Keeping things in perspective – I will be back

Disappointed. Crestfallen. Downcast. Despondent. Miffed. Gutted. All words I have used to describe how I have been feeling since an easy run last Thursday.

Yes, after 17 weeks of great training I managed to injure myself with only ten days to go before the London Marathon. Today, after a week of trying to remedy it, I gave up all hope of making the start-line in Greenwich and deferred my place until 2017.

My initial reaction was to be annoyed, deflated. I was being silly. It is only a marathon after all. Yes, it is frustrating to have so many weeks of good training done and dusted and not to use the resulting fitness in a target race, but it’s hardly a big deal when you look at some of the issues others in society face.

As I headed to the London Marathon Expo earlier to check out how brands were activating within the running community for work, I was struck by how fortunate runners are. The thousands at London Excel looked healthy, well off and very happy. They were smiling, chatting freely with others about their race expectations and how their training had gone.

In a word that seems to have gone crazy in recent years, not everyone is as lucky as we runners are. So when things go bad for us, it is important to keep it in perspective. At the end of the day, it is only a race.

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That doesn’t mean I am happy about it. Far from it. I would much rather be lining up in the Red Start on Sunday morning and attempting to bash out 26.2miles at 6.40minutes per mile pace or thereabouts. But it won’t be happening, so why fret over it? One of the key deliverables in a marathon training cycle is making it to the start of your race. I have failed to do that and should simply take it as a learning for next time.

There are plenty of other marathons I can run when back fit, and no one can take the training mileage cycle away from me or the enjoyment derived from it. I was already entered into Belfast City Marathon on 2nd May, with the intention to run it for fun. However, if I can get the leg fixed in time (and that is far from a given), I will race there.

I ran my first sub three-hour marathon in Belfast last year and love it. It is smaller than London and that works for me as I prefer races without the hassle that goes with really big mass participation events. Despite a hillier and slower course than London, it is a lot of fun to compete in.

If I don’t make Belfast, I will have to wait until autumn to run a decent marathon. And until that point I will focus on getting faster over the shorter distances, hopefully using the mileage stored up from marathon training to achieve some personal best times. I may be out for now, but I will be back. Of that you can be sure.

If you are running London, enjoy it. Don’t go off too fast, and don’t finish too slow. By making it to the start-line, you have already done half the job. It is now time to deliver on your hopes and dreams by ensuring your mind stays focused when the going gets tough. Have fun out there!

Nearly at Greenwich

Some hate marathon training. They see it as a slog. Mile after mile run in the cold and dark of early mornings or late nights.

With just over two weeks to go before the London Marathon, I can sincerely say that I have enjoyed my training cycle and have run more than ever since Christmas.

Most of the miles have been run on my own instead of with club-mates at Guildford & Godalming A.C. While I have missed the company of good friends and have done very little speed-work in this build-up, the solitary action of running in the dark has been something I have revelled in.

Before the clocks went forward, I found running early in the morning or at night amazingly refreshing. The freedom was awe inspiring. And the weather didn’t matter as the darkness enveloped me, protecting against everything else.

I repeatedly found myself lost in thoughts about life and work while running alongside nature. It’s a time to solve problems, create ideas and avoid boisterous foxes prowling in the dark. It is also a time to learn and laugh, listening to Podcasts such as the Elis James and John Robins show, The Rob Watson Show, Running Commentary or the brilliant Marathon Talk.

The only downside of running on country roads is the frequent use of full beam lights by car drivers who don’t seem to comprehend that a runner with a small head-torch is actually blinded by their lights. If a fellow driver struggles to see when you direct them at their car, what do they think the impact is on a runner!?

That aside, it has been a great experience. Unlike last year, when I ran a lot of double day sessions as part of my commute to and from work, I have focused on longer single day workouts. They haven’t been quick, but I will have run well over fifty runs of 10miles or more in length by marathon day. The hope is that this will add more efficiency to my gait and put more endurance in my legs. Let’s hope it works.

