What would it take?

The last few weeks have been really interesting. For a whole host of reasons I have managed to get out either cycling or running almost every day. This is a return of mojo like I have never experienced before. I must confess that for the last couple of years I have really been pretty pathetic, always finding an excuse for why I can’t spare the time or make the effort to get out for a run. In less than a month I have rediscovered a love of running that I thought had slipped away permanently.

How I lost my running mojo

I think that the slide started as soon as I ran my marathon PB in the London marathon in 2013. That was a glorious day. I ran 2:37:07, knocking nearly a minute and a half off my previous personal best. That year I was the 164th fastest male marathon runner in the UK. Even out of the 36,000 people who ran the London marathon that year, I would have been happy with 164th – but this is out of every result by a British runner that year. In that race I was just outside of the top 100.

The problem is that as soon as I finished I knew that I probably wouldn’t be able to get back to that kind of performance again. Mrs. Freeman and I had just launched Freestak and we were already contemplating Like the Wind magazine. I felt that the inherently selfish pursuit of a faster marathon time could not be justified. We had work to do.

Immediately after the 2013 London marathon, I took off the two weeks that my coach always prescribed. I was always advised by him to do that – physically and mentally it was the right thing to do. But rather than getting to day 10 of that two week period and feeling like I wanted to get back to training, I was immersed in work and really enjoying having the time that I would usually dedicate to training for Freestak and other projects that I had put on hold.

I remember getting to the end of the fortnight’s enforced rest and thinking that I’d give myself another week. Probably the week after that I went out for a few miles easy running. It was almost out of obligation.

After a while I got back into running regularly. But there was not plan. No target.

I would go out for a run because I knew it was good for body and mind, but I found myself just running for its own sake and not to any sort of programme. That carried on for month after month.

Running, but not as I knew it

A month after I ran my PB in London, I went to Copenhagen and paced a good friend – Charlie – to his PB. Then in the summer I ran a couple of ultras – the main one being the UTMB CCC (100+km around Mont Blanc, this is the little brother race of the main UTMB). I set off with Mrs. Freeman and the intention was to run the whole thing together (she didn’t finish, which is another story for another time). It was a slog-fest (you can read about it here). I took over 24 hours. No sleep.

The following year I ran the London again – my PB from the year before had guaranteed me a place in the Championship start. But I felt like a fraud because I really hadn’t trained. My idea was to ‘run for fun’ and it was only after about 10 miles that I thought I really should try to finish under 3 hours (which I did, just). It was fun, but I didn’t get a massive thrill from running that day in 2014. And the result was totally ‘meh’.

Later in 2014, my wife and I went back to run the UTMB CCC again. It didn’t go well once again. I finished, but I wasn’t happy.

After that, I just sort of fell out of love with running.

The wilderness years

All through 2014, 2015 and last year I was feeling a nagging sense of loss: the marathon had been my obsession since my first one in 2006. Of all the running I had done, the marathon was the distance I had enjoyed the most. The challenge that I embraced the most.

I lost the training group who had been such a huge part of my life as I trained for my marathon. Some people – including my coach – moved away from London. Other seemed to give up on marathons or went to other coaches and I didn’t want to follow them.

I just sort of drifted along. Running felt pretty pointless. I have put on weight. Struggled with diet. Tried to start going to the gym (it is just not for me). I have started enjoying rock climbing and hiking and road cycling (actually that is really becoming a new obsession) but nothing has hooked me like the marathon …

Coming in from the cold

In the past few weeks – with my renewed excitement about training – I have realised that 11 years after my first 26.2 mile race, I am still in love with the marathon. I still feel the emotional tug to race again.

I have started looking at paces on the runs I am doing and equating them to the pace I would have to run in a marathon if I wanted to run a time worthy of training for. I have started thinking about how I could make the time to run if I really want to, considering that apart from work, there is not much that I would rather be doing than running. I guess my new-found love of cycling is something that could get in the way, but already I’m wondering how much cycling could become part of my training for a marathon rather than a distraction from it.

I think the improvement in the weather and the longer daylight hours is helping. I think about how I trained through winter after winter for spring marathons and I really can’t fathom how I did it with no loss of enthusiasm.

