Swimming Comeback and Undeserved Medals

A couple of days ago, I entered my first swimming gala in eight years. I quit the sport when I was 17 due to some club politics, an unsupportive coach and also because most of my friends had quit at that time too.

I decided to come back to swimming in December last year, after working at home, besides my once a week volunteer swim session, all my exercise was done at home too. It was an unhealthy cycle and I wanted to get out and meet new people. I joined a local swimming team in January and have never looked back. I only wish I had joined back in September when I first came back to Nottingham. The coaches are nice, the pools are clean, my teammates are friendly and I’ve been swimming five times a week.

So this weekend it was my first chance to get back in the pool as a competitive swimmer. The meet was especially for Masters (swimmers aged 18 and above) and involved a series of 50m, 100m and 200m events (both individual and relays) – I entered them all. There was a special challenge set by the organisers, to enter and complete all ten races, and by doing so, I won a bottle of whisky. Nice gesture, but as not a hard-drinker, it will probably sit in the cupboard for a long time yet.

The other prizes up for grabs at the event included 1) the Overall Age Group Winner, for the swimmer in each age group who accumulated the most points during the day (points are given for the time you swam for each event – the faster you swim, the more points you get) 2) Nottinghamshire County Champion Medals for the fastest eligible swimmer in each event per age group and 3) Spot Prizes for whoever the announcer deemed worthy, like the person in this race who comes 3rd, has the jazziest trunks on, etc.

In addition to the all 10 races whisky prize, I also won the overall age group prize (a new pair of racing goggles) and all 10 county champion medals. I didn’t win any of the spot prizes, which were bottles of shampoo and other toiletries, haha I’ve written about that before

I won the County Champion medals even though I wasn’t the fastest age group swimmer in all of my races. I was only the outright fastest in my age group for three of the ten races. Only swimmers who swam for teams within Nottinghamshire were eligible for the medals, so even though I was 4th in the 50m breaststroke, I still won the medal for that race, since the other three faster swimmers swam for teams outside of Nottinghamshire, and were therefore not able to win these medals. In theory, my wins were fair wins, in the same way if I went to Shropshire and was the fastest swimmer in the Shropshire County Championships, since I’m not affiliated with Shropshire, I wouldn’t be able to win any of their medals. But still, I feel a bit like most of the medals were undeserved. I swam as fast as I could, but my times were not as fast as they were nine years ago and other people swam faster than me. I’m certain that there are other females aged 25-29 in Nottinghamshire who are faster than me at all of the events I swam at the weekend, so it’s still quite embarrassing for me to call myself ‘County Champion’.

Me and my 10 golds
Me and my 10 golds

More to come on what I will do with the medals…

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You can’t swim with me.

What is it with guys that want to go swimming when girls do? I don’t mean in general, I mean I’m sure most men go swimming because they want to keep fit and enjoy being in the pool, but within the last week, whenever I’ve told a male friend that I’m going swimming, they have almost exploded with a huge desire to suddenly come swimming with me. If it was running, or yoga, or boxing that I told them I was going to, they would not say anything about it, but as soon as it’s swimming, they get animated. But no, you can’t swim with me.

Maybe I am being selfish or rude or just awkward, but there are several reasons behind my refusal in letting them join me swimming.

1. You don’t swim like I do

After years of swimming competitively, I get in a pool and swim at least 750m for a warm up. How many lengths is that? That’s another reason why you can’t swim with me…swimmers like myself not only swim longer and more structured sets than your average public swimmer, but we count differently too. My standard warm up looks like this

3 x (150 S/K/P per 50 +10s)

which to you would be 2 lengths normal swim, 2 lengths using the kickboard (legs only), 2 lengths using a pull buoy (arms only), then rest for ten seconds after doing those 6 lengths. Repeat three times.

I also use the clock a lot, so will be thinking in terms of ‘red top, black bottom’ (which are the same thing) instead of looking at the actual time, seconds count a lot in my swimming session. There is a huge difference between a 10 second rest and a 15 second rest.

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My swimming style

2. It’s not sociable

Swimming with me is not sociable. I get in, I swim and I rarely stop for chats. If you came swimming with me, what would you be doing besides trying to race me or watch me?