You can check out my full training schedule on Strava here. As you will see, I have run 1,023miles, with only 17 days left before London Marathon. At this stage last year, as I prepared for my 2hr 59min 17sec in Belfast, I had run 907.2miles. My mileage is up, has been much more consistent and I am feeling good – though a slight knee issue has arisen in the last few days.

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As I start to think about the start in Greenwich and my race strategy, including target pace and time, I know I should be proud of this training cycle and should take confidence from it. Yet I also look forward to it being over and getting back down to Guildford & Godalming A.C. to enjoy Spring runs with my club-mates. But before that I need to deliver on race day. And how hard can that be!?

A Golden parkrun

Crissy Field could well be the most perfect parkrun location on earth. Situated alongside the Bay in San Francisco, it has a backdrop of the Golden Gate and Alcatraz. Absolutely beautiful.

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I was lucky to run it on Saturday while in the city. The Race Director is a welcoming chap called Dale. He made a point of introducing himself to all the first-timers in attendance, many of whom were from the UK.

Warming up with another Brit – Kevin Jones from Cardiff – I heard of how he had travelled the world to take part in parkruns, and was celebrating his fiftieth birthday by visiting California. He is the ultimate parkrun tourist.

The number of participants is usually small at Crissy Field, which is odd considering the hundreds of runners using the same paths as the run is held on. The United States clearly needs to wake up to the parkrun phenomenon.

Those who do come out are a friendly bunch, all waiting for the last finisher to complete their run before heading to a nearby beach hut for some post parkrun refreshments.

I was delighted to be first finisher, just ahead of the aforementioned Kevin. It was a golden start to the weekend by the Bay and I hope it won’t be the last time I run the amazing Crissy Field parkrun.

Seeing other clubs

I need to confess; I have been cheating on my running club. The truth is, when I am in Northern Ireland, I run with another club. It wasn’t serious at first, it merely started with a few training runs. That led to the paying of a membership fee, and then the ultimate sin, purchasing a vest and pulling it on for a race. Oh, Guildford and Godalming AC, please don’t judge me…

Yes, I have joined North Down A.C. The club local to where I grew up in Bangor, County Down. I have been taking my children home to see their grandparents as much as possible and when I am there have been enjoying running with one of my oldest and best friends, Keith Gilmore. Keith has been getting into his running in the last couple of years, becoming a regular at the local parkrun. And then he got more serious, joining North Down A.C., and putting the idea into my head to do the same. At nearly forty you think you are too old to be led by my friends, but maybe not.

And thank goodness he did, as it has been absolutely brilliant. When I am back in Bangor I now have the chance to join an amazingly friendly group of runners whenever I want to run. Popping down to Ward Park for the parkrun on a Saturday morning is more than just turning up to run, it’s a chance to say hello to clubmates. I have raced twice for the club, at the Seely Cup 10k before Christmas (coming back from a period out I ran slowly, but loved it) and the Cultra 10k last weekend (despite backing off on the second lap of this very hilly race, I came a respectful 8th). Both have been fun occasions, and I look forward to pulling on my new yellow and blue vest for many more races in the future.

This doesn’t at all mean that I am done with my home club, Guildford & Godalming A.C., far from it. I am still proud to pull on the hallowed green vest when competing outside of Northern Ireland. It just means that I can enjoy my running in my two favourite places with like minded people. It really is true, runners are the most welcoming people you can ever meet. So, wherever you are, join your local running club and meet fellow runners who will only help you to get fitter and faster. Or even better, join two.

The 2,636th fastest marathoner in the UK in 2015

It doesn’t sound great, does it? Not exactly something to put on my Twitter profile. Being 2,636th in the country is not something to boast about. However, behind that statistic is the reality that in 2015 I achieved a sub three-hour marathon, completing a major running objective. Now that sounds better.

However, immediately after my 2.59.17 Belfast Marathon in early May, I lost my running mojo. At times I simply haven’t wanted to run. Shocking. And despite having run personal bests for most distances this year, and run more miles than ever before, it has not felt like a good one. Strange that.

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As I enter 2016, and my fortieth year, I have been working hard to find my mojo. Over Christmas, I have had a great time chasing my mojo around the muddy Surrey Hills. And I seem to have caught it.

