Category: Writing (Page 1 of 5)

Every Run Is A Gift, Loch Ness Marathon Edition

This is going to be a long post about running with a family anecdote at the end. Skip to the last section if you’re just here for kid stories.

The author, on the home stretch, already thinking about the bratwurst waiting on the other side of the finish line

Background

I’ve been running fairly consistently since mid-2020. I started with some 10ks in the first year and moved on to a half-marathon in the autumn of 2021. Somewhere around mile 11 of 13, I was calling past Brent an idiot for signing up for a 13-mile race, thinking I’d never do that again, and that only utter lunatics would run 13 miles in one go and then do it all over again. I finished the race, had a protein bar, and started thinking about how I’d tackle the next one to run it faster. 

My second half in April 2022 was a much better experience, in which I felt like I was fully in control throughout the race and crossed the finish line with enough gas left in the tank (charge left in the battery?) to keep going a few more miles. I finished that race and started thinking about running a full marathon in the autumn.

But why?

I’ve heard that a lot over the last few months. Why would you run that far? Why would you subject yourself to that?

The marathon is a different beast from running 10ks and half-marathons. The human body normally only stores enough glycogen to get you through 18 to 20 miles of running, so if you’re not carb-loading in advance or taking on sugars on race day, you’re likely to experience what runners call “hitting the wall,” i.e. glycogen depletion and the ensuing muscle cramps that can turn 23 miles of good running into a hellish 3-mile shuffle to the finish. Add to that the usual muscle strains, overheating, and the non-zero chance of cardiac arrest, and the marathon comes with a level of risk that doesn’t exist at shorter distances. You can get all the health benefits of regular exercise without running any races, and shorter distances come with the same completion medals and t-shirts. 

So, Brent, why?

I’m a middle-class, middle-aged white man with a good job in tech. I have a loving wife, two well-behaved children, a dog, a cat, and a hedgehog. There is minimal pain and suffering in my daily life. There are limited places in my life where I can push myself to my perceived limits. This was a chance to explore those limits in a way that came with big upsides (better overall health, stress reduction from regular exercise) and–if I was smart about it–limited downsides.

Training Lead-up

Maybe there are people who have an uninterrupted training block, but in two years I haven’t managed one yet. Going into April’s half-marathon I was fighting knee issues from trying to do too much, too soon. I came out of it with a goal of doing nothing but base building for a fall marathon. Lots of easy, long runs with a few strides here and there, but no dedicated speed sessions. Things were going great into late June when The Virus struck.

Three days of fever followed by three more days of major fatigue put a crimp in my plans. I was wary of stressing my heart by returning to training too soon, so I ramped up over the next two weeks. Somewhere shortly after that, my knees were aching something fierce. I knew from prior experience that I had to back off the mileage and increase the rehab exercises or what felt like patellar tendinopathy would turn into full-blown patellar femoral pain syndrome. The last week of June and all of July were basically shot.

The River Ness lapping against the shore of the Ness Islands
The Ness Islands

I was finally able to run consistently again from early August. I made it through August with a modified training plan that culminated in two final long runs of 17.5 and 20 miles in early September. Those runs each sucked after about 15 miles, but they gave me the confidence that I could finish 26.2, and they also gave me opportunities to test my race day nutrition plan. I averaged something like 35 miles a week over the final six weeks, with a peak of about 40. This was supposed to be more like 50 on average with a peak near 60, but I didn’t have time to safely build to that volume.

My taper coincided with a trip to the States for work. I did some light running while I was there, but put in fewer miles than a real training plan would expect.

Pre-race
The girls and I flew from London to Inverness Friday evening, which gave us all of Saturday to wander Inverness and pick up race packets. I grabbed mine while Carissa and the girls signed up to run the 5k with our friends–the Diullos–who were visiting from the States. We admired the castle and went for a stroll along the River Ness and the Ness Islands where the girls would be running (walking) the next day. I went back to our room for a nap. Carissa, the girls, and the Diullos went on an adventure down the loch, including driving up to some castle that was apparently off-limits. They had a good time, I had a good nap, and we met again at the Fig & Thistle restaurant for an excellent pre-race dinner. 

I was up early on race morning and off to the bus pickup spot for a 7:30 departure. I expected the ride to the starting line to take about an hour, and my mental model was that we would drive the most direct path to get there, following the course in reverse. Instead, the bus went along the road on the northwest side of the loch, down to Fort Augustus, and back up to the starting line. I was getting worried as we went up and down the hills and through switchback after switchback. It turned out that this was because the road on that side is two lanes, and the road we followed during the race was mostly one lane. My worries were unfounded, thankfully.

The trip to the start line was my first view of the loch. The sun peeked over the hills and shone down golden through scattered clouds. The loch glistened below us, whitecaps racing each other before a fresh southwestern breeze. I didn’t expect to see the sailboats moored in the loch, but in retrospect, it makes perfect sense. The loch is a perfect place to spread a full press of sail and glide along for 20+ miles. 