Ready for a new challenge …

So all of these thoughts have been swirling around my head for a while. I haven’t actually considered the logistics at all. Or wether my 42 years old body could handle training properly. But then again I know quite a few people who are posting really impressive training volumes and interesting results and I know they are not super-human. They are mainly just dedicated.

Sure there are a million excuses for why I can’t or shouldn’t think about trying to start training for a marathon. But why should I listen to that voice inside my (or indeed anyone else’s voice) that doubts I can or should give in to the temptation to run another marathon. Surely not being reasonable is the reason I got myself in a position to achieve one of the proudest moments of my life.

So I am going to take a bit of time. Have a think about what I would need to do to run another marathon and whether that is reasonable. I am going to research whether cycling can fit in to a marathon training schedule. And I am going to think slightly longer term than I have in the past. I probably need 6 months to reverse the loss of fitness and strength from the last 2 years.

Then who knows. I might give it one more go. I’d love to know what you think …

Maintaining not training

Training (ˈtreɪnɪŋ/) is defined as

the action of undertaking a course of exercise and diet in preparation for a sporting event

and I have recently realised that I am not training. Not that I don’t have a sporting event lined up – I do – but I am not really training for it. Certainly not in my head.

Running… but not with any purpose

At the risk of becoming rather maudlin and reminiscing about the good old days, I think that quite a lot has changed for me since the London in 2013. The business I co-own with my wife has developed and expanded. We have launched a magazine, which has also developed and expanded. These things are taking up a lot of time and energy in my life and I love them, so I have no problem with that. But I also know that I am just ticking over when it comes to my running and my fitness.

I realise that my ‘ticking over’ is not all that bad – 30th place and an hour faster than last year in an increasingly competitive 60km mountain race a couple of weeks ago is OK. I know that I could knock out a 3 hour marathon without too much trouble. My default steady runs are always the same pace, around 7 min/mile which feels really comfortable. But age and a love of food and beer is against me and maintenance is becoming ever more of a task. In fact I know I have plateaued in the last year or so and that I need to do more different stuff if I want to avoid slowly slipping.

So what I think I need is a target. What I used to think is that I needed a target that is a race. But even with a 105km mountain race in 6 weeks, a 24 hour relay race next weekend, a whole load of other races between now and the end of the year AND having made a decision that I am going to have a crack at the London again in April ’15, I am still not motivated enough. I think that I need something even more immediate – a target for today, tomorrow and next week. So that is what I am working on. Something that I can get my teeth into NOW. That might be a challenge to do some exercise every day.

And I’m open to suggestions. So what do you think? What would you set me as a challenge that is going to get me going – give me a reason to forego sleep and put myself on the line. Something more motivating than fighting advancing years and too much good food…

The London marathon: finishers, fans and their stories

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Me trying to find out what I am capable of, 2013.

What is the London marathon, really? Is it a test of physical preparedness? Or a chance for people to show that they are mentally tough enough to deal with the training required to run 26.2 miles? Maybe it is a great way to honour a relative that has passed away and perhaps raise some money for charity at the same time. Or is it a last gasp attempt to show the world – to show each other – that there are still people who are not steering a course to becoming obese couch potatoes with an incurable addiction to TV and takeaways?

Actually I think that the London marathon – and indeed all races like it (and most of the ones unlike it) – is all of the things I have mentioned and more. It is, in fact, a collection of 38,000 motivations and reasons, flowing like a river of determination and good intentions and pride, through the capital. My reasons for running the London this year include wanting to run with a friend, give my training for a summer of ultras a kick up the backside and prove to myself that I have not yet passed the point of no return fitness-wise. Last year I was out to prove what an ex-fat smoker can do and to see – really see – what I can capable of.

But like the sweat on the runners’ brows and the puddles of energy drink on the roads, all of the reasons and motivations evaporate after the race has been done and leave no trace, other than in the hearts of the people who ran the miles and those they told about ‘why’ and ‘how’.

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Extra Mile – all about stories

Now, however, the Virgin Money London Marathon has created a space where runners can tell their stories and leave a slightly more permanent, albeit online, record. Extra Mile is the official runner’s website of the London and is encouraging runners to record their race through a couple of competitions. Ultimately extramile.co.uk is looking to create a record of the stories behind the £50m raised every year by the London marathon.

How can you get involved?

