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.

Post mararthon with Toby

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.

Pavey claims podium place at BBC Sports Personality of the Year

Well done Jo Pavey, and well done to those runners who backed her as she beat the odds and finished a brilliant third in the prestigious BBC Sports Personality of the Year vote.

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While Lewis Hamilton (209,920 votes) and Rory McIlroy (123,745 votes) finished ahead of Pavey (99,913 votes), her third place was a surprise with the Devon athlete beating ‘better known’ sports stars such as Carl Froch, Lizzy Yarnold and Gareth Bale.

It just goes to show what an energetic bunch the runners of Britain are. When we put our minds to it, we really can achieve anything.

#GoJo; Vote for a true sporting personality

Let me tell you story about a lady called Jo. She lives in Devon with her husband Gavin. They met at an athletics club twenty six years ago. They are self employed, not rich, and both work hard at what they do. She turned 41 this year, and gave birth to her second child in 2013. Heart warming, but pretty unremarkable, yes?

Well, let me tell you more. In 2014, less than 10 months after giving birth to her daughter, this lady smashed the world record over 5,000m by a female over 40 years of age and then won a bronze medal in the Commonwealth Games, finishing behind a pair of young Kenyans in a world-class race. Ten days later she headed to the European Championships and won her first major championship title, conquering a talented field a little more than a month before turning 41. In doing so, she became the oldest female (by three years) to win a gold medal in the history of the championships.

This women is a running superstar who has made wearing long white compression socks cool. She is the remarkable Jo Pavey. She finished seventh, and first European, in London 2012 in both the 5000m and 10,000m, but her form in 2014 has been nothing short of extraordinary. She is defying the normal physiological rules of running, getting even better with age, and despite unselfishly changing her training regime to a more relaxed “kids first” approach.

Competing in a qualifying race earlier this year she found herself wearing the same club vest she wore as a junior as she ran to victory against competitors born when she was at university. In a “want it now” consumer society, she is an inspiration for those who believe in working hard to achieve success, and not rushing things.

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Sadly, her performance doesn’t get the recognition deserved. She no longer recieves Lottery funding from UK Athletics (she doesn’t have “podium potential” for the Rio Olympics apparently) and is doing it all on a shoestring. If she was a footballer, everyone would know her name and brands would be queuing up to sponsor her. As she is a female runner, that hasn’t happened. Crazy, but that’s sport.

What is not crazy is that, despite everything, there is the very real prospect that she could win the prestigious BBC Sports Personality of the Year in the Award Ceremony in Glasgow on the 14th December. And this is were we can give something back to someone who gives us so much hope that we too can improve with age and experience.

Jo has been shortlisted against the likes of Rory McIlroy and Lewis Hamilton – who get loads column inches and substantially more profile on television. They are household names, while Jo Pavey spends most of her days looking after her family and home.

McIlroy and Hamilton have a huge quantum of armchair fans. However, what Jo has is a dedicated group of runners who I am confident will do the work to ensure she gets the credit she deserves. And I always back runners to get off their ar@ses and do something worthwhile…

So, let’s make it an early Christmas present for Jo as we start a campaign to get her trending in the minds of those voting on the 14th. Please share your encouragement with family and friends via Twitter, Facebook and other social media channels, for them to back Jo, and vote when the lines open during the live show on BBC One.

Specifically, please share repeatedly on social media on the 12th, 13th, and 14th December. Ideally, you would do this at least three times per day. Please up the tempo of your activity as the show approaches and starts at 8pm on the 14th; we want the campaign to come to a crescendo ahead of voting finishing. We aim to create a burst of social media activity that ensures those who get why Jo deserves to win will do something about it.

Please use #GoJo and #BBCSPOTY in all activity.

