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Weeks 26 and 27: Coming in Hot

Ultramarathae this year: 2
Ultramarathae remaining this year: More than 0, disappointingly
Days until next ridiculous activity: 25 (52 miles, 7,500 feet – but split over 2 days)
Number of black toenails: 3
Weight: 94kg

Miles from most recent run: 27.5
Incline: 5,034 feet
Time: 7h 45

It’s about 53 hours since the most recent ultra and I’m back: rising extremely gingerly like a phoenix with really tight calves. I’ll not beat around the bush though: take a look at these numbers!

I can’t even begin to explain the satisfaction that can be derived from fisting an entire large Domino’s pizza, complete with stuffed crust, right down your gullet like… I’m not even going to articulate what it was like… and STILL having 5,000 calories and 180g of fat left of your daily budget. And some vague nonsense about pride in doing a long thing with your legs and yada yada.

PIZZA. It’ not even good pizza. It’s basically the pizza equivalent of spitting on an Italian man’s mother and burning down his local church. It’s a soggy disc of shame and regret, made entirely out of Peter Andre, but then, just to make it worse, you’ve stuffed the outside of it with the bits of cheese that even cheese itself wouldn’t eat. And I ate the whole thing and I didn’t even suffer the next day. HA.

But now the pizza is gone. And here I am again, two ultras down and several more to go. Last time, I found it hard to deal with the post-euphoria comedown. This time, it’s very different. Here are my key takeaways (mmm… takeaway) from this latest one.

Motivation is hard

It is so much more difficult to do one of these when you don’t get an arbitrary medal and t-shirt at the end. All I could do for the first 6 miles and 2000 feet of incline was think about how much I didn’t want to be there. When I compare this to the first one, when I had a number awkwardly pinned to my shorts and the (unfulfilled) promise of a free half pint of Magic Rock waiting for me, I can only recall excitement, fear and energy from the first 6-10 miles back in Calderdale.

The heat is a killer

There was no shade whatsoever on the route on Saturday. It had uncomfortably surpassed 20 degrees well before we even began, and went on to rise over 30 for the rest of the day. I applied sun cream four times and still got a bit burnt. I drank 10 litres of water in under 8 hours and have still spent two days with mild heatstroke and dehydration. The run-to-walk ratio was severely affected, because we both thought we would vomit from the heat after one particularly enthusiastic four-mile stretch. This is probably a plus point; the Lakes in October will pose no such problems.

The other noticeable issue with the heat is that it slows you down. As we neared the top of Whernside, the wind suddenly hit and we sped up by several minutes a mile, despite being towards the end of a prolonged, steep incline. Hopefully, we’ll be able to do the route significantly more quickly next time, purely because of more favourable conditions. But then again, just look at the beauty when the weather’s like that….

Pen-y-ghent from a farm near Horton in Ribblesdale

View from Whernside

The summit of Ingleborough. The least impressive of the three, but, crucially, the end of the final incline!

 

Muscles adapt…

Aside from fairly tight calves, I can genuinely say that I am physically unaffected by Saturday’s jaunt. My quads, glutes and feet feel fine. My back and shoulders are stiff, but in far better shape than last time, when I had to take 8 Ibuprofen during the run itself (this time I took 2 in the pub afterwards). Had it not been for the heat, I could have comfortably managed another 5-10 miles.

…but fitness has its limits (unless you’re a mentalist)

I’m six months in to this now, and I think I’ve earned the right to make some assessments. The first one is the most brutal: I am never, ever going to be fit enough to run up the side of a mountain without stopping. I’m also never going to be fit enough to walk briskly up the side of three in a row, without it hurting a bit. Now, I could make it easier for myself by compromising heavily – no more alcohol, lose 15kg, do the Yorkshire 3 Peaks every day for a year… but I’m also never going to do these things. And that’s OK. This isn’t about pretending to be someone else. This is about being happy with myself, my capabilities and my limitations. Let’s face it: I’ve done two ultramarathons (ultramarathae) in a month – I’m not exactly unfit. I’ll leave the ridiculous sub-3-hour marathons to the experts though. I like booze. I like working out. I like spending my free time socialising with my friends.

A reminder of the challenge

HOWEVER… the fact of the matter is this. Lakes in a Day is equivalent to doing the Yorkshire 3 Peaks twice without stopping, then going up Pen-y-ghent for a third time – both in terms of distance and incline. There are now 103 days until I have to be able to do that, and I am currently some way short. So, I’m going to make the booze and fun-related sacrifices for the month before the event, and in the meantime I’ll keep plugging away. The Herriot Way at the end of the month will be an excellent next step, as it will represent an equivalent distance, albeit with less incline and with a break in the middle for sleeping. I think we’ll find a way to make each day over 26.2 miles though, just so we can say we’ve done two ultras in two days. Because, as I said before, it’s easier when there’s some kind of medal at the end – even if it’s only a conceptual one.

If you enjoy reading my rubbish, or if you feel that Yorkshire Cancer Research is a cause worth donating to, here’s the link to our page.

We’re on £490 so far – I hope we can raise another £1000. The way I see it, it’s £1000 closer to beating cancer.

 

 

 

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Week 23: Recovery, Reflection and Regrouping

Miles: Can I measure the distance from the sofa to the fridge?
Ultramarathons this year: 1
Days until next ultramarathon: 22
Weight: 95kg
Resting heart rate: 52

When I look back on my running log for the first week of January, I can scarcely believe my eyes. Following a particularly unhealthy Christmas and New Year, during which I excelled myself in gluttony, sloth and alcoholism, I struggled to finish a flat 5k at any sort of pace without feeling utterly out of breath. That first week, I managed a total of 7 miles (11km) across three days. Fast forward 22 weeks, and I have just completed a 29-mile ultra over 4,500 foot of incline. Over a period of 9 days, I ran 62.5 miles (100km). I can comfortably run 10k across any terrain whatsoever, and with a few hundred foot of incline, in under an hour, at any time of any day (or night). And, of course, I can summon up the energy to run the final mile of a 29-mile race – the longest run I’ve ever done in my life – and still muster a smile and a jump for joy. I was practically in tears at the end, but they were of relief and pride rather than pain and exhaustion. I can say in all honesty that I almost didn’t finish; there were two points during the race (miles 10-12 and miles 27-28) when I didn’t think I would, for different reasons. But I did, and now I can reflect.

Pure elation.

Lessons Learned

There are peaks, and there are troughs.

This one is a really important one. Just like life, there are highs and lows. After 10 miles, I felt spent, exhausted, like a total and utter failure. 10 miles and 2 and a half hours later, I was running a 9-minute mile and feeling fine. Stick with it, trust your training.

If you’re hungry, stop and eat.

The most important thing I learned. Don’t wait 2 miles until the aid station because it “seems pointless stopping so soon before”. Eat. Do it, you absolute tool. If you don’t, you’ll become exhausted very quickly.

Spend the money on the kit. All the money.

Running these kinds of distances is expensive. Like, high-class hooker expensive (so I’m told).

Trail shoes: £120.
Road shoes: £110.
Supported socks: £12 (x2)
Leggings: £28 (x2)
Running underwear: £18 (x2)
Ankle compressions: £9 (x2)
Running tops: £10 (x8)
Accessories to meet the over-the-top kit list requirements: £47
Camel Pack: £25
Running Bag: £25

Total spend: £541

But here’s the killer. I was 109kg with my 11kg bag. That’s over 17 stone. My shoulders were in absolute agony from mile 10. I had six ibuprofen over the last 18 miles and the lady who gave me my sports massage on Tuesday gasped when she found the knots (although not as much as I did when she set upon them with her unnaturally strong elbows). I now need to buy extremely lightweight waterproofs – not the heavy hiking stuff I had to carry to meet the kit list requirements. I need a smaller bag, smaller camel pack, smaller everything. I can’t carry 11kg over the mountains in October. So, I need to buy specialist lightweight waterproofs, but ones that still have taped seams (£90 + £60), a specially designed bag (£40), a bivvy that meets specific 2018 requirements (£18) and a few other accessories and sundries (another £50), to take my total spend to just over £800, not including upcoming petrol and accommodation costs, of course. But I do need to – I must have looked like a complete idiot to the other 58 runners, all about 9 stone wet through, carrying bags that they nicked off a particularly advanced set of neighbourhood ants.