3. You can’t teach me

I’m a very good swimmer, I know the weaknesses of my strokes and I have plenty of sets and workouts for myself. Unless you’re a swimming coach with years of experience, there’s really nothing you can teach me that I don’t already know.

4. I won’t teach you

If I pay for a public swimming session (average price seems to be about £3.90 these days) I want to make the most out of my time and session. Teaching a beginner how to swim is hard and it takes months, even years for a beginner to learn how to swim, it’s not possible to learn in an hour.

So, sorry guys, but actually I’m not sorry. You can’t swim with me unless you are a dedicated lane swimmer who agrees with me about these nuances , until then – you can’t swim with me!

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Boy bye

Parkrun and the blind

About a month ago, through the Guide Running UK website I met a VI runner online and we ran the Coventry Memorial Park parkun together which was my first guide running experience. This week I went to the Colwick parkrun as they had a special awareness day about guide running. I volunteered to run the course blindfolded so now I have experience from both sides.

Guide running can be different every time depending on the blind runner and the guide. Not all ‘blind runners’ are totally blind, some have peripheral, blurry or tunnel vision…this means not all of them will run tethered to their guide. Blind runners have different requirements about which side their guide is on, how long their tether is, when they want obstacles pointed out to them and what type of obstacles are most important.

Guides also have different abilities, even though someone can run a 5km course in 22 minutes, it would be difficult to maintain that pace because as a guide as you have to speak to your running partner throughout. Sometimes a guide will be slower than their running partner, and even though you must go at the blind runners pace, they will slow down if you ask them!

The main thing when you are guiding is definitely communication between the guide and the runner, both before, during and after your run.

  • Do you want to run a little faster? Tell your guide
  • Is there a child running in not a very straight line? Tell your runner
  • Does it feel like your shoelace is untied, but can’t see it? Ask your guide
  • Are they feeling up to a sprint finish? Ask your runner

These are all things that I’ve had to ask when guiding and being guided.

To some people guide running may seem really daunting, but it’s a great thing to do, and even if you just walk the course with a runner, it’s getting them out and doing something and the runners are always grateful for your time and company.

What I learnt today from being blindfolded was just how many things can affect your running and footing – running around tight bends, tree roots on the path, and especially a change of surface from gravel to grass to tarmac which is a really bizarre feeling.

How was it running blindfolded? Well at the beginning it took me a while to get my rhythm because it was a bit crowded and the noise of everybody’s feet hitting the floor made me feel like I was going to run on top of people’s feet. But when people spread out and there were wider paths I got my confidence and ran at a faster pace. I felt at the end I could have done another lap! I was surprised we overtook so many people and finished with a great time of 30:07, I’ll have to go back to Colwick to see what time I can get on that course without a blindfold, but 30 minutes is very respectable for my first effort.

Having a guide was obviously a BIG part of today, I wouldn’t have been able to even walk the course without Paul, so a bit shout out to him and all the other regular volunteer guide runners.

If you’re interested in running, guiding or even being a marshall at a parkrun, here are some useful websites

http://guiderunning.uk/
http://www.parkrun.org.uk/
http://www.ulearnathletics.com/qualification/299

 

 

 

 

Strava Improvements

I love Strava, I’ve been using it for over a year now to track my cycling and running sessions and I can’t believe it took me so long to get into it! It records your movements by connecting with GPS and you can connect it to compete in segments (mini races on short stretches of roads) against your Facebook friends, running/cycling club and other athletes. But there are some things which I think would make Strava* even better.

‘GPS connected’ notification

When it’s sunny outside (which is often in summer), I go outside and can’t see the screen well because of the brightness, let alone the little GPS bars in the corner which you need to look at to see if you’re connected or not. If my phone could vibrate or beep to let me know when it’s connected to GPS, it would be good.

‘GPS lost’ notification

Ever been out and had a really amazing split for one of your runs (or a really bad one), then realise that mid-run, your GPS had dropped out and you didn’t notice? Just look at this map, I was doing circular laps on the running track but my GPS thought otherwise. Again, if there was a notification to say hold on a minute while we connect you to another GPS satellite, it would help a lot.

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When your GPS isn’t connected and makes a really strange pattern!

Link heart rate data from Fitbits

I have a Fitbit that tracks my heart rate as well as all the other data, and you can link Strava with heart rate monitors to see your heart rate throughout your activities. But for some reason, Strava doesn’t link the data from my Fitbit.

