La Montagn’Hard Race Report

I’ve been known to DNS a race for a bit of drizzle, but there was no way I could use that excuse for this one. Blazing sunshine was on the cards, and as the race started at 7am, the top bits of the Mont-Blanc massif were already getting pink from the sun.

Except for the 60Km race distance, I didn’t really know what to expect – I had not read the manual, neither on sign-up nor in the lead-up to the race. I had just happened to be hiking in that area on race day the year before and thought that it was a nice setting to be running in, so I signed both my husband Simon and I up for the 60Km and forgot about it until the day before. This was going to be a training run for the mighty CCC for us, and the strategy was to just finish in one piece. However for a change, we had decided to run separately, so that Simon could stick his teeth in a solo ultra for once instead of dragging me along.

As we all counted down in French with the race director Olivier, I anchored the happy memories of finishing the 78Km Davos Alpine in my mind, and looked forward to a great day out with like-minded trailies. I blissfully blanked out my sprained ankle, which Simon had strapped DIY the night before with a little help from Google, and up we went.

When in the Alps, you invariably start your race hiking up a vertical wall. This was not going to be different, with a first single-file track going up steeply in the forest from St-Nicolas de Véroce. There was a lot of friendly banter and introductions being made as we all hiked up slowly. Ten minutes in, a few runners voiced their worries about the ascent, having just arrived from the flat land which is Northern France. I still had no idea how much higher we would hike up during the day, but I should have taken a clue from the race name. For this was the Montagn’Hard, with its mighty 5000 meters of ascent, and it would show us later that it needed to be respected and deserved.

1_up

After the first uphill, we descended as steeply to the first aid station, where the buffet laid out in our honour made me think that we were in a posh hotel. In addition to the traditional fare of bananas and oranges, there were baskets of fresh baguette, cured ham and big chunks of cheese. I went straight for the noodle soup, followed by a cheese and ham sandwich, and finished my breakfast off with a hot coffee and a biscuit. This could prove a challenge: was I going to make the generous cut-offs if I stopped for a full meal at each aid station? I filled my water bottle with a mix of water and a bit of coke and off we went, up the second *hill* of the day (which would reveal itself as a vertical kilometre) complete with breathtaking drops. The name of the game was ‘dodge the poles’, with less inapt runners trying to kill their followers after blinding them. The gradient was so steep that I was seeing eye-to-eye with bums, so I started trying to remember my companions of misfortune based on their neither bits.

2_bumTo keep me entertained, I started photographing some of them – from the sweaty to the wobbly ones, the floppy to the impossibly toned ones, they all got a place of honour in my phone. The collection will be called ‘Fesses of Ultra’, as a clumsy homage to Ian Coreless ‘Faces of Ultra’ (a wonderful series of black and white portraits – do check out the gallery on his website). His version is like the North Face, and I made it my mission to get the South Face covered, too.

As the hills kept on rolling, I started noticing a pattern. Invariably, dozens of fast ‘grimpeurs’ would pass me on the uphill sections, muttering words of encouragement; I wasn’t very good on the ups, blaming a mix of legs and lungs – both largely untrained. However, the downs were a completely different story, and I seemed to transform into a downhill machine: with my poles back in the bag, I would tackle each downhill as if it was a matter of life and death. Arms spread wide, I would run down in what felt like focussed laisser-faire: root dangers would be ignored, stones would roll but not cramp my style, any occasional slip would keep my senses heightened. It felt like absolute fun and total freedom. As happens in such long events, I ended up hanging around with a group of about 20 runners of similar ability. Some were rookies doing their first ultra, some had come back to tame the race or better their times, some were seasoned ultra runners using it as a training run – and all were fantastic company. We chatted races, jobs, life – and bodily functions, as you do. A group of them nicknamed me the Eurostar for my downhill speed (definitely no style points – I felt like a graceful mountain goat but most probably looked like a clumsy sea lion).

3_miages

 

4_tricotThe aid stations came and went, each with their buffet, cutting the race into five 12km chunks. For our elevenses, we had the amazing 2120m Col du Tricot, complete with hanging bridge and snow, and its landing of meadows on the other side. That was the point were I decided to stop ignoring the throbbing in my big toes, and the change of socks revealed huge bloody blisters on both sides. I got my sterilised surgeon kit out (erm, a safety pin from my bib, which I duly sterilised with some extra pure saliva) and drained the buggers, taping them but fearing they would be back with a vengeance.

