so I told it to her and she yelled it up the hill. Jeremy went to the water table and I went to the other, where the drop bags were and realised I couldn't see mine.

I think I was supposed to completely lose it at this point. I was dusty, bleeding, in a bit of pain and the refill of my massively overcatered 'feed an army' array of nutrition was evidently sitting at the finish line awaiting my arrival in about 3 hours. Tracy - a fellow parkrunner from the beginning of Claisebrook Cove parkrun - asked me what I needed from the station and told me that Simon and Kat had had the same drop bag problem as I. I said I needed to refill my pack with water, that I had some High 5 electrolyte tablets to drop in it and that I needed a hug. Someone filled my pack as Tracy gave me the hug, and then whipped out an array of gels from her pockets and asked me if I wanted some. There was a cool mint Endura gel in her collection so I requested that one, as they taste like toothpaste.

It's amazing what a hug can do: I felt better immediately. Tracy told me she was proud of me, Jeremy handed me the first aid kit and I dug out the Fixomull and tiny scissors and cut the strips down while he stuck them on my bleeding hip. After we finished the race Jeremy said that he was sure I was going to pull out at Aid 1. To be honest it had not occurred to me. I knew that there was no proper damage; my hip hurt, I was in a bit of shock but otherwise fine. My spate of crying was frustration but it didn't occur to me to give up there. I thought it was a better idea to use the next 11km to Aid 2 to see whether I needed to withdraw to allow Jeremy the ability to continue on and finish within the time cut off.

The time cut offs had weighed on my mind throughout training. I remember last year having to talk to runners as we were getting closer to 10:30am at Aid 2 that the time cutoff was nearing. I'd tried to deliver it in an upbeat way, sort of "You're going well! You've still got 23 minutes before cut off!" Jeremy and I had calculated expected finish times and speeds using our training runs for a baseline and he was confident that barring catastrophe we would complete the 47km, and that finishing within the 7 hour 30 minute time limit was more than feasible. As it was my first ever ultramarathon - heck, my first ever marathon - I had remembered my first half marathon goal, which was to finish within the 'time limit' (there really wasn't one, so I had chosen the time of the slowest runner from the previous year as my time limit) but noting that "you don't want to have run 21.1 km and consider yourself to have failed". My plan for Six Inch was quite similar: I really didn't want to be pulled out at Aid 2. I had signed up to run the event in July, we started training properly in September, and the time taken for our first recon run gave me more certainty that I could reach Aid 1 well before 8:30am, therefore Aid 2 well before 10:30am and the finish line before noon.

We ran out of Aid 1 and off into Jeremy's favourite part of the course. It was the most beautiful section - even a stretch of trail underneath powerlines was gorgeous. There was a slower runner ahead of us and as we got to the end of the powerlines stretch we could hear the sound of music coming from somewhere. It wasn't until we turned right out of the powerlines that I realised that it wasn't from a marshal point but was coming from the backpack of the runner ahead. I had been enjoying the birdsong earlier but suddenly it sounded like I was downwind of the Busselton Ironman finish chute. In retrospect I am grateful for it, because it annoyed me enough to realise that if I didn't pass this lady then I was never going to get away from the sound. I picked up my pace with Jeremy behind me and we powered through the stretch away from the lady, towards a dirt road crossing and up to the marshals directing people to the Aid 2 out-and-back section.

I must loudly thank the marshals here. They had supersoakers, and they weren't afraid to use them. It was absolutely glorious, and when coming back down the hill from Aid 2 I did think of their water guns waiting for me up ahead.

I call the start of the 5km out-and-back section the On Ramp, because you go slowly uphill for a reasonable grind until you hit some moonscape like rocks, then thunder down before you get to a sharp left downhill taking you to the base of the Escalator. I've written before about the Escalator. It's also called Hell's Gate, but I think Escalator suits it, as it seems to be about the same pitch and length as the escalators from Murray Street at Perth Underground station. It is badly rutted from water gushing down to the winter stream at the bottom of the hill. Needless to say on race day the stream had dried up, and as you go down the hill opposite the Escalator you are probably looking down at your feet to ensure you don't fall over. Later on I had slightly gleeful reports of some people who had not done recon runs, but had heard about the hill, and thought that they were already going down the Escalator as they went down the hill from the On Ramp, then as the trail turned and they reached the bottom they looked up and realisation flooded their face. Quite often interesting terms were used, and certain names were taken in vain.

