We need to talk about running

I’ve been quiet about running in the last couple of months. Unusual for me, I know. Trying to understand why has been difficult, but I think I have gotten there. Put simply, I am cross with myself for allowing my race expectations to dramatically diminish since Christmas, and haven’t wished to talk about it. Enough is enough, to help me pull out of this phase of self doubt, we need to talk about running.

The lead up to Christmas had gone well. I had run some good high mileage weeks and took part in the Portsmouth Marathon (for the fourth time) alongside fellow Guildford & Godalming AC runners as a ‘fun’ last long run of the year. This is becoming an annual pre Christmas event for us, and wearing Santa Hats, we laughed and sung carols most of the way, sauntering home in an easy 3hrs 38mins.

I relaxed my training over Christmas to account for the marathon in my legs and a cold virus, but built the mileage up steadily from a low of 14.5miles the week following Portsmouth. I ran a muddy Guildford parkrun on the 27th of December (20.01mins) and again on New Years Day (19.40mins). All good so far.

Next up should have been the Surrey Cross Country Championships in Croydon. Unfortunately, my wife was ill on the day and I missed the race to look after the kids. The following week I had the chance to make up for that at the third of four League Cross Country matches. Our team have been flying this year and were in prime position for back to back promotions. As co-captain, I wanted to contribute to the team’s scoring. I didn’t. I had a disaster, finishing in an unexplainable 95th position, my worst ever finish for a League match.

Training continued and seemed normal, though I have been staying away from track speed sessions of late; replacing them with 8 to 12 mile tempo runs at or close to marathon pace (6.50mpm). I looked forward to the Southern Cross Country Championships, at Stammer Park in Brighton, given it’s a hilly 9mile course with endurance the key to success. However, after feeling ill the evening before, I knew it was not going to end well. I set off at a very slow pace to see what my body would do. I made it round one of three laps, before leaving the course and handing in my chip. Or as others say, giving up. I was furious with myself. This was my first ever DNF.

I headed to Arizona with work two days later and enjoyed a good week’s running alongside my professional duties. The weather was great, and I was able to run up Camelback Mountain in Scottsdale in the sun, and trot up and down the paths alongside the Arizona Canal. The highlight was my participation in a local 5k race connected with the Super Bowl (being held in nearby Phoenix). There was a buzz of excitement around as two quick looking guys warmed up. It turned out they were both professional triathletes, and that one was the former Olympian runner Alan Webb, who still holds the American mile record (3.46mins). Clearly, they took the first two positions with Webb winning in 15.01, a second ahead of his training partner. I was delighted to finish 6th (winning a medal for finishing within the top three in my age category) in a personal best time of 18.06. At last, a ray of running sunshine.

Back in the UK a few days later and the clouds again descended. I didn’t feel healthy in the day or so ahead of our final Cross Country League match in Croydon. I suspected I had picked up yet another bug on the flight back from the States. However, after much moaning to our squad about the need for a decent turnout to ensure promotion to Division One (which we achieved), I felt I had to run. This was an idiotic decision given how poorly I felt, and I finished at the back of the field in a new personal worst of 101st place. I knew in the first 100m of the race that I should not be running, but I didn’t want to pull out of two cross country races in a row and make it a “habit”. The result? I didn’t run for another week and spent a large amount of time in bed, sleeping. Not good.

Reviewing previous cross country results ahead of the National Championships at Parliament Hill, it was clear I was having a bad year. In my first season (2011/12) of cross country racing I was running much faster and finishing higher up the field. This year my performances had gotten worse and worse after a reasonable start. Without a doubt, I am now a better runner, but I seem to no longer be able to compete at cross country.

I had previously said that the Nationals would be my focus in the first couple of months of 2015. That had already been thrown out the window. Instead, I came up with a plan to finish strong in an attempt to again feel good about running. However, on arrival at the Mecca of cross country, the prospect of an ‘embarrassing finishing position’ left me unsure if I could be bothered to actually run. Most unlike me.

I escaped my teammates and warmed up on my own on some paths, watching the senior ladies race as I did. Cross country is an awesome sport. It has world class athletes at the front gliding across the ankle deep mud and managing to look gracious despite everything. And at the back, you have hardy running workhorses, determined to finish no matter what. Watching the ladies at the back of the field left me in no doubt that I should be running. If they are willing to beast themselves on the brutally muddy course, why shouldn’t I?

I got my spikes on and tested my blood glucose levels. Gulp, they were at 4.0, too low to race on. Was this a sign that I shouldn’t run? I had less than ten minutes to go before the start, so I quickly ate some oat bars, along with any sugary substance I could find in the bottom of my bag.

I arrived last out of my team on the start line, strangely quiet. I wasn’t in the mood to raise anyone’s spirits given how I was feeling. I made sure I was at the back of my pen and when the gun fired, I started slower than I have ever started a race. I really didn’t want to be there.

The first mile was heavily congested at the back and I started to push through the crowds, with my legs feeling good. Usually at this stage of a race I am already hurting, so it was odd to be cruising along at such an easy pace. A team mate appeared ahead and I pushed on to join him, suggesting we work together to cut through the field. We did, and stayed together until the end of the first of two laps. I felt strong at the halfway point and could sense a lot of runners around me struggling. This gave me confidence that I was running well within myself and could run a faster second half. I left my teammate and surged ahead.

Throughout the race I don’t think I was overtaken by any runner who I didn’t subsequently chase down. I had a fast last 800m conditions even with the muddy quagmire of a finishing straight. I felt good at the end, despite my assumption that I had finished in the bottom half of the field.

Our team ran brilliantly and finished 30th in the 6 man competition and 21st in the 9 man competition. I surprised myself by finishing 912th out of 2000+ runners. Yes, my worst ever finish, but a stronger run and a much higher finish than I feared on the starting line.

What does all this mean? I have no idea. What I am sure of is the need to start afresh in cross country next season. After a few hundred yards of the Nationals I had decided to take a break from the mud in the future. By the end I was already planning a proper training regime over the summer, including hill repeats and speed work. Whether that happens or not we will see, but at least I will be competing again – and hopefully not at the back of the pack. It’s good to talk about running, even if it is to yourself.

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