Best effort since…

Sometimes you do a run or a segment and you know you won’t get a personal best on it because you’ve had an injury, moved country, are having a bad season or any other reason. So I think if you were able to add a significant event that affects your performance and then have a new set of times taking that into account it would be beneficial for people who can’t get those pb’s anymore. For example, with the pollution and conditions in China, I knew I wouldn’t get a pb on my 5km time very easily, so getting a ‘Best 5km time since moving to China’, that would be a great boost.

Extra voice notifications

When I ran in China, I heard other runners’ apps talking to them. While Strava says Distance 4km. Time 21 minutes, 43 seconds. Previous kilometre in 5 minutes, 12 seconds , the Chinese apps said all kinds of stuff!

You’ve just ran 5km, waheyyyy! You’ve ran 5km in 23 minutes and 24 seconds. You ran the last kilometre in 5 minutes 12 seconds. That’s faster than the last kilometre, keep going, you’re great!!

It was a much more personal notification and a lot more upbeat than the computerised Strava woman. There could be options as to whether you get the standard simple notifications, and then extra notifications which could be positive and motivating like the Chinese one, or even slightly negative to get you running faster. Imagine if your running app told you to pick your feet up, run faster or even told you that you’re slower than a turtle!

*I use Strava on a Samsung phone, Android operating system and have a free account

Olympic Dreams

Without really realising, I’ve always liked a lot of sports. I remember Saturday morning spent at Ernesford Grange sports centre, where I’d go swimming 9-10am, trampolining (with wet hair) 10-11am and then badminton 11-12pm. In primary school I played football and did cross-country running. Then in year 7 I joined pretty much all the sports teams: athletics, swimming, netball, rounders, basketball and I even went to 8am fitness classes with a couple of other guys before school at 8.50am.

But I never really specialised in any sport until I was a lot older. I was always good at swimming, being labelled a ‘water baby’ by my swimming teacher. But after I got my gold award aged 9, I stopped swimming. Sure, people had told me about joining ‘the squad’, but I’d also heard rumours about 5am swims before school and I wasn’t ready for that.

When I finally decided I wanted to swim, I was 14, my inspirational PE teacher Mr Burder, who was (and I hope still is!) a triathlete got me a trial with City of Coventry Swimming Club (COCSC) and I got in! I started just by swimming casual lessons on Friday evenings, but then I was later spotted by another coach, who bumped me up into the proper squad, where there were more training sessions and the chance to compete in races. It was great, I loved the training and my closest friends are still the swimmers from COCSC. When it came to racing, I was already in the oldest age category (14+). I saw younger swimmers who were incredible and wondered why it had taken me so long to start swimming.

Anyway, after quitting swimming, I have taken part in other competitions and tried new sports, but I always feel like I’ve left things too late.

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With the Olympic rings behind me in 2008 Olympic sailing city Qingdao

Recently, two of my friends have been selected to represent Team GB at international triathlon events, I know an Olympic gymnast from school and a girl from my Spanish class is a champion jiu jitsu-er. I know a Team GB canoeist too. I used to think top athletes were on a totally different level from ‘average people’, but from my friends’ experiences, I can see that maybe it’s not that hard after all.

At university, I only started triathlon in my final year, and I know if I started it in my first year, maybe it could have been me in blue, red and white too.

I dreamt the other night that I was swimming and after the session, I asked the coach how I did. He said I’m one of the best swimmers this city has seen, but I’ll never make the Olympics, I’m too old. It was devastating to wake up from that dream.

Although I’d love to be in the Olympics, I think I like variation too much. I can’t concentrate on just one sport, even multi-sport events like triathlon…I’m always doing something else on the side to switch it up. Maybe I’ll never be a black belt in taekwondo, or maybe I’ll never specialise in one given sport, but I think I’m ok knowing I won’t be in the Olympics any time soon (it’s too late for Rio, and I don’t want to go to Japan). But dreaming about my failed Olympic dream sparked a whole range of emotions about my sporting life so far…

Marathon Safety

Like all sports, marathon and long distance running both have their risks. Every year and during most non-professional races there are injuries: cramp, blisters, sprains, fainting, even heart attacks in extreme cases. Which is why it’s so important to train before any big event.

