Back to the start

As I get older I have a growing sense that life loops back on itself over and over again. I suspect that this is because of deeply ingrained habits that mean that no matter how hard we try, we often end up doing the same things over and over again. I also think that if you can recognise this circularity, it is possible to adapt and manage our behaviour – even make a virtue out of the process.

Going back to my running roots

So here I am, almost back to where I was 10 years ago when I first started running: trying to find the love and the habit of running. In fact the circle almost returned on itself completely on Sunday. I went to Bristol to run the half marathon there with my best friend Rob. It was a decade since Rob and I ran our first proper race – the Great North Run. I struggled – and I mean really struggled – to a 1:57 finish, delighted to have dipped under 2 hours. Rob was there all the way and in fact it was he who encouraged me in the last mile or so when I was whimpering and trying to find excuses to stop. He wouldn’t let me give in.

Fast forward 10 years and I had the honour of returning the favour and supporting Rob as he ran a very pleasing 1:44 as preparation for an assault on a sub-4 hour marathon in a few weeks.

To get the reward one needs to do the work

Florence MarathonThe weekend in Bristol really made me realise how much I love road running. The Bristol course has a 6 mile out-and-back section along the gorge under the Clifton Suspension Bridge. This means that as most runners are heading out at mile 3 or 4, the lead runners are returning on the other side of the road at mile five and six. It is a great opportunity to see fast runners doing what they do so well. I was captivated to see the elite men and women fly past. And even more so I loved seeing friends such as Jamie Smalley from Runderwear and Andrew Levison, hammer past at sub-6 minute/mile pace. I thought:

That is where I want to be

I love running fast and free. I love racing others. I love chasing times.

I also know that in order to get to a point where I can race at the level I want to be, I need to put in the training. I am not getting any younger, but I have a feeling that the last 12 months of relative inactivity might have done me the world of good. My body has rested and my mind has had a chance to focus on other things. The downside is that I have got out of the training habits that I think I need. But I can get back to habitually running. I did it before, 10 years ago, and I was coming from a much lower base then. This time I am older (but not too old), wiser (but still suitably naive) and definitely determined. Plus I still have this blog, which was set up as a way of recording my journey to try to become the best runner I can be.

I guess I haven’t quite answered the question I started with yet: how good can I be? Here’s to continuing to find out.

Guest race report from the Perkins Great Eastern Run, Peterborough (2013) and some thoughts on running a sub 75 minute half marathon

In this guest post Jamie Rutherford, friend of the blog and top level runner, writes about his recent run at the Perkins Great Eastern Run half marathon and how that relates to the blog I wrote recently about picking your half marathons carefully, if you want to focus on performance. Take it away, Jamie…

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This run (in its current format) has been taking place since 2006 and every year attracts legions of runners looking to take advantage of the flat and speedy route around Peterborough, as well as those who are running the distance for this first time. The one lap course starts and finishes at The Embankment alongside the River Nene and boasts a total elevation gain of only 16 metres. With plenty of good local support along the route, it is easy to see why this event is so popular, a fact testified by the 5,200 entrants this year.

I first took part in the race in 2011 and was pleasantly surprised to find just how flat and suited to a fast pace the course really was. As a runner coming from Sheffield, flat is not gradient that I am used to, so Peterborough made a welcome change! This year, I returned to Peterborough with the aim of running under 75 minutes, a target of mine for the last 2 years and one which I hoped could be achieved on this course. Having experienced its benefits previously, I felt that this would be the course for me.

Race time!

Race day itself fell at the end of a very wet week and Sunday morning was no exception.  As the ‘off’ loomed, heavy rain was accompanied by strong winds and I’m sure many participants were cursing the MET Office’s unusual accuracy. Any non runner would surely have cast a worried look at the hordes of lycra clad people wandering about in black bin bags but in conditions like this, runners seem to care more about function rather than fashion!

As the Kenyan favourites sped off, the rain kept falling and the assembled masses surged forwards amongst the continuous bleep of thousands of stopwatches.

The race took a winding route through Peterborough’s centre and then out into the surrounding local suburbs. Despite the conditions, local support was as strong as ever and increased towards the second half of the course as the rain started to clear up. Compared to a race like the Great North Run, there are a large amount of hard left and right turns to be taken around Peterborough but then who wants to run along a boring dual carriageway for the whole route anyhow?! The course has stayed the same since 2012 and was amended from 2011 for increased speed. At the time it felt as if this was not the case but the end results definitely contradict this!

Men’s top 3

Peterborough winner1. Nicholas Kirui (Team RUNFAST): 1:03:59.

2. Peter Emase (Team RUNFAST) 1:04:10.

3 .Elivd Kipserem (Team RUNFAST) 1:07:33.