I like the Escalator. I'm not a chess player, but I have read that if you play chess you have to plan your moves in advance - move my Knight to this square, then when they move their Bishop to that square move this Rook... and on. I think the Escalator is like that. I pick my way up it, and plan where I am going next - "If I walk up this side of the ruts, then I can get to there, move over to the other side, and when I get up to that join ..." I like climbing it, but I also think that I like climbing it because I don't try and run up it. I accept that it is a stonking great hill, and there is nothing I can do about it because I have to pass through the checkpoint at Aid 2 and that is at the top. At this point Jeremy and I split up and ran separately. He is swifter up that hill than I am - better depth perception I suspect, and he is probably less risk averse. I knew the split was going to happen and did not mind at all - the Escalator you have to traverse at your own pace, not someone else's.

Julie had driven to Aid 2 well before and had taken a drop bag there for us. When I got to Aid 2 Jeremy had been filling his bottles with the Staminade powder from the bag and had a refill of water. Rachel, the Carine Glades parkrun Event Director was volunteering on this Aid Station and offered me a Vegemite sandwich while her daughter Andie filled my hydration pack. I gratefully accepted the sandwich and scoffed it while I retrieved the few energy bars out of our drop bag. I also nicked Jeremy's funnel to donate to the cause because the guys at the water table didn't have one to use to dispense the Hammer Heed, and I wanted to fill my empty soft flask with that. We funnelled in the Heed, whacked the top on my soft flask and Jeremy and I both went back out.

Somewhere between Aid 1 and Aid 2 I'd lost the Fixomull on my hip, but I hadn't felt it hurt. As I reached the top of the Escalator I remembered I had some tampons and Panadol in the pill pocket of my hydration pack. I use Implanon, and am one of the lucky people who generally no longer have periods, but in the two weeks before the race there were signs that I was likely to have my period soon. When I have had my period, the cramps have been horrifically debilitating for up to a couple of days. There was an excellent chance that it was all my mind playing pre-race tricks on me, but I'd woken up the day of the Albany Port to Point once with my period and the only thing that got me through that race was painkillers. I had also read far too many tales of collapse and organ semi-failure from ibuprofen use during races, so I decided that it was probably a good idea to pack paracetamol (acetaminophen) and not ibuprofen.

At the top of the Escalator I had noticed that my hip had started to sting and ache again. I don't know if it was the slowing down, or trying to balance on the hill that caused it, but I popped two of the Panadol and thought that it probably wouldn't actually help, but the placebo effect might instead. I had called out to Jeremy that I was going to meet him at the top of the hill at the turn right to the On Ramp (or off ramp, in this case) and made my way gently down the hill and back up the other side. We walked up the stretch that we had run down before and then ran down to the marshal point where the glorious supersoakers fired upon us again. We turned right and then along up to the left turn where we started to climb again.

When we had got to the supersoaker marshal point the first time we had 15 minutes on the Virtual Partner, or 1.7km buffer, but when we started to climb again we were down to 1 minute 30 seconds. I told Jeremy I didn't mind missing the sub-7 hour goal and he said that we had a way to go, and we could make up time. I thought he was just trying to jolly me along, and I didn't mind - positive thinking is useful in any race. He also reminded me that the current climb was 'a dog of a climb' and that we did have a good downhill coming. We were a fair way along and we were making back a few seconds here and there but nothing of great consequence, then I happily remembered the Marrinup powerlines stretch coming up.

Just before we came up to the turn right to the powerlines we came across Dutch, Ian and Paul. Dutch is the Claisebrook Cove parkrun Event Director, and it was the first marathon and ultramarathon for all three. They'd set out to run together with a plan of minority rules. "No hill has to be run up, and any one person can declare a stretch of trail a hill, and therefore not to be run."

The Marrinup powerlines is a great downhill, and whilst it is very exposed to the elements, the weather was perfect and the breeze was cool. Jeremy and I belted down that hill, gaining back enough time for me to believe him that sub-7 was still plausible. We moved into the stretch of trail after the Marrinup Aid 3 station. It isn't an 'official' Aid Station as such, but last year it was the remains of the water supplies for the Aid 1 station after it had closed down at 8:30am, so I assume it was the same this year. I did spot a very familiar bag of Allens racing car lollies that I suspected was left over from the 7.8 kilos Jeremy and I had taken to the North Dandalup aid station we volunteered on in September for the WTF 50 and 100 Mile ultramarathon.

We got to some singletrack trail and Dutch, Paul and Ian were still ahead of us at this point. I tried to keep up with them all but it just wasn't happening. I slowed down with Jeremy, and he put me in front so that he would run at whatever pace I could manage. He had been doing calculations on pace, distance to cover, and time allowed and said that I just had to manage about a slightly faster than walking pace parkrun. I broke into a bit of a trot which from the inside felt swift, but from the outside probably looked like an ungainly shuffle.

