Amba Hotels City of London Mile is GO!

Screen Shot 2015-02-21 at 08.22.52  Last year I was lucky enough, through the business I co-own, to work on the inaugural City of London Mile race – a one mile hurtle around the streets in the Square Mile, starting and finishing in the shadow of St Pauls Cathederal. Now I will come clean and say that I am not a huge fan of the mile as a running distance – I guess I started too late in life to be a quick runner and I prefer the combined mental and physical challenge that longer races present to the all-out-all-painful gallop that a mile requires. But I had run one before and I knew that whilst it was undoubtedly a painful event, it was also over quickly.

This year the City Mile team again asked us at freestak to work on the race and we gladly accepted. The race is growing in numbers and profile now that the first year proved to be such a success and with the backing of the headline sponsors, Amba Hotels, the race is completely, utterly and totally free for everyone to enter. Yep, that’s right – no entry fee whatsoever.

So you can run a super-well organised race, on closed roads in the heart of one of the greatest cities on earth… for nothing. And – if it is important to you – you get all the usual paraphernalia as well. There are no corners cut.

If you fancy the challenge (and I really recommend that you do have a go) you can now sign up here. I reckon that despite training (erm, I’ll get started soon, I promise!) for a summer of ultras, I’m going to be there giving it my all for a handful of minutes. I mean, it’s free – why wouldn’t you?

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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):


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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.

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)

The Simple (Simon) Guide to Racing a Marathon – Part one: Timing

It was my birthday a while ago and my aunt sent me one of those gently amusing cards that cause very little offence or mirth. Here it is…

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But it got me thinking about how all too often, achieving a goal can become a daunting exercise over over-whelming complexity. I know it was for my first few races.

But now I take a much simpler approach to the marathon and I thought I would share my plan with you in four blog posts over the next week:

  1. Timing (this post)
  2. Hydration
  3. Nutrition
  4. Psychology

Time to think about time

I really strongly suggest that you do not use a GPS to manage your pace on race day. They are notoriously inaccurate and especially when surrounded by 37,000 other GPS watches.

If you are running a marathon that has its course measured by the Association of UK Course Measurers, then the mile markers are accurate. Very accurate.

If your GPS beeps to tell you that you have run a mile before or after the mile marker… then your GPS is wrong. Thinking otherwise is a mistake that too many runners make.

If you accept that your GPS device might be a bit out, then think about this: if your GPS is short by 15 seconds per mile, that is six and a half minutes for a marathon. If you are aiming for a sub-4 hour marathon, your GPS only needs to be 43 meters out per mile – which is only 2.7% – and you will finish in 4 hours 6 minutes.

So what do I suggest?

A stopwatch. I use a GPS watch, but I turn off the GPS function and just use the watch as a stopwatch. Each time I pass a mile marker, I hit the lap button. If the time for the last mile is more than my target pace, I am behind schedule and if it is less than my target pace, I am ahead of schedule. I can then adjust as necessary. Simple.

The next post will be up in a couple of days. In the mean time, what do you use to make sure you are on pace? Or do you not bother with that? Let me know what your tactics are and how you have honed them in the past.

Cabbage Patch 10 Miler – race report

This is my race report from the Cabbage Patch 10 Miler (in addition to the review that I wrote for Men’s Running that you can read here). This is an important race in my calendar, as it acts as the Mornington Chasers‘ club championship race – the first man and woman home in each age category is crowned the winner at the Christmas party and has vouchers and the year-long adoration of the entire club bestowed upon them (well, the voucher bit is true at least).


I was not able to race last year because other races and training took priority and I really, really missed the banter and the excitement that comes with racing all the other Chasers for the title of club champion. I had that honour once before and I felt that I would like to have another crack at it.

However again this year it looked as though the hectic race calendar would get in the way as my coach Nick Anderson from RunningWithUs, was very keen (that is VERY keen) that I should race in the opening Met League cross country fixture at Claybury on the Saturday. If I was to race hard on the Saturday, going for the title on the Sunday would probably be a bad idea.

Man up! Race twice!

But I think that I may have become a bit soft of late and I decided that I wanted to race on the Sunday, so I was going to race on the Sunday.

I must admit that when I got to the cross-country on Saturday afternoon and it was starkly obvious that all of the Chasers that would be gunning for the championship were not there, I thought I might have made a mistake. Then before I had a chance to think about taking it easy on the muddy hills of Claybury, Nick strolled up to me and fixed me with that look which told me that he would be watching me and making sure I gave an honest effort. “Oh well”, I thought “better get on with it!”

The cross country went OK and I gave a reasonable account of myself. Having very little experience of the ‘cross, I have never been the best in those races, but it went well.

Would I pay for racing twice?