Women’s top 3

1. Purity Kimetto (Team RUNFAST) 1:11:51. NEW COURSE RECORD.

2. Perendis Lekepana (Team RUNFAST) 1:14:44.

3. Jo Wilkinson (BEDFORD & COUNTY AC) 1:17:30.

As for my run, I set off with thoughts from one of Simon’s recent articles about running fast times in my head. I knew that this race had a high percentage of runners coming home in under 75 minutes (38 in 2012) and thus my best chance would be to put myself in the company of some of these faster runners and hope that the physical and psychological effects of running in a group could help me achieve my target. To recap on Simon’s thoughts, the two biggest benefits of running in a group are:

  • Physical: shielding from oncoming weather, thus allowing a more protected and easier run in the group slipstream
  • Psychological: runners in a good group can take it in turns to lead the group and keep up the pace, allowing a back runner to relax and be pulled along

I managed to find a group of runners all going for sub 75 minute time (5.43/mile pace) fairly quickly and we bunched up together. For me this was a definite benefit, as running solo in the miserable conditions which we experienced during the race would have been much harder on my own.

Jamie Rutherford
Jamie Rutherford, half marathon expert!

We all seemed to be working well together and took it in turns to lead. I’m more used to burning off too fast at the start of races and then struggling solo for the remainder so this was an unusual experience but one which helped me to maintain the target pace.

As halfway loomed, myself and two other runners pulled ahead from this pack and spent the next few miles trading the lead and words of encouragement as the finish came closer.  Despite feeling fatigued, my legs and enthusiasm stayed strong and the pace for the second half picked up. I am sure I can thank a recent good block of training for my body not calling time on this race but I owe many thanks to these other runners for helping me to keep going. I am not sure if I could have kept my pace up had I been on my own and would certainly have suffered in the cold and wet.

The Result

I am pleased to say that by keeping a level head and with the added bonus of a strong racing field, I and the others around me all came in under the desired 75 minute barrier! My personal splits were between 5.32 and 5.52 with an average of 5.39/mile and an overall race time of 1:14:47.

In conclusion, the Perkins Great Eastern Run is a cracking race. It offers a flat and varied course which is suitable for those chasing a PB or those who want a fun and friendly race to test their mettle. The course is one of the fastest in the UK and is highly recommended for those who are chasing a fast PB, with a high proportion of runners finishing with a time which will qualify them for London Marathon Championship entry. In total, this 2013 race yielded 37 runners running faster than 75 minutes. Of these, 13 ran PBs and 2 ran SBs. Not bad for a wet Sunday morning run…

A stat-attack: the best half marathons in the UK if you want to run fast times

I have a theory that if you want to run a fast time in a race, then you really should find a race with as many other fast runners as possible. I am just reading the new book by Malcolm Gladwell, called David and Goliath and in that he talks about the idea that very often the things that we think might have a linear relationship – such as diminishing class size and pupil success – actually don’t. In fact in the case of class sizes, there is a point where the smaller the class, the worse the pupils do. I will leave you to read the book and understand why.

But I think that the same goes for races, especially the closer you get to the front. The more runners there are (up to a point) the better the chances you have of running fast.

It is, perhaps then, no coincidence that I have never won a race. If you want to win a race then your aim should be to find a race with as few fast runners in it as possible. I admit that rarely does a weekend go by during the spring or autumn race seasons when I don’t see the results from a race and think ‘I wish I had done that race – I’d have had half a chance of a podium spot or even of winning it’. However, I am really only interested in racing my PBs and trying to achieve better times, so it matters not to me if I am second or 100th, provided I achieve what I set out to achieve – particularly if that is a PB.

The reasons I believe more = better

I think there are two reasons that having more runners around you is better if you are trying to achieve a particular time goal (and once again, there is not a linear relationship here: I have seen the runners filling the road at around four and a half hour pace in the London marathon and I accept that if you are in the race at that pace, there are too many people and you are actually hindered from running faster).

The first is physical. There is not doubt that a strong wind is not our friend when it comes to running fast times. The first year I ran the Cambridge half marathon I worked hard after a couple of miles to close the gap to a group of four runners in front of me. Once I was there, the group worked really well together, taking turns on the front. In that group was the first lady – Holly Rush – who was given very loud and strict instructions to stay in that group and shelter from the head wind as much as possible by her coach, Martin Rush, who was on the pavement at a number of points as we passed by.

I have experienced exactly the same in many races myself – the London marathon this year was made much tougher by the fact that as I hit mile 22 there was no one around me and there was a distinct breeze into my face along the Embankment. A better chance came in the Bristol half this year, when after about 7 miles I ended up in a group with two other runners and we worked together into the head wind along the Portway back into town. Without that shelter, I would definitely have not managed 78 minutes two weeks after a 100km mountain race and the weekend after 80 minutes at the Run To The Beat.