What “pocket full of cheese” will mean to me forever after bankrupting myself buying lycra and socks

Beware post-race blues

After I finished, I spent two days boozing and eating. And eating. And eating. And, so help me God, eating. But after the initial elation had subsided, and I had stopped creaking like a door out of a horror film every time I moved, I started to feel quite depressed – probably the lowest I’ve felt since starting this whole bizarre business of accelerated one-foot-in-front-of-the-other-ness. You build yourself up and then when it’s over, what is there? I’ve had to be quite mentally resilient and re-calibrate. 22 days until the next ultra. Get back to the training programme – go out, do the miles, the stretches, the sprints. The last one doesn’t mean anything now.

It’s hard – especially if you’re not exactly famous for overwhelming cheeriness. Each time you feel low, it’s an ultramarathon in itself to pull yourself back up – but one of the mind. And, as with running, there are peaks and troughs – moments that you want to give up.

I think this is the point I want to end on. It seems fitting, after the sudden and tragic deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain this week, to remind ourselves that everyone around us is going through battles of their own. Just because you can’t see a physical hill, it doesn’t mean that someone isn’t two-thirds of the way up one, weary, and just about ready to quit. And just as I wouldn’t have made it to the end of my race without people around me, so we need to help – really help – those around us to finish their races, then pick themselves up and move on to the next ones. Because the helplines and the pictures with the ribbons – they don’t help everyone. People help.

And, for me, running helps.

 

 

 

 

 

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Week 22: Putting my Runny Where my Mouth Is

May’s Miles: 120
Longest Effort: 22 miles, 2,208 feet
Weight at the start of this week: 95.1kg
Weight at the end of this week: 97.8kg
State of Readiness: Is leaving the country to avoid a marathon a valid way to raise money? Asking for a friend.

Here we are then; the night before my first ultramarathon. Mind you, distance-wise it’s more a marathon plus change. The Calderdale Trail is 29 miles and 4,400 feet of incline – something which my Strava estimates will take me around 6 hours. I’ll be over the moon if we finish in under 6 hours, but I think closer to 7 is more likely, given the terrain and incline. I’ve attempted a short taper – one week rather than 3. This isn’t because I’m an idiot; it’s more that I needed to go close to the full distance quite close to the event, just to prove to myself that I could (that longest effort above was 8 days ago). I will taper more seriously for the 84km runs, but for this one I think the mental boost was more valuable than the potential physical risk. Time will tell if I’m right.

In the 152 days since the start of the year, I’ve been for 90 runs, over a total of 422 miles (or 679 kilometres). I’ve run in the snow, the rain, heat over 25 degrees, up hills (and the odd mountain), along canals and roads, and, most often, on a treadmill. I’ve had shin splints, industrial chafing, leg, ankle, foot, shoulder and lower back pain, and post-long run insomnia. I’ve lost a stone (then gained nearly half of it back in a week thanks to carb loading) and I’ve had a LOT of showers. And now, 18 hours before the start of the first major challenge, I’m pacing around the house anxiously, unable to do any work or focus on anything at all, apart from packing and re-packing my kit bag. Oh, and eating rice.

Thursday night’s meal. I ate three of the chefs too.

Doesn’t that all sound fun? I’d be lying if I said it has been. I will admit it’s been generally better than I thought it would be though. Of course, these are famous last words. Ask me again what I think when I’m on the sixth hill up towards 1200 foot, at around the 21-mile mark tomorrow. I suspect my answer will be somewhat different.

And of course…

Just as I was starting to pack yesterday, a package arrived – Yorkshire Cancer Research tops for this event, and the five subsequent ones. Here’s that link again: https://www.justgiving.com/teams/Simonrichardsontombamber

Obviously, the longest runs are yet to come – but they all very much count towards our fundraising. Here’s a picture of me, pre-tonight’s head shave, looking nervous as hell in my race top to remind you what this is all about.

Catch you on the flipside!!!

 

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Weeks Many-Not Enough: What’s That Brown Stain in my Pants?

Weeks until first ultra: 2
Weight: 95.5kg (15st 3)
Longest run: 20 miles
Mental State: Blind terror

Well. This has come around a little quicker than I had expected. Of course, I am aware that every single day usually contains 24 hours, but I am also, in a much more real way, even more painfully aware that as soon as you’re putting something off, that figure dips to around 8 seconds. Or at least, that’s how I understand tantric sex really works.

I’d better update you anyway. Last week I managed 43 miles, with a longest excursion of 20 miles. So, at least in one respect, I have achieved what I set out to do in May. In two days, I will climax (non-tantrically) with a 23.2-mile jaunt with 3500 foot of incline thrown in, before then doing something that I have read about called “tapering” for the 9 days leading up to the Calderdale ultra. From what I have read, I gather that tapering = crying and eating crisps in the basement for a week. That being the case, I will have therefore come full circle in six months, right back to where I was in January – a teary-stained, crispy blob who smells vaguely of damp – which makes me wonder what the point of the last six months has really been.

What can I say about 2018 in terms of physical health? I don’t spring out of bed in the mornings in a burst of song. I can run 10km without really breaking a sweat yet I still get disconcertingly out of breath if I run up the stairs to the toilet without giving my brain fair warning. I don’t have a stomach that you could use as a skateboard. Ok, my resting heart rate and blood pressure are both lower than they were at the start of the year, but who actually cares about that? I’ve also discovered that excessive running causes significant amounts of shoulder and lower back pain, as well as some industrial-strength chafing around the lower buttocks, inner thighs and inner arms that makes it very difficult to sleep for a couple of nights after a long run. I now run like a deranged adult baby – grimacing and waddling lop-sidedly while wearing padded underwear and enough vaseline to sustain the entire porn industry. I don’t exactly count this as physical progress.

Mentally, though, I do feel significantly less pull-your-bottom-lip-all-the-way-over-the-back-of-your-head-while-screaming-at-a-lamp-post batshit crazy. And I have to admit that I do get a sense of warm, satisfied smuggery after a run that, if I’m not very careful, almost results in the occasional good mood. So, I suppose that it’s been a good thing overall?

Ok, let’s call it evens for the moment; my left buttock has just started bleeding again.

A Wee Note to my Supporters

Before I finish, I’d like to draw your attention to a few things. Firstly, I’ve finalised my event diary for the months leading up to Lakes in a Day.

  1. Calderdale Ultra – Saturday June 2nd. (30 miles)
  2. Yorkshire 3 Peaks – Saturday June 30th (24.5 miles)
  3. Ingleborough Fell Race – Saturday July 21st (6.2 miles)
  4. The Herriot Way – Saturday July 28th and Sunday July 29th (50 miles)
  5. Yorkshire 3 Peaks (again) – Saturday August 11th (24.5 miles)
  6. Lakes in a Day recce – Saturday September 15th and Sunday September 16th (TBC miles)

And then the big day on October 13th (52 miles).

Secondly, I’m not just doing this for laughs. In fact, I haven’t even laughed once. This is all for Yorkshire Cancer Research: https://yorkshirecancerresearch.org.uk/

And this is my justgiving page: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/simon-richardson-tom-bamber

I’m hoping to raise quite a bit, but you never know. Every little helps anyway.