There are two opportunities for runners to get involved in Extra Mile:

Selfies:

On race day, extramile.co.uk is inviting marathon runners to take a photo of themselves at the end of the race with their medal. All photos shared on twitter or Instagram with the #finisher and #extramile hashtags will be entered into a competition to win a UK weekend break where sore legs will be rejuvinated… hopefully it won’t be a walking trip to the Lake District!

Super Fans:

The #superfan campaign is a chance for supporters to show how they go the #extramile. Come Sunday, anyone on the sidelines has the opportunity to share their race day photographs via Twitter or Instagram and potentially earn £1,000 for a chosen charity OR a place in the 2015 Virgin Money London Marathon – so they can experience the race for themselves. All you or your supporters have to do is upload pics to twitter or Instagram and tag them with #extramile and #superfan, so that they appear on the extramile twitter timeline. If you want to know if you have won, @VirginMoney will have the winners. You have until Monday 21st April at 23.59pm to get your photos into the draw.

As I am sure everyone who reads this realises, I love stories. After all that is why Julie and I launched Like the Wind magazine. This is another great outlet for people to tell their VMLM story and hopefully inspire others to get involved and create their own running tales.

Two’s company, three’s a crowd and more is better…

I have certainly written before that I think that training with other people – whether that is one training partner or as a group – is really crucial for me. I can’t imagine how many times I have finished a training session with one or more other people and said “there is no way I would have done that session as hard as that on my own”.

Group training works for me

RunningWithUs coach Nick talking to the training group
RunningWithUs coach Nick talking to the training group

Last week I was on a training camp, organised by 2:09 Events, where my coach – Nick Anderson from RunningWithUs – and a number of the other runners he coaches and with whom I train, were enjoying some warm sunshine, enjoying a lack of daily commute & office hours and enjoying the benefits of running in a group. In particular a couple of sessions with Tom and Hayley went really, really well and I know for a fact that I would have turned those runs into a steady effort if I had been left to my own devices.

I actually do as much as I can to be able to train with other people. This morning I drove across London to meet one of my training partners to get our long run done. That was nearly 2 hours in a car for a two and half hour run, but I knew that I wouldn’t run as well if I wasn’t motivated by running with someone.

adidas 26rs

I was rather excited to be invited to the launch of adidas’ 26rs – a community of runners all focused on the marathon, housed in a space below the London Marathon Store, near to Liverpool Street in central London. adidas have done a really nice job of setting up a smart space that I’m sure runners will appreciate, with three-stripe memorabilia on the walls including Jessica Ennis’ vest and Haile’s racing flats. There are changing facilities and lockers. And on the launch night there were a few inspirational runners there including Scott Overall, Aly Dixon and Liz Yelling. If adidas can infuse the space with the positive vibes they had on the night, I have no doubt it will be a success. But what would be considered a success…?

I am told that the idea is that runners can come and join in on guided runs and use the lockers and facilities in the basement space to keep their gear safe. And more than that, I think that the Virgin London Marathon, Sweatshop (who were commissioned to set up the London Marathon Store) and adidas, all hope that the 26rs will create connections between runners all aiming for the same thing – running the best marathon they can manage.

I imagine that part of the drive to set up the 26rs came from the (perhaps) surprising statistic that I read recently, that around only 10% of regular runners (as defined by the Active Britain survey) are members of running clubs. These people probably have less opportunities to run regularly with other people. And as I have said, I think that no matter how fast or slow you are, a group will help you run better. If you want evidence for that, all you have to do is look at the way the best marathon runners in the world train in Kenya and Ethiopia – there are huge groups that come together to run and track sessions where dozens of the best runners in the world are jostling for position on the inside line.

I think that adidas and the other stakeholders in the 26rs have their work cut out if they are to make this project a real success and not just end up paying lip service to the idea of creating a running community. There must be a critical mass of runners required to make the idea work: a group of six or eight runners – with a sub-3 hour experienced runner at one end and a novice aiming for a 5 hour finish at the other end – will stretch out to such a degree on a 26rs’ run that they might as well be running on their own. This is exactly what we saw on the launch night run, when, as we tried to negotiate the rush-hour commuters, traffic lights, taxis, bicycles and dug-up pavements on Liverpool Street, the group almost immediately splintered into pairs and mini-groups with some people getting lost and left behind and others charging ahead.

