Back in the exam room

A couple of months ago I began a distance learning course with Absorb Fitness to get a fitness qualification. It’s basically the one I would need to go and work in a gym environment and devise cardio and resistance training for clients.

I’ve really enjoyed settling down to learn something. That’s no doubt helped by my interest in the subject, but it has reminded me that I was in the past, quite academically minded, and I actually do enjoy the process and discipline.

Sometimes it’s been hard to fit in time to study. I’ve mainly slotted it in over a weekend, hitting the books on Saturday and Sunday, or picking up the odd hour at lunchtime. And I went back to old learning tricks, like having prompts and key facts pinned up around my desk at home and at work. I’ve had a few comments about my muscles and skeletal diagrams!

Last weekend was finally the time to put it to the test as I was booked to take two exam papers – Anatomy and Physiology and Principles of Health and Fitness. And I was nervous. I worked out on the drive over to the sports centre where I would sit the test that it’s been 20 years since I last sat an exam.

But there it was, the room with the desks and well separated chairs. The invigilator giving out papers, writing the codes at the top and then the dead quiet as the exam began and we began to mark our answer sheets.

It was multiple choice and there were a few questions that I knew I hadn’t covered in the course materials and a couple where I thought all or none of the answers fit. But I worked my way through and was reasonably confident.

The second paper had a pass mark of 18/25 and as I went back through my answers I counted 8 I wasn’t sure of, so I thought it could be close. But I decided I’d done what I could and handed in my paper.

At least I didn’t have long to wait to get my result as they arrived by text later that evening (how many times did I check my phone on Sunday afternoon?). And I passed.
43/50 for anatomy and physiology
23/25 for principles of health and fitness ( the one I was worried I might fail)

I’ve really enjoyed what I’ve learned so far. It’s put a lot of my own training into context and helped me understand the theory behind it, so now I understand the good habits that I’ve learned. For example, I’d have instinctively done the kind of warm up that I normally do with my PT if I was planning a session for a client, but now I understand the different elements of that warm up and why they’re recommended. 

That’s basically the theory part of the course done and the next part will be a practical assessment where I’ll have to demonstrate how I plan and deliver an appropriate training session using cardio and resistance work with a ‘dummy’ client. I hope to do that early in the New Year and then I’ll be qualified.

The more I do, the more I’m convinced this is something I want to continue. I’ve got loads of satisfaction from volunteering at parkrun and encouraging friends in their fitness goals, so it would be nice to spread that a little wider. And I’m enjoying learning again, filling my brain with stuff, making connections and applying what I know to my own training.

A new word for a familiar feeling

Someone tweeted this link  to words that don’t exist in English. Well I love a new word or 25, so I was happy to learn some.

The one that really stood out for me was:

Meraki (pronounced may-rah-kee; from Greek)– doing something with soul, creativity or love. When you put something of yourself into what you’re doing.

Isn’t that a lovely word for a lovely idea?

It got me thinking about what I do with meraki.

I write with it, certainly. Not always, I’ll admit. But the really good stuff, the phrases that have stayed with me, things I’ve been nervous about making public have had meraki.

I read with meraki too. When I pick them up, books are more than just objects. They open up new landscapes and conversations. There are characters I regard as old friends. They have delighted and comforted me when I’ve needed it.

I train with meraki too. Probably running is where I find it most often. It’s easy to trace in those glorious faultless moments where it feels so easy, it’s like flying. When you feel like you could keep going for ever. They don’t last long, but you never forget them.

There’s meraki too in the tough times, the early mornings or the sweat, strain and mental challenge of a race. When you push yourself and leave it all out there, because just then, at that moment it’s the whole, the everything, the only thing that really matters.

I half joked elsewhere this week that I run with my heart. Of course I do. It pumps the blood to my muscles so that I can. But I meant more than just the physical biology.

When I run, when I train, when I swim or cycle, emotion plays a big part in it. Positive and negative, frustration and success, high drama and quiet reflections.

And I think what I really meant was that I do it with meraki. I just didn’t have the word for it. Now I do.