Thanks all xxx

 

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April – Ruinous, Ruinous April

Hello again! If the frequency of my posts was to serve as a metaphor for the progress of my training, then… well. It does, really. The simple fact is that when life gets in the way, you have a choice to make. The professional athletes of this world might make a different one to mine of course, but if a professional athlete is somebody for whom the company of a lung-busting run is like one of those glorious nights when you stay awake seemingly forever, chatting about utter nonsense to your best friend, then my relationship with prolonged periods of repetitive exercise is perhaps more akin to a small child growing increasingly frustrated with one of those toys where you’re supposed to match shapes to make them fit them together. It’s a kind of unease as those around you wait with baited breath, knowing that at any point you might snap and fling everything across the room, before embarking on a screaming fit so all-consuming in nature that even inanimate objects start apologising. So then, without further ado, here are some telling stats from April.

Miles: 75
Target Miles for April: 120

Longest Run: Half Marathon (13.1 miles)
Target Longest Run: 18 miles

Body Weight: 96.5kg
Target Body Weight: 93kg

Level of Self-Shitting: Full written apology to own underwear drawer
Target Level of Self-Shitting: Minimally continent

In five weeks, I will embark on the first ultramarathon of the year. The simple act of writing that sentence alone has drained the colour from my face – my normal blotchy red hue replaced with that of a social media mogul being inanely questioned by an assortment of complete idiots on live television. The WordPress spellchecker doesn’t even recognise “ultramarathon” as a word. That’s how ridiculous it is.

“But… I thought it was only five miles.”

Now, anyone who properly knows me, knows that I will complete the race – and all the others. The simple fact is that I’m a bloody-minded, stubborn bastard. But I’m going to have to do two things over the next month, and to help me do those things, I’m going to declare them to the Internet – my particularly unwise confession booth. I tend to find that if I tell people that I’m going to do something, my own internal stubbornness ensures that I absolutely do do it. So, here goes nothing:

  1. I will run a minimum of 130 miles in May, with a longest single run of 20 miles.
  2. I will temper my expectations and understand that running an entire trail ultramarathon in 5 weeks time, no matter how hard I train from this point, is unrealistic. A good portion of the race will be, by absolute necessity, spent walking, protesting, moaning, crying and eating. But…
  3. will finish it.

Now, I should probably add that it hasn’t been all doom and gloom. Yes, I went to Prague on a stag do that lasted four days and left my body looking like a scene from the Walking Dead. Yes, I had to go to yet another funeral. And yes, these things took up significant chunks of time, leaving less in which to do my work, and therefore less for training. But I have trained on hills and fells twice, including an extremely enjoyable run down Jacob’s Ladder in the Peak District (before my shoes gave in and almost came off my feet), and I have proved without doubt that I can run 10km on virtually any terrain, with plenty of incline (my 10k yesterday took in road, track and mud with a total incline of 600ft, but was completed in just under an hour), and complete a flat half marathon in under 2 hours. So there is progress in terms of fitness and performance, but now is the time to get it together and really kick on, or I’ll be feeling pretty sorry for myself come the evening of the 2nd June. Howey then!

Disclaimer: Body fat percentage and half marathon time may not accurately reflect the author’s true level of performance.

 

 

 

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Weeks 11-12: Three Months Down, Struggles and Hills

Miles: Plenty
Hills: Yes
Maximum Distance: 13 miles (21km)
Feet: Disgusting

It’s been an odd month, but I’ve certainly spent quite a lot of it on my feet, which now resemble Sloth from the Goonies’ face. I’ve managed five hill days in the Lakes, with some of the actual route thrown in. I’ve also managed to get up to the dreaded half marathon mark in terms of distance. But perhaps the most significant update is that I’ve also discovered that I have exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (or exercise-induced asthma) – and in fact I’ve been needlessly battling it for years. I’ll go into a bit of detail, in case anyone reads this and realises that this could be them too.

Disclaimer: I will not be getting this tattoo

So, for a number of years I have found that during and after exercise, I have felt it hard to breathe. The best way I can describe it is that I can’t get to the top of a breath, as if something is preventing this being a possibility. My chest feels tight and I often have coughing fits after running, especially if it’s in cold air. I have always attributed this to just not being fit enough, but no amount of training seemed to extend my endurance beyond a certain point. It turns out that this is pretty common, and a salbutamol inhaler prior to a run can work wonders. And it has. I can’t believe the difference it makes! I also can’t believe that I’ve been struggling with this for as long as I have, without ever thinking about asthma. To be clear, I don’t have symptoms if vigorous exercise isn’t involved, hence the “exercise-induced” bit. Anyway, I’m now feeling confident that I will be able to continue extending my training runs and power to victory like Chris Froome (but without the probable cheating).

Does not fit well in shoes

I’ve also had a couple of people ask me about my training plan – how to get faster and run further – so here’s a quick overview of what I’m doing:

Tuesday: Steady, medium-length run
Wednesday: Speed training – short distance at maximum pace, short recovery (repeat 6 times)
Thursday: Short, race pace run
Friday: Cross trainer, long time
Sunday: Slow, long run

I haven’t put values in, because the idea is that they increase each week. For example, this week I will be doing 6 miles on Tuesday, 6 x 500m sprint + 200m recovery on Wednesday, 4 miles on Thursday, 90 mins on the cross trainer on Friday and 13 miles on Sunday. That roughly totals 32 miles, depending on how far I get on the cross trainer. If I want to up this, I add one or two miles to each regular run, and either 100m to each sprint or an extra repetition of the 500/200 set. When I was starting out, these were 350/100 sets. I have read that throwing in a speed workout each week is crucial to building up your pace, endurance and management of heart rate. Other than that, it’s pretty simple. Get used to running for a long time at a slow pace, and for shorter times at slightly quicker paces. For the big run, I’m aiming to be running at a very reserved pace (for obvious reasons) – around 10:30 per mile. My top 6 mile pace is 7.5 minutes per mile, so it’s all about control.

And that’s all I have to say at this point in time really. The Lakes recces have been really useful in terms of building up my uphill fitness and leg strength (and obviously great because the Lakes is beautiful), and I’m generally feeling OK about the whole thing. This may change in 7 weeks, when it’s only a week until my first ultramarathon of the year, of course. But that’s for Future Simon to worry about. Stupid Future Simon.

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Weeks 8-10: Variety is the Spice of Pain

Review of Recent Weeks:

Miles: 91 (best week 27 miles)
Longest Individual Run: 11.2 miles
Miles to go: Many. So, so many.
Weight: 98.5 kg
Resting Heart Rate: 56
Amount of Seafood Consumed in Barcelona: I drank so much that I now have a two-second memory, like several of the fish I consumed

I’m writing this the night before I set off on my first proper hill run of the year: The Fairfield Horseshoe. It represents a small section of the actual ultra route in October. I’ve done the Horseshoe before both in full and in smaller sections, but I’ve never run it. What kind of an idiot would do that?! At 11 miles and 3,000 feet of total incline, it represents a quarter of the distance and incline of the Lakes in a Day route, so will be a really good gauge of how I’m doing at the moment. It’s also a mere 2.5 weeks before I join up with my running partner for the first time for a training weekend – again in the Lakes. To be perfectly frank, I’ve expelled larger things than him into the toilet after a heavy weekend’s drinking, so I’m naturally concerned that my endurance levels won’t hold up. I’ve prepared well for the distance; I’ve run 11.2 miles in 1 hour 45, but since then I’ve also abused my body by eating all the octopus in the ocean and drinking too much Vermouth in Barcelona (NB: It is virtually impossible to eat octopodes out of existence; a female octopus lays 200,000 eggs in her lifetime, and, if anything, their species grows at a rate above global fishing. NB#2: The plural of octopus is octopodes. You’re bloody welcome).

3D octopus jigsaw – 50 delicious pieces

The old weight loss has dealt me a hefty (ha!) blow too. Instead of shrinking away, my legs have instead put on substantial amounts of muscle, leading to me not so much losing weight as changing shape slightly while maintaining the same weight as before. If this continues, I will become a triangle – something which I pointedly refuse to do (sorry not sorry – couldn’t resist). I will also encounter serious issues when the mileage jumps up to marathon lengths, something about which I am already a little concerned, even though there are still…SHIT! Ok, let’s scrap the word “still”. There are 12 weeks until our first trail marathon of the year. Bugger me backwards with a barge pole! (As my mother used to say – apologies Mum – Happy Mother’s Day again by the way).