Then came the plat de résistance, the most dreaded climb to the Tré-la-Tete refuge, an isolated mountain hut with incredible views. We were promised that it was going to be a breeze after the Col du Tricot, but there were murmurs of fear whenever the climb was mentioned, and I started picturing it as the Evil Villain. In the early afternoon, with temperatures in the high twenties, the risk of getting barbecued in the exposed, 2h section was almost certain. To counter the adversity, I decided that it was time for my secrete weapon: the iPod and its special running playlist. And how did that work! Within one track I was singing my way up. Within two tracks I was passing other runners. On the ups! The force was with me, and was there to stay. Against all expectations, the hot and dry drag up Tré-la-Tete proved a most enjoyable, if solitary climb, made better with a handful of cascades to dip your head gear and rehydrate. Almost too soon, the refuge came into view – but it took another half hour to actually get there and be welcomed by a small but perfectly formed team of volunteers, dressed up for the occasion. Lots of runners took the offer of fresh free beer at that stage, but I am pretty sure that none of them knew about the technical downhill that was to follow.

The iPod went back in the bag, but the music-generated endorphins were still aplenty and made me fly down to the valley floor, and unbelievably, got me running with a big smile all the way to Les Contamines, a few kilometres away, attempting to drag a few fellow runners with me. I wish Simon had been with me at that stage, as I had always assumed that the only reason I was running, was to not look like a wimp in front of him. Given that I had just covered 40km – almost a marathon – and climbed the equivalent of one Mont-Blanc since breakfast, this enjoyment and display of happiness were a full mystery. I even started toning the smiles down, for fear of being accused of doping. My ankle, although sore, was still holding up pretty well, and my knees were reasonably beaten but still fully functional. As for the earlier blisters, they had either gone numb or they were fine – I didn’t really care, as long as they kept quietly to themselves.

At the last checkpoint, where each runner was given a star arrival with name on microphone and claps in the village centre, I gave Simon a call to tell him to not wait for me at the finish but go for a beer and meal. He clumsily tried to disguise the fact that the last climb was yet another bitch of a hill, and so off I went for the last 2h of the race. Indeed the forest turned into a vertical wall, and running turned to climbing. Poles were used as ice axes as I was lifting my tired limbs up at the sole force of my arms. That last stage was very solitary, having dropped all my ‘team mates’ from earlier in the day, and I wondered what Lizzy Hawker must feel when she’s leading a race and traversing a forest at night. It felt magical as the sun was slowly fading, but I could picture the trees turning into threatening creatures after night had fallen, closing into you with the moving shadows of head torches. The thought of being stuck here at night gave me a second (twelfth) wind and I started focusing on relentless forward motion – and soon enough I was ‘chicking’ more runners.

5_topI will always remember reaching the top of that last hill as the sun was just starting to disappear behind a mountain, tainting the Mont-Blanc massif all sorts of pastels. The last check-point team was happy to see a smiley face and I was delighted when they promised me that it was all downhill from there. I soaked the last rays of light as I realised I had been going since the sun went up the other side, and flew down the hill and to the finish line.

I have never finished a race without a big smile on my face, and this was no exception. In fact, this was probably my biggest smile so far – like, ever.

 

Plus points:

  • The views are just breath taking, with different angles to the Mont-Blanc and the surrounding mountains and glaciers, cascades, forests…
  • Food! Not just at the aid stations, but also at the finish, where you get free home-made soups and quiches, sandwiches and beer
  • Incredibly well way-marked, with markers literally every 50m
  • Easy option out: I’m glad I didn’t take it, but I knew there were 2 easy access points to re-direct to the smaller, 38km race, or back to a bus station in case my ankle would start playing up. Great if you’re unsure and want to use this as a test alpine race
  • Tough! Not a very runnable race, with most of the terrain being either too steep or too technical. A bitch of a race, but Oh so rewarding!
  • Physios available the day before the race to tape you up (unfortunately we were too late for them) and also at aid stations
  • Good for your eco karma: no disposable cups at water stations, you have to carry your own reusable cup
  • No medal, but finisher’s arm-warmers instead – at least a useful reward
  • Did we mention the bargain price of Euro 45? That doesn’t even seem to cover the quantity of food I ate…
  • 2 UTMB points if you make the cut-offs

 

Minus points:

  • Erm, come back later, we’re still looking for one.