Loch Ness on a sunny autumn morning
The view from the bus window on the way to the starting line

We rounded Fort Augustus and climbed up into the hills. The bus motor strained, and I wondered if we’d have to run to our marathon. The road turned into a single-lane track with highland lakes on one side and hills dotted with sheep on the other. I’m not sure where exactly the waterfall was, but at some point we passed some falls that must have been a couple of hundred meters tall with water falling from ledge to ledge and running out to the loch in the distance. I don’t have pictures of it all, but that’s a deficiency I want to correct in the future. The highlands are stunningly beautiful, and I want to go back when I have more time to spend exploring them.

The race organizers had three groups of portaloos. The biggest batch, near the baggage dropoff trucks, had a horrific queue. If you’re running this race in the future, walk a bit further up the hill to the next set of loos with shorter queues. Or do what many of us did and find a quiet pine tree to water off to the side of the starting area. 

The clouds, hills, and bracken of the highlands
The view from the edge of the starting area

A special shout out to the young lads and lassies who piped us over the starting line. You were incredible. Video on Insta:

https://www.instagram.com/p/CjN0hk6D9-b/

Race
Things were congested to start, which wasn’t a surprise given that there were 2500 people all running down the same single-lane highland road. After getting into the wrong corral for the Richmond Half, I made sure to start in the middle of the 4:00 corral for Loch Ness. The race started with a long downhill, which made for a nice warm-up after a chilly wait. I tried to stay around my target 9:00 pace, but it was even slower in the first mile due to congestion. The first few miles were easy, and I wasn’t fooled by my quads complaining or the blister that was sure to derail me and turned out to be absolutely nothing. 

I responded to Carissa’s messages a few times, took a couple of selfies with the loch, and basically ran a controlled race up to the halfway point. I wasn’t seriously racing, which was thoroughly proven when I saw the halfway point and sent my running buddy in New York (sup, Carey) some shitposts on WhatsApp. I was passing people fairly often in the first half of the race, which worried me a little. Everything I had read said that a marathon is a 20-mile warmup and a 6-mile race, and the people doing the passing in the first half are the ones on the side of the road in the second half. I was running at the pace I expected, so I kept at it and hoped for the best. 

Going into the race I had 7 SiS gels in my vest, 2 packets of Tailwind split between 500mL flasks, and an extra packet of caffeinated Tailwind in a pocket. The idea was to take gels every half hour, sip the Tailwind between aid stations, drink a little water at the aid stations, and refill a flask with the final pack of caffeinated Tailwind around mile 18 when I started to flag.

I cruised from the halfway point up to mile 18, still regularly passing people, and still felt good. I ended up skipping the flask refill and drank some extra water instead.

The author on the shore of Loch Ness
You know it’s a Serious Business race when there’s time for a selfie

My feet were aching, but I felt better after 18 miles of marathon pace than I had on my 17.5 mile training run at an easier pace. My legs were tired but didn’t feel even close to cramping. The worst issue up to then was that there were a few times when I started to feel the gels coming back up, but even then it wasn’t ever a real danger.  

Just past mile 18, the course starts sloping uphill through mile 20. I mostly jogged up the hills, with a few places where I slowed to walk for a few strides to catch my breath before heaving back into rhythm. At the top of the climb, the road sloped into a long, glorious downhill. I checked my watch, did some math in my head, and decided that I hadn’t come all that way to miss my sub-4:00 goal by a minute. Baby, I ran. I pelted downhill as fast as my tired legs would carry me. It wasn’t–objectively–all that fast, but at the time it felt amazing. I powered on through 22, 23, and 24 miles. I was feeling the effects of the increased pace and repeating my race mantra, “Every run is a gift. Every run is a gift. Every run is a gift.” The footbridge across the River Ness approached. I could hear the crowd across the river at the finish line cheering. All I had left was the wobbly bridge and a sprint to the finish.

Then the spectators pointed to the next bridge another half mile down the road. 

Honestly, at that exact moment, I was gutted. I slogged my way to the far bridge, across, and back along the river. At the 26-mile marker I forced myself to pick it up again, but I knew I wasn’t going to make it across in under four hours. I didn’t. Sorry. There’s no Disney finish. I crossed at 4:01:14. I had come all that way, only to miss it at the last. 

Race Stats
Goals
A: sub-4:00: No
B: Get to the start line healthy: Yes
C: Get to the finish line healthy: Yes

My goals were not aggressive. Based on my half marathon time, I should have been able to run a full marathon in around 4 hours. That was always what I had in mind, but the most important things were getting to the start line healthy and finishing the race healthy. 

Splits
(Mile/km splits are too annoying to format on the blog)
Half time: 1:59:32
Full time: 4:01:14 
Details are on Strava if you’re a runner and want to dig deeper.