I REALLY hate Particle Man

So, how’s it been so far? Let’s weigh up the pros and cons – I’ll do five, because it will satisfy my OCD.

PRO: I can run a 10k pretty much anywhere, at any time now.
CON: This has no practical use in modern life whatsoever.

PRO: I feel like I am just about on track so far with regards to the year’s training.
CON: I have done the easy bit. Subsequent 10-week training patterns will be significantly longer and more time-consuming.

PRO: I have noticeably lost body fat.
CON: It’s somehow migrated south from my stomach, turning into extra leg muscle. I now have to wear padded cycling shorts to walk to the shops to prevent the most severe kind of chafing.

PRO: AfterI run, I feel virtuous and healthy like some kind of superhuman monk.
CON: Five Guys have just joined Just Eat.

PRO: My brain is sharper; I’m now able to recognise simple shapes and patterns.
CON: The patterns that I have thus far recognised are patterns of binge drinking.

Well, I’m not too sure that was a helpful exercise at all, but as Magnus Magnusson used to say: I’ve farted so I’ll stinish. Odd guy.

U wot M8?

 

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Weeks 6 and 7 – Stepping on Ducks

Weeks 5 and 6 Review:

Miles: 37
Longest Individual Run: 8 miles
Miles to go: 1,900
Weight: 97 kg
Resting Heart Rate: 54
Overall Mood: Violently swinging – like sadistic polyamory

Surely only those of you with the most unbelievably sharp presence of mind will have noticed that this is two posts combined into one. This is partly because it’s been a couple of busy weeks in the world of sofa-based self-employment (no webcams involved), but partly because there has been very little to say. I find this to be quite a pleasing metaphor for such a long training programme with such a steep upward curve. The fact is I don’t always make a discernible improvement every time I run. And now I’m six weeks in, I’m beginning to come to terms with this. In weeks 1, 2 and 3, not only was every single run a tangible step forward, but if it wasn’t then I would be riddled with anxiety, like a corpse at the end of a Western. I’m slowly but surely learning to temper my expectations. They are now as follows:

  1. Some days, you just feel like shit. These are not days for improvement, these are just days for mileage.
  2. I won’t be less knackered than the previous run every time. The very notion is absurd – this is not how anything in life has ever worked.
  3. I will not necessarily be able to run further every Sunday, and I can’t necessarily rigidly follow the training programme I downloaded on the Internet, because it doesn’t take into account my specific fitness, injuries, mental state or work timetable.

I intend to read these back to myself every time I start to feel anxious. Because, as fate would have it, by doing an activity that has proven to be extremely beneficial to those who suffer from anxiety, I’m now anxious about my ability to do it, and do it well. Those who have told you that suffering from anxiety is exhausting are spot on, and this paragraph is testament to the fact. I get anxious that I will have an anxiety attack, before I have had one. How utterly ridiculous the human brain really is.

Charlie Brown is fucking bob on.

So, what of the next few weeks? Well, I have a goal in mind. I would like to get to half marathon distance by March 4th. That gives me two and a half weeks. I’m not going to stipulate whether this should be outside or on the treadmill at this stage, as my shins will dictate that – and I’m not going to panic about it. I’m also not going to set a time to adhere to. I would be loosely happy with two hours, factoring in my new stride pattern and extremely restrained pace, but if I accidentally go more quickly or slowly then so be it. This is part of my resolution not to be beholden to “one size fits all” training regimes. Because LIFE IS NOT LIKE THAT.

Oh, just as an amusing aside to finish on – I did an absolutely tremendous fart while working my way up Beecroft Hill today. It must have changed pitch about seven times – more than an entire Iggy Pop album – and I swear it helped me shave three seconds off my time.  I am reliably informed that this is a pretty standard by-product of running. I now need to make sure that the next one I do takes an old lady’s hat clean off, kills a passing crow stone dead, or summons Cthulhu.

Toot-dle-oo!

PAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARP!
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Week 5: Take a Deep Breath

Week 4 Review:

Miles: 20
Miles to go: 1,959
Weight: 98kg
Lower Body: Glued together with an eye-watering array of tape and supports

Here we are then! It’s time to take a deep breath and start the marathon training programme for real. It’s a spreadsheet of seemingly random words; strides, lunges, recoveries, sprints… fartlek (calm down now), and the numbers next to the days are escalating rapidly beyond the counting capacity of your average young toddler / regular at the Leeds train station Wetherspoon’s. By the time February is over, I will (in theory) be running in excess of 10k four times per week. My Sunday long runs will be as close to full marathons as halves, and I assume, I will have started to get “runner face”. Right this moment though, I’m staring at the training spreadsheet, turning it upside-down and every which way in an effort to make the numbers look less like they are trying to jump off the screen and attack me.

“But I can count to eleventy…”

I’ve made a bit of headway with my shins though… shinway? I’ve drastically reduced my stride length, which has resulted in that weird shuffly run that comes to mind when you think of liquorice-thin, middle-aged distance runners; a kind of wobbly fast walk, with floppy hands bouncing from side to side like a sped-up version of Dale Winton wandering around a shit British supermarket in 1994. I can do that for an hour without stopping now, and with pretty tolerable pain at the end, as long as I stretch for a good 10-20 minutes both before and after the run.

Convincing a generation of children that shoplifting is fine if you do it to dated music.

And I do feel fitter. My lungs feel larger, and I generally feel a bit less depressed – although this could be because January is ending, and we’ve had a few blue skies. I’m also genuinely excited about seeing if I can get myself up to a half marathon in the next four weeks. Ok, maybe “excited” is a little strong. I am far less daunted by the prospect of the rest of the year than I was two weeks ago, though. What’s the word for “slightly better than totally apathetic”? I’ll borrow from 10 Things I Hate About You; I’m whelmed. Let’s hope that I’m not adding a prefix to that by the end of the week.

Just to be clear – I think I’m trying to say that I don’t absolutely hate every single moment of this. I think. Maybe.

 

 

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Week 4: Derailed? Not a Bit of It

Week 3 Review:

Miles: 18.5
Miles to go: 1,979
Weight: 99kg
VO2 Max: 46
Emotional State:

It’s been a tough week. You can set out to do things with the best of intentions, but ultimately if something more important comes along, then your intentions have to be shelved. This week, unfortunately, that something was the sudden death of my grandfather. There isn’t much to say about this – we all loved him, he led an incredible, inspiring life, and his four children in particular are understandably devastated. So, I’m going to depart from the usual pattern of petty, sweary humour that is my “level” of intellect for just a second to post a nice photo of him – if you’ll indulge me.

My grandfather David and his wife Jean, with my brother James, and me – 1987

And I’m back in the room. As Flanders and Swann would say: Pee, Po, Belly, Bum, Drawers!

I’ll tell you what, though. He wouldn’t have been impressed that I departed from my running routine so that I could be sad. Oh no. And he certainly wouldn’t condone the kind of moping that would stop me from completing my training program, and the upcoming races. You see, when it comes to the stubbornness (and pedantry) that has worked its way through my entire family, David was patient zero. He was the Uber-pedant. King Stubborn. I have tried – believe me, I have tried very hard – but I still feel as if I can only aspire to hit the heights of the great man. Like so many runners will do over the next 9 months, he has left me trailing in his wake.

So, as the training gets tougher, and my shins become more swollen, I am going to use David as my inspiration. He was unbelievably tough, resilient and unwilling to admit any kind of defeat in life, and I will attempt to follow up the hills, along the paths and through the mud, all in his footsteps. And every time I feel like giving up, instead of summoning up extra courage from within myself, I’ll just imagine him giving me a look that says “Don’t even think about it”. That ought to do it. He’d probably have done all the runs in a better time too – just to prove that he could.