 

For more info:

http://www.lamontagnhard.com

Montagn’Hard on facebook

Hot dang! An ashmei merino wool product review

Disclaimer – please read this: I want to make it really clear from the very start that as the co-owner of freestak, I work for ashmei supplying social media marketing services. Stuart, the owner of ashmei, was very generous and sent me some ashmei kit to try out and run in. However this blog is very much an “all views my own” thing and I don’t allow my work at freestak to influence my writing here, so this review is my honest feeling – I don’t write about what I don’t like!

ashmei product review

I recently received a rather lovely package from the team at ashmei – a white fabric bag containing a Running Merino Sweatshirt, a short-sleeve merino + carbon jersey and a pair of 2-in-1 Shorts.

I have been wearing then quite a bit since they arrived, but on Sunday I had the opportunity to really give the short-sleeved top and the shorts a proper outing – the 28 mile Endurance Life Coastal Trail Series marathon on the Flete Estate in Devon. You can read my race report here.

Perfect conditions

Due to a bit of disorganisation (freestak has been very busy!) Julie and I ended up getting up at 3am to drive to the race start. This all added to the sense of adventure and the brilliant, golden sunrise, as we passed Stonehenge – shrouded in mist – with a massive, forlorn-looking moon hanging in the sky in front of us, is something I will remember for a long, long time.

The sun came up and there was not a cloud in the sky. It was going to be a beautiful day. It was also going to be warm. Hopefully my ashmei kit would cope.

ashmei performance

Screen Shot 2013-05-28 at 21.34.53As we started I was wearing my ashmei short-sleeve jersey, arm warmers, the 2-in-1 shorts from ashmei, Runderwear from RunBreeze, calf guards from Compressport, socks from ASICS and Mizuno trail shoes. I also had my fantastic new pack from Ultimate Direction (a present from Julie). Finally I had on a running cap from Sugoi and my Naked Runner shades. Sorted, ready to go!

It was warm by the time the gun went at 8:50am and within a couple of miles the arm-warmers were in my pack (Julie did say ‘I told you so’!) but apart from that, my kit choices were spot on.

The merino jersey was great. It is reasonably fitted without being skin-tight, which meant that there was no rucking and the top grabbed any sweat and wicked it away, without restricting breathing or showing off my love handles. The heat didn’t bother me and the top was entirely itch-free. Even my back – which is usually very damp after running for 5 hours with a rucksack on, felt drier then normal.

The shorts did benefit from the Runderwear (please check it out – I think it is utterly genius!) and the merino inner shorts gave a nice level of compression without cutting off the blood supply. Despite the heat, there was no chaffing at all. As we passed another runner in our ‘marathon’ race who was wearing the same shorts, I thought how nice the shorts looked, which is an added bonus.

Race result, kit result.

In the end Julie and I took just over 5 hours for the 28-odd miles. That is quite a long time on your feet and especially in the heat.

I was worried before I started that being hot for that long would make for a pretty uncomfortable run, but not so. The merino seems to do exactly what it says on the tin and wicked the sweat away nicely. I didn’t itch and there was no chafing.

So I would say that for long, slow runs and ultra marathons, the ashmei kit is great. The shorts would be too heavy for me to race anything up to a marathon in. but for hours on the feet, I think the ashmei kit is an ideal choice. Once I have washed it, I’ll post an update. And in the mean time if anyone else has any experiences with or thoughts about merino wool for running apparel, please let me know.

Training, racing and time on the feet: why slower marathons are as challenging as faster ones.

In the last two weeks, I have run two marathons. That makes it three marathons since 21 April, i.e. five weeks ago. And I have learned from all of them. But the lessons have been very different, certainly between the first marathon and the last two.

The first marathon this spring was the London marathon and you can read my race report here. The second was the Copenhagen marathon which I ran with Charlie Dark from the RunDemCrew. Then yesterday I ran a trail race with my wife in Devon, part of the Endurance Life Coastal Trail Series.

Endurance Life Coastal Trail Series Race report

Trail running at its best!
Trail running at its best!

The Coastal Trail Series races have featured a few times in our racing calendars since a friend, Alex from my running club, introduced Julie and I to them with a half marathon race on Chesil Beach a couple of years ago.

These races are the antithesis of the big city marathon: friendly people, stunning wild scenery, off-road trails and – as far as I have experienced them – very, very un-flat!

Yesterday’s race was no exception.

With all the wonderful activity that had been keeping us super-busy at freestak recently, Julie and I were not as organised as we should have been and we ended up deciding that we would drive to the race on the morning of it. That meant getting up at 3am to drive for four hours towards Plymouth. Seeing the moon ahead of us, as big as a plate in the sky while the most amazing sunrise lit up the hills and bathed Stone Henge, shrouded in morning mist, with golden light as we drove past, was worth the effort of getting up alone and set the tone for the day.