A good start to training

This has been the first week of my new exercise plan from my PT, Ian. I do love having a plan and a focus for my training. It stops me fretting over the best thing to do, makes sure I have plenty of variety in my training and pushes me on a bit. It also stops me doing too much. Rest and recovery is just as important as exercise, as that’s when you get the benefits of the workout.

Me at Newcastle parkrun
Both feet off the ground at parkrun. Photo courtesy of Mick Durnion

Anyway, this is a great plan that should help me build a great base to be fit and ready to race some great triathlons next year. As far as running goes, I’m continuing to concentrate on my technique, changing my style to become a more midfoot, forefoot runner.

That’s because I believe it’s a more natural way to run and less likely to cause injuries. But I’m hoping it will help me go faster too. At the moment, I’m just focusing on getting it right and not worrying too much about how fast I’m going. But it’s good to see some improvements there too.

I have to really consciously concentrate on my new running style, thinking about how I place my foot on each step, making sure I’m kicking back, keeping my hips aligned and turning my legs over quickly. But I had a bit of a breakthrough  moment this week on a technique session when I realised I’d been singing one of our choir songs in my head to help me keep a good rhythm. That means I wasn’t consciously thinking about how I was moving.

The same song re-emerged as I returned to parkrun on Saturday morning. Last week, it was a big unknown. I had no clue how fast I would go with my new midfoot style. This week I knew what I was capable of, and that I’d felt I could push it a bit more.

So, into the now familiar routine of saying hello to my friends, and lining up with a couple of hundred runners at 9am on the Town Moor. A bit damper and breezier than last week, but it was still a great day for a run.

It felt great to be racing, even when a surge of runners went past and continued to pass me out on the way towards the first gate. As always, I worried that I’d gone out too fast and tried to settle into my run. A thank you to Malcolm on the gate and I was out alongside the road.

Here I felt I was picking my pace up a bit, almost with a sense of falling forward into each stride. I kept with it, enjoying the sensation and started to pick off a few runners in front.

Through the second gate and onto the muddy path, which wasn’t as bad as I’d been expecting. I still felt good here, like I was flying over the ground, and the repetitive tune in my head picked up a beat or two. I just told myself to keep going if I was feeling good.

Kilometre 3-4 is the tester on this course. a couple of turns and some uneven ground, it’s where runners start to fall away a little. I kept my focus by targeting runners ahead and reeling them in one by one. I didn’t even notice I was snapped again at the back of the museum.

There was a man in a yellow top who I played a bit of cat and mouse with as he overtook me, then I caught and overtook him only for him to catch me again. It helped keep me focused, although I found myself very much out on my own over the toughest part of the course.

Here I was starting to feel the pull on my calves from the new running style and a couple more flat footed moves came in as I negotiated the uneven ground. Once I fall away from the forefoot, it takes an effort of will to get back there. But I did it and made it through the final gate, knowing there was just over a kilometre to go.

I’d made my mind up to kick on a bit on the smooth tarmac path as we turned towards the lamp posts. But the guy in yellow made me push on a bit sooner than I planned. He eventually overtook me and made it stick, but I knew I was close to the finish now.

My breathing was becoming a bit more ragged as I tried to stretch out a little more while not losing my style and trying to make my legs turnover more quickly. I was aware the tune in my head had dropped its rhythm slightly. I picked it up before the dog leg to the finish straight and powered on down all the way through the line. I even missed picking up my timing token as I didn’t slow down enough and had to go back to collect it from the volunteer.

I’d deliberately ignored my watch, save for a quick check at the first kilometre which had told me I was on pace with last week’s run. But I was hopeful I’d done better as I felt faster through kms 2-3. I checked at the finish and I was just a few seconds under 28 mins – a whole 30 secs improvement. So, it looks as though my new running drills are working and I’m getting the hang of this new style.


5k in 27:57

1) – 0.62m – 5:43(9:13/m) – 63cal
2) – 0.62m – 5:29(8:51/m) – 65cal
3) – 0.62m – 5:24(8:42/m) – 64cal
4) – 0.62m – 5:44(9:15/m) – 65cal
5) – 0.62m – 5:25(8:44/m) – 63cal
6) – 0.03m – 9(5:20/m) – 3cal

Practically perfect parkrun

On Saturday I made my return to running Newcastle parkrun. I knew it had been a while since I’d run 5k what with Great North Run training, going on holiday and then recovering from a sprained ankle; and when I looked it up, I hadn’t run one since August.