My ungainly shuffle eventually took us past Dutch, Ian and Paul - as I came up behind them I told them that I hadn't stuck my butt in the dirt to not try and crack sub-7 hours, and they ushered us past. Up and down and around trees I wheezed and shuffled and kept an eye on my watch as the finish line drew closer. I was very aware of how my left hip felt, so I decided to concentrate on how good the right one felt. My rationale was that if the right one felt fine, the left one as probably also completely fine underneath all the stinging. I needed to keep my mind off running so I analysed the sound of my noisy exhale and decided it was like a combination of the sound of a metal chair leg scraping on a concrete floor, and the sound of a fat, old, overheated rottweiler dog. This breathing method was a bit of an issue as we came across a farm shed that either held pigs or pig manure, so as we passed I ever-so-classily breathed through the sweat cloth that I'd had looped onto my pack.

At one point we had built up enough of a buffer that Jeremy said we could slow down to a power walk for a while and still make it within the seven hours. We discussed the pitfalls of trying to start running again - i.e. I was fairly sure I'd fall over because my legs didn't want to pick my feet up any higher. We reached the final turn on the trail and Jeremy broke into a trot towards the finish line with me not far behind. He managed to cross the road but the marshal stopped me until he was sure that the traffic wasn't about to take me out. I waved a thank you to the cars who kindly stopped and ran on the grass to the finish chute where Jeremy was waiting just outside for me. I grabbed his hand and we crossed the finish line together.

Six hours, 53 minutes, 50 seconds.

I haven't decided if I want to do it again next year. Ask me again in July.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Breaking it Down

When you have what appear initially as completely unachievable goals, you have to break them down into manageable chunks - any book, coach, sensible friend or counsellor will tell you that. So my goal isn't just to complete the Six Inch marathon, it's actually a lot more detailed than that.
Over time thoughts have spun through my head and made each chunk of my goal ever smaller. I started off with a list of 3 goals that went: To finish; to finish within the time limit, and then to finish with a better time than Jeremy and Vince's time last year. That simple list of three goals has since been extended somewhat.
So, my goals are, in order:

1) To wake up in time for the race

It's a daft thought, but the race does start at 4:30am. We have to be at the volunteer fire brigade hall for registration at 4am, the briefing is at 4:20am. Waking up in time will be slightly easier because there will be two other participants in the house who will have to be up at stupid o'clock as well.

2) To make it to Aid station 1

Aid 1 is roughly halfway, at the 23km mark. It will be the furthest I've run in a race setting, and I know that I can do it. Also, if despite all the training and planning it all goes pear shaped, off the top of my head I can think of two different points (about 8km in and about 18km in) where the course reaches bitumen road, which would mean extraction would be easiest there. All I would have to do would be to get to those points.

3) To make it to Aid station 2

Aid 2 is at the 34 km mark, so only 11 km from Aid 1. This is simultaneously the most beautiful and most difficult section, as it includes two hills - the hill that runs parallel to the Alcoa conveyor belt through the arboretum, and the Escalator and on-ramp hill on the out and back spur to Aid 2. I've been up the Escalator two and a half times - the half was when it started raining and the small rivulets of water in the deep ruts on the steep hill suddenly began gushing quite quickly and we all upped and evacuated the area as quickly as possible. I've only been through the arboretum once, but there are signs next to the trees along the trailside in this section, and they are numbered from about 79 through to 29 at the top of the hill. The top is the highest point in the race, and it has a dirty great Telstra communications tower to emphasise the fact.
Actually 29 is an important number, because when you finish coming down from the arboretum hill and turn left to head over the conveyor belt you are at the 29 km mark in the race. When you go past the conveyor belt it marks the start of a stonking downhill where at one point in training I was making six minute pace when on trail I normally do 8 minutes 30 seconds.

4) To make it back down the Escalator without faceplanting

It's an impressively steep hill, it seems to increase in elevation by about 50 metres in the space of about 100 metres. It is also quite rutted from water gushing down it. Sensible descent will be slow and steady, without feeling pressured by other competitors and their speeds down the hill.

5) To finish

Once we pass the 29 km mark, it will be unchartered territory in that I've never run further than that in training. I had hoped to run a 35 km run or two long runs back to back but it never happened. However I have faith that I will make the finish.

6) To finish within the time limit

You have seven and a half hours to finish the race. I know that I can finish the race, but a reasonable chunk of my brain still won't let me think that I can finish the race within the time period. It may be that I will just have to complete it before I can believe it. It may also hinge on weather. If it is ridiculously hot - and it *is* December in Australia, so it's not exactly snow weather - I may have to just be happy with finishing.