My London Marathon training is starting with a renewed focus that hasn’t been there for many months. I am determined to eat better, sleep better, train better and [begin to] stretch over the next four months. And, as a result, run a fast marathon in later April.

I know I am never going to be ranked high enough to sound like a decent marathoner, but as a late starter to running, I can still achieve times that I could only have dreamt of six years ago. It is framing it positively that has helped me to find my mojo. And that in turn allows me to focus on clear, but achievable, objectives for 2016: I am going to run personal bests at every distance.

Happy new year. Bring on 2016.

What’s next

In the television series The West Wing, President Bartlet often concludes his administration’s efforts on a particular issue by saying “what’s next?”. It’s a signal to his team that it’s time to move on. They may have worked tirelessly to prevent a world war, or stave off a major disaster domestically, but their efforts are complete, and they have other things to focus on.

As I ran over the finish line of the Belfast Marathon in 2hrs 59mins 17seconds (49th place), I had a similar desire to refocus. Yes, I was utterly delighted to have broken the three hour mark, especially in front of my parents and son back in Northern Ireland. But it wasn’t a euphoric feeling, it didn’t feel like the end of something, only the start.

My target of running a sub three hour marathon started in earnest back in 2013. When I set the goal, I bought a really nice bottle of wine to reward myself with when I succeeded. I was fully focused, but it took a few marathons and a lot of training to get there.

In reality, Belfast was the first marathon that I was adequately prepared for. It was the first time I hadn’t suffered an injury in my build up, and the first time I didn’t peak too early. A clear twelve week block of training, lots of long tempo runs midweek, and double run days, delivered in the end. As I stood on the start line I knew that I was the right weight, had the correct nutrition, had trained properly and that the data showed I could run a sub three hour marathon. While I had hardly slept the night before the race, it didn’t matter as I had ticked all the boxes.

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When things got tough running up significant elevation on the Antrim Road to the halfway mark, and into headwinds from around 15miles, I simply told myself the numbers added up and that I was going to do it. When the rest of the pace group, and the pacers, dropped off, I repeated that mantra. I knew I was ready and was not going to miss my opportunity.

With just over a mile to go, I was determined not to leave anything to chance. A 6.15mins final mile saw me flying towards the finish line feeling fantastic. To see my mum, dad and son Toby a few yards from the end ensured I had a huge smile on my face. I had done it. Wow. Phew.

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Yet, even while having my timing chip removed from my laces, and trying not to allow my legs to wobble too much, I was already thinking about how much quicker I could run a flat marathon, or a half marathon if I trained specifically for it. What is wrong with me!?

So, I am now refocusing. I will target quicker races over the summer, with lots of parkruns, 5ks and 10ks. And with more speed, and less miles, I hope I can work on my half marathon time with a view to beating 80mins. I might even not run an autumn marathon to allow this refocus on speed. Let’s see what happens. All I know is that I have ticked off one major life objective and while hugely proud, I have plenty more to celebrate in the future. I still haven’t drunk that celebratory wine, I am keeping it for something quicker.

If you get the chance to race, take it

“Fancy racing at the Holly Run cross country on the 14th December?”, I was asked by a club mate a few weeks ago. Mmm, let me think about that… a tough cross country race alongside some of my club’s quickest runners or a relaxing Sunday afternoon with the kids following a ‘busy’ week of Christmas parties.

Not a hard decision to make. Thankfully, I didn’t make it and instead failed to commit either way.  However, after a week long battle with my internal “why bother wasting your time racing” monologue, I found myself buying some 12mm spikes in preparation to race on Sunday. What was I thinking!?

The race took place in Reigate’s Priory Park (brilliantly organised by Reigate Priory AC) and included a rather steep hill. 5.6miles in total, with 699ft of ascent, the three lap course was muddy, but nothing to complain about. Once I was there, with my green Guildford & Godalming AC (GGAC) vest on, I couldn’t help but feel pleased that I had shown up. Having bumped into my fellow GGAC runners at registration, I started to have a good feeling about things.