Easing back after my injury with run walk sessions and trying to make changes to my running style to land more midfoot, forefoot, I really haven’t been running a lot, so I was a bit nervous when I woke up, especially as my ankle felt a bit stiff. Should I give it another week to recover?

Me running at Newcastle parkrun
Tackling the muddy patch by the military museum. Photo courtesy of Mick Durnion.

Pottering around, getting ready, it soon eased up and I decided to just go with my plan of trying to get round midfoot/forefoot landing and to make that my goal. It meant I had no idea of what time I would do or how to pace it, it would just be run it and see.

Happily it was the most beautiful day for a run on the moor. Bright, crisp and cold, but with barely any wind to speak of and as the sun came out it soon warmed up. And as I’ve been volunteering quite regularly it felt like situation normal to meet up with other parkrunners and say hello to the usual crew.

This was to be one of the monthly paced events, and after saying hello to Sue sporting the 35 min pace shirt and catching up with Penny, I went off to do my running drills warm up. Some heel kicks, knee lifts, bounces, bounds, side shuffles and high kicks later, I was ready to start.

I positioned myself firmly mid pack, chatted to a couple of nearby runners, heard some of the 50 shirts being given out and set my Garmin on the sound of the starting air horn. And then it was away and off over the paths and into the sunshine.

Steady, steady, steady I coached myself, small steps, kick back, land under the centre line, keep it light and turn your legs over. Picking my way through the usual crowded start I soon found my space and powered on, hoping my natural enthusiasm hadn’t taken me away too quickly.

But my breathing felt good and I was stepping lightly, listening for the sound of my own footsteps, trying to stay relaxed and focused. I said a cheery hello to Fred (our usual tail runner) as I passed and really started to enjoy the sensation of running at a decent pace.

Then out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a green pacers shirt right next to me. It was today’s 30 minute man and two thoughts simultaneously went through my mind – ‘30 mins would be good’, and ‘time doesn’t matter, it’s about technique today’.

I stuck with him for a while as I thought the pace felt about right, but as we approached gate one, I decided to take off my gloves and stick them in my back pocket and he pulled ahead.

Through the gate with a shouted thanks to Malcolm and onto the tree lined path along beside the road. I like this stretch, I always feel good here, although today I was conscious of the slight camber and rough edges of the path, so chose my footing carefully.

Through the second gate, and onto the slightly muddy paths on the moor. Again I picked my way through carefully, looking for the smoothest path. Somewhere between 2-3km I passed the 30 minute pacer and did a mental check to see how I was feeling, but I was good, not pushing too hard, just feeling elated to be running and strong.

Strong was my mantra through the rough ground behind the Military Museum. Strong kept me straight on through the puddles, ignoring the heavy breathing of the runners around me. Strong pushed me up the gravelly path, running out ahead, on my own towards the turn, knowing I had not much more than a kilometre to go.

Back onto the tarmac path and through the gate, it’s a real relief to know that it’s a smooth surface from here all the way to the end. I just focus on keeping my form and look ahead at the groups of runners, telling myself to reel them in bit by bit.

At the last left hand turn I make a conscious effort to pick up the turnover again and try to put a bit more into the last half a kilometre or so. I begin to reel in runners ahead. There’s a girl in a fluoro pink top who makes herself nicely conspicuous. I think she’s maybe too far to catch, but she makes a good target.

Round the last little dog leg and onto the finish straight and I push for a sprint, hearing Jeff shouting me on, but thinking I can only sprint if I keep my form. It’s the first time I’ve tried it. But power down, legs and arms pumping and I just pip the girl in pink on the line.

I feel briefly embarrassed. That doesn’t feel like parkrun sportsmanship. I turn and shake her hand and say “Sorry about that,” but she takes it in good spirit and congratulates me on my sprint finish. We share injury stories as we collect our tokens and wait to get our barcodes scanned. I’m pleased I haven’t upset her. We’ll have the same time anyway. It was a very close finish.