I was aiming for sub-4:00, but I am still happy to have gotten close to it. The 4:01 is better than what the 538 marathon predictor thought I’d do, given my training volume and past race finishes. 

Post-race
I crossed the line and collected my medal, shirt, and a goodie bag full of tinned soup, porridge, and low-sodium salt. (Seriously. Tinned soup. Thank the race sponsor, I guess.) I also collected a banana, some water, and an alcohol-free beer. The water, banana, and a couple of protein bars went down well. The beer I couldn’t manage, and I was fresh out of can openers for the soup. Carissa did pick me up a bratwurst on the way out, which was maybe the best bratwurst I had ever had in my life until I dropped the last 1/3 of it when the bun gave way. I’m more devastated about losing that brat than I am missing my target time.

We didn’t have much time between the race ending and our flight from Inverness back to London, but I was able to swing by the Diullos’ rental to grab a quick shower and change into warm clothes. They even gave us a lift to the airport. Thanks, Diullos! 

It was a good race. I had no idea what to expect given it was my first full marathon and the disruption to my training. In retrospect, I feel like I was in control the whole way. I was never close to hitting the wall. Even the final mile that was rough was only rough because I had run myself into my lactate threshold, and I couldn’t hold the pace. Looking back at the splits, even if I had held my pace for that last mile, I would have missed sub-4:00. I needed to be a little smarter at the beginning of the race and paced more consistently on the flats.

All in all, I had a great time, and I am pretty sure I have another 10, 15, maybe 20 minutes of easy noob gains to pick up in the next 6-12 months.

Gear

The race day gear in all its poorly-lit glory

From top to bottom:

Shirt: white race shirt from a Kew 10k. It was soft, well-loved, and I knew it wouldn’t cause any problems.

Shorts: Tracksmith 5″ Session shorts. These are my favorite shorts ever. They’re soft, comfortable, light, and slightly stretchy. If they had pockets, they’d be the perfect shorts. 

Socks: Balega Hidden Comfort. These have been my goto running socks for the last 18 months. I have three pairs, and I snap at anyone in my house who tries to borrow them.

Shoes: Saucony Speed 2s in the Campfire Story colorway. Did you know that bright shoes make you run faster? It’s true. (It’s not true.) These are blaze orange and have glow-in-the-dark soles. They also have a nylon plate that’s supposed to make you run faster. That might actually be true. What I can say is, they were good. My feet ached a bit from about mile 18 onward, but my knees and ankles had zero issues. 

Vest: Salomon Advanced Skin 12 with two 500ml flasks. I’ve been running with this vest all year. I like it for training, but in retrospect, I think I’ll find a way to race without it going forward. That will probably mean trading out the Session shorts for some tights that will let me carry my phone and gels. Or maybe get a Flipbelt. We’ll see.

Anti-chafing stick: Squirrel’s Nut Butter. This was a relatively recent acquisition, but I started getting some chafing on 15+ mile runs, so I picked up a stick before my 17.5 and 20-mile long runs. Liberal application to the groin and nipples eliminated all chafing.

Nutrition: SiS Go Isotonic Energy and Tailwind. The SiS gels don’t require extra water, which is nice and supposedly means they’re easier on your stomach. I had zero issues with them on training runs or during the race, so I suppose they work. Tailwind is supposed to be the same way, and I took some in my flasks. I felt like I was on a 26-mile snack run, and I never even glimpsed the wall.

Pre-race sweats: Some cheap sweatshirts and sweatpants from Poundland. I looked for cheaper charity shop options but didn’t find any in Twickenham. For 11 quid, I can’t really complain. They were soft and warm.

Apple Watch Series 6, not pictured: this is the non-data-enabled version. I generally like the watch since it lets me train without carrying a phone or a debit card, and I make use of the WorkOutdoors app to track my runs (and upload from there to Strava), plus Apple Podcasts and Spotify, both offline. The battery held up with no issues, but the heart rate monitor was terrible for basically the whole race. I plan to experiment with a chest strap heart rate monitor for my next training block, so hopefully that solves the issue. In retrospect, given how much I run, I wish I had gotten the watch with mobile data on it; it would have been nice to put my phone into the bag drop and run with nothing but the gels in my pocket.

What’s Next
Before the race, I had already signed up for the London Winter 10k in February. I’ll spend October recovering from the marathon with mostly short, easy runs, then get back onto a training plan for the Winter 10k. I’ve also entered the ballot for the London marathon in April and the Berlin marathon next September. Odds are high that I won’t get into either of them, but I’d happily run either (or even both) if I get lucky. Assuming I don’t get into them, I’ll probably aim for a half marathon sometime next spring and another full somewhere interesting next autumn. Maybe I’ll finally do that trip back to Germany and run in Munich.