I also think that there is a huge psychological advantage to running in a group. If everyone in the group get it right, each person can allow the group to pull them along for a while, relaxing and simply following the feet, letting someone else take responsibility for the pacing and sharing the responsibility.

This sort of pacing benefit was brought home to me at the Wokingham half marathon last year. In that race there was a veritable peloton of runners, all clicking off the miles at sub-75 minute pace. Working together, sharing the pacing and sheltering each other from the wind. It was a perfect example of a group working together and the results show the effect that grouping had with the following times posted:

74:02… 74:08… 74:09… 74:13… 74:15…
74:18… 74:18… 74:33… 74:35… 74:38…
74:41… 74:41… 74:43… 74:53… 74:53…

Which race to pick

So I hope I have established that there are two very good reasons to try to find a race – at least a half marathon – where you can run with a group all targeting the same pace as you, if you want to push yourself and potentially run a fast time.

The next question is which race should you try to get in to? Well, if we look at the races where people run under 75 minutes – the time for a guaranteed Championship Entry in the London Marathon – then the pattern is stark. There were 21 races in the UK this year where more than six people have run under 75 minutes. Amongst those however, there are a super-group of three where more than 47 have achieved that target and six more where at least 10 have completed the course at an average of 5 minutes 43 seconds per mile. This chart shows you the races where people ran under 75 minutes (click on the chart to be able to read all the race names along the bottom):

 

Screen Shot 2013-10-16 at 17.08.32

I realise of course that there are factors that come into play here. Some of the races are big events and by the very fact that they have tens or thousands of runners, there is a good chance that there will be fast runners. But that is not always the case: in the Royal Parks half marathon last year – on a flat course, in good conditions – there were exactly 5 runners under 75 minutes – that is 0.042% of the 11,764 finishers. Compare that to Wokingham 2013 where 1.74% of the field finished under 75 minutes and Reading where 0.62% achieved the same time. Admittedly these are not big numbers, but in the case of Reading that was 80 runners out of a field almost exactly the same size as the Royal Parks.

It should also be noted that I have not taken into account any weather conditions or course profile.

But I think that the reality is that if you are looking to run a fast half marathon, you will have a much, much better chance if you run one of the three races where there are the most other runners trying to do the same. For runners further down the field, there doesn’t seem to be any benefit from running in the bigger races, indeed the opposite is probably true, but once you are looking to run 1 hour 30 minutes or faster, the Bath, Reading and Great North Run races are simply the best.

Appendix:
Here are the races that are in the chart above:
Reading (79 runners under 75 minutes)
Great North Run (64)
Bath (63)
Bristol (48)
Wokingham (47)
Peterborough (37)
Cardiff (32)
Birmingham (31)
Nottingham (31)
Wilmslow (31)
Gosport (25)
Fleet (22)
Glasgow (22)
Paddock Wood (18)
Inverness (16)
Llanwddyn (16)
St Leonards On Sea (16)
Alloa (12)
Edinburgh (12)
Worksop (12)
Chester (11)
Helsby (11)
Liverpool (11)
York (11)
Sheffield (10)
Tunbridge Wells (10)
Cambridge (9)
Llanelli (8)

How to get your preparation on track

For many runners, training on a track is something other runners – more talented, more dedicated, more serious runners – do. There is a perception that training on the track is for the elite or for athletes training for track distances. But that should not be the case. We have a few athletics tracks still open in this country (despite the apathy of the powers that be and the insatiable appetites of sport-centre managers for all-weather fiva-a-side football pitches) so we should all be using them, if for no other reason than to keep them open for other runners.

And there are other, better reasons for why all distance runners should run on the track. Here are a few that I believe are important:

  1. it is the best place to run as fast as you can – nothing to navigate, nothing to trip on, no one to crash into
  2. it is a great way to make sure you are measuring your effort/pace/distance
  3. track is a great place to get competitive in sessions
  4. a good track is easier on the legs than the equivalent session on concrete or tarmac
  5. track sessions make you feel like a real runner*

Run fast or go home

I think that the approach to track sessions should be slightly reckless. No one wants to go off in any run at a pace that is so unsustainable that it is impossible to finish the session. But unlike on the road, if you do find that it is impossible to continue with a session, you are never more than 200m (provided it is a 400m track – the standard distance of an oval in the UK) from your bag. So I believe that people who run conservatively on the track are wasting their time…

© Tom Hull
© Tom Hull

I think that the real value in running on the track for an endurance athlete is pushing yourself harder, much harder, than you would in a race, so that your body – conditioned to deal with that higher level of discomfort – will feel much more comfortable at, for example, marathon pace.

