A bad runner’s journey into bad running, part 3 – pushing for the 10K

[I originally started this post several years ago, but never got around to finishing it at the time. I think this instalment is more than overdue, and I hope to finish a few more over the coming weeks.]

A big change in my running came around October 2015, when my doctor did a routine blood test, and diagnosed fatty liver (like I didn’t know that already from the shape of my waistline?). He told me I needed to lose weight. He didn’t say how much or over how long, but I needed to lose some, then come back to him for another blood test.

That was the kick I needed. With a lot of support from my wife, I fired up MyFitnessPal, changed my diet, and managed to drop from 90 kg to under 78 kg over the following 6 months. Over the same period I set myself a goal of completing a 10K race, the Bridge to Brisbane. Running a 10K road race was a lot different from the running I had done so far (which was still 99% on the beach), and I was still not up to 5K without stopping, but I felt up to the challenge.

Getting to 10K was still a mental battle for me. When I think back on it now it seems quite strange, but at the time I wanted to stop all the time. I had to distract myself from the effort of running by playing mental tricks, including:

  • observing the environment and doing things like counting how many parrot or raptor species I saw
  • rehearsing entire albums in my head, including reciting all the lyrics and humming all the guitar solos to myself
  • visualising myself doing other fun things, like singing my favourite love song to my wife, or finally standing up properly on a surfboard

In the 12 months leading up to the Bridge to Brisbane, I managed 5K without stopping, did a couple of practice 10K runs, and covered a total of 423 km in training. However, I also managed to pick up my first significant injury, some upper shin pain which was at its worst going down hills. The B2B is a relatively hilly course, and I ended up running up the hills and walking down them. I was still reasonably happy with my result, and raised $400 for my chosen charity, Destiny Rescue.

Once I knew I could do 10K, I started making bigger plans. But first, I needed to overcome the niggling shin injury from my newly-formed habit of running in shoes on hard surfaces. My brother gave me the advice I needed in this particular case, and I’ve followed it ever since: don’t try to slow down on downhill segments – fighting gravity is a waste of energy and it’s really hard on your legs. Instead, let gravity naturally speed you up, and only slow down to stay in control. Obviously, I need to take into account my skill level, my shoes, and the terrain, but generally I’ve found this to be great advice.

A bad runner’s journey into bad running, part 2 – how I run

(You can read part 1 first, if you want.)

When I first started running, I naturally fell into what I considered to be a proper running pace, but I found that I was not able to run as far as I wanted, and it wasn’t until I made a conscious effort to slow down and concentrate on distance that I was able to achieve 5 km without stopping (the goal of Couch to 5K).  They advise that to start you should run as slowly as possible; the slowest thing you can actually call running.  After a while I realised this was really good advice for me.

I haven’t really concentrated on my technique very much.  The main thing I tried was swinging my arms a little more than I thought was natural.  This seems to give the lungs more room and make diaphragm cramping less likely.  A lot of people I see running keep their elbows bent sharply with their forearms held high, but that hasn’t worked for me so far.

I sometimes find that my lungs start to protest as I get to about the 1-2 km mark in a run.  My brain immediately starts to make plans to stop and thinks up appropriate excuses – “You’ll probably feel sick if you keep going”, “you may not make it to 5 km if you don’t stop for a walk now”, and similar things.  I found that if I just ignore those excuses and keep running (and maybe ease off the pace a bit), after a little while the tight feeling in the lungs passes and I finish my 5 km very successfully.

I run in a place I love: at the beach, around low tide, in the early morning or late afternoon.  Our beaches here aren’t usually crowded, and early or late in the day is the time when many native birds are active, especially raptors.  (My favourite to watch is the white-bellied sea eagle – sometimes they’re amazing enough to make me stop running and just watch as they glide along.).

I run on the moist part of the sand – between the thick, dry sand above the high tide mark, and the hard, wet part that the water has recently been on.  This seems to give the right combination of stability of surface and underfoot cushioning.  I often have a swim or surf before (in the hotter part of the year) or after (in the cooler part of the year).

I run with as few accessories as possible: sunscreen (when necessary), a swimming rash vest, running skins (compression shorts), my Garmin fitness tracker and GPS (I currently use older models that don’t have the functions combined), and my car key on a shoelace around my neck.  In winter I have worn a light fitness jacket, but in this climate it’s not really necessary in all but a few weeks of the year, and causes me to overheat at other times.

I don’t wear shoes.  This means I need to keep a watch out for any sharp shells on the beach, but I haven’t found that particularly tricky, and I find I heat up less.  Until I started training on the road, I hadn’t really experienced any pain in my feet or legs due to running in bare feet (more on this later).

I don’t carry a phone or MP3 player.  I love music, but I don’t like things being in my ears when I’m sweating.  I prefer to listen to the sound of the waves and the birds.  Sometimes I sing (or some rough facsimile thereof), or recite music in my head, especially some of Neal Morse‘s longer pieces.

A bad runner’s journey into bad running, part 1

(I’m trying to get motivated to write a little more. This post is a little off-topic from my usual fare; hopefully it will be of interest to some.  There will probably be 3 or 4 parts.)


This is my story about running.  I don’t claim it should be the norm for anyone.  If I lapse into 2nd person as I write, please be assured that it’s not intentional, and is not intended to be advice to anyone.  If you decide to follow my example, please see your doctor first to make sure it’s advisable for you to do so.

Why running?

The short version: I want to grow old well, and the only representative male in my recent family history died too young of a heart attack.

The longer version: Both of my grandfathers were sugar cane farmers.  My maternal grandfather ate two heavily-salted eggs every morning, was almost never sick, and lived to 95, still in full possession of his faculties.  Unfortunately, because my mother was adopted, that grandfather is only of assistance in gauging lifestyle and diet in my family, not genetic disposition to heart disease.

My father had rheumatic fever three times as a child, which wrecked his heart so badly that he’s had five open-heart surgeries for artificial valve work, starting at age 37.  So his experience wasn’t really useful in thinking about my health risks.  His father, however, was apparently healthy until one day he just dropped dead of a heart attack without warning.  He was 57; my father was 26; I was less than one year old.

So, I hit 40 knowing that my closest male relative died suddenly only 17 years older than I was, and realised that that wasn’t the way I wanted to go.  We had recently moved from Brisbane to the Sunshine Coast for a change of pace, and I was enjoying a more active lifestyle, but I decided that running was the next step in putting in place some better habits for the future.

First steps

I decided to ask friends and family for advice.  My younger brother has run marathons, and several of my work colleagues were runners at various levels.  So I asked them for tips on getting started and found out about Couch to 5K, a program designed to get couch potatoes fit enough to run 5 km (or 30 minutes) without stopping.  I decided to give it a shot.

I like to do things at my own pace, so I decided from the outset that I wasn’t going to be held to their 9-week schedule.  When we first moved to the Sunshine Coast, I couldn’t run from one end of Kings Beach to the other without stopping.  So I knew it would be a slow process.  But I kept plugging away little by little and eventually started achieving distances in the 2-3 km range.

Edit: part 2 is here.