However if there are enough people, then the chances are good that there will be at least one training partner for each runner. And that will be a great resource for London’s marathon hopefuls!

My feeling is that the adidas 26rs is a great opportunity for marathon runners to find kindred spirits for a range of runs and especially for their long runs. And if you go down to Liverpool Street and go for a run with them, I’d love to know what you think. And maybe I’ll see you down there at some point (my locker is #22 by the way!)

Gone to seed or laying fallow?

Marathon training: laying fallow or going to seed?
Marathon training: laying fallow or going to seed?

I was recently talking to my friend and fellow Chaser, Tom Craggs, a coach and personal trainer who is quickly developing a reputation as one of the top running coaches in the UK. Tom and I ran the Berlin marathon together, literally in stride, back when a sub-3 hour marathon was something that I dreamed of running. Since that day, we have become firm friends and we often talk about what we are trying to do with our running.

The last conversation was about the fact that I really have not been training well for the upcoming London marathon and I am coming to the realisation that I am no where near in shape to run a decent time. Freestak is growing fast and that is proving to be too much of a distraction for me to maintain the levels of training that I should be.

Not always ‘on’

There have been other times when I have thought that I might need a break – when Julie and I were buying a house. When we were contemplating setting up Freestak. When my Nan passed away.

But now I look back on those periods, I realise that every time I have felt that I need to take time away from running, it has been under duress and I haven’t really done it. I have maybe dropped a few runs for a week or so. But I have continued to plot and plan and try to negotiate with myself about what I can do.

However recently my training has really nose-dived and perhaps my feelings about that have changed as well. My training plan has been suggesting 8 or 9 runs a week – three of them being sessions or long-runs with good hard efforts in them. I have actually been managing to get out 5 or 6 times a week… sometime even less. I have only been to the track three times in the last 8 weeks. Threshold sessions have been ditched in favour of a steady run. The rain has been all the excuse I have needed to not go out at all. You get the picture.

Guilt about marathon training, or not

The problem is that when I am not training as I know I should, I feel guilty. I worry and negotiate with myself. I try to convince myself that there is still time. That it will all be OK.

But the honest truth is that I have not trained hard enough for the London this year. I know that it is very unlikely that I will be able to get anywhere near my PB. In fact I am not sure I am going to run at all. I know that I don’t have to make a decision yet so we will see, but with 7 weeks to go I can’t expect a miracle.

Something Tom said to me has stuck in my head. I don’t need to worry that I have gone to seed and that my days of running a decent marathon is over. Instead I am looking at this as a fallow period – a chance to focus on other things and allow my mind and body to recover from 7 or 8 years of marathons.

The number of marathons I have run each year has reduced since the third year after I discovered running. But the intensity and effort to run them has definitely gone up. Last year I only ran one marathon hard – the London (I also ran the Copenhagen marathon, but it was with a friend and I was not hammering myself). But the effort of that one race – 16 weeks of hard training, with a 75+ mile average to finish in 2:37:07 – was massive and I finished feeling relieved, rather than excited about the next one.

So I will have to see what I am going to do in 7 weeks. I am off to Portugal for a warm weather training camp with 2:09 Events and Nick Anderson from RunningWithUs and it may be that I find that I am not as far off decent shape as I fear I am. But then maybe I need to decide that I am going to avoid ploughing the same marathon furrow. What say you?

The death and rebirth of the London Marathon Store

My passion for running is like a Russian doll. Let me explain:

In general, I love running. Within that I am really passionate about endurance running. Moreover my real passion is for road running and within that, my particular predilection is for road marathons. At the very heart of this multi-layered structure, however, lies the London Marathon. The ‘London. The ultimate race as far as I am concerned.

I have run plenty of races: the New York marathon a couple of times. Similarly Berlin’s marathon. Paris once. Copenhagen. Florence. They were all great. But the ‘London… that really is the race for me. That is the one that I want to test myself on time and time again. That is the race I will be pitting myself against come April 2014.