Anyway, this week is the final week of my “ramp-up” training. Next week, the proper marathon programme starts and I’ll be relying on him to help me keep going back to the gym when I’m in pain, or I’m tired, or I simply can’t be arsed. But then, he never let anyone down in life, so I know he won’t let me down now, even in death.

And nor I him.

In Memoriam – April 24th 1928-January 20th 2018

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Week 3 – Shin Splints and Sadistic Fantasies

Week 2 Review:

Miles: 17.5
Miles to go: 1,988
Weight: 98.5kg
VO2 Max: 46
Shin Splints: OUCH

I feel a little bit like Icarus. Well, except for the Greek bit. And my Dad didn’t create a massive labyrinth. And I didn’t try and build wings – who even does that? And I haven’t drowned. But other than that, I feel a little bit… no, exactly like Icarus. Or at least I thought shin splints were like Icarus, in that they were a myth. And now I’m drowning in a sea of pain, choking on the hubris that has led to the only set of wings in my line of sight being those of Nemesis. Woe is me, death befalls us all…

Alright, this may be a slight exaggeration. It fucking hurts though. Like, well bad, innit? It’s like the kind of pain that loan sharks inflict upon you when you don’t pay up. A writhing, baseball-batty kind of a feeling. I’m now on a diet of weird stretches and hobbling, but it also means compression socks, a return to the dreaded treadmill (the dreadmill) and the looming spectre of something even more disturbing emerging from the tarry pit of doom that is any reputable gym; the cross-trainer.

“I will cut you, bitch.”

Anyway, this week I have been alternating between slower and faster runs. I’ve found a decent treadmill pace that I feel I could run at forever (for the purposes of this post, forever = anywhere between 1 and 15 hours), and I actually enjoyed the final two runs of the week, despite one of them being the day after an extremely important staple in any Dry January disciple’s calendar: the accidental-on-purpose beer festival.

I have two more weeks of increasing my workout duration in stages, although some of my mileage will have to be completed on the cross trainer due to the aforementioned shins (not The Shins – they are far less palatable). It’s all about cardio at this stage though – building up a level of endurance and being used to breathing heavily for longer and longer periods of time, like a really persistent stalker. Today, for instance, I’m taking my phone, headphones and some duck / duct tape to the gym. This final ingredient is key; I don’t want anyone thinking I’m not a dangerous kidnapper, and that it’s therefore acceptable to use the machinery directly adjacent to me (note to Interpol, A.K.A my most frequent blog visitors – duct tape will actually be used to secure my phone to the screen of the cross trainer so I can watch Netflix – an hour on the cross trainer is roughly as dull as being locked in a room with Tim Henman, but the walls are all padded, thus removing the most logical route to the sweet release of death, meaning that you are forced to commit suicide by repeatedly lacerating your own temples against his giant teeth).

“…and KILL”

My “run buddy” and I are training separately until March, so I can’t be entirely sure if he is experiencing any similar issues. My brain has taken over though, and I find myself passing my running time imagining him skipping blissfully over mountains and rivers, singing “Fa la la la la” and “Hey Nonny” and suchlike while all the woodland creatures of the world dance along merrily behind him. He isn’t sweating. Oh no. The only moisture that touches his face is but the gentle morning dew of a crisp spring day as his mind serenades him with the greatest symphonies known to man. I imagine jealously stabbing him in his stupid little trim midget body, but then I realise that instead he’s waltzing off into the distance and I’m sitting naked in a puddle, hitting a nearby plant with a butter knife.

Still, it’s all good fun, eh?

 

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Week 2 – Why Am I Not Yet Mo Farah?

Week 1 Review

Miles: 13
Miles to go: 2,005
Weight: 100kg
VO2 Max: 48
Desire to eat so much cheese that I turn yellow: Ever-rising

Well, here we are. I’d like to thank my fans around the world, all the Kenyans whose achievements I have far outstripped in under a week and, of course, my Mum. Only 2,005 miles to go! And I thought it’d be hard…

I’ve done five short runs this week at a slow pace – I’m trying to focus on the kind of pace I might be able to maintain for the best part of an entire day. Obviously, this requires a carefully calculated, scientific approach, so I tried running with an open, 90%-full flask of whisky for a bit, to see how quickly I could do this without spilling most of it all over myself. It turns out that the answer is roughly a 9-9.5-minute mile, in case, you know, you’d like to “ask for a friend”.

I’ve also been very cautious with my glass knees. I will be doing three of my five weekly runs on the treadmill all month, and two longer, slower runs on relatively flat, forgiving paths alongside canals. I’ve already had to upgrade my weight loss plan by an extra (circa) seventy-three kilos to compensate for the weight of the ludicrous assortment of neoprene supports that will cover various parts of my lower body, the further I run.

Incomprehensibly though, when I looked in the mirror this morning, I was still staring back at myself. I wasn’t Mo Farah yet – this has come as an enormous shock to me, so I haven’t done any running today. On a slightly less stupid level, my resting heart rate has gone up, and I have been sleeping less well. I’m assuming that this is because 13 miles is pretty insignificant, and I’m therefore still just suffering from the same insomnia as before. Or maybe running is bad for us all, and I should instead attempt to kill 2,018 Germans on Call of Duty (NB Object of Call of Duty may or may not be to kill Germans – can not confirm) in one year. Or eat 2,018 steaks. You’d all sponsor me to eat 2 tonnes of meat and write about it, right?

Anyway, on to this week and the rest of January. Each week for the remainder of the month will be the same in terms of structure, but with an extra mile per run each time that day come around again – except for Saturdays, which always stay the same. To be clear:

This week: Tues, 3 miles, Weds 4 miles, Thurs 3 miles, Sat 3 miles, Sun 4.5 miles
Next week: Tues 4 miles, Weds 5 miles, Thurs 4 miles, Sat 3 miles, Sun 5.5 miles

And so on and so forth. The idea is that I will then be running the amount of miles per week required to start proper marathon training come the first week of February, which coincides with it being 16 weeks until the Calderdale Marathon. This also means that I can eat roughly 400 grams more cheese each week without putting on weight. This equates to – roughly – 14 slices of cheese on toast, or two per day. Alternatively, I could carry the one, subtract the number I first thought of, and eat about 97 wheels of Laughing Cow (other fake cheeses also available). Either way, if my calculations are correct, I should be at “CHEESE LEVEL: FRENCHMAN” by January 31st.

Zut alors!

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Trough Physical Condition – the Start of a Long Journey

The Ruins of 2017

What a pleasant, positive post title to start 2018! And with that I’d like to welcome you to the “Ultramarathon 2018” section of my blog. Excuse the stench; I’m covered in a very specific sweat – one that smells of maple cured ham, seventeen different types of booze and an assortment of chocolate. That’s right, we’ve just had Christmas and New Year, and I’ve obviously treated my body like a wheelie bin round the back of a kebab shop. What better time than now then, to start 10 months of training that will see me complete a hill marathon, the Yorkshire three peaks and the Lakes in a Day ultramarathon, by which time I will have run 2,018 miles in 2018, with two months to spare. This is the equivalent of running from Leeds to Ankara (excluding the ferry from Hull to Rotterdam).

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This seems like a good point to put this into context; I’m not currently unfit. I can currently run 5km in 20-25 minutes depending on terrain, and 10km in under 50. I could walk 50 miles tomorrow if you told me I had to. However, I haven’t run further than 12km in 2 years, and my gym trips have been mostly HIIT (high-intensity interval training) and weights. I love rugby, and have played on and off for 26 out of the 33.9 years I have been on this planet, so most of my training has revolved around keeping in shape for this. Because of the nature of the sport, I’m 5″10 and 15.8 stone (100kg). This is great for smashing people to smithereens, but not so good when you have to lug that extra weight across hills and mountains for 50 miles. As a result, I think it’s safe to say that I need to do two things:

1) Lay off the weights, give up rugby and lose 10-15kg in weight. This one is easy; my knees were recently described as “held together only by the will of the Gods”. In rugby terms, I’m old and battered. It’s time to accept my fate. Also, losing weight is going to be a given when I sneak up behind my contented stomach and metaphorically yell “SURPRISE!!!” by relentlessly running four or five times a week.