I am sure there are biomechanical and physiological explanations for why track training is good for you. But I prefer to keep it simple.

If you train by pushing your body to run at a pace that, at times and for relatively short intervals, is much faster than the pace you want to run your 5km, 10km, half marathon or marathon at, then when you do run at your target pace for those longer distances, your legs will cope better allowing you to go further at a faster pace

Ultimately successful endurance training is about bringing speed and endurance together at the right time for your target race. So you need to do the speed work to go along with the endurance stuff.

What can be measured can be managed

One of the other great things about the track is that it is an exact distance around the oval. A 400m track will be measured around the inside lane and that means that 2.5 laps is a kilometer. Four laps is a near to a mile as you need to be (a mile is actually 1609.344m and the extra 2.33m is usually marked on the track so you can be super-exact if you want to).

This means that you can be really accurate with your running:

  • If you are doing a session at 10km pace and you have run a 45 minute 10km race (or you want to) then each lap should take you 1min 48 seconds.
  • If you want to run a 3 hour 30 minute marathon then your pace will be 8 min/mile pretty much. That is 2 minutes per lap.

So no GPS required. Just tick off the laps at the required pace with a glance at your stopwatch every 400m or listen out if you have someone at the track calling out splits.

The legs and lungs are all well and good, but what about the brain?

You laughin' at me?
You laughin’ at me?

Track training is not just good for the body. It is also great for the mind. Track training will make you feel like a real runner (*) and that is important. If you are confident and you believe in yourself when you toe the start line of your next race, then you are much more likely to succeed at whatever target you have set yourself.

I also think that the competition that comes from track training is also useful. Usually reps in a session will have the same start point and this means that at the start of each rep, the group that you are running with, will all be together. You will naturally respond to the runners in your group and as people push the pace, you will respond, probably surprising yourself with what you are capable of – bottle that feeling, it will serve you well in due course.

All of this is great for your race-day head. If you know you are capable of monster sessions on the track, then you know that you have the mental resilience to hit your target pace in the marathon and stick to it. You might even find yourself racing the person in front, just like in those track sessions.

All for track and track for all

Track training, despite the fact that is should be tough, is really inclusive. The pain of track training is universal and anyone who thinks that fast runners are not working as hard as everyone else is deluded. And therein lies the beauty of the track. You can run your session at your paces and there is no fear of getting abandoned miles from home as there would be if you were out on a long run. Simply set your own targets and work hard according to your paces.

Convinced?

As you can probably tell, I am a big fan of track training. It certainly made a big difference to my training when I started. However I do have a word of caution. In my opinion there is absolutely no point going to the track to run around at your steady, or even threshold, pace.

Track is where you run your heart out. Track is where you ensure that there is a big differential between your fast runs and your slow runs. Track is where you earn the right to collapse in a heap after the session. Track is where you will make a difference to your running, that come race-day will pay off the biggest dividends. Good luck!

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

 

 

St Neots half marathon 2012

There are a few races that feature prominently in the calendar at my running club, the Mornington Chasers. There is the Finchley 20, the Cabbage Patch 10, the London marathon, the club’s 6 race 10km series in Regents Park… and the St Neots half marathon.

Until recently I didn’t really understand completely while these races were picked by so many club mates, but I am starting to appreciate their significance:

  • the Finchley 20 – a bit old skool, but a good race to check pace for a spring marathon, being four identical 5 mile loops. Local and friendly
  • the Cabbage Patch 10 – can be a bit busy, but there aren’t many 10 milers left in the London area and a good race for the club championship, not clashing with any big marathons and before the cross-country season really kicks in
  • the London marathon – a London club couldn’t really favour any other marathon, could it. And we have ‘our’ spot around 21 miles to support the club’s runners
  • the Regents Park 10km series – well, it’s local, friendly, fun and our race. Nuff said!
  • the St Neots half marathon…

Race day morning

The weather today was perfect. I was up before 7am to eat breakfast and get up to the club mate’s house who had offered me a lift (thanks Tim and Kayleigh!) Even in the pale morning light, I could see it was going to be a great day to race. Admittedly by the time we arrived in St Neots, it felt decidedly cooler than it had in London, but it was above freezing, the sky was blue, the sun was shining and there was no wind to worry about. I was suddenly really looking forward to this!

The race

The only slight question I am left with after the race today is why the organisers insist on handing out numbers on the morning of the race. Having had a little bit of trouble parking, queuing for my number wasn’t the end of the world, but it was 5 minutes that didn’t seem necessary. But that really is a very minor issue and the team handing out numbers were super-friendly and fast.

From the race HQ, having changed, I jogged to the start, in a small residential street (they must have patience, the residents!) and almost exactly on time, we were off.