7) To finish the race with a time that starts "Six hours..."

I would love this. I have set up the Garmin Course on my watch so that it is timed for a 7 hour finisher. This way I will know if I'm feeling good and I want to try for the time, I need to pull my finger out and push on or if I have time up my sleeve to allow for a longer than usual walk break in an attempt to regain composure and energy.
I've already run every centimetre of the 47 km course at least once. I've seen two snakes and a few lizards, I've got trail shoes that haven't caused blisters, and gaiters that have a Spider-Man design. I've trialled every piece of clothing that I will be wearing, and struggled with my nutrition until I felt I had a solid plan.
I know that if I want a competitive time, I haven't done nearly enough training, but as I just want to finish, I am sure I will.
I guess I'll find out next Sunday.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Chat pace, recalculated.

I had a post in draft for a few days, and I finished it off the other night. It was heading close to 11pm, so I decided to post it the next day; my proofreading skills were probably going to be more accurate at 6am than at 11pm, so I scheduled it to post at 7am. I was pretty happy with it, but I always seem to publish a blogpost and then 15 minutes later spot where I've used the same word three times in the one sentence. I guessed the extra hour would allow me to proof read it one last time.

I hit save, and that appeared to work. There was no spinny wheel of death. I scheduled the post to publish at 7am the next morning, and there was a spinny wheel of death. Unthinkingly I refreshed the browser to fix it, and then saved again. I hit preview, and realised that all my careful edits and additions from that evening had disappeared. I was not amused. I went to bed, and figured I'd rewrite it on the weekend.

The post was all about my progression with my running. This week's Marathon Talk podcast mentioned the "sweet spot in running where to PB all you have to do is put your shoes on." I'd written about how I'd gone from taking 45 minutes to run 5km in May 2012 to being injured and not able to run through to my first ever parkrun in October 2012 where I finished in 33:09. When I really picked up the running I went from a parkrun PB of 30:18 to a PB of 26:55 in the space of 2 weeks. My most recent overall parkrun PB was 25:18 claimed at Claisebrook Cove parkrun last Christmas Day.

I distinctly remember running that 26:55 parkrun. I had asked Jeremy to pace me round to a sub-30, and preferably to sub 28:30, which was around the PB of a specific nine year old boy at Claisebrook Cove parkrun. I wore my watch -  I always wear my Garmin watch - but I started it and then didn't look at it again until I'd finished. I just ran.

I trusted Jeremy to pace me at a speed that I could sustain and enable me to reach my goals. I think he must have built in some "slowing down time" in his pacing; assuming that I would slow down in kilometres 3 and 4 so that he had a buffer to get us over the line in time. As it was, I don't think we'd used any of the slowing down time. I remember not really being able to speak, and making neanderthal-like grunts for most of the run, only speaking to ask him to count me in when we hit the cove, "500m to go, 400m to go..." up to the Heartbreak Hill finish line.

When I crossed the line, I hit stop on my Garmin, looked down and saw my time: 26:55. I semi-collapsed, chest still heaving and I'm pretty sure I sobbed. I didn't have enough energy to walk it off around the finish area, I just hit the deck. I was asked by Paul if I was OK, and I think I said something along the lines of "Yes, I just took 2 minutes off my PB", except I don't think I was that succinct, and I'm certain it didn't all come out in one sentence; there would have been pauses for breathing.

When you look at my recent results at parkrun, particularly the 22 that I've done at Pioneer, you would see some serious variation; my times run from 25:26 to 1:02:46. There is one that was 59:59, that was a spectacularly noisy stopwatch failure, but the rest are accurate times. I've run the course hard, run the course easy, walked the course and on a few occasions (including the 1:02:46) I was Run Director and then ran the course chasing the tail walker after Jeremy finished his run and took over RD duties; my official parkrun time will be 54:21, but Garmin will say 30:22.

So while I train for Six Inch I haven't really had the progress markers that I have had in the past. I can't really track specific parkrundays and say "There, that's where the stopwatch noticed I got faster." I've got one personal best (PB) time for Pioneer; 25:26 and just to mess with my chi I have the precise same PB time at Canning River. Considering the courses are completely chalk and cheese - Pioneer is the only hilly Perth metropolitan area parkrun course and Canning River is so flat it is considered to be prime PB territory, you can appreciate my annoyance. It isn't really a surprise, as I remember at Canning River just heading out for a run with no real ambition beyond enjoying my first parkrun at Canning River in ten months. Still, getting 25:26 was a bit galling, even if it did knock almost 40 seconds off my previous PB there.

