We need to talk about running

I’ve been quiet about running in the last couple of months. Unusual for me, I know. Trying to understand why has been difficult, but I think I have gotten there. Put simply, I am cross with myself for allowing my race expectations to dramatically diminish since Christmas, and haven’t wished to talk about it. Enough is enough, to help me pull out of this phase of self doubt, we need to talk about running.

The lead up to Christmas had gone well. I had run some good high mileage weeks and took part in the Portsmouth Marathon (for the fourth time) alongside fellow Guildford & Godalming AC runners as a ‘fun’ last long run of the year. This is becoming an annual pre Christmas event for us, and wearing Santa Hats, we laughed and sung carols most of the way, sauntering home in an easy 3hrs 38mins.

I relaxed my training over Christmas to account for the marathon in my legs and a cold virus, but built the mileage up steadily from a low of 14.5miles the week following Portsmouth. I ran a muddy Guildford parkrun on the 27th of December (20.01mins) and again on New Years Day (19.40mins). All good so far.

Next up should have been the Surrey Cross Country Championships in Croydon. Unfortunately, my wife was ill on the day and I missed the race to look after the kids. The following week I had the chance to make up for that at the third of four League Cross Country matches. Our team have been flying this year and were in prime position for back to back promotions. As co-captain, I wanted to contribute to the team’s scoring. I didn’t. I had a disaster, finishing in an unexplainable 95th position, my worst ever finish for a League match.

Training continued and seemed normal, though I have been staying away from track speed sessions of late; replacing them with 8 to 12 mile tempo runs at or close to marathon pace (6.50mpm). I looked forward to the Southern Cross Country Championships, at Stammer Park in Brighton, given it’s a hilly 9mile course with endurance the key to success. However, after feeling ill the evening before, I knew it was not going to end well. I set off at a very slow pace to see what my body would do. I made it round one of three laps, before leaving the course and handing in my chip. Or as others say, giving up. I was furious with myself. This was my first ever DNF.

I headed to Arizona with work two days later and enjoyed a good week’s running alongside my professional duties. The weather was great, and I was able to run up Camelback Mountain in Scottsdale in the sun, and trot up and down the paths alongside the Arizona Canal. The highlight was my participation in a local 5k race connected with the Super Bowl (being held in nearby Phoenix). There was a buzz of excitement around as two quick looking guys warmed up. It turned out they were both professional triathletes, and that one was the former Olympian runner Alan Webb, who still holds the American mile record (3.46mins). Clearly, they took the first two positions with Webb winning in 15.01, a second ahead of his training partner. I was delighted to finish 6th (winning a medal for finishing within the top three in my age category) in a personal best time of 18.06. At last, a ray of running sunshine.

Back in the UK a few days later and the clouds again descended. I didn’t feel healthy in the day or so ahead of our final Cross Country League match in Croydon. I suspected I had picked up yet another bug on the flight back from the States. However, after much moaning to our squad about the need for a decent turnout to ensure promotion to Division One (which we achieved), I felt I had to run. This was an idiotic decision given how poorly I felt, and I finished at the back of the field in a new personal worst of 101st place. I knew in the first 100m of the race that I should not be running, but I didn’t want to pull out of two cross country races in a row and make it a “habit”. The result? I didn’t run for another week and spent a large amount of time in bed, sleeping. Not good.

Reviewing previous cross country results ahead of the National Championships at Parliament Hill, it was clear I was having a bad year. In my first season (2011/12) of cross country racing I was running much faster and finishing higher up the field. This year my performances had gotten worse and worse after a reasonable start. Without a doubt, I am now a better runner, but I seem to no longer be able to compete at cross country.

I had previously said that the Nationals would be my focus in the first couple of months of 2015. That had already been thrown out the window. Instead, I came up with a plan to finish strong in an attempt to again feel good about running. However, on arrival at the Mecca of cross country, the prospect of an ‘embarrassing finishing position’ left me unsure if I could be bothered to actually run. Most unlike me.

I escaped my teammates and warmed up on my own on some paths, watching the senior ladies race as I did. Cross country is an awesome sport. It has world class athletes at the front gliding across the ankle deep mud and managing to look gracious despite everything. And at the back, you have hardy running workhorses, determined to finish no matter what. Watching the ladies at the back of the field left me in no doubt that I should be running. If they are willing to beast themselves on the brutally muddy course, why shouldn’t I?

I got my spikes on and tested my blood glucose levels. Gulp, they were at 4.0, too low to race on. Was this a sign that I shouldn’t run? I had less than ten minutes to go before the start, so I quickly ate some oat bars, along with any sugary substance I could find in the bottom of my bag.

I arrived last out of my team on the start line, strangely quiet. I wasn’t in the mood to raise anyone’s spirits given how I was feeling. I made sure I was at the back of my pen and when the gun fired, I started slower than I have ever started a race. I really didn’t want to be there.

The first mile was heavily congested at the back and I started to push through the crowds, with my legs feeling good. Usually at this stage of a race I am already hurting, so it was odd to be cruising along at such an easy pace. A team mate appeared ahead and I pushed on to join him, suggesting we work together to cut through the field. We did, and stayed together until the end of the first of two laps. I felt strong at the halfway point and could sense a lot of runners around me struggling. This gave me confidence that I was running well within myself and could run a faster second half. I left my teammate and surged ahead.

Throughout the race I don’t think I was overtaken by any runner who I didn’t subsequently chase down. I had a fast last 800m conditions even with the muddy quagmire of a finishing straight. I felt good at the end, despite my assumption that I had finished in the bottom half of the field.

Our team ran brilliantly and finished 30th in the 6 man competition and 21st in the 9 man competition. I surprised myself by finishing 912th out of 2000+ runners. Yes, my worst ever finish, but a stronger run and a much higher finish than I feared on the starting line.

What does all this mean? I have no idea. What I am sure of is the need to start afresh in cross country next season. After a few hundred yards of the Nationals I had decided to take a break from the mud in the future. By the end I was already planning a proper training regime over the summer, including hill repeats and speed work. Whether that happens or not we will see, but at least I will be competing again – and hopefully not at the back of the pack. It’s good to talk about running, even if it is to yourself.

If you get the chance to race, take it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.