The start line for the men’s race at 2.10pm was full of club vests. A good humoured starter got us on our way and the pace was quick, but nothing silly. That helped when we hit the hill for the first time after a couple of minutes racing. Ouch, it hurt, but it wasn’t just me feeling it as everyone slowed. Thankfully, once the hill was done, there was a stretch of flattish running before a steep descent, down which it was easier to throw caution to the wind and see what happened than try to control yourself. Luckily, I stayed upright throughout.

By the end of the second lap I had moved up the field and found myself in 21st place (according to a helpful marshal who was updating runners). As I passed the leaders at a switchback, GGAC runners were leading the way, with the super-fast Gilbert Grundy in first place, John Sanderson in third and Colin High, Adam Stirk and James Adams all in the next ten places, and James Baggott just behind me.

It’s fair to say that seeing such domination at the front of a race by your teammates makes the last lap a lot easier than it should feel. That boost, along with a decent base of endurance from my recent higher mileage training, saw me take a few positions up the final hill ascent, and I was able to sustain things until the end of the race. And with my family providing vocal support at the finish line, I ran home in 37 minutes 23 seconds, with a smile on my face in a respectable 18th place.

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It’s always nice to finish a race feeling like you have done well. It’s even better to finish it and hear about the brilliant performance of your teammates. Gilbert won in 31 minutes 10 seconds and John was third in 32 minutes 11 seconds. Adam was 7th, Colin 8th and James 13th. James brought the team home in 31st. With such a dominating performance, it was no surprise that the team won the team competition (first three finishers) with 11pts ahead of Dorking and Mole Valley AC on 32pts. However, what was a surprise was that our 4th, 5th and 6th runners, including yours truly, had taken third place in the team competition.

That result made my day. I get a lot of medals for completing races, but very few for achieving something in a race. I was absolutely thrilled to be part of our ‘B’ team. It just goes to show that when someone asks us if we want to race there is only one way to respond – “yes please!” Ignore that inner monologue that tries to talk you out of it. If you get the chance to race, take it.

Seventy seven reasons to get serious about a Spring marathon

Belfast and Kent are unlikely bedfellows. In May 2015, I will run two very different marathons in both.

I ran the Belfast Marathon – that takes place on the May Bank Holiday Monday – this year in an attempt to quickly wipe away the memory of a terrible London Marathon performance a few weeks prior. It delivered, and I ran a reasonably relaxed 3hr 10mins. I really enjoyed the race atmosphere. It’s not too big, certainly not flat, and it’s in my beloved Northern Ireland, with the route taking you through some of the most newsworthy (in the bad old days) parts of the city. What’s not to love!?

The Kent Road Runner Marathon takes place later in May and is very different. Held on a cycle track of 2.7km, you run 17 laps. I am not a fan of running around in circles, but this appealed as it provides a nice back-up race for Belfast and should make a fun watching experience for my wife and kids.

I don’t intend on racing both marathons. Hopefully, Kent will be a relaxed run after a successful Belfast. My objective is to finish in the top 80 in Northern Ireland, and if fit I will have a pop at running sub 3hours in doing so. It would be nice to get that elephant off my back on home territory.

With this in mind, I have been considering what training programme to follow. Turning to the legendary Pfitzinger and Douglas’ ‘Advanced Marathoning’ book, the most attractive, and seemingly successful, is the 55 to 70 miles training regime over a sixteen week period. The question is, can my body sustain such high mileage?

So, with some time off work last week, I decided to see what sort of reaction I would have to increased mileage. Since returning from injury in late July, I have run between 40 and 50 miles on average per week. The plan for last week was to up that to 75 miles.

For the first three days I ran twice a day, with an easy run in the morning and another run in the evening. The Tuesday evening session included the Cooper Test on the track, which saw me running 3280m in twelve minutes. On the Thursday I had a relatively easy day as I had to change plans to go into the office, only running once early in the morning. On Friday I cracked out a steady 15 miles on the road mid afternoon. On Saturday I took to the trails for 10 slow miles, which included 10 hill repeats that I didn’t really commit to. I finished the week off with 11miles on the road on the Sunday morning.