We arrived at the venue – a large field on the Flete Estate – and parked up. Immediately the Endurance Life team were friendly, welcoming and full of life. I was full of coffee!

After a typically easy-going race briefing, at 8:50am we were off: a big gaggle of chatting, laughing, encouraging runners making their way down a country lane to the beach and on to the coastal path for a two-loop race of around 28 miles.

The scenery and the weather were stunning all day (I have a few patches of sun burn to prove it) and the banter with the other runners – particular shout out here to Rory Coleman and his amazing up-hill technique – meant that we were just moving fast along the paths without a care in the world, taking photos and chatting all the way.Screen Shot 2013-05-27 at 09.06.27

The finish was great – the field was full of people who had run the half marathon and 10km options as well as the 33 marathon finishers in front of us – and we were soon munching on a delicious locally produced burger and enjoying an equally delicious, albeit much less locally produced lager.

Job done: race completed at a decent pace, no stroppy incidents, perfect weather, no injuries and massive, massive grins on our faces.

Lessons learned from two marathons

I have taken two important things from these two recent races.

Self-ee with wife-e
Self-ee with wife-e

The first is about sharing. Both the Copenhagen marathon and the CTS race – whilst very different from one another – involved running with someone else. My London marathon experience was all about the ego. There is not much to share and indeed the training as well as the racing, was pretty selfish. But Copenhagen and yesterday’s races were about taking on a challenge with people I love and care about and enjoying being part of an amazing experience with them.

I think there is a place for single-minded, oblivious focus and striving to achieve something yourself for yourself. But balancing that with the opportunity to share laughter, pain, struggle and victory with someone else is, in my opinion, an unbeatable experience. Long live the team!

The other thing I have learned is that being able to run a 2:37 marathon does not really prepare you for running a 3:48 marathon or a 5 hour, 28 mile trail race. I think that I went into both thinking that physically I ‘had got this’ and whilst I feel fine, I have relearned the respect that you need to show to long, slow races and ultra-distance races.

I have not been training for three+ hours runs. My longest training runs in the lead up to the London marathon were two and a half hours. Yesterday I ran for more than double that. Sure, from a cardio-vascular point of view, I had no problem handling the pace. But my 60kg frame was putting pressure on hips, knees, ankles and feet for much, much longer than I have been used to and let me tell you – I can feel that today!

So, thank you to the ever-beautiful Julie for yesterday’s amazing run. And thank you to Charlie Dark for last weekend’s similarly epic run. I have learned a lot from both of you and from both events, mainly that you train for what you intend to race and if that is for a three, seven or 24 hours race, you had better be prepared… you cannot blag a marathon, no way!

Copenhagen marathon 2013: my race review

As you may or may not know, my big target race this spring was the Virgin London Marathon on 21 April. In case you missed it, here is my race report. And after nailing my target I had the opportunity to then go to the Copenhagen marathon with the RunDemCrew and my friend Charlie Dark, to run for fun.

Pacing not racing

After my blast around London, I asked Charlie if he would like me to pace him around the Copenhagen marathon and to my delight he said ‘yes’!

Why was I delighted? Well three reasons really – the first was that I wanted to pay Charlie back for many hours of advice and support he has given me over the years. The next reason was that I was convinced that Charlie had a solid sub-4 hours marathon in him and I thought I might be able to help him achieve it. And finally I knew how much Charlie has poured into creating, running and leading the RunDemCrew and I felt that there should be a race that he had the opportunity to run for himself.

I have paced a couple of races before – my wife’s debut marathon in New York and a friend in the Bristol half marathon are two that stick in my mind. And this meant that whilst I felt confident that I could help Charlie, I also knew the challenges and responsibility that comes with being the man with the watch. Little did I know how much the course and the weather would make things more difficult than it was already going to be…

The Copenhagen marathon

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Copenhagen Marathon © Signe Vest

The Copenhagen marathon is a relative old man of the racing scene in Europe, having been going for 34 years and has plenty in its favour – it is a capital city race. It is a flat course. It has a great headline sponsor in Nike and some other high profile supporters. The city centre course takes in all of the sights of Copenhagen.

But all is not perfect. I have to say that the race has a certain air of tattiness and gimcrack about it. The course seemed to be constantly crossing and running alongside roadworks. There are roads on the course that are open to traffic and on more than a couple of occasions the field was split and we were directed across a six-lane highway with a muddy median in front of impatiently waiting queues of traffic. The marshals were really not doing much and a number were sheltering in doorways out of the rain. There were just too many loose ends and rough edges to make the race great.