I’ve entered two half-marathons in China, and for both of them, as well as the self-responsibility agreement* you need to submit either a 6-month half-marathon race finishing time, or a health check-up certificate from the last year, which shows you have nothing wrong with your heart or breathing that may cause a problem during the race. I did a lot of triathlons last season and was never asked for anything like this, but I think it’s actually really important, and something that has been overlooked in other sports.

There’s been a sudden boost of long distance running participation in China, particularly over the past two years, and the attention to safety at both races I’ve been in has really been great. I’ve realised that long distance running in China is more of a middle-aged person kind of sport, most of the young people are volunteering at the water stations (located at 5km, 7km and almost every km after 10km), and as new people are starting to run, getting a health check should be encouraged. Besides the obligatory health-check/recent qualifying time, the water stations are really great. They offer both water and a light flat energy drink (red bull is given in your goody bag at the end) as well as snacks like orange segments, broken bits of banana and cherry tomatoes and soaked sponges (not for consumption).

The organisation says there is a volunteer every 100-200m of the race, which is true. They all have a compressed water spray thing which other runners had sprayed on their calves, a first aid kit and some bottles of water. I’ve been in races before where I’ve gone for several km without seeing a sign or volunteer and not knowing if I was on the right track, or who would help me if I fell (although athletes are friendly to each other in training, sometimes in competitions people disregard that companionship and would run past a wounded soldier).

Before the race, when I picked up my race pack, besides my race number, it also contained a small business-card sized information leaflet. It had very simple instructions on what to do in situations that may happen during a race: what to do if somebody faints, is sick, is unconscious and breathing (or not). Something small like this could really help in an emergency as basic first aid isn’t something everybody learns, and sometimes when something like that happens, you forget what to do. I really admire this, and think it could easily be adopted for other races and competitions.

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Emergency safety card

The sign up process still needs some adjustment, as I forgot my login details and couldn’t reset them, and the contents of the goody bag have been a little strange (pickled radish, small bottles of local 43% alcohol, a theme park-style rain mac, like one you’d get on a log flume, grape-flavoured soap) but otherwise I’ve been amazed at how well these races have been organised. No corners have been cut and I hope this is not just in Zhejiang province.

Keep up the good work China, it’s great to see these standards at even the smallest of events.

*a document that says you take responsibility for any accident that happens during the race and cannot sue the organising body (pretty standard with all races)

Running around the world

Doing a sport in a different country will always be a little different from doing it at home, with different facilities, weather and people, you probably won’t get the same experience. Running is no different.

When I started running, back in the Canary Islands in 2013, the conditions were just perfect for me. The club I ran with organised running routes to the next village and back, as well as some core strength exercises before we set off. The weather was quite humid and warm most of the time, even though we ran in the evening. The run to the next village was along the coast, and there was also a part with about 400 steps if I remember correctly, and we ran up and down those steps at least once each training session, which was essential as most of the races were mountainous.

When I went back to the UK and joined the triathlon team, to be honest, I didn’t really get into the running part of it until quite late. Sure, I did some interval sessions and a couple of runs around campus, but I didn’t join Strava until about June, so I wasn’t really invested in my running.

Strava definitely changed that, I loved finding segments when I went out running and was surprised to break a few course records. What was even better, was going to a different city or country and topping the leader board in another place. I currently own CRs in three countries!

In the UK, I would go running on a route around my house, near a lake, near the canal, through housing estates, but always quite close to greenery and along a nature footpath. The mornings would be cold, so I often ran in the evenings before dinner time and the running community in the UK is so friendly. When runners come across each other, we smile and wave (before going home later and seeing the flyby and checking out their run!*)

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Before my 800m race

Anyway, running in China is definitely the most difficult of all the places I’ve ran. Firstly, the air quality. When I first arrived, after every run, I had a sore throat and a bad cough and I knew it was because of the air pollution. My friends told me that after two weeks, my body would adjust and it kind of did, but of course there are days that are more polluted than others, and if I exert myself too much, I might get a cough.

Some Chinese cities are great to run in, there are parks, hills, lakes and rivers. But often, that’s not the case and I find myself running on the road. Chinese cities love big leafy avenues, but sometimes the tree takes up the whole of the pavement, so I have to run on the road instead. China is always constructing and reconstructing, so you have to watch out for open manholes, tools left on the ground and construction vehicles. This is probably why most people run on the athletics track on campus.