Great marathon deserves a great hub

And so it was that I used to go to the London Marathon Store in Covent Garden. Well, actually near Covent Garden, on the road towards Drury Lane. I loved the clock above the door that counted down to the next London Marathon. I liked the idea that this was somehow a different store. I enjoyed talking to the staff who were knowledgeable and helpful (I once went in looking for a pair of ASICS Tathers after they had been discontinued and the manager ‘found’ a pair in the stock room for me, months after everywhere else I tried had said there were none available). But in reality the ‘London Marathon Store of old’ was just a shop. And then it closed.

New London Marathon Store

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Entrance to the London Marathon Store

So I was intrigued when I heard rumours through the twittersphere that there would be a new London Marathon Store opening. First of all Nick Pearson, MD at Sweatshop, started dropping hints. Then a friend who works at Sweatshop’s Trump Street branch confirmed that the London Marathon Store would be rising like a phoenix from the ashes, this time near to Liverpool Street. The store was opening today and I couldn’t wait to have a look, so I braved the cold and the rain to get down there with my camera, to bring you the first look at the place.

In much the same way that the old London Marathon Store was not quite in the heart of Covent Garden, the new one is near Liverpool Street rather then on Liverpool Street. Come out onto Bishopsgate, opposite the police station, and turn left. The new store in on the ground floor of an office building a few hundred meters along on the right.

Modest on the outside, different on the inside!

As you approach the building it is unassuming, but that somehow seems appropriate. The quiet, almost drab exterior belies a cavern of London Marathon fun inside which starts with the corner entrance, filled with print-outs of London marathon race numbers and a screen showing clips of the race over the years.

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The route and elevation map wall

Once you step inside the store, there is as much kit as you could hope to see anywhere. One of the downsides of the old London Marathon Store was that the size really limited the range of stock that could be displayed. Not so here. Sweatshop (who seem to be behind the store, but I am a little confused by the relationship here) have got a great range of kit. As you would expect, due to their relationship with the race, adidas are in full effect with more kit than you can shake a stick at – the adiZero range of apparel is really lovely. There is plenty of other choices as well and the gear from Nike, New Balance, Ron Hill and Gore Running all caught my eye.

Then there are shoes for every type of runner and every possible terrain. There is a big glass wall of shelves behind which sit two treadmills for gait analysis (much like at the Trump Street store). On these shelves you will find as comprehensive a range of shoes as any I have seen available in the UK.

The big difference in the London Marathon Store

A medal from every year since the start of the 'London
A medal from every year since the start of the ‘London

But I guess that is ‘so much, so what’ – this is a superstore of running for sure, but that doesn’t really differentiate it from other big running stores. That is why you need to lift your eyes from the massed ranks of credit-card battering kit. Then you will see why this should become a destination for London Marathon fans.

  • At the end of the shelving racks there are iconic shots of famous London Marathon runners: Eamonn Martin, Steve Jones, Joyce Smith…
  • There is a display on one wall showing the course of the marathon and the elevation (bloody flat in case you were wondering!).
  • There are ‘road signs’ showing all the streets that the runners will travel along (including my favourite Ha Ha Road, SE18) around the walls.
  • There is a wall covered in perspex boxes each one containing the medal from every London marathon since the first one in 1981 (there are still some gaps so if you have an early London marathon medal you could lend the shop, in return for fame at least, let me know and I’ll pass on your details to Sweatshop).
  • And perhaps best of all, on the ceiling there is a map of London with the route of the marathon, including the three different starts, mapped out with coloured fluorescent tubes. Be sure to look up when you come in.

Still to come

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Friendly staff will make your visit even more fun (this is Billy by the way!)

The London Marathon Store as it currently stands, is well worth a visit in my opinion. Especially if you are going to race the London and want to soak up a bit of history and inspiration.

I am assured that there is also more to come. The basement will become a hub for runners, run by adidas. I was told there will be lockers and showers along with organised runs and other ways to wallow in London Marathon-ness.

In due course there will be official London Marathon merchandise.

And there will be friendly, knowledgeable staff, happy to chat about the best race in the world* whether or not you are after some new kit. Though I think even the most hardened penny-pincher will find temptation there… maybe just a new pair of shorts that will be perfect for that race come April (oh, go on then…) If you go and see what it’s all about, please let me know what you think.

 

 

 

The London Marathon Store can be found at 1 Norton Folgate, Bishopsgate, London E1 6DB open from 9 November 2013. Nearest public transport is Liverpool Street (tube and trains) and Shoreditch High Street (overland).