Suggested tweets:

Heard about the 41yr old mum of two who can beat Rory McIlroy & Lewis Hamilton with your help? #GoJo #BBCSPOTY http://www.runhabit.com

Don’t miss the opportunity to vote for a true personality to win #SPOTY. #GoJo http://www.runhabit.com

#GoJo Vote for a true sports personality in #BBCSPOTY this year. Read her story here: http://www.runhabit.com

I’m voting for the amazing Jo Pavey in #BBCSPOTY. Here is why you should do the same: http://www.runhabit.com #GoJo

She’s 41, a mum of two and could be this year’s #BBCSPOTY winner. Find out why http://www.runhabit.com. #GoJo.

There have been a number of articles written about Jo that you may prefer to link to in your social media sharing. I have included some below to help:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/othersports/article-2855274/Wonder-woman-Jo-Pavey-aims-gold-Rio-without-lottery-funding-two-kids.html

http://sport.bt.com/more-sport-hub/women-in-sport/the-best-year-of-my-life-jo-pavey-on-her-remarkable-2014-S11363943889917

http://www.radiotimes.com/news/2014-11-24/sports-personality-of-the-year-2014-jo-pavey

http://www.bbc.com/sport/0/athletics/29682009

Finally, if in any doubt about why you should be voting for this running legend, listen to her interview on Marathon Talk with Liz Yelling a few months a go. What a grounded yet inspirational star. Now, let’s get her the recognition she deserves. Get sharing and voting.

UPDATE: This video from the BBC is great content to add to tweets and social media sharing: http://m.bbc.co.uk/sport/sports-personality/30314184

UPDATE 2: Jo Pavey made the podium. Amazing. Well done to her and all who voted. Read more here.

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/.

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?!

Top marks to Nicky Morgan as she removes guideline for schools suggesting running as a punishment

I have never been prouder of the running community. We are a positive bunch; committed to getting more people running more often, and evangelists for the good running does for body and mind. And today, we have succeeded in creating a better environment for running for generations to come.

Just over six months ago I was out for a run, listening to a Marathon Talk podcast. I stopped dead in my tracks when I heard the hosts discussing new guidelines from the Department for Education that encouraged schools to punish kids with “extra physical activity such as running around a playing field”.

A Google search later, I was reading Jason Henderson’s ‘Memo to Michael Gove’ on the Athletics Weekly website and genuinely questioning what was happening within the Department for Education.

I decided to do something about it and penned a petition on the change.org website. Following a few tweets to key figures within the sport, the petition spread widely via social media, gaining almost 10,000 signatures.

The campaign received some media coverage, and the main players within running contacted me to discuss how we could change the guideline. The easy option was for an all out media campaign attacking the Government position. However, with a man like Michael Gove in post, we decided that was more likely to entrench his belief.

So, with an understanding that the guidelines were to be reviewed later this year, we set off to influence those who mattered that it was wrong to suggest that physical activity, in-particular running, was a negative action – when it in fact helps build a healthy mind and body.

Huge credit must be given to members of the Run Group, a collaboration of multiple players from across the sport who represent millions of runners in the United Kingdom, and who work together to get more people running more often.

Led by David Moorcroft, the interim Chair of the Run Group, Chris Jones, Andy Anstey and Wendy Sly from England Athletics, and Martin Yelling from Marathon Talk, the campaign has been quietly gaining support with key influencers.

Operating collaboratively, all the big hitters of our sport – including Hugh Brasher of London Marathon, Brendan Foster of Nova International, Tom Williams of parkrun, and many others – have been making the case and building momentum.

Their actions have led to Parliamentarians voicing their support for running, with Alistair Burt MP (an active member of Biggleswade Athletics Club) agreeing to lead an All Party Parliamentary Group on Running that will actively work to encourage more people to run more often in the UK.

However, the biggest change came with the appointment of Nicky Morgan as Secretary of State for Education. Unlike her dogmatic predecessor, Nicky is an active member of the running community. She has run the London Marathon, is a trained run group leader and has helped to establish Loughborough parkrun. She gets why running is a good thing and how it can help the Government to achieve a fitter, healthier and more prosperous nation.

It is now clear that once Nicky became aware of the depth of feeling about the guidance, she was determined to do something about it.