But the good thing about all the construction is how much my run has changed. I used to run until the pavement stopped, but then they added more pavement, so I run further now. They also added tactile slabs on the ground and have filled in some of the big holes that were in the floor. Running in China is always an experience, especially in the morning when you come across people doing tai chi or other strange exercises.

*Please don’t tell me I’m the only one who does this

Gender Inequality, the shoe’s on the other foot

If you’ve been reading the newspaper columns this year, you’ve bound to have heard how women pay 37% more than men on the high street or are even overcharged everyday on products that are packaged differently but are actually no different from mens – pink razors, pens and deodorant are the most cited examples.

So when I went to treat myself for Chinese New Year, I went straight to the men’s section of my semi-local Decathlon store. I wanted to buy some new running trainers as my current ones are tattered, torn and a bit of old after years of running across, up and down four countries.

I looked at some reviews online and decided to try a pair of Kalenji’s, specially designed for long distances. The colour was a nice dark blue, the 40 fitted fine and I was happy to pay the 399块 (about £40). Until I walked past the ladies section, just to see if they had any purple ones. I found the same shoe, in a bright pink, ‘ladies’ version (I measured, the shoes were exactly the same). Besides the colours and the fact that the men’s laces were longer, something else was different…the price.

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Pink or blue?

After all I’ve been reading recently, I assumed there would be no difference in China, and the ladies shoe would be more expensive than the men’s. But to my surprise, the ladies shoe was 29% cheaper, at 299块  (about £30).

I was shocked, outraged and very confused. How could quite clearly the exact same shoe differ so much in price, only due to the colour and it being in the mens/womens section?

663695312069214461In my outrage, I took both sets of shoes to the till to ask if they really were different prices, maybe they’d made a mistake? Maybe my laowai charm would make them scan the pink ones but give me the blue ones? The 服务员 told me that yes, they were different prices. I asked her why, she said ‘different colour, different price’. I pleaded with her “but the blue ones are so nice, why are they 100块 more expensive?”, but she didn’t budge and told me (nicely, not aggressively) “if you want the blue ones, spend another 100”. I sighed, said no, I’m on a student budget.

She told me if I sign up to be a Decathlon member, not only will I get some points, but she would give me a free frisbee. Sold. I spent 10 mins filling in details to become a Decathlon 会员 and walked away with my pink trainers.

But I’m still considering changing them to the blue. What should I do? I really liked the blue ones, but the difference in price just made me so upset and angry, I should probably stick to the pink ones out of principal, and my Dad said they’ll lose their pink shine soon enough anyway.

Getting out and running

 

The cold, dark mornings arrived in China which really disrupted my running habit. I used to set my first alarm at 6.13am to get up and run at 6.30am when my dormitory’s door was unlocked and go for a morning run in one of the three stadiums on campus. But now, even if I set that 6.13am alarm, it’s really hard to get out of bed and go running. I don’t usually mind running in the rain, and it’s been raining a lot lately, but more and more people have told me that the rain in China has lots of chemicals that can damage my skin and hair, which puts me off. And I don’t have a base layer, amongst all my other excuses.

On Sunday, I wasn’t planning on going for a run, I had a tough HIIT taekwondo class on Saturday [lots of jumping] and had another one on Sunday afternoon, but when I woke up at 10.30am and saw the sun shining, I just couldn’t resist going for a run. Especially as the day before I deleted a lot of slow songs off my mp3 player, so it was full of uplifting, upbeat songs.

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A rare sunny morning in Jinhua

My legs were a bit stuff, but it was so bright and clear outside, I didn’t mind. I knew taekwondo class would be hard that afternoon, especially if the instructor made us do all that jumping again, but I told myself I’m training for a marathon, I need to keep running.

After my 8.7km run, I treated myself to lunch in the canteen. I’d seen the deep fried chicken wings several times, but never tried them until Sunday. They were a little spicy, and I am really glad I tried them, 35p for two is a bargain too.

