Monday, 27 October 2014

Zoe MacGechan's Guide to Running

I'm really really honoured to be able to share this brilliant guest post with you today. Zoe MacGechan is one of the newer members of our Ambo family but I'm excited to get to know her better. The first thing I've realised about her is that she is a keen runner, and a pretty brilliant one too! I'm really grateful she was able to write this for the blog and I hope it motivates you as much as it does me! Thanks Zoe! xxx

Fellow CRUK ambassador, Penny Christophe, has invited me to write a guest blog on running and fundraising. I am by no means an expert on either, although I do like to kid myself I am and I am very keen to share my experiences and tips in the vain hope it helps inspire someone to put on their trainers and do the same. So, here goes. 

I've aways been a greedy girl, so running has been my go-to for when I've packed on a few pounds, but I didn't consider myself a runner or even have a regular running habit until about 10 years ago. Even then, it was still a casual attempt to burn off my booze belly. Then, in 2007 I lost my mother to cancer. My life was turned upside down, I had to leave my teaching job in Japan and go back to my childhood home, which I was not especially fond of, to care for her and then be guardian to my younger brother and oversee the drawn-out sale of her house. I was unhappy and didn't have a lot to distract me from it until a friend and I signed up for Race for Life in Cambridge. 

I hate being bad at things and I guess this is key to my success in both running and fundraising. I didn't want to let myself or the charity down. People mistake this for competitiveness, but the only person I hope to beat is me. Suddenly having a positive purpose in my life gave me focus and running was a great way to leave the misery behind, if only for half an hour. That first year, the fundraising took care of itself. Or, more accurately, my very supportive friends and family took care of it for me. I sent out a few emails and people handed over their cash. People who knew Mum, people who wanted to look out for me, people who'd had their own lives damaged by cancer, they all gave very generously. 

And so began a bit of a habit. I signed up for another Race for Life, this time in hilly Hampstead, so I trained harder. Despite the tough course, my friend, Rachel, and I beat our previous times - coming 11th and 12th. Then, we signed up for a 10k in Finsbury Park and somehow got 3rd and 5th. For each race I've done, I have felt like I have had to do more to earn people's money. I have told them this too. The people you are asking for support from are your friends, they like you, they want to help, but they only have so much money to give and sponsored events, particularly running for charity, have exploded in recent years. Everyone is clawing at their cash; you can't just expect people to part with that without a little coaxing and convincing. 

In those first few years of running, I think I did get by on a lot of love. I trained hard and people do respect that: I was always chasing a 'decent' time or a PB and that does involve training, which will win people over. You don't have to be lightening fast, you just need to try. You'll probably want to anyway: when you tell absolutely everyone you've ever met that you're doing something, there's a bit of pressure to perform, but when you fundraise for a charity like Cancer Research UK the cause exists separate from you. Some will give for you and some will give because of the charity. It is a great charity and I've met few people who would argue against ending cancer (I met one, but he was very drunk and being a bit sixth form!). 

My fundraising and training went up a notch when I was finally convinced to enter the London Marathon. When people know you run, they will ask you if you're doing this next. They will ask you this quite a bit, it turns out. I always said hell no. Once I'd conquered a 10k, I did progress, without any other impetus than my own weird desire, to a half marathon (yes, 13.1 miles, half of a full marathon, which is 26.2 miles - if you get into running you will find yourself clarifying these points quite a bit too) and so everyone asked me if I'd do a full. I just couldn't see it being something I was physically capable of in terms of time, commitment or capability, until my running buddy, Rachel, who'd done so many races with me  signed up and completed with grace and what appeared to be ease in 2013. 

She trained, but she still enjoyed her life. She didn't disappear into some weird running bubble where people could not reach her unless they were in wicking fabric and trainers. More importantly, when we cheered her on at mile 23 she ran past and didn't look like she was going to die. In fact, she looked like she'd done 3 miles and somehow skipped the other 20 (I am in no way suggesting she cheated! She just looked comfortable, which was not what I was expecting at all). She even met us in the pub afterwards and wasn't that bothered about finding food or collapsing in a heap. I was in utter awe. She made it look fun. 