* I know I am biased, but I do think that the ‘London is the best marathon going. Disagree in the comments section if you have a better suggestion.

Nike Free 5.0+ review

The people at Nike recently sent me a pair of the new Nike Free 5.0+ to review. Having always had Nike Frees in my ‘collection’ of shoes, I was interested in trying them. But I must admit that I have bought Nike Frees in the past as a shoe for walking around town, rather than for running. However since hearing Mo Farah talk about how he incorporates natural running into his training to strengthen feet and ankles (and my ankle is my (ahem) Achilles heel when it comes to injuries) I was immediately interested in seeing how a minimalist shoe like the Nike Free 5.0+ could help me get back into running since the Virgin London Marathon. The short answer is that they are a pretty good first step as far as I am concerned. The 5.0 refers to the amount of cushioning and support that the shoe provides, with the Nike Free 4.0 and the Nike Free 3.0 offering decreasing levels of both. So if you are after a shoe that can help you take the first steps (sorry!) into minimalism, perhaps give these a go. And if you want to have a look at them, here is a short video review – bad hair and all!

Virgin London Marathon 2014 entry opens… and slams the door on some GFA runners

After the excitement and razzamatazz of the London marathon, there follows a somewhat unsightly scramble for places the following year. There is a ballot system in place which is capped at 125,000 entries. Once this is reached the ballot entry closes – and that usually takes a few hours to fill up – and then the lucky runners are informed later in the year, whether or not they have gained entry. There is about a 1 in 7 chance of getting a place, provided you get into the ballot.

Screen Shot 2013-04-29 at 09.13.29This is the nature of the beast. Mass participation running and endurance sports are getting more and more popular and the demand for places has outstripped supply for decades. This could be seen as a good thing. Or a bad thing – I guess that subject warrants a post all to itself.

But if you want to run the London marathon, having to rush to enter a ballot to then have a 1 in 7 chance of getting a place is a pretty frustrating situation.

There is another way to get into VLM

This is where the three guaranteed entry systems come in to play. Yes, there are three ways that you can get a guaranteed place in the London marathon. In order of difficulty they are:

  • Elite entry – for a man you need to have run faster than 2 hours 20 minutes to get into this hallowed group. Do that and you will have every advantage possible and stand right on the start line
  • Championship entry – a race within a race. This is the UK AAA Championship, held every year and open to club runner who have qualified by running 2hrs45min for a marathon or 75mins for a half marathon (for the men) or sub-3:15 for a marathon or sub-1:30 for a half (women’s entry standard). You will enjoy a separate start pen, warm-up area, dozens of portaloos, water and a tent to change in as well as a start right behind the elite men’s field.
  • Good For Age entry – this is a guaranteed entry for anyone who has run a particular time that is considered good for their age group. You can see the qualifying times here. The start is similar to the Championship (above) with a separate pen, loos, etc and a position right on the start line.

As you can imagine, these entry systems are something that many, many marathoners aspire to. No queuing for hours for the loo. No 15 minute shuffle to get to and over the start line. A much more relaxed bag-drop. A sense of having ‘made it’.

Not so fast…

So it is a bit of a blow for many runners that this year, without warning, the London marathon powers-that-be have elected to make the Good For Age qualifying times tougher, by 5 minutes across the board from what I can see.

I imagine that the reason for this is to restrict the number of people that can get one of these coveted places. A few years ago the Boston marathon, which has a qualifying standard for all entries, did the same and I was caught up in that trap myself (more on that in a moment) and I guess it is a pleasing outcome in some senses: it means that standards of running are improving. But what about the people who thought they’d got their GFA place and now discover that they don’t?

A few years ago I went to run the New York marathon. I can’t remember the time that I did, but I crossed the line thinking that I had got my BQT – Boston Qualifying Time. Only to be told by another runner that the Boston Athletic Club, who run the race, had lowered the qualifying time by 10 minutes and I was now too slow for Boston. I was gutted.

Runners affected

So I can understand the reaction to the change in Good For Age qualifications from some of the people I know. Here are two tweets I received this morning:

@fehrtrade: I ran 3:48 in Oct & thought I’ve had GFA for the past 6 months. Completely cruel to change it now.