Family Anecdote
While the kids were out exploring while I was napping on Saturday, they went to the loch and took a bunch of photos. They also, apparently, collected some souvenirs. When we went through security at Inverness airport to fly back to London, the eldest child’s bag was pulled aside. The security person had her open it and move some things around until she came up with two sizable rocks. I don’t mean little arrowhead-sized things. I mean big, honking bricks. Those things probably weighed 8 lbs each. Unfortunately, they were confiscated. When the security worker went to dispose of them, she was caught between heaving two giant rocks into her waste bin (and presumably ripping the bag) or just leaving them on the floor for someone else to deal with. She chose the second option.

We went on into the terminal and found some empty seats. The younger child reached into her jacket pocket, produced a smaller, palm-sized stone, and sat it on the table for her sister to admire. You’ll never see a creature smugger than the little sister who got something over on her older sister. 

She didn’t even run 26 miles yesterday

Publication News: The Mission Continues

The inspirations

Apparently I’m terrible at noticing these things, but I had a new story published at the end of May. The Mission Continues is available now at Factor Four Magazine. I was trying to brainstorm a topic, and Fezzik and Aela were chomping on each other, as they do. It got me to thinking about writing a cleverly disguised pet story about pets that actually get along. Dozer and Digger are post-apocalyptic robots trying to complete a long-standing mission of replanting a devastated Earth. It’s the story of their friendship, but it’s also a story about autocracy.

Publication News: Retirement Options for (Too) Successful Space Entrepreneurs

I am delighted to have a new story out in the May/June 2022 issue of Analog Science Fiction. “Retirement Options for (Too) Successful Space Entrepreneurs” is the story of a space entrepreneur who has achieved his goals, but found that he hasn’t quite realized his dreams. It’s a story about food, regret, and doing a little good in the world.

You can read it via most major newsstands and bookstores, or through the Analog website. My personal suggestion is to go visit your nearest independent bookshop and buy all the copies on the shelf.

Selling this story to Analog was the realization of a long-time goal when I started writing. Analog is one of the big, historical markets for SF, and having them buy one of my stories is a validation that I am, in fact, getting better at this whole writing thing.

I just re-read the story. It’s probably the best thing I’ve ever written. You should read it, too.

Awards Eligibility 2021

Hello, friends. I have three stories eligible for 2021 awards. All three are flash length (under 1000 words), which qualifies them in the “short story” category for science fiction and fantasy awards.

Lisbon Sea Dragon

Kintsugi for a Broken Heart” is probably my favorite story that I’ve written, in part because it’s so intensely personal. If you really want to read just one story to get a feel for my writing, I’d start with this one. It was published in February 2021 in Nature.

A Dying World, Overheated and Nearly Ruined” is another personal story, drawing on a lifetime of computer repair and customer service, but perhaps not the same degree as Kintsugi. I’m proud of it, and I’m especially proud to have sold a second story to Nature, this one in August 2021.

An Open Letter to Bezoath, Lord of Darkness and Shareholder Value” is a “write what you know” story about corporate life, and the tone of it is right there in the title. It’s a bit lighter, but with an underlying seriousness. This story also came with the best acceptance letter:”I’m afraid I have some bad news. We really enjoyed “An Open Letter to Bezoath…” and we would like to accept it for publication, which means you will no longer hold the title of TTL’s most-shortlisted-but-never-accepted author. (P.S. congratulations!).” Translunar Traveler’s Lounge may be a semi-pro publication, but they are publishing some great work, despite (or because of?) publishing a Brent Baldwin story.

I may yet have a fourth story out this year, but it looks as if it’s slipped to Q1 2022.

A Year+ of Running: A Retrospective

Our lives were upended, along with the rest of the world, in March 2020. A year and a half into our big adventure of leaving Missouri for the UK, our plans of cavorting around London and dashing off to Europe were thwarted. With us all stuck at home, I cooked more than ever. I also learned to bake my own bread. After a few months of being entirely sedentary and eating lots of good food, I had an acute realization that I had to get more exercise. (See my post last summer about a trip to Accident & Emergency (American translation: the ER).)

The wicker dragon at Hampton Court Palace

At first I tried cycling. Carissa and I rode around the borough a bit, including a trip up to Kew to see the new Brentford Community Stadium. I realized, though, that cycling is both time-consuming and expensive. It also isn’t that great at helping prepare a body for the only exercise I knew I really enjoyed: playing football (soccer).

Richmond Hill and the Thames

After years of incomprehension about why people would possibly do it, I laced up my shoes and went out for a run. See, my joke had been that I only believed in running if there was a ball, frisbee, or the police involved. The first run was two miles, and I hated it.

I went out again two days later.

Somewhere around run number four or five, it started to suck less. After about three weeks, I was actually enjoying it. I chatted with a friend who was running long road races in the US (hey, Carey!), and he gave me some advice and suggested some books to read. Somewhere in that first month, I saw a signup for the Kew Gardens 10k. Running 10 consecutive kilometers seemed like a stretch, but I enjoy a challenge, and one of my coworkers (hi, Matt!) encouraged me to try it. When I mentioned it to Carissa, she was eager to join me, so we both signed up.

