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.

Don’t be afraid to deploy a ‘plan B strategy’ mid race

Next time you fly overseas on a Friday or Saturday, have a look at your fellow passengers and see if you can spot a runner heading off to race in a big city marathon. It’s not hard to spot them; their GPS watches, running shoes and general healthy looks make them stand out from the crowd heading off on holiday. But most noticeable will be the slight apprehension that their expressions give away, as they steadfastly focus on making it to the start line, despite it being only a day or two away. They have put in a lot of effort just to make it to this stage, and they don’t want anything to get in the way of their race.

This was how I felt as I set out from Gatwick for Amsterdam with my friend and fellow Guildford & Godalming AC runner Matt King. I was also in the midst of an internal debate about race strategy, something that had been raging for just over a week. I had originally entered Amsterdam with the objective of running my dream of a sub 3hr marathon. Typically, as soon as I entered I got injured. As a result, I had a curtailed training plan for this race and had written it off, preferring a strategy to run it easy, finishing in around 3hrs 10mins, and using the mileage as a base for future races.

However, in the final few weeks of training I had some great runs. A sub 90mins half marathon in my very hilly Surrey neighbourhood, and 18miles + runs at close to 7 minutes per mile pace. And with decent runs, come heightened expectations. Suddenly I thought I might be able to crack out a sub 3 hour marathon, despite in my heart knowing I was far from race fit. For two weeks I debated the merits of going out at sub 3 pace versus the more realistic, 3hrs 10mins pace. Typically to those who know me, on arrival in Amsterdam I had decided on a race plan in which I would attach myself to the back of the sub 3hr paving group and “see what happens”.

Amsterdam Marathon starts and finishes on the track at the city’s fabulous Olympic Stadium.

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Despite the brilliant starting location, I struggled to catch the 3hr pacing group that seemed to be going at a much quicker pace, and after 2miles gave up and decided to run my own race.

This saw me cracking out miles in around 6.45 minutes per mile reasonably comfortable for the first ten miles. However, that got tougher as I approached the half way mark, and the realisation that my efforts would see me go through halfway in a few seconds over 1hr 30mins (my Garmin GPS watch had the halfway mark as 13.48miles, so was clearly off) left me feeling it was going to be a tough day at the office.

I persevered with the pace, but it started to feel tougher than it should. Instead of sticking with my race plan, I decided to give myself the maximum change of succeeding with my B plan from 25kms; a sub 3hrs 05mins – a personal best and good for age time for a number of key marathons globally. So, I dropped the pace to around 7.15 minutes per mile, and settled in for the ride. The pace was a lot more comfortable, and I felt I had a chance of delivering on the plan, despite having set off quicker than I probably should have.

Usually, if I have gone off to get a time and am struggling, I will bury myself trying to maintain the required pace, ensuring a terrible and very slow last six miles. This is the first time I have adapted and focused on a plan B. Maybe I am getting older and more mature, or maybe it’s just a learning from running marathons regularly. Whatever it was, it worked. While some of the final miles hurt, I was able to maintain the pace and even finished with what felt like a sprint.

As I entered the stadium (after passing the 3hr group pacer who was walking!), I saw that I had just over a minute to run 200m to get under 3hrs 05mins. Anyone who has run a marathon will understand it when I say that I genuinely didn’t think I was going to make it. My mind just could not do the simple mathematical equation. So, I upped the pace and sprinted past around ten people ahead of me on the track, utterly surprised to finish in 3hr 04mins 30secs for a PB and the successful delivery of plan B. Job done.

Amsterdam is a great race and one I would recommend. It’s friendly, flat, fast and has a brilliant start and finish in an Olympic Stadium. And most importantly, it delivers PBs. Now, where and when will I be having a crack at that sub 3 marathon?!

And they’re off; cross country is back

My last cross country race had been the national championships in Sunderland in 2013. I ran well in freezing conditions, on a course that featured snow and ankle high mud the whole way round.

A foot injury that stopped me running off road for almost a year wrote off last season’s races, so it was great to be back for the opening match of the Surrey Cross Country League, Division 2, held at Newlands Corner near Guildford.

Thankfully, conditions could not have been more different from Sunderland. In the midst of an Indian Summer, the course was dry and the temperature mild. Poorly, a work issue meant I arrived at the team meeting point a mere 15minutes before the starting gun was fired, despite it being a home fixture. As a result, my warm up was a ridiculous 4.30 minutes per mile pace on a downhill opening section. Needless to say that is too quick for someone like me, and I was in serious danger of blowing up before the quarter mile mark.

Focusing on hanging on from such an early stage of the race was far from ideal, but it ensured there was no doubt about my race strategy; get out hard, and keep going. I found myself running reasonably high up the field for the first lap of the two lap course. However, I suffered on a vicious hill that had most runners resorting to a desperate walk/shuffle for a prolonged section of the route. Definitely more hill work required.

I kept going, and despite losing places wasn’t falling apart in the way I assumed I would. Newlands Corner is a good old-fashioned tough and hilly cross country course, and it hurt. But cross country is a sport in which it feels great to hurt. It’s fast, it’s brutal, and I love it.

Competing for a team is an unusual feeling for runners so used to competing for themselves. As fellow Guildford & Godalming AC runners went past me, I tried to hang onto them for as long as possible. And it worked. Yes, I was losing places, but I wasn’t haemorrhaging them.

Throughout, I was entirely focused on scoring for the team. Aware that other, much quicker, runners would be back at the next race, I knew this was my chance to play a role in whatever we are to achieve this season.