NBRO running

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All the crews © Signe Vest

The highlight of the race though, was the NBRO Crew. This is the equivalent crew to London’s RunDemCrew that I am honoured to say I am part of.

And it was NBRO’s task to host the other visiting crews – from London, Paris, Amsterdam, New York, Hong Kong, Berlin and other cities. The NBRO guys, and Troels in particular, pulled off an absolute master-stroke, with NBRO branded beer, a great pasta party before the race and an immense after-party that I have taken a lot longer to recover from than the race itself!

The race

The race was tough. As I mentioned, the weather and course made an already difficult challenge – running 5 min/km pace for 42.125km – even tougher. After a baking hot day on the Saturday, the day of the race dawned grey and cool, which was perfect, but by 5km the heavens opened and the rain poured down. We were soaked from start to finish. Add to that, the very wiggly course, with lots of open roads, road works and pedestrians and cyclists to negotiate, and we had a tough day.

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Charlie Dark… battling © Signe Vest

Charlie and I were bang on for 3:35 or quicker all the way to 35km, but sadly an old knee injury of Charlie’s, made worse by a recent fall, meant Charlie was hobbling and soon needed to stop and stretch out a tight hamstring. The frustration for him was that he was still running well, but frequent stops to ease out his knee ate into the time.

Nevertheless, Charlie dug in very, very deep and managed to fight the desire to stop and walk, which mean that we finished in 3:48:03. Still a big PB and comfortably under the 4 hour mark.

Overall

Overall, I think that Copenhagen is a good race. I think that for those at the sharp end, the lack of people to run with could be difficult. And for everyone in the field the difficult course stops this being an exceptional race. But I had an amazing experience – I loved running with my friend and thinking that I was able to help a little. I enjoyed seeing so many other runners and witnessing their struggles and I really enjoyed the after-party.

Would I go back? Not sure… but then again, if Charlie wants to try that race again for a sub-3:30, then I might be tempted!

 

 

All images thanks to Signe Vest

My review of the 2013 Virgin London Marathon – a case of risk and reward

Going right back to when – and why – I started running in the first place, control was a big issue. I had lost control of my life, with my health, wealth and happiness all seemingly being managed by a greater and more malevolent force than I could muster. So I ran.

I ran around the block one weekday evening. I felt terrible. But I had taken a step away from all the things I hated about myself and towards the person I wanted to become. Then I ran again. And again. And again.

I soon realised that I could control so much of my life through running. My health, my weight, my self-respect were all within my grasp – the more I ran, the better I became. Simple.

And as I improved the control aspect of running became more important. To become a better runner, I had to control other aspects of my life. Work had to bend to the will of my training plan. As did social life. And family commitments. These were the choices (I prefer the word ‘choices’ to ‘sacrifices’) that I made in order to see how close I could get to being the best runner I could be.

Racing controlled

The ultimate expression of this control thing was racing. Sure, when it came to the rare occasion when I would race a 5km I would just ‘go for it’ but anything longer than that, and there would be a target time and target pace in mind.

When it came to the marathon, the need to control every aspect reached it’s zenith. Everything needed to be just so: taking time off work to relax for a couple of days before. Cooking exactly the right meals in the days before the race. Avoiding stress. Having the right kit, all well worn-in. Hydrating properly.

And on the day, I would try to control everything: my pace, who I was running with, how relaxed I felt, where friends and family would be on the course and so on.

Safety off

This year the pressure that I put myself under for the London marathon was less. Training had been disrupted since Julie and I launched freestak (please don’t get me wrong: this has been an absolutely wonderful thing, but it has undoubtedly made consistent training tougher) and the winter weather meant that I thought my chances of running a new personal best time were slim.

Additionally I think that having launched the business gave me a sense of satisfaction that previously I had only managed to obtain from running.

I had also been wondering about a few changes to my racing – things that I wanted to try out, but that could only really be tested in race conditions.

Oh and I had a place in the Copenhagen marathon… just in case things didn’t go to plan.

On the day

I arrived at Blackheath, having met my two training partners, Carl and James, on the train from London Bridge, feeling pretty happy and relaxed.

I had a new fuelling strategy – 7 gels this time rather than 3 or 4 which I had been using.