I found a running plan online and set to work. Along the way, I decided to replace my old, battered Adidas running shoes, and after reading “Born to Run,” I went for some minimalist shoes. Cue my first running injury. I didn’t realize that you need to shift from padded shoes to minimalist shoes gradually, and I especially didn’t appreciate what running with a zero drop from heel to toe would do to my achilles tendon. I lost a few weeks to achilles rehabilitation (so many eccentric heel drops!), but I was in good enough shape to run the 10k in September.

A greenhouse at Kew Gardens

It was a blast. Hard, but fun. I was doing 6 mile runs prior to the race, and on race day I went out and pushed myself harder than I had since I was playing soccer in high school. I finished the race in 55:59, which wasn’t exactly fast, but it was faster than Carissa, and that was what really mattered.

After the race, I kept running. English autumns are mild, and I cruised through October and November. I looked at the race calendars for the London area, and I set my sights on a half-marathon at Hampton Court Palace, which is only a few miles from us. I found a new training plan, and set to work.

The path at Bushy Park

The training plan lasted about three weeks. In early December my second bit of trouble hit. I started to get pain in my knee. I first noticed it out on a long run where the first four or so miles were fine, and it gradually grew worse until around mile seven. I had to stop and walk home. I rested a few days, everything felt fine in the house, so I went for another run. About a mile into it, I felt mild pain. A half mile later, and it was excruciating. Some internet research made me think I was suffering IT band syndrome, so I was back to rehab. Amy Winehouse would not have approved. (This routine from Strength Running worked really well.)

After about a month of knee and hip work, I was back out on the road in January. English winters are mild, but they’re dark. And wet. Working from home was convenient because I could watch for a dry part of the day, block an hour from work, and dash out the door. This kept me going until March when the light started to improve. Unfortunately, with the UK in another covid lockdown, the half-marathon was moved from April to September, which was probably for the best for me. Fortunately, the lockdown was relaxing in stages, so I was able to sign up for another 10k at Kew in May.

Sculpture at Kew Gardens

I adjusted my running routine in the spring. I added lunges and leg swings to my pre-run warmup. I kept doing my hip and glute work once a week or so. I made sure to foam roll and stretch after each run.

I went into my second Kew 10k, and I felt good. Carissa ran it with me again, and this time I was ready. My goal was sub-50 minutes. My stretch goal was sub-48, and I thought I had a chance at it after seeing how my interval training went in April. I finished in 47:45. I was over the moon. (Yes, I beat Carissa again; she has long-term knee problems and can’t push as hard as I can. Naturally, I taunted her about beating her a second time.)

I set my sights on the Hampton Court Palace half-marathon, but I also signed up for another 10k in August.

In addition to running, I started playing football again. I was fitter and lighter than ever, and I went from being one of the weakest players in the group to one of–I don’t want to say better players, but I’ll at least say that I didn’t feel as if I was embarrassing the entire United States when I stepped on the pitch.

In early June injury struck again. This time it was a recurrence of an old injury from Missouri: busted ribs. Playing indoor soccer in Missouri involved a few untimely collisions with other players and the wall, and one of those cracked a rib on my left side. I missed a month of playing, and it healed, but another hard blow at 7-a-side this past June took me out of commission for a few weeks. Things healed with time, but my half-marathon training plan was destroyed. I kept running, but without as much structure or volume.

The Supermarine Spitfire

The Spitfire 10k is a fundraiser for the RAF Museum, and I ran it in late August. I finished in 51:31 minutes, right in between my previous two races. I felt tired. And heavy. And slow.  The lack of structure to my training didn’t feel as obvious on my long, easy runs, but I really felt it on race day.

The first two injuries were my fault. I should have done more research before changing shoes. I also should have been more careful about increasing my volume after the first Kew 10k. The rib injury, though, was more of a freak accident. I could quit playing football, but I enjoy it too much to walk away because I might run a few minutes slower in a race.

I had a two-week gap between races, and I was determined to improve on my Spitfire time. The course at Kew Gardens is a bit more twisty, but it’s one I know well.

Look at those turns!

Carissa and I both ran it in early September. With a cool, cloudy morning and no traffic exhaust filling my lungs, I was ready to run. Going in, my stretch goal was to set a new personal best (beating 47:45), my primary goal was to break 50 minutes, and my tertiary goal was to improve on my Spitfire time of 51:37.

People like Kew Gardens. No, people love Kew Gardens. It’s one of the prettiest places in London, and worth a day out even if there’s no race. And it was packed. Over 2000 people turned up. The organizers had people in waves, but they were by bib number rather than expected finish time. This meant significant crowding near the start, and with the first few kilometers being so narrow and windy, it was hard to settle into a rhythm. I probably lost 30 seconds to a minute fighting the crowd. Not that it really mattered. My fitness wasn’t quite as good as it was in May, and I don’t have a great feel for how to pace myself yet. Those were much larger contributors to missing my stretch goal, but I was reasonably pleased to finish in under 50 minutes at 49:21.