And at the end I did that, finishing as the 7th team member out of 8 to score. I was 57th overall, ahead of around half the field. I was happy with that.

Yes, I can improve on my position with more speed and hill work, but the race represented a good start to my cross country season after so long off. More importantly, the team got off to a flyer, finishing in second place and setting up a real change of back to back promotions in the Surrey Cross Country League. Muddy marvellous.

Not everybody hurts

The leaves are turning brown and the air is getting fresher. It can only mean one thing; the cross country season will soon be upon us.

I love the concept of cross country. Running becomes a team sport, in which you can compete despite not being one of the ‘fast’ crowd. At my club, Guildford & Godalming AC, we have a motivational team-talk in advance of each race, and a lot of cake and laughs once it’s over.

Last year, I missed the whole cross country schedule due to an injury that prevented me running on uneven surfaces. While I am desperately looking forward to pulling on a new pair of spikes in a few weeks, I will do so with some trepidation.

For a month now, I have been thinking I should focus on cross country for the winter, ignoring PB chasing on the roads. I would still run in road races, but my priority would be the National Cross Country Championships at Parliament Hill, London, on 21st February 2015.

At this historic occasion, up to 2,000 club runners compete against each other in what can only be described as a scene from a 16th Century battlefield. Imagine them all sprinting off in a battle to get to the top of the first hill first, gaining maximum advantage when the course narrows. It’s an amazing sight.

I have run this race twice. Once at Parliament Hill (in 2012) finishing 852nd, and once in a very snowy, muddy and cold Sunderland, finishing 518th. Competing in such a huge race is awe inspiring. All the greats of British running have competed in this race over the years, with the list of previous winners reading like a who’s who of elite running.

However, the prospect of cross country, not least the ‘nationals’, is filling me with dread. As any club runner knows, to run well you need to hurt. And hurt bad.

For too long I have been in a comfort zone, failing to push myself hard. That dawned on me a couple of weeks back at the wonderful Isle of Wight Fell racing championships (yes, there are big hills on the Isle of Wight) in which my mind just wouldn’t accept that I needed to suffer to compete.

Since then, I have been reading up on the concept of suffering while running. Matt Fitzgerald has written of the “tyranny of the comfort zone” and how endurance athletes “embrace a certain kind of suffering, which is the grind of high volume, but they shy away from exposing themselves to much acute suffering of burning lungs and legs that is experienced in challenging high-intensity workouts”. He added, “the endurance athlete who is serious about realising his full potential in competition must suffer for the sake of suffering in training”.

That got me thinking; when was the last time my legs felt they had worked hard after a training session? The truth is, I can’t remember. For too long now I have been avoiding my club’s Tuesday night track session, convincing myself that I didn’t want to get injured again by upping the intensity of my training, and instead running reasonably paced 7 to 10 mile efforts on my own. I now realise I have been wimping out.

The Australian Herb Elliott, who won a gold medal in the 1500m at the 1960 Olympics, trained both mentally and physically. He regularly picked the toughest sand dune on a local beach and ran up it 100 or more times in a session. He wholeheartedly responded to his coach’s demands to “thrust against the pain – love the suffering”.

I need to do what Herb did, training my mind as well as my body. I need more difficult training runs, with more intensity. And hills. Lots of them.

One of my running club friends, Adam Stirk, is a brilliant mountain marathoner and ultra runner. When asked how one might get faster running downhill, particularly on fells, his typically gruff response was “grow some”. How true.

It’s time for me to “grow some” and start suffering on the roads and hills of Surrey. Only then will I give myself a chance of running competitively on the muddy cross country fields. Bring it on; it’s time to hurt.

Suggested further reading:

The psychology of mental toughness – willpower, self-control, and decision making
How pain tolerance affects running performance
The tyranny of the comfort zone
The science of suffering

Scream if you want to go faster

The guys on Marathon Talk frequently say that “if you want to run faster, you have to run faster”. Simplistic, but true.

With that in mind, the last two weekends have seen me taking part in two very different races as I seek to get back fitter and faster.

The first was the Wimbledon 5k Dash which hosted the Surrey 5k Championships. Starting and finishing on the Wimbledon Park track, this is a truly club focused race, with 250 good standard runners taking part. The route includes a climb of approximately 100ft, but is then pretty much downhill to the finish.

I raced reasonably well with a couple of sub six minute miles sandwiching one of just over (the hilly one). This brought me home in 18.40mins for 59th place. Six other Guildford & Godalming AC runners finished ahead of me in under 18minutes (a remarkable performance).

5k club road races are few and far between these days. While the hill mid course is an annoyance, this is definitely a race with PB potential given the competitive nature of the speedy field. I am already looking forward to next year.

My second race, the Thames Meander Half Marathon, took place 6 days later in Kingston. An out and back course along the Thames path towards London, this is a fabulous race. I had originally intended to take part in the marathon, that sets off at the same time, but given my lack of fitness decided that was a step too far. While the underfoot surface isn’t always quick on the path, it is a flat course so reasonably fast.

I prefer smaller races like this to the big city marathons. The race organisers can talk to everyone at the start and the running community binds together brilliantly – you are never on your own. I set off at a reasonable pace and got into a consistent stride after a few miles. I picked things up from half-way and managed to finish in a comfortable 87.14mins for 10th place.

Neither race was close to a personal best time, but both saw me run significantly faster than I have for months. Like many people, I find it hard to replicate the speed of races in training. So, if I want to get fitter and faster, I need to keep racing. Bring it on.