2) Significantly improve my endurance. Interval fitness is totally different. I can get my heart rate up to 200 for several minutes and go all guns blazing at the weights or the sprinting. But then I need a minute off before I do it again. This is not conducive to running for the best part of a day without stopping.

Actually, three things.

3) Stop eating pizza and drinking beer all the time (MyFitnessPal informed me that in 2017 my two most logged “foods” were wine and beer). Mmmmm… wine and beer. Not completely, mind. This isn’t a blog about going vegan or teetotal or anything else that I would genuinely rather die than do – more one that will document the struggles of running between 30 and 70 miles a week, non-stop for the next 10 months, and how it ends up affecting me both physically and mentally.

Again, a little context. Like so many people I know – and more people in the world than perhaps we all realise – I suffer from anxiety – panic attacks, insomnia, mood swings and low self-esteem. I have done so for many years, and at its worst it’s like living in a nightmare. Except not, because I can’t have nightmares if I don’t sleep. A daymare? Anyway, I can’t deny that the post-exercise feeling is a good one, and that exercise helps me sleep and feel better about myself. So absurd amounts of exercise should make me feel absurdly great, right? RIGHT? Well, I owe it to the people in my life, and to myself, to give it a go. Part of the reason for keeping a weekly blog is so that I can look back in ten months time and (hopefully) see a change for the better. I also hope that people will read this blog – other runners, people like me who want to run more and further, or who suffer from problems with anxiety.

The Charity

Over 50% of my motivation is self-improvement for sure – I’d be lying if I said otherwise – but some of it comes from the desire to do some good old-fashioned fundraising. I’m doing this with a friend of mine – he will be going through the same hell as me, at least according to our Excel training programme. Together, we’re raising money for Yorkshire Cancer Research. I doubt I could name a single person who isn’t either related to, or doesn’t know someone who has suffered or died because of cancer. It’s a horrible disease, and one that I firmly believe can be beaten. I’ve gone for YCR as opposed to Cancer Research UK partly because Yorkshire is my home, and partly because smaller, more local charities often struggle for funding, but shouldn’t be overlooked. I’d love us to raise £3000 together – after all, we’ve got a year. But who knows? Every little helps. Here are the links to my JustGiving team page and personal page if you’d like to donate / heckle us.

ycr

First Stop – January

Shit, I’ve actually got to do this now. Words come more easily than steps, weirdly. Fortunately, January is a build-up month – I’m just getting used to running further and further over the course of the month before starting a proper 16-week marathon training programme in February (16 weeks before the Calderdale marathon). Oh, and Monday is always a rest day – I’m thankful for this as I spent all of Monday January 1st feeling like I had been turned inside out by an evil robot monster made entirely out of vodka.

Here it is: WEEK 1: Tuesday 2 miles slow, Wednesday 3 miles steady, Thursday 2 miles slow, Saturday Park Run, Sunday 6 miles slow. Week total: 16 miles.

Current weight: 100kg. Resting heart rate: 58bpm. 2 miles slow: 19 minutes. Fear level for rest of year: Q*£&£YT%*W&£TY£W(TR*U!!!!O£)R*UCMC

It’s now Tuesday evening, and I’ve done my first two miles of 2018. It felt like running after consecutive days of drinking huge amounts of alcohol always feels – fucking horrible. 19 minutes of beer demons punching me in the chest. But hey! That’s two down, 2016 to go. I’ll be in Ankara before you know it (Disclaimer: this may not be remotely true in any way, shape or form).

Bring it on.

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100 up!

It’s taken a little longer than I thought it would – just under 3 years in fact – but I’ve finally reached 100 posts. I started off not really knowing what would end up on my site, whether it would be a blog, a resource site for teachers, a site for students, an academic site or nothing in particular. I think it’s ended up as a more student-centred site, with a focus on IELTS – 40% of my posts are about IELTS or are model answers. Perhaps this reflects the situation in English language learning in the UK, and student needs. Interestingly, about 40% of students in my current school are IELTS-focussed students, so perhaps I’m subconsciously responding to the needs of my own students – not a bad thing.

I hope I will continue to post more General English / Teacher Training / General Blog posts, because they bring me (at least) a lot of enjoyment. But I fully expect the IELTS section of the site to continue to grow and grow. I also hope that in the next 100 posts I can write a bit more of what my readers want – I’m happy to listen to and write about what my students, ex-students and peers would find useful. As always, you can contact me by clicking the tab at the top of the page, or just by commenting on this or any other thread.

Anyway, I’m really proud that I have kept going and am now averaging well over 1000 views a month. Thank you to everyone for reading, commenting, following, liking and sharing. Long may it continue! 🙂

Simon

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Is the IELTS exam fair?

I’ve been meaning to write this for a while. In a twist of fate though, it’s the most recent post from the brilliant “Secret Teacher” in the Guardian, referring to the stress and pointlessness of the current exam climate in mainstream education that has led me to finally put finger to keyboard (link below). IELTS is the monopoly, THE exam for students wishing to enter our universities. But is it fair? Does it truly live up to its claim that it assesses students’ ability to cope with life at a British university? Do any exams really contribute positively to education?

With the IELTS exam, this is largely a question of time. There have been no significant updates to IELTS in years, and it’s not just the format; most other EFL exams are now available to sit online, which at least more closely mirrors motions that students actually go through in modern universities. IELTS as a paper exam falls down somewhat before you even inspect the content; who handwrites essays? This is a problem in mainstream education as well, but there are arguments for handwriting as a skill with younger students writing in their own language. In EFL, how many students will actually ever use handwriting – especially on an essay level – other than for sticky note reminders on their fridges? Online, yes. Emails for work and to friends, the general language of the Internet, and TYPING essays. But spellchecking and autocorrection is an advanced tool nowadays, with the grammar counterpart not far behind. Surely retaining 25% of marking criteria for grammar and 12.5% for spelling in writing is redundant and provides an unnecessary obstacle to success?

To further compound the problem with the writing paper, task 1 is a ridiculous exercise. Students analyse a graph which looks like it was drawn in the 1980s. No part of this task replicates anything that 99% of these students might actually do at university or in real life. Even the final 1%, the maths / economics students, of which there aren’t many coming in from the typical IELTS countries, wouldn’t realistically analyse a graph in this way, because it in no way requires objective thought, exophoric comparison or real “analysis” anyway.

Adding spelling in as the main criteria for the listening exam on top of this just seems to be deliberately unfair. I know a great many English people can’t spell very well. Does it really matter that much? Is a student going to read back through their lecture notes and penalise themselves for a missing letter, or a misheard minimal pair? Granted, the listening test contains some isolated tasks that replicate real university life, especially the task 4 lecture note-taking, although students were even using their phones to record lectures when I last attended one in 2003. I imagine this is even more common nowadays, and obviously students can replay audio of a lecture again and again if there is any difficulty with comprehension, rather than being told that they “will not hear the recording a second time”.

The reading paper is the worst of the lot. The time pressure is absurd, so much so that students training to take the exam are taught how to AVOID reading, because there isn’t time. They scan, match shapes and numbers and fill in gaps. Not one of the tasks actually requires a critical response, or any in-depth reading, and the third paper is about a technical subject, often from New Scientist, that will in no way match the subject that the student actually wants to study at university. I can honestly say that I can’t find a single redeeming feature about this section of the exam. Why can’t students sit an integrated skills paper, with a reading and summary section, like the ISE exams? Why can’t they answer some critical thinking tasks? The cynical answer to the second part is that it would require IELTS examiners to undergo extra training or retraining in order that they an accurately assess a critical response. Ultimately, I have seen nothing to suggest that Cambridge want to spend a single penny on improvement in any area of the exam, and they are unlikely to as long as they are an accepted monopoly.