Carissa, unfortunately, injured her knee around the eight-kilometer mark. She somehow limped to the finish line, but really struggled after that. We walked–very slowly–out to Kew Green and caught a cab home. The good news is that she felt better the next day and is now working on her own rehab routine.

My final race of the year was the big one. The Hampton Court Palace Half-marathon. Hampton Court Palace is in the southern part of the borough, about four miles from us. I jog through the adjacent park (Bushy Park) periodically, and I was excited to have a race through the park and along the Thames.

Going into the race my goals were to finish under 2:00:00 as the main goal, under 2:15:00 as the B goal, and simply to finish without injury as the C goal. The race calculators said I should be able to finish in under 1:50:00, but I was far from convinced.

The moat at Hampton Court Palace

Sunday morning was cloudy and cool, and the crowd was about the same size as the Kew 10k at 2000 people. I felt undertrained, and wasn’t sure how things were going to go, but I went out at about an 8:40 pace, and it felt easy. I held close to it throughout the race, with a few dips here and there. Around the 9-mile mark, I was telling myself that I was almost finished, under 1/3 of the race to go. At about the 11-mile mark things started to hurt, and I was once again wondering why sane people would go running if they weren’t getting paid to do it. I remembered, though, that your body lies to you. It’s lazy. It wants sourdough and wine and Football Manager. I kept going. Maybe not as fast as I did at the start, but at a pace I was sure would get to the finish line under two hours.

Ultimately, I finished in 1:55:07. I stopped jogging for about 30 meters to drink a half bottle of water, and that probably cost me the 8 seconds I needed to break 1:55. You could also say that I could have pushed just a little harder at pretty much any point in the race, and that would have been true, too. It’s a good result and one that I’m sure I can beat in the future if I can string together a few months of injury-free training.

Lessons learned over the last year:

  • Don’t ramp up pace or volume too fast; the guidance I’ve found is to only add 10% volume per week and to only run 20% of your miles near a race pace
  • Ease yourself into any new shoes
  • Take the time for preventative maintenance with dynamic stretching before each run and static stretching after
  • Don’t be a slave to the training plan; take breaks when you start to feel worn down

From here, I plan to keep running. I have my sights set on a marathon next year. The Richmond Marathon is organized by the same people who organize the Kew 10k, and it’s scheduled for 11 September 2022. It’s the flattest marathon in London, run all along the Thames path from Kew Gardens down to Kingston and back. I know the course, and I know I can handle up to 15 miles, and I have plenty of time to prepare.

I don’t need to be fast. The only race I’m really trying to win is against congestive heart failure and myocardial infarction. That is the longest race, and I have miles to go before the end is in sight. Many, many miles, hopefully.

New Story Week! x2

We take a break from the regularly scheduled Football Manager posts to announce not one but two new short stories available this week.

The first is “A Dying World, Overheated and Nearly Ruined” at Nature. It’s a flash piece that’s about computer repair, global warming, and corporate bureaucracy. They say to write what you know, right?

The second is “An Open Letter to Bezoath, Lord of Darkness and Shareholder Value” at Translunar Travelers’ Lounge. This is another flash piece about bad bosses and corporate bureaucracy. Again: write what you know, right? (My current and past managers are wondering which of them this is about. I’ll tell anyone that wants to buy the first round.)

Dying World is my second published story at Nature, and it’s the first time I’ve had a market publish me twice. I’m delighted to have another story there. I’m also delighted to have published a story that I think is about something serious and affects us all. July 2021 was the hottest month on record since humans have kept records, and I still have to listen to assholes tell me that it’s totally natural, despite all evidence. Yeah… things are going great.

Lord Bezoath is my first sale to Translunar Travelers Lounge. It could be the last. The editors at the lounge want stories that are “fun.” I struggle with fun. My work tends to be on the serious side. Or the “vaguely creepy whoah this veered toward horrific” side. I want to broaden my repertoire, though, and that includes more things that are fun. You. Will. Enjoy. My. Stories, he says, turning purple in the face.

Both stories are quick. I hope you enjoy each of them for entirely different reasons. Please laugh in the right places.

Now, back to the Football Manager posts.

March Happenings

Spring has arrived in England, and the weather has turned beautiful again. It’s still cool, but the sun is out and the rain is more sporadic. It makes for wonderful jogging weather. With the country still mostly in lockdown, I’ve been getting out of the house by jogging around the borough. I’m in the middle of a half-marathon training plan and doing about 20 miles a week right now. Carissa and I are signed up for a 10k at Kew Gardens in mid-May, and I am confident in repeating my September 2020 victory in our head-to-head competition. She’s back to running, but not with the same consistency as I am. Maybe I should feel bad for taking such joy in beating her at her own sport, but that’s not how either of us are wired.

