Combining the solitary with the social

Hasan Patel has been a huge champion and supporter of the Green Heart Runners, a great support to me personally, and has become a good friend. Hasan writes about his experiences of running and how he gets benefits from solitary running in a social setting.

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I have always enjoyed the solitary side of sport.

That is why I enjoyed playing cricket: apart from the odd bowling spell, I could spend hours on the field in my little world. It’s why I enjoyed playing in goal, out of choice, rather than being the last person chosen on the football team.

So running was a natural fit for me (as well as being told I have high cholesterol and was overweight), as an activity I could enjoy on my own with my thoughts, fears, and “what if” moments.

When I moved back to the UK last year, I continued my solitary running and signed up for the Birmingham Half Marathon. Coincidentally, I fell upon a notice for the Green Heart Runners. My solitary runner had never been one for a club, but I needed some structure and stability in my running timetable and training.

So I gave the Green Heart Runners a go.

Initially it was a small group under the stewardship of Robbie Roberts and later also with Jess Harrington. Every Tuesday evening, rain or shine, I and like-minded runners could learn from them. The group grew, and we kept learning. You’ll find me in the middle with the pack.

Running has become a getaway from the everyday stresses of life. It helps me focus, it gives my mind a break, and with my headphones, the odd podcast or bespoke music puts me in my little world.

Now I am part of a group of runners who are a community inspiring and helping each other. We don’t run to enter scores of marathons. We don’t put a priority on time over distance. We just go out there .

I want to run with no goal in mind — all else is secondary. So with the Green Heart Runners, I get my solitary world with self-awareness, focus, and a sense of being productive. But I am also part of a group, who give me that extra push to continue if that world becomes a challenge.

Woods Obstacles Lakes Fields (The Wolf Run)

So to the Wolf Run.

The Wolf Run is an off-road, muddy, obstacle-strewn 10k running event. And it is muddy. Really muddy. Trainer-losingly muddy. And Wet.

There are four Wolf Run weekends each year, two in Warwickshire and two in Leicestershire, and they’re named after each of the seasons. WOLF is actually an acronym for Woods Obstacles Lakes Fields – which sums it up pretty well.

Did I mention the mud?

I have undertaken two such runs to-date, one in each location. I did the Autumn Wolf in Warwickshire in September as a lone wolf, and the Winter Wolf in Leicestershire in November with some friends.

Let me run you through the day, according to my experience!

Preparation

You don’t have to be super fit to do a Wolf Run. It’s a 10k race with obstacles. You could do the entire thing and not partake in any of the obstacles, but what would be the point of that? You could pick and choose the obstacles and challenges you face – many do. Or you could do them all. That pretty much sums up the range of fitness levels required to do a Wolf Run. I would say to really enjoy it and make it worthwhile you need to be able to comfortably do a 10k road-run, have decent upper body and leg strength, and be a confident swimmer.

A key part of preparation for any race is what to wear. It’s a particularly taxing question ahead of the Wolf Run. And it changes depending on which one you’re doing. The winter and spring Wolfs are cold, the others aren’t (usually). However, no matter which one you do, you’re going to get wet and cold anyway. Take your older kit with you – maybe trainers that are coming to the end of their usable lives. For the colder runs many light layers are better than one big one, you don’t want to be jumping into an icy cold pond with a big jumper on! Some people wear running tights. I don’t for Wolf Runs as there’s every chance they’ll get ripped, and they won’t really protect your legs from the bumps and scratches you’ll get along the way. Skin-tight gloves are also a good idea for warmth and for grip.

As ever, you get all the instructions and advice about what to wear and people still turn up looking weird and wonderful and everyone seems to get through it.

You also need to think about what to wear afterwards. Take a *complete* change of clothes and more layers than you think will be required as it can take a while to warm-up afterwards. Also take dirty kit bags and a couple of bin bags.

Your favourite running watch may not survive the ordeal, be warned!

Arrival

It’s safest to arrive around an hour before your start time as there is stuff to do before you can run. You need to arrive by car as these runs are really in the middle of nowhere. Parking is in a field and costs around £5.

You have to be comfortable in getting changed in full view of everyone at the start or end of a Wolf Run. There are no proper changing facilities. You’re in a field. But so is everyone, so join in!

There is a festival atmosphere throughout the day with various mobile food and drink outlets dotted around the warm-up and registration area.

On arrival you need to drop your bags, or at very least, your keys (all kept securely) and register in the registration tent where you’ll receive your number which you need to pin onto your shirt (safety pins are provided).