I was wearing a slightly different model of shoes for the first time (the wider version of my usual adidas adiZero adios)

And I had a new racing strategy…

My plan was to switch my watch off and run on feel. My coach Nick had suggested a strategy based on effort: slightly easier first 10km, a solid middle 20km and then push hard in the last 10km to do as much as I could to maintain my pace. I had also had a conversation with Stuart Mills in the car on the way to a trail running weekend in Wales, where he pretty much proposed the same, albeit in starker terms:

run as fast as you can for as long as you can and accept that you will slow down towards the end.

The race

Screen Shot 2013-04-26 at 14.48.06
This is literally the only photo of me in the marathon. I’m the one in the middle by the way!

The day was ideal, if a little too sunny, which made it feel warm. But there was little in the way of wind. The air temperature was low. It was dry. After an hour of stretching out on the grass and talking to people I know in the Championship start, I threw my bag on the baggage truck and jogged for a few minutes to warm up.

We were taken towards the start line where the elite athletes were waiting and then one of the most remarkable events of my running career happened. There was a well-publicised 30 seconds of silence for the victims of the bombing at the Boston marathon six days earlier. But I could not imagine that 35,000 people would manage to observe total silence like that. Everything stopped for that half a minute. The generators providing electricity and the gas burners on the row of hot air balloons on Blackheath fell silent. Everyone I could see around me bowed their heads. There was not a single cough or beep of a GPS watch – nothing, for 30 seconds. Then the whistle blew, everyone roared and applauded and a minute later we were on our way.

The early miles ticked past. I felt fantastic. I knew I was going faster than I would have run before, but I figured this was all part of the experiment and I had the extra gels so everything would be OK… probably!

At half way I looked at the clock and saw 76:45. I still felt great.

At this stage I had already consumed three TORQ gels (as many as I usually take in a whole marathon) and they were going down great – no intestinal distress at all. Because I was taking more gels than usual and because it was a hot day, I was also drinking more water – two mouthfuls at most water stations and the rest on my head or back of my legs. I felt hydrated and relaxed.

Once through Canary Wharf, I started to work harder. But I also had three secret weapons  – Nick and his fiancée Phoebe at mile 20, the RunDemCrew at mile 21 and the Mornington Chasers after mile 22. I started to look forward to those interactions and driving myself towards them.

As promised Nick and Phoebe were at the 20 mile mark. Nick simply said “You know what to do” and gave me a big smile. I told myself to get my head down, think about form and start to work hard to arrest the slow-down that I could feel in my legs.

The RunDemCrew were next. Since last year they have set up camp at mile 21 and create a cheering station the likes of which I have never seen before. Last year was good. This year was insane.

As I reached the start of the tunnel they had formed I was running with two other guys. I had rehearsed what I would do (after the frankly bizarre display I put on at the same point in 2012!) and I raised both hands in what I hoped was an appropriate and well-executed ‘Gun Finger Salute’. The noise was deafening. Utterly amazing. Overwhelming.

One of the runners with me at the point almost recoiled at the volume. We hadn’t spoken to each other despite running together for more than half an hour.

“Wow! What the fu%k was that?” He asked

“That” I said “was the RunDemCrew. An amazing group of people”

“They seemed to like you” he said…

Then it was back on to the Highway heading west towards the finish. Buy before that came the Mornington Chasers. I was still checking and rechecking how I felt at this point. I was on schedule for a new PB and if I could hold my pace it would be a significant one. So when I reached the Chasers – with about four miles to go – I was really pumped up. I can’t remember if I waved, high-fived or simply ran past. But I really enjoyed the noise and I knew it was on at that point.

The last few miles were tough. It was warm by this stage and I was tired. I had to remind myself a couple of times to take a gel. My head was tilted backwards (I do that whenever I am really tired) and I developed an effective – if slightly odd – mantra:

“literally and metaphorically get your head down… literally and metaphorically get your head down… literally and metaphorically get your head down”

And before I knew it I was out of the Blackfriars underpass and I could see the Houses of Parliament. A quick check with three miles to go told me that even three six and a half minute miles would get me home in a new PB. I was in pain and struggling, but I was also sure I could hang on.

As I ran down Birdcage Walk I saw a friend – Catherine – on my right and gave her a wave. At that point it was a matter of grabbing every second I could to push my new PB as far as I could. My mantra had changed:

“Just run… just run… just run”

And on to the finish line. I only had the official clock on the gantry to go on as I had accidentally stopped my watch much earlier in the race. The clock said 2:37:20-something. I thought I had taken five seconds to cross the finish line, so it was going to be a PB by a minute at least. To say I was delighted is a massive understatement.