I didn’t bother to get changed out of my favourite running top, as I have to wear something underneath my itchy taekwondo clothes. In taekwondo that afternoon, after 3 weeks of practice, I finally managed to master a kick that the instructor had been teaching us. After class I went back to the canteen in my gym clothes, (the second time in one day!) and was pleased with all the sport I’d done that weekend. It was tiring, and I think I almost cried in taekwondo on Saturday because it was too difficult, but I made it through and am now stronger for it.

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My favourite running top
Sometimes, you just need that little push to get you out running, then all is good. On Sunday it was the sunshine, I wonder what it will be today, or tomorrow.

First Athletics Meet [1500m]

Ok, so technically this wasn’t my first athletics competition I’ve taken part in. In year 7, I was in the Coventry schools athletics tournament, I raced in the 110m hurdles and came last. I came last because we’d been using training hurdles at school, but when we got to the competition, they were raised a few cms higher. I cleared the first one, but fell over at the second, and the third and ended the race crying, with bloody knees. I still have a scar from that day. It was one of those days where wasn’t about taking part, it was more about finishing the race and not giving up at the first hurdle [pun intended].

Anyway, Zhejiang Normal uni, like most Chinese universities, holds an annual athletics meet or 运动会, it’s like a sports day that Chinese people do throughout their school life, so actually by the time they get to university, most students are a bit bored of it all and choose not to watch or take part – which isn’t the spirit!!

As I love sports and am preparing for the upcoming Jinhua marathon in April, I decided to enter the longest distance races available – 800m and 1500m. I was a bit disappointed there wasn’t a 5km* race, but I couldn’t complain/didn’t know who to complain to.

I was the only girl from my department to enter the 1500m, but there would be other girls competing from other departments (engineering, nursery, maths, literature etc). There were 42 female competitors in the end, and I was quite nervous about all of us running at the same time, but then my 负责人 Evelyn (another Chinese student from my department who was appointed to be almost like a PA – taking me to get my race number, telling me the rules, etc) told me how we’d be split into 3 heats. There wouldn’t be a final, so I’d have to run faster than the girls in the other heats to get up on the leaderboard.

I lined up on the starting line and looked at my competitors, some were in sports clothes, one was wearing denim shorts, not all of them had proper trainers. But I dressed the part, even if I lost my race, I wanted to look like a professional athlete from overseas, so wore my matching purple Puma top and shorts, along with my trademark blue headband, blue sunglasses and worn out trainers which probably need replacing.

Before the race
Before the race

The race started and although my coach told me to stay in the middle, with 5 girls ahead of me, I decided to stick with the first three girls. The four of us broke away at the beginning and we dropped down to three after the first 200m as the girl in grey got tired. I was running alongside the girl in black for a while, keeping a steady pace for a lap. Then her coach shouted at her and she overtook me for a little while, but I could tell that she wouldn’t be able to keep that pace for a long time, so I just stayed with her, stamping my feet so she knew I was coming for her. We’d lost the girl in yellow by this time. I wasn’t really thinking about the other heats, I just wanted to win this race as I had a whole stand full of fans shouting for me. My friends from Sudan, Cameroon, South Korea, China, Ghana and Ethiopia all turned out for me and whistled, shouted and went crazy each time I passed them.

Setting the pace
Before the race

I soon overtook her and she kept behind for a while, until when I got to the final 250m I accelerated, and made my move to see if she would respond. A few seconds later, I couldn’t hear her footsteps, only the whistles from the crowd and people shouting my name. I glanced back at the end of the final corner and saw she hadn’t upped the pace like me. That was it, I’d won! Glory was mine as I crossed the finish line.

The crowd went wild and I was suddenly surrounded by people, my 负责人 Evelyn, gave me some water, and the other people were school journalists, all wanting to interview me. I felt like a pro sportswoman as I told them how this was the first time I’d ran a 1500m race and my usual race is triathlon.

When the results came out later, I saw I’d ran in it 5.59:42mins, so my pace was just under 4mins/km, which was what I was aiming for. But what surprised me more was my standing! I came third overall, which meant I’d go on the podium to receive a medal and some flowers from one of the school’s deputies. It was the first time I’d been on a podium like this, with flower girls, my name being read out on a microphone and a group of paparazzi standing below.

Very happy to be on the podium
Before the race

*it turns out there was a 5km race, but it was only open to students in the sports department, meaning there were only 4 girls competing, I should have been able to race in that!