After that, you hop from one foot to the other, warm up your muscles and watch the people ahead of you set-off.

The warm-up

It all starts with a warm-up with around 200 other runners in your wave. Pumped up music and pumped up warmer-uppers get you in the mood and give you some basic safety instructions.

Various running and stretching exercise are undertaken and then it’s not long before we’re on all fours in the mud crawling around. Might as well, as this will be a significant feature of what you’re about to do!

Time is taken to speak to a few people to find out if they’re raising money for a charity, and everyone shows their support. It’s a fantastic atmosphere.

Then the count-down….and we’re off.

The run

The course involves, as the name implies, woods, obstacles, lakes and fields. It can be slippy and slidey from the off depending on the weather and also on how many people have gone before you, so no-one is going too fast.

Obstacles range from fences that you need to vault, walls or logs with ropes you need to traverse, to pipes you need to crawl through, barriers you need to climb over, netting you need to scramble under, and ponds / lakes you need to jump in to and swim through.

Obstacles tend to appear every few hundred yards which breaks up the run.

Many of the obstacles you will need help with. Either from the off, or as you run into problems whilst trying to complete them. Everyone genuinely will help each other. One of the biggest areas people need help with is getting out of lakes or muddy ditches, as, no matter what brand of trail running trainer you may be wearing – wet mud is wet mud.

At the Winter Wolf I was not prepared for the sheer bogginess of some aspects of the route. There were areas of ‘quick-mud’ where you could get sucked in and be rendered practically immobile. This happened to me. You feel like a beached whale. I couldn’t move my legs at all and it took four people to hoik me out and back on my feet with me all the while saying “don’t lose my trainers!”. Many a trainer has been lost to the Wolf Run mud.

You go from wet to dry, warm to cold, exceptionally muddy to nicely washed down. And then repeat the cycle.

You make friends, help people, lose your friends, and then find them again.

Luckily, the course is very well-marshalled and fellow runners instinctively keep an eye out for each other as we all know that any one of us could run in to trouble at any given time.

Quick shout out to the marshals at Wolf Runs and all races and sporty events. Everyone appreciates what you do – thank you so much for volunteering your time; these things simply could and would not happen without you.

The end

Finally the end is in sight. You can lose your bearings on how far you’ve gone during the run.  This is because you’re going slower than a normal 10k run, so your race clock is all out, and also you’re probably not wearing your running watch, so you really don’t know how far you’ve gone. Marshals will tell you, but in my frozen brain mode, I was still expecting the finish to come around 20 minutes before it actually did.

It is a feeling of elation and exhaustion as you cross the finish line, have your photo taken, and collect your medal and goodie bag.

Me and my mates Jim and Matty

No time to hang around though….your next obstacle is the bag-collection and the outdoor cold showers. Oh yes! Grab a hose and wash down yourself, your trainers, and anything else you can see.

Then you can ply on the multiple layers and go hunting for food.

Conclusion

Exhilarating, exhausting, exciting. Try it. You might just like it.

The next Wolf Run, the Spring Wolf, takes place over the weekend of 4th and 5th April 2020.

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#keep running

Running with dignity

The sheer generosity of human spirit and the causes for which runners raise money, overwhelms me at every running event I enter. I’m amazed at the lengths to which people will go to in their fundraising efforts. I’m especially in awe of people who don’t find running easy, but have committed to completing something which is a huge physical challenge for them, in order to raise money, awareness and hope.

This little poem is for these people:

There’s a dignity in running a race,
For a cause, or someone you love
A kind of spirit that can’t be compared
And that no evil can rise above.

The boy who ran for his mother,
In her memory, after she died.
The daughter who ran with her father,
And is always a help by his side.

There’s dignity in being a helper,
For runners who are visually impaired
People are running for victims,
For children who live their lives scared.

People of all sizes and nations,
Running for all kinds of reasons.
Raising money beyond expectations,
Training through all of the seasons.

Yes, there was dignity in what happened today,
Muscles will be broken and pained.
But spirit isn’t broken, but strengthened,
And it’s in spirit that hope is retained.

#keeprunning

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The view from the back

This is a post from my first guest blogger, Sally Brooks.

Quite simply, Sally is a joy to run with. A Green Heart Runners regular, she brings a positive attitude every time, has a great sense of humour, and, as you’ll see below, has achieved more with her running than she ever thought she would.

Thank you for being my first guest blogger and for all your support in the set-up and development of our club.