The first 200m is uphill: just a gentle, short hill but that didn’t stop quite a few enthusiastic types taking off like it was a 10km race. Either the quality of the field had improved this year, or some runners were over-estimating what they were going to do.

I ran with a couple of fellow Chasers for a mile or so until things settled down. Within a short time we were out into the Cambridgeshire countryside and it was glorious! I just felt so alive and full of running!

There were a few groups that formed early on and I was keen to try to get onto them to avoid getting isolated too early. There really was no wind to speak of, but I always think that if you can get into a little group it helps to maintain the pace and even if the wind is only 5mph, it’s better to shelter from it as much as possible than not.

The course is really lovely. It is on open roads, but they are quiet and the drivers I did encounter seemed to be friendly and courteous (even when it was paparazzi taking photos of me, eh Alex!) There were dozens and dozens of marshalls and they were unfailingly friendly and encouraging. I even didn’t mind when close to the end, as I was closing in on a local runner one of the marshalls gave the game away – as soon as my quarry realised I was trying to chase him down, he put in a little more effort and kept me 10m behind him all the way to the finish! And the course is described – fairly I think – as undulating, with one big, important caveat: the last three miles is noticeably downhill. That made for a very nice, quick end to the race and meant I was closer to 76 minutes when I finished than the 78 mins I thought I might get as I took my gel at 9 miles.

After the race the marshalls and helpers were great, handing out water and the well-received technical t-shirts. I couldn’t help laughing when one of the Cambridge and Colleridge runners crossed the line and dropped to all-fours, which elicited an immediate lunge towards him from the St John’s Ambulance volunteers on hand… and the runner pumped out three press-ups before leaping to his feet and bellowing like a stag! The closest St John’s Ambulance volunteer looked shocked to say the least!

Overall impression

I have run this race a few times now, but today I really understood the appeal – the course is undulating enough to be interesting, without being too tough; the Cambridge countryside on a cold sunny day was utterly beautiful; the marshalls were fantastic; the support (which is a bit sparse) was great when we encountered it; and the organisation before, during and after the race was flawless. No wonder this race sells out so fast. It is definitely a recommended race from me and I really understand why it is a stalwart of the Mornington Chasers race calendar. I’ll certainly be back!

Competing or completing: does it matter?

I just read an article in a running magazine and one line in it made me feel momentarily sad and frustrated. Then I checked myself. Then I thought I’d write about it anyway.

The article was a race report. It was for a half marathon and the writer finished in just under 2hrs 15min. Now I want to state for the record that I really think that it is great that he gave it a go (many, many people will never attempt to complete a half marathon or indeed any sort of sporting challenge at all). And I’m not suggesting for a minute that he is not a worthy recipient of a finishers medal and a pint in the pub afterwards, but the line that got me was “At mile 11, I hit the wall”.

I just don’t think that a young, able-bodied man running at slower than 10 minutes per mile, should ‘hit the wall’ at 11 miles. What I mean by that, is that I think that any young, able-bodied man should be able to train in such a way that 11 miles at almost 11 mins/mile, should feel very manageable. The person who finishes a half marathon in two and a quarter hours is moving at around 5.5 miles per hour. To put that in context, walking pace is usually considered to be 3.5 miles per hour while elite marathoners run at around 13 mph in a marathon.

So before anyone thinks that I am having a go at the person who wrote the race review, I am not. I am criticising a society where people are so unfit and so sedentary that running at 5.5 miles per hour results in encounters with the ‘wall’ and a collapse after the finish line. And we think this is an acceptable performance to warrant column inches in a specialist running magazine. I know that not everyone – me included – can run a sub-60 minute half marathon, but surely there is a lower limit that every human being, with a bit of training and the odd lifestyle choice, should be able to attain?

As I hope you can tell, I am wrestling with this issue.

On the one hand I desperately want people to get involved in running and I really do empathise: I finished my first half marathon in 1 hour 57 minutes.

But on the other hand, I know that the reason I finished my first half in almost two hours is that I had wrecked my body with cigarettes, alcohol, bad food and absolutely no exercise at all. For years, That is something that I am really ashamed of and I do not think for a minute that people should follow my example: I perhaps lack a certain balance in my approach to running.

But I am left with the feeling that as a society, we need to raise our expectations. I think that exercise needs to become the norm. That people need to believe that they should be able to run fast and for a good amount of time as a matter of course and whilst I am not suggesting I know where the limit should be, I would love to try to find out what should be acceptable for a fit, able-bodied person to be able to achieve. Anyone have any ideas?