In total I ran 77.9 miles, my highest ever mileage for one week. It was great that I met my target of 75 miles, but I am not sure how much quality was included. If I am ever going to run sub 3 hours for a marathon I am sure I need to be able to run the mileage and ensure some quality speed and hill sessions are part of the mix.

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While questions about quality still exist in my mind, I now feel that the mileage is runnable. So, in mid January I will start the 55 to 70 miles programme with a view to smashing Belfast… or Kent. And between then and now, I will maintain a base of around 50 miles a a week with a focus on the cross country season’s big races in January and February. Time to get serious about my mileage.

Letting my inner dog loose

Post-boxes, hydrants and lampposts are much loved by dogs. For an evening last week, I let my inner dog loose and spent one hour running around suburbia looking for the aforementioned street furniture as part of a Street-O event.

A week ago, I hadn’t heard of Street-O when my friend and coach Marc Woodall suggested I join him for an event in Stoneleigh, hosted by the Mole Valley Orienteering Club. “Meet in a pub next to the station”, he said. Sounds informal, I thought, and it is. Turning up at the pub I was met by two guys sat in the corner, pints on the table, distributing maps. Informal is a complement by the way, not a criticism – and the welcome could not have been friendlier to a newcomer.

Once we had paid the £3 fee and had our map, we were off. Marc kindly let me join him for my inaugural event as a Street-O virgin. Turns out it’s akin to an urban orienteering race. The map you are given is of the local area, but without street names or other helpful information. You run with the aim of getting to specific locations (“controls”) on the map, generally under street lights. On the other side of the map you will be given a list of controls with numbers as stated on the map overleaf. There will be clues, such as “hydrant (lower number)”, with the objective to identify the correct hydrant and thus write down the said lower number on the sheet.

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The controls are divided up into three point values – 10s, 20s and 30s. So, ideally, you would spend a few minutes identifying the smartest route to get the highest score achievable. Needless to say, as runners Marc and I simply ran off in one direction towards a plethora of controls on the map – probably a common tactic by organisers to flummox competitors.  It was clearly a mistake and limited our scoring potential.

You have one hour to score as many points as possible, and need to judge how far you are away from ‘home’ (the pub) to ensure you don’t go over the time limit and get penalised points. As Marc and I had headed off on a sub optimal route (with me failing to add any strategic value throughout), we settled for our lot with several minutes left on the stopwatch as we knew we wouldn’t get to the next control and back on time. Instead, we had a quick pint while awaiting our results. It was at this time I realised the genius in hosting such events at a pub!

I was quite pleased to have finished in joint 7th for my first time at such an event. I will definitely do more of these and continue my dog impressions in suburbia. Not only is it a strategic challenge, but it’s fabulous interval training because you have to stop to write down an answer, before speeding off towards the next control. While moving, we averaged 6.49min pace for the 6.5miles we covered, so we were not hanging around.

The biggest lesson I took away was the need to try new things. If Marc hadn’t mentioned it to me there is no way I would have been at a random pub on a cold November evening having great fun on what is essentially a treasure hunt for grown-ups who like to run.

If you want more information on Street-O, please check out http://www.mvoc.org/ and http://slow.org.uk/about/streeto/.

And illness hits…

I ran my second cross country match of the season at Ham near Kingston a few weeks ago. It was fast and furious, and I didn’t sustain the pace as well as I had at the first race.

Looking at my watch is a much repeated mistake after a few hundred yards, and the 4.30mpm pace left me sure I needed to slow down. I did, but I still struggled as the race progressed, with it all seeming harder than it should have on a flat and very runnable course.

Probably implementing the reverse advice of any sports psychologist, I spent the rest of the race trying to work out why it was proving so difficult to smash out the pace required, with the recent Amsterdam Marathon leading a growing list of excuses. It was only in the last 800 metres that I pushed on; in a successful attempt to keep to the club rule of not letting anyone else go past you at this stage of a race.  I finished in 78th place. It hurt though, as this picture (am no.190) testifies:

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A day later I found out why it was all harder than it should have been. A bad cold that had defeated my whole family finally got hold of me. While I wallowed in typically male self-pity for a week or so with very little running as a result, at least I had an excuse other than the marathon for my performance.