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If you’d have asked me five years ago about running, I’d have immediately thought back to being the tiny asthmatic kid in PE always being picked last for things. It would have filled me with dread. But, a few years ago I decided to do the couch to 5k thing and, it was fantastic. Since then I have run on and off, and even did an advent challenge where I ran a mile a day throughout December in 2016

One thing I had never done until last year, is run with other people. Those fears and dreads of being the person at the back, the subject of ridicule or worse, sympathy, held me back. That is of course until Robbie set up the Green Heart Runners. I was heavily involved with the development of the Green Heart landscaping project through my day job, so when he asked if he could name his club after the space, my curiosity was piqued. I decided that it was worth a go. Due to injury, I hadn’t run in over a year, so it was a bit of a daunting challenge the first week I turned up.

It was a small group the first time I attended, but it was warm and friendly. We agreed a route and set off, and I felt my year’s absence from running. I started off with a bit of running, then a bit of walking, to get back into the swing of it. I went home slightly downhearted, feeling very much a failure. But then I tried to think about it differently. I had attended, I had started running again, and I would go again the following week. Eight months on, I now run once or twice a week. At Green Heart Runners I am perennially at the back of the pack. But I’m ok with that. I run to feel good, both physically and mentally and to meet likeminded people. I’m never going to be an athlete. I am however now able to run 5k fairly easily (and slowly) without stopping. That is a real achievement for the wheezy kid struggling through cross country in the 1990s!

So, if you ever see me, trailing at the back of a cheerful group of runners, please don’t feel sorry for me, or encourage me to go faster. I am doing far more than I ever imagined. I think about running like Charles Hamilton Sorley does in his poem, The Ungirt Runners.

The Ungirt Runners, by Charles Hamilton Sorley

We swing ungirded hips,
And lightened are our eyes,
The rain is on our lips,
We do not run for prize.
We know not whom we trust
Nor whitherward we fare,
But we run because we must
Through the great wide air.

The waters of the seas
Are troubled as by storm.
The tempest strips the trees
And does not leave them warm.
Does the tearing tempest pause?
Do the tree-tops ask it why?
So we run without a cause
‘Neath the big bare sky.

The rain is on our lips,
We do not run for prize.
But the storm the water whips
And the wave howls to the skies.
The winds arise and strike it
And scatter it like sand,
And we run because we like it
Through the broad bright land.

You can follow Sally on Twitter @sallyxbrooks

Find out more about a typical Green Heart Runners session

A typical Green Heart Runners session

So what does a typical Green Heart Runners session consist of, I hear you ask? Faintly.

Arrival

We all arrive just before 5.30pm on Tuesday evening and congregate outside the main library. When Old Joe* bongs we move to a wide path between two of the newest and sparkiest buildings on the Green Heart – a beautiful grassy parkland at the centre of the University of Birmingham’s Edgbaston campus.

Warm-up

I tend to get everyone into a big circle and we jog in a clockwise fashion with me shouting out various exercises for the runners to leap in to on my command. We do anything from squats, lunges, high knees, backward kicks – standard stuff, to the not so standard (but more fun), ‘hurrah, it’s nearly pay-day!’ “leaps”, ‘Santa’s climbing down the chimney’ “arms”, and other seasonal treats.

After that we tend to get the blood pulsing around our bodies with some static 40% jogging, ramping up to 80%, before some explosive 100% sprinting for 10 seconds.

Occasionally we get creative and do this whilst moving around the Green Heart and then throw in some triangular 40/80/100 warm-ups as well up and down the paths.

After that, a few light stretches and we’re ready to run.

Group photo

Group photo…

The run

In the darker evenings we have been sticking to two main routes. One involves 2 x 2 mile laps around the campus, and the other involves us running to the Vale Village (student accommodation). Both are scenic in their own way, and both involve hills!

We have runners of different abilities so the challenge is to get people running at a pace they are comfortable with, whilst keeping everyone roughly together. Now the group is getting larger this is becoming easier to do as runners are naturally finding their running buddies. In addition though, we encourage mustering back by the front-runners so they turnaround and meet the runners at the back of the group. This means more running for them, and more chances for high-fives, encouragement and for run leaders to check we’ve not lost anyone.

There are always options to vary the length of both the Vale and campus routes and as runners become more used to the routes, they can just take their own decisions as to which routes they take – with some advice from the run leader(s).

Warm-down

Through guidance, direction and a dash of common sense, everyone descends back to the Green Heart within a few minutes of each other at around 6.25pm. Early birds can expect to be sent on a lap of the Green Heart, prior to the warm down while we wait for everyone else to return.