 

Runner at the Sharp End #3: John Hutchins

I recently met John Hutchins at an event hosted by the team behind the Brighton marathon, which involved a coaching seminar on the Saturday night and a 20km time-trial run on the Sunday morning. John, like many of the amazing runners I met on the weekend, was really friendly and happy to talk to me about his racing and training and what really struck me about him was the fact that whilst holding down a full time job and family commitments, with a baby having arrived only a few months ago, John still manages to fit in the training necessary to compete at the highest level. Indeed as I write this I am sitting with my feet up recovering from the Wokingham half marathon yesterday, where John beat his previous personal best on a fairly undulating and certainly windy course, to record a brilliant time of 66:48 which was good enough for 4th place. So my thanks go to John for taking the time to tell us about himself and his running as well as sharing some brilliant tips from a runner who is certainly at the sharp end.

To begin with could you give us some background about yourself and your running? What distances do you run? What are your personal bests (and what were your first times for those distances)?
John Hutchins in the 2011 London marathon

I guess you’d call me a road runner these days, although I’ve run pretty much run everything from 800m upwards on the track and I still dabble in some cross country over the winter. My best event is the Marathon – I’ve run 2:21 for my first two (in November 2010 and April 2011) and I those are probably my best performances over any distance. I ran a fairly quick half in the Hague last year (67:06) and a decent 10 miles in the Great South Run 2010 (49:56 – and yep, I sprinted like Mo to stay under 50!). Off the back of those runs I was kindly given the chance to run for England in the Elgoibar XC, and then I was picked (but ultimately too injured to run) for the England team in the Odense marathon last year. Technically I’ve run 3 marathons, but the first was when I was 18, when I ran 3:56… My first 10k was about 32:30 back in 2004 and I think my first half run in anger was 68:26.

 

How long have you been running and why did you start in the first place?

I can remember my mum asking me to go to the shops from time to time when I was a kid and pegging it all the way there and back just because it took less time. So I guess I’ve always been a runner.  I did cross and track for my school and joined my club (Basingstoke) back then. But I kind-of gave up when exam work got tough around GCSEs and A levels with a view to getting properly involved once I got to Uni. Once I got there I joined the Uni team, got back in touch with Basingstoke and since then I haven’t looked back!

Are you coached? And if so, by whom?

Yep, my coach is Martin Tarsey. He’s an ex-Basingstoke athlete himself and has coached me since I rejoined Basingstoke. He coaches quite a range of distances-from 400m up to Marathon. His other athletes include Mark Berridge (47.1 for 400m and 1:48 for 800m) and some other very capable track runners like Dave Ragan and Max Roberts.

(Aside from your coach, if you have one) who or what has been the biggest influence on your running and why?
A Onesie. Ben Moreau may or may not have looked like this

It pains me to put this in writing, but I’d have to say my mate Ben Moreau. We were best mates at Uni and have stayed so. We train together sporadically, but I’m always chasing him. He’s a talented runner, but he puts the work in as well-so he’s a great example for anyone to follow (except for wearing a onesie/GB kit as pyjamas).

What is the best piece of running advice you have ever been given? Who gave you that advice?

I’ve always had a tendency to gun all my runs-whether it’s racing (lead from the front), track reps (kill the first two), tempo running (start fast and then die a horrible death) or easy runs (which usually don’t turn out to be that easy…). And then I get tired. And then I feel rubbish. And then I go into a bit of a stagnant patch.

So the best bit of advice has come from most of the people that know me well-particularly my wife Joanne, Tarsey and Ben, and that is to run the way you feel. If you’re doing a tempo and you feel rubbish, don’t fight it, just cruise and be able to run the next day. Likewise if you feel great on a steady run, let yourself run a bit quicker (within reason), but recognise that if you feel slightly jaded the next day, just back off – it doesn’t mean you’re cheating!! Sometimes I find that holding yourself back when you feel great is just as bad as running too hard-and this is going to sound a bit sad-sometimes you need to feel that rush that you only get when you’re going quick, but you could go all day…

What is your favourite bit of kit and why?

The Basingstoke boys ran a training weekend in Studland for a few years. We used to have proper running tees made up for it. I love my first ever one which has my Basingstoke nickname “JT” (nothing to do with a trouser snake) on it.

What has been, or where is, your favourite race?

My favourite races have been the Florence marathon and the Elgoibar cross country. Florence because it’s a beautiful city, the crowds really get behind you and because it was a breakthrough race for me. I loved going through halfway feeling good and pushing on, waiting for the hurt to kick in, only to find out that I didn’t feel too bad. Elgoibar because it was a unique experience. The race is really historic and has a formal opening ceremony the night before. The course was crazy-set in the foothills of the Pyrenees and with a lap of a tartan track in each of the laps!