In the end, after I met up with my wife and my parents, I found out that my official chip time was 2:37:07 – a PB by a minute and a half and good enough for 105th place out of 35,000+ runners.

What did I learn?

Here are my conclusions from this run

  • I obviously trained better than I thought I had
  • More gels is a good thing – one every 20 minutes for me in future
  • I race better when I am relaxed
  • It is always hot on the day of the London marathon
  • The crowds in London are the best of any race I have ever done (and that includes New York, Berlin, Paris, etc)
  • Being slightly reckless with my pacing worked for me – I slowed down, but I was expecting it and could work harder to minimise the decline in speed
  • I still have the hunger to push myself to become the best runner I can be and I am not there yet…

 

 

 

 

 

Disclaimer – I PB’d so everything in this article could be rose-tinted nonsense emanating from a deliriously happy brain…

 

 

Race report: The Kingston Breakfast Run 2013

I am really sick and tired of the winter weather this year. I realise that it is stupid to complain about the weather – it certainly is not going to change anything. But I have never known a winter of training like it. It has just been relentlessly cold and either raining of snowing almost every week. But the London marathon is on 21 April and nothing will change that, so the training needs to continue irrespective of the weather. This weekend I was due to run 35km with 10km steady, 10km just slower than target marathon pace, 10km at target marathon pace, 2km fast and then a 3km cool-down.

I realised I was highly unlikely to nail a session like that on my own around the streets of north London in the snow.

Kingston Breakfast Run to the rescue

Screen Shot 2013-03-24 at 19.26.25
Runners in Kingston this morning – it really was that cold!

I suddenly remembered that today was the Kingston Breakfast Run – a race that I have done a few times in the past and I realised that I could use this race as the basis for the session. So along with my training partner Carl, I set off at 6am this morning for south west London.

We arrived in Kingston and parked an hour before the race was due to start (or so we thought!) heading off out of the town centre for just over 5 miles at a steady pace. I was cold despite wearing three tops – I knew this was going to be a tough morning!

At 8:25am we dropped off tights and tops in the car and jogged to the start area… to find that the race had already started. We thought the race started at 8:35am… but we were wrong by 10 minutes.

Starting from the back

Without hesitation Carl and I crossed the start-line and we were off – three and a half minutes behind the pack. The aim now was to run 7 miles at just slower than marathon pace, followed by seven miles at marathon pace, then the last two miles faster than marathon pace.

The race leaves Kingston town centre pretty quickly and heads on to the Thames towpath. The recent bad weather meant that it was wet under foot – Carl and I were trying to make our way through the back of the pack at 6:15 min/mile while also dodging puddles. But the course is reasonably wide and we managed to hit the pace fairly easily.

The Kingston Breakfast Run offers two opportunities – an 8.2 mile race or a 16 mile race, which equates to one or two laps of the same course. So I reached 7 miles, the point at which I needed to up the pace to marathon pace and within a mile all the ‘one-lappers’ were peeling off to the finish line, which meant there was even more space for Carl and me.

The conditions on the last lap deteriorated a little, especially in the last two miles when we ran into a headwind with horizontal snow stinging my eyes. But the marshalls all remained friendly and encouraging and the helpers and army cadets at the water stations stayed put handing out cups as we went past.

And then suddenly the finish line was a mile away. I was really looking forward to stopping – the 15th and 16th miles were really tough from the point of view of the cold wind and the snow. But I was also chuffed to have completed 16 miles at a good pace.

A really enjoyable race, but…

One slight downside to the race is that apart from the section on the riverside walk, which was very muddy underfoot and covered in puddles, the race is very much on open roads. This means that the runners are constantly being requested to run on the pavements. But with so many runners, this will inevitably lead to congestion. Whilst I realise that starting three minutes behind everyone else meant that I had made it impossible to not have to work my way through the pack, we also lapped quite a few runners in the later stages and this meant that everyone, including the front runners who got away on time, would have had to deal with slower runners on the pavement: like me, I suspect that many of them resorted to running on the road to get a clear path. It would be really wonderful if Human Race, the organisers of the Breakfast Run, could convince the powers that be to close all the roads that the race uses for one morning, so I hope they are asking for that.

All in all, though, I would say that despite arriving late and having to deal with appalling weather, the Kingston Breakfast Run was a great success for me:

• I started last and finished 14th out of 1,176 runners.
• According to my chip-to-chip time was the 8th fastest runner.
• I managed 22.5 miles today and averaged 6:15 min/mile for the 7 mile section of running just slower than marathon pace and 5:58 min/mile for the seven miles at target marathon pace.