We then do a few stretches, I offer a key messages, we congratulate each other on a job well done and we head on home feeling happy and tired (occasionally we’ll stop for a drink – in the summer months this may happen more often!).

Final thoughts

So that’s about it. We add in variation now and again to keep it fresh, but not too much. It’s a running club and people who come want to know they’ll get some solid running amongst friends and in a safe, supportive and social environment.

I don’t run as much during the sessions now, but that’s ok as this club isn’t for me. I tend to run so far then take short cuts to make sure I’m at a point where I can see runners of all paces coming through various checkpoints.

I also now have a co-leader, Jess, whose support we couldn’t do without and which has helped us grow to the club we have become. Jess often leads sessions when I can’t make it (or even when I can) and this also adds to the variation of the sessions and keeps things fresh.

I am grateful for the support of UB Sport and, of course, the wonderful colleagues and friends who have been so encouraging and who make it such fun and so rewarding. Tuesday evenings have never been better.

I absolutely love it 💚

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#keeprunning

*Old Joe is our famous clock tower right in the centre of campus. It’s huge. Tallest of its kind in the world. We love it, even if it does love the attention (see @oldjoeclock on twitter)

Come-back Run

Today marked the come back on the marathon training schedule. After 3 weeks of feeling under the weather with a chest infection, and a couple of shorter sessions, this was the return to double-digit running. And didn’t I choose the day for it!

Storm Dennis was alive and well. First it threw it down, then it eased off, and then it threw it down.

I went on a route I don’t normally choose, and shouldn’t have, given the conditions. Having passed Good Hope hospital I then traversed through the Rectory Park and then New Hall Valley Country park through some almost impassable sections which required a combination of hop-scotch, grassy detours and some good old fashioned grin-and-bear-it splodging.

I turned around at New Hall as it really was impassable this time, and then carried along a main road which wasn’t familiar to me, but the directions back to Sutton Coldfield were, and I ended up back heading towards the town centre.

From there I was a bit indecisive and was just going to go up a tried and tested hilly road up towards Streetly before heading back through Mere Green and to home, when I spotted a lady clearly searching for her lost puppy. Cue a 3-mile detour around Sutton Park to join the search party. Sadly I didn’t come across the pup, but did spread the word amongst numerous dog-walkers, so I hope this had some effect.

Finally making it to the junction I had been planning to via a more circuitous route, I popped out at Four Oaks train station and plodded on home for a 12.3 mile run.

I felt good. The pace was slow but that was due to poor underfoot conditions, requiring some areas to be simply walked, so I’m not concerned. I’m not too bothered about pace anyway at the moment. It’s distance that I need and that’s why I feel good about it.

Returning to longer distance running after a break is psychologically challenging. Oddly enough, if it had been the perfect conditions for running I would’ve been less motivated, but the thought of battling the elements spurred me on and the various obstacles and incidences helped pass the time in a way that straight flat, road-running experience wouldn’t have.

Green Heart Runners – eight months in

Since the turn of the year we have welcomed many more runners to our little club. This has been the result of a bit of internal marketing in various staff newsletters, word-of-mouth, and January being a good month to try new things. From an average of 10-12 runners in November/December we’re now up to over 20 per run at every run-meet so far this year.

A few stats:

  • 32 sessions
  • 271 runners
  • 46 individuals have taken part
  • Approximately 1500kms covered during our sessions

These are numbers I couldn’t have imagined even three months ago, let alone when we started out.

The dynamics of the session are a bit different now that we’ve grown. It takes two of us generally to lead the group, and the eyes and ears of other runners as well to help us keep track and ensure everyone knows where they should be. But this is the great thing about our club. Yes, we run, we get fit and have fun, but there’s a great spirit developing. People are meeting new colleagues and making friends they wouldn’t have otherwise made and comment on an array of benefits beyond simply improved fitness.

Very soon we will be able to wear our very own Green Heart Runners branded running shirts, and in April will be taking a group of runners to the Birmingham 5k/10k/half marathon in Sutton Coldfield. This will be a first for me as I’ve only ever entered races as an individual runner. I can’t wait for this, and to support, be supported, and celebrate with everyone afterwards.

We’re emerging from the darker months where we’ve been following the well-lit areas around campus. In a few weeks we’ll be back in day-light which opens up a few more options to us and also offers us more opportunities to take advantage of the running canvas which is the Green Heart at the University of Birmingham’s Edgbaston campus.

So onwards, upwards, and who knows where to from here. Continued thanks to everyone who supports us, champions us and of course to the wonderful runners who participate with such enthusiasm, patience and humour.