Quickly processed with our tokens and barcodes, I wander off to stretch and then catch up with some other familiar parkrun faces, including the legendary Eric Appleby, our 80 year old former champion. Then I go to stand on the last corner to cheer on the runners with Jeff and compare race notes from today.

Jeff is full of positive encouragement as always and today I really start to believe it. In terms of performance, my running this year hasn’t been a patch on my glorious 2011 season. But there are good reasons for that and I’ve learned a lot about myself, my training and my focus by having to take a few steps back.

Next year will be all about triathlon in any case. But that doesn’t mean I shan’t be looking to do well at a few select 5 and 10k races. For now, I’m just happy to be running again, finding a bit of pace and feeling like there’s more to come. But yes, at parkrun I also saw a glimpse of the possibility that, given time, I could get back to where I was and possibly even better it next year. It’s an exciting prospect.

Parkrun stats:
5k 28:29
1) – 0.62m – 5:46(9:18/m) – 63cal
2) – 0.62m – 5:48(9:19/m) – 65cal
3) – 0.62m – 5:36(9:01/m) – 64cal
4) – 0.62m – 5:43(9:12/m) – 65cal
5) – 0.62m – 5:21(8:37/m) – 64cal
6) – 0.03m – 10(5:55/m) – 2cal

My Saturday continued in fine form too, as I met my friends Ian and Kelda for a sunny walk along the beach with their gorgeous pug.

And in the evening we went out to our favourite Newcastle restaurant, Cafe 21 for a pre-birthday meal with Lee and Beth. Food, service and atmosphere was, always, absolutely spot on. And, after radically cutting back on the sweet stuff over the past four weeks, I really enjoyed my indulgent dessert of knickerbocker glory.

Obama’s victory speech

So America has re-elected President Obama for a second term. And for me, one of the highlights of the whole campaign (or what I saw of it) was his rousing acceptance speech.

I love to hear President Obama speak. He undoubtedly has many people who help him write these important public communications, but he comes across as a very fine communicator.

So I thought I’d take a closer look at his latest speech to see if I can spot some of the tips and tricks that make it so effective. You can read or listen to the whole thing on the BBC News website.

Firstly, let’s consider his language. This is a highly educated, well informed man who no doubt spends a lot of time in meetings and discussions with similar high powered politicians. I’m sure President Obama understands words like synergy and leverage, but they are not the kind of words he uses in his speeches. Instead he opts for simple, straightforward words, the kind of language regular people use every day and understand.

He begins with ‘Tonight’ – a simple word that sets a marker for a significant moment. It’s repeated four more times during the speech – each time bringing you back to the here and now.

Within his opening address he talks of moving forward. In fact he uses the phrase ‘moves forward’ three times in quick succession. As ‘Forward’ was his campaign slogan, that’s hardly surprising, but it’s a nice nod to continuity, to consolidating the promises he’s made on the campaign trail.

And the pattern of three is important too. Look at the text of the speech and you’ll find numerous examples where a word or phrase is repeated three times, or he cites three examples. For example “That’s why we do this. That’s what politics can be. That’s why elections matter” or “We believe in a generous America, in a compassionate America, in a tolerant America.”

You’ll often find this pattern of three in speeches and presentations. In Obama’s speech, he’s using it for impact and to add a pattern and rhythm which makes it appealing to the ear.

But three is a powerful concept. Shakespeare is littered with examples  – “Friends, Romans, countrymen…” Even Steve Jobs used it in his keynote presentations. And  that’s because it’s memorable. Something about the way our brains work makes three more memorable than six or eight. If you’re looking for people to hold things in their mind in the short term, then three is the ideal number.

Of course if you always use patterns of three, your speech may become laboured, and stilted, sounding contrived and unnatural. Obama knows this and breaks the pattern up into twos and fours. For example, he talks of “love and charity and duty and patriotism.” And later he says “I have never been more hopeful about our future. I have never been more hopeful about America.”

It’s easy to see this kind of thing when you read the speech in its written form, but it’s important to remember that this is a speech. It’s meant to be received by your ears not your eyes. The patterning and repetition helps there of course, highlighting things you may want to remember, drawing our attention to particular points, creating a subtle melodic rhythm that makes it appealing.