What do you think has had the biggest effect on you improving your times?
  • Mileage
  • 2 hour+ runs
  • tempo running

Hard to tell which of these has the biggest impact – each adds its own little piece. High mileage for me is 80+ per week. That’s not a great deal in comparison with the elite elite marathoners, but it’s just about all I can fit in around family life and work.  2 hour+ runs give you that marathon specific training that nothing else can – where you run close to empty and actually prove to yourself that you can run the whole distance. And tempo runs prove you can run quickly and make running slower feel easier.

With the benefit of hindsight, if you could give your younger self any advice, what would it be and why?

I’d probably say to myself that I should train easier, but more often.  I used to get really tired and have to take days off to recoup.  Much better to take things easier and improve aerobically.

Do you stretch enough?

Nope. But I also have chronic Achilles issues as a result.  I’m like an old man in the mornings.  Word of advice to anyone would be DO CALF RAISES. I’ve started, and they’re helping, but I wish I’d done them all along…

What do you think about the general state of running in the UK and, assuming you don’t think it is perfect, what could be done to improve it?

It’s obviously not as good as it once was.  Other sports and pass times seem to have stolen / stifled the talent that once came through the ranks. Having said that, I think London 2012 is a good stimulus for change. I also think the runBritain Grand Prix is a great way of encouraging good club runners (not just the elite elite) to race in high quality events. The atmosphere, organisation, serious competition and the fact that there are a series of races to target are all awesome incentives to train and improve.  Sometimes I also feel like the club structure we have in the UK must have been great when there was mass participation, but now numbers have fallen there almost needs to be a bit of consolidation to drive growth.  But that kind of change is way above my pay grade…

What is your overall ambition for your own running? What do you think you need to do to achieve that?

This year’s ambition is to run under 2:20.  I think I possibly could have been ready for this had I had an amazing run at London last year.  So I’m basically approaching training in quite a similar way, but a bit more sensibly with respect to keeping fresh.  Ultimately I would love to run in a major championships, but I’m just about training at capacity at the moment-what with work and home life.  I guess I will see what I can achieve this year and work out what I could change to continue to improve.

Please complete the following: I run because…

I love everything that running allows me to do; to meet great people, to run in awesome events and to travel; to rarely get bored; to eat ALL the time; to keep fit; to compete; to work hard and get results.  Most of my mates think I’m mental…

I would like to thank John for a really great interview. He is very modest about his achievements but for me he embodies the idea of a Runner At The Sharp-end and I am sure that everyone reading this blog will agree with me that John has given us some brilliant tips and lessons that he has learned that we can apply to our own training. If you enjoyed the interview you can also follow John on twitter @HutchinsJohn.

The art of pacing

Next weekend I am racing the Wokingham half marathon and I think this is an opportunity to attack my personal best. Apart from the desire that most runners have to log a PB once in a while, I think that running a quick half marathon at this stage will give me great confidence with eight weeks to go until the London marathon. So the first step in my planning for the race is always to work out what pace I need to run at to hit my target time. For me, with a half marathon personal best of 1:14:03, I want to know what pace I will have to run to hit 1:13:00. So, 73 minutes (or 4,380 seconds) divided by 13.1 miles… erm, give me a second…yep, nearly there… ahhh, one moment…

Actually I always use an online calculator. The easiest one as far as I am concerned is the Runners World Pace Band Generator. All you have to do is input the finish time you are after, the distance and whether you want the target splits in kilometers or miles (worth checking what the markers will be in at your target race if you are not 100% sure) et viola!

The other option is the McMillan Running calculator. This is actually supposed to help you estimate a range of finish times for every conceivable distance based on previous race results. But you can simply enter your target race time and then check the pace splits under that distance (which are given in per-mile and per-kilometer numbers).

And the target pace is…

Having used the Runners World Pace Band Calculator, I know I need to run each mile of the half marathon in 5min 34secs to finish in 73 minutes.

Not too much technology

Mile Markers are there to be used. Image from Finbar on Tour

Now I know my target pace, I must admit that I tend to shy away from technology on race day. When it comes to training I am happy to use my Garmin to check on my paces and I really enjoy downloading my stats and updating my training diary. But when it comes to racing, I take a different view – simplicity is everything. I simply write the target pace on the back of my left hand and hit the lap button when I reach every mile (or kilometer marker). If the number on my watch is equal to or less than the number written on the back of my hand, then I am on track (and visa versa). To hammer the point home I once ran a marathon  with a friend (his debut by the way) and he checked his pace using his GPS watch, while I used my less-tech trusted method. He finished in 3:01:02 with a GPS telling him that he had run 27 miles! He is such a hard-working athlete that I am convinced that he would have finished in under 3 hours if he hadn’t been relying on a GPS watch that was giving him the wrong pace data. You have been warned.

So I’m off to find a biro and get that number well and truly inked on the back of my hand. The count-down begins!