In the interests of fairness, I should point out here that the speaking test is quite good. The two-minute presentation and the discussion / opinion-based questions give the students a good work out, although it’s a shame that they don’t adopt an FCE / CAE approach and get two students in at once for a seminar-style discussion. Still, it is a reasonable exam, and the marking emphasis is (correctly) on fluency and ability to communicate rather than being pernickity over minute accuracy.

The danger of exams such as this is that, because they don’t really test ability in realistic situations, teachers then prepare students to pass said exam, rather than upskilling them in real-life tasks. This could be said of secondary school exams as well as IELTS, but this doesn’t make it right. The added external pressures that students receive from governments, workplaces or family, mean that they are also happy to be taught to pass an exam in this way, and they become interested only in this. I can say that I have seen students leave IELTS preparation courses with a lower level of general English ability than they had when they started, but they are happy because they’ve ticked off the entrance criteria for their university of choice. Bearing this in mind, surely IELTS is actually detrimental to a student’s ability to survive at university, and is therefore negatively affecting the skills gaps on university courses that it was put in place to close? And if so, why haven’t universities noticed this?

I imagine that I am writing this in vain, but I am also pretty sure that I’m not the only one having these thoughts. I’d love to hear from more people about their experiences either with EFL or mainstream examinations. I also hope that if this strikes a chord with you, you’ll share it. Maybe someone far more important than I will read it.

 

Simon

Secret Teacher link: http://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2015/aug/08/secret-teacher-i-know-my-students-wont-get-the-results-they-deserve

 

 

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Learning in Chunks – just a question of lexis?

It is not exactly revolutionary of me to mention the word “chunk” within the subject of ELT. It has been long established that vocabulary needs to be presented less as individual discrete items, but horizontally, so as to include and acknowledge collocation. Words are indeed the key to communicative language, but prepositions, adjective / noun or noun / verb combinations, and high-frequency connections are the glue that holds it together. Without these things, it is impossible to achieve any real level of productive fluency. None of this is in debate.

There is a particular part of this that is starting to interest me, though. It isn’t the fact that we ought to draw attention to collocation, or words “in chunks” though. It’s the implications of “chunking” for a learner. Chunking isn’t, in fact, just a method of expansion, for as it encourages learners to observe vocabulary in groups rather than individually, it also facilitates the breaking down of full, multiple-clause sentences, in to manageable, bite-sized chunks (Michael Lewis, The Lexical Approach). Again, not a new observation. But is the idea of “bite-sized” usable in other skills?

At this point, I’m going to switch to reading tasks, specifically, academic reading. As an IELTS teacher, I watch a lot of struggle. Students are faced with daunting amounts of text, answers hidden amongst technical terms and “distractors”, and a time limit that would have most native speakers struggling. Often, the sheer volume of text is enough to guarantee demotivation, and, ultimately, failure. I’ve looked at techniques, of course. We’ve scanned, skimmed and inferred until blue in the face, but often it just isn’t enough. Perhaps they aren’t up to it yet. Or perhaps they encounter problems because the task, not the text, isn’t “bite-sized”.

Let’s look at a typical task in an IELTS reading exam. True / False / Not Given questions typically present themselves in order in the text, and require the student to scan and skim in a linear fashion, albeit not necessarily having a clue about the percentage of the whole text covered by the task (unless there is a clear, “scannable” keyword). In general, students are presented with about seven questions, and 800 words of text. They then proceed to read question 1, scan the text, find the answer, write the answer, and repeat for question 2 et cetera. Of course, if they can’t find an answer, they don’t really have a point of reference from which to continue moving forward through the text. In other words, it is difficult to establish linear movement, and can result in time-costly rereading and doubling back. In an incredibly time sensitive exam (1 hour, 3 texts, 2400 words, 40 questions), this is not exactly ideal.

Now, let’s say that a student approaches this in a slightly different way. Upon receiving the task, they break the questions, and then the text, in to bite-sized chunks. They draw a line under question four, and look at questions 1-4 as a separate task. They are not only breaking the task down, but they are also immediately acknowledging that they are likely to be looking at less of the text; the first four-sevenths, roughly. Granted, this is still not exact enough to be comforting. The next stage then, is to isolate the text in a more precise way. The student scans for a keyword match in question 1. They aren’t looking necessarily to find the exact answer at this stage, merely to highlight the area of text in which the answer lies. They draw a line indicating where the text relating to questions 1-4 starts. The next part is to do the same again, but instead of doing this for question 2, they do it for question four. Once they have drawn this second line, they have created a text box, in which four answers lie. The text box is considerably smaller, and therefore less daunting, than the original text, and task, as a whole. They then go through the standard question-answering techniques as they are usually taught. This process is then repeated with questions 5-7, again focusing on isolating “answer-heavy” text, and eliminating time-wasting and a general feeling of being overwhelmed by volume.

While early in my research in to the benefits of this, results so far have been good. Not only have 100% of my students responded positively to this concept, which I believe is more than half the battle (for I am a disciple of the affective filter), but success rates in linear tasks have also gone up considerably in over 80% of these students. I am keen to acknowledge that reading methods and techniques are very much individually subjective, and, as a result, it is difficult to say that there is a “right” way. However, if learners feel that they can approach a task with more confidence than before, I am positive that this will directly contribute to an improvement in results alone, as so many learners are beaten before they step on to the pitch, to use a famous sporting analogy.

I’d love to hear from teachers and students who would like to give this a go. My contact details are on this site. Get in touch, and help me answer the following question: “Can we use the idea of chunking as a reading test technique in general English and exam settings?” And, even more interestingly: “Is there a practical use for a technique like this outside of the environment of comprehension-based tasks – could chunking improve reading ability as a whole?”

 

Simon Richardson

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#3 – The Death of Music

Perhaps I have made a mistake almost immediately. Perhaps number 3 should be “When people decide to write long lists of things they hate and then take so long to complete it that North Korea destroy the world before they have even reached #10”. Perhaps the time has come for me to hang up my hobnailed angerboots, put down my gun of vitriol, un-stab the unseen cloud of irritation that seems to cloud my every path.

The truth is, I haven’t been that angry recently. Well, not in any specifically-directed, coherent way, anyway. My recent anger has taken the form more of a general malaise than a focussed spew of tooth-shattering rage. I’m not going to misleadingly paint you a picture of a reformed gentleman, whistling his merry way down the sunny side of a cobbled street, handing out sweets to the young neighbourhood children – partly because this is now an arrestable offence – but still, all things considered, I’ve been fairly cheerful. I almost smiled the other day.

Smile!

“I love Mondays”

Unfortunately, a rule in life tends to be that if you stick your head up above the fog for too long, a seagull is going to poo on your head. In my case, the poo in which I have been recently covered is a musical poo. Not as novelty as you might expect, I’m afraid. It still smells bad. If I put my finger in it and give it a lick, it still tastes pretty awful. And if it happens in the middle of a crowded street, I still need to flee, red-faced, muttering “Oh, for God’s SAKE” under my breath repeatedly. Yes, that’s right. An extremely pooey poo.

I don’t like self-righteous, arrogant pseudo-folk – a subgenre represented by Frank Turner. I have no time for self-fellating, psychological-meltdown teen-idol gibberish – patented by Britney Spears, most “admirably” stepped up a few units of irritation by Justin “phallus-head” Bieber and Miley “chlamydia incubation device” Cyrus.  I am certainly not endeared in any way to sexual-assault banterpop or its sister genre, gangster rap…e (see R. Kelly, Robin Thicke and an all-star cast of angry, tracksuit-wearing miscreants shouting bad “poetry” loudly in to microphones at staged parties, while surrounded by gyrating crack-whores with dead, dead eyes). And as for One Direction… I’d rather vote Tory than ever hear of them again.

cameron cunt

“I will shoot Harry Styles right in the face if you vote for me.”