On Sunday morning though, I could definitely feel the effort from the day before in my legs. This 10 miles was going to be tough.

The starting signal sounded on a beautiful morning in Twickenham and we were off. I was locked shoulder-to-shoulder with the man from the Chasers that I feared the most. He had recently run a useful 10km race and looked to be on good form. There was nothing else for it but for me to just get into a rhythm and try to stay with him.

Me and my friend from Heathside!

It turned out that at the very point at which I thought I might have gone off a bit too hard, so did my club-mate. We reached a bridge at about 4 miles and my hamstrings and glutes were really tightening up from the cross-country just 18 hours before. I thought that if my club-mate surged, I would struggle to stay with him. So I reasoned that I needed to do something to try to give myself a boost. We hit the bridge in a group of four and I kicked a bit. Suddenly there was no more group and I was ahead of my friend and rival.

Racing for the ‘win’

I instantly felt better and locked-in on the back of the runner in front, recognising his Heathside vest. I pushed as hard as I dared to get up to him and once I was behind him, settled in for a few minutes. He turned out to be a master navigator and took the ‘racing line’ at every opportunity, so I was really happy to follow for a while.

Once I had settled a little, I moved to the front and said that I would take a turn. My new companion was happy with that and we worked well together all the way to eight miles.

From eight miles I found myself on my own and my only concern was not getting caught and passed by another Chaser, so I dug in and tried to push on. My Garmin tells me that my pace was pretty constant so whilst I didn’t speed up, the extra effort in the last two miles at least ensured I didn’t slow down.

The result?

I finished in 57:45 as first Chaser, so the vouchers (and adulation, possibly) are mine. I know that nearly 58 minutes is rather modest – I was a full 10 minutes behind the winner! – but I was happy with the run and my time. Training has been patchy recently and I had raced the day before. All in all it was a great day! And I discovered that it is possible to race twice in a weekend – it is just a matter of mind-set!

What I learned this weekend…

I have a confession: I sometimes cause myself quite a lot of stress trying to keep too many people happy. That often involves trying to be in too many places at once or rushing from one event to another with no hope of successfully getting to everything. I am sure I am not alone in this. Trying to do too much in any walk of life, and especially in training and racing, can often lead to a messy end.

So had a runner asked me whether I thought that on top of trying to launch a business and deal with all the work that entails, they should also run an 8km cross country race on a Saturday and then contest their club championships in a 10 mile road race the next day, I would have cocked an eyebrow and suggested that was probably a stupid idea…

Stupid is as stupid does

Me in my second race of the weekend. Photo © Eamon Byrne

Which is exactly what I attempted to do. The problem was that my coach, Nick Anderson from RunningWithUs, really wanted me to run in the cross-country to build a good platform over the next few months from which to launch my spring marathon campaign. Whilst I and my club mates, wanted to run the Cabbage Patch 10 miler on Sunday to see who of us would be the first across the line and therefore the club champion for the next 12 months. So in typical fashion I decided to do both*.

So what does all that mean? Well, I guess it means that sometimes, in running, you should let your heart rule your head. Unless you are a world-class athlete, running is not going to be much more than a hobby, although it might be a hobby that you are very, very committed to. So the point of running is to enjoy yourself, get involved in the banter and competition that comes with running and test yourself to become the best runner you can be.

The accepted wisdom is that racing hard two days in a row – indeed racing hard to weekends in a row – could be too much for the body and the runner that attempts that might end up holding back in the first race in anticipation of the second race and screwing up the second race because he or she is tired from the first one.

Legends don’t play by the rules

But maybe that is a risk worth taking. I have recently been interviewing some running legends including Bill Adcocks and Steve Brace for a series of articles entitled Lessons From The Legends in Running Fitness magazine. They trained hard, very hard, and raced regularly. Steve’s nickname is Brace the Race, because of the amount of racing he did. And they both ran 2:10 for the marathon, which suggests that you can push your body much harder than perhaps you realise and not only get away with it, but even benefit from it. Even coach Nick told me this morning that he would sometimes race in the cross country on a Saturday (and he was really racing the cross-country!) and then race a 10 miler the next day as a threshold run.

So what?

So my conclusion is this. Sometimes it is good to go back to the well more than once. The sometimes in that sentence is important – I have seen, and I know, too many runners who, in Nick’s words, have their hand constantly in the cookie jar as far as hard training and racing are concerned and end up fatigued, worn out and injured as a result. But from time to time, it is great to see what you are capable of and it is highly likely that you will surprise yourself. Just make sure that you don’t get carried away and that you plan in some rest and an easy week or two afterwards to recover. I know I have!






* in case you are interested, I loved the cross-country and was delighted to represent my club and come in the top 80 in the Met League fixture and I ran well on Sunday to cover 10 miles in 57:45 and regain the club championship.