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

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…”

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.

Blimey, I am in the lead

With 400m to go I was still in the lead. I had one other runner for company, who looked fresher than I felt. The course had been a three lap affair, twisty and tight. I tried to use that to my advantage, pushing on after corners, but I couldn’t shake him.

I could see the finish. A finish line, when I was in with a chance of winning. Who would have thought? And then, the young chap I had been racing suddenly eased into a sprint that left me for dead. He had won, I had come second. Bah.

This happened at Bangor parkrun just over a week ago. Not my fastest 5k (18.57) but one of the most enjoyable and surprising. I had run 15.8miles in the traditional Northern Irish rain the day before as part of my second week back training, and my legs felt a little tired. I had intended on using the run was a ‘leg loosener’ with the aim of going sub 20minutes.

However, after a few miles warmup and chatting to some friends, the run started at a reasonably easy pace. So often in 5ks a huge proportion of the field surge off too quickly, only to fall apart after 2 or 3k. While a few clearly running beyond themselves, most of those at the front in Bangor seemed to be in control so I went with the flow.

At around the 1k mark I had a choice to make. Bridge a gap of around 15m to the lead pack of 6 runners or relax into my original plan of an easier run. Given the pace wasn’t crazy, I caught them up and started running at the front.

Now, this is not a usual position for me to find myself in. Nearly always there is a speedy youngster In the field who runs off into the distance leaving everyone behind. Leading changes your mindset immediately. Often when racing I am in a mental battle to stay focused on my target or even convince my brain and body to finish the run. However, when at the front there is no thought of giving up; it’s an opportunity average runners like me don’t get on a regular basis.

At the end of the first lap I was leading a pack of five, much to the surprise of my family who were meeting me at the park. This helped me stay focused and I was determined to give it a go. The mistake I made was not to push on. The pace was comfortable and while runners were dropping off the lead pack, which was made up of three of us, I felt within myself. In hindsight I should have put the hammer down there and then.

With just over 1k to go there were two of us left out front. The pace had picked up a little and we were clearly testing each other out. I surged a couple of times, but he stayed with me. And then, he put the hammer down and left me for dead. So near, so far.

If I am being realistic, I was delighted to have finished second. Particularly with my family there and it not being a run I had even known was on until 11pm the night before. However, I wonder what would have happened if I had pushed harder from further out. He certainly had more speed, but maybe I would have had more endurance?

I am already looking forward to my next trip to Northern Ireland. Bangor parkrun is a fabulous event. Great location and volunteers, and lots of post run cakes. If you don’t already attend a local parkrun, you are missing out. It doesn’t matter whether you run it in 20mins or walk it in 45mins, they are free, friendly events that leave you feeling good about your local community every time. Check out your local event and get down there this weekend.

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Commitment – Jo, Mo and the legendary Steve Jones

What a summer it has been for UK runners Jo Pavey, Andy Vernon and Steve Way, all of whom are popular figures within the running community. At the European Championships and Commonwealth Games they delivered heroic medals, PBs and amazing back-stories, fulfilling a commitment to being the best they can be.

We always expect the best from Mo Farah, and he delivered, winning the 10,000m in Zurich. Yet, Farah’s dominance in recent years meant that victory wasn’t as high profile as you might have hoped. In fact, I fear he might have garnered more coverage had he lost the race after a turbulent few months training which included him being airlifted to hospital from a training run.

Our expectations do change, but for all these athletes, including Farah, it has been a very good summer. They have worked hard and delivered, whatever their personal circumstances.

As they plan their next steps and targets, everyday runners can relate to their choices. What’s our focus for the next 6months or year? Is it a marathon, a half, 10k or a cross country season? What will allow us to maximise our fitness without getting injured?

At the moment I am debating my focus for early 2015. Presently, a battle is raging between the cross country season and a spring marathon. What will you target? We all need to commit to a focus soon.

It was interesting to see that Farah has made his commitment, and that marathons are not front of mind. He spoke to the Daily Telegraph earlier this week on his plans:

The double Olympic and world champion now says he has shelved marathon running to focus on the track until after the 2016 Olympics.

“Marathon is entirely different from the 5,000 metres or 10,000m,” he said. “But 2014 is a good year to try new things, as there are no World Championships or Olympics.

“[The London Marathon] was tough, and my 2-08 was not good enough. Last year I ran 3 min 28.81 sec in a 1500m race, and tackled the marathon this year – quite a switch. I was having a hard time. But you always have to try new things in life.”

While admitting there was “a lot of work to be done” before achieving marathon success, Farah also revealed: “I would like to try again towards the end of my career. Right now I am going to concentrate on the Europeans, then on the 2015 World Championships and, after that, on the Olympics in 2016.”

As a marathon runner I am saddened by that. I know it’s probably a sensible decision given his track pedigree, but I would have loved to have seen a Brit, trained by the great marathoner Alberto Salazar, get amongst the East Africans over 26.2miles. It would have been a huge boost for the sport.

Farah’s debut over the distance in London was clearly a disappointment for him as he’s so used to winning. But rarely is a debut in the marathon anything to write home about. You have to commit for the long term; it takes time to learn how to deal with the distance both mentally and physically. I would have loved to see him focus on the marathon at the Rio Olympics in 2016, but that’s not to be.

Farah’s decision will ensure that Steve Jones’ long-standing British marathon record of 2:07:13 remains intact for a while longer. Sadly, Jones’ time is still a long way off for other GB marathoners, despite being set in 1985. Now a coach in Boulder, Colorado, he is a legend of the sport; he ran hard, played hard and worked for the Royal Air Force throughout his career. We can all learn from his commitment.

If you need to be convinced, listen to his interview with Marathon Talk. I often joke with running friends that when facing a running conundrum one should always ask, “what would Steve Jones have done”?  The answer certainly won’t be an easy one, but it will be committed.

And if you need some inspiration, check out this video of a race finish from the man himself. Never. Give. Up.