Today, she responded to a private letter from David Moorcroft on the issue saying, “I share your view that it threatens to have a negative impact on the sport and on the view young people take of it. One of my priorities as Secretary of State is to encourage schools to do what they can to build the resilience and character of our young people, and I see sport as playing a crucial role in this.” She added “I have therefore asked officials to revise the guidance immediately and to remove any suggestion that running might be used as a form of punishment. A new version of the document – minus the offending clause – will be issued on the Department’s website by the end of the week.” Amazing. Her full letter can be seen below:

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Needless to say she should be praised by everyone within our community. Credit where it is due; she is a politician who understands us and is willing to back us.

David Moorcroft told me earlier: “Well done Nicky Morgan. She understood from the start why this mattered and has delivered a change on an issue that could have had a negative impact on running for future generations. As a former PE teacher who remembers the ‘bad old days’, the inclusion of such a sanction had been particularly disappointing given the Olympic and Paralympic Legacy objective of encouraging participation in school sports and wider society. I am delighted that has now been rectified.”

Running is a great metaphor for life; you get out what you put in, there are no easy fixes. The running community did that with this campaign. We came together, voiced our concerns and signed the petition, always campaigning in a non political and responsible manner.

As Paula Radcliffe said when the guidelines were first highlighted, “Physical activity is a joy, a pleasure: something to be embraced and welcomed. We need the next generation to grow up wanting to be active.” I hope we have made a small step towards that goal today. Well done all.

The running Wombles

Who remembers the Wombles? Those little creatures who appear from nowhere to clean up after the humans who had made such a mess of their beloved common.

Every Saturday morning a similar thing happens in parks and on commons. At around 8.45am the quiet morning will be broken by a colourful mob of happy runners and volunteers, all heading to the start of their local parkrun – a series of free, weekly, timed, 5km runs.

It is an amazing sight; hundreds of men, women and children of all ages, shapes and backgrounds, suddenly coming together to take part in an event that is starting to clean up the inactivity epidemic that is threatening society.

The organisation has grown dramatically since its humble beginnings when 13 ‘pioneers’, led by parkrun’s very own Great Uncle Bulgaria, Paul Sinton-Hewitt, gathered for a run in South London back in 2004.

Over one million people have registered to take part in parkruns across 420 events in ten countries around the world. The UK boasts 275 of those events and with over 50,000 weekly runners makes up around a third of the global parkrun family.

The parkrun team, led by Managing Director Tom Williams, has achieved huge growth and impact on a tiny budget. All their events are completely free to take part in, with local volunteers working together to provide a weekly timed 5k run in beautiful surroundings. David Cameron found it hard to articulate what ‘Big Society’ meant, while all along parkrun was doing just that.

Free does not mean unprofessional. In advance of taking part you register your details via http://www.parkrun.org.uk and are provided with a barcode. When you finish your run at any parkrun in the UK or overseas, you present this barcode to a volunteer who records your finish. Later that day you will receive a text message and email stating your finish time, position and how that compares with previous runs.

And everyone is welcome. It doesn’t matter whether you are struggling to walk one mile or an Olympic marathon runner, parkrun is a positive and welcoming event that thrives on helping people to be the best they can be.

In literature and TV, Wombles are notoriously tidy, polite, and honest creatures. Without a doubt, the same could be said about parkrun volunteers and runners. I am yet to meet someone at a parkrun who is not positive about life, running and the community. It’s a social phenomena that is fighting against all the health and cultural evils of modern life.

It’s already the world’s largest series of timed runs and most likely one of the UK’s biggest volunteering movements – in the UK alone they expect over 50,000 different people to volunteer 250,000 times so that the members of their local community can run together, for free. And with over 7,000 new people joining the parkrun UK family every week, a new series of junior events on Sundays, and the potential for 100 new weekly UK events to be launched in the next 12 months alone, the future is looking extremely bright.

If you don’t believe me, check details of local events via http://www.parkrun.org.uk and arrive at 8.45am this Saturday. And remember,“Wombles are organised, work as a team. Wombles are tidy and Wombles are clean. Underground, overground, wombling free…”