Runner at the Sharp End #2: Richard Gregory

This is the second in a series of interviews with Runners At The Sharp-end (the R.A.T.S). For an explanation of what I am defining as a runner at the sharp end have a read here. Richard, a member of the famous Ranelagh Harriers, is a fierce competitor, especially in cross-country races and excels at any distance he tackles on the road (his personal bests are testament to that, as you can see below). Here is what he told me;

SF: To begin with could you give us some background about yourself and your running? What distances do you run? What are your personal bests (and what were your first times for those distances)?
Richard going great guns in the 'cross' Image from Ranelagh Harriers

RG: Mostly half marathon and marathon at the moment, with a bit of cross country through the winter.
Half Marathon PB – 70.43 (Amsterdam 2011) and my debut was 81.16 (Brooklyn 2007)
Marathon PB – 2.30.46 (London 2011) with a debut 2.50.54 (New York 2007).

SF: How long have you been running and why did you start in the first place?

RG: Started about five years ago (though I’d run a bit through school – mainly to keep fit for hockey, which I played reasonably competitively).  I was living in New York at the time and had barely exercised for a few years; running round Central Park seemed a good way to get in shape.  A friend then convinced me a 10k race would be fun… a half soon followed, and when a New York marathon place came about (rather by accident) it seemed I better give it a go.

SF: Are you coached? And if so, by whom?

RG: Yes – Nick Anderson – since summer 2010.

SF: (Aside from your coach, if you have one) who or what has been the biggest influence on your running and why?

RG: Any number of friends I’ve made through running – anyone, at any level, who shares enthusiasm for the sport, improving at it, and having a good time along the way.  Simon’s written on the benefits of running with a group, and I’d definitely agree: I love that running has both that brilliant social side to it, and can be the best possible space for some private thinking time.

SF: What is the best piece of running advice you have ever been given? Who gave you that advice?

RG:

Take responsibility for anything you can control; react positively to anything you cannot.

Sounds a cliché, but pretty fundamental to running as much as anything else in life – though at the time it was a throwaway comment from someone (who’ll remain nameless) who should know better!  It stuck with me, not least when a vomiting bug reared its ugly head seven days before the London marathon.  Keeping calm that week was as important as getting better, and thankfully by the Sunday morning I was fighting fit.

SF: What is your favourite bit of kit and why?

RG: Much as I love comfortable kit – and toys – top of the list is two healthy legs.

SF: What has been, or where is, your favourite race?

RG: For atmosphere – New York marathon, very closely followed by London.
For how I ran – Amsterdam half a few years back.  I’ve run faster since, but it was a day when everything clicked: I just felt incredibly relaxed and enjoyed a rare and wonderful flowing feeling (and a huge pb, much quicker than I’d considered possible at the time).

SF: What do you think has had the biggest effect on you improving your times?

RG: More, more consistent, and structured training.  I didn’t have a clue what I was doing when I started out.  Nick’s coaching has been a huge help in learning the different ingredients, and how to put them together.

SF: With the benefit of hindsight, if you could give your younger self any advice, what would it be and why?

RG: Probably just to get stuck in at an earlier age: running’s something I’ve always enjoyed, but didn’t really get into until my late twenties.  Part of me wishes I’d got more involved on the track in my teens; I’d like to know what I could have done over 800/1500m!

SF: Do you stretch enough?

RG: No!  As well as stretching, I’m a big believer in core work (strength and conditioning) – I don’t do enough of that either, but really notice the difference for injury prevention and improved running form.

SF: What do you think about the general state of running in the UK and, assuming you don’t think it is perfect, what could be done to improve it?

RG: Participation seems to be on the up, which is brilliant – anything to help get people out the door and exercising is good news.  At the sharper end – the likes of Paula and Mo are an inspiration, and I’m far from qualified to say what’s needed for more to come through at that level.  In between, it would be good to see greater depth of “good club runners”, as there was in the past, and I would love to see anything that helps inspire more people to see what a brilliant sport it is, and put the work in to find out what they might achieve.  For starters the London Marathon coverage seems to miss an opportunity each year in jumping from the elite race to the masses: there are some wonderful stories of talent and dedication in between.

SF: What is your overall ambition for your own running? What do you think you need to do to achieve that?

RG: The ambition is simply to make the most of chances to keep on improving at something I really enjoy.  The volume and quality of my training has increased markedly over the past year or two: as with any runner, right now it’s just a case of putting the work in, trying to make sure I rest enough, and eating well.  Hopefully that will translate into a great marathon buildup and race at London this year.

SF: Please complete the following: I run because…

RG: Two reasons for me: I get a kick both out of running itself – nothing beats being outdoors and active – and the honesty of seeing hard work turn into improvement.