That feels like a good workout and hopefully bodes well for London in four weeks, so thanks to Human Race and the good people of Kingston for putting on the race. I can only hope that the London marathon team have orgainsed for the the snow to be gone by the time of their race…

Royal Parks Foundation Half Marathon – the return of the red squirrel

This morning I went to the launch of the Royal Parks Foundation half marathon ballot.  You can register for the ballot here: www.royalparkshalf.com and there is also an ultra, the details for which are here: www.royalparksultra.com

The press release from the Royal Parks team is as follows:

Sara Lom, Chief Executive of the Royal Parks Foundation, the charity behind the race, says “The Royal Parks Foundation Half Marathon races through four of London’s amazing Royal Parks, and has raised more than £15million for around 400 charities all over the UK since it began in 2008.

“This year’s field is set to be the largest ever with 16,000 runners from around Britain and more than 30 countries across the world taking part. Signing up will be the perfect boost to your New Year’s fitness resolution.”

Super-fit squirrels looking for an even longer distance challenge can sign up today for the Royal Parks Foundation Ultra, a 50k ultra marathon, partnered with Scope:  www.royalparksultra.com

 

 

Finally getting to grips with the ‘cross?

I’ll readily admit that I didn’t start out as much of a fan of cross-country when I found running all of seven years ago. In fact I wasn’t much of a fan of running off-road at all. I remember going for long runs along the Regents Canal and cursing as I leapt around like a demented trout trying to avoid running through the puddles. In fact I avoided cross-country when I trained for my first few marathons because I thought all that slipping around might be detrimental to my road running. No! For me, it was all about the road – the clean, flat (if possible), smooth tarmac.

Then I met my coach Nick Anderson and found out – too late – that he is a huge fan of cross-country, having raced it himself and then managed a national cross-country team! So there was little likelihood that I would get away with it for much longer.

So what was my problem?

My two main problems with the ‘cross can be described thus: first, it is bloody hard work. Second, I don’t feel good running cross country.

The ‘bloody hard work’ thing is really about how hard it is to judge effort. Running on the road – especially if one can find a nice flat course – is predictable. And I like that. I know fairly accurately that I can maintain a certain speed for a certain distance. For the marathon, I might really want to hit 6 min/mile and hold that for 26.2 miles, so I will finish in 2hrs 37min 15secs (actually I don’t – I want a bigger PB than that, but my point is about locking in to a pace) and it doesn’t really matter what anyone else around is doing, I just have to concentrate on the pace I have trained for.

The thing about not feeling good whilst running the ‘cross is linked to my previous complaint – there is very little about my running in the mud that is elegant. Sure, the best cross country runners make it look almost smooth, but I lurch from side to side, slipping and wheeling my arms around. On the road, I like to imagine that I am almost machine-like, with a smooth gait and tall stance, compact, efficient and smooth.

What has changed?

The big change that has happened this season has been about acceptance. Accept that it is going to be hard, accept that it will be muddy. Deal with the fact that despite running really hard, I might only scrape into the top 100 of a race with 400 runners. Accept that I will get covered in mud, and that the mud might smell of cow shit or worse. Deal with the fact that everything will get mud on it and that the mud will NOT come off easily.

I have also accepted that cross-country is a different sport to road running. It is a little like the different between skiing and snow-boarding. Sure they both involve going down a mountain on smooth wooden planks – in the same way that road running and cross-country both involve covering distance in the fastest way possible – but there the similarity ends. Cross country and road running have many differences, including:

  • it being all about beating the person in front of you
  • cross country requires running tactically, eg. not running too hard in the first lap and then collapsing in the last lap
  • unlike running marathons, etc cross-country is a team sport
  • times don’t matter – conditions on the same course vary from season to season. The only thing that matters is ones position
  • not all great road runners are great ‘cross runners and visa versa

So I have accepted and even embraced cross-country. I have started to understand how much my running will improve with the strength that comes from cross country running. I have discovered the delight of simply trying to catch the person in front. I have worked out that the tougher the conditions, the more the runner benefits psychologically from running in them.

Oh, and I have discovered the utterly amazing feeling of peeling off wet, muddy, smelly kit and slipping into a hot bath, with a cup of rooibos tea and a toasted crumpet stacked with cheese when you get home after a race… now I just have to convince someone to clean the bath for me afterwards!

Wonder if they want their mud back...?