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!?

Injecting some miles into my training

I am now six weeks into my marathon training block. This period focuses on getting the miles in and building up an endurance base. As I have been busy with work and life, it has meant a lot of early or late runs to fit the mileage in. And, unlike last year, I have been trying to get as many nine to eleven mile runs in as possible rather than double up on five or six mile runs a day. That seems to be working well, although I have been suffering from a few niggles around my ankles, but nothing too dramatic.

A few niggles can’t dampen the positive outcomes of getting the miles in though. As a Type One (insulin dependent) Diabetic, there comes an amazing moment in training for a marathon when my body becomes dramatically more efficient. This has a stark change in how I feel and leads to me injecting less insulin as it works better in a fitter body. To be specific, a month ago I would have been injecting 14 to 16 units of slow acting night insulin before bed, but now I am injecting 10 to 12 units. I have experienced a similar decrease in my fast-acting daytime insulin (injected every time I eat) too. The only change is that I am running consistently, and my fitness is increasing. All good.

I am now focused on maintaining a weekly mileage of between 60 and 75 miles per week until a fortnight before the London Marathon. I will start to run quicker too, aiming to use parkruns, 10kms and half marathons to get the body used to running at speeds faster than my marathon pace. And then, on the 24th April in London, let’s see what this more efficient and effective body delivers.

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.

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/.

The core running conundrum

Every runner knows they need to commit to do core exercises, yet they don’t follow through.

It’s not too much of a stretch to say that most of my injuries have occurred because of a weak core. Yet I, as do many runners I know, steadfastly ignore the need to do the strength work required. The reality is, for some time now, I have preferred to run and run and, as a consequence, get injured.

Even the most dedicated runner who pounds the streets in rain, snow and darkness, finds the thought of core work mildly depressing. It’s just so dull.

Yet those who commit find success. England international Steve Way told Marathon Talk in an interview earlier this year that he had added a daily core exercise regime to his training to prevent injury, and has seen a number of PBs, and a top ten finish in the Commonwealth Games marathon, as a result.

A daily programme sounds a lot, and I don’t think I could viably work one into my busy life. However, three times a week sounds possible.

So, I am now committing to completing a core workout three times a week. And to try to ensure it is structured, I am going to use my wife’s Jillian Michaels ’30 day shred’ DVD.

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That may sound odd, but this is a short and sharp 20 minute workout that focuses on strength, aerobic and abs exercises. There are also three different workouts to progress through, ensuring some variability.

It’s tough, and I have absolute respect for anyone who does this sort of workout on a daily basis. Let’s just hope it solves the running conundrum, ensuring I stay motivated and thus delivering stronger running and less injuries. Jane Fonda eat your heart out.

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