What has happened to the world? Generations of youth swept away on an unnervingly quickening tide of time, to be replaced with the musical equivalent of join-the-dots. The legacy of the 60s and 70s – The Beatles, The Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Hendrix, Dylan, The Kinks, Clapton – through the 80s and 90s, glittering with gems as bright as Queen, Jacko, Sabbath, Metallica, Nirvana, Soundgarden, The Smashing Pumpkins, Radiohead, anything Dave Grohl has ever done, and, of course the mighty and transcendental Toto… all this has been confined to the archives, sealed away in a cage somewhere in a library (what’s one of those?) to gather dust, as our ears are overrun with dirge until, in an evolutionary change fitting of a very bad horror movie, the children of tomorrow are born without ears as our genes realise that deafness holds a much higher chance of survival than being constantly exposed to the brain-melting musical acid that is known today as “Nicki Minaj”.

the children

Maybe, somewhere out there is an adolescent who will read this. If that is you, young “Hashtag Dollar-Sign LOLington-Smythe”, please read my words of warning. Go back to the roots of your ancestors and write something with actual music in it. And guitars. Guitars are good. If you don’t, you will be personally responsible for humans ceasing to have ears. And what’s worse is that this mass ear exodus will almost certainly result in our once-essential and seemingly-benevolent, flappy bits of head skin retreating to the sea to form a master race of giant, amphibious ear people, and they will surely have their grim vengeance on the world that has forced them to swap being squashed up against pillows for the bed of a litter-filled ocean. When this happens – and it definitely will – the only sound left will be the sound of this grumpy old bastard saying “I told you so” (except nobody will hear it, because… oh, right, you get it).

 

I fear for you all.

 

Still, at least I’m angry again. Every cloud and all that.

ear attack

“I’m, er… watching you”

 

Simon

 

 

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Photo Shoot

I’m not usually one for modelling, but I was asked to take part in a photo shoot for work recently. I’m quite pleased with some of the pictures, so I thought I’d post them here – teaching action shots!

Simon

It's a small word - can you guess?
It’s a small word – can you guess?
Over there!
Over there!
This man is a LEGEND! (On the board, not standing next to it)
This man is a LEGEND! (On the board, not standing next to it)
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#2 – Don’t you know how to talk proper, like?

I hate change. Suffice to say, puberty was not an easy time. I have come to believe of late that even the most erratic and impulsive of folk do in fact embrace some level of routine-steeped life, whether it be a set bedtime, a plan of the week’s meals or even “touch-oneself-o’clock”.  However, it would be something of a damp squib to devote part of my Sunday to writing about the trials and tribulations of that horrible moment when live Sport lasts longer than expected (resulting in the earth-shatteringly cataclysmic cancellation of ugly orange-faced posh people guffawing smugly at inanimate objects for 30 sodding minutes), so I won’t. Instead, I’m going to focus my twitchy anger on changes in language and, more specifically, why in gibbering ARSE it has become the norm to be as articulate or literate as a drunk parakeet with a toy shovel in its head.

5pm

Technically, this means that I NEVER have to stop masturbating

It isn’t just the old favourites. Don’t get me wrong though; Your / You’re and There / Their / They’re errors bring me out in a rash. It’s more the regression of language, the slide in to the lingual abyss, the inability to wear trousers that fit properly. Grammatically. I hear “could of”, “should of” and “would of”, I endure “irregardless”, “pronounce-iation” and “expresso”, my skin turns inside out and suffocates me half to death when I hear “LOL”, “OMG” and the dreaded “Literally”. I mean, what do people think this is? SPANISH? Wash your malapropic mouths out with minty word juice and then pick your teeth with a damned sharp apostrophe, the lot of you. But don’t you DARE attempt to retrieve said toothpick from a possessive pronoun (unless it happens to be “one’s”).

slide_5260_72230_large

Apparently the “price” doesn’t cover English lessons

I read an article in Metro recently. (The mere sound of those words leave the smell of rotting relative clauses lingering in the air like a language fart, so appalling is the overall standard of English found within). It was a piece on the evolution of slang or, as I’d prefer to call it, “how to decipher the moronic, structureless grunts of children”. Have a look at the picture below, but DON’T count the number of words that you actually understand. Instead, say them out loud to a friend and then you can both have a massive laugh at how unbelievably incapable other people are. Then go outside and punch a teenager. Punch some English back in to them. (NB: Don’t punch a foreign teenager and then use the previous sentence as an excuse, unless you’re fond of the EDL).

slang-graphic

 

I’ve almost finished now, but I’d like to leave you with a brief lesson. Next time you are subjected to a barrage of blarney, a deluge of drivel or a tirade of tittishness, please redirect the offending numskull to the below. It may save a life one day. Theirs. (NOT BLOODY THEIR’S).

Part 1: Your / You’re

“Your” is possessive, meaning it is used when indicating that something belongs to “you” (whoever that is).
Example: Your command of the English language is nothing short of atrocious. Get a grip, you arse.

“You’re” is an abbreviation of “you are”.
Example: You’re a poorly educated, ill-informed, illiterate moron. Avaunt, and quit my sight!

Part 2: There / Their / They’re

“There” is an adverb, usually indicating location or place.
Example 1: Look over there; it’s an English person with little command of his native language. See how his knuckles scrape against the floor.
Example 2: There is NO SODDING APOSTROPHE after that word, Angelica darling. I’m sorry I hit you. It’s for your own good.

Part 3: LOL / ROFL / OMG / BFF

These are NOT WORDS.
Example 1: Yes, your honour. I freely admit to using my favourite Thesaurus to brutally murder a young lady on the bus who I had overheard exclaiming “LOL” to her friend.

Part 4: Apostrophes.

Apostrophes are used to signify possession, meaning that the following noun belongs to the person / pronoun to which the apostrophe is attached. They are NOT required after plurals, nor are they necessary after “it”, unless you want to say “it is”. They are also used to abbreviate “is” or “has”.
Example 1: Simon’s fountain pen plunged in to Andrew’s heart, for he knew that to hear but one more misused personal pronoun would surely send him quite mad.
Example 2: A: “What’s happened to him? Is he…dead?” B: “I believe he’s split his last infinitive, yes.”
Example 3: His injuries, extensive as they were, were caused by a multitude of misspellings. (NOT “misspelling’s).

Part 5: Borrow / Lend

If you borrow something, you take it from somebody for a limited period of time, after which it is (usually) returned. If you lend something, then you give it temporarily to somebody else. You can NOT say:

“Can I lend a pen?”
“Can you borrow me ten pounds?”
“Can I have a lend of your tampon?”

Instead, say this:

“Can I borrow a pen?”
“Can you lend me ten pounds?”
“Can I borrow your tampon?”

Cleared that up? Good. Now bugger off.

Simon

english-grammar-on-signs-13

Some threat, that.

 

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Facebook buyout sparks mass unfounded cartoon-based hysteria

Facebook buyout sparks mass unfounded cartoon-based hysteria

American Internet giant Google have launched a successful $1tn takeover of Facebook, which will see Earth’s four largest powers combine in a move that has sent fear and reminiscence through the hearts of 1990s children all over the world. The move swiftly follows Facebook’s acquisition of Whatsapp, the world’s most popular time-wasting messenger service, and is thought to be the largest merger in the history of anything, ever.

‘It’s like he’s, y’know, becoming a Capitalist Captain Planet!’ shrieked Martha Atkinson, an unemployed single mother from Bedford.

download

The Power is His!

‘It’s very simple – now that the four corners of the World – Google, YouTube, Facebook and Whatsapp have joined together, the force of these elements will transform me.’ boomed Larry Page, Google CEO, immaculately caped and masked, atop a $35,000 dollar replica of The Iron Throne.

 Experts have expressed concern over the sheer weight of the gold bullion used to make the purchase, stating that ‘polarisation of international wealth to this extent could cause a weight imbalance so catastrophic that the entire area could collapse in to the sea.’ However, retired Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg remained unperturbed. ‘I recently relocated my private bank to an undisclosed location in Africa in anticipation of such an issue. You see, nobody gives a shit if Africa sinks’ he smiled, casually lighting another $100 bill as he stepped on to his private submarine.