But it’s even more important to consider the setting. Sure, Obama’s on a winning podium surrounded by his supporters, so he’s pretty much assured of a rousing reception. But think about what he has to work with. It’s just one man, using his voice and body language to make his point. No slides, no powerpoint, no props.

So what does he do? How does he carry the audience with him? He tells stories.

He speaks about “the determination in the voice of a young field organiser who’s working his way through college,” and “the pride in the voice of a volunteer who’s going door to door because her brother was finally hired when the local auto plant added another shift.”

It’s all very well talking about big ideas like belief and hope, but Obama knows we need something real and tangible, something we can picture in our minds and hold onto. That’s what the stories give us. They humanise the big themes, make them real and personal.

And it’s interesting that he chooses to make us hear them, rather than just see them. A sign that he is alluding to the power of other voices as well as his own, perhaps?

I don’t know about you, but I get the feeling these are real stories. Certainly when he goes on to speak about meeting the family with the young daughter with leukemia, that’s a very real, personal and powerful anecdote that sticks in the mind.

Now, I’m no expert on political speeches, but I do enjoy listening to a good speaker or presenter, be they an actor, presenter or politician. I’ve no doubt that Obama’s speech was drafted, studied and edited several times before it was delivered.

But if you have a speech or presentation to make, there is a lot you could learn from this one. From the simple, concrete language through to selected repetition and patterning, and the power of stories to forge an emotional connection with your audience.

And there’s no need for Powerpoint slides.

Improving and feeling strong

My ankle continues to improve. Last week I managed another run walk session and then, I admit, I cheated on my plan and just ran on it the next day. I went out from work with a newish runner who was just looking for some company and we ran at talking pace for about 35 mins or 3 miles.

I used it as an exercise in midfoot running and managed to keep my new technique all the way round. My calves were a bit stiff in the evening, but not unpleasantly so.

Runner wearing Newcastle United shirt
Jeff at 2k into his 100th Newcastle parkrun

I did my first boxercise session in a few weeks on Wednesday evening and got a great work out, though I was nervous of some of the jumping exercises.

And then on Thursday morning I was back down the beach first thing for a tough PT session. We started with running drills, then worked our way up to a couple of exercises with 2 x12k kettlebells, using them as static weights and concentrating on my legs. I still wobbled a bit on some of the 1 legged exercises, so I still need to build up my balance and confidence in my left leg. But it was good to take things up a notch and challenge myself.

By Friday, my ankle was a little stiff and achey, so I treated myself to a swim after work. I have been working on pull buoy drills and really feel they are making a difference, particularly in getting my elbows high and my hand into the water sooner. But for this session I just got in and swam, enjoying the feel of the water and it did the trick of easing the range of movement again.

Saturday I layered up for a morning on the Town Moor, volunteering at Newcastle parkrun. I was dispatched to Gate 2, just after the 2k marker, so got a good walk there and back and a chance to see just how muddy and plodgy the paths are now. I managed to snap some pictures as well as directing runners through the gap. It was great to see Lesley Anne back running and smiling as she bounded along the tree lined road and to cheer Jeff on for his 100th Newcastle parkrun.

Halloween lanterns
Halloween lanterns – picture courtesy of Katherine Wildman

Then it was a quick turn around to get home and out again for G and S Organics Bonfire night on the farm. We arrived early to lend a hand chopping and peeling vegetables for the soup, fetching and carrying things over to the outdoor events area and stringing up fairy lights.

There was a great display of carved pumpkins, turnips and little squashes and by the time the other guests arrived it was growing nicely dark, so we were glad of the heat of the bonfire and a few sparklers. No fireworks because of the animals, but that suits me just fine.

The food was, as always, delicious. Soup and burgers when everyone arrived, then after a bit of bonfire chat, a plate full of pheasant au vin and leeky mash with three different types of cake for pudding.

As the evening drew on we looked up at the clear skies to see millions of stars. No sign of the Northern lights, but you could see the Milky Way. Steeped in woodsmoke, we drank cocoa as we cleared up and made our way home. It was a splendid way to spend the day.