On Tuesday nights a group of us meet up to do intervals and then afterwards we run a freedom run on the Canning River parkrun course, looping back after each kilometre marker to collect up the other runners so that no one is left behind in the dark. It's nicknamed darkrun. It started at the beginning of winter and has just grown from there. Like parkrun, you don't have to turn up every week, but you know that every week we'll be there, sweating as we run our intervals up and down the path, fast and slow, jog and sprint. 

This past Tuesday during the freedom run I ran for a while with a guy who hadn't been to Canning River before and didn't know the course. We were coming up to the 4.3km point on the parkrun course (it really is the only hill, and a small one at that), and because we'd been doubling back to collect runners I realised he wouldn't have known that he was 700m from home. That 4.3km point is roughly where people start to pick up the pace to give it a good sprint finish, so as we went up the hill I was giving him directions, telling him to stay on the path until he came to a T junction, to go left at the T junction and to stay on the path and not turn from it. I told him that the bitumen path would become wooden boardwalk, and then a long metal bridge, and when he ran off the other side of the metal bridge to keep to the right and the finish line was an enormous shoulder height boulder alongside the path.

Halfway through this monologue my brain registered that here I was, giving it a reasonable amount of welly (really, I was doing about 5 minute kilometre pace at that point) going up the teeny tiny hill, and giving someone coherent instructions. It was mindblowing. I had a new 'chat pace'. And it was fast!

Two days later on Thursday, Kat, Jeremy and I ran the Cool Night Classic, a 5km fundraiser run from the Belltower to the South Perth foreshore. Kat had done the run leg in a team at the Mandurah 70.3 in 36.C heat on the Sunday prior, so when at the half way mark she said she was just going to try and hang on to me, I told her to tuck in away from the headwind and we ran together. My Garmin had died before we started (massive lack of battery charge, despite having fully charged it), so I relied on her to tell me how far we had to go. There was a bloke with an official sign on the side of the path advising us that the finish was around the corner, and as we ran in I was encouraging Kat "You can see the arch! It's just there!" and we belted home in 25:56. I had felt really quite strong, and we were both really proud of our time, considering that we'd started in the fourth wave and had therefore had to navigate and zigzag around people.

As I finished up my post I noted that although I hadn't managed to crack my 25:18 PB from Christmas Day, I wasn't unhappy. I said that it probably helps to have the desire to get a PB; that most of the time I don't set out to try for a PB, I just set out to enjoy my run, and as long as I enjoy it, it is a successful run. When I began running my goal was just to manage 5km. When I reached that goal, it became to run the whole 5km. When I ran the whole thing, it was to do it faster, and after my first parkrun and 33:09, it was to go under 30 minutes. Once I was regularly running parkrun in under 30 minutes, I was starting to run 10k races, then half marathons, and getting a speedy parkrun time wasn't as big a deal for me. Yes, it was welcome - very welcome indeed, but it was enough for me to be able to run relatively swiftly and just enjoy myself.

This morning's parkrun was a slightly different affair. We had a 9.30am wedding at Caversham House we were due at, and Jeremy's plan was to run Aveley parkrun which was about 15 minutes drive from Caversham House. We rocked up ready for the 8am parkrun start time with our wedding clothes in the back of the car along with deodorant, a couple of very large towels, 4 litres of water and a jumbo pack of babywipes. If we ran 30 minutes at parkrun, we wouldn't be too sweaty to then find a secluded road (it's an area with a fair bit of bushland surrounding it), quickly clean up and change, and then head to the wedding. When we got there, Jon and Julie Storey were there with their children Cameron and Jennifer. They'd had the same idea, but had got access to some showers around the corner from Aveley parkrun, so Jeremy and my plans improved significantly. Cam and Jon are both fast enough that they could run and still make the wedding looking suitably tidy, but Julie and Jennifer didn't think that they'd manage it in time, and were going to spectate instead.

We started parkrun, and as per usual, I hit start on my Garmin and just ran. I had Jeremy in my sights almost the whole way. He was 'taking it easy' which meant he ran around 24 minutes. I knew that the more time we had at the other end the neater my hair would look at the wedding, so I just hammered along behind Jon, Jeremy and Jon's son Cameron. At the 4km mark Cam started to slacken the pace a bit, so I yelled out encouragement, and as we rounded the lake I was making inroads on the (nearly) 11 year old. At 100 metres to go I passed Cameron and was bolting for the finish line. As I crossed the line, I hit stop on my watch, grabbed my finish token and looked down at my time. 


OK. Getting a new overall parkrun PB is still a big deal.

*parkrun official time is 24:59. I'm still VERY happy with that.