@themrwyatt: Means what I had planned is now not an option. Shame when your working hard for something that the goal posts change

The problem here seems to be that the team at the London marathon have made the change without telling anyone. So now people who assumed that they could get into London for 2014 have found out they can’t and with the Good For Age application phase closing in the next couple of months, they don’t have time to do anything about it.

What do you think? Is it more than a little unfair to change the entry requirements without telling anyone (in my Boston example the change to the qualifying time was publicised a year in advance… I just hadn’t checked!) Or is it just a symptom of the fact that more people want to run so the standards are creeping up, something that should be applauded?

I guess which ever way you look at it, the standards are now set and if you have just missed out, I can really recommend Brighton or Paris… both really lovely races.

 

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

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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…

 

 

The Simple (Simon) Guide to Racing a Marathon – Part four: Psychology

The final post in this mini-series is all about the head.

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Race day can be stressful and whilst I think that a degree of nerves can be a good thing, I want to keep it under control. And control is what I focus on. Control the things you can and don’t worry about the rest.

Getting prepared

I make sure my race day kit is washed, checked and packed days before the race. I pack spares of everything. I write a list of things I will need on the day – tape, Vaseline, Bodyglide, plasters, pins, something to eat and drink in the hours before the race, etc. Getting all that stuff organised on the Thursday before a Sunday race means less stress closer to the time. I figure out how I will get to the race days before the big day.

In the days before the race I spend time visualising the race. This year I am racing the London marathon, which I know well, so that makes the visualisation even easier. I know what it will feel like to cross Tower Bridge just before half way – look left and see the Mornington Chasers cheering station on the far side of the road. Pass the half way mark and check my watch (more on that in a minute) then focus on the Isle of Dogs. After that Canary Wharf where the crowds are immense. On the way beck west, there will be the 20 mile mark, which is an important point for me (again, more on that in a minute). Then the fun really starts.

Highlights of the race

First the RunDemCrew cheering station at mile 21’ish – a wonderful, life affirming sight and a huge emotional boost. The RunDemCrew means a huge amount to me and my running and to see them there yelling and waving will be amazing.

Then the Mornington Chasers just after mile 22. This is my club and they are all runners who know what it means to be at that point in a race. There will be people there who have played big parts in helping me achieve what I have and I can’t wait to see them and hear the  shouts.

After that, it is a parade of wonderful sights and sounds – the Blackfriars underpass, which feels a bit like a re-birth when you emerge onto the Embankment. Seeing the Houses of Parliament. Turning into Birdcage walk… the turn onto the Mall and the finish line.

Race tactics

As far as tactics for the race are concerned, I like to control the things I can, such as my target pace, as much as possible. So here is what I am planning –

  • Reach the half way point in around 79 minutes – that is five minutes slower than I finished the Cambridge Half Marathon, in the freezing cold and snow in the middle of a heavy training period. That should feel manageable.
  • Keep that pace going for another seven miles.
  • Then at mile 20, have a stern word with myself and start to race the person in front. Slowly, slowly start to increase the pace. 10km is all I have to run at this point and I can afford to dial up the effort one click at a time, working on catching the person in front and then the next one and then the next one…
  • All the way to the finish: if my plan comes together and I manage to dial up the pace from 20 miles then I should manage a PB (currently 2:38:30) which will be a very pleasing result.

There are many ways to approach a marathon. But from a psychological point of view, I think that breaking the race down into manageable chunks – 13.1 miles slower than you know you can manage, another 7 at that pace and then 6 miles as fast as you can manage – makes the marathon feel less daunting. And I believe you should visualise the things that you are going to look forward to so that you enjoy the journey. After all, enjoyment is the reason we run, so the marathon should be the pinnacle of that enjoyment.

Final thoughts

I really think that running is woven into our DNA. I don’t care to debate whether we should wear shoes or not. Or whether we should run 100m or 100 miles. I just know that when I run, I feel fantastic. You only have to watch children do what they love doing, to know that running is one of the most natural things we do.

I have decided to pit myself against the classic distance of 26.2 miles and I hope that I can motivate others to do the same. If you are doing the same, I hope that the last few blog posts have been though provoking and/or useful. Most of all, I hope you have a great race and do yourself proud. And remember, keep it simple…