Grazing deer at Richmond Park

The deer at Richmond Park. There were about 30 more to the left.

In other news, I have received my first vaccination. The NHS sent me a text message on Saturday a few weeks ago. Initially, I thought it was a scam, but when I went to the NHS website and entered my information, it allowed me to schedule a jab for the following week. It still seems odd–and honestly kind of inexplicable–since I’m younger than the current age group getting the jab and I don’t have any current underlying conditions. Maybe childhood cancer has been useful for once? Maybe I am the beneficiary of a computer glitch? Either way, I wasn’t going to turn it down.

I received the first round of the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab a few days after my invitation. My shoulder was a little sore by the end of the day, but I felt pretty well until I woke up in the early hours of the morning with a fever, headache, and full-body aches. Even my achilles tendons ached. After tossing and turning for an hour, I took a tylenol and dozed for a few more hours. One of the benefits of working from home is that I was able to roll out of bed at 8:50 and be online before 9:00. I felt a bit under the weather throughout the day, but it was like deal with a mild cold. I wanted to go out for a run, but Carissa wouldn’t let me.

Kebabs on the grill

Chicken, mushroom, onion, and bell pepper kebabs right after they went on the grill

The next morning, day 2 post-jab, I felt fine, other than a sore shoulder. That evening I went out for an easy four-mile jog and had no issues.

On day 3 I woke up and my shoulder was a little sore, but otherwise I felt completely fine. I did a 5k time trial midday. My time wasn’t great, to be honest, but that’s probably more about my own fitness and pacing than the vaccine.

By day 4 even the shoulder soreness was gone.

Pepperoni pizza, fresh from the oven

A pepperoni pizza with pepperonis from the local butcher

When I made the original appointment, I was able to schedule a second jab for June, but it was at a pharmacy a few miles away, which was annoying given that the first jab was at the Twickenham Stoop (Harlequins rugby stadium) that’s half a kilometer away. I gambled a little and canceled my follow-up appointment. It took two days, but I was able to book one at The Stoop for the week after the original follow-up.

Carissa is still waiting to be called for her first jab, but we expect that to happen in the next month or so. Given the 12 week delay in second jabs, we’re thinking we’ll postpone our planned trip to America this summer and try to do it at Christmas instead. Neither of us want to get on an airplane with a bunch of our fellow Americans until our systems are fully-loaded with covid antibodies. It will also be nice to spend the holidays with family; it’s one of the things I miss most about living so far away.

Uncooked Hawaiian pizza

Hawaiian pizza with Black Forest ham. Because Germany is closer than Canada.

The girls were doing remote schooling from January until early March, but they’re back to in-person classes. Well, they were. They’re currently on Easter break for two weeks. They were fairly happy to go back, but happier to have the break. I’m taking a week off, too, so I can relate, kind of.

The country has relaxed the lockdown a little. We can now meet up to six people outdoors and get takeaway beers from the pub. The kids both met up with friends today. The next big relaxation is April 12th, and the whole country is looking forward to being able to get haircuts and drink in the beer gardens again. Or maybe that’s just me.

A slice of homemade carrot cake

A slice of homemade carrot cake for our March birthday girl. The icing didn’t quite turn out, but the flavor was divine.

In the meantime, we will continue our usual routes. Planning groceries. Buying groceries. Cooking groceries. Planning groceries again. Insert some laundry in there, too.

The writing continues apace. I’m nearing the end of the first draft of the novel I’ve been working on since the autumn. (I’ve taken lots of breaks to write short stories and play video games.) The plan is to get the last few chapters into place over the next week while I’m off work, then do some cleanup before I send it to some writing peers at the beginning of June. I don’t know if this novel is good. I re-read the first chapter, and I genuinely enjoyed it, so I’ll take that as a good sign. I have more in mind after this one, whether this one sells or not.

On the short story front, I have 50 submissions so far this year with 43 rejections and 0 acceptances. Eighteen stories are currently out at various markets, including some reprints. It would be nice to sell another story or two this year, but much like the novel writing, I have more tales to tell, whether these sell or not.

The author at the Stoop after his covid jab

A quick selfie at the Twickenham Stoop after my covid jab, complete with my “I was vaccinated sticker.” Did you know the jab comes with FREE STICKERS?

Take care, folks. Stay safe. Get vaccinated.

EDIT: It has been brought to my attention that you get free donuts in America if you get vaccinated. I’m so jealous. Get vaccinated. Get those donuts!

Kintsugi for a Broken Heart

It’s another new story day. Kintsugi for a Broken Heart is out at Nature Futures.

This is a story I wrote as part of a writing community event in 2020. It’s near and dear to my heart, and if you know my children, you’ll know exactly which child inspired Violet. I’ve been told that the story should come with a warning for other parents: have a tissue handy. No children or robotic dogs are harmed in the story, but it does tug on your heartstrings. Mission Accomplished, imo.