The atmosphere of the London Marathon was what really sucked me in. To have so many thousands of people in one spot for one shared goal was hugely emotional. The sun was out, the crowd were cheerful, we were all there to egg on a dedicated, slightly deranged loved one. I do love a bit of community spirit and the London Marathon has bucketloads. As disorganised spectators, we'd plonked ourselves, picnic-free, at the nearest viewing point to London Bridge Station. It wasn't a bad spot, but it would have been better with fluids and snacks - what isn't? We watched the elites race past, then wheelchair athletes, blind elite runners, then came the speedy club runners. The admiration I felt for these people is indescribable: they hadn't just covered a massive distance, they'd done it fast. We were initially reserved, but our support grew to a frenzy. We cheered extra loud for the occasional female keeping pace with the lanky legged men, in, have I used the word awe too much? It's the only one that fits. Once the civilians started pouring past, the colour of the runners changed: the healthy, athletic glow dipped to faded corned beef or plain grey. These guys really needed our support. Some runners really did not look well, which made Rachel's cheery grin even more surprising. She was a little way behind the corned beef crew, so we passed the time egging on those runners in between. We yelled out people's names, cheered, high fived, waved, yelped, laughed. We got runner blindness and worried we'd not spot Rachel, and we really did nearly miss her, but, somehow, there she was. We bellowed her name and got a smile and a wave... and I got the bug. 

I entered the ballot the next morning. Fresh out of the shower, my make-up laid out in front of me to get ready for work, I brushed the blusher aside to fill in the application form. Then I panicked a bit. A teeny tiny surge of nerves went through me, so I had to hold off with the eye liner until my hands had steadied, then I decided I'd go for a charity place too. Just to make sure it happened. I was fairly certain that my previous fundraising successes (I'd raised over £3000 for CRUK from two 5ks and a 10k) and my personal story would give me a decent chance at securing a place with CRUK. I didn't consider another charity. I just knew that place was mine. And it was. When I finally heard I'd been offered a Golden Bond place I cried. In a good way. And then I was bloody petrified. I had just taken on something immense. I had to raise £2000 AND run 26.2 miles. What kind of moron was I?!

I can't say what scared me the most. Both are monumental tasks and I had to do them both at the same time. I decided to prioritise. I guess I was most scared of not doing the running properly, so I wanted the fundraising out of the way so I could focus fully on my training without any pressure or panic. I set up my donations page immediately and posted it on Facebook. I got a few donations just for getting a place, which really gave me a boost. People are nice, people are prepared to give, maybe £2000 wasn't impossible after all. 

Having seen Rachel do it all before, I was able to steal a lot of her ideas! She was fantastic in sharing her ideas and resources. I owe her so much. She'd held a brilliant quiz which everyone had had so much fun at and passed on the questions to me. I felt I ought to change them a little, but at least I wasn't totally in the dark and starting from scratch. I think I would have been so bewildered had I had to do it without her or the charity's support. Having seen her success showed me it was possible. She suggested I contact local companies for raffle prizes and I asked my college to help out. I held a quiz in the college restaurant and staff came along for a three course meal, raffle and quiz. One lady I'd never met even came on her own as she thought it was such a good cause. I almost cried in her face, I was so touched. I'd been so anxious about the evening, but it was ace. As it was December, everyone treated it like their Christmas do and we all had an absolute ball. I've even been asked to arrange another. 

If you have a lot of money to raise, planning an event is a brilliant way to go about things. People feel more involved, they feel like they're getting something for their money and they're far more generous when they feel part of something. I actually arranged two quizzes - one for work, one for civilians - as they were very lucrative. I raised over £460 for the first and about £300 for the second. Having banked that much and having received a few random donations, I was already halfway to my target and it set my mind at rest. I had plans for yet another quiz once the marathon was over just in case I didn't reach my target, but I no longer had to panic that it was beyond me. 

It does seem like a lot of work before you get started, but local venues have quiet nights they are happy to have some unexpected custom on. Some do have a minimum spend, but many can be bartered down - it is all for charity, after all. CRUK provided balloons, banners and collection pots and I bought some sparkly confetti and sweets for the tables - the night itself was very little hassle at all, aside from my own nerves. Contacting local businesses was more hit and miss, but I went to my hairdresser and they provided a free cut, my riding stable provided a voucher, I got some cinema tickets and a few other bits and pieces. I was extremely lucky that a friend who runs offered use of her apartment in Spain as a prize, although people were just as happy to part with their cash for the raffle that did not have this as a prize. I also had a colleague do a bake sale for me, set up a swear box system with my students and shared with this with other teachers (this raised £200 alone, although much of that was generosity and not profanity) and I shook a bucket outside Arsenal's stadium, but that raised £2.20. Rachel packed bags in Sainsbury's. There are so many things you can do.

I have heard a lot of runners complain about the charity element of London, but I don't think I could have managed it without. Charities provide you with support - both practically and mentally - to get through. Rachel had ran for Oxfam and had been supported by them tremendously through the whole process. CRUK did similar. They gave fundraising tips and put us all in touch with a great running coach who provided training plans and a training day for CRUK's runners. I signed up for absolutely all of it. I had regular calls from CRUK to see how my training and fundraising were going. One fortuitously timed call came right after my first quiz and I was buzzing, it was so lovely to share my achievement with someone who valued it as much as I did. 

Despite, or perhaps because of, my initial fears, I actually raised £3000 from personal donations. The events were superfluous, but once I hit my target I didn't want to stop, I wanted to get as much for CRUK as I could. Believing in your cause helps so much. Firstly, you have to believe in what you're doing to develop the thick skin you'll need. You will be pestering and harassing your friends and family to give you money. That's quite an annoying thing to do and you will piss people off. You have to think it's worth it or you'll find excuses and chicken out. Being half-hearted is not an option. Consider yourself a representative for the charity and brand yourself. I changed my Facebook and Twitter pictures to things linked to CRUK. I posted my donations page link everywhere I could justify it. I put it in my personal and work email signatures and on every special occasion (Mum's birthday, Christmas, her anniversary, Mothers' Day) I shared the link. For every race I completed or every ridiculous or notable training run (not every training run - there were 3 or 4 a week, even I considered that overkill!) that link accompanied it. Every time I bought a new pair of trainers or carb-loaded a particularly delicious meal, photos with that link were shared around. People will relate to your fundraising journey in a variety of ways. Be serious, be emotional, be self-deprecating, be funny - be you. That is who they are supporting. Be honest, say why you want them to give and people will give if they can. 

The running itself completely took over and changed my life. I committed whole-heartedly. You do not need to do this as much as I did, but I was immensely daunted by the task and wanted to do it properly. Runners say you must respect the distance and I heeded this. I respected and feared it. I took it very seriously because it scared me and I wanted to do as much right to give myself the best chance as possible. I had to run 26.2 miles. My brain couldn't even compute that when I signed up. I was going to be running for around 4 hours! I've never done one single thing for that period of time in my life: I even need breaks from sleep! When I created a Facebook invite for the day of the race and realised I'd be starting at 10am and not finishing until around 2pm, the scale of my task hit me. I would not only be running for four hours, I would not be eating for four hours too. I don't think I've ever been conscious and gone without a meal for that long in my entire life. Now I was really scared. 

I read up on runners' nutrition and changed my diet, I spent a fortune on trainers, compression socks, gels and race entry frees (had I taken a more casual approach, I probably could have found the £2000 I needed to raise in the cost of my many panic buys). I stuck to my running plan as rigidly as I could and informed my very understanding friends I would only be able to see them once a week, unless they wanted to exercise with me. Some did. I even had one friend ride his bike, a la Rocky, alongside me on a 16.5 mile training run. I was certainly not going to be boozing myself unconscious as I had once done - my athletic metabolism punished severely for trying this once and there really was no way I putting myself through that again. 

By April, I had run 26.2 miles and raised over £3000. The combination of running and fundraising made it so much more than I expect any other race to ever be. I love running and I will run as much as I can for as long as my legs and lifestyle will let me, but nothing will match that. I loved doing the marathon and I especially loved the training. Week after week there was a sense of achievement at my own improvement that I hadn't felt since I was in school. When you become an adult, it's very rare to dedicate so much time to getting better at something and that was such a thrill. I signed up for a half marathon and a 20 mile race as part of my training and smashed them both. When I finished that 20 mile race in under 3 hours I knew I'd do the marathon in my dream sub-4 hour time. It was in the bag before I had even started. As I told a friend's sceptical boyfriend, the only thing that would stop me running would be my legs falling off. The confidence and happiness that spread through me then was unmatched by anything else in my life. I knew I would do it. That is exactly the mindset you need to run a marathon. 

But on top of that, my friends and family had supported me massively to do something amazing. We'd done so much good as a team - and I consider it a team effort, I could not have achieved all that alone - and I'd steered it. I got such a kick from knowing that I'd got everyone together to make that happen: I'd banked so much money for CRUK I was a hero. God, I was probably a dreadful person to be around then, but I was so happy. Absolutely everything I was doing was positve. I'd cut back on boozing, I'd accidentally stopped smoking, I was eating about four times as much as I'd normally eat and was still thinner than I'd been since I was 13, I was in possession of an incredibly capable and strong body and I was helping fight cancer. I was practically Batman!

So, to all those people who doubt they can run for charity or all those people who moan that they shouldn't have to: do it. There is no better feeling in the world. I'd have been thrilled to have achieved my time in the marathon without the fundraising, but the extra sense of achievement, to know all your friends and family believe in you and believe in your charity, to know that you have played a very real part in helping your charity achieve its goal, that is an indescribable and unparalleled feeling. I would never have believed that losing my mum, something drenched in chaos and sadness could lead to such tremendous fulfilment, but it did. It truly is the best thing I have ever done.

Zoe has her own blog - Cherry Blossom and Sake - which you can read at



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