2020 Writing Statistics

I mentioned in my end of year roundup that while 2020 has been a terrible year in general, it’s been surprisingly good for my writing. One benefit of being at home all day, every day is that I have had more time to write. Truthfully, I’ve spent much of that time watching football (soccer) and playing video games, but I have done a good bit of writing, too. At various points I’ve felt unproductive, but I think that’s a reflection of working in small, productive chunks followed by long, fallow weeks of football and video games.

Looking back, I have completed:

10 flash fiction pieces
4 short stories
1 novella
1 novel (in-progress)

All told, that’s about 100k words of fiction, not counting rewrites and edits. Even within that 100k words, not all of them were keepers. I’ve trunked (retired with no intention of submitting or publishing) a few of the short stories and the novella already. They are story-shaped pieces of prose, but they either don’t have much to say or need to be tackled with a new story rather than edits. Some of the others may end up in the trunk if they don’t sell, but there are a handful that I think are legitimately good, and three have already sold.

Selling, dear reader, does not come easy. You don’t spend long in this business without learning to deal with rejection. I’ve gone back and looked at my statistics for the year, and while I’ve had a record number of sales, I’ve also had a record number of rejections. According to the Submission Grinder, I have submitted a story 145 times this year. Of those, 104 were form rejections, 17 were personal rejections, five were sales, and the rest are either pending or were closed with no response. That may seem like a huge number of stories, but the reality is that many stories were rejected multiple times, and I have been submitting stories from prior years as well as 2020.

Five for 145 is a 3.5% success rate. It’s not great! Selling three of 15 finished stories this year is a 20% success rate, which looks better, but that still means 80% of the stories I’ve written are misses rather than hits. The 100k words written is probably my lowest since I got back into writing seriously in 2011.

And yet, I’m actually thrilled with how the year has gone.

It feels as if I’ve turned a corner in the last eighteen months. Not just the sales, though the external validation certainly feels nice, but the way I look at my own work. In the past I would write a story, feel good about it, and send it out. Sometimes the story was decent, but many times it was flawed in a way that I couldn’t personally see. Sometimes my writing group could help me see the flaws, but I couldn’t fix them in a satisfactory way. Turning the corner has meant seeing the flaws sooner. It’s meant crafting stories in a way that the flaws other people find are more-easily resolved because the story itself has stronger characters, setting, conflict. It’s also meant looking at a story, seeing what I can use later, and throwing out the other 90%. Knowing what doesn’t work is just as important as knowing what does work. Writing is sometimes adding little pieces of clay to a skeleton until the sculpture is built, but other times it’s starting with a roughly-shaped block of marble and carving off the parts that don’t belong until the sculpture emerges.

2021 will mark 10 years of serious writing for me. If I’ve learned nothing else in that time, it’s that downs follow the ups, and ups follow the downs. I may not sell a single story next year. I might sell ten. I might sell ten and a novel. (Dream alert!) Obviously, I’d rather sell than not, but if it’s another year of growth and learning without any sales, that’s okay, too.

My goals for the year aren’t measured in sales, they’re measured in finished stories. I want to complete at least ten short stories, finish my current novel that’s in progress, and get another novel started. Those all feel achievable and they are within my control without being subject to the whims of editors or agents. If I can write a few more stories that I’m proud of, I’ll be a happy writer.

2020 Award Eligibility

2020 has been a terrible year in many ways, but it’s been fairly decent for my fiction career. I’ve sold four five stories and had three published. All three published this year are eligible for the major science fiction and fantasy awards.

My first sale of the year was in February. “Better in Every Way” is a user manual for your new clone. It can cook, it can clean, it can do so much more. As long as you treat it well. “Better in Every Way” is available online via Flame Tree Press.

Up next is “Where the Earth Meets the Sea and the Sea Meets the Sky.” It’s a combination of two fairy tales long after those stories end. At its heart, it’s as much romance as fantasy. A tale of two lonely, broken hearts helping each other mend at the far edge of the world. Ages ago I saw someone ask “what if a selkie story ended with a happily ever after.” I’ve tried to present how that could look. This one is not available online, but the print anthology can be purchased from Air and Nothingness Press. If you’re reading for awards and would like a copy, please reach out.

My final publication of the year was “Hope, Unrequested and Freely Given.” This is another story that’s as much romance as fantasy. It’s the tale of two elderly magicians in their twilight years. The woman is wracked with cancer, and her husband is trying desperately to save her. Ultimately, it’s about accepting and embracing the inevitable. It’s available online at Zooscape.

Of the three, I suggest “Where the Earth Meets the Sea and the Sea Meets the Sky” as the strongest. It’s a bit longer than the other two, and it ends full of hope and the promise of a new beginning. As 2020 winds to a